“Show, don’t tell is an admonition to fiction writers to write in a manner that allows the reader to experience the story through a character’s action, words, thoughts, senses, and feelings rather than through the narrator’s exposition, summarization, and description.”
Great advice for writers. And the third dimension – interactivity – makes this even trickier to follow for game masters. Avoid falling into the trap where nothing is happening because you are telling the players what’s going on instead of them taking action themselves.
Here are three ways to avoid telling instead of showing, in the game sense:
1. Let them explore
Provide descriptions so interesting they compel players to get involved and interact.
Put things in an active state. Instead of a dresser, it’s a dresser with one drawer open and something glinting from it. Instead of a small clearing, it’s a clearing of wet grass with fresh tracks cutting through it. Instead of a drunken NPC in the alley, it’s a semi-conscious gnome mumbling something about a treasure map.
A problem arises when so many hooks are unleashed with great description you scramble to design or improvise gameplay. The solution is to end all the possibilities with quick interaction except the one or two things you want to lead on to more gameplay.
For example, the dresser drawer contains a tin handled hairbrush lovingly cared for. It’s tin, so worthless. No clues, move along. The clearing with tracks? They’re animal tracks. And the mumbling gnome – he’s dreaming in his sleep: “I wish I had a treasure map, I wish I had a treasure map.”
Think of how exciting it is on Christmas morning with all those presents that have your name on them. You know most of the presents will be dental floss and socks. But it’s still an exciting day. It will be the same with your players who get offered many tantalizing possibilities when they enter any encounter. The inviting details will get them doing things and interacting. Even the false leads will be interesting. And over time, it’s amazing how all these minor details that don’t lead anywhere build and amazingly immersive setting.
Next time a character tries to initiate play, don’t say no. Don’t say yes. Say detail. :)
2. NPCs react with realism
NPCs should take action. Dialogue is great, keep up the good work. But also make your NPCs take actions during scenes in line with their mood and personality, the situation, and what the PCs do.
If the PCs deliver bad news, the non-player character gets agitated and paces. If the news is disastrous, the NPC takes one of his potions from his belt and chucks it against the wall.
If a character mistreats an NPC, have that NPC call out for a gang of friends carrying big sticks.
When a PC gets rude, have the NPC end the conversation and sulk or hold a grudge. Either way, the character will need to make a peace offering else they get nothing else from the NPC.
When a character does something strange or breaks a social custom, have non-player characters not only cease dealing with the PC, but spread the word so future social interactions are harder for awhile.
Conversely, if a character does something altruistic, have an NPC come out of the blue in the future with a service, helpful offering or boon. If an NPC gets respect from the party, have him make it easier to deal with his friends.
It’s difficult for some players to roleplay well or seriously. If you let NPCs react like real people, without judgement or belittling the player, you show consistency and provide constant reminders and support to play the game well.
3. Villains and factions act
Make the bad guys and major players in the setting do stuff. If PCs do nothing to interfere with the plans of others, then have the setting change anyway. Create casualties, burning buildings, changing leadership, incursions, fights on the bridges, kidnappings, equipment shortages, and anything else you can think of.
The Chinese curse goes, “May you live in interesting times.” The game master’s curse goes, “May your setting be dull even if the PCs do something.”
Hopefully the characters get caught up in the action. If not, keep putting parades, drive-by attacks, riots, new construction, and mage duels in their way.
Bonus tip: rolling dice drive action
Um, this is part of the game rules, isn’t it? Unless you play diceless, dice rolls decide outcomes. Good point, but here’s the rub: if nobody’s rolling dice, then nobody’s doing anything.
There are exceptions here, especially if your GMing style is to make a lot of judgement calls. Overall though, this is a great in-game diagnostic tool. No dice rolls = no one is doing anything requiring an outcome. Chances are, you’re telling, not showing.
How do you do it?
How do you show, not tell, in games?