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The Evils of Exposition Ex Machina in D&D and Other Roleplaying Games

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It would be be completely understandable if you don’t understand what I mean by Exposition ex Machina. It’s a derivative phrase I’ve personally been using for a very long time, but it’s by no means commonly used. It’s derived by the very old ancient Greek theater term, Deus ex Machina, which is translated as “god from the machine.” (Critical Role fans might be interested to note that Vox Machina is literally “voice machine.”)

In modern usage, a deus ex machina is a narrative device where an outside force abruptly saves the day, which is mostly used when the protagonists are bound by an impossible to escape scenario. To me, it’s one of the most abhorrent plot devices, and easily the laziest. That’s generally the implication when I use a term followed with “ex machina.” It’s a mechanical, forced plot device.

exposition roleplayingIt’s in that context I use exposition ex machina. The function of greatly detailing or explaining a scene or situation in a mechanical or forced way. This most often comes through as describing a scene instead of showing it. Too, too, too many writers use it. The worst offender is (gasp!) J.R.R. Tolkien, but he isn’t the first, nor will he be the last.

Roleplaying with exposition ex machina

Exposition ex machina is a thing I see all too frequently in live tabletop roleplaying game streams. The characters enter a new city or a new building, and the Game Master spends agonizing minutes describing the layout, the feeling, the ambiance, and the decor. It’s so prevalent that when I’m watching games I see the players go into an automatic passive mode. They’re not engaging their imaginations. The payers tend to be passively listening, largely spacing out, and likely using that time to look at their character sheets or a rulebook.

This isn’t to say that happens every time. In high intensity moments, players tend to want to absorb every detail. They want the stage set, and an understanding of everything going on. In those moments, every detail matters. The enemies, the lighting, the buildings, the crowd, far off sounds, and everything else matters. Their senses are as heightened as their characters’ would be, and that’s when that information would matter.

As a form of a plot device, setting up the difference between levels of description also sets the stage for the players to understand the significance of different moments. If as a GM you describe in detail the docks, and the bars, and the shops, and the forest, and the castle, and the farm, and the list of examples from a stupid article, then you can’t use those levels of description to heighten the mood. If you’re selective with your descriptions, and you condition them that descriptions mean something important is happening, when you want your players to be on edge, you can start going into great detail, and they’ll start being prepared for whatever is coming their way.

Why it takes away player options

D&DThe other thing it does is take away a lot of player agency. Even if you’re like me, where I don’t like to let players choose all aspects of the world at a whim (I like to have final say if something exists, and where, but if my players ask, and it makes sense for my world, I’m open to it), limiting your descriptions allows players to focus on the things they think are important, and not all the extra stuff you’ve force fed them.

If your eight minute description didn’t include whether the bar has a mirror behind it, they might assume the detail wasn’t in there, but if you say the bar is nicer than most, but not high end, the players might be more inclined to ask if there is a mirror, which they can use to their advantage.

The final thing exposition ex machina does is take away players’ (and readers’ or viewers’) freedom to fill in the blanks with their own imagination. If you describe everything in a scene, then the scene is set in stone.

Once again, players have lost agency. They don’t get to experience it on their own terms, in a visual language they know. However, if you say they’re in the bullpen of a police station, with lots of people moving around or sitting at their desks, each player may have a different interpretation of what that means, probably based on their favorite police drama, but everyone maintains the same cohesive essence of what’s going on.

Show, don’t tell

D&D roleplayingThe solution, much like the implementation, is extremely simple. The most important thing to think about is the idea of showing, not telling. In the first session of the fifth edition Dungeons & Dragons game I’m running for Web Editor Doug Vehovec and Staff Writer Drew Murray on my own very recently launched channel, I briefly described elements of the world they were interacting with, would be concerned with, or highlighted an aspect of the scene. If I could, I would use the characters, or even the players, to set the stage. If I couldn’t, I tried to limit it to the disconnect between character knowledge and player knowledge.

As a primary example, I set the stage that humans (which Doug and Drew both happened to be) are generally viewed negatively by the other races as being bigoted and small-minded, simply by having some characters from other races treat them that way. Instead of explaining that to them, I allowed them to discover on their own there is a little animosity towards humans, especially by those that aren’t natives to the city of Strawgoh (the setting of the campaign). However, I also set it up that the more veteran city guards didn’t grumble at them for being humans, but were annoyed with having to deal with these dumb rookies. These distinctions establish more complex insights into my world.

Minimizing description to maximize understanding

exposition

I also established the race of one of the prime NPCs, her gender, and her emotional state, through showing. In the scene, she was looking around the bullpen, trying to see if she could find anyone else from the eastern continent, which is where the chromatic dragonborn (which she is) and tiefling kingdoms were from.

With a little explanation, we see that she’s a chromatic dragonborn, which also means there’s a noticeable difference between chromatic and metallic dragonborn, which also means that their skin color matches their elemental breath weapons from the Player’s Handbook in my world, each of them lives on a different continent (metallic dragonborn), she’s obviously a female (or at least they could easily identify her that way), she currently feels uncomfortable where she’s at, and she’s probably a little homesick.

A little later, she tried to take a notepad away from Doug’s character, Rolf Eusis, who is a fighter. She failed to get it, but that means she at least felt like she could take it off him, which means we can also surmis she’s a pretty strong character, even though we didn’t get any more information about her, including what her class is, or even what equipment she was wearing.

Exploring the world through player perspective

Finally, when the two of them went into a coffeeshop, I described very little of the shop. They were told the proprietor is a dwarf, and instead of describing him, I gave them some information about his character that Rolf would know, but I also revealed some of his character through his actions and their interactions. I said there was a little platform behind the counter, so he could be higher, and I described the coffee maker. I had previously talked to Doug about what Rolf’s favorite drink was, which he had, and Drew’s character, Towan Danst, decided to also try.

When Towan took a drink, I asked Drew to what degree he was a coffee drinker. Drew said that he was a tea drinker. Instead of saying that the coffee was like a type of cappuccino, I described how he would perceive the drink to be. The detail mattered more than the object, and it allowed him to feel more involved in the scene, because of how I selected when to describe things. It also set up a very funny deception roll.

In consideration

There are many, many more things I did in my game to at least minimize exposition ex machina. I have no doubt that I didn’t completely avoid it, because I’m sure it’s unavoidable, especially in the first game, but I did my best to at least subdue it. I’m also not going to say I’m the shining beacon of how it should be done. Most of what I described came from a very detailed understanding of the world, and not any kind of script.  In some ways I’m sure that helped me, and in some ways I’m sure it hurt me.

There’s also more I wanted to talk about, but there’s so much more I’m doing in my game that is far more subtle than what my players realize is going on, or even have begun to suspect is going on, and being that one of them has already read this before you have, I don’t want to risk giving away some trade secrets. [EDITOR’S NOTE: I’m really good at divorcing my knowledge from a character’s knowledge, and not metagaming. But I like to be surprised too!]

Perhaps some day in the future I’ll be able to write an article about it.  Until then, stay nerdy.

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Follow Joshua Brickley:
Despite looking so young, I'm in my mid-30s (36, to be exact). Up until I was 21, I focused a lot of my attention on stage acting, mostly local and school theater. At some point, I felt a need to change my life's direction, so I joined the Air Force. After 10 years, where I was an Intelligence Analyst and Mission Coordinator, I was medically retired. I went back to school and got my Bachelor's in English, focusing mostly on literary theory and rhetorical criticism, at the University of the Incarnate Word. In this next chapter of my life, I'm turning my attention towards tabletop RPGs.

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