Where to stand when you're DMing

While I enjoy being a Dungeon Master, it's never come naturally to me. The first long campaign of D&D I ever partook in, I DM'd. However, the more I DM'd and the more I played in other people's campaigns and one-shots as a PC, the more I realized that there was a disparity between how the DMs (including me) were DMing, and how I as a player wanted them to. When I was a player, it was obvious what details were missing. I wanted to know more about the textures, the scents, the voices of the world. But the DM usually gave relatively clinical descriptions of the objects and events that filled our imagined world. I found myself doing this too, even when I knew explicitly that this wasn't the style of game I was interested in playing.

Camera Angles

I realized what was causing this, and it came down to mental camera angle. As a player, you view the game over your character's shoulder, close third-person, or from their perspective, first-person. This is because, for the most part, your knowledge of the world and your character's knowledge are the same. It wouldn't make any sense to have a bird's-eye view of a dungeon when you can't see what's behind the closed door leading to the next room. Your vision is limited by your character's vision.

The DM, on the other hand, approaches the game from a top-down (or perhaps isometric) perspective. They do this because they, as arbiter of knowledge about the world, are complete in their understanding of it, knowing what is behind any closed door, and understanding what traps, foes, and friends await the players.

It's my opinion that if the DM wants to describe events and imagery to the players, they should do so from the close third-person angle through which the players see the world. Take for example these two descriptions.

A goblin just out of sight shoots an arrow at you, narrowly missing. She turns and retreats further back into the dungeon.

In the eery silence, a soft thwunk echoes from somewhere down the hall in the darkness, and before you have time to think about it, you feel a sharp sting on the edge of your ear as an arrow flies by, knicking you and drawing a small amount of blood. (Give players time to react.) You hear a nasally cheer that's quickly muffled, then padded footsteps heading quickly away, deeper into the darkness ahead of you.

These two descriptions cover the same information. The difference is that the former is an account of the event from a birdseye perspective — from a distance where the drama of uncertainty is lost. The DM is physically too distant, too far removed from the immediacy of the party and the combat, to notice or care about the emotional and sensory specifics.

The second description is what the DM would see if she were standing in the middle of the party, invisible and watching. The details that are relevant to the mechanics are not the details that are relevant to the emotional narrative.