Series Info...Building Stories, Telling Games #56:

Interlude: Showing Not Telling & Encouraging RP

by Travis S. Casey
April 4, 2003

Last time I talked about the writer's maxim "show, don't tell". This time, I'm going to dig deeper into how to apply that maxim to online games, from the point of view of those making and running games.

The first place is with world background. In this context, "telling" is giving background in the form of things that the player has to sit and read or watch. "Showing", on the other hand, would be making it a part of the game which the player experiences. In this case, you probably ideally want to do both — for players who really will read background material, this will give them an idea what to expect. But there are a significant number of players who won't read background material, and the more you have, the more likely it is that all of it won't get read. Players do play the game, however (if they don't, they're not players!) so showing them material through the game will make sure that they see it.

The more important a piece of background material is, the earlier you'll probably want to expose the players to it. For example, if an important point in your game background is that there are bands of orc raiders making regular attacks against the main city in the game, then think about how you can show that to players.

Of course, one way to do it is to have NPCs talk about it — but now we're getting back towards telling, just in a different way. The ultimate "show" would be to have the player witness a band of orc raiders attacking, of course, but you likely don't want to do that right away... for one thing, unless beginning characters are very tough, that might result in a very high mortality rate.

So what can you do? Well, think about what sort of changes you'd see inside a city which is being regularly attacked by orc raiders. The city might be turning into (or already turned into) an armed camp. There might be people about who have survived orc attacks, and have the scars to show it. The city might be getting overcrowded as people who would normally live outside the city are trying to move in to get the protection of the city walls. In a pseudo-medieval environment, many of those people might be bringing animals in with them — so there might be cattle, chickens, and other livestock in the streets.

Now, I'm sure that some of you out there are saying to yourselves, "well, that's just common sense". And yes, it is — once you start to think it through. To a great extent, you can get "showing" as a side effect of setting up a consistent, logical world. "Telling" instead of "showing" is, well, slipshod.

It should be noted that to some extent, "telling" can be a natural part of "showing". For example, if a particular city in the game world is being attacked by orc raiders, people elsewhere might well be talking about it — leading to the traditional "stuff you overhear in a bar" or "things an NPC tells you". So long as it fits in naturally, there's nothing innately wrong with "telling". "Telling" starts to become a problem is when it doesn't fit in naturally, or when it's used as a substitute for "showing".

I've mentioned showing as it applies to characters in the forums, so I won't cover that ground again; look in the forums for that.

Encouraging Roleplaying

That post of mine, however, did lead to a question about encouraging roleplaying — so I'd like to talk about that for a bit.

Talking about encouraging roleplaying immediately leads to a question: what is roleplaying? If you don't have a clear idea of what you're trying to encourage, finding a way to do it is problematic.

I've given my own answer before in this column, so I won't repeat it — see part one of the "Theoretical Bases" series and part six of the "Dirty Words" series. I'll note, though, that my own definition is primarily an internal one, focusing on what takes place inside the player's head — and that makes it very hard to encourage. Using the definition I like, it can be difficult for a human gamemaster to tell whether or not someone is "really roleplaying" — and it's going to be nearly impossible for software to tell.

One way to avoid that problem is to not rely on software at all — instead, have roleplaying rewards be given by other players or by GMs. >From my point of view, this has several problems. First, player-voted roleplaying rewards can easily turn into a sort of "popularity contest" where the players who get rewarded are those who know how to schmooze well. With players involved, it also becomes possible to "game the system" — e.g., for a group of players to make a pact to all vote each other as being great roleplayers.

Those two problems can be eliminated by having GMs give out the rewards — but that adds extra work for GMs, and most games (especially free ones!) don't have many GMs in comparison to the number of players — so good roleplaying can go unrewarded because there's no GM around to see it.

Another problem is that what a voting system tends to reward is highly visible roleplaying. Players of flamboyant characters tend to be rewarded much more than those roleplaying someone who's more "normal", and someone trying to roleplay a wallflower is likely to get very little reward. (I should note, though, that not everyone considers this to be a problem... again, we come back to that implied question "what is roleplaying?")

So, what could be rewarded which software can see? Well, it can see when players talk, and what they say. People have proposed "roleplaying reward" systems for online games which would reward players for having their characters talk (and/or "emote" or "pose"). This strikes me as very unsatisfactory, though — such a scheme would give a "roleplaying reward" to players when their characters say things like "Did you see last night's Survivor?", and I seriously doubt that that's the intent.

Some of the same people have further elaborated such schemes, tacking on things like having the system scan through characters' utterances looking for keywords to find out-of-character statements. I could go on about the difficulties of that, but I think they're fairly obvious. Instead, I'd like to point out the implied definition of roleplaying here: character interaction.

What's another way of defining roleplaying? Well, one definition is "playing in character" — that, is playing a character according to a personality which has been defined for that character. And that brings us back to game mechanics. Specifically, personality mechanics, which I've mentioned before in part 3 of the mechanics series, but I'd like to come back to them... so join me again next week (since this column was late), when I'll go in-depth on personality mechanics!

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