Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Show, don't Tell? No, Tell, then Show.

Zak (at his blog *NSFW*) has made the assertion that he thinks writers of a campaign setting for an rpg should show the reader what is going on rather than tell the reader. The idea of show don't tell is one stemming from literature. For a workable history, check out the Wiki page about it. I'm going to disagree with Zak in this post. Please take it as just that - a difference of opinion about a subject that is, frankly, not really that important in the scheme of things, and not an attack on Zak. I hope that my differing opinion about the subject is of interest to the reader. If you haven't read Zak's post, please do so - it will make my comments make more sense.

My primary disagreement with the show, don't tell viewpoint stems from the fact that we're not writing literature - we're writing text books. RPGs are textbooks, instruction manuals, self-help guides.... not literature. There may be literary interludes to "set the mood" of the area under discussion, but in the end, the entire purpose of the work is to function as a source of instruction on how to perform an action - the gaming.

My secondary disagreement comes from his example using the Eye of Vecna "Seldom is the name of Vecna spoken except in hushed voice, and never within hearing of strangers, for legends say that the phantom of this once supreme lich still roams the earth..." To me, that's a perfect example of why you should Tell the reader about the setting. That's not a Show example, IMO. That doesn't "allow the reader to experience the story through a character's action, words, thoughts, senses, and feelings rather than through the narrator's exposition, summarization, and description." It is an exposition, summarization, and description.

My tertiary disagreement is with his using a table to world-build.  Every example of a table used to world-build would be greatly enhanced by a a few sentences Telling how the "Clanward Barrens are different than the Skarrblown Marches" before one Shows the difference via the encounter tables. Only showing the tables without a sentence or two can work, but it also can fail miserably, because of the nature of show vrs. tell.

Showing is used to make a situation more lifelike and dramatic. It does that because it relies upon the reader/viewer to interpret the information presented. The reader/viewer has to determine what's going on, what's important, because he is not being directly told. This makes a situation more life-like because this is what all of us do on a daily basis as we interact with the world. The only reason why Showing is preferred over Telling in the arts is because it is unclear. The deliberate use of subjective material in art provides the illusion of reality. It's the artistic version of the word often applied to rpg campaigns - verisimilitude.

I think Zak is really interested in embedded worldbuilding, building a world through piece-by-piece description around an object, monster, or location primary composed of rules. I think his real complaint is with "interchangeable mundanities" of a setting not with the medium in which they are explained. I think he wants an interesting setting explained in smaller pieces built around game-important information. He wants embedded worldbuilding, not multi-page descriptions. In this, I fully agree. I prefer no more than few pages of "overall" information before the setting is explored in small bite-sized bits around game-important information. It's my preferred method of world-building for many of the reasons that Zak elucidated.

However, I think that one should Tell, then Show. In the end, this may be more a semantic difference, but I think it's one worth pointing out. I think that telling the difference between the "Clanward Barrens" and "Skarrblown Marches" and then showing the difference is the best way to go. That is not unclear.

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