THE IDIOMS OF RPG
Our Dear Leader @RogerBW often says that RPG as a storytelling form has major features that it does not share with other forms*, and that therefore (a) borrowing characters, formats, situations, and scenarios from books, plays, TV, and movies is sometimes not straightforward nor advisable, and (b) emulating books and TV shows is misguided in some particulars. He generally goes on to say that RPG has or ought to develop forms and methods of its own. He is right every time he says so. But he usually declines to expatiate so much as I should like. This being the case I feel that it behoves us to discuss the subject among ourselves to pool our experiences and insights and to seek the wisdom of the crowd. Begging your indulgence for my forwardness, I should like to kick off the symposium with a discussion of exposition.
A couple of days ago I read a web page that announced itself as explaining “How to do World-Building”. Needless to say, I felt that it gave only a very incomplete and superficial discussion of a very large topic, but that’s beside the point. What really struck me was that although I had found the page by following a link from an RPG discussion then page itself was entirely addressed to writers, and much of the advice was unsuitable to RPG. In particular, it struck me that none of the methods suggested under “exposition” was even practicable in a role-playing game. I love indirect exposition as executed by Rudyard Kipling, Mary Renault, and Robert Heinlein, but it simply doesn’t do the job of conveying knowledge of the setting to players in time for them to generate suitable characters. Neither is it really suitable for conveying my world-building to other GMs who might want to use my setting except to the extent that I write fantasy and SF stories instead of RPG world books. The entire “iceberg principle” is questionable in an RPG setting, because players in order to collaborate meaningfully in extemporising the story have to know about their characters’ options, even the ones that they do not choose to bring into play.
So what methods of exposition are used in written fiction, plays, movies, and TV that are unsuitable for RPG? Establishing shots? Cut scenes? Expository hairstyle changes? Expository maid-and-butler dialogue? Descriptive passages? Flashbacks? It seems to me that one of the fundamental things about exposition in RPG that is different from non-collaborative forms is that the character-players need to know more about the setting, earlier, than readers or audience. This goes all the way back to character generation, except when players have setting-appropriate characters pre-generated for them by the GM or scenario designer.
What methods of exposition does RPG offer — or tolerate — that are unworkable or that work poorly in conventional forms? I have a few to suggest.
Briefs I find that character-players in a one-shot adventure at a con will read five or six hundred worlds of brief if about half of it is specific to their character. Players who knew and trusted me have sometimes read players’ briefs for my new campaign settings up to eight or nine thousand worlds long.
Reference books RPG setting books sometimes amount to quite considerable reference books. If you structure them for easy reference, and build them out of convenient blocks, players can sometimes gradually amass a considerable knowledge of a setting by browsing and looking particulars up as required.
Character templates As players look through a mass of race, class, and profession templates to choose which ones to build their characters with they pick up background information on the “races”, cultures, and occupations of the setting and sometimes the social structure.
Lifepath character generation A well-designed lifepath character-generation system can often reveal important fundamentals of a setting. As players work through the tables &c. that get information about the institutions and events than dominate life in the setting, even the ones that their characters avoided or missed out on. Even rolling on a table of social origins and inheritances conveys something.
Equipment catalogues A lot of players happily pore for ages over catalogues of weapons, armour, and adventuring equipment. When these are carefully customised to the setting they can actually convey a lot about what the world is like: how people dress and travel, etc. And it’s not just what is available that conveys this exposition, not just the snippets of political geography and military history that you sneak into the descriptive fluff. Sometimes it makes a difference what kinds of information you tabulate: if the weapons table has a column for “concealment rating” that implies that discretion matters, if there is a column for “legality” that implies law enforcement is present.
* For that matter it has features that it shares with some other forms but not all, and so might not share with the form that you are trying to crib for analogies on any particular occasion. There are other collaborative forms of storytelling, other extemporary forms, other participative forms, other fugitive forms, but we most often seek inspiration for adventures, campaigns, methods, and explanations in (1) written fiction, (2) scripted theatre, and © scripted movies and TV.