Wise words for game masters. Authors are advised to always show, never tell. So too it is with gameplay, where more fun comes from playing things out than listening to a GM drone on.
Next time you are about to start a monologue, stop and put the game back in player hands. Do this by setting a scene and giving them a choice or asking what actions the character take.
Parley offers a great alternative. Want to tell your group the history of the world? Unless players need this information right now, plan instead a series of encounters with sages, historians, old elves, libraries, treasure books, gossip and rumors to get across over time the key people, places and things in a history. Provide contradictory information to make things even more interesting.
In conflict with this advice, you need a minimum of description to play the game. Combat results, encounter introductions, and actions of NPCs all need describing. That is why the title of this post says action *trumps* description – it does not completely replace it.
Use this advice to change your mental stance during the game. Whenever you are about to describe something, ask instead how you can stir action to get your key messages across. Look for ways to trim description a little bit and replace it with something interactive.
Another takeaway hidden in this tip is to make descriptions shorter, even if there is no action to replace the dropped parts. Practice making every word count. Instead of a one minute summary of an overland trip, shorten it to a single sentence of highlights. If players ask for more detail, that is great as it shows they are engaged.
When players do ask questions that require descriptive responses from you, try giving them answers that match the generality of the question. Get specific (where the good details always are) if the players ask for specifics. You are not trying to screw your group over here, like it was a wish spell or legal contract. Instead, you are rewarding them for paying attention, imagining the scene, and seeing the game through characters’ eyes. You are also giving them an opportunity to jump in and interact by thinking up what questions to ask.
For example, “What does the NPC look like?” should garner a response along the lines of, “he appears to be a warrior and not too happy seeing you.” Nice and short without missing something important that would change the group’s approach to the encounter.
If players respond with, “What weapons and armour does he have?” or “Do we see scars or signs of battles on his equipment?” you can give them those specific details.
You are still providing description, but it becomes an interactive process. It gives players options and decisions to make. It requires more involvement than just receiving information passively from the GM.
So, as you plan and run games, look for every opportunity to facilitate action where you would otherwise just provide static description.