Option 1: You enter a room and see three orcs clustered around a table.

Option 2: You enter a room and see three barbaric humanoids clustered around a table. They bear ragged equipment and armor in sullen colors. They’ve got coarse body hair and a stooped posture like some primitive man but with a grayish-green skin tone and bestial facial features beneath black hoods. Burning red eyes peer below low, sloping brows, just above flattened noses, and prominent tusk-like teeth.

Does that second description sound familiar? If you’re a Pathfinder guy it probably should. It’s cribbed straight from the top of Paizo’s Orc, Common entry. Now I’m not saying that you should read that stuff off verbatim every time the party hits a new encounter, but those bits of italic text at the top of the page offer some stellar examples of the ways you ought to describe your monsters. After all, uncertainty is an important element if you’re trying to create an immersive secondary world, and evocative description goes a lot further than simply revealing your monster’s identity.

As a further experiment, take a minute to get into the adventurer mindset. Sword at your side, magic at your fingertips, delving the deep places of the earth in search of filthy lucre. Are you there? Good. So you’re in uncharted territory, winding your way through the passageways of a shadowy torchlit dungeon. Suddenly some quadrupedal thing lunges from the darkness. Now in that moment, would you honestly be able to tell the difference between a dire wolf and some other kind of canine horror? Because the moment your players hear, “You walk into the room and see a yeth hound,” all the tension goes out of the situation. A yeth hound is a danger with a name, and your players can deal with that. But when you describe the unknown thing slinking towards them, the glint of torchlight burning red in its eyes, the keening whine in its throat, you’ve got them set up for the big reveal. Now it leaps forward, teeth bared, but at the last moment swoops up towards the ceiling. It glares down at the PCs before tilting its head back and letting out a terrifying, unearthly howl. Clearly, this is more than some mundane mongrel.

Not only does this sort of thing make for a more immersive gaming experience, but a more tactically interesting one as well. Knowledge skills suddenly become points well spent, and player behavior changes accordingly. Maybe the party chooses to buff and fight defensively until the wizard can identify the threat. Maybe they’re ever so slightly surprised when the plant monster turns out to be an undead plant monster, and they’ve actually got to stop and reevaluate their spell selection. Keep them on their toes. Make them roll their Knowledge checks. Cows notwithstanding, it should make the game more interesting.