There: I’ve said it. Exposition sucks. Oh! I’ve said it again!

Creative writing 101 teaches you to “show, don’t tell.” That’s true in fiction, and it’s doubly true in RPGs. RPGs are active, and there’s nothing that slows them down like pausing in the action for the GM to read a bunch of text, go into lengthy descriptions, or conduct a long dialog between NPCs.

Unfortunately, sometimes you just need that stuff. Even worse, in a campaign with a complex storyline and lots going on in the background, you can run into situations in which the players are simply observers—in which it doesn’t make any sense at all for them to be active participants. Indeed, where they might strongly prefer not to involve themselves but still want or need to see what happens. But despite the requirements of the story, these situations are still inherently boring and awkward.

Blah, blah, blah. And she's, frankly, a lot more interesting to listen to than you are. . . .

So what to do? Well, step one is to avoid these scenes like the plague. If you see such a scene in your game’s future, ask yourself what that scene needs to convey, and then think carefully about whether it’s possible to convey the same info in some other manner. Through an encounter or scene that plays out differently, and via active participation by the players.

That works a lot of the time, but not always. So here’s my technique for dealing with lots of exposition when it’s unavoidable: I make the players do it.

The Count of Namur has shown up at Bois de Haillot to demand fealty from the Lady of the castle. There’s going to be a lengthy debate between these two key NPCs. None of the PCs are in a position to really speak on behalf of one or the other, but the contents of this exchange are critical to how the coming adventure is going to unfold.

So here’s what you do: You write out the entire dialogue. Then you craft it into two versions–one that highlights the Count’s dialog, and another that highlights the Lady’s. Version one:

Daria: To what do we owe the honour of your visit, my lord Count?

Etien (shrugs): Just a tour of my lands.

Daria: How very kind of you to include our manor in your travels.

Etien: The borders are a concern for me. Limburg is raising an army. I’m sure it’s as alarming for you as it is for all of Namur.

And version 2:

Daria: To what do we owe the honour of your visit, my lord Count?

Etien (shrugs): Just a tour of my lands.

Daria: How very kind of you to include our manor in your travels.

Etien: The borders are a concern for me. Limburg is raising an army. I’m sure it’s as alarming for you as it is for all of Namur.

When you get to the dialog scene, whip out your two copies and hand them to a couple of your players. (You might want to ask for volunteers, but that’s hardly necessary.) Let them step out of their characters for a few minutes and play the parts of your NPCs.

One key here is that you aren’t abdicating the role of GM. You still describe the scene and any actions taken by the NPCs—or anything said by other NPCs in the scene. Feel free to cut in with anything that needs to be noted as your players move through the dialog, and even to correct them if they’re going in the wrong direction. These are still your NPCs, and this is still, basically, your exposition. You’ve just pulled in the players to help out a little.

You’ll be surprised at how much your players enjoy this. If the NPCs are already well-established, they get to slip into the role of a beloved (or despised) secondary character for a moment; if the NPCs are new or undefined, they get the chance to help mold that NPC’s personality a bit. And the players that aren’t participating will find the interplay a lot more engaging than listening to you read four pages of back-and-forth dialog.

You don’t have to restrict this to dialog. A magic mouth describes the horrors behind the door the heroes are about to break down. A priest delivers a sermon that contains several clues about the supernatural plague rampaging through the country. Pick a player and have him read the text. If nothing else, it gives one player something to do, and the others a new voice to listen to.

You are the lord of your campaign, the inherent owner of every NPC, location, and event. (Just as your players are kings of their characters.) Crossing the streams may seem a bit like heresy, but it turns boring exposition into an engaging part of the game.

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