When it comes to actually RUNNING the game — not planning the game or managing the group or any of that other bulls$&% — when it comes to running the game, you can basically divide the DM’s job into two parts: adjudication and narration. Adjudication is all the stuff the DM does after one of the table-monkeys says “my character does a thing.” Applying the rules, determining the outcome, describing the results, all that crap. Narration is all the talking the DM does between actions. Everything that leads up to the “what do you do” that you say to try to get your table-monkeys to stop staring at you the way a cow looks at an oncoming train and actually f$&%ing say something! That’s narration.
Have you ever noticed, though, that practically all the DMing advice you find online that isn’t about designing s$&% is about the adjudication part of the game? No one ever talks about narration. Except me, of course, because I’m f$&%ing brilliant. But no one ELSE talks about narration. That drives me f$&%ing bonkers!
The thing is, most DMs assume there’s nothing to narration. It’s just talking, after all. You know how to talk, right? Everyone does. Except players who just sit there gormlessly staring at you while you wait for one of them to say something to get the action rolling. But the truth is that there’s a lot to narration. It’s just that it doesn’t seem like a skill. It’s a just a thing DMs sort of accidentally figure out eventually.
For example, if you ask most DMs what the three primary types of narration are, they will stare at you like a player whose PC just kicked open the door to a beholder convention. Partly because, like I said, they just don’t think about narration as a thing. And partly because I pretty much made up the idea that there are three primary types of narration. But neither of those is very helpful when you’re trying to help DMs be less worse at DMing.
Today, I’m going to talk about one of the most f$&%-up-able types of narration. The one DMs screw up the most. I’m talking about exposition.
By the way, the three types are: scene-setting, exposition, and transition.
Taking an Info Dump All Over Your Game
Expository narration (exposition) is narration that imparts important information to the players. Usually, it’s there to tell the players things their characters should know. World details, information about monsters and magic, myths, legends, historical details, all the crap that the characters should know about the world but the players might or might not know? It is imparted through exposition.
Exposition is absolutely vital in a role-playing game. But it is easy to screw up. Expository actually comes from the same root as suppository (you can look it up), which makes sense for two reasons. First, because most background and world information comes directly from out of the DM’s rectum. Second, because if you provide exposition badly, it will make your game really s$&%y. Sci-fi and fantasy authors refer to expository text as an info dump for the same reason. It’s like taking a big dump on your story.
The thing is, the information you impart through exposition helps the players understand the world and provides them with the information they need to make good decisions. It provides context. It tells the players why they should care about things. Hell, sometimes it helps the players understand their own characters. Imagine trying to play a cleric with no understanding of the divine forces that shape the world, for example.
But exposition is boring as hell. Remember that Last Airbender movie? The biggest problem with it was that it was almost all exposition. The first seven hours of that movie were just children explaining everything in the world to other children. Or adults explaining everything to adults. Or adults explaining to children. Or spirit dragons explaining stuff to magical koi. THAT’S what an info dump looks like.
And that is why you never, ever dump too much information on your players. You don’t make them sit for a fifteen minute lecture on the politics of the Duchy of Ba Sing Se and their war with the Kingdom of Pandora (that was in Avatar, right?). You don’t explain in mind-numbing detail all of the gods of your world. And, for f$&%’s sake, do not give them a 60-page binder full of world detail to read. They won’t read it or care.
Narrate, Don’t Exposit
The key to doling out good exposition is to be stingy. Give out only the most important information. And give it out only when it is needed. Players actually don’t need to know about all of the deities in the entire world if your plot revolves around Bane and Heironeous. They only need to know about Bane and Heironeous. And they only need to know about Bane and Heironeous when Bane and Heironeous come up in the game.
When the PCs kill a mercenary and find a symbol of Bane tattooed on his arm, that’s the time to tell them about Bane.
“You recognize this as the symbol of Bane, the god of warfare and conquest who once conquered Gotham city and broke Batman’s back. Legend has it that the great story of the fall and rise of the Dark Knight was horribly mangled and mistold by an a$&hole bard named Nolan who thought his s$&% didn’t stink after he managed to turn Batman into a psychological thriller one time. And sure, The Dark Knight was good, but it was overly long and a little pretentious and quite frankly, Jack Nicholson was a much better Joker. So was Mark Hamill. I mean, did you get the sense that Heath Ledger’s Joker loved his work and thought everything was hilarious? Because I sure didn’t. THAT’S the joker!”
As much as possible, weave the exposition into your narration. And weave it in in manageable chunks. If the party is fighting their way through a dungeon of kobolds, you don’t have to give them everything about kobolds right up front. When they first hear about the kobolds, give them the basic things that will help them deal with the kobolds.
“‘The cave is full of kobolds,’ the oddly informative stranger tells you. You know that kobolds are greedy, cunning dragonkin that rely on clever traps, ambushes, and superior numbers. When outmatched, they tend to flee. But they always have something up their sleeves and their defenses are usually well thought out.”
That’s enough for the party to know what they are up against.
Whenever possible, refer to the players skills as sources of information. Specify which character has the information. If you’d like, use skill rolls in your narration to decide how much information to give.
“A small, bipedal lizard, about four-feet tall with savage claws and acid green scales darts out of the underbrush. Alice, Zara is trained in Nature. Roll an Intelligence check to recall lore about the thing. Seventeen? You recognize the creature as a drake. It’s a predatory beast, unintelligent, but distantly related to dragonkin. Often, they have elemental powers based on their draconic blood.”
Finally, when it comes to narrating, DON’T MAKE YOUR PLAYERS ASK FOR INFORMATION! Yeah, I busted out the bold face and the all caps. Sorry, not sorry, as the kids on the interweb say. It’s important. If the players see something they might recognize, be it a creature, a spell, a language, a religious symbol, or a strange plant, preempt them by giving them the information or asking for the appropriate skill check. Don’t fall into the trap of making your players actually rub their eyeballs on things to get information. In other words, don’t do this.
DM: “You see a thing.”
Player: “Do I recognize the thing?”
DM: “Do you examine the thing?”
Player: “Okay, I will walk over and examine the thing.”
This is not how brains and eyeballs work. Have you ever walked into a Christian church at a wedding or something and seen a crucifix on the wall and have to walk over and “examine” it to figure out what it is and what it means?! No?! Then why the f$&% do players have to rub their faces on the shrine of Pelor before you’ll tell them anything about f$&%ing Pelor! DON’T DO THAT!
Show, Don’t Tell
Authors have an adage. It goes “show, don’t tell.” Exposition is cool, and sometimes it is the only way to impart information. But there are better ways to do things.
For example, in the kobold cave, I’m going to tell the players about the basic kobold traits. But instead of telling them that kobolds are greedy hoarders, I can just give them the clues to figure it out. If the kobolds have their loose treasure, copper and silver coins, strung on cords around their neck, for example, and they have heavy pouches that clatter because they are filled with junk, and they threaten to pick all the gold off the PCs corpses, that is an orgy of evidence that the kobolds are into hoarding.
That’s showing. Instead of just outright saying something in exposition, you just make sure that the things that happen in the game demonstrate the things you’re not saying. If the evil knight looks downward and mutters a quick litany in Infernal that sounds like a hymn or prayer, that says a hell of a lot (pun f$&%ing intended) about the knight’s mindset and motives. It also explains the flaming sword. If the dungeon was built as a peaceful sanctuary for pilgrims to hide away from the world, meditation gardens, benches, and private shrines with mandalas or prayer mats or censers or braziers will be a dead giveaway.
If everything in your world is exposition, you don’t need to waste time on exposition.
Interact, Don’t Show
Now, I already told you not to make the players ask questions and to NEVER force the players to press the “look <thing>” button like they are playing some sort of LucasArts adventure game. But, D&D is a game of interaction. And if you can do exposition through interaction, all the better. It’s all about understanding your medium.
Let me tell you about cabbage heads. In a movie or television show, a cabbage head is a character that asks a question that they should know the answer to so that the audience can hear the answer. The most famous example comes in the Star Trek: The Next Generation episode “Disaster” when Counselor Troi, the ship psychologist, ends up in command of the bridge. The engineer tells her that there is an imminent warp core breach and Troi has to ask “what’s a warp core breach” so the engineer can explain that it’s when the engines blow the hell up and everyone f$&%ing dies. Now, this is a thing that is a constant f%&%ing danger on Star Trek and Deanna Troi was certified to command the damned ship. There was no reason for her NOT to know what a warp core breach was. But someone had to ask the question so the answer could be explained to the audience. Troi was being a cabbage head.
The thing is, in television, information is primarily delivered through dialogue. That’s just the nature of TV. So cabbage heads are a narrative tool to work exposition into the show without having to have a narrator suddenly appear like the Hitchhikers Guide to the Stupid Show and just explain things.
In an RPG, the DM CAN use dialogue and often the players will serve the roll as cabbage heads. So, you can often use NPCs to impart information through conversation. This has the advantage of being interactive. The NPC can dole out information as part of a conversation and the players can ask questions to draw more information if they want it.
But you, as the DM, are also in the characters’ brains. That is, the players can just ask you questions to fill out their character’s knowledge. That’s something you can’t do in books and television. You can’t talk directly to the audience about what the protagonist knows.
And that still counts as interaction. It involves the players in the game. So, when you’re giving out exposition, pause frequently and let your players ask questions. Know what information you absolutely want to give them, but pause between sentences and see if they will prompt you for more. Keep giving out the info until they have everything you planned to give them and have asked all the questions they want to.
DM: “Kobolds are cunning, devious dragonkin that rely on numbers, ambushes, and traps.”
DM: “They won’t fight without an advantage. If they feel over-matched, they will tend to run.”
DM: “They are also greedy hoarders. They love collecting treasure.”
Paladin of Bahamut: “Do they have ties to Tiamat as greedy treasure hunters?”
DM: “Yes, they are constantly trying to win Tiamat’s favor, even though she views them with disdain.”
Dragonborn Barbarian: “How do dragonborn and kobolds relate.”
DM: “Well, most good dragonborn view kobolds as weak, honorless, thieves. Kobolds resent dragonborn and are jealous of their strength and might. They are jealous and spiteful of dragonborn.”
And so on until the players are done asking questions.
Also note is okay to tell the players they don’t know something. That’s perfectly fine. Maybe they failed a roll. Maybe you just don’t think they have that information. Regardless, it is okay for the characters not to have all the information.
Striking a Balance
In the end, exposition is about finding the middle ground between having informed players who understand the world and can make good decisions and having bored players who are tired of your f$&%ing lectures about every goddamned tiny detail. Don’t take info dumps all over your players.
- Narrate, Don’t Exposit
- Show, Don’t Tell
- Interact, Don’t Show