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The books for a published adventure I've GM'd recently (PF1's Wrath of the Righteous) contain a lot of background information about NPCs, events and locations, which is very fun to read for me as a GM but I'm struggling with how to share this with players.

The only way I've found -- explaining information through NPC monologue -- results in me taking up even more of the "speaking time" in a session than a GM normally does.

Should I present background information and NPC backstories, and if yes, how can I do it without taking too much time at the table?

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2 Answers 2

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You don't have to tell them everything

First, just because there is some lore about something in the campaign book doesn't mean the players have to know about it. I remember playing this very campaign as a player, before reading some parts of it, and there was a ton of detail that could have been skipped without it being an issue.

Remember your goal as a GM is not to feed your players with the contents of this book, it is to make them live an adventure! The book is only here to help you achieve that.

What you should tell them about

To be able to get interested in your campaign in the first place, players should have access to general info, and this you can give them before the first session: what is the goal of the Crusade, why Kenabres is an important strategic point to hold, the name of Galfrey, maybe some other famous crusaders like Staunton, some of their deeds they are famous for... This is an opportunity for them to use this info for character creation! ("what if I played a silver dragon lineage bloodrager whose bloodline received the benediction of Kenabres' protector?" -> you can be sure this character will be extra-motivated to kill demons after the first session.)

During game you should definitely take time to tell lore about stuff related to their character (let's say one in an alchemist, then the infos about how nahydrian elixir has been invented would probably interest them, even if they don't plan to make some themselves). But you should also answer their interrogations when they get interested in something specific: in our campaign nobody cared about Soziel and thus we barely knew he existed, while a random mongrelman not even named in the book took a disproportionate importance.

And finally, there is background that needs to be told for players to be able to follow the campaign. For example when they get the order to recapture Drezen, they need to know why Drezen have fallen and why this time the crusaders are going to be able to hold it. Same goes for many of the sidequests, like recovering the Suture: a minimal amount of background is needed to know why the character are doing this instead of something else.

In the end the ideal amount of lore-dropping will highly depend on who your players are, so there is no perfect recipe that will work for all groups. Some players don't mind spending ten hours on a single 5-rooms dungeon as they try to have all the possible information on everything. Some have enough with just the bare minimum, and anything extra is boring.

How you can tell them about

There are many special techniques to tell the players (printing it and giving them as a prop, reading a text aloud, giving the text to read to one player...) that can all be interesting but will also all become boring if overdone. What I want to focus on here is about how you can tell the characters.

Found text, as if the description was actually something written in the game world, is usually very efficient. Characters can choose to read it or not, and spend the amount of time they want doing so. This text can be a letter (sent to them or intercepted), a diary, a book... This carries the specificity that characters won't be able to interact with it: they can tear the paper in anger but the paper is not going to give them the missing information even if they do so.

Monologues often feels more artificial. Characters want to react when they are talked to, not just sit and listen. I find usually more efficient if I go this route not to read anything: the NPC answers their questions, and adds stuff to point them into asking about what they still have to learn. Anyway it will require you to improvise when they ask for things you haven't anticipated.

A variant of a monologue is a story narrated by a NPC. This works well for downtime: everybody is chilling at the tavern with a NPC they like (but whose they don't know yet the backstory) and a bard comes up and sing something about their deeds.

The cheat code

Finally, there is also a technique that as far as I know everyone GM uses, knowingly or not. Once you know a specific piece of lore will never get uncovered or has become useless (eg because if was about a monster the PCs have already killed) you can tell the players without telling the PCs, outside of a game session. Sometimes even years after a campaign has ended I have my GM tell me something like "by the way, remember that dragon the final boss had as a pet? Well actually the eggs you saw on the house of the archeologist on 1st arc are his sisters and brothers".

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  • \$\begingroup\$ I'm not familiar enough with Wrath of the Righteous to say for sure, but if there are spoilers in this answer it would be nice to have those spoiler tagged. \$\endgroup\$
    – ESCE
    Commented Feb 12, 2023 at 3:49
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    \$\begingroup\$ @ESCE: I don't think anything here should be an issue. The most spoilery thing is the line about retaking Drezen and it is about the same level of spoil as saying to someone who reads Lord of the Rings that "at some point they decide to go into Mordor". The specific example of the Suture is specifically chosen for that someone who played the campaign can know what I refer to but the name itself doesn't bring any info. \$\endgroup\$ Commented Feb 12, 2023 at 18:34
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Make exposition interactive.

When I'm running an adventure with a lot of backstory, I'll do two things.

First, during my preparation for the session, I make a list of dot points containing all the things that players need to know. I leave out the stuff that's interesting-but-technically-not-necessary-for-the-adventure; the players may need to know they need the Circlet of Yesterday to open the Tomb of Tomes, but they don't necessarily need to know that the circlet was created by Alfinistor the dwarven craftspriest as a gift for his sworn friend Bogstandard the warrior-poet, even if that particular bit of backstory is cool and interesting. (I do keep that information on hand, of course - but it doesn't go in the list of dot points.)

Then, when I'm actually running the adventure and the players encounter the NPC that knows the information, I treat it like I would any other interaction: I make it a conversation between me and the players, and let the players direct the conversation by asking questions and declaring that they do things. I have my NPC give them some seed information to kick the conversation off by picking some of the top points from my bulleted list - but rather than talking like an unstoppable steamroller of exposition, I leave openings in the conversation for my players to react, to ask questions about points that interest them, and to discuss what they've learned among themselves. I, for my part, have my NPC respond to their questions with answers - and when I'm answering questions, I do not stick to only the information on my list, because the whole point of doing it this way is to reward players for engaging with the lore.

Whenever my players run out of questions or are too deep in thought to respond, I pick the next point from my list that I haven't mentioned, and have the NPC tell them that. In this fashion, the players soon have all the information they absolutely need, and probably a load of interesting exposition that they had to ask for and therefore value highly.

(If your players aren't in the habit of asking questions of NPCs for whatever reason, you may need to prompt them to do so - but it's easy enough to do that in character by having the font-of-exposition NPC ask "any questions?" or "Does that make sense? I'm worried I left something out." You probably won't need to prompt your players to ask questions more than once, though. Once they've cognised that asking NPCs questions is an option, they will leap on every opportunity to do so, because players like to seize every advantage they can.)

This method has a number of advantages. It encourages players to actually think about the lore instead of just jotting down the important points, because they need to understand it in order to ask questions about it; it makes them value the exposition more highly because they got it through their own efforts and decisions; and it means that exposition never takes too much time at the table, because your players will continue asking questions only as long as they continue to be interested in the answers (and that will often be longer than you expect).

This method does mean that you players might miss out on some of your adventure's epic backstory if they fail to ask about it. That's OK, though: They'll still have the essentials, and the fact that they never learn everything about the world helps it feel like the game world is a living, breathing place that exists beyond just the small sphere of it that they interact with.

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