How to Describe Scenes to Prompt Exploration in Dungeons and Dragons

If you want, skip to the bottom to see my bulleted instructions; otherwise, enjoy the read! I call my characters “sojourners” to remind myself they are journeying through the world we are creating together.

Boxed text in the tradition Dungeons and Dragons modules serve a purpose. I believe one of the most underplayed pillars of the game is exploration and reading aloud a narrative script to your players can prompt wonderful moments of exploration that make your world all the more fulfilling. Like any NPC name, or monster stat, most of the Dungeons and Dragons experiences can be substituted for your own table, as can boxed text. How can you make your own text? Maybe the text doesn’t fit your current plan for a scene, or maybe you want even more texts. Anyway, here are some methods for crafting your very own boxed text. 

Around the corner of the ancient oak tree, a herd of cows assemble under a sheltering canopy. In the center of their circle, lies an injured woman, bleeding in the snow. Within your thoughts , you hear a chill voice whisper, “guard that which remains the most important”.

First of all, take a moment to consider each of the senses. Sight, sound, smell, taste, touch, balance, proprioception, intuition, and temperature (relative to the setting) can all be called upon to create a collective perspective to the scene. In the above text, the use of adjectives appeals to the senses. Ancient invokes largeness of size as well as the possible influence the tree could hold on the forest citizens. The woman is implicated to be injured, but let the sojourners decide the details of the injuries. A good rule of thumb is to keep the text as vague as possible, until required to specify a detail related to a discovery. For example, if you want to draw attention to the four fingered handed man playing cards, it assumes that the missing digit is of importance. In the above case, bleeding implies she is in the progressive process of dying and therefore, may be able to be saved. The telepathic voice enters the mind without any form of consent and reveals that the woman holds some importance. Either way, the incident triggers the sojourners to involve themselves in the scene. Maybe you wonder how often to impose the sense’s experience upon a player. I say, use the senses all the time! Feel free to describe the sun’s heat as blistering, or the wave’s crashing as deafening, or the instability of the bridge as nauseating. When you describe the scene using adjectives appealing to the senses, then you are telling the players how the average person in the world would experience this moment. If a particular sun soul monk then smiles while staring at the sun, that then furthers the narrative of exploration. If an air genasi gently levitates, then a fearful NPC can steady their shaking body against hers. Start by describing the scene in the broadest terms and then the players can detail out their character’s responses.

In reading aloud the boxed text, be careful about linking text to one another, for the text could have happened if the sojourners followed the outline, but of course, they could have travelled elsewhere.

After the worm lay dead at your feet, a gentleman approaches you with a hefty backpack and walking stick. “Fine day for a journey, you think?” he announces. Dressed in light clothing and a wide brimmed hat, he carries a brand new map case. He whistles to his dog, who comes running at  full speed in happy obedience. 

Here, the incident triggers the sojourners to interact with their guide. However, the opening phrase implies they recently killed a worm. While the storyteller plotted for them to encounter the worm and hopefully kill it, they may have dealt with that encounter entirely differently than the text describes. Rather, the storyteller could simply say, “After the brilliant rays of sunshine rise over the eastern lake, a gentleman approaches you…”

The storyteller can not infer that the sojourners killed a worm, that’s up to their actions. However, at any time, the storyteller can imply that the sun rises and a new day dawns. The main idea is to keep the read aloud text as a description of action only the storyteller can perform. 

Another way to think of this is in regards to the difference between Ability Saving Throws and Ability Checks. Think of the read aloud text as an ability saving throw, where the sojourners must choose how to respond because the story defined the situation for them. Then, the sojourners actions are the ability checks. Then, depending on how they narrate their actions, the story continues.

A digestible amount of boxed text involves around 3 sentences. Of course, when I’m giving a story introduction, I will use more than a few sentences, but that’s another purpose. An easy 3 sentences gives just enough information for the sojourners to then ask their questions to expand upon the scene before they make their actions. It’s important to share the storytelling, for if you describe everything scene in vivid detail, you first exhaust the imaginations with business and then you take away any spotlight for the players to build the world. After a vivid description of the scene, I always encourage players to ask 1-2 questions about the scene. I want their characters to generate exploration so that together, we can build an exciting setting. Using the above example, here are a few sample questions that one might ask:

  • How many cows are there and do they appear threatening?
  • Is the woman breathing?
  • Do I see a tree stump where I could place the injured woman?
  • Does anyone else hear this voice?
  • I review my journal, do I remember anything specific from this command?
  • Do I smell any demons? (divine sense)?
  • What’s the light look like, do we have time to dawdle before sundown?

Wow! After spending a couple moments filling in the gaps, the storytelling team has created quite a fulfilling scene of exploration. The second part of exploring this scene involves pushing buttons and pulling levers to see how one could affect the situation. Here are some sample actions based on the questions above. And of course, the details are not cumbersome, because everyone assists with the heavy lifting of world building and the exploration pillar.  A shared vision is a sustainable vision. When players simply nod their heads in agreement, the investment is not as high as when we have created something together. 

So now, building upon the boxed text, here is what the table built together by the sojourners asking 1-2 questions about the scene. 

Eight cows appear in a circle around the woman and while, noticing you with a quick nod, they do not appear anxious or threatened, but stand still like guardians in the snow. The woman’s chest rises slightly and she begins to stir. About 50 steps further in, you see a fallen tree lying in the drift. As you query your fellows, each of you confirm the whispering voice echoed in each of your thoughts. With a couple pages turned in your journal, you find the inscription “that which is guarded must be returned to the temple of the love goddess and this woman appears very much like the drawings of her that you have seen. A quick sniff in the air reveals only celestial beings are nearby, originating from the center of the circle of cows. With only 2 hours left of daylight, the winter wolves will be howling soon and on the hunt out in the open forest.

Can you imagine how much everyone enjoyed discussing each of their thoughts? With all this exploration going on, besides inquiring of the story teller, each sojourner gets a chance to interact with their fellows by roleplaying out the exploration and interactions. The storyteller then collects each patch of creativity into a whole scene. Now the action can begin!

Now, let’s talk about using ability scores in the building of a scene. Using an initiative, I like to go around the table gathering everyone’s actions before I narrate. Here, I also invite and challenge each player to listen to the other player’s actions and then narrate their own. A slight nod from myself or a quick thumbs up lets the players know everything is moving along smoothly from my point of view. Sometimes, I will spin my fingers around as if to say, “let’s keep this going”. My players narrate their actions and assume they “hit” the difficulty class, while I stay silently approving, in order to keep the story flowing freely. Upon challenging the situation, I will step in to say, “let’s see an ability check”. Regarding ability checks, I will use these for two reasons. Number one, I think that what they are attempting is beyond simple or easy and requires some risk of failure. Note that unless I am willing for them to fail, I do not ask for a check. Sometimes I can overuse perception checks that slow the game. A player asks if they see any magic items for sale in a busy city. I ask for a perception check (why???) and the player rolls a 4, So they narrate that a bird pooped in their eye. It’s funny and in the right setting, that could work. But it is plausible that one could buy a product in a marketplace. As the storyteller, I answer with

“yes you do see what you are looking for, please describe it.”

And then we move along. However, I like to use ability checks in this way. I like worldbuilding, but at the rate I play, I do not have all the answers for what is under rocks and in every shop and have great amounts of respect to DMs who are also worldbuilders. So, when a player asks for something in the world which I really don’t know the answer to, I will say, “I don’t know, let the dice decide and roll an ability check.” Most often, I use this with wisdom, intelligence and charisma based checks. Upon a high roll, there is a river nearby with freshwater (even though I didn’t plan for a river encounter). This is a check in which the dice helps decide the outcome not of a player’s actions, but of their luck in exploration.  Maybe we didn’t discuss your sojourner’s backstory regarding their understanding of the politics of the nine hells, so let’s see an ability check. Upon a low roll, it has been foretold that no, even though your character shows interest in politics, you now have the opportunity to narrate WHY or HOW your character missed that piece of information. 

To summarize, I use ability checks when a player challenges the world so as to present a conflict (pickpocket, hit, unlock, remove, expose, lift) for all these things that do not want interference. Secondly, I also use ability checks to help paint the world and history involving the characters, such as determining knowledge, influence in a city, or existence of medicinal plants.

Regarding the difficulty of an exploration check. Without giving away the DC, I think that a player needs to know how arduous a challenge is and if it’s even possible. I want to inform them of this so they can accurately narrate their response. I intend to be clear when specifying the rolls because I want the player to know that either they failed, or what they tried was impossible. The player rolls a 4 on a strength check: 

“I lift and grunt, but the boulder won’t budge, it’s here for a while, I say”. The player rolls a 3 on an arcana check, “I spend a minute going through my notes and begin cursing my laziness, “I should have studied more, I say, I don’t recall the politics of hell and announce that to my fellows.”

You see, the second player didn’t fail in the search, because the information doesn’t exist, but rather gave us some insight into their past. A converse example would be as follows:

The sojourner stands in the massive library. With only an hour to spare, they begin to frantically race through the tomes to search for insight into the politics of the nine hells.

If this presents with no amount of challenge in the world, and the librarian is generous with the sojourner’s privilege, then why make the player roll? Simply describe their success because in this case, it is plausible that a scholar with a desire succeeds with the right amount of resources and environment. However, in this present situation, we are not asking “did they remember” but “can they find?” With the large amount of books, the narrowing look from the librarian who thinks you a crook and the pressing time before you have to leave to avoid the town guards, now that calls for a challenge! Have the player roll an ability check. Upon a success, your sojourner is a hero and is free to narrate their discovery, but upon a failure, the sojourner must pick themselves up, and try again elsewhere. Again, it should be specified from a honest standpoint on the storyteller’s part if the book exists! I think that if this is a clever player inventing the politics of the world and generating a narrative, then the sojourner should discover a clue with any roll, but upon a low roll, perceive the clue but have it without their reach, furthering the challenge.

Hopefully, you can see this asks for communication between the storyteller and the sojourners. It’s important to communicate the how and why of a success or failure, because your sojourner needs to know how they can communicate the outcome to their fellows.

When reading aloud boxed text, consider altering the tone of your voice. This cues your players to lean in and listen to the narration so they can assist in building encounters. Some possible ideas include using your “reading voice”, dropping your range, adopting an off screen narrator NPC that follows the sojourners around on their journey giving life to their actions through commentary. If not altering your voice, set up a sign or place an object in the middle of the tabel to signify the changing of scene. Whatever you do, make an attempt for consistency so that the team around your table can operate on the same page as you. Soon enough, your shared voices will sound like a symphony of stories all in agreement.

Another great question to prompt exploration from your players is asking them directly, “how does your sojourner respond to this?” I’ll ask this question when something particularly evocative occurs whether by the action of another sojourner, or an incident that kick starts the action. 

An unconscious body rolls down the stairs onto the cellar floor. The queen shrieks as a spectral figure approaches the judges bench and demands justice. The fisherman halts his step, his eyes locked open in terror and begins muttering “the beast below, the beast below”. 

These incidents may shock the players at the table and jar them from the roleplaying experience, simply because you’re an amazing storyteller and have possessed their attention. Reminding them that the story will not progress without their involvement may be necessary when they are either bored out of their minds, or having the time of their life. You can simply remind them to get back into the story by asking them, ‘how does your sojourner respond to this?”

Bulleted Instructions for Creating Boxed Text

  • Open with a prepositional phrase indicating the time and space of the scene, examples (around, in, within)
  • What is the subject? (cows, woman, voice)
  • What is the subject doing? (assemble, lies, whisper)
  • Describe appealing to the senses (herd, injured, chill)
  • Use 3 sentences and consider highlighting 3 props in the scene. (Oak Tree, Circle of Cows, In your thoughts)

Around the corner of the ancient oak tree, a herd of cows assemble under a sheltering canopy. In the center of their circle, lies an injured woman, bleeding in the snow. Within your thoughts , you hear a chill voice whisper, “guard that which remains the most important”.

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