Game Mastery

Show me, don’t tell me

by on Aug.15, 2010, under GM, links and articles, observations

Gnome Stew linked to this post on showing detail rather than telling it.  I quite liked it, especially the part on figuring out which details to show.   Well, I agree that you don’t need to show every detail.   I thought it left a little to be desired on how to figure out which details are worth expanding.  Thankfully I’m opinionated and you’re reading, so here are my thoughts on showing detail.

The example given in the original article was pretty good, so I’ma copy paste that instead of thinking up something of my own:


He was obese.


There walked a man, heav­ily breath­ing as if every step were a quest. Eyes mov­ing fast, head hang­ing low try­ing to spot those who would silently laugh at his body and, at the same time, if it were indeed pos­si­ble to hide its huge, amor­phous shape.

First of all, this glut of information will draw attention to the fat man.  Players looking for hooks will assume there’s something there.  Wherever the GM concentrates details is usually where he expects you to go.  Players who read into this will look at the fat man and hope for more game.  This isn’t a good or bad thing, just something you must be aware of.  If you’re describing a throwaway NPC in this manner, the players will expect more from him.

More importantly, all this information does is tell people the facts.  Showing off this NPC’s obesity can be done as show or tell.  It may build a vivid image, but doesn’t change the player’s perception of the fattie.   However many words you use to say it, this guy is fat.

So where would a vivid description hold more weight?  Opinions of course.  Use your descriptions to shape your players opinions of the game instead of to tell them the cold, hard, facts.

Let me back up into an example.  Let’s say your GM is running a spelunking expedition into some long forgotten tomb.  As you set camp and encounter happens.  Incorporeal ghosts rise up from the ground and attack your party.  The GM describes these ghosts as “scary.”  What’s your reaction to being told something is scary?  Mine would be “no it isn’t.”  Especially if I play a bold adventurer, I’m gonna be defiant and run right up to “scary’s” face.  Maybe I’ll form an image in my head that’s a collage of things generally considered to be scary, but there’s no way in hell my character will be scared.  It just doesn’t work that way.

Instead, what if the GM described the stale air taking a sudden chill and the torches winking out one by one?  Tell the players what happened and let them come to the conclusion that “that’s scary.”  They’ll take that conclusion to heart.  They may even act scared.

(And yes, I had this opinion before I saw Inception :-P)

Basically what I’m getting at is that you can’t tell your players what their opinions are.  They’re in charge of their characters, not you.  You can tell them what the facts are and they’ll react to those facts.  Even if it were okay to tell a PC their opinion, they’re not obliged to believe it.  If you want to shape the players’ opinions, show them some compelling facts.  They’ll draw their own conclusion.  If you picked the right facts, it’ll be the conclusion you wanted.

So back to the original topic.  When do you show details instead of telling them?  When you’re trying to help the players form an opinion.  Details about the NPC’s weight and hygiene can be left out (although if you’re trying to convince them that an innkeeper is trustworthy, showing them his saggy mantitties and cheetoh dust encrusted sausage fingers ought to work nicely.  Trustworthy is an opinion – use details to arrive at it.  Fat is a fact.  Just tell them he’s fat and move on.).

2 comments for this entry:
  1. Miguel de Luis

    Thanks for the mention. As I was writing the article, I knew I was only scratching the surface, so thank you for this follow-up article 🙂

  2. Aaron Frangos

    Great article! I have had a hard time in the past with this particular aspect of storytelling and arrived at your same conclusions on a trial-and-error basis. This kind of GM-ing advice is indispensable for new and experienced GMs alike!

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