Tobold's Blog
Thursday, March 28, 2013
Explaining it to the wrong person

I am currently reading D&D adventure modules in preparation for my campaign after the current adventure. And I noticed something curious: Many of the descriptions appear to be addressed to the DM reading the adventure, but not to the players. For example there are descriptions of what happened in some place long ago which explains why the place is now inhabited by some monster. But what the players will see is just the monster (which they will then presumably slaughter), with no way of finding out those historic events that were so carefully explained to the DM.

Example of a description for the DM from H1 Keep on Shadowfell:
Water Cave History
When Shadowfell Keep was first built, the pool inside this small cave served as the castle cistern. On a normal day, several keep residents, mostly cooks and servants, visited the cave regularly. The passage leading to the pool was open until the fateful day when two children wandered into the area and drowned when they stepped off the edge into water that was too deep for them to wade in. After their bodies were discovered and removed from the pool, the area was sealed off to prevent further accidents. Subsequently, after Sir Keegan went mad and engaged in his killing spree, the keep was abandoned and the cistern stagnated. Over the decades since that time, creatures have used the cave as a source of water.
A few months ago, two hobgoblins came to the keep and requested an audience with Kalarel. They said they were messengers from the Bloodreavers, a group of hobgoblin slavers. Kalarel listened to their offer of payment for the captured slaves, but he dismissed it. In fact, he was so irritated that the hobgoblins had disturbed his research with such petty motives that he ordered his own hobgoblins to drown them in the cistern. Within minutes after the messengers died, something vile crawled forth from the water. A morass of hunger without shape or mind, the form had only an insatiable appetite. The hobgoblins that brought the messengers to the cistern were quickly overcome by the amorphous creature. After several more goblins and hobgoblins died trying to remove this pestilence from the water, Kalarel gave up. The affair disquieted him, and he prohibited any of his followers from entering the area.
 Compare that to what the players will see:
When the adventurers reach the doors, read: These bronze double doors are green with age and stained blue and purple with a thick layer of fungus. Scratched into the fungus in the Common script is this message: “Stay Out. Really.” 
When the adventurers open the doors, read: Fungus-coated stairs lead down into a natural cavern. Much of the chamber is filled with a stagnant pool of brackish water. A patch of land rises from the foul water at the pool’s center. On this little island, bones, spilled coins, and other small objects are visible among the carpet of fungus.
When the blue slime surfaces and attacks, read: The dank water suddenly disgorges a blob of blue slime. The amorphous mass pours forward, extruding long pseudopods that end in appendages of dripping goo.
In all likelihood this room will appear to the players as being some random dungeon room with some random monster. They have no way to find out the history of the water cave, nor will they even care about it, as it isn't central to the adventure in that dungeon.

Now I totally like the concept of having a logical explanation of why a certain monster is at a certain location. But such an encounter always has to be designed with the point of view of the players in mind. The "final product" of a session of pen & paper roleplaying is an interactive story, and that story is only as good as the part that has been understood by everybody around the table. To players a description that behind a door is a room with an ogre is just that. A sidebar explaining in detail how that ogre got there is only as useful as whatever is included in the encounter description that enables the players to learn that history.

Having run folks through this same adventure not too long ago, I absolutely agree! But then again, it's the DM's job to set the tone for the players to react to. If there was no "back story" (as insignificant as it may seem), the DM would be on the hook to provide everything from scratch, in addition to putting together everything else that the DM needs to prepare to get things going smoothly.

The whole reason for running a pre-packaged module is to have at least SOME of the "heavy lifting" done for the DM, who can focus on expanding the story, or taking it in another direction, and in actually running it.
Explaining things to the DM is never the wrong choice.

The whole point of that cave history is simply to add a new tool or three to the DM's toolbox, it's up to you to decide whether and how they should be used.
What Heath said: you are given the tools (story, rules, etc) but it's up to you "how" to show/tell everything to your adventurers.
The "final product" of a session of pen & paper roleplaying is an interactive story, and that story is only as good as the part that has been understood by everybody around the table.

I disagree completely. Mind you, I am approaching this from the perspective of a story writer, not a DM. There are doubtlessly differences between writing a novel and directing an adventure...

But how this relates to storytelling, specifically in genre fiction, is the concept of infodumps. When you create a storyworld, everything in it is interesting to you. You took time to think about the culture and the history and the causal chain of events that control the fate of this world. But the VAST majority of that information never needs to reach the reader. The urge to share all this ends up in creating large, boring infodumps in novels where you end up just explaining or describing for long periods of time with nothing happening. Outside of a very few specific genres (Such as, say, epic fantasy where people expect 700 page books with ridiculous amounts of description), this is the mark of a novice writer and usually boring. Your goal when writing is to cut out infodumps as much as possible.

Ultimately, all that extra information? It's really cool and important to you as the storyteller. It allows you to picture how everything interlocks together in your world, but you only need to share the bare minimum with your readers, the stuff that is necessary to know to understand the plot or the actions of the characters.

I assume that in this case it is similar. This extra worldbuilding information is great to have as a DM as it allows you to make the place feel more real by giving it history, and instead of describing an environment verbatim for every room, you have a stronger sense of what that place is. Players don't need to know that unless they want to, by having their characters investigate more (which almost certainly won't happen) but it still makes the world more real.
You are given a narrative that you can convey to the players if you choose so:

a) through objects scattered through the rooms - maybe they found the journal of Keegan's servant
b) through conversations with NPCs prior to entering the room (maybe they met someone who used to work in the castle and has a tale or two to tell)
c) through intuition - one of the characters (the priest, maybe)catches a glimpse of the ghosts of the two children.

You can do so many things with this information...
Yep, this is why I dislike most published adventures, because for some reason the authors are terrible at actually providing the requisite tools to the DM to convey their full story to the players.

On the other hand, 3E and 4E both have a nice mechanic with skill checks to relay such information....but even then it would be nice if the module offered hooks and clues to allow players to discover this data if they wish. Call it the "Resident Evil" effect where every monster leaves a diary lying around is incredibly literate if you will, but hey, whatever works.
In my version of H1, I conveyed the history of the water suppy room through a rusted metal commemorative plate on the way relating the story of the drowned kids.

I didnt found a way to let my players know about the hobgoblins, but i thought the kids had to be told of.
Sure the players won't see all of that, but you can then improvise and let them see:

-ghosts of children (hostile?)
-amulet of drowned children in water
-amorphus creature - maybe. Or maybe the water is just a blue/green gelatinus cube (passive even better, let players jump into it to try swim to get item below)
-old pots and pans from the cooks
-sir keegans helmet or other gear
-bloodreaver sigil from the dead hobgobs
-old hobgob/goblin gear
-kalarel's staff (he tried fight it personally and fled?)
-lightning rods to keep the thing contained (what, it can't eat through a door?)
-the fungus and mossy rocks could be slippery, making the players slide towards the "pool"

Then ofcourse you can use it as sidequest bait, like - fetch drowned kid's amulet for example.
Of course you can ADD anything you want to make the backstory more visible. My comment was just that if you play the adventure module as written, the backstory is invisible. Why didn't the writers of the adventure add anything of the stuff you mentioned?
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