Conversational Exposition: Setup

Have you ever been stuck on a long trip of some sort and tried to pass the time by striking up a conversation with those around you? You’d be amazed at what you can learn from these sorts of conversations: on my last plane trip, I learned more about interesting places in Portland than I have from my last half dozen visits there. For us, this is useful: if we can learn this much from people who are just trying to fill the time, how much might we be able to get across with people whose topics we can choose?

Of course, this is an advanced technique. Specifically, we have to try to avoid people expositing for exposition’s own sake; that way lies “as we all know, Bob”, and we’re all better off if we don’t let Bob into our stories. He bores the socks off of everyone who comes near him. What we need to do is make this flow. Keep it natural.

Once you’ve got the flow of this, you’ll be able to do it on the fly, but that takes practice. For now, you’ll want to plan these things out before you execute them, just to start getting a feel for the offhand comments and clever insertions that make this trick work.

The logical place to begin is of course the background. Where are you delivering this offhand exposition? Is it going to be interactive for those who need to hear it, or will it merely be overheard? What kinds of people are going to be delivering it?

Where you can deliver this depends on the limits of your setting. For a modern setting, this is easy: Mass transit is an excellent opportunity to introduce people to the more talkative residents of your world. As the technology level decreases, though, mass transit becomes less feasible and therefore less of an option. Instead, we find ourselves working with more stationary situations. If you have gatherings for athletic events or plays, there’s plenty of opportunity for early arrivals to talk to each other (and plenty of reason for them to do so, as they all have something in common or they wouldn’t be there). The marketplace is also a good spot to disseminate rumor and information. There are also social groups you can use: while “The old men playing chess or cards on the lawn”, “the children with the odd hoop game” and “the ladies’ sewing circle” are cliché examples, they’re cliché because they work. (This goes double for the sewing circle; the purpose of those things, after all, is finding something to do with the mind and mouth while the hands and eyes are occupied.)

Then there’s the question of interactivity. In a book or a story, there’s really not that big a difference; after all, you won’t have to improvise answers whether the protagonist is involved in the conversation or not. In a game, however, there’s a serious difference between an interactive conversation and an overheard conversation. If the conversation is supposed to be overheard, sure, it’s easier for us to plan it ahead, but the situation is going to be us talking to ourselves where our players get rather bored. On the other hand, an interactive conversation will keep our players more occupied (if they’re into that sort of thing, anyway; this tactic is not recommended with a combat-first group), but it introduces an element of unpredictability, as the players might change the subject before we’re finished, end the conversation early, mortally offend the characters talking to them, or otherwise interfere with our ability to get across the information we need.

Beyond that is who, both personality-wise and role-wise. Most of the time, we’ll be using pretty talkative personalities, since they’re the likeliest ones to engage in a conversation our audience will be interested in. That isn’t always the solution, though. The perceptive audience will be at least as intrigued by someone who hardly ever speaks beginning to hold forth on a topic, particularly if they’re the ones asking the questions. Role is a bit easier: you’re not going to be finding too many village elders playing with the kids or teenage boys in among the sewing circle (and if they’re there, someone’s likely to ask why, providing a convenient hook), anyone at a theater or sporting event is probably either interested in what’s about to be shown or there because someone they know is, and the transit option allows for a grab bag of potential character types and personalities.

Tomorrow, we’ll discuss how to plan and deliver these conversations.

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