Exposition in tabletop role-playing games is unavoidable. That doesn’t mean we have to make it boring.
If your campaign world is not this world, at this time, and in this place, there are going to be elements of your setting that need description and explanation. The players won’t know the milieu’s history, its major figures, its architecture, technology or much of anything. You will have to provide them with that information.
My elves are nihilistic cynics who consider humans to be chasing after shadows and illusions in an apathetic universe.
We can be just as obnoxious about our creations as players can be about their backstories.
Let me tell you about my campaign setting…
Here’s a quote I cited in a post about character backstory.
This is a skill science fiction and fantasy writers are keenly aware of, because they often have a great deal of information to convey that the reader has no way of knowing unless told…If the information is poured out as a lecture, barely concealed by some stupid device — “Oh, Captain, do tell me how the anti-matter dissimulator works!”…we have what science fiction writers call an Expository Lump. Crafty writers (in any genre) don’t allow Exposition to form Lumps…They break up the information, grind it fine, and make it into bricks to build the story with…invisible exposition.Steering the Craft – Ursula Le Guin
Game masters can also use what Ursula calls invisible exposition. I like to think of it as micro exposition.
I give the players information about the setting as often as possible and in small quantities. Big information dumps are overwhelming and difficult to remember in detail. Descriptions longer than a few sentences can quickly become Expository Lumps.
Giving players individual bits of information over time makes setting information easier to remember and not boring.
This requires thought and effort. The effort is paid off by keeping the game moving and your players engaged.
Encounters Convey Information
Each encounter is more than a interaction between the characters and the setting, NPCs or monsters. The encounter tells you something about the world or universe where the campaign takes place.
When investigators in a Call of Cthulu game come across a book that causes the reader to go insane and mutilate themselves, the players have learned something about the world their characters inhabit. When a party of new Dungeons and Dragons players meet a troll for the first time, they get a nasty surprise.
Game masters can get lackadaisical. It is easy to grab a pre-written encounter and present it to the players so there is something going on. Oh look, 2D6 goblins jump out of the bushes. Roll for initiative.
You get behind at work and don’t have a lot of time to prep. Stuff happens. Be aware that if you can, it is better to give those goblins some little detail that ties them back to something else in the setting. When the players get done killing those goblins, give them some piece of odd treasure the little green bastards took from their last victims that tell the players some bit of lore about your setting.
Each and every encounter can tell the players something about the setting or adventure they are on. Anything you describe to the players, anything they can interact with in an encounter can convey information about the broader campaign world.
If the encounter is merely an opportunity for characters to get some experience points, money or to have something to do, then you have missed an opportunity to tell the players something about the world their characters inhabit.
Improve Retention of Setting Information
It doesn’t do you any good to tell your players about the significance of the hull markings of the Rathian League’s freighters if they don’t remember it or write it down for later reference.
If you want your players to learn something about the campaign setting and retain it, attach that information to an encounter. This is one reason I use random encounters. Random encounters can be a threat to players who over stretch their resources, get cocky or tactically sloppy in the dungeon but they can also be a great way to tell players something about your setting.
Start with the information you want to tell the players and build an encounter around that.
If I tell you that there is a wizard cabal that call themselves The Covenant, you probably won’t remember it a month from now. If I put a 1,000 word entry about The Covenant on the campaign wiki or in a handout, you might not read it.
Instead, you meet a wizard on the road. He is travelling in luxury and attended by a half a dozen colorful servants. He invites you to have a meal with him. He creates illusions for your entertainment as you eat a sumptuous meal. He mentions that he is a leading member of The Covenant. You exchange information about what is going on in the world and that’s the end of the encounter. Several months later, the PC’s come across another Covenant wizard and someone says, “Oh yea, we’ve heard of them before. Remember that crazy wizard we met on the road?”
Make the Familiar, Different
This technique also makes vanilla encounters more interesting. It connects the encounter to the world. It makes things fit into the puzzle not merely…exist.
The bandits aren’t just bandits. They are mercenaries that weren’t paid and started robbing travelers so they have money to get home.
The goblins aren’t just goblins. They are a raiding party gathering tribute and slaves to trade with the dark elves who live in a mega-dungeon a week away.
Scanners indicate the freighter has a strange drive signature. Its transponder says it is registered to the Hedgemon.
Hooks for Future Scenarios
It is a common event for players to miss or ignore adventure hooks. What seems obviously compelling to you as the game master seems to lack significance to the players. On the flip side of that, sometimes players grab onto a detail that was window dressing.
Players will latch onto the strangest bit of setting dressing that you had absolutely no intention of developing. You come up with some odd detail that adds some interest to an encounter and a player clamps down on it.
They are certain that there is something sinister about the type of bird feather in the captain’s tricorn hat. There’s a conspiracy here and they are going to get to the bottom of it!
You have absolutely nothing planned or written down about this detail because it didn’t seem important to you at all. It was just this guy’s personal style. Meanwhile, the completely obvious adventure hook sits alone in the corner ignored and rejected.
Experienced game masters know of what I speak. If this hasn’t happened to you, give it time. It will.
I say, let’s try to do this on purpose. If you have spent a lot of time working out factions, locations and people in your setting then attach some piece of information about those things to even the most mundane encounters. Create connections between the things in your setting. They can be subtle and inconsequential to the encounter itself but the players might find it interesting for no discernable reason.
Create encounters with information that lead to some of these factions, characters, and places in your campaign setting. Players will ignore some and seize others. You may be surprised which ones the players get excited about. This gives you some information about what your player group finds most interesting in your campaign.
That knowledge will give you some direction for what to spend more time on as you build out more elements of your campaign setting. No one likes to spend hours preparing an adventure only for the players to be bored or simply ignore the hooks.
When players express interest in a minor setting detail, it gives you something to work on that they are less likely to miss or ignore.
Giving players information about the peculiarities of your setting is important. It helps them to make decisions about how their characters can successfully navigate the difficulties they face.
Too much exposition at one time can be boring and hard to remember. By breaking up setting information and distributing it across encounters, you make setting information memorable and enticing for player interaction.