30 Days of Game Mastering, Day Twenty-two

We are close to the end of 30 Days of Game Mastering Challenge, closing in on the final week. I hope folks have enjoyed this. I had and am having a lot of fun, and with the exception of a minor hiccup last week, I like having a constant stream of posts. It is very likely I’ll go back to daily posting when the challenge is over, but for now on with the show!

A novel solution: what’s the best advice you have borrowed from a totally different field?

I freelance as an editor, and spend a lot of my working time with genre fiction. One of the best pieces of advice I received early on and spread around wherever I can is: show, don’t tell. In fiction this means instead of writing “He felt sad.”, which is static and frankly boring, you write something like, “His gaze lingered on her scarf by the door, and he choked back a sob. He poured himself another drink and curled up on the couch in the comfortable dark.” Both methods convey the character’s sadness, but the second method is both more interesting and conveys much more information without using a huge exposition dump.

“Show, don’t tell” can be applied to GMing as well. Instead of telling players how evil the villain is when he’s introduced, show him doing something despicable. It’s cliche, but have him punishing a subordinate as the characters approach. Have the vampire villain stop in the middle of his conversation for a “snack”. It’s much more interesting and exciting for your players than just telling them the villain is evil. It also opens up the chance to surprise your players with the villain. If she’s been acting normal up to that point, then suddenly stabs someone to death in alley, that’s a great “Holy crap!” moment for the players.

And it doesn’t have to be reserved for villains. You can use the technique for any of your NPCs to give them a bit of flavour and bring them alive. Don’t tell them the blacksmith is angry; instead describe him hammering more furiously. Don’t tell them the innkeeper is obsequious; describe how he instantly switches on a smile and agrees with everything the characters say. Giving your players these types of descriptions instead of just telling them what an NPC is like also makes their Perception and Sense Motive checks more useful. After all, how a character acts may or may not have a connection to what they actually think or feel.

Showing instead of telling opens up a whole new way of both providing and hiding information from the players. If you aren’t used to it, don’t feel bad if it takes a while to get into the habit and rhythm of it. Just keep plugging away, and spend a bit of time practising your descriptions, and you’ll soon have a whole new tool in your GM’s bag of tricks.

What’s your best bit of advice from a different field? Drop it in the comments and share with the group. Tomorrow we talk about mechanics and story.

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