Expositionary Hand-holding

The other day, I found myself railing at a bit of boxed text in a game module I was being run through (at least, I hope it was just the boxed text and not my GM’s addition). It described a place, lots of visible details that made it obvious that we’d just walked into the strategy room. All right, well and good, until it finished up with “Clearly, this is where the raid was planned.” “What is this, The Third?” I hissed to my fellow player. Both of us had gotten the message just fine.

The following day, I was running my solo game—preestablished setting world but freeform game, player to whom I could not actually give the books, and who was regularly in contact with some of my quirkier, noncanon interpolations of game mechanics. There was a scene in which I was presenting a scene that anyone familiar with the setting would have been able to extrapolate half the context of without any sort of help, but while the character was a native (ish), the player hadn’t covered those parts of Setting 101. As a result, I alternated description and logic—for instance, one description boiled down to “The place is bathed in moonlight. But the sky’s cloudy, the shadows stretch far too long, and at this time of year it’s supposed to be a new moon anyway. Therefore, that’s not the moon.”

For all that it’s justified in context, I can’t help feeling like a hypocrite.

When, then, can one get away with this sort of expositionary hand-holding, and when it is just obnoxious or condescending?

I think the most important thing to take into account is the level of information it’s reasonable to expect people to have. If this is the kind of thing that tends to cross settings, timelines, and real-world cultures, for instance, it’s probably safe to assume people can figure it out for themselves. If you’re running game, what you’re talking about is Setting 101 information, and you know perfectly well that your players familiarized themselves with the materials, it’s safest to not spell it out unless absolutely nobody’s stepping forward to make the connection.

If it’s something that can be simply shown, and you’ve just shown it, you can skip telling it. I think it’s safe to say that if, say, a character emerges from a conversation with another character quivering, fists clenched, stalks out, and then as soon as she’s safely down the hall finds something to curl up under and starts weeping, it’s probably safe to assume she just got out of an argument in which someone, probably her, said something they were going to regret later. If it’s more ambiguous—for instance, if you’re dealing with the same situation, but the character in question has a highly idiosyncratic way of dealing with these sorts of situations and it’s the first time that’s come up,

On the other hand, if everyone’s clearly out of it and not thinking clearly, a little bit of expositionary hand-holding can be a good thing. It’s midnight, at least one of the players is sick, someone’s been up for sixteen hours and ten of those were spent at work, and brains? What are those? In cases like that, if there’s no reason why the character wouldn’t be able to figure out, a little information-feeding is fine, though you’ll want to keep an eye on the reaction.

And if figuring out what’s going on is supposed to be an achievement? In general, don’t give it to them until they need it. If they don’t get it immediately, and both you and they will be able to get words in edgewise, it’s better to have your explanation spiral towards the desired conclusion rather than just give it to them. Working for it is a lot more satisfying.

What sorts of experiences have you had with expositionary hand-holding? Are there any situations I’ve missed?


  1. Loonook says:

    In some cases you cannot get around a bit of hand-holding. Perhaps there is a new playing in the group who may need a bit of a nudge, the players may be having an off night, or you just want to make sure that a specific message gets across.

    DM exposition is kind of a cross between the old Magic Eye illusions and a Rorschach test. You lay out the image, and it is up to the players to determine what that image may mean. I usually find myself ‘pointing out’ the imagery with newer players to a game more than an experienced player, but even my old hat gamers can miss a point when running through an established session.

    In My Urban Arcana styled games the angelic beings of the setting going Old Testament with their justice. I had just started a group of players in the setting in a specific module where a powerful rogue angelic is running about turning evildoers to salt for their transgressions.

    We spent about half an hour due to the lack of Knowledge (Theology/Philosophy) on the current group (our Mystic was dealing with some family issues). So I gave a bit of a push and placed a well-meaning exposition in the form of a Rabbi who was threw in a mention of a similar event in the Old Testament.

    Didn’t work.

    So I had to be a little ham-handed (thankfully not around the Rabbi… wouldn’t be Kosher ;) ). It got the point across, but the players were not at fault… I expected metagame reasoning that would have required a specific subset of knowledge about the world outside of the Game. I was just as guilty as any Realms-head deciding you should know the exact signs of a member of the Harpers.

    In short: Personally, I find I have to use a bit of hand-holding for the new and my own shortsightedness. YMMV.



  2. Shinali says:

    Ignoring specific audience, I think the moonlight example still comes down a little on the anvilly side, just the last sentence. I asked someone with no context, minus the last sentence, and she inferred that it wasn’t actual moonlight. Mind, I have written to people who need to be hit over the head with info, but certain things normally point the right direction. New moon = no moonlight. However, if you were trying to hint at a solar eclipse, you may need to be more clear, because the light can dim during sunset or cloud cover too.

    I try to use the method of linking to known real world stuff to avoid handholding. If a place is clearly hot and dry and windy and there’s a “brown cloud rolling towards you” I probably don’t need to say “sandstorm,” and even if people miss it, the stinging sand will prove the point. :)

  3. Michael says:

    In fairness, considering the weirdness of time in Kiriko’s world, I don’t blame you at all for making sure I reached the conclusion that it was the source of light that was at odds with her expectations, rather than her sense of time, or even time itself going wonky. Especially as you know I’m a big LotR fan, and that’s exactly what Tolkien used the moon to hint at in the Lothlorien chapters.

    Coincidentally, just now I hit another example of overexposition in a fanfic that just updated, so I’m re-reading the story so far before carrying on. \Certainly, whoever had knocked me out had something to do with what had happened to Sakagami Naoto. And I was likely going to suffer death in a similar manner.\ Uh-huh. Saya, darling, you can’t continue to narrate after you’ve been knocked unconscious! The conclusion is a natural one, considering she’s still very close to where she found Naoto’s body; but equally, that means it’s obvious for the reader as well. The scene would be much stronger without this last line, as the suddenness of Saya getting knocked out otherwise makes a very effective ending. (That said, apart from occasional slips like this, it’s a very well-written story.)

  4. Ravyn says:

    Loonook: Hey, welcome, don’t believe we’ve met! (Was going to go comment on your blog, but… does it allow comments with anything but Facebook?)

    You make a good point; if the knowledge isn’t there, someone’s going to need to stick an oar in. I’ve done the same to a certain degree, though in my case (in the main game, anyway) it tends to be more assuming that the player who seems to know more than me about everything else also knows as much as I do about my specialty. It backfires as regularly as it works.

    Shinali: Yeah, it could’ve done without that last line, just like The One With the Strategy Room could’ve done without its last line. Explains why I was feeling so hypocritical. I could try to make the excuse that the moonlight’s first appearance hadn’t gotten more of a response than “Oh, this is interesting”, and that we haven’t done much in parts of the setting where the sky isn’t wacked out in odd ways, but that’s still verging on Third Syndrome. (or that it was text-based, and thus the time perception was… okay, good writer does not make excuses, good writer makes things better. *punts the ego*.)

    Michael: The tricky part is that time is actually the most immutable thing in the setting, Esemeli’s attempts at exploiting the metaphysics in order to obtain precognitive abilities aside–I think it’s just the oddity of the sky Kiriko’s used to and how it works that makes it seem otherwise. Re your example… I don’t know, I think that line turned me off the writer right there. Even leaving aside the overexposition, and the fact that the character is out cold and has no business explaining anything, how the heck does anyone who’s just been conked over the head and is probably about to die exposit that calmly?

  5. Loonook says:

    Ravyn: Thank you for the head’s up! We were in the middle of messing around with some of our points and I hadn’t checked back since we changed some things… During the upgrade to Disqus for comments it kind of made a bit of a botch :) . You may comment freely.



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