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MoonHunter Sayeth 20171124


Game Guru-Thread Shepherd
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Tell, not show

We are told as writers, to show not tell. Exposition is a sin in writing. It is however, a necessary evil from time to time.

In gaming, less so. The Author (The GM in this metaphor) does not control the characters and what they can do and know. Even though they are part of the setting, they do not come equipped with all that innate knowledge. They (characters and players), like the reader/ audience, must be introduced to the setting and the things in it.

Now, the ideal is always show don't tell... include bits in the description that get the idea across. However, it is a luxury that is not always available. It is okay, if not required to do exposition in a game.

Now, the GM could make the players read and study a few hundred pages of setting material or read a few books on the period. Yes, we all know how well that goes over. Even if it was all entertaining fiction, the players might not absorb all the information, or even do it in the first place.

Thus comes to pass the dreaded info dumps.

The usual form is that the GM drones on and one about information... the verbal equivalent of the Wall of Text that make certain games so hard to read. Players often react like students in class... taking diligent notes that make no sense out of context, trying to absorb the points, but mostly lost, or (and seemingly the most common response) having their eyes and mind glaze over like a Krispy Kreme.

There are ways to get around this issues. By adopting techniques from authors and storytellers, you can convey exposition.

Situational, Short, and Embedded.

They are situational as they apply to the scene immediately at hand. That is the ideal, but it must always come up "soon". They should come up "first" in the order.

Exposition must be short. One to three sentences of information at a time. No More.

Embedded is the artistic element. It must be mixed in with with what you are telling/ describing.

To get all the information across, The GM might have to drop that those tiny bits of exposition description or information several times over a scene.

Now, if the GM can show and describe the "fact"/ idea you are trying to get across, they should do that. However, some things just need to be explained.

There are three good times for exposition drops in a game.

1) Start of the game.
It is best to use the same pattern for starting your game every time. This way the players are tuned into "when it all starts" and know what is important. One that I have found works well and incorporates a bit of exposition is:

"When last we left our adventurers", a summary of where the characters were and what was going on. The GM can do this or the GM can have a player do it (earning bonus EPs). Sometimes I go off the path and add terrible happenings just to see if they are paying attention (if they don't correct me, they are part of the game now).

The Big Cinematic Overview of the nearby environment. Think of it as establishing shots that occur in TV and Movies. This reminds the players of where they are and what is nearby. I tend to describe it in visual terms, like a movie shot. The GM should always include some iconic element of the local setting and the name so it sticks in the players mind.

Every game session, after the GM has gained their attention but before any immediate description/ action, I have an encyclopedia moment. (In setting intensive games this is a must, but it is a good idea in every setting. ) The GM rattles off one to five lines about a given subject or location that will come up this game. This can be about the Public Opinion (that they might know), Local Roads, Tea Ceremony, Sword etiquette, Restaurants and dipping sauce, Local Politics, public baths, what the local forest is like, the Moon Festival, the local Social Classes, soy/ food, what that other country over there is like, and so on.

By doing this every time it serves two purposes. One, it helps them learn the location/ culture. Two, the players will pay attention to the "bit" because they know it will be important to a near future event and will take it as a cue. (Because 3 out of 4 times it is).

By keeping it very, very short, it is easy for players to understand and use. If you drone on for a bit... they will tune you out like they tune out teachers in school. Players, unlike GMs, don't like to study for games. Keep it light, simple, and never make them ready "scholarly books" or even long passages from scholarly books.

After the encyclopedia moment, a more immediate description of what is "around the characters" and the people/ things in motion.

2) Start of the Scene:
There are abstract ways to determine when a scene starts, but use a simple one... when the location or time changes or when the action changes.

Note: a cut scenes to alternate action are a;ways a change of scene.

Such changee should automatically trigger the GM to set the scene... to explain to the characters/ players what is immediately around them and what seems to be going on.

It includes all the basics... what the players can see, hear, smell, and feel. (Using alternate senses is a great way to provide information, like you still smell the sea, though you are several blocks from the water). It includes all the important things in the immediate area and the people. The descriptions and any exposition should include everything they might possibly need to interact with the scene in a useful and knowledgeable way

During that bit, usually at the end, is when you can drop a bit of knowledge about something important in the scene. ("And on the table you see the tiles of a local betting card game, called Four Roses... think of it as a cross between Poker and Mahjong, with a bits of Dominos. It was obviously they were gambling when you walked in.)

If you make it a habit to "drop information" at the end of your scene description, the player will start to listen for that important bit and act upon it.

3) Slipped into tidy statements
Tidy Statements are statements the GM makes to tidy up the description of what happened after an exchange between characters. (Another way to put it is "sums up the changes and resets the situation".) This is always done after a tactical/ combat exchange (After four points and an impairment, the heavy set man Meltor, drops to one knee his big northern back against the bundles of illegal silk, the noble fabric, stored here. (two bits there).

Embedding it between social exchanges works well. Now, Meltor is a heavy set, bald man, who sweat too much. These are common traits from people "in the northern cantons" (the bit of information to get across). Every time Meltor says or does something, one of those three elements is embedded into it. For example, "Meltor sits down at his makeshift desk, the pillows of his chair go pfffffffft under his massive northernweight, " or "Meltor wipes his northern brow, "So you are here representing no one but yourselves?", or He brushes back his non existent hair and says, "You are fools and I do not suffer fools lightly." The players will have a strong mental image of him after this exchange. You should also get across that Northerners are all heavy set, usually bald, and sweat too much here in the South. Do this a couple of times with a couple of different northerners and the players will see the ethnicity.

Now there are other ways to provide exposition - information dumps.

Some are tried and true ones used in fiction: letters, wanted posters, people talking in front of you in line or at the next table over in the cafe, or the characters open a book. In a cyberpunk campaign, having a screen in the corner... or just as a cut scene... having a "Talking head" tell you want is going on in the world, is a another tried and true way.

"Hand puppeting" is another old time GM Tool. A player makes the appropriate knowledge roll and the GM "stick their hand up their back" and make them talk... explaining things to the group.

These are all the ways I do it. Some GMs use "The Narrator"... who does some of the GM descriptions and provides commentary. Some GMs make props or hand outs for their players that have this information. Still others just hold up their hand (to signify time out from the game) and drone for a bit about a subject the characters need to know about. As long as the players learn the information they need to play the game correctly, it works.

Again, the ideal is always to show, not tell. However, sometimes artistry must be held aside so expedience for good game play can happen. Nothing frustrates a player more than not knowing something that they need to know right now. Sometimes all that subtle description might not convey what needs to be conveyed to all players. Some time exposition might be needed to ensure that it happens. So description and exposition have their places. Like all tools, use them correctly and use them when appropriate.
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