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What are the advantages/disadvantages to using either a kind of "Limited Narration" or an "Omniscient Narration" style when running a game?

i.e. Does saying...

None of the characters notice the Slave I floating amongst the trash. As you fly away, it silently powers up its engines and follows behind.

... in the style of an omniscient narrator make the role playing more difficult or the story more interesting? Or should the GM's description be limited to only what the player characters know and see, thus making them a limited narrator?

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I don't think you mean unreliable narration. What you mean is close first-person narration. An unreliable narrator is one that changes his story, lies and otherwise lacks credibility. Unless I'm really misunderstanding, what you're talking about is a GM who only tells the players what their PCs experience--not a GM that gives an unreliable description of what their PCs experience. – cr0m Jan 30 '11 at 4:27
@cr0m - I thought about this point when I wrote the question. In my opinion, it can't be First Person Narration, as the narration is not in the first person; the GM is not a character and the story is not told from the GMs perspective but from everyone else's. Now, in the above scenario, if the GM tells the players "No ships are following your characters" because they fail the Spot/Perception checks, are they not changing the story in the style of an unreliable narrator? Hence, I personally feel Unreliable Narrator is the best term. – LeguRi Jan 30 '11 at 4:39
@Tynam: You don't enjoy winding your players up? Weirdo. :) – chaos Jan 30 '11 at 11:30
Also, if you usually say things in subjective mode, then you can use a switch to objective mode to signal to your players that you want them to move on from this plot point and not waste any more time on it. – chaos Jan 30 '11 at 23:44
@cr0m - I think I got it: Third-Person Limited Narration contrasted with Third Person Omniscient. What do you think? – LeguRi Jan 31 '11 at 23:41
up vote 23 down vote accepted

This depends entirely on what you're trying to do in the context of the narrative that you're creating. Certain stories lend themselves to certain means of presentation -- moreover, certain groups lend themselves to certain styles of narration than others. If your group has a significant problem firewalling player knowledge away from character knowledge that's a strong indicator that you probably want to avoid the omniscient narrator. If your players often say things like, "I smile and give the shopkeeper three groats, chuckling inwardly at the knowledge of how much I've cheated him," odds are good that the idea of the omniscient narrator will go over well with them.

In some cases the use of an unreliable narrator as the GM's voice can decrease trust between the players and the GM in the most basic of ways, the reporting of the perceptual environment that their characters must respond to. If you end up in a situation where someone's character is taken out of the scene because they might have hidden behind a rock and a blame you for not communicating the possibility that they could have done that you end up in a place you don't want to be as a GM. In that sense the use of the unreliable narrator can be a significant detriment to gameplay unless your group is aware that that's the voice which will be communicated in and is aware of their own narrative power to symbolically manipulate the environment.

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I agree with this. I find that I sometimes use the omniscient narration for flashbacks... – Wilmanric Aug 19 '10 at 21:36
"Hide behind a rock!" – cthom06 Aug 19 '10 at 21:46

I nearly always limit my narration to the perceptions of the PCs. They are role-playing specific characters, so the players' view of the world should be as close to their characters'.

Omniscient narration would invite metagaming and spoil surprises and plot twists.

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"You discover the conspiracy that I told you about at yesterday's session. You're 3K10+2 surprised." ;) – naugtur Aug 23 '10 at 11:52

I tried Omniscient for a while and the players found it annoying so I stopped. Definitely worth checking with your players.

At the start of some game sessions I have used "News Report" where I read out a monologue that describes how the news reported what they did in the last game session. It helps the players get their minds into the game and shows them what utter chaos the characters have caused. That voice type is sort of Omniscient.

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As a GM, the bedrock of my interactions with a gaming group is the precept that You (PC) are not Omniscient. If there is a perceived conflict between what I said and what you THINK I meant, the fault is in your deductions; it's not MY problem. :) The players are forced to reexamine their assumptions, and are thereby nudged toward the correct solutions.

Thus, I only use the Omniscient tense to confirm prior events/deductions/conundrums, which gives the players the feel-goods and encourages them to keep up the good work.

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This is an interesting question - I've always tried to use the following technique:

Character-based perception is always the way I go, but for situations where something important has happened and would have required omniscient narration to share, I write it into NPC or companion character dialog. The players get the info, though usually too late to do anything about the situation - but it adds to the tension the next time they encounter anyone associated with the event.

While sneaking around the marketplace looking for a purse to cut, you're interest is piqued when you overhear a familiar name: "...Yeah! I saw Lord Mhoram just yesterday! He was wandering around dazed and a ghastly blue color - looked like death warmed over, he did!"

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Your interest should be piqued, not peaked. – DJClayworth Dec 6 '10 at 18:51
Thanks. There were 3 typos in there. :-P – F. Randall Farmer Jan 29 '11 at 17:29

I keep everything firmly tied to the perceptions of the characters. Sometimes, in the write-ups of the sessions on our website, I'll throw in some NPC motivations or something from the POV of an enemy. This helps cement the larger world in the players minds while keeping it obviously out of the character's knowledge. Cut scenes like "No-one noticed Slave I..." would have a place here - though only after the effects of what was missed became obvious.

To expand on your example:

1) Characters think they defeat Boba Fett but he's picked up by his backup, snuck onboard Slave 1 and spirited away to rest up. 2) Boba Fett ambushes the characters a few weeks later. The players are all "Huh?" while the characters fry. 3) In the session write-up on our website I could stick a flashback detailing what had been missed back then and what he'd been up to.

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It's a player preference. Most GMs will go with whatever they prefer as players. I think it's just a matter of knowing your group and seeing what works for them and what doesn't. Some players would certainly take the comment about what they don't see as a reason to double back and take another look.

The danger I've seen with narrator omniscience is that players are also liable to assume NPC omniscience. I ran a murder investigation a couple years back. Several NPCs were pushing bad information, not because they were lying but because they had been lied to. The players actually stopped the game and told me I was running the investigation wrong, because they didn't see how the crime could work. They were assuming all the NPCs were perfectly reliable sources of information. When they realized this was a social puzzle and not a logical one, play resumed and the PCs did fine.

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+1, as you've pointed out an easy-to-miss but very real disadvantage that could derail a campaign and break suspension of disbelief. – GMJoe Mar 5 '12 at 5:47

As with most things with GMing, it mostly depends on your players and the situation.

In the example you gave it would be hard for most players not to meta-game this knowledge to some extent and that might be fine in the situation. If you feel that they are being too knowing then gentle reminders should get them back into the realm of character knowledge. If they aren't the type of players to take notice of these reminders then you should probably steer clear of this type of narration.

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You absolutely should not tell PCs anything except what they perceive (and what their characters might already know). Any "backstory" must be presented by an NPC or the like (e.g. an interrogated prisoner reveals they followed your ship unnoticed). Otherwise you are breaking character.

"Unreliable narration" suggests misinformation from the referee, which could be entertaining in its own right (NPCs telling half-truths; spells or madness distorting the characters' minds).

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A number of games make elements of NPC's public knowledge, including information the PC's would not know. Several games specifically do this so that, in the encounters, you can make use of their psych lims to drive conflicts. It's a different style of play than you seem to envisage, but it is a valid style, and can be a blast. – aramis Oct 12 '10 at 1:47
I understand role-playing psychological limitations; your character may be compelled to fornicate with animals, while you yourself are not. I don't understand how this means the DM should give the player information his character doesn't have. Maybe you can give an example. – Modern Hacker Jan 29 '11 at 15:23

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