Elements of Exposition in RPGs
Commonly referred to as an info dump, exposition is an important part of all roleplaying sessions. It is how we, in our roles as gamemasters and designers, contextualize the adventure, and give it meaning to the players and, thus, the characters. Exposition provides some backgrounds for the group and can be very detailed or tantalizing shadowy tidbits about the plot, theme, setting or important characters. While it really helps to get everyone’s heads into the game, if overused or abused, exposition can kill an adventure’s momentum dead in its tracks. Knowing this, however, can also be used in the design process to shift the tempo of a session or at least give the players pause to consider the ramifications of their actions. Yes, I said players here with no offense to the fourth wall, as it is their choices determining what their characters do. If they get too caught up in the moment, they can have their characters make some very wrong decisions. That’s a topic for another day, mayhap. Let’s return to point.
Now armed with the knowledge of exposition, what to do with it, right? It can vary from the simple to the complex, and there are many ways of transmitting data, ranging from direct communication from NPCs, narrative exposition, character insights, and other forms of correspondence and revelations. How best to transmit information is as dependent upon the type of adventure as it is to its length. Interestingly, the more simple the adventure, the greater the necessity to convey the exposition at the beginning, whereas if you’re dealing with more investigatory themes, it makes sense to dribble out the information a bit at a time, as giving away everything all at once is not the focus. To collapse this into a mantra: The simpler the adventure, the greater the necessity for the exposition to be front loaded. Naturally, the inverse is true as well: The more complex the adventure, the more incremental the exposition.” Now remember, this isn’t a maxim. You can certainly devise a number of great stories and adventures deviating from this, but this is a good rule to live by. Exposition can be used to play tricks as well (consider the false narrator for a moment), but we’ll focus on the basics at present.
The Basics: “You have all been traveling, and find yourself in a tavern in a sleepy, little town.” This is something we’ve all run across one time or another, and it is NOT a sin. Gathering characters together from disparate background in such a manner is a common fantasy trope as much as this one, “You have arrived at Lord Fenswick’s Estate for the reading of the will.” This latter example is quite common in horror gaming, especially Cthulhu adventures. Think of all the great horror games starting out this way. This is skimpy, but it can be built upon to form great adventures. In fact, contextualized introductions often find themselves in this space.
The pattern for a lot of adventures is as follows: simple exposition–>meet the NPC with the need–> NPC relates need (more exposition)–>fulfill the need.
This structure is present in both Journey to Red Temple and A Keg for Dragon. If you’ve read or played neither, this shouldn’t harm you overmuch, but I want to convey this out with concrete examples for comparative purposes.
JtRT: Characters are summoned to the magistrate. The magistrate relates his daughter is sick. He explains there has been a sleeping sickness. Characters go forth to find a remedy.
AKfD: Characters arrive in a sleepy town and guards take them to the town elders. The town elders relate their tribute to the dragon is missing. The characters are hired to find the tribute, and set forth to do just that.
These adventures play out very differently, and are the bare bones of an adventure in its simplest form. We’re using them here to display how exposition comes into play early on. These adventures gain further depth and resonance by having additional expositorial interludes interspersed throughout. Rather than giving away any more of those two adventures, both near and dear to me, let’s use an example for Blood Loss. It’s interesting to note Mission based adventures are some of the easiest to get going right away, as basic exposition is done with no artifice in the briefing phase. This ranges from our own Agents of Oblivion to James Bond flicks to Mission: Impossible to the Splinter Cell franchise.
More complex information can either be related in compact or distributed forms, or a combination of both. Let’s examine the two major structures.
Compact: You have just arrived at your safe house on the outskirts of Paris, and are met by Jacques de Molay. (Note: here’s an important approach. If you’re going for a more serious play style, as discussed in previous entries, you shift to having Jacques speak in first person, rather than relate to him in third person. This creates more of a sense of immediacy.) “We have seen Herr Doctor’s minions running around, and they are wishing to take Camille’s Point. Why, you may ask? We know it has long been considered a place of great power. It lies in the catacombs, and some believe the section of the catacombs was designed in such a way as to run along ley lines and channel the energies at this juxtaposition. The name is new. It comes from the first of our own ghouls to have fallen in battle, Camille, who bravely defended the position long enough for me to escape. She was my sister. You must regain the position before they can construct a base there and perform their experiment. You must recover my sister’s body as well, for rumor has it they have a Lazarus Machine.”
While this functions, you may want to break it out a bit more. If you allow the characters just to know a bit at the beginning, discover more in the course of play, they are more likely to retain it, or else they’ll be taking a lot of notes. On the positive side of things, the players are apt to pay a lot of attention and expect such information in briefings. If the focus is more on action that revelation, the compact form is not a bad way to go.
The distributed form allows for more of an interaction between player and GM which can slow down getting to what many consider the adventure proper. A goodly number of players do enjoy a focus on interpersonal roleplay, as it better allows for character development, and forming relationships is a nice break from merely traveling about the countryside trying to beat up everything in sight. You can even have certain bits of information only revealed through the proper use of roleplaying or social mechanics of the system at hand. Keep in mind, the characters should not have to pry basic details out of Mission Control (or Magistrate or Wizard). Information you, as GM, want to have prop up later should be information Mission Control did not have access to at the start of the adventure, or the whole scenario will ring hollow. Think of how you felt when you watched the show or read the book where the writers cheated by hinging the whole conceit of the scene, act, or story on two characters not communicating well. Don’t be that guy. Stay true to the character, as they serve to reinforce the story/adventure/whatever. In distributed forms, information is often written as factoids by the designer in third person, but the GM should present in the most appropriate style.
Distributed: “You have arrived at your safe house on the outskirts of Paris, and are met by Jacques de Molay. “I have just escaped Camille’s Point. Herr Doctor and his minions gather there for who knows what purpose. It is a place of power. A conflagration of the Catacombs.” If asked, he tells them some believes it was built long ago along ley lines. If asked about the name, he says it was named for a fallen soldier. If pressed, he relates it was his sister, Camille, who sacrificed herself so he could escape. Characters may make a Common Knowledge roll to recognize the name, Camille, as a superpowered freedom fighter who underwent the Mortel Project. If the characters check with any locals (Streetwise, etc.), they learn a strange machine was seen taken into the catacombs by a unit of SS. A raise lets them learn it was a Lazarus Machine.
Now, go forth and use exposition wisely. I bid you, dear reader, adieu!