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Tell, Don't Show

by Mike on 12 February 2024

"Most readers are in trouble about half the time."

In 1990, Elizabeth Newman at Stanford University earned her PhD with an experiment. She had one participant tap out the rhythm of a popular song with their fingers while the other participant tried to guess what it was.

The tappers expected that 50% of the time respondents would be able to guess the song. It was actually 2.5%.

We GMs build rich worlds in our heads. We think through complex situations. We imagine NPCs living their lives, villains moving through their plots, vast dungeons buried beneath ancient mountains, and monsters lurking in the depths.

We do our best to describe these worlds and situations and adjudicate the results of the actions of the characters to our players. We love to imagine that the world we've built in our heads is the same one living in the heads of our players.

It's not.

Players understand about half of what we describe to them.

For a video on this topic, watch my Tell, Don't Show YouTube video.

A lot of the time, players don't really grab what's going on and we see this manifest in lots of ways.

Don't Hold Your Cards Too Close

Many DMs hold back information, thinking it's too much to tell players what's going on. They think it should be a surprise or the players need to say the right words to get the information they need. They think telling too much is leading the players or taking agency away from them.

But, when we realize players aren't always grasping the situation, we should put those cards on the table. Explain the situation. Reiterate things we think we've already said. Repeat ourselves. Emphasize what's important to understand.

The Players Are Not Their Characters

The characters in our games are full-time adventurers. They have eyes and ears and fingers most of the time. They're there in the situation. Our players are not. Players aren’t adventurers. Their lives aren't on the line. They're busy people with lives and jobs and families sitting at our table for an evening of fun. They're not really seeing what's going on the same way their characters are. Don't assume players understand what's going on.

Help players see what their characters see. If a player makes a bonehead decision, don't punish them for it. Reinforce what their character sees and what their character knows. Assume their character acts appropriately for their experience and their place in the world.

Assume players aren't grabbing what you're describing and help them out.

Tell, Don't Show

Sometimes, instead of waxing colorful metaphors, just tell players what's going on. Here are some situations where it might make sense.

Many of these things may seem obvious. You've given them the signs. You've seeded the secrets. And yet they're not grabbing on.

Just tell them.

Tell Them Colorfully

We don't have to fully break character when we tell them what's going on. We can keep our flowery narrative. Here are some in-world ways to make it clear to the players what's going on:

Feel free to keep your language colorful and stay in the world but state clearly what the characters know, or should know, about the situation. Give players the information they need to have fun.

Tell players what's going on.

More Sly Flourish Stuff

Last week I posted a couple of YouTube videos on Fantasy RPG Adventure Structures and Stuck Between a Gelatinous Cube and Two Air Elementals– Shadowdark Gloaming Session 20 Lazy GM Prep.

Last Week's Lazy RPG Talk Show Topics

Each week I record an episode of the Lazy RPG Talk Show (also available as a podcast) in which I talk about all things in tabletop RPGs. Here are last week's topics with time stamped links to the YouTube video:

Patreon Questions and Answers

Also on the Talk Show, I answer questions from Sly Flourish Patrons. Here are last week's questions and answers:

RPG Tips

Each week I think about what I learned in my last RPG session and write them up as RPG tips. Here are this week's tips:

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This work includes material taken from by Michael E. Shea available under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International license.

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