One of the techniques that writing instructors stress time and again is “show, don’t tell.” Yet, no such piece of advice exists for gamers. In fact, more often than not players tell the gamemaster what their characters are doing while the gamemaster tells the players about the world their characters inhabit. It seems weird that something that would bore an audience to tears in a written format is how many players derive satisfaction in the heat of the moment.
Something that strikes me as being just as strange is that when people talk about their most memorable sessions, they show almost as much as they tell. The characters are more alive with details of what they were doing compared to the actual game session. In many ways, their descriptions are like stories of true events. But, again, this is not the most exciting way to tell a story.
What can gamers learn from this? There are ways to interject showing into the descriptions of the events that occur in a game without taking away anyone’s agency. This is why players are able to describe events as a story rather than a report after the fact. But there should be a way we can draw from this to move beyond a report style of gaming.
If you are unfamiliar with the difference between showing and telling, consider the following descriptions of events:
“My character walks up to the door and I want to check for traps. I rolled a 16.”
“I walk up to the door and examine it for traps with a result of 16.”
The differences are subtle, but one is more active than the other. The first example is a play-by-play report of what the character is going to do and the second is a smoother rendition of the same event that shows. There is nothing inherently wrong with the first method, and this is often the way most game sessions go as there is a need to pause to let people know what is going on in any particular game.
If you trust your players or gamemaster enough, you can show these actions and trust that neither side is trying to circumvent any of the rules. After all, if there are any adjustments due to situational circumstances, there should be little reason to believe the gamemaster is cheating. This also requires the gamemaster shows rather than tells what the world looks like.
In this instance, it requires the gamemaster does not just provide a list of details for what the room, town, or dungeon looks like. A 10’ wide corridor with moss is boring after a while, but if you say that the moss is growing or creeping up the walls, you give a description that feels alive and more active. One of the techniques that keeps descriptions from moving from a showing to a telling is the verbs used. Do the objects interact with one another, or are they just present? If they interact, then you are showing.
Telling is often passive and does not come across as vividly. Veteran gamemasters are often great at doing this, but when players make the transition to the other side of the screen they often tell as that is the mode they have learned to operate from when playing a roleplaying game. Showing is a skill that people have to develop as we are used to reporting what has happened in the past. This is as much caused by how we learn to receive news as it is the way our brains process stimuli and weed out the information it doesn’t think is important, like how things interact with each other unless the event affects the observer.
Another area where showing and not telling comes in handy is in interior dialogues with a character. We might not be able to show the interior of a character’s thoughts, but we can show how he acts as a result of them. Even if the process is mostly in the character’s head, there are a few tricks to help make these moments dramatic and active. Most of these tricks are the same as those outlined above. What is important to remember is that the events have to be actions if you want to retain the excitement.
To make it more mysterious, you can limit who gets the information for what goes on in the character’s head. However, that can lead to other problems with players being left out of some of the action. That is where letting the players see the results without seeing the cause comes in handy. It is just like the movies, only better because it is unfolding in real time.
So, when someone gives a dry description, you can tell them “Don’t tell me about your character, show me.”