264 Description Expectations in RPG's

Descriptions in rpg’s. How to align the way the game master and players exchange information. An example: “I’m looking for any irregularities in the walls, drafts, breaks in the mortar” versus “I search the room”. Thanks to Matt Seiberlich for the topic suggestion



@sean From p. 178 of the 5E PHB (box in right column):

When your character searches for a hidden object such as a secret door or trap, the DM typically asks you to make a Wisdom (Perception) check. . . In most cases, you need to describe where you are looking in order for the DM to determine your chance of success. For example, a key is hidden beneath a set of folded clothes in the top drawer of a bureau. If you tell the DM that you pace around the room, looking at the walls and furniture for clues, you have no chance of finding the key, regardless of your Wisdom (Perception) check result. You would have to specify that you were opening the drawers or searching the bureau in order to have any chance of success.


Great episode guys! First time writing in regarding one of your episodes. This was a good topic as it’s something I’ve struggled with in my games for sometime as well. Although, I’ve found something that works for me. The way I do it is the following: I don’t say anything at session Zero and let the characters go into the room or situation. I describe it very vaguely and let them ask questions. If they don’t, I prompt them (Dungeon World style). Then, when they tell me what they’re trying to do, I ask a follow on question, ‘what is it that you’re trying to achieve or accomplish?’ Whatever the answer is determines what roll is needed and what result is achieved.


I’ve heard this about 5e (I’m not familiar enough with it to know), that the rules can have some holes in it that do not seem as intentional as those left or placed in DIY OSR retroclones. The 5e quotation looks like one of them. If the PC is marching around the room, not searching the clothes and therefore without any hope of finding the key, what is the Wis roll for? Alternatively, if the PC is searching the clothes, isn’t the PC going to find the key automatically? Or, in this latter case, am I to understand that (depending on a roll), some characters aren’t wise enough or sometimes lapse enough not to notice it in a fold of fabric?

In my games, I have my PCs find a thing if they look there. I even let them disarm traps if they can understand the mechanism and describe how they dismantle it. If they don’t or can’t do this and deserve a roll, I let them have one. For the 5e example, even if a character is searching across the room, if she succeeds on a Wis check, then he notices those folded clothes and thinks, “Hey, a key could be under there.”


I think the point of the passage in the quote above is that you’d need to say you were checking the bureau specifically at which point the DM may ask for a Perception check. I think most DMs of 5E would grant the player finding the key if described as looking and moving the folded clothes. The PHB and DMG is clear that skill check rolls are not always required.


Thanks for the great treatment of my question, Sean! I really enjoyed the episode, I think because it included a good amount of back-and-forth between yourself and Brett. As always, there were some great tips and thought-provoking nuggets to be found in the discussion. The main things that I took away from the episode with regards to my own play are:

-I can be more mindful of consistency in how descriptions are treated
-I will make sure to include description prompts in situations where there is nothing to find to help avoid the player phenomenon of “Aha! there must be something here if the DM is asking me to be specific about where I am looking!”
-I will try to, as organically as possible, introduce elements that remind players to be specific and consistent about their descriptions, telling me what they’re looking for and/or what they’re trying to accomplish. I think that a well-camouflaged monster and some traps surprising the party should do nicely here…

Great episode. Entertaining and informative. I appreciate the help!


One of the pieces that strongly affects my descriptions is pacing. For me, this overrides the need for consistency.

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Yeah. I know pacing is a facet I struggle with.

Good call. I agree. My consistency, however, sucks even when not impacted by the necessities of pacing!

consistency is for work, and, ironically, hobgoblins…

Thanks for posing the question Matt!