Before you is a long body of text, which seems to outline the various ways to approach storytelling. There are so many words. The light from the screen pulls your eyes in, the room disappears around you. Could it offer some answers?
And you just scrolled down the entire list already, didn’t you?
When I started playing Dungeons and Dragons (D&D), I had no writing experience, let alone appreciation for the art of story telling. Thankfully, D&D has opened me up to how much depth a story can have, and how deep you can get into the story. It showed me how much other people like diving into a story too. I used to believe that players in RPGs just wanted to kill the monsters and get the treasure, but I quickly learned that people are actually interested in more substantial stories. Which was great! But then, I had to learn how to tell a good story…
As the DM, it is your job to improvise the narration of the story as it is played. This can be incredibly difficult at times, because there is an entire world to consider! I had to find tools that could help me in these moments, concepts I could look to in order to help me move the story forward. Here is what I have found to help me so far:
“You go to the dungeon entrance. There’s a door. In front of the door is the bad guy. He is evil.”
Dictating is the literal telling of a scene and story. When you hear the phrase, “Show, don’t tell” this is the “tell” part. It feels natural to just tell the players the kind of scene and story that you are after. It is efficient, quick, and simple, directly communicating intent to the players. There is no ambiguity, and the subject is distinct.
While it can feel intuitive to just describe the narration as you intend it, it does not leave much room for growth or imagination. Sometimes describing things exactly as they are can seem to can seem to give depth, such as describing someone as evil. The player might imagine what the term “evil” means in this case. But this kind of narration is actually limiting. There is no room to question what makes a character evil, and what has lead this specific villain to a life of nefarious doings. Describing a character as “evil” doesn’t allow for backstory, or questions. We as players just know he’s the bad guy who has to be defeated, but there is no depth in that.
If an RPG like D&D is meant to be a collaborative story telling game, then it should offer avenues for both the players and DM to explore story. It should be the player’s job to question and explore the world that the DM has prepared, and it is the DM’s job to prepare how the world will react.
When to use: when you are trying to quicken the story, either because the scene isn’t very important (eg. shopping, travelling, etc.) or to create tension and a sense of fast pace (eg. chase scene describing immediate obstacles only).
“You arrive at the dungeon’s entrance. Before you is a door, and a man standing in front of it. He is holding a sword and shield, emblazoned with the image of two snakes facing each other, the symbol of your enemy!”
It is the narrator’s job to identify what is most important for the audience to know. The audience also assumes the same: the narrator is telling us this for a reason! Most of the time, this is true. Or, at least, it should be. Otherwise, it feels like a waste of time. This type of narration is only worried about what is directly related to the story or plot. If the players arrive at the dungeon entrance, then just describe what is needed to pass the entrance, and then be on their way. Anything else can be considered irrelevant.
In the above, the narration is only thinking about plot beats: those things that will move the story forward. There is an entrance that the audience has to pass, which is through the door, which is through the man, who is holding a weapon intended to stop them! This is efficient and gets to the point, but leaves little to the context that surrounds it.
In some cases, this approach will be ideal. It can increase pacing, and highlights the importance of the information. Players in a more tense scene, like a chase, will likely prefer a salient narration, as it is quick, and narrowed in on the immediate plot. In other cases, players will be exploring areas, and they are looking to get more information and learn about their surroundings, which is where salience can be tricky, as there may not be a precise focus for the narration.
When to use: to quicken pace while not skimping on details, to convey information without spending too much time on it.
“You arrive at the dungeons entrance, and for a moment, you wonder if it is the right place. Your eyes are sore and it is a bit hazy. The musty air carries the scent of dry dirt and stone that has collected around the door, a small hill among vast grasslands. For a moment, there’s a voice, quiet and hoarse, beckoning you. You strain your eyes, covering them from the bright light above. In front of the entrance a man stands, brandishing some sort of weapon, the sunlight glinting off the metal into your eyes. His face sweats too. Perhaps he knows how to enter?”
This is my favourite form of narration, because I get to delve into the perspective of someone else, asking what they see, feel, and why.
When I don’t have a salient focus or an prepared dictation to go to, I try and imagine facing the scene from the point of view of the character. And there’s a trick I use to approach this kind of narration: the senses. Make your way down the face, starting with the eyes, and then work your way to the ears, nose, mouth, body, and finally emotion. In the above, I started with what they see before them, as that is our dominant sense. Past that, I let the character’s perspective guide me in what would be most to the most relevant to the senses and emotions.
Working through the list of senses is not mandatory, and not suggested. I feel most tempted to go into tangents with this approach, which gets into irrelevant details, and the wordiness slows the pace of the game and has a tendency to bore the table. This is why it is good to think back to salience and try to judge what is most important to the scene, while also playing with the description as it fits the story.
It is a tough balance, between salience and perspective. What makes something salient to the senses? How do I know when something is irrelevant? It’s tough, but the only way to figure it out is by experimenting and learning. I’m still in the process of figuring this balance out each game I DM.
When to use: allows players to know what their characters are sensing, and sometimes feeling, in reaction to an experience or setting.
“You approach the dungeon. The hill that the dungeon rests on seems to dominate the vast empty grasslands around it. It towers before you, standing on ancient dirt and stone, casting a dark shadow against bright sun above. You step forward, entering the shadow, and immediately feel the cool air. The path before you is scattered with rocks, overgrown with grass, as though the ground itself is consuming the trail, or anything that stumbles on it. The path guides your eyes to the entrance, and you see a figure emerge. A man’s silhouette stands, his features indistinct except for a large grin spreading across his face.He slowly caresses his scabbard as you begin walking forward.”
Atmosphere looks to create a sense of environment, using theme to focus what composes the setting. Layer by layer, allude to the core theme or emotion by painting the setting for the audience. The theme can be anything, from an emotion to a complex moral theory. In D&D, a common theme would be exploration or treasure. Environments that relate to your theme can be enhanced using atmospheric narration.
In the above example, my theme was “scary.” Knowing the theme helps direct how I want to display an environment to the players. This has been tremendously helpful when improvising because I can look to the theme as my central focus. Any time the scene changes, I first ask myself what the theme is, and then how can I use that to help guide in the narration. The theme can change for any reason, but most importantly because of player interaction!
Similar to the perspective, it can be very tempting to rant, to go into tangents. Atmosphere is perfect for drawing a scene out, and letting the players soak in a sense of life from the story. If you’re establishing a new city setting, the set up to a big boss battle, or a fun event that the players have been building up to, atmosphere can add a satisfying depth to dive into. If there has been no build up, or you know that this scene won’t really lead to anything, then atmosphere can be a long unnecessary tangent, Atmosphere, and the environment it’s describing, should mean something.
When to use: to slow down a moment and allow your characters to sit in the reality of the moment. Usually used to build up or be the conclusion of something meaningful in the story – use theme to help guide you.
Evocation: Show, don’t tell
“The dungeon finally stands before you, with tall doors, cracked and weathered. Grass is crawling onto the door, but the carvings are still visible. Checking the apex of the doors arch, you see that the signature key stones remain. Standing before the door is him. He stands with the same leather armor as before, now stained with blood. His hair is longer, stretching down and covering his solemn face. You stare into each other, and his face drops. His eyes look to the ground as his shoulders fall into a sigh. With that, he reaches for his sword, his hand trembles and slips on the grip, but eventually finds it. He looks to you, not with narrowed eyes, but acceptance.”
Everywhere I looked when learning about narration, I heard the phrase “Show, don’t tell” but was not clear what it meant. Evocation is the fancy word for it, meaning to draw forth or summon. But what is it that we should try to draw forth? Subtext. When we evoke, we are using the various narration tools to create a sort of ambiguous connection to the message that we are trying to convey, which is rooted (sub) behind the words (text) of our stories. Subtext is not the easiest thing to convey, but it is the most meaningful. The more ambiguous something can be, the more the audience has to engage and make their own connection and interpretations.
In the above example, I tried to evoke a history with this other character and that he has gravely hurt someone dear to you. It has taken awhile to find him, and you both know there’s no diplomacy left. It is a very simple story of revenge, and hopefully I have conveyed it in the description of the scene without dictating to you, “The guy who killed/hurt your friend stands before you”.
I find this to be the most challenging approach, but also the most rewarding when it works. Theme helps to guide what is trying to be evoked. Take a character or setting and give it a distinct theme from any other subject in your story. You can then rely on that theme to help evoke a story, since every time the theme comes up, your players will start associating it with your subject. Summarizing a character into very few words gives a central focus. In my above example, my focal themes were revenge and guilt. The direct theme was never mentioned, but I used it to help guide the narration.
It can get even more complex when trying to evoke themes of morality, philosophy, or politics. In my experience, this level of depth is not always ideal, because a player may not be after a scene of such complexity. I’ve mistakenly believed on many occasions that evoking is always ideal, as it is so revered in the world of writing. But, I think the wisest path is to know when and where to use these tools.
When to use: when you are trying to indirectly give information to create a sense of intrigue or mystery, like insight rolls, or exploring something new.
The most challenging thing of all is trusting your own style and judgment. Your style will develop differently than mine, and that is precisely what makes games like D&D fantastic: we each have different stories to tell, and different ways to tell it.
The eclectic approach to narration is what will develop your own style. In D&D, I think style is a little easier to define because we have a focused scope. The narration of the DM will be expressed through the games rules, how they are used, and where exceptions are made. Each DM will use the different approaches in varying ways. We will also use them differently for the players that we have! This sense of eclectic judgment and choice is, what I think to be, what defines the DMs style.
From here, I’m not sure where to go next, but maybe there is no definite goal? People who have not played D&D often ask, “How do you end the game?” or “Can you win?” and I always thought that silly, like asking if you can “win” a movie or story. RPGs like D&D are willing to embrace story and move past simple combat mechanics, to develop atmosphere, character, theme, and morality. The only goal I can think of is to continue to question, grow, and develop, to share our stories, and by doing so, continue to grow and develop others.
When to use: you already are. Trust yourself, and keep going.