The Arcane: Describing Magic in D&D
Evocative descriptions are at the heart of Dungeon Master narration. The smell of the boiled cabbage and seasoned sausage as the party steps into the inn. The dazzling glass towers of the city that refract sunlight into a thousand rainbows across marble streets. The taste of saltwater spray as you voyage into the dark waters of the unknown. The blazing heat of the hearth against your soaking skin after riding all night in the rain. The overwhelming sound of silence at the grave of a fallen friend.
These examples engage smell, sight, taste, touch, and sound. Narrative descriptions target our senses so that we might experience an imaginary world much the same as we’d experience our own. This usually works because our imaginary worlds also have food, buildings, oceans, fire, and more. But what about when we engage with something that has no precedence in our world? What about the arcane?
Magic can, of course, manifest in many physical ways with precedence in our world. A glyph of warding can explode in fire. Call lightning is obviously calling freaking lightning. But what about mage hand or magic missile? What about the brief moment before the glyph of warding explodes in flame? How do we narrate the core of magic in our Dungeons & Dragons games?
Despite no direct precedent in our world, we can still get inspiration. Magic is a sort of energy. It’s there but not always obvious. Before full-on lightning results from call lightning, you might sense something akin to static electricity in the air. It’s that static feeling of an energy around you that you can sense but can’t see.
“The goblin’s hair begins to rise up and away from its body. You feel a tingling sense on your fingertips before a burst of lightning crashes down, destroying the goblin in an instant.”
Another tool in our kit comes from the spells themselves. Many spells require “material components” which can give us insight into powerful descriptions. Glyph of warding requires “incense and powdered diamond worth at least 200 gp, which the spell consumes.” Incense can come in a thousand varieties. But they almost all produce smoke. Combine that with the default “static electricity” feeling of magic and we’re on to something good.
“The floor begins to glow. A strange glyph appears as the air becomes filled with the charge of the arcane. You taste the smoky static on your tongue. Then comes the fire.”
Scyring requires “a focus worth at least 1,000 gp, such as a crystal ball, a silver mirror, or a font filled with holy water.”
“You set the silver mirror on the floor in front of you. You whisper the spell’s secret words as your hand traces a symbol in front of you. You feel the charge crawl across your skin. The mirror rises and you can see yourself in it. In an instant, it replicates and you are surrounded by a hundred identical mirrors. As the arcane charge leaves your skin, the image in the mirrors changes. You now see your rivals trekking across the desert.”
Plant shift requires “a forked, metal rod worth at least 250 gp, attuned to a particular plane of existence.”
“The goliath pulls out a forked metal rod. You see her lips whisper, ‘Azzatar. Zeletar. Argent.’ She draws a symbol in the air and flicks the rod. You feel the arcane vibrations against your skin. The image of the goliath, the blackguard, and six in their charge begin to waver. The vibrations grow louder and the figures before you vanish, leaving behind only the smell of brimstone.”
As I said, evocative descriptions are at the heart of Dungeon Master narration. We engage the senses to help our players experience the imaginary worlds we visit. Magic, though foreign, can be brought to life through engaging those same senses. Use inspiration from the spell components themselves and you can create truly wonderful arcane descriptions for D&D.