Putting the pieces together
Exposition is an important part of most RPGs. If there’s a mystery, a riddle, or backstory, it’s going to come out eventually. And it’s the Storyteller’s job to plant the seeds and scatter breadcrumbs, but the characters don’t always find them, and the players don’t always put them together. But players and their characters want — and need — answers to pursue the plot. So let’s talk about answers.
We’ve been both the players craving the answer to some burning question, and been the Storytellers answering those questions. And it doesn’t always go well. PCs are doing their best, but especially in complex plots, it can be hard to make sense of the puzzle pieces.
When Storytellers are purely reactive, they answer the questions the PCs ask and that’s it. They answer each one as it comes up, but the PCs don’t always know what questions to ask, and still have to make sense of the answers that they get. When the Storyteller is passive, the party might get a jumble of puzzle pieces and still have no idea what picture the puzzle is supposed to make.
Players don’t always pick up our breadcrumbs in the right order or know what an answer means when they get it. We’ve had a lot of How does this connect to that? moments, or even What was that thing again? because a player missed something in the jumble of overlapping questions. It’s hard to form a picture with disparate pieces. They need context.
Erica and I are narrative Storytellers — that’s why we call ourselves Storytellers, not game or dungeon masters — and I don’t want my players to be confused. I want to tell my story and for my players to understand it. Personally, I hate getting a big game reveal and have to admit that I don’t get it. I want to see those lightbulbs over my players’ heads when I reveal a piece of the plot, and I want my reveals to spur them into the next leg of the story.
How to exposit
That story villain doesn’t need to monologue their entire plan in session one, but any time that the player characters have an opportunity to get some answers, make sure they understand those answers.
First, it’s not very efficient to just answer a barrage of scattered questions. Characters and their players can ask all the questions they want, but I don’t have to answer them as they come. Instead, the questioned NPC can say, “Let me start from the beginning.” Logically or chronologically ordered information puts the characters’ questions into context. It helps avoid skipping over vital information just because the party didn’t think to ask. And if the story doesn’t answer all the PCs’ questions, they can still ask more.
You don’t just have to answer the questions that players ask, you have to give them the answers they need. But what they need to further the story might not be answers to every single question. Just because the PCs find an ancient computer bank or the journal of Mage McGuffin, Master of Exposit-mancy doesn’t mean that I have to tell them everything. NPCs can answer questions with, “I don’t know what he plans to do with the Amulet of Plotlines, but I know how he got it…”
They don’t even have to have the real answers. Remember the wisdom of Obi-Wan Kenobi, who taught us that truth depends on point of view; an NPC might answer questions, but will certainly have a personal spin on it. In their version, they’re the misunderstood hero, not the villain. “That hero stole my Amulet of Plotlines. But it belongs to me!” Learning more later might change how players and characters view the puzzle pieces that they’ve put together so far. Players may have to consult several sources to get the full picture.
But without the context of sequenced information up front, players can have trouble putting together the pieces you’ve given them. It’s disappointing when a grand reveal just confuses the players. An NPC, journal, or data bank doesn’t even have to give the PCs full story answers, but they can still help them put knowledge together to help them understand the big picture. And now that they know the importance of the Amulet of Plotlines, they’re ready to chase it down and launch themselves full-speed into the adventure.