According to The Bible, handing plot-necessary information to the audience can be done in a variety of ways. I would like to make the case that in role-playing games, having a Mr. Exposition – that is, delivering your information through a character – is one of the best methods to do so.

While it’s possible to have a Mr. or Mrs. Exposition that exists solely in order to pop-up, say some things, then never to be seen again, I would claim Mr. Exposition should instead be handled as a role, that can be given to any NPC, for a single scene or so. Because delivering the critical information is, well, critical, many people put so much focus on the info that they neglect the method with which it is delivered; but in storytelling, delivery is important. One of the best tools at your disposal is characters, but a good storyteller remembers that even when they’re using a character as a tool, they should still focus on their character.

Some do’s and don’ts for a Mr. Exposition

Engage in conversation: Even while telling the tale of whatever plot-relevant information you must convey to the players, keep the NPC in the here and now. Have him stop for a moment to shout at a thieving customer, or remark something about one of the PCs’ facial expressions (deduced from the players’ facial expressions). Have him snort, or forgetful, or worried, or whatever. Make it clear that you’re still playing, that the NPC is directly in front of them.

Use their point of view: Whatever information the NPC have to give, make it coloured by their worldview, biases and style of speech. The Valet is dramatic and grim (obviously), and so he tells a tale of woe, focusing on the dangers and the sad repercussions – but not saying anything at all about the enemy itself, or the specifics of the Crystal’s powers. Maybe he neglects to mention them because they’re not important to him, but maybe he doesn’t even remember these details because they weren’t important to him at the time. (See also Character Choices Control the Clues, from the PCs’ perspective)

Deliver some information through a secondary channel: When possible, use their clothes, their mood, or the situation around them, to have some of the information told through story. Show, don’t just tell. The valet was gravely injured, and only the Crystal is sustaining his life – to explain that, he opens his jacket to show the wound, magically held together. A dwarf merchant might have some purple dust on her wagon, as she tells of the eruption of Mount OhNoes; she might even forget to tell about the purple ash, until some PC notices it and asks, and then she remembers: “Ah yes, some of the smoke was purple… I was so distracted by the goblins, I almost didn’t notice.”

Use the exposition to reveal something new about them: Keep it about the character, by showing something new about them. Perhaps they reveal their involvement in the events, or maybe they know a bit more about a specific topic thanks to personal experience or expertise. Maybe you learn of a new familial connection or their favourite tea or pastime, because of something they mentioned. Maybe they reveal a hidden emotional layer, like spitting after saying “elf”, calling in Trom’s name after talking about someone’s death, or simply talking softly for the first time since you’ve met them, when discussing the princess.

Give them other roles: This is worth repeating. An NPC that exists only to deliver information won’t be regarded by genre-savvy players as an actual person. They’ll see her as a text box, probably skippable, and ask the GM (bypassing the NPC altogether) to sum up the important bits, reducing the game to “chase the plot coupon“. Keep the NPC real by giving her other roles in the story: comic relief, establishing atmosphere (or both), whatever. Make it clear she’s not here just to hand information.

Keep it short: Having a character as your info-delivering mechanism is useful because it keeps you talking to the point. A person would not just start telling about intricate historical details (that you as a GM finds fascinating, but aren’t in fact super-relevant) unless that person is totally into intricate historical details himself. Have that person say some important things, and if you’re left with some information unsaid, have a break and do it later. The break can be super-short, only a few moments longer, it just needs to have some game in it. The guards are coming around, and the informant tries to look innocent, the PCs need to convince the guards to go away so they can keep chatting with the informant.

Maybe the rest of the relevant information will be handled through a different character altogether, later on – and thanks to hearing parts of the story told through two different points of view, the players might have a better understanding of what’s really going on. Or the opposite; being a little vague is super useful, but we’ll probably discuss this some other time.