Centuries Ago The Dark Lord: when and how to dump

‘Lore dumps.’ It’s not an attractive phrase.

Bit of housekeeping first. I want to remember that most games are not written under perfect circumstances where writers see all their work go into the game in a perfectly executed way. Maybe someone wrote a series of dialogues with a companion NPC where the protag carefully teases out the oral history of that NPC’s homeland, and why they’re at war with the player’s homeland, and that serves as a basis for choice-driven relationship development between the NPC and the player… and the setting information seeped invisibly into the game… and then the NPC got cut at the last minute because budget. Now no-one understands anything about the setting history and it’s two months from launch and a big chunk of the plot no longer makes any sense. What are you going to do? well maybe you’re going to wince and add pop-up text screen explaining the whole thing and resign yourself to people groaning ‘UGH LORE DUMP’ for the next five years because it’s the smallest evil.

Nother bit of housekeeping. Some people like lore dumps. Technical manuals for film franchises keep on selling. You know your audience and your game better than I do. But you don’t have to put it in everyone’s face. You can leave it in a book on a shelf, where it belongs, and where it won’t annoy the non-dumpthusiasts.

But here are some signs that you’re going to put something in your game that will send your player off to make herself a cup of tea, or alt-tab out to bitch about your game on Twitter.

1. Lore dumps that don’t sound like something a human would say.

Player: tell me about this city.
NPC: Darkburg is the capital of the Kingdom of Gloaming. It attracts merchants from all over the world, although many people here are concerned that the coming war with Shadowville means we’ll see fewer visitors.

Player: tell me about this city.
Alexis: London is the capital of the UK, and of England. It attracts tourists from all over the world. But many people here are concerned that the coming exit from the European Union means we’ll see fewer visitors.

2. Lore dumps that don’t read like something a human would write.

[Letter]: As you know, my lady, the Chancellor is very concerned about the coming war with Shadowville, although she claims in public that it’ll be a triumph that will regenerate our nation…

[Email]: As you know, Lottie, the Prime Minister is very concerned about the coming exit from the European Union, although she claims in public that it’ll be a triumph that will regenerate our nation…

3. Lore dumps that feel like homework.

NPC: the West of Darkburg contains some of our highest-rent districts. In the centre, we have the Temple of the Great Night, the Empress’ Residence and the Museum of Pain. You can find lots of shops in the Brass District. The best way to get around is…

Alexis: the West of London contains some of our highest-rent districts. In the centre, we have St Paul’s Cathedral, the Houses of Parliament and the British Museum. You can find lots of shops in Oxford Street. The best way to get around is…

If you’re thinking ‘here is a big list of all the information about this place: I should put the information into some words, and then the words will go into the player’s head, and so will the information’ then you risk ending up with something like the examples above. It’s okay not to tell players some of those things. It’s okay to tell them things in character. It’s okay not to tell them everything right now. They’re still going to be in your game an hour from now, and if they’re not, you have bigger problems.

4. Lore dumps that could be copy/pasted into another game without anyone noticing.

NPC: Hundreds of years ago, the Dark Lord Alpha seized the power of Beta for himself, and covered all the lands of Gamma in illimitable darkness. At last the wise mage Delta bestowed his finest pupil, Epsilon, with the power of Zeta. Epsilon fought her way to the heart of the dangerous realm of Eta and slew Alpha with the Zeta. Peace reigned over all the lands of Theta. But now we hear dark rumours of dark stirrings in the dark heart of Eta. In the peaceful hamlet of Iota you know nothing of this, yet, but soon you must begin your journey to

Honestly, why bother? ‘Because I’m on a day rate to write a Terry Brooks pastiche for a mid-core mobile game’ is actually a fair answer, but there’s probably something more interesting to be done. Or at least shorter.

5. Lore dumps that are in there out of a sense of mistaken duty

A lot of things in games are there because people kinda thought they ought to do that because isn’t that what people do? This is the same reason that indies write press releases that begin “we’re excited to announce”.

Here are some things you can do to minimise the tea-making and the bitching on Twitter.


Some folk write lore because it’s what they love doing, some folk write lore because they need it to fill the technical manual spinoff book, many because isn’t that what you do when you’re making an SFF game? you sit down and invent five nations and write a timeline?

I mean, you can, but the thing about things that everyone does is that those things are then things that people get bored with, because everyone’s done it. I love Tolkien, but he started putting his legendarium together almost a hundred years ago now, and he doesn’t need to be the default model to follow. More along these lines here: https://www.gamesindustry.biz/articles/2017-02-02-against-worldbuilding

If there are five nations in your world and the player is only ever going to visit one and they’re not involved in politics anyway, maybe only write up two nations.

If you need a third nation, then you can invent it later! And if you haven’t given the player a tour-guide talk on the Wheat Wars between Cerea and Gluta, then when you cut the Wheat Wars from your plan, you’ll have fewer continuity issues.

I’m being a bit glib. Planning helps. But it’s okay to leave room to invent or change stuff later. You don’t need to show the player all your draft setting notes.

1. Keep the information to an absolute minimum.

Here’s the lore dump I put at the beginning of Sunless Sea.

There is a lot of Fallen London lore. This doesn’t mention nine-tenths of the setting info. The first draft was like five paras. But I realised very quickly that most of it is just so much blah to new players, and so much yeah I know to people who’d played Fallen London.

So this says (a) you are in Victorian London but (b) it’s weird and (c) underground, nevertheless (d) people are used to it now and, btw, (e) the Unterzee is the thing in front of you. That’s actually all you need at this point.

That’s the tweet that kicked off this blog post. Paul’s right (I think ‘a big chunk’ is ‘about 5%’, but with an audience in the hundreds of thousands that’s still thousands of players). But you know what? Let ’em. No game is universally beloved, and it’s better to frustrate the impatient than to bore the attentive. A minority of people have complained for ten years that Fallen London needs a codex or an opening cutscene or something. But the vast majority of people are there to get the lore nugget by delicious nugget. And a lot of the frustrated folk come around in the end.

Every time an interviewer says “how could game narrative improve” my answer is “actually it’s very often very good these days. But we could all do with respecting our players’ intelligence more.”

2. Give the player a reason to be curious.

NPC: For a thousand years the Moon Queen ruled over Selentia, and her werewolves were everywhere. Theirs was the power of the Moonplague! Finally she was imprisoned, but only with the use of…. [dramatic pause]

Player: Something bit me!
NPC: Lo, the dread bite of one of Selentia’s werewolves!
Player: Okay. Cure Disease, pls
NPC: For a thousand years the Moon Queen ruled over Selentia, and her werewolves were everywhere. Theirs was the power of the Moonplague! Finally she was imprisoned, but only with the use of… [dramatic pause]

Player: Something bit me!
NPC: Lo, the dread bite of one of Selentia’s werewolves! which drives mo –
Player: I’ve got an Intelligence drain? it looks permanent?
NPC: drives mortals mad!!
NPC:  For a thousand years the Moon Queen ruled over Selentia, and her werewolves were everywhere. Theirs was the power of the Moonplague! Finally she was imprisoned, but only with the use of… [dramatic pause]

Player: Something bit me!
NPC: was it, like, a big silver wolf? Do you feel your wits grow weak and
Player:  yes! intelligence drain! fix!
NPC: I don’t know much about big silver wolfs, but is there anywhere around here that looks like it has to do with big silver wolf magic?
Player: oh God I don’t know unless maybe well there’s that white marble place with the silver glow over in the Moonwood haaaang on a sec
NPC: the palace of the Moon Queen? yes, that sounds like a good place to start looking for a cure! 
Player: ta. I hadn’t realised this was a game where setting and mechanic worked harmoniously together, so I’d written it off as scenery. back in a sec
NPC: how did your weapons work against that big silver wolf?
Player: it had some pretty serious phys resistances, actually
NPC: Mm.
Player: What do you mean, ‘Mm’?
NPC: Oh nothing it’s probably just a silly story
Player: No, go on, we burnt through all our potions fighting just one of those things, and if there’s a plot weapon somewhere I’d like to know
NPC: For a thousand years the Moon Queen ruled over Selentia, and her werewolves were everywhere. Theirs was the power of the Moonplague! Finally she was imprisoned, but only with the use of… [dramatic pause]



Okay, I’m exaggerating for effect, and actually the player has prolly kept reloading until they managed not to get bitten, and then gone online to complain that the intelligence draining wolfs make mages unplayable unless you keep reloading, but yswim.

3. Write it extremely good

“The Dwarves tell no tale; but even as mithril was the foundation of their wealth, so also it was their destruction: they delved too greedily and too deep, and disturbed that from which they fled, Durin’s Bane.”

If you write it so evocatively that people recognise the quote seventy years later and TV Tropes names the trope page after your lore dump, you’re allowed to do it. that’s official. if anyone asks, tell them AK sent you. tell them he says it’s okay not to capitalise sentence starts if you’re writing online and wanting to sound urgent and conversational, too.

NB though that part of the reason it’s evocative is that he was writing about an endgame boss coming up from the bottom of a dungeon thirty years before D&D was even thought on. Never copy Tolkien outright.

4. Add a point of view.

Cultist Simulator is pretty much a lore dump redesigned to be playable as a game already, but I jazzed up some of the more expository occult tomes by adding a point of view.

label: “Read this volume of Travelling at Night”,
startdescription: “Illopoly’s disquisitions on fire and the Unburnt God are interrupted by passages of distractingly erotic poetry addressed to ‘Baldomera’.'”,
description: “‘To reach the Stag Door, I believe that all you really need is to want something enough. But I’ve never wanted anything that much, except of course Baldomera, and I’m very much afraid that the knot in the story is this: what Baldomera wants is the Stag Door. But here’s something I learnt in Persia. Perhaps it’ll teach you what you want.'”,

Exposition here (which will probably only make any sense if you’ve played a bit of CS): this book contains Forge-principle lore; the Unburnt God is one way the Forge of Days was worshipped in Persia. Christopher Illopoly is sweet on Baldomera; Baldomera might not reciprocate; the player should use Dream with their Desire to approach the Stag Door. I could just have put that as a list of bullet points, but it was more fun to make it a character moment. It nearly always is.

5. Let the player ask questions about it.

Even if it’s a basic lawnmower dialogue where the player says things like ‘Tell me about the north side of Darkburg’, that’s better than a text crawl. Little bit of call-response to keep them awake is all you need. This is a good way to get a point of view or some character writing or a reason to care in too.

6. Break it up and scatter it through the game. 

If you’ve ever tried to feed vegetables to a small child, you’ll know the principle.

Loading screen messages are great for this. Coincidentally, so are conversations where the player asks questions.

If you do this, the best approach is to approach the same fact multiple times from different angles.

7. Lampshade it.

“We’ve got to sit through this really boring lecture on the Trade Federation blockade, but I’ll sit next to you talking about my backstory and I’ll nudge you in the ribs when the lecturer gets to an important bit.”

Lampshading is generally a technique of last resort, but sometimes you need a last resort.

I had an NPC interrupt like this in Fallen London, actually, when you go to talk to the Lady in Lilac while a performance of the Seventh Letter plays out in the background. There’s some juicy lore in the Seventh Letter, but if you had to sit through me write out the whole thing you’d be bored as balls and I’d be way over deadline.

8. Don’t use words.

Okay, there are words on screen here. But writers can forget there are other ways to convey information.

3 comments on Centuries Ago The Dark Lord: when and how to dump
  1. Because of course Alexis Kennedy goes on TV tropes. A good read and solid advice, almost makes me wish I was an indie game dev instead of a starving novelist

  2. If I might go off on a wildly *speculative* tangent…Humans evolved to talk to each other and share information. Our brains are wired to understand certain kinds of information better. If you read that thing about Christopher and Baldomera—oh sure, we love hearing about *other people*. That’s GOSSIP! That slips right into the brain with no problem. Then, with the “spoonful of sugar” principle in mind, we pick up some of the other information contained in there as well.

    This reminds me of reading stuff that J. Michael Straczynski wrote about writing Babylon 5. I can’t remember the exact wording, but he talked about “slipping a story past the viewer when they were distracted”.

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