Show. Don’t tell

If you lead, your players will follow

Show. Don’t Tell

Show and Tell

Show and Tell

There’s a mantra that is often bandied about Game Mastering discussions. It’s the concept of “Show. Don’t tell” when it comes to things in the gaming world.

There’s a lot of really good reasons you should be showing your players what their characters are experiencing in the environment and not telling them, but the primary one may not be all that obvious.

Showing gives a greater sense of what is than telling and it should be modeled as the preferred way of imparting knowledge.

Ironically, while there’s a wealth of discussion and extolling the virtues of using Show. Don’t tell, There’s a lack of showing how it’s done as opposed to telling GMs to do so.

Here’s my take on both how and why…

Option 1 – Telling:

Let’s look at how a lot of information is passed from GM to player in a lot of games… including mine.

The old farmhand tells you that the Barlo’s Grandmother knew why the Witch cursed Eckhart. He recommends you ask Barlo for more details.

What’s the expected reaction?

  • Uh, okay. Let’s go find this Barlo and ask him.

What’s the actual reaction?

  • SNORE!
  • Why can’t the GM just tell the players and get on with it?
  • Seriously, can we just kill something now? Do we really have to go ask this dude… What’s his name?

Option 2 – Showing:

Now consider the same dialogue and action description with a focus on showing:

“You want to know the truth behind why the old Witch cursed Eckhart?”

The old farmhand looks quite confused, “Can’t imagine why anyone would want to know that.”

He pauses and scratches at his stubbly beard for a second, then says, “Well as I recall, old Barlo’s Grammer used to tell us tales from when she was a youngin’. One such story says that the Witch always has to tell the truth when asked any question when the harvest moon is high in the night sky.”

After speaking of the Witch, the man makes a sign to ward off evil and spits at the ground to cement his safety from ill omens. Then he continues quickly, “Perhaps you should ask the old codger if he knows who told his Grammer that hearth-tale. Maybe there’s a thread of truth there.”

Let’s break it down:

“You want to know the truth behind why the old Witch cursed Eckhart?”
The old farmhand looks quite confused, “Can’t imagine why anyone would want to know that.”

Here we let the players know they’re treading on ground they may not want to walk.
It’s exciting and dangerous and mysterious because it’s not something commoners tend to concern themselves with.
Right there we set the character’s actions and interest apart from the standard background NPCs.

He pauses and scratches at his stubbly beard for a second, then says, “Well as I recall, old Barlo’s Grammer used to tell us tales from when she was a youngin’…”

The Witch is old… really old. She’s had stories told about her for what could be 4-5 generations now.
So there’s a lot of possible things that have been added or removed or just plain wrong with the stories about her.

“… One such story says that the Witch always has to tell the truth when asked any question when the harvest moon is high in the night sky.”

Maybe, maybe not…

After speaking of the Witch, the man makes a sign to ward off evil and spits at the ground to cement his safety from ill omens. Then he continues quickly, “Perhaps you should ask the old codger if he knows who told his Grammer that hearth-tale. Maybe there’s a thread of truth there.”

In this example we’re dealing with a very low level magic setting . The warding sign and action help cement the flavor of the setting while making it perfectly clear that, while most commoners don’t spend their time thinking about the Witch and her kind much, they certainly believe she holds power over them and that charms and wards indeed keep them safe.

Choices:

Which Option do you choose?

I know if I was a player I’d like Option 2 better much better.

So as a GM I should offer Option 2 more often.

Now you can claim that most players won’t get all that out of the interaction, but if you continue to show them the world and not tell them about it, soon they’ll begin to seek out the clues in your visuals and apply them properly to their understanding of the setting.

Imagine your players describing their actions with as much attention to detail… isn’t that what you want?

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