I was incredibly tired after Co-GMing on Saturday – while the game session went well, this was only the second time that I have GM’d since undertaking a regime to control my blood sugar after the recent Diabetes diagnosis, and it took a lot more out of me than I expected.
In fact, I ended up spending all Sunday recovering and then slept most of Monday, meaning that there was no possible chance of getting the next part in the New Beginnings series done. Instead, I have decided to do another “filler” article, simply because it will be very quick to write – which suits my limited time-frame.
This article was actually inspired by a piece of spam that I zapped last week. You know the type – endless automated variations on the same stock phrases that say nothing meaningful and are almost-painfully obvious, at least to human eyes. In this case, the Spam was lauding Campaign Mastery, suggesting that this was the place to visit to receive “imputed info”.
That phrase, the result of a piece of code mindlessly plugging a verb vaguely synonymous with one in a basic phrase into a noun vaguely synonymous with knowledge or information, got my attention and started my mind ticking over. This article is the result…
“Imputed Info”. What does that mean? Well, “Info” is short for information, which can be defined as “facts with context or meaning”, as opposed to “data” which has no context or meaning until it is interpreted. That’s the difference between “Data Management” and “Information Management” – the first is about the storage, processing, and management of raw inputs and isolated facts like measurements, the second is about manipulating data to yield, reveal, study, and analyze meanings within the context of the source conditions.
“Imputed” is a word that you see fairly infrequently. In many contexts, it actually implies a negative connotation to whatever it refers to; it means, according to the Collins Concise English Dictionary (1984), either (1) to attribute or ascribe (something dishonest or dishonorable) to a person, or (2) to attribute to a source or cause (usually a dishonorable or deceptive one). Google rolls both these into one and adds a variation on the second specific to the world of finance.
So what, then, is “imputed information”? It is either information obtained dishonorably, or distributed dishonestly, i.e. stealthily or secretly. Robert Heinlein was famous for doing this – sneaking bits of background information into his dialogue and story without resorting to exposition either directly from an omnipotent narrator or indirectly through the mouths of his characters. He didn’t lecture the reader, or have his characters lecture each other, on how the science or society worked; instead, the two sides discussed the subject and, in the process, built up the facts the reader needed to make sense of the story without them even noticing most of the time.
“Imputed Information”, then, is information delivered by stealth (or at least, that’s the interpretation I’m choosing to employ). Having a writing style that is so readable that the meaningful content can be absorbed without the reader even noticing that they are being educated. That sounds incredibly complimentary to me as a writer, but I don’t take compliments from spambots as holding intrinsic value; but it also sounds like a skill that all GMs should master, or attempt to.
I’ve already done a well-received six-part series on Narrative (The Secrets Of Stylish Narrative) which I thought was probably going to be my last word on the subject. But this thought opens up a whole new chapter, so to some extent this article should be considered a postscript to that series.
Narrative can be divided into two types: useful and waste. The series focuses on stripping narrative down into its constituents, eliminating the waste and redundancy, and then rebuilding what’s left into a more streamlined, stylish result.
Useful Narrative can be further subdivided into two categories: essential and flavor. Essential narrative tells the players what they (appear to) need to know about whatever is being described, excluding anything that they cannot perceive. Flavor makes it interesting and part of the environment. One of the attributes of the technique described in the series takes flavor and incorporates it into essential narrative so that the flavor doesn’t have to be delivered separately, though I don’t believe it explicitly said as much – this was “imputed information” within the article. The net result is that a block of Narrative text can be compacted into 10-50% of its original size – with a realistic average of 20-25%.
That’s excellent, as far as it goes, but “implied information” suggests techniques that can take it even further, perhaps even halving again the size of the narrative block. An A4 page of text contains about 550 words, a Letter-sized page about 575. A page of narrative being squeezed down to 55-60 words? Wow. But that’s not as impossible as it sounds, through the application of two principles: “Just In Time Delivery” and “Imputed Information”.
Just In Time Delivery
In industries of all sorts, “Just In Time” means that whatever you need for the next step in the project is delivered just at the moment you need it, not days, weeks, or months in advance. It reduces the need for storage space, but mandates reliability of delivery to deadline. Although I dislike relying on it, and actively prepare backup alternatives in case unreliability results for whatever reason, I employ Just In Time techniques to write this blog – usually finishing an article only a few hours short of the publication deadline. I’m far more comfortable if I can build up a lead, because it means that I can take as long as I need to take in order to ensure a quality product, ie something worth reading that communicates its content easily (and hopefully effortlessly on the part of the reader).
In terms of narrative, a “Just In Time” Delivery would mean delivering information to the players just before they need to take it into account, and no sooner. That’s not all that practical in a real-world situation, because there’s a limit to how much information you can insert elsewhere without it getting in the way. You need to extend “just before they need to take it into account” to allow for absorption of the information and avoid bottlenecks in the interaction.
It’s also essential that the information being presented “just in time” is not intrusive; you can’t simply drop a small narrative block into a piece of dialogue or action, you need to actually incorporate that narrative block into the relevant sub-scene by having the NPCs interact with it.
In other words, deliver the narrative in question as Imputed Information.
There are four golden rules that make this a lot easier than it sounds: Foundation, Expected and There, Expected and Missing, and The Unexpected Presence.
Foundation Narrative exists to create expectations in the minds of the players. It’s a general description of a location, person, or object. It should present no more information than is necessary to visualize an approximation of the basic scene. Foundation consists of a generic label for the subject and explicitly stating an overall flavor that lets the players create the scene in their minds. “A businesslike office.” “A sterile laboratory.” “A dank and claustrophobic dungeon.” “An opulent bedroom”.
Expected and There
If a detail would be expected to be present from the foundation, it doesn’t need to be described within the narrative block; those details can be delivered by Imputed Narrative, if they are needed at all. A library implies bookshelves and books; a bar implies bottles of alcohol on shelves.
Expected and Missing
If something is missing that you would normally expect to find, it may or may not be necessary to specifically mention its absence. For example, if there is no Bed in the Bedroom, that’s probably worthy of notice. If there is no desk in an office, ditto. If there are no diplomas on the walls, that’s not necessarily so important as to need mentioning up-front; you can deal with that absence using Imputed Narrative.
There are some cases where there is a hidden analogue. There are no bookshelves on the walls because there is a virtual bookshelf (and computer monitor) built into the desk, for example. This is noteworthy enough to be foundation narrative, but because it is so easily interacted with, belongs to a “half-and-half” category of narrative that I’m going to refer to as “Transitive” – it’s Foundation narrative that is delivered in an Imputed Manner, and hence “transitions” from one category to another.
The Unexpected Presence
If something is present that you don’t expect to see in an office, it should be mentioned in the Foundation because it is either directly relevant on a need-to-know basis or provides essential flavor needed to visualize the scene. “A businesslike office with a suit of medieval plate mail displayed in the corner instead of a potted plant.” “A sterile laboratory with a painting of dogs playing poker on the wall.” “A dank and claustrophobic dungeon with a bar and bartender in the corner.” “An opulent bedroom with a bomb on the nightstand, counting down: 12… 11….” The additions are things the players need to know, or that not only add flavor to the environment directly, but add flavor to the room’s usual occupant by association and implication.
Of course, an unexpected presence can be so subtle that it is initially unnoticed. If that is potentially the case, the GM should prepare for it with a section of optional add-on narrative that only gets read if the appropriate die roll is made – and I recommend that the GM should have the players make such die rolls as they are about to enter the room, rather than interrupting the narrative for perception checks, breaking his narrative ‘stride’.
The Limits of Imputation
I recommend that no more than one piece of imputed information be delivered in any non-narrative statement, and only when the imputation can be performed seamlessly. This is an extremely limiting restriction, but the primary goal of any non-narrative scene or sequence is for it to continue to do its job.
Delivering Transitive Narration
Transitive Narrative can be an exception, because you can carry quite a lot of it in describing whatever the NPC is doing when the PC or PCs enter the space, or what the object is doing when the PCs examine it. “The General Manager is standing beside his gold-inlaid oak desk with a golf club in hand, putting golf balls across the carpet into a cup while talking to someone using a faux-ivory hands-free phone. A Stock Market ticker display runs continuously across the face of the desk courtesy of a built-in computer monitor. He waves for you to seat yourselves in the crushed-velvet armchairs as he completes his negotiations and punches a button on the phone to end the call.” Add that to the appropriate Foundation description “(A cozy well-organized office”) that precedes it and you have an immediate setting. You haven’t even provided one word of description of the individual himself, but most of you will already have an image of him in mind – mid-forties or -fifties, gray 3-piece suit, decisive, intelligent, able to multi-task, organized, and with a slight maverick streak. Appearance and personality are all implied by the narrative, which is itself buried within the description of what the person is doing.
Delivering Imputed Narrative through Dialogue
This is no more difficult to do. Instead of simply announcing, “The King replies, ‘The realm is under dire threat from within, and the peace that we had all hoped for seems to have slipped beyond grasp,'” all you have to do is (a) have him do something appropriate at the same time, and (b) have that something contain Imputed Narrative: “The king opens the thick metal shutters that protect the room from Archers and gazes through the narrow windows inset into the castle wall as he replies, ‘The Realm is…'” (and you know the rest). After a couple of words back and forth, he can move and take a seat on the Throne (more implied narrative) or help himself to a handful of grapes from a sideboard, or a slice of meat, or whatever.
There may also be opportunities to embed narrative elements into the dialogue itself. “I surround myself with objects of beauty and commemorance of the past,” he sighs, “but while others may find inspiration in a painting like this, I see only a reminder of all we stand to lose, and all that we have already lost.” – when all you have mentioned in description was that the room was “richly decorated”.
Delivering Imputed Narrative through Combat
A little trickier, this, because the logical connection between combat events and the target of the implied narrative is (a) partially out of your control – it depends on what exactly a PC does, and (b) has to be connected to that target by iron-clad logic and commonsense. You can’t talk about the tapestries unless it’s reasonable for the NPC to interact with the tapestries during the fight. Nevertheless, its possible to embed critical information into the non-narrative byplay of A does B during combat. “He attempts to grind your face into the wall. You notice that what appeared to be rough-hewn rock has in fact been carved with strange runes or symbols.” “Pulling a 9mm from a shoulder holster, he fires in your direction while doing a barrel-roll across the room towards a briefcase on an antique oak writing desk.”
The Hidden Bonus
Actually, there are two of them. The first, and most obvious, is the whole point – the players absorb the details of the narrative subject without realizing it. These details inform them not only directly about the scene being played, but by generalization and extrapolation, the wider world beyond the immediate.
But the hidden bonus is this: the need to deliver imputed narrative forces the GM to keep their NPCs active (appropriately), part of their setting, during scenes and sequences where it’s all-too-easy for them to become static “talking heads”. Dialogue and action scenes become part of the story beyond their outcome, and the non-narrative parts of the game become more vibrant and alive – while further abbreviating the static, boring bits. Winner!