The idioms of RPG: (1) Exposition


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.

(1) 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.

What else?

* 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.


I suspect that this may usefully be looked at as an extension of the in-character/out-of-character divide. When the GM is conveying information to the players before the game starts (or, in a more indie game, players are collaborating on defining parameters of the setting), that’s thoroughly out of character (because there are no characters defined yet).

While you could do some deceptive tricks at this stage (e.g. “there is no magic” when that’s simply what almost everyone incorrectly believes), I think a lot of players would regard it as bait-and-switch. (It’s clearly not impossible; White Wolf had a lot of unreliable narrators in original World of Darkness, even in material intended to be read by the GM.)

But I think there are two different sorts of thing being described as “world-building”: making the decisions (and what decisions to make), and conveying (some of) that information to the players. A traditional GM-as-god model makes this division clearer than a collaborative process.

Perhaps because it’s happening before the “real” game starts, RPG exposition very often seems to take the form of data dumps, either spoken or in handouts. One wants the maximum rate of information transfer because one wants to get the characters created and get on with the game. (Meanwhile other fiction eschews data dumps because they bring the narrative to a halt; there’s no extra phase outside the narrative where they can happen.) Some ways of minimising that work:

  • pre-generated characters, and templates – removes some of the need for information but not a whole lot, because one still needs to know how to act.
  • a setting everyone knows, or that’s ripped off from one everyone knows – not just the big media properties, but “you’re adventurers, you’re going down a dungeon” also fits here; if you want to play a barbarian from the frozen north, the world can accommodate you even if there’s no frozen north in the GM’s notes.
  • explicit information hiding – “you don’t know about that”, which gets away from the bait-and-switch and may even be a useful signal of something the GM’s interested in exploring.

The “bottom-up” style of play emphasises building no more than one has to, but it’s one of my quirks as a GM that I always want to be able to answer the big questions.

(I’m still very fond of Pat Wrede’s Worldbuilder questions, questions you should be able to answer about a (in her case fantasy) world.)


I guess some of the exposition in RPGs does occur in telly and movies, but just not at the point the audience can see the finished, edited and highly polished product. A scripting brainstorm or an actors’ read-through being examples.

Player handouts are another form which has limitations in other media. Film/TV can’t really cope with a 500 word letter and an encyclopedia entry - it has to be a single line of Massive Import which the audience can read without having to hit pause. In theatre someone has to declaim the single line of Massive Import while waving the letter. Novels could cope with the letter/encyclopedia entry, but not the dozen accompanying photographs, nor the GM roleplaying the video clip.

I suppose the page (or screen) of text with the Key Phrase on it (you can tell because it’s the one being read aloud) is an example of a handout combined with a high Research/Library Use/etc. skill.