Roleplaying game sessions unfold as a series of questions and answers ping-ponging back and forth between GM and players. The basic nature of the form, as I’ve mentioned before, solves many of the problems of exposition that bedevil writers of drama or fiction. So when we look at the parceling of information into questions, answers and pipe beats, we’re looking at something the form already does well. Still, there are some insights from thinking about exposition beats that can help us to improve our games.
Information, we’ve seen, is more satisfying when it comes as the answer to a question already posed. This suggests that we should, when rattling off info about our settings, take care to leave the spaces for players to formulate their questions. It’s too easy, especially when playing in an exotic and extremely detailed world, to fall into the trap of extemporaneously paraphrasing vast swathes of setting material. Better to isolate the very few initial details about the locale and culture that will be relevant in the next few scenes. Tease them with the basics, get them wondering about mysteries, and let them find the answers as they go along. This lets them interact sooner with the world you’re so invested in. Let them discover it themselves, through action, rather than hearing about it in mini-lecture form.
A problem jokingly mentioned by several commenters last week was the difficulty of hiding pipe beats so that players don’t cotton onto them right away. Again here’s where the nature of RPGs comes to the rescue. Rather than seeding a secret clue and hoping to reveal it in a surprising way, you can look for seeming throwaway references whose significance you can build on in the course of the story. RPG stories generate loose ends. Find a way to unexpectedly tie them together and you’ll look like a genius—when really you’re just paying attention and fitting the pieces together as you go along. Writers in other forms enjoy the luxury of writing key scenes first and going back to tuck in the clues later. We on the other hand get a wide variety of elements to build on and seem clever simply by opportunistically choosing one that fits the moment at hand.
Then there’s the converse problem of getting them to notice any of the information they’re supposed to be looking for. If players can’t find what seems like obvious facts, there’s either an interface error or they’re not interested in the questions you’re leading them to. As GMs we know the answer to the mystery at hand and may find it painfully simple. The players aren’t necessarily processing every detail, or picturing the situation as you are. Their discussions with one another add more red herrings to the story than you’re likely to see in a book or TV episode. Your challenge is often not to mystify but to clarify.
Players who regularly fail to investigate or figure out anything are demonstrating a disinterest in digging up the facts they need to orient themselves in your story. Here you need to not so much communicate the mystery more clearly, as to radically edit it so they can get on with what really interests them, whether it’s fighting, interaction, exploration or fill in the blank.
Whatever the issue, most informational road blocks in roleplaying sessions can be solved by breaking the exposition down into discrete, bite-sized chunks. This way the basic facts will be easily remembered and pieced together. Better yet, let the players lead you through the story by pursuing the answers to questions they formulate.
When a scene flounders, ask yourself: what’s the question here? By answering this question for yourself, you can begin to answer it for your players.