Thursday, September 2, 2021

Exposition Tools in Solo Adventures

Solo play exists on a spectrum. At one end is free-form play, usually with random tables that generate encounters. The player creates a story to reflect the tables’ results and to determine which tables to roll on next. At the other end are gamebooks, narrative-focused text-based adventures that preformulate each route. Many solo systems exist somewhere in the middle, drawing elements from both.

I write gamebooks. In part, this is because I want my work to be accessible—I want to include players unused to juggling the various tools at the free-form end of the spectrum. More importantly, I write gamebooks because I want to share particular stories. This is where my exposition problems begin.

I hesitate to write about this because I’m deeply affected by exposition problems. This would be an easier topic if I had fully implemented these “solutions” and seen proven results. I don’t have any great examples to point to yet. Perhaps my solutions are misguided—feel free to argue with any of them. Writing on this topic is how I commit myself to work on the problem.

Story Context (Prologue)

Gamebooks share the same exposition problems as novels. These problems begin in the beginning. Wherever you choose to start the story, some prior events are important for context. In most cases, this means a prologue.

Fantasy prologues are often more bloated than fiction prologues. Fantasy calls for an entirely separate exposition layer called “worldbuilding.” These details are additional to the events and fact patterns of normal exposition. They often bloat an already-large prologue.

I have the benefit of writing D&D gamebooks. D&D fantasy is its own genre, one that contains a lot of assumptions. Because I assume a degree of familiarity with D&D tropes, I accidentally under-exposit these things, meaning I only need to deal with the normal problems of bloated prologues. This article is about gamebook exposition, not traditional exposition tools, so I’ll skip to the relevant parts.

Here’s what I’ve learned by watching recordings of people playing my gamebooks.

A gamebook prologue does almost nothing. At this stage, the player will only retain a vague remembrance of the events you describe. Your prologue can set the scene and foreshadow things to come, but it struggles to create actionable memories. By this, I mean you can’t easily provide clues for future decision-making.

For example, if my prologue says the protagonist must journey south, players aren’t going to remember that when they find a crossroads and need to decide a direction. Without a lot of emphasis (or a map), the prologue’s instruction to go south isn’t memorable and thus isn’t actionable.

The normal solution for a bloated prologue is to shift that exposition into later parts of the book. That raises the question of where that exposition should go.

Story Signposts (Actionable Details)

The reader of a novel can forget some important details. This does not prevent the reader from continuing to read. In a gamebook, things are different. Some sets of options have an authorial intention that the player decide in the context of an actionable detail. Forgetting that detail changes how the options are interacted with. It can make story route random where that’s not intended. Some people might say that remembering (and note-taking) are part of the solo experience. That’s a fair sentiment, but I want all players to be equally situated at some decision points.

I’ve tried various exposition tools, including images of maps and handouts (rarely studied or referenced) with mixed results. I’ll go through a few of them here.

Emotional Pairing

The tool that worked best for me is emotional pairing.

The failing of prologues is the lack of player investment at that point of exposition. There isn’t yet that sense of danger or wonder that comes from immersive play. The player won’t feel threatened or intrigued at that point. Tension is low.

Emotional pairing comes from the screenwriting tradition. It suggests expositing the most-important details during the film’s most-emotional moments. This sears that detail into the brain. In cognitive psychology terms, it creates a “flashbulb” memory.

This sounds great, but it’s not easy to do. It requires that you heavily outline the story, particularly the points where your narrative branches. It also requires you to think of your exposition in terms of importance, at least the exposition that you think is critical to have at various decision points.

I’ve taken to creating an exposition list for my stories. This is separate from the outline. It’s like a menu of details, from which I can see what’s most important. It also lets me check off things I’ve already included and to make sure that there are no routes that can miss the acquisition of the game’s most important information.

Optional Exposition (Nodes)

Different players have different capacities to absorb exposition. People usually read novels because they like to read. Players of gamebooks like to play—they might not be used to absorbing information from the page. Some have developed strategies for skimming the text and skipping to the “important” parts, the decision-making and dice-rolling. Different people enjoy different parts of the adventure to different degrees.

One way to manage exposition is the use of nodes. Imagine a conversation with an NPC. After a brief dialogue covering the critical details, the options allow the player to ask for more information about one or more topics. Players that don’t want to do more reading can skip the deeper dive (the less important details) and continue along their way.

Nodes are also useful to preserve the agility of additional playthroughs. Second-time players often skip a lot of text, relying on their memories of the first playthrough. A player that reaches this conversation node can skip the deeper detail options if she read them last time. Alternately, a player that skipped them might opt to find out more on this second playthrough.

Nodes like this don’t need to be conversations. For example, you could write a library scene where the critical information is in the first “research” done, and additional reading is allowed (or even gated behind ability checks to find).

This illustration of three nodes shows how they present short-term diversions from the central route of the story. Some nodes can be quite deep, but they always return to the original route.

Referential Exposition (Lore Appendix)

A lore appendix is a tool I’ve used with mixed results. The player encounters a piece of optional information (sometimes gated by an ability check). When the lore is accessible, the details aren’t written in the same entry. Instead, the player references a separate appendix entry.

An analog to lore appendices is the monster codex you can find in so many video games; after encountering a monster, the player can repeatedly check a menu of monsters to read about it, perhaps to remember its weaknesses.

The lore appendix has several advantages. It allows the player to check the information at any time in the adventure, and to check it repeatedly. You can use it for actual lore, and you can use it for game details like sidekick stat blocks and the descriptions of nonstandard equipment or magic items.

The disadvantage of a lore appendix is that it’s cumbersome to keep your place in the book while checking another page. (You can’t hyperlink away from the lore page because you don’t know where players will be when they check that page.) Players might also forget to make a note of the lore appendix page, and thus may lose the ability to access that page.

By watching playthroughs of my gamebooks, I’ve learned that lore entries are referenced less often than I imagined they would be. They should never be used for critical exposition because a player might not ever read them.

Outside Research

The final piece of exposition I want to mention is outside research. For most writers, this isn’t a thing. However, I’m writing a series set in the Forgotten Realms, a setting for which bajillions of pages have been written, and for which many details are available on wikis. If I write about an institution, even a rare one from an old edition, I know that some players are going to put down the book and look it up on the Internet. This is not the sort of exposition you need to worry about injecting—players who do this already have the capacity and desire to grab every piece of information they can. However, it is a warning for writers to try to remain consistent with established details. Some people are out there giving themselves “bonus” exposition, so be sure to write with that in mind.


Go and write! Learn from my failures and tell me about your successes!