GMing Lessons #10: Show Don’t Tell in Gming

11 Apr GMing Lessons #10: Show Don’t Tell in Gming

There’s an old saying in writing: “Show Don’t Tell.”

Essentially, this means that you should show what something is, or who a person is, by their actions, by examples, etc., rather than just talking about them.

For example, you could say, “Joe is an angry man,” or you could say, “Joe stormed into the room with a scowl. He kicked the dog, which whimpered and fled as though it was well used to the treatment.”

The second example doesn’t have to say Joe is angry. You can see it. And it actually gives you more nuance and flavour than just saying it.

The same applies to GMs. When you’re describing an area, a person, a battle, it is far more powerful for you to show rather than tell. You will also get way, way more flavour out of it.

Some ways to do this:

Give an Example

Think about the thing you are wanting to describe, and then give an example of it in terms of how it looks, how the person acts, etc. For example, when introducing a mean, shifty merchant, you could describe his face, how he frowns, how he bites every coin to check it, how he haggles for every last copper piece, and then complains bitterly, even after getting a good deal. Your players will come to despise him for his actions, will know him for his mannerisms and sayings. He becomes far more than “just a merchant,” instead he becomes a living, breathing part of the world.

Another example could be for a battle.

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Say How it Happens

If you just say, “The battle is brutal, you break their shield wall and kill several of them,” clearly that doesn’t tell you much about the battle. Even if you’re wanting to get through the battle quickly, you can still describe it as it actually happens.

So, you could say, “You crash into their shield wall with a thump, smashing through them and pushing them back. Some of them stumble, fall – and then they start to crumble. You chop a thin man in the face as he tries to rise and there’s a scream. You lunge over him and take another man beneath his shield, meeting resistance, then none as your blade pierces deep into his guts. He falls onto your shield and you smash him off with a roar.”

I’m being a little poetic with the second example, and really bland in the first one, but I’m sure you get the point. Find something to characterise their actions, even if they’re quick and not all that important.

I hope this helps with your games!

-Oliver R. Shead

6 Comments
  • vbwyrde
    Posted at 22:28h, 16 April Reply

    Yes. And Yes Very Much So. I agree.

    I would also like to add that you can use any literary style of narrative that is suitable for your world. For example, if you’re running a gritting viking campaign then the description given in your post is perfect. If, however, you’re running a fairy tale campaign then the description might be flavored with less gore, and more heroism. Such as, ““You crash into their shield wall with a mighty thud, smashing through them and pushing the snarling villains back. Some of them stumble, fall – and then they start to crumble. You press forward as one tries to rise and there’s a scream. You lunge over him and take another man beneath his shield, ending his villainous life. He falls onto your shield and you smash him off with a roar.”

    And so on. GMs should consider the question of what kind of world they want to run, based on their Players age and temperament, and narrate accordingly.

    Also, I should like to add that Intonation is very important as well, and while a great narrative is awesome, if it is delivered with a poor intonation and style, then it ruins the affect. I posted something about this on my blog here and provide an example of what I’m shooting for.

    http://elthosrpg.blogspot.com/p/selected-readings.html

    Anyway, yes, and thanks for a great post. Excellent point and well said. 🙂

    • Oliver R. Shead
      Posted at 22:40h, 16 April Reply

      I thoroughly agree vbwyrde! Nice counterpoint there. The delivery is so, so key. You could, of course, “Show” in your description, but in the completely wrong way! And that would have a deleterious effect too. Nice article btw – intonation and delivery is a real art, in and of itself.

  • LokiDR
    Posted at 08:06h, 22 April Reply

    I’ve found games should go one step beyond Show, Don’t Tell, the axiom should be Do, Don’t Show.

    You are absolutely correct, descriptions should show your point not just state it. In pure fiction, this involves the audience more as they need to pay attention to the details to understand and therefore are actually involved. Games are not just fiction, players expect to engage by acting and their actions to matter.

    Take for example a cinematic combat. No matter how good your description, if the GM controls all the actions of my character there is no reason for me to play. Call it “cut scene syndrome”.

    When players act, they should show their feelings though actions. Players should describe their actions as well, show don’t tell. Their actions should trigger the (short) evocative description. If player actions aren’t the driver, it isn’t a game, it is a story hour.

    • Oliver R. Shead
      Posted at 19:57h, 29 April Reply

      Totally, that’s a great point. That adds a whole new dimension to games – because the players should totally feel as though they are affecting what is happening in the world, and particularly with their characters. In combats I find this important too – their exact action should determine specifically what they do, and then what occurs as a result, rather than it just being a flowery description for a few HP loss, with no other difference.

  • Riley Mclaughlin
    Posted at 03:34h, 25 December Reply

    This is a good principle. In TRPG, part of the price, is that sometimes players miss things. For example: The PCs have arrived at a village and find an inn. Just as night falls, several farmer swarm into the common room, ordering dinner and so forth. A few minutes later, one more villager enters – “Cutting it close”, the innkeeper says. Later in the evening,, the crowd clears out, leaving in groups of four to ten, and the PCs have the common room to themselves.
    I narrate this, to show the PCs and their players, that the villagers fear the night. (Why? I hope the PCs will investigate.)
    If the PCs look outside the inn, around dusk, they will see villagers scurrying into their houses; if they observe the groups leaving, then they’ll see the villagers moving in tight groups, from house to house, seeing each other home safely. I don’t expect this to happen, they’ll probably just stay in the inn, but it’s in my world-building.
    But if the players focus entirely on the PCs drinking, gambling, flirting with the bartender, etc., then they may miss everything I’m trying to show.
    I could have just told them “The villagers seem to fear nightfall.” That would be boring.
    And if the players *aren’t looking*, then that also leads to boring outcomes.
    So it’s one of the many aspects of GMing which is really about GM-player cooperation.

    • Oliver
      Posted at 08:33h, 11 February Reply

      Hi Riley,
      That is a fantastic example of showing and not telling! And it really does highlight how much more interesting it makes it. Look at the ambience, the atmosphere, that you can bring to the game when you describe the way that the villagers are dealing with this fear. How they shut up everything acting normal, or almost pretending nothing is going on, or how they barricade themselves in, etc. Of course, as you say, they could miss it — but then that could have other consequences too, I reckon! Later on they try to wander outside and find the doors and windows securely barred. Foolishly they exit anyway, leaving the door open…dun dun dun!

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