Expository Wisdom

Long had the Palace of Burnt Cedars stood on the hill, watching over this valley. Its name had come from the fact that it was built upon what had once been a cedar grove sacred to the Ashardala, the indigenous race now driven out by the conquering Raita people, before their ruler, known to history only as The Bloodthirsty, had in turn been kicked out by the noble Yelin, who then took the throne, building his capital around the Palace of Burnt Cedars and becoming King Yelin the First. He was followed by a run of kings bearing his name, until midway through the reign of Yelin the Thirteenth, who had no son, making it rather difficult for there to be a Yelin XIV. Not to be kept from their tradition, the people tried to foist the noble name of Yelin off on Yelin XIII’s daughter, Silia, but as she had liked her name and wanted to keep it, she resisted. This led to a thirteen-year succession battle, during which….

Are you bored yet?

Exposition is one of the greatest challenges to face both the speculative fiction author and the game-master. On the one hand, this is not the world the audience used to, and the history, the legends, the mode of dress, and almost everything need to be established for those who are unfamiliar with it. How does one go about explaining everything that needs to be explained, while not engaging in infodumps like the one above? And when is it safe to deliver such information?

First, let’s start with what not to do.

Don’t make it a conversation between two people who already know all of it. Speculative fiction writers call this “As we all know, Bob” exposition, and they do not forgive it lightly. Players will be even more bored by it, as it requires the GM to talk to herself for as long as it takes to deliver the information. For the love of whoever you’re using as the Powers That Be in your setting, don’t.

Don’t deliver it unbidden on the tongue of the Designated Plot Escort. While it isn’t quite as bad as “As we all know, Bob”, it’s going to make the Escort come across as—stereotypical at best, insufferable at worst. Answering players’ questions is legal, though—just try to keep it concise. If anything, you’re better off going in bits and pieces and giving them a chance to ask “And then?”

And please do not deliver it as a rant on a character’s backstory without any sort of trigger or preamble in the middle of an otherwise actionless scene, particularly if it’s an internal monologue on the part of the character and nobody can act on it. Even on a play-by-post. Just no.

Okay, I’ve gotten my pet peeves out of the way, and we all know forbidding something without suggesting an alternative is just asking for trouble. So, what do we do?

First, dangle bits and pieces of information: statues of the king from the Time of Ballads, bits of lore that have been an isolated village’s lore for so long that the superstitions remain without knowledge of the reasons, initials carved in the tree under which the village elder naps on summer days (extra credit if he occasionally looks up at them and smiles or sighs), that sort of thing. It hints, and if we’re really lucky, it makes the PCs curious, so they ask about it themselves.

When your PCs are natives of a certain culture, or there are things that everybody knows, though, we can’t get away with that. In that case, I recommend writing down the things they need to know and handing it to them: historical details, local superstitions, what language who is expected to speak, what you don’t do around nobles (and what they do to you if you do it anyway), that sort of thing. They’ll retain it a lot better in written form than if you deliver it all in one long soliloquy at the beginning of the first meet.

And let them ask questions. If you’ve got some sort of stat that determines how well-grounded people are in history, or in matters of magic, or much of anything, by all means use it.

Speaking of letting people ask questions, I’m instituting a suggestions page; look in the tabs up top for the link. Feel free to request future topics or ask questions!

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