In February this year, I backed the Kickstarter for the second edition of 7th Sea. This proved to be another campaign with overwhelming support, making the rewards phenomenal value. I received so many pdfs as part of the rewards package, but I started reading with the second edition rules.
As to be expected from rules written by John Wick, 7th Sea contains some excellent advice. This essay expands upon just one such gem.
First, a quick overview of 7th Sea. The second edition of this game of swashbuckling and sorcery was published by John Wick Presents in 2016. The core rules book describes itself as follows:
This book gives you all the information you need to tell stories of swashbuckling, sorcery, intrigue, romance and adventure! Get ready to enter a world of piracy, diplomacy, archaeology and exploration. It’s a world of musketeers, buccaneers and privateers, ancient sorcery and lost civilizations, secrets that hide in the shadows and monsters that hide in plain sight.
One section of the 7th Sea rules covers GM advice. Within the section called The Storyteller Hat, John presents the following advice about exposition:
Exposition is conveying information directly from you to the players. No voices, no flash, no poetry, just plain explanation. Obviously, this is the most boring use of narrative ever invented. Don’t use it. Not ever.
There’s a way to make exposition interesting: turn it into dialogue. In other words, make the players speak to the world.
If they want to know the circumference of the world, quote the answer from one of Théah’s scholarly texts. If you don’t know one, make one up. If they need to know something their Heroes don’t, make them look it up or find an expert on the subject.
This is a very strong piece of advice from John Wick. Presenting information to the Players about the setting is often a headache for the GM. John’s approach is to require the Heroes to ask the setting. In this way, the acquisition of setting information is not a dry exercise whereby the GM simply presents a history lessen to the Players. Instead, the process is another way to bring the setting to life.
Known vs. Unknown
So, if the Players ask a question, how should the GM respond? The first question the GM needs to ask themselves is whether the Hero already knows the answer. If so, then the GM quickly presents the information to the Player. I do this already, but 7th Sea shows us a better way to present known information to the Player.
7th Sea adds a second question into this process, to be answered before the GM replies. How does the Hero know the answer? By adding this step into the process, we open up a new way to add depth to the setting. No longer does the Hero simply know setting details. Now, following John’s advice, the exact same information is presented to the Hero in the context of some part of the setting. The facts in question may be recalled from a named teacher, a scholarly text or even a song. All of which add greater depth to the setting.
Quest for Knowledge
Should the GM decide the requested information is not known to the Hero, then this immediately sets in motion a sub-quest. Ideally, when the Hero cannot answer the question, the GM should instead provide the Player with some idea as to where the knowledge can be found. This directs the Hero to a sage, library, temple or other kind of expert.
While not providing an immediate answer to the Player, this response sends the Hero out into the setting to discover the information. Such a sub-quest also serves to build the setting. It will not take more than a handful of sub-quests before the game contains a selection of experts and libraries for the Heroes to consult regularly.
A Truth half-remembered
I believe there is a third option not explicitly mentioned in the above extract from 7th Sea. Sometimes, a Hero might half-remember a piece of knowledge. This is the equivalent to the narrative “No, but . . .” option. In this response, the Hero recalls part of the answer, but not all of it. Perhaps the Hero remembers part of a song, or only some of an essay.
This allows the GM to present some information immediately, and direct the Player to a sub-quest to discover the remainder of the information. Now the game is not immediately stopped, as the Players have some information to work with. However, if more details are required, then the Hero also recalls where to look. We have all read a book, only to later recall merely part of the text, or perhaps the overall argument but not the exact details of the supporting evidence.
The half-memory option is a compromise between the two previous outcomes. It keeps the game moving and offers a sub-quest for later. This answer also works when the GM has only a vague idea of the information too. Now you can keep the game moving with the basic knowledge, and give yourself the chance to research the topic at length in preparation for a later sub-quest for the full answer.
Sources of Disinformation
A further benefit of linking information given to the Players through in-game methods is the question of authenticity. So often, if the GM is talking direct to the Players, then this needs to be the truth. There is an implicit trust here: the Players should be able to believe what the GM says to them.
Alternatively, if all such information is given to the Players through an aspect of the setting, then the underlying truth of any statement is unclear. Now the sage could be lying, or simply misinformed. By linking all setting information to a source, the GM has greater freedom with the authenticity of the knowledge passed to the Players. In turn, more story options are available.
Not that I am suggesting the GM should always lie to the Players. However, some stories work better with a little disinformation. Betrayals, espionage and corruption tales all build from lies. These techniques from 7th Sea facilitate the smooth introduction of such stories.
I am fascinated by this approach to exposition outlined by John Wick in the 7th Sea rules. These methods lead to a deeper setting and more sub-quests for information driven by the Players. They also open up opportunities for a little disinformation, and the associated storylines. After this overview of the technique, part two next week presents some options for information sources.
Have you tried a similar method for exposition? What do you think of the half-remembered option? Share your thoughts with your fellow GMs in the comments below.
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If you enjoyed this article, then please share it, or the associated quotations. You may also be interested in the following links:
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