I’ve recently been reading some books on how to improve my story writing, and one of the tips they invariably give is to not start your stories with a massive exposition dump. This is bad news for me because my writing is usually nothing but exposition dump, so I probably will never write the next bestseller to take the world by storm. That’s OK though, because it brought into focus one of the traditions of tabletop gaming that I’ve never really cared for. That is, of course, starting a campaign with every player going round and taking a massive character exposition dump right on your table.
I find this exercise more than a little boring and I always felt it was also a good deal odd, both because the expectations laid out rarely jive with gameplay, because you tend to end up with a group of really special snowflakes, and because it ends up with characters knowing a good deal more about each other than they probably should (think about your vague knowledge of your coworkers and compare to how much you would have known about your friend’s character if you hadn’t fallen asleep during his half hour monolog).
Of course some of my distaste for this probably harkens back to the era in which I joined the hobby. In the “start with 1 rolled hit die” era you could conceivably take more time telling everyone at the table your character’s backstory than your character might actually survive in the game, so backstory was usually “My character is a fighter. His name is Joe D. Fighter.” If Joe survived more than a session or two not only did he have some interesting backstory created by play, but then and only then might we start thinking about why Joe D. Fighter started adventuring instead of joining up with the army or the town militia. Most likely Joe has serious anger management issues and problems with authority.
But on the other hand I get that “Meh. Screw that noise.” just isn’t fair to those in the hobby who enjoy finely crafting characters and their backstories and then exploring their development. So instead, I propose what the writing books assure me is a better alternative to the exposition dump. They recommend that if you want to show a character’s traits, instead of simply telling the reader about them you slip some examples into the story in which you get to put them on display via the character’s actions. The same goes for backstory elements. Find a way to bring them to the forefront of the action and put them on display.
This seems like it would be a tricky thing in an RPG. It requires you as GM to know what characteristics the players would like their characters to have opportunities to display, and then for those that are unlikely to come up naturally it requires you craft and insert a few from time to time. Then it depends on your players recognizing and taking advantage of these opportunities to show off aspects of their character. This of course requires a little cooperation from both sides of the screen. The two biggest potential pitfalls are not knowing what your players want to highlight, and players not taking advantage of opportunities you present.
Not knowing what opportunities to highlight is easily solved by asking each player for a short list. Players missing cues could be miscommunication if you see something as a clear opportunity to show off a trait but it goes right over their head. In this case if a cue or two is missed, you can talk to the player about it. But of course there’s always the fairly common setup of a player describing their character one way then acting a completely different way in play. On the one hand that would seem to be a weakness of this system because a player that lacks follow through has problems showing the traits they wanted to make clear, but on the other hand it’s actually a strength since it forces players to put their money where their mouth is. You can’t just claim your character has a trait and then act completely opposite, which is where some of my distaste for the exposition dump comes from in the first place. If you don’t show it in play it doesn’t exist.
For the GM, this system isn’t that much extra work. You already have to plan elements to highlight other aspects of the game, this is just one more and it should overlap well with already existing work.