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.


Xyanthon said...

Joe, I completely agree. I think RPG books are more akin to a textbook than literature. For the most part, they are written for a game master to understand the intracacies of a given world and use that world as a framework to build upon. It is then up to the GM to SHOW the players the world. I know some folks say only write to what is going to be used in a game session with players. Don't go into the breeding cycles of the native moth species of the blue mist jungles. Well, that is unless the GM has a reason to do that.

Let's face it, some folks would prefer to make that stuff up and that's very cool. However, other folks either 1) don't have the time 2) can't be bothered with that level of detail 3) or just don't have the imagination or foresight to be able to wing stuff like that. It may never come up in a campaign. If it does come up, I might not use it as written. But then again, it may come up and I might rather rely on someone else to go down that rabbit hole.

Zak Sabbath said...

I think you got it right in the 2nd to last paragraph and the rest it looks like you got hung up on the phrasing i used and took issue with what you thought that implied.

jgbrowning said...

@Zak: Very possible. I think the "show, don't tell" phrase is a very powerful one, useful in many different types of artistic endeavor. I don't think of rpgs as art (I think of them as games), but I know that there are those who would disagree with my opinion on that.

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