Friday, October 11, 2013

Catskinning

Something you learn as a writer and storyteller, after doing a great deal of it, is that there is always a better way to give information to the reader or the listener. For example, there's several ways I could have started this post, apart from the lede I used, which was to start with the vocation of writer. I could have started, "When you are describing things in D&D ..."; or I could have started with some friendly story about when I tried to write something and then changed my original intent to something else. But let's leave this recursiveness aside for the time being, and presume to believe that I've started this discussion and as such move on with it.

It is called exposition. It is the delivery of information the party needs. How high is the table? Where is the table in reference to the room? How does the color of the table reveal information about where it was made, and how does that apply to the situation as is? As a DM, you have to keep this sort of thing going constantly.

Where it comes to the BIG exposition, that critical start to the campaign where you explain that the King is old and his daughter is a tart who has been schlepping with the Duke, the King's brother, in an incestuous relationship that's now leading to deposing the old king and replacing him with his younger brother in unholy union with the King's daughter, the usual effort in D&D is to sit the party down in some room, have some wizard or otherwise knowledgeable fellow serve them all mead and ale, and then spend 20 minutes telling the whole story.

Never do this.

Seriously. It is the worst kind of writing there is. I mean, there's nothing wrong with the venerable fellow who tells the party the story. There's nothing wrong with the mead and ale. What's wrong is the telling of the WHOLE story.

For the love of all that's dramatic, never, EVER, tell the whole story up front. Always presume the NPC telling the party the story has his OWN motivations, and that therefore he's deliberately motivated to leave things out. Things like the daughter not actually being the king's biological daughter. Or that the Duke had actually been given the throne in the first place by the present King's father, only the older brother usurped it by claiming he was the elder. You want to leave things like that out. You want the party to not know the whole story.

Better yet, don't have the story told by ONE person. And that's where the "more than one way to tell a story" comes in. It's easiest to have one person telling it, yes, but it's better if the party learns different things from different people over more than the first running. The fellow shoeing the party's horse mentions that he did this for the princess the day before, and that he saw her riding into the woods yonder. A few fellows at the bar intimate that the princess has a lover. The party inadvertently stumbles across the Duke as he's paying off someone that looks questionable, and then a few days later the party finds out that fellow is an assassin from a member of the local thieves' guild - who of course knows nothing about the dealings with the Duke. And so on.

But it doesn't have to be that way. The party may not want to stay in that town, SOOOO ... they're not going to see all that shit or talk to those people. So when they're forty miles away, in another town, they hear a couple banging away in the next room at the Inn. The next morning, they see a young woman riding away on a horse, and a rather scruffy man is inadvertantly answered "yes, your highness" by an oddly obsequious but equally scruffy man who's with him. So the party pays no attention and you ... let it go.

Or, the party meets three men on the road, ex-soldiers, and they're angrily discussing with one another the latest news that the King has made a treaty with the next kingdom over, in order to settle the matter because the King wants more military in his capital. One of the soldiers says its because the king is coward and is afraid of assassination, and another says its because he wants to use that military to increase taxes in the kingdom. They make no mention at all of the Duke and the Princess, but they do say there was one assassination attempt already ... and then they ask where the party is from, and if the party knows anything.

Because, I have to tell you, if you can get the party doing your exposition to your NPC's, you have it made in the shade.

The problem for a lot of would-be storytellers is this misconception that the story-telling process is one way, from story teller to audience. This may sound strange to some, but I'm going to extol Pantomime. That's a stage-form that's rarely seen as a masterful storytelling concept ... but it is.

Pantomime is almost thoroughly dead in North America, and at any rate has been reduced to the sort of thing that children are expected to see, and that adults are expected to despise ... or endure for the sake of children. For those not familiar, it is a slapstick variety show with stock characters and typically stock jokes and storylines, in which the audience is encouraged to participate.

The particularly relevant interplay that I want to address is the circumstance in 'Panto' where the comic lead deliberately asserts that something is true, when the audience already knows it isn't, or the reverse. This is because, of course, the audience has seen the entire performance, whereas the comic lead is of course ignorant of things that have happened when he is not on stage (its usually a 'he,' even when it's a woman dressed as a 'he'). So the Comic will say, "Oh, yes it is!" ... and the whole audience will roar, "Oh, no it isn't!" And the Comic will say, "Well, he doesn't love her!" and the audience will reply, "Oh yes he does!" ... and so on.

This is a hard interplay to get with your players, and of course it doesn't play out that obviously. But if you're smart and clever and take your time about giving information from many sources, you'll get your parties to stop believing A or B, and they'll start saying to each other "He's lying" or "That can't be right" and so on and so forth ... until your parties are sorting the whole thing out FOR YOU and all you need to do is watch the process while you get coffee and answer questions.

There are a lot of ways to give the same information. There's always one more than the ways you've invented. With practice, the reader can train his or her self on multiple ways to skin that cat. Don't give up after the first try. Don't think you've done the job with your first idea. There's a better idea behind that first one, hiding a little deeper in the bushes, a bit harder to find, with fur that's so much nicer than the grotty old cat that was half-dead on your doorstep. You'll just have to stretch yourself a bit.

3 comments:

Neklan Krasna said...

If there was one post I wish all DMs would read, it's this one.

Well, that may be hyperbole -- I'm not sure I haven't read a more helpful post in your library -- but it conveys my sentiment.

Justin Kennedy said...

I know that in all probability the crystal clarity of this post's message is merely a result of a skilled writer happening to mention a problematic theme of my own runnings, but that is currently having zero effect on dulling the feelings of affirmation and relief it has produced for this blog reader. And while this paragraph may be a little saccharine for your tastes, Alexis, that's the kind of behavior a dopamine soaked brain exhibits and I give no apologies.

More reservedly, I feel the structure of your post (use of title, illustrative cases/analogies, pacing, relaxed and humorous writing style, thoughtful subject matter) allowed your words to expose the flimsy barriers and pessimistic assumptions I am leaning on and how they are actually crushing me. Ugh. Exposition is as fundamental to the game as it is flexible in it's usage. Such qualities frightened me away in my youth due to the workload, time, and repeated embarrassments required to master it. This crutch that seemed so reasonable in youth now only seems a crutch. In so many ways I am no longer 14.

Your post offers, for me at least, clarity for a cluttered corner of my mind long choked full of half-formed thoughts and experiences my confirmation bias claims aren't there. This blind spot aided the murder of nearly every game I have run (in some cases so swiftly as to fairly be called abortions) and one to which I become dull with either too much time spent in preparation or information overload at the table, usually (maddeningly!) only recognized in hindsight.

Thank you, Alexis. I here claim your gift of clarity will affect a direct change in the qualities of my worlds.

P.s. It took me greater than 90 minutes of complete focus, dozens of rereads, and rampant use of the backspace key to write this message. What this does or does not say of my writing aptitude is unimportant, but I do wish to offer some weak evidence that your labor inspires others to work of their own in furtherance of this shamefully under appreciated game.

Alexis Smolensk said...

Thank you Justin. It is always encouraging to know that one has an effect.

I've practiced this sort of thing a lot, in a wide variety of venues, from the stage to film to political activism to traditional debate, through a variety of different publications and styles of writing, so that does tend to help me choose title and illustrative cases & analogies; pacing is a habit; being relaxed and humorous results from my confidence; and thought is my default position. I suppose it can come off as 'structured,' more than an ordinary blog post, but I assure you the ideals are presented with the greatest sincerity.

Do not fault a chair-maker who has made several thousand chairs over the space of 37 years, who appears to make it look easy.