Be a Good DM: Show Me, Don’t Tell Me

by Ameron (Derek Myers) on June 12, 2012

“Show me, don’t tell me.” It’s some of the best advice I ever received when I was taking creative writing courses. This is a way of letting the reader draw their own conclusion about what’s happening rather than the storyteller hitting them over the head with blunt and direct descriptive terms. It’s good advice for writers and it’s good advice for DMs.

The best DMs I’ve played with are masters of “show me, don’t tell me” even if they don’t realize that they’re doing it. The key is in the details. When you’re trying to convey emotion don’t just say “The man was sad,” describe the character and the body language and let the players draw their own determination of the NPC’s mood. “Although most people think the man at the next table is passed out, you can just make out the sounds of soft whimpering and sniffing as tears no doubt rolled down his hidden face.”

Describing the scene in this way requires a lot of little details. It takes longer to write and longer to read. You need to decided when it’s worth slowing things down to add these details and when it’s better to just tell it like it is. There’s no hard and fast rule, it’s something that comes with practice and experience.

When you’re the DM you have a captive audience right in front of you. If they’re hanging on every word you say then take all the time you need to milk the details. But as soon as you start to lose them just hit the high points. The key is to know which details are important and be sure to include them. The trick is to bury the really important details along with a broader description.

For example if there are four guards and you describe three of them as having similar black cloaks and long swords, but the fourth guard’s cape has gold trim and his sword has a red jewel in the hilt the players will immediately conclude that this distinct NPC is important. If the intent was not to draw attention to this one guard you have to provide similar levels of detail for each man. All the guards wear black cloaks, but one man has gold trim around his and the other’s is clasped with a tarnished metal pendant. Each man carries a different blade. The man with the pendant has a finely polished short sword, one of the black cloaks has a bastard sword that is clearly too big for him, the man with the gold-trim cloak sports a narrow rapier with a red jewel in the hilt, and the last man has a long sword with decorative gold etching on the hilt and scabbard.

This is a lot of detail. If these were just regular guards I wouldn’t bother. But if I want the PCs to interact with these four men (or even just one of them) adding these little details provides clues as to who they are. The man with the tarnished clasp has a polished short sword. Why only polish or care for one piece of gear? The man with the really big sword is likely inexperienced. Could the sword with gold etching be magical? What about the rapier with the jewel? And why does one man’s cloak have gold trim? Is he a ranking officer?

If this level of detail is too much then perhaps you can just show the players the guards’ body language and let them draw their own conclusions about their experience and possible hierarchy. For example, four guards stand easy near the gate. A younger man keeps fidgeting as the bastard sword slung across his back keeps shifting with his every move. Only one of the guards seems to tighten up and ready himself as he sees you approach. The other three make minimal effort to stand more attentively as you approach. The scene is enriched and likely more memorable because you showed how the guards behaved and didn’t just tell the PCs that the captain snapped to attention when they approached.

Writers often use similes when trying to create a frame of reference when describing something unusual. They compare the unfamiliar with something more familiar to paint a clearer picture for the reader. DMs should do this as often as possible. With so much of the D&D world wrapped in fantasy there aren’t standard images for the things that PCs experience. Comparing the Dragon’s size to a bus, the texture of its scales to sheet rock, or the smell of it’s repugnant breath to exhaust fumes you really help the players become immersed in the experiences of their characters.

This is all great advice for writers but when it comes to advice for being a good DM we can take this one giant leap further. Know your audience. For the most part the people at your gaming table will be huge nerds (at least that’s been my experience). Draw on the elements of pop culture that you share with the players. Don’t worry about its obscurity, if it will help them visualize the scene then offer it up. In one of my recent games an airship loaded with explosives blew up mid-air. The heroes on the perusing air ship saw a massive explosion and then realized a huge shockwave was headed right for them. The DM said “It’s like when Praxis exploded.” That’s all he needed to say for three of us to have instant visualization of what was happening in front of us.

I find that movies are my #1 go-to when I need to help describe a scene. Of course I’m a bigger movie nerd than my peers so some of my references go over their heads, but any reference to movies like Star Wars, Star Trek, Lord of the Rings, the Matrix, any Indiana Jones film, or The Princess Bride is instantly understood. Of course when I play at D&D Encounters there are a lot of younger players who haven’t yet seen these films at all or as often as I have, which serves to remind me that it’s important to still describe a scene or location and not just rely on the movie reference.

The more immersed the players are in the game the more enjoyable the experience will be for everyone, including the DM. Considering the prep-time most DMs put into their campaigns you want the players to enjoy the story and have clear pictures in their minds of what’s happening; if they don’t you’ve wasted a lot of time and effort. By showing players what’s happening through descriptive text, similes and comparisons to pop culture references you ensure that everyone “sees” what you want them to see. Don’t belittle the experience by just providing the cold hard facts and telling players what they see. Show them and let them become a more significant party of the shared storytelling experience.

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1 Ameron (Derek Myers) June 12, 2012 at 10:19 am

I want to apologize to our readers for accidentally publishing this article on Friday and then again on Monday without content. Friday’s early publishing caught me completely by surprise; I thought I’d saved it as a draft and not actually scheduled it to go live. I was planning to rectify the problem and publish for real on Monday but I wasn’t able to get the content loaded into the blog before it again published prematurely. We finally got it right and today the full article is live. Hopefully it lives up to expectations now that we’ve teased you twice with an article about how to be a good DM only to give you two simple words: Content here. Hey, we all make mistakes – the key is to learn from them and not repeat them.

2 Joe June 12, 2012 at 7:23 pm

A good article still, regardless of the posting/reposting. Technology messes with us all from time to time, so don’t sweat it.

I use movies and other geek culture a lot when showing things in my storytelling at the table. Especially when trying to describe scope and alien environments. The planet from AVATAR is great when describing the Feywild. I often use Smaug from the animated Hobbit when describing a dragon’s size. That Drow army coming up from that big cave in the Underdark was a lot easier to envision when I told my players it was like the army of uber-vamps in the Hellmouth in the last episode of Buffy. When a creature loses shape while polymorphing into something else, I’ve told players that it “goes all T-1000 for a moment”. You’re absolutely right: folks will get those references.

I’ve also found that using characters from movies/TV shows to “play” certain NPCs can add texture and layer to certain NPCs. If the haughty Lord Neverember from the Neverwinter setting is played by Jack Nicholson from A Few Good Men, my players will immediately have an image of what he looks like, but will also have an immediate sense for the sort of man he is… or seems to be.

Showing is also accomplished not just with action, but with sensory details, too. If the players smell a pungent urine scent coming from the bear they see standing strangely still in the woods, they’ll understand that maybe it’s afraid of some bigger predator that it has become aware of, even if they haven’t yet sensed this other threat. Scent in general is great, as it has the strongest memory component in most people. Though other sensory details, like the sight of wavy heat lines in the air, or the feeling of sweat making their armor uncomfortable on their flesh, are just as effective at preparing players for a potential run-in with a fire creature.

Sure, there are times for telling (or narration), but even those times can be spiced-up with alternate storytelling techniques. I recently opened a game I was running by starting with an elderly version of our party’s bard sitting down to tell his grandchildren the story of that horrible time he and his friends were almost killed, the night that changed their lives forever. That gave me an excuse to have a narrative voice (the bard’s), but also immediately got the players interested to see what epic thing would happen that night that would (at least in the bard’s eyes) change things forever.

3 Chad June 13, 2012 at 3:03 am

Do you DM for young/new players often? At my home tables, I would be hesitant to use anachronisms like busses, sheet rock, or car exhaust, but I’d be more likely to do such things at Encounters.

4 Ameron (Derek Myers) June 13, 2012 at 4:06 pm

We see a lot of younger players at D&D Encounters every week. I find using similes and making comparisons to something more familiar to their limited experience really helps. I try to keep pop culture references current as I was shocked to realize none of the 13-year-olds had ever seen The Princess Bride. But I get your point. Some things that we would assume are generally understood may not be to younger players. One of my DMs uses his iPad to show pictures of monsters right from the monster manual. For locations he uses Goggle maps. It’s a great way to instantly show exactly what you’re talking about and today’s tech-savvy kids love it.

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