Tabula rasa. It’s a term you’ve probably heard before if you’ve taken a mandatory 100 level philosophy or psychology course or if you’re familiar with utterly failed sci-fi online RPGs of the last decade. It means “blank slate” and it refers to the philosophical doctrine that human beings are born without any in-built mental content and no basic nature toward anything. Everything that a human becomes is a product of the things that happen to them in their lives. The idea can be traced all the way back to Aristotle, who referred to the human soul as an “unscribed slate.” But Aristotle also believed that sperm contained tiny, perfect copies of human beings called homunculi and he believed in a lot of made-up animals.
But, the theory that all human beings come into life stupid is actually a pretty useful one. And it’s more than a little believable, especially because so many people seem determined to stay that way. And the doctrine of omnis homo est stultus (lit: everyone is stupid) is actually a very useful doctrine in adventure design. Because, every player starts every session of every RPG essentially stupid. And THAT is why we have exposition and exploration scenes.
Omnis Homo Est Stultus
Have you ever tried to explain something to a child? Like, say a child asks a particularly dumba$& question like “why is the sky blue?” Now, you know the answer has to do the fact that the molecules in the air scatter the blue part of the visible spectrum less than the other parts of the spectrum so the blue light is more likely to reach your eye in higher concentrations. But try explaining that to a child. Children don’t understand light spectrums and scattering and wave propagation. They are very bad at electromagnetic field theory in general. They are still primarily learning about the world by putting in their mouth.
The problem is the simple explanation doesn’t make sense unless they have some prior understanding of a lot of different things. So if you really DO want to explain why the sky is blue, you need to start by explaining what light is, what molecules are, and probably what air even is.
There’s a talent to this. It’s called approaching things with a beginner’s mind. It’s the ability to see things as if you had no prior knowledge of the thing. And if you can do that, you can explain things to other people. It’s the sort of thing that makes a teacher good at teaching. And the lack of it is the sort of thing that can f$&% with a game master.
The thing is, you never know how much your players know about the game, your world, and the adventure. Sure, the setting details that you handed all the players might make it abundantly clear that all primordials are balls of soulless chaos beyond morality and any sense of rational reason, but you can’t guarantee your players have READ that stuff. And, even if they did, you can’t be sure they REMEMBER it. And that means some dumb$& players might just try to parley with Imix, The Primordial Prince of Flame and Darkness. And you might just be tempted to have Imix reduce the idiot to smoldering ashes – and blame the player – but, at the end of the day, it’s really on you.
And that is why, when it comes to writing an adventure, anything you think the players and the characters need to know needs to be revealed in the adventure. And that brings us around to the two types of scenes we use for information management: exposition scenes and exploration scenes.
Exposition and Exploration: Spoon Feeding vs Buffet Style
Exposition scenes and exploration scenes are both about imparting information. Essentially, they are how you – the GM – put information into the dumba$& players’ heads. That information might be essential for completing the adventure, it might be information or interesting backstory that helps fill in some of the blanks, it might be interesting details about the world, or it might be information that will foreshadow future events.
The major difference between exposition scenes and exploration scenes is in their interactivity. An exposition scene is one in which you simply hand the players the information they need. An NPC might simply tell the PCs what they need to know, a letter or document might provide crucial information, a dream sequence or vision or psychic message might accost the characters, or the PCs might simply spend a few hours in the library after which you tell the players everything they’ve discovered, a bard might sing a song or tell a fable that conveys important information. For that matter, you might simply tell the players directly what their players already know about something. The key feature of an exposition scene is that the players are fairly passive. They just receive the information.
An exploration scene, by contrast, is a scene in which the information is available but the PCs have to actually make choices that allow them to discover it. The choices can be simple or complex. But the key is interactivity. Instead of a briefing, the PCs might be invited to ask questions of the person assigning them the task. The cleverer the questions they ask, the more information they might get. They might be able to play out the dream sequence. They might ask the bard about the song. They might spend time in the library asking specific questions. An exploration scene takes the form of a series of questions the players ask by taking specific actions.
Now, the difference between an exposition scene and an exploration scene – and remember, when we talk about exploration scenes, we’re using the term in the correct sense, not the stupid WotC sense. WotC wants to call exploration “wandering around the dungeon overcoming obstacles and making decisions.” WE smart people call those “decision scenes” and “encounters.” The difference between exposition and exploration is kind of fuzzy. And, in many cases, the two sort of meld together. For example, you might start your game with a briefing from the Captain of the Guard, telling the PCs about serial killer they have to find. But then, it might morph into an exploration scene wherein the PCs ask further questions and dig for more information. And that’s okay. Exploration and exposition are very close words. So, if you think of these things as ex***tion scenes, you’re probably fine.
But there is actually ONE major difference that we’ll be talking about a few paragraphs from now.
Now, remember that a scene lacks conflict. The PCs make decisions and those decisions have outcomes, but there is technically nothing between the PCs and their goals. During a briefing, there is absolutely no reason for the briefing agent to withhold information (unless there sometimes is, but those are special cases specific to particular stories). During a dream sequence, the information is just floating out there to be retrieved by the PCs. The bard telling a story is telling a story. He’s not going to obfuscate beyond the usual poetic metaphor.
But information can also be gleaned in encounters. That is to say, you can have a nice normal ex***tion scene and ADD a source of conflict and a dramatic question and suddenly, it becomes an encounter. The briefing officer is withholding certain information because it’s classified above the PCs pay grade. Can the PCs discover that and convince him to give out the addition info? The bard is insane and his information is jumbled and unclear. Can the PCs break through his insanity and determine the real information? The PC’s subconscious is trying to hide the truth behind nightmares and illusions. Can the PC overcome the phantasms of his own mind to see what’s really inside his dreams? The information is scattered all over the library and has to be pieced together. Can the PCs locate all of the clues and assemble the information they need?
Now, the moment you add a die roll to an exp***tion scene, you’ve made it an encounter. Why? Because you’ve added a question: will the PCs acquire the information. And, you’ve also added a conflict. After all, if there’s a die roll, there’s something in the way of the PCs. Otherwise, they wouldn’t have to roll a die. You’d NEVER ask the PCs to roll a die to resolve no conflict, right? That’d be terrible GMing. RIGHT?!
But you can also turn an exp***tion scene into an encounter without realizing it without touching a die. We tend to think of encounters in terms of things you have to roll dice to resolve. But there are other ways in which uncertainty and conflict come into the game. Imagine, for example, the dream or vision delivers the information in the form of a riddle or puzzle or cryptic clue. Depending on how you handle those things, you might not ever request a die roll. But, you’ve still created an encounter because the obfuscation provides a source of conflict and the possibility of NOT figuring out the answer provides a level of uncertainty.
Now, remember this, because uncertainty is going to become REALLY important.
Exposition scenes, exploration scenes, and exp***tion encounters exist on a spectrum. And that spectrum is defined by how much uncertainty there is in whether the PCs get their info. An exposition scene offers no uncertainty. If the PCs enter the scene, they are leaving it with the information. Because you’re spoon-feeding it to them. An exploration scene, though, is interactive. If the PCs don’t ask the right questions or interact with the right things, they will miss the information. Even without obstacles or die rolls in their way, they still might walk out of the scene without some bit of information. Exp***tion encounters are the most uncertain of all. Depending on the outcome, the PCs might walk out of the encounter with none of the information.
And that creates a delicate balance. Because encounters are the most exciting things and exposition is the least exciting thing. You want to err on the side of freedom of choice and consequence of action, but you might also create situations in which the PCs simply can’t proceed because they f$&%ed up acquiring a vital piece of info.
The real key to handling information in your game is figuring out which scene serves your purposes.
Broadly speaking, there are several types of information you might include in your game. And once you’ve decided what information you have to hand out, you need to break it down and decide what types of information you’re dealing with.
First, there’s the mandatory information. Mandatory information is absolutely necessary. The adventure simply can’t function without it. It’s not just that the PCs might fail without the information (such as the identity of the killer in a murder mystery), it’s that the adventure literally cannot function without that information. Mandatory information includes the goal of the adventure and the motivation for seeking that goal. The PCs have to know what they are trying to do and why if they are going to take on the adventure. Other bits of mandatory information include transitions from particular scenes. After the PCs leave the briefing, for example, where do they go next? They have to know at least some of their options or they just stand around gormlessly. Those bits of mandatory information are part of the adventure as a whole: resolution, motivation, and structure. But there’s also bits of information that make the adventure make sense. An adventure about political intrigue is useless if the PCs don’t know the factions involved and some of their motivations. A murder mystery is tough without the basic details of the crime. This is all mandatory information. It HAS TO be in the adventure.
Next, there’s objective information. This is information that represents the objective of the adventure or the means to accomplish it. For example, the identity of the killer in a murder mystery is an objective. The location of the hidden shrine that the PCs have to discover through exploration? That’s objective information. Without objective information, the PCs can participate in the adventure, but ultimately, they can’t succeed. Without it, they fail at their goals.
Objective information can be broken up. For example, a murder mystery is essentially taking a piece of information, breaking it up into a bunch of clues, and scattering those clues across other scenes. In this case, the objective information is the clues. And there is technically an ongoing exp***tion encounter about whether the PCs assemble the clues into the answer. It’s sort of a phantom encounter. Eventually, the PCs gather enough information and can make a guess. And don’t worry, we will talk A LOT more about mystery adventures. They deserve their own article.
Next, there’s helpful information. Helpful information is information that makes the adventure easier for the PCs. It might be clues about enemy weaknesses, hints to the location of specific treasures or items, the location of a secret passage that bypasses an encounter or allows the PCs to get a surprise attack. That’s all helpful. Helpful information rewards the PCs, but it isn’t necessary. Without it, the adventure works fine. With it, the adventure is easier.
Next, there’s background information. Background information is information about the world or the characters or the events in the game that help them make sense or provide additional context. If the adventure is about hunting down a serial killer, the tragic story of the killer’s childhood might not provide any insights into his identity, but it puts his actions in context. It makes him more real. The details of the civilization that created the weapon to defeat the primordial doesn’t make the weapon work any better. It doesn’t help defeat the primordial. It just makes the world make a little bit more sense.
Finally, there’s foreshadowing information. Foreshadowing information isn’t immediately useful, but it does set up some future event. Either in this adventure or another one. It can be future adventure hooks, like the location of other ruins the ancient civilization left behind that the PCs can explore after they defeat the primordial. Or it can establish characters and factions that play into the GM’s future plans. Like, the PCs have a run in with a mercenary of the Jade Claw and exchange a few verbal quips or have a fist fight. Later on, they Jade Claw becomes an antagonist organization. These bits of information help create the sense of a larger, interconnected story and the idea that effects have causes and actions have consequences. They give the impression that you – the GM – are a chessmaster with a complex, living, breathing world.
How Optional is Optional?
Now, you’ve probably noticed that mandatory information, objective information, helpful information, background information, and foreshadowing information form a spectrum of importance. And you’re mostly right, but foreshadowing information can float around in importance. Without mandatory information, your adventure fails. It is unplayable. Without objective information, the PCs fail. Without helpful information, they have a harder time. Without background information, the adventure might not make as much sense. And without foreshadowing information, the adventure is just fine. It doesn’t affect the adventure at all.
And THAT helps you decide how to impart the information. That’s why most adventures start with exposition. It ensures the mandatory information gets into the players’ heads. That’s why most helpful information is hidden on side paths or behind encounters. Because it essentially rewards the players, so you want that to be acquired through decisions and challenges. Background information and foreshadowing information float around a lot, but they usually come in one-off events. Minor scenes or simple encounters.
THAT SAID, the hardest decision every GM has to face is how optional the objective information is. Because the heroes’ successes and failures HINGE on that information. And THAT comes down to the GMs approach to failure AND comes down to the point of the adventure itself.
For example, if the adventure is a murder mystery in which the players have to solve a murder, then acquiring the objective information – gathering clues and figuring them out – IS the point of the adventure. It’s the element of challenge. It’s what makes the adventure an adventure. Its’ the boss fight of the adventure. In that case, it is appropriate for all or most of the clues to be optional – to be missable – and for the mystery to go unsolved if the PCs f$&% up badly enough. The more obscure and difficult the clues are to assemble and the better they are hidden, the more challenging the adventure.
And this is a REALLY HARD thing for GMs to grasp. Because unlike monster encounters, there’s no simple way to measure the difficulty and ensure the right “level of challenge.” That’s why – AGAIN – we’re going to spend a whole article talking about how to build a mystery adventure.
For now, though, just realize that the objective information question is the same question you had to ask about failure in the adventure as a whole. When is it okay for the adventure to fail. If the adventure is about retrieving a magical weapon from an ancient hidden shrine and the first scene is about finding the objective information about where that shrine is, is it okay if the PCs don’t find it? The adventure is over in scene if they f$&% up. Are you okay with that adventure.
There’s no right answer. As we’ve said, as long as you’re prepared to handle it, failure is not a problem in an RPG.
But I will throw this out there for the fans of mysteries who hate the idea that PCs might miss clues or fail to solve the puzzle because of bad die rolls or stupid decisions or both. Because those people exist. Those people are the ones who refuse to let the PCs miss vital clues. If you ran an adventure with a boss fight, would you let the PCs automatically win that fight regardless of die rolls and tactical decisions? Would you build that boss fight so that the PCs couldn’t fail? If not, don’t do that in a mystery either. But that’s just my take on it. And my take is ALWAYS RIGHT.
The Form the Information Takes
Notice that, in all of this, I haven’t really burned much virtual ink on how to impart the information. And the reason is because it really doesn’t matter. The form of the information is just the interactive thingy you hide the information behind. It can be a dead body the players examine, it can be an interaction with an NPC, a book, a library, an oracle, an ancient tablet, six hours of alchemical experiments on a vial of poison to discover its origins, a contact other plane spell, whatever. The important part is the information itself. How you hide it in the world is secondary.
However, it IS important to be clear and unambiguous. Unless you mean to make the information a challenge (like a cryptic riddle), don’t be afraid to tell the players flat-out exactly what you want them to know. Don’t be afraid to break character. To switch from “aye, I have a lot of experience with orcs, let me tell ya” to “the old soldier explains that orcs are savage, bestial humanoids who live by raiding and pillaging the civilized races…” It is important to be as clear as possible.
Creating Ex***tion Scenes
So, you’ve decided what information to include in your adventure. And you’ve broken it down into how optional or mandatory it is. And now you’ve got to build scenes to impart that information. How do you do that? Well, actually, it’s kind of easy now. Seriously. Remember a scene has a name, a purpose, setting, interactive bits, and exits. You already know the purpose. So the rest is just deciding where the scene takes place and how the information is in the scene. What form does it take? Create the appropriate interactive bits – be they NPCs or dreams or bards or ancient maps – and you’re done.
Sort of. See, as useful as it is to draw these hard lines between exposition, exploration, and exp***tion encounters, the truth is they can meld into each other pretty easily. As noted, you can start with a briefing that includes the mandatory information and then let the PCs dig with the briefing officer for some helpful information and some background information. And if the briefing officer has a secret that might block the PCs from more helpful or background or foreshadowing information, it might turn into an encounter.
You can build a single scene that contains multiple types of information hidden inside different types of world interaction, even if it’s the same interactive bit. The NPC is one interactive thing that contains several layers of information. And then leave it to the players to dig as far as they want. Or as far as they figure out. If the NPC is cagey about a particular piece of information, that might be a clue to try to dig further. Or bully the NPC.
Information, Improvisation, and Players Inventing Ex***tion Scenes
And now we come to the final subject in our whole discussion on information management and ex***tion scenes: improvisation. See, everything we’ve talked about up to this point is about you figuring out what information to include in your adventure and how to include it and building scenes. But there’s a lot of improvisation in D&D. And as you get better as a GM, you’ll use more of it. Information scenes, though, are necessarily about planning and forethought. So, the two of them can be at odds. But let’s talk about how improvisation comes up in information scenes in a variety of ways.
Firstly, the moment you allow the players to interact with the world, you’re going to have to improvise. If the PCs are examining a dead body, looking for clues, they might not ask any of the questions you expected and they might ask a whole bunch of questions you didn’t. That’s why it is extremely important to think FIRST about the information you want to impart and SECOND about the form it takes. If the PCs ask clever questions that aren’t the questions you expected, you can give them the same information you had planned on, just give it to them in different ways. But it’s up to you to decide how close is close enough. After all, if this is objective information, it’s part of the challenge of the adventure. And just handing them the information regardless of the questions they ask is just letting them win. You have to decide whether close enough is good enough.
This is ESPECIALLY true when it comes to character interaction. When the PCs interact with an NPC, that’s the MOST improvised of any scene in the game. The players can literally say anything and your responses HAVE TO follow logically from what they say. So, you’d better be ready to reword any information, especially mandatory information, to fit the scene as it plays out.
When you get good at this, though, it allows you to disguise exposition as exploration. That is to say, you can make an exposition scene seem interactive by letting the players ask questions and making sure that you give all the information you want to give in that scene in response to their questions. And if anything gets missed, you can always use the “oh, one more thing” approach. That’s where, just as the scene is about to end, the NPC suddenly says “oh, one more thing that might be useful…” and includes the thing they didn’t think to ask.
Alternatively, if the players are wandering out of a scene and there’s still information you NEED to hand them, you can impart it as part of the “winding up and transitioning out narration.” In that case, you briefly take control of the characters in a sneaky way to pass along some further information. When a player says “okay, I think we’re done examining these ruins,” you can narrate the “you finish up your exploration of the room, checking a few last things. In addition to what you already learned, you also find a small fragment of parchment that tells a little more about primordials. But there’s nothing else of interest. From the parchment, you learn…”
But none of those things will prepare you for the day the PCs invent an ex***tion scene. Yes. That happens. One day, your players will decide they don’t have enough information about whatever the adventure is about and decide to do a bunch of research. And suddenly, you have an exploration scene at the local library or oracle that you were not prepared for. And you’ve got to cope.
Fortunately, again, you have your list of information. You know the things that need to be imparted about the adventure. You can plant it in the new scene the players have invented. Hell, you can even turn it into an ex***tion encounter on the fly and make them earn the information. Sure, later on, they might discover the same information in a scene you had planned, but that actually just convinces the players of their cleverness because they already figured out the answer.
All of this though relies on you actually having the information in your head first. That’s why, in any adventure where information plays a central roll (especially if the information is part of the challenge of the adventure), you NEED TO know the information beforehand. Some dumba$%es will insist that you can improvise an entire murder mystery from nothing, but those mysteries suck donkey balls. As an aficionado of mystery stories AND mystery adventures, I guarantee you I can show you where each one of those crappy adventure sucks. DO NOT run an information-based adventure if you DON’T HAVE the information first. Or I will find you and beat you unconscious with my Complete Sherlock Holmes collection. It’s big and it’s heavy.
That said, I’m going to give you one place where it can actually be a lot of fun to include information you don’t have. It’s one of my favorite games. It’s called “I wonder what that was about.”
See, sometimes, while I’m running an adventure, I will find that the adventure is falling a little flat or the pace is slowing down and I need to insert a scene or encounter. And a character or event will pop into my head, usually inspired by the last video game I played or television show I watched. So, I’ll do a thing. I’ll add a character or an event out of the ether. And I will just see how it plays out. And I will write it down. And, after the adventure, I’ll figure out what the hell it was and what it meant.
Basically, I’m inventing foreshadowing information without knowing what its foreshadowing. Sometimes, its background information. But usually, its foreshadowing. The important step though is, after the adventure, you have to write it down and figure out what that was all about.
But in general, information management – which is what this whole article is really about – relies on YOU having the information you’re managing. And yes, like everything else, that takes a little bit of work. Lazy GMs need not apply.