We play game predicated entirely upon communication. Depending on the task at hand when we sit down to roll dice at the table, we may be called upon to deliver clear, concise statements to ensure broad understanding of complicated details, or we may be asked to paint a vivid picture in the minds of our players and friends with florid turns of phrase that would make a poet blush. That’s part of the challenge and joy of playing D&D.
It’s probably safe to say that most D&D players, and perhaps especially most of the players favoring old-school D&D, are pretty well-read – at least in terms of fiction. Most of us grew up with the books in Appendix N or born of the surge of interest in science-fiction and fantasy following the initial success of Dungeons & Dragons and the huge Tolkien print runs of the 20th century. A lot of us didn’t have cable TV (or it wasn’t even around yet!) and certainly most of us old-school types didn’t have the internet (or the modern internet, anyway) soaking up all our precious free time. Those times had their ups and downs, but at least we got to read a lot of books. It’s probably safe to say that a lot of us have pretty decent vocabularies, even though some of us lean heavily on colorful four-letter words pretty constantly (guilty). Some of our number are even writers – like, real ones, not this dumb blog. But being well-read doesn’t always mean we find the right words at the table.
That’s where this blog post comes in.
It’s not a big deal, or a particularly difficult task, but the thing I find myself stumbling on the most is color. I could layout a great description of a room festooned with all kinds of ionic columns, a marble dais bearing a regal throne of bone and bronze, and exotic furs lining the walls; however, there’s every chance that I’m gonna call the enchanted velvet Cloak of King’s Vivacity “purple.” Sometimes, that’s good. Sometimes, though, I want something more specific or imaginative. If you’re anything like me on this front, one of your most obvious pauses for thought is trying to find a good, descriptive color synonym. So I decided to be proactive and make a chart to help me when I’m stuck. If that’s you too, then I’ve got you covered there, now.
On a similar token, one thing I’ve noticed in a lot of games I’ve played in is the DM’s overreliance on like, four types of gems. Some DMs I’ve had in my life basically defaulted to basically just rubies, emeralds, diamonds, and maybe sapphires. The real world is full of a dozens and dozens of different precious stones. I am halfway-decent at remembering a fair number of different gemstones, but I’m a scrub when it comes to the names and details of cuts for those stones. So I made a chart for that – just in case you’re left scrounging for ways to set this sword covered in red gems apart from that sword covered in red gems, I’ve got you covered here, too.
So really this whole post is to admit my stumbling blocks, give me a reason to make a cheat sheet, and then to direct you to the images and links below. It’s a single-sheet document for your needs, in horizontal and vertical format so it fits a variety of DM screens or binders or whatever it is you prefer to drag to the table. Keep it handy.
Click the link below to get a free PDF copy in your preferred orientation from the Downloads section of this blog!
Colors, Gems, and Cuts Sheets
As a note, after writing this article and these charts, I learned something new about descriptions and the functionality of these aids. In a conversation with Galactic Nomad, it arose that charts like this are of little value to non-native speakers of English in many cases, and natural language with similes and comparisons are much more useful. As a result, I believe he will be writing a blog post on that subject. I will also attempt to try my hands at this idea in the future.
I hope this makes word selection at the table a little faster for those of you who stumble like I do. None of the charts on that sheet are exhaustive, but hopefully curated in a useful manner so their contents are immediately valuable when describing treasures, scenery, monsters, and more. If you get some use out of it, let me know! I can be reached here or over on Twitter under the username @dungeonspossums.
There is something similar in Bloody Basic: Weird Fantasy (by John Stater). The game, which is supposed to evoke pre-pulp weird fiction, comes with a thesaurus, with dozens of "flowery" words to describe or substitute for simple ones. E.g., instead of a temple, you can say "abbey, basilica, bethel, bishop's palace, cathedral, chancel, chantry, chapel, church, cloister, convent, conventicle, dagoba, deanery, dewal, dogobah, fane, fold, friary, glebe, holy place, house of [god], house of prayer," and so on… There are also has synonyms for colors.
I took a similar approach in an adventure I wrote, which takes place inside the belly of a dead sea beast. Instead of separate room descriptions or boxed text, I added some blocks of descriptors and words the DM can utilize:
" Spaces: cavern, cavity, chasm, belly,
hollow, opening, sinus, void
Passages: channel, gut, tract, tube, tunnel
Surfaces: adhesive, elastic, rubbery,
slippery, sticky, viscous, waxy, yielding
Yuck-factor: breathing, bubbling, decaying,
dilating, decomposing, disintegrating,
putrid, rotting, trembling
Odor: smell, stench, stink, vomit-inducing"