Our ineffective solution to bad descriptions in RPGs

In my gaming group where we play D&D (3.5e, now 5e), the DM identified a problem : very little description happened during combat. So he suggested that we all step up our game and put some effrot to make combat scenes more vivid, and thus, more exciting to play. We started full of good intentions, describing how that sword cut through the mail of this enemy or how that blow bounced off a shield, but then, as time minutes, then hours passes, we realize we’re all back to pure abstract mechanical talk, players and DM alike (18, do I hit? Yes. I deal 12 damage. Next?) After a couple of sessions doing this kind of dance, I guess he just dropped it.

But why is that? Why, even with good intentions, could we not consitently keep even basic descriptions flowing? I think it’s because the way we played, and still do today : what is important is the stuff codified in the rule while the description is pure decoration. Whether we do it well or not or even at all does not affect the capacity or success of the characters in play (PCs or NPCs). If you describe hitting the shoulder, will it have a different impact than decribing a hit on the head? Will the way you describe the axe swing have an impact on the success or failure of your hit? Will losing 12 HP from fire differ from losing 12 HP from cold? At least in our game, the aswer is always the same : nope.

But I think the problem is actually deeper : the fiction is mostly useless when we have take decisions in combat. So not only the output of our actions need no description, the input can do mostly without it, too. When I look at a monster, the important stuff is his stats : movement speed, AC, HP, special attacks and defenses, position on the grid, etc. Once I know where the monster is in the grid, I know what is within it’s reach, I know which spaces to avoid moving through; describing how the monster slides or run or limp slowly from place to place adds color, but does not change how I interact with it. Same goes with it’s attacks : once I know it deals 3d6+5 bludgeoning damage, describing a tail whip or a hammer swing or a body slam adds color but does not change how I interract with it.

Sure, in D&D, the appearance of lower level monsters can usually hint at those stats (and even then, the possibility of class level breaks this). But pretty quick, those hints are not very reliable : a 25 feet tall mean looking monster can be much less of a threat than a human with a sword, and two similarly looking elves can pose radically different threats. So describing the monsters becomes less and useful, more and more “decoration only”, especially if the PCs have access to mechanics letting them understand the stats a bit more directly (knowledge checks, for example) or if the players can associate a description with a monster entry (“ok, that’s a Ogre, so about 16 AC and 25 HP, guys”).

Basically, in our D&D games at least, what drives the fiction is the abstract mechanics, and those mechanics are mostly unaffected by the fiction. No wonder the players and DM have a hard time making vivid and interesting descriptions : they are a diversion. It’s a bit like playing chess or Magic or a boardgame and roleplaying the interactions : it may be nice and maybe even make your game more fun, but the game takes place with the mechanics, not the descriptions. So unless we remind ourselves to add color, we naturally play directly with the abstract mechanics since that’s the level where the important decisions are taken.

Another things that makes matters worse : a lot of mechanics do not make much sense when you think of them in a less abstract way. I already talked about HP, but that’s not all. Take the iconic fireball, which let you reduce damage by half by succeding a Dexterity save… which does not move you out of the area of effect. Some characters even reduce damage to 0 by the same logic. I once played a Fighter that could do a whirlwind attack, striking only foes, all the while having it’s back was against a wall; but he could not for the life of him trip an opponent with a stick.

So I guess that to solve the problem, we would have to think seriously about the interface of the game, by which I mean the way the (real life) player have an impact on the fictional world. We can expect that a player that is invested in a game will (at least try) to get better at playing with the interface. If we want players (and DM) to describe more vivid scenes, we need to make sure that those description are at least part of the interface.

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