Experience, don’t show

Traditional communications advice is ‘show, don’t tell’. That’s because we’re much more likely to believe things we’ve seen than things we’re just told about. In role-playing games we can go a step further. Our players can experience the things we want to communicate. And that insight can help us create better adventures.

Magical Fight

In Amazing Tales I describe a ‘play to find out what happens’ approach to storytelling. But if you have got specific goals for a story that might need adjusting. These goals could be educational – ‘Learn that the vikings were great sailors and explorers and the first Europeans to reach Canada’; or they could be about introducing part of your game world – ‘learn that the land beyond the mountains is populated by ogres’; or it could be about moving a big piece of plot forward, ‘Learn that the Temple of Solitude is governed by the same cult that also controls the king’.

Now let’s dig into the difference between telling, showing and experiencing in the context of a role-playing game intended to teach the players something about vikings.

Telling: “Leif Erikson strides up to you. “My crew are the finest sailors in the world”, he says “We vikings have sailed our long-ships far beyond the maps of all other people”

Showing: “From your time machine you watch as Leif’s crew sail south west, away from Greenland and toward the coast of what you call Canada.”

Experiencing: “You have been on Leif’s ship for a week. In that time you have seen no land, and sailed a long way south-west. Not all the crew believe that Leif is going to find land, and they are growing restless. One of them addresses Leif; “Captain, we have sailed further west than any men have ever sailed, let us turn back while the supplies last” he declares. Leif looks to you for support. What do you do?”

Role-playing being on the ship on a voyage of discovery puts the players in the heart of the experience. They’re not going to forget that in a hurry. In any game, if there is something you want the players to remember its much better that they experience it than hear about it or simply witness it.

To write scenarios like this prepare a short list of the things you want your players to learn. Next to each of these write down the kind of experience that would lead them to reach the right conclusions. For instance

To learn Experience
The king is untrustworthy The king finds an excuse not to pay the heroes for a job well done
Leif’s crew were recent converts to Christianity During a storm the vikings debate whether to pray to God or Thor for aid
Ogres are afraid of cats Being rescued from an ogre by the appearance of a cat

In each case give the players a role to play in the events. Feeling outraged at being conned by the king is easy enough, and gives a further chance to learn how royal prerogative works in this world if they try to challenge the decision.  In the viking debate the players should be left with the casting vote – or at least a chance to settle the argument. And when the ogres mysteriously flee it should be left to the players to work out why they did so. Otherwise, they were just passive bystanders as the GM explained something.

Once you’ve got your list and a collection of experiences think about arranging them in different orders until a story starts to present itself. My general advice would be not to over-plan this stuff, kids want plenty to do and will push a story in all sorts of directions between the chosen highlights.

As long as you remember that the players are there to play a role, and not simply observe proceedings, everyone should have a good time.

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