RPG Settings: Show, Don't Tell

I don't always read Zach's blog but he sometimes has some really good observations. Recently he wrote about how RPG Setting creators should stop writing bad fiction, and focus on gameable material. I agree with this 100%. It's great for padding out page counts and selling lots of text to RPG Hobby-Purchasers, but it doesn't actually contribute that much where it counts - at the game table.

Thinking back to my Screenwriting and Theatre days, one of the basic principles of good fiction writing is also advice more RPG Setting creators need to take to heart: "show, don't tell". If it's not going to show up "on screen" in some way (in the case of an RPG that would be "at the table") then it either needs to be reworked, or removed from the story. Long passages about the geography and history of some Tolkien Clone fantasy world - this actively makes a game worse by diluting the usable material.

Players should also consider this when writing their character "back story" - eg. don't write your characters back story. Write your characters appearance and personality instead. This is the stuff that the other people at the table will actually see. Few people want to read 50, 10 even 2 pages of backstory for someone else's character. Most people don't even want to read that much campaign world description.

So how do you Show your RPG setting without reams of text for people to plod through? Make them encounter it as part of the gameplay right from the beginning.

Races and Classes

Right at the beginning of your game when players are making their characters you can start introducing your campaign world by choosing which races and classes the players can start with. The Dark Sun campaign setting is a good example of this - through picking a character you learn about this world of gladiators, savage elves, insect warriors and dangerous magic. The Forgotten Realms as expressed through D&D 4e does a terrible job with this. There are so many different races and classes you're left with no real sense for what the campaign world is like. There's too much choice and you can't see patterns that suggest a cohesive setting.

If you're using a game like 4e or Pathfinder or even original D&D with lots of Dragon Magazine articles with extra classes - it's worth thinking about restricting the starting lists of races and classes to help introduce the campaign world. As new areas are introduced and explored these new options can become available to the players.

Starting Equipment

Like Races and Classes the gear you let players look over and equip their characters from is a great opportunity to introduce more about your campaign setting. Consider an items list that would include:

  • Garlic
  • Wolfsbane
  • Mallet and Wooden Stakes
  • Holy Symbol
  • Silver Arrow

and another that included these instead:

  • Canteen
  • Billowy Robes (Bedouin Style)
  • Sand Goggles
  • Camel
  • Telescope

Putting them all together and you get no real sense for a campaign world. On their own you get a feeling for the setting without any background information or geography lessons.

Other Ways to Introduce Setting

Any other choices the players make in creating their characters are great opportunities to introduce more setting details. Spells, Minor Magical Items, even a list of suggested starting names can help.


Print out some artwork and glue it to your notebooks. Make your own DM screen with images you think set the right tone for your campaign world. Get some character sheets done in a style that's less vanilla accountancy and more evocative of the specific genre you're running your game in.

I'm also very much in favour of these DMing / Adventure writing techniques that were more en vogue in the earlier years of the hobby:

Buy the Old Timer a Drink

Each time you do, roll on the random table for some bit of information about the area the adventure will be taking place in. These might be reports of monsters that have been seen, local legends, news about what other adventurers are doing, or even some bit of info about the local nobility that could tie into the politics of the region. What's important is that this is something an NPC is talking to the Player Characters about -- not some dry bit of text you're asking the players to read, or you're narrating at them.

Maps and Keys

Maps as props that the players have and can refer to are great.

Maps that the DM uses with information about not only the monsters and treasure in a certain location, but also a sentence or two about the scenery are one of the best ways to incrementally show the players the campaign setting. Even a couple of words can go a long way.

"You go to the Inn" doesn't tell me a lot.

"You walk through the rain to the moldy Inn" says some interesting things without taking too much time.

Less is More

I understand that if you work for a big RPG publisher you're getting paid by the word, and it's in your best interests to pad out that text and make your setting info as verbose as you can. If you're a regular gamer though... that's not going to help you. Focus more on what you'll actually use at the game table and I you'll be able to enjoy the work you put into them even more.


Risus Monkey said...

I read Zak's original post and Trollsmyth's followup. Those posts and this one really have me thinking about how a setting presentation can be stripped down to the bare essentials. I wonder if good setting could be documented in a single page or even on a PocketMod?

Of course, setting fluff does have it's uses if people are given enough time to digest it. I'm specifically thinking of Trey's City setting (see From The Sorcerer's Skull). Taken as a whole, there's a lot of material in there. But as daily blog posts about the setting, it's irresistible.

Stuart said...

I haven't read Trollsmyth's post on the topic yet.

I wonder if good setting could be documented in a single page or even on a PocketMod?

Yes. Yes, I think it can...


Johnathan Bingham said...

I think it depends on the setting, and the writer's ability to capture it. If it is something out of the ordinary, chances are, I'll want more information on the setting. If it is vanilla, then chances are I don't want to hear about Legolasclone0001123.

Risus Monkey mentions Trey's Weird Adventures Setting. Trey is a very evocative writer and I want to know all about his world. It's not the standard fantasy fare, so I feel that I really need the indepth stuff to really play in that world. Plus it doesn't hurt that Trey writes well and his writing doesn't make my eyes glaze over. However, if I'm playing in someone's Middle Earth/Oerth/etc. then no so much.

Nighthawk said...

This is the concern I have in my own campaign... I've been designing my campaign while running it "play by post", which allows me to be a lot more descriptive when it comes to people, places and events (the fact that I'm a repressed writer probably doesn't help).

For example, as part of my campaign execution on forums (including the WotC forums) I actually have movie-like cutscenes where the players aren't even present.

None of that translates well to a table top scenario... I can't expect a DM to describe what would be a very cinematic scene - something that I could describe in as many paragraphs as I want on a forum, as if I was writing a novel - at the gaming table with the same flair as it would in the written form, so I am forced to turn my "bigger than life" scene in to something that's simpler and more manageable so that the gaming experience doesn't suffer.

I have to suppress my inner writer so that the players could enjoy this.

Stuart said...

@Johnathan: If it's based on an existing media setting (Dune, Star Wars, The Hobbit) then there's already a better way of learning about that setting. If it's a new setting, it's better to show than to tell. That's basic advice for fiction writing.

I'll check out Trey's setting and then I can comment on it specifically.

@Nighthawk: I think you can do narrated 'cut-scenes' at the table. You need to keep them short though. I'd be inclined to write the important ones ahead of time and focus on writing more like Hemmingway than Dickens. ;)

Nick said...

Hi Stuart,

I've been discussing your post on Twitter with some friends and I commented "I think that works for rules-focussed gaming. I don't think it works so well for narrative or character based-gaming." You asked me what I mean, so I thought I'd expand.

I think it's down to the sorts of game we play. I'm more involved in organising and playing LARPs than I am RPGs around a table-top, and in that environment we have a lot fewer rules, dice and tables. So I tend to refer to the LARP world as more character or narrative focussed, and the tabletop world as more rules-based. I suspect my wording wasn't great - it sort of implies that I think that tabletop RPG can't be character-focussed or story-focussed - of course it can.

If I'm playing a LARP that has either a long time-in period, or lasts for many sessions, I won't always be involved in plot stuff. There are periods of downtime where I'll be sitting talking IC with friends, or perhaps meeting new people in an IC sense. Perhaps I'm making or eating dinner in-character. In that sort of circumstance I don't always want to talk about myself, or the events that have transpired that day. Rather I might want to ask that foreign diplomat how things are with his King - has he solved that problem with his serfs and their uprising? Perhaps I might want to explain to my friend who's been away in space for a long time how things are at home, planetside. And all of that sort of stuff comes from the background, in my opinion, and that whole ability to discuss in detail a world that doesn't exist is what makes my character experience "three dimensional." To stretch your analogy about what "shows up on screen" I want those little details to be available to me - like in "Minority Report" where a lot of the future technology is never explained but shows up onscreen and adds to the depth of the vision of the future they portray.

I've taken that mindset from the LARP world to the RPG world. I am the guy who buys the book and then never runs the game because I read the background first. In a lot of cases when I run a game I'm rules-light anyway.

I'd also comment that I agree that the background belongs to the group once it's in play, and just because you have a big huge background doesn't mean that you can't come up with stuff, add, remove, edit, on the fly.

Lastly - I agree that you shouldn't drown someone in background up-front in play. It needs drip-feeding over time, and what you get at the start of the game should be a drip in the ocean of what's available. But an RPG needs to show the GM everything, so he's got a lot to drip-feed. I absolutely agree that nobody wants to read my 45 pages of character background, but it's damned nice to know that my character hates coniferous trees because of that thing that happened with the rubber band and the helicopter in '45, and if it ever comes up, that detail is there, where I can reference it without having to come up with something on the fly.

Stuart said...

I think Show, Don't Tell is even more important advice for character based games and Live Action in particular. The only things people will learn about your character is what you say to them, in character, or what you do. Nobody will read your background or look at your character sheet.

If it helps you, as a player, prepare for the game then there's nothing wrong with writing stories about your own character. I don't think that's necessarily meant for the other players in the game to read though. If your character is afraid of trees - that's something that might come up in play. If they had all these detailed sad events take place in their past that they don't like to talk about… that's something that may never get expressed at the table. It's enough to say your character is quiet / withdrawn / grumpy / etc.

As a GM it makes more sense to be learning + remembering details that will have an impact on the game rather than setting / canon details that were added to fluff the page count up and sell more books. :)

Nick said...

Just to comment two additional things. Firstly, "background" comes in two flavours. Your character's background (which you're right - is yours, and doesn't get read by others) and the world background, which is read by everyone. There might also be a faction background or whatever, which is read by a subset of people. I stand by my guns of "longer backgrounds are better for longterm play" I think, for both world and faction backgrounds. Less so for character-specifics.

As the LARP organiser, I'm the one who wrote all the background, so it's easier to remember. As a player, you don't remember it all on the first pass. But I did say longterm... you retain what you need before you retain everything.

Would that I were paid for my stuff by the word. I'm not - it's all a labour of love. So maybe I'm not writing "fluff" anyway :)

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