Explaining it to the wrong person
Posted by Tobold's Blog [HTML][XML][PERM][FULL] on 28 March 2013, 10:57 am
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.
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