Show, Don’t Tell: Prose in Roleplaying Games
Stepping onto the staircase you hear the floorboards begin to creak and groan. As you ascend, a few spiders skitter across their webs. Finally, after a few minutes of climbing, you reach the top of the winding stairwell and are met by a sturdy wooden door with an iron handle.
We’ve all encountered descriptions similar to the one above in our games. These types of text passages are referred to as prose and are common to descriptions or people, places, and things. But how much do you know about creating good prose? In this article, I’ll give a brief introduction to what “Show, Don’t Tell” means, how it relates to RPGs and your table, and lastly when it’s more appropriate to just tell your players something.
Thanks for reading. Let’s get started!
Show, don’t tell
The purpose of incorporating “Show, Don’t Tell” into your gaming is to enable the players to experience the story within their own mind (a.k.a. Theatre of the Mind). We do this by enabling their senses (i.e. touch, smell, etc.). When a player’s senses are engaged they experience the internal emotions of what is happening. This is a drastically different feeling than having the details of the scene imparted on to them.
Let’s start with a few examples to accompany the theoretical definition.
Detecting the difference
Especially for newer writers and game masters, detecting the difference between showing and telling is not always straightforward. To improve your roleplaying prose you should first be able to detect the difference between a show and a tell. Let’s walk through a few;
- Describing a tall man
- Tell – Zultan is a tall man.
- Show – People look up to address, Zultan.
- Show – Zultan ducks under each door as he walks into the tavern.
- Describing an angry merchant
- Tell – The merchant is angry with your offer.
- Show – The merchant slams his fist on the table.
- Show – The merchant’s voice raises in response to your offer.
- Describing a happy mother
- Tell – The mother is happy to see her daughter
- Show – The mother runs to give her daughter a hug
- Show – The mother greets her daughter with a warm smile
When we show the emotion or characteristic it becomes visual to the audience. They will visualize a different scene, yes, but it will be more powerful to them.
Generally speaking, when you show you don’t have to tell, but “Show, Don’t Tell” is not an absolute rule. There are times when it’s appropriate, perhaps even preferred, to instead tell.
When not to show
A common misconception with the “Show, Don’t Tell” advice is to fill every description with multiple adjectives. This is a natural thought, but nonetheless flawed. For the same reason, that random encounters are boring or distracting, so too are pieces of prose that are not important to the story.
The ‘too much show’
The most common mistake is to use “Show, Don’t Tell” too much. Take an example of a mad scientist’s laboratory. You should show a few characteristics of the laboratory to set the mood. After all, any good setting is thematic and unique for the players. But once you start describing all the mysterious liquids in the jars around the room you run the risk of pummeling your players with adjectives. When the storytelling becomes a one-way street, players will get bored.
The ‘unimportant show’
Next, we have prose that just isn’t relevant. Like random encounters in the wilderness, sometimes your prose just isn’t important. If it’s not linked to some conflict in the scene or an important NPC interaction, what is the point? Similar to the too much show, failing to prioritize your descriptions means that you drown out anything good in relative comparison.
The ‘confusing show’
Players will miss your cues when you attempt to show them the clues in a room. It’s unavoidable, but how you react to this situation is important. If the clue is mission-critical to the main plot then just tell them. It the clue is not mission-critical then you should use your judgment on whether to make the details known.
To tell your players a clue isn’t always fun, but neither is aimlessly walking through a castle looking for it.
Strategies for your game
Now let’s talk about how “Show, Don’t Tell” applies to your game and what strategies you can leverage for a more enjoyable experience.
Visualize the room first
The easiest way for me to bring out my inner prose is to visualize the room first. First I need to engage my own senses and only then can I translate these to my players. If you’re new to “Show, Don’t Tell” this came be challenging, but just focus on immersing yourself in a scene. It takes practice.
DIfferent strokes for different folks
Be careful about reading prose text verbatim from published adventures. If you’re low on prep time then by all means, but it’s a pet peeve for many experienced players. They view the published prose text as boring and predictable. A better approach would be to briefly read the text and then summarize it for the players. This puts the prose within your own voice and you can make sure it nails the right emotions for your players.
This is especially important advice for creating published content on the DMs Guild. Your prose is not the best thing since sliced bread and it will be often paraphrased. Provide only what is meaningful and save yourself some time.
Write the senses on a notecard
Pop quiz time: what are the five senses?
If you’re like most people you probably got two or three relatively quickly and the others after thinking for a few moments. Now imagine you’re in a critical moment of your game and you’re thinking about senses to use. Immediate buzzkill. Instead of pulling from your mind, write down the five senses one a notecard and attach them to your GM screen.
Is it fancy? Nope. It’s it effective. Yup!
Start small, then expand
If you’re new to “Show, Don’t Tell”, don’t try to put all five senses in each description. Honestly, probably don’t ever put all five in. It will feel forced and you will run the risk of describing things for the sake of description instead of immersive gameplay. With most things in life, just start small. Pick one sense to focus on for a description. Once you’re comfortable with engaging one sense look for unique moments in your games to bring a few more into the mix.
Engaging even one sense is a drastic improvement than telling the players what they see.
Conflict first, room second
It’s natural to describe the room first when players enter and then the conflict (i.e. puzzle, trap, villains, etc.). As players, our minds are more engaged with the conflict of the scene, not the physical description of the room. The focus difference can cause us to miss important pieces of the room’s description (i.e. secret latch or lever) because we’re focused on the conflict of the room. Imagine fighting a vampire and all you have to do is smash the glass window, but you never even realized it was there. This is the problem in a nutshell.
My advice is to flip the descriptions. Describe the conflict and then go around the room with subtle hints to help the heroes in the fight to come. Players will be more engaged and less likely to miss important details.
Engaging your player’s senses significantly improves their immersion in the game. If you have trouble remembering all five senses use a simple notecard as a reminder. Lastly, remember to show your players in moderation; don’t let them miss important clues in your games.