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In The Lord of the Rings, when Legolas the elf succeeded on his spot check, he was the one to announce to his friends that he saw riders in the distance. There was no voice from the all powerful DM in the sky that informed Aragorn and Gimli at the same time, and they learned only when Legolas told them.

As a DM, I would like to let my characters announce their discoveries to the group, in order to let their characters interact, increase the immersion, and let my players have the fun of exposing what the characters discover.

Unfortunately, doing so seems difficult, and unpractical. I thought about secret notes, but I fear they would down the game if I have to always write things down and send them to someone. I thought about texting, but I would rather not have cellphones at my table.

So, what are strategies to let my characters announce what they know in a way that enhances the game instead of bogging it down?

Feel free to re-explore the two methods I named here, as those were simply impressions on my part, and I am not ruling them out. Also, don't be afraid to tell me it can't be done if that's the case.

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Are you concerned only about situations where the information will (probably) be instantly communicated to the other PCs, or are you also looking for solutions to situations where one PC is separated from the group for a couple minutes (scouting ahead, for example) and then returning with their gathered knowledge? –  SevenSidedDie Jun 19 at 16:18
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Both, if possible. –  derp Jun 19 at 21:44

6 Answers 6

up vote 25 down vote accepted

In my experience, actually hiding knowledge from all but one player is usually less dramatically interesting than the alternative. The reason is the concept of dramatic irony. Dramatic irony is when the audience of a story (in this case, you and the players) knows something that the characters do not. When you tell the whole table something that only one character knows, you now get to watch how that character explains the information in character, if they explain it at all. This is often hilarious, and just as often chilling. So most of the time, I think it's best just to tell the whole table and let them work it out in character.

That said, I think there are only two cases where you might want to pass notes, and they're rare enough that you can probably write the notes out before the session to save time:

1) When the character might have reason to keep the information to his/herself.

When Legolas sees riders in the distance, he's not going to not tell his friends about them. They're a team, and he's not a jerk. Hiding the information from other players and waiting for Legolas to convey it to them slows down the game and doesn't add anything meaningful to the experience. There are going to be very few situations where a character is going to want to hide information from the party. Mostly they come down to things like backstory, being secretly possessed by an evil wizard, or intra-party murder plots. If you're not running an evil campaign, this probably won't happen very often.

2) You don't trust your players not to meta-game.

This is the big one, and I think it's better to solve it by talking to players about roleplaying etiquette than by finding a way to pass them tons of secret notes. Make them understand that there is a difference between what they as players know, and what they as characters know. Even if they're A+ roleplayers, though, there will probably still be times when you want to avoid biasing their thinking. Maybe one character has been far away, scouting, and has some crucial information about an enemy attack, but you want the other characters to be standing around bickering with the emperor, completely oblivious, until the first character's breathless arrival.

Even in those cases, I find that a table full of good roleplayers is better able to help you tell a memorable story if the players have more information, rather than less. Basically, I'd say think very carefully about when a secret note would be helpful, write them all ahead of time, and stick to those instances only.

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I actually think your #2 is way off. The stated issue in the question is that players sharing knowledge is a roleplaying opportunity that increases immersion. There's nothing in the question about how to prevent players from misusing metagame knowledge such that levelling the charge of mistrusting them with the metagame is warranted. Trusting players not to metagame is good advice, but doesn't appear to be relevant to the problem we've been asked to solve. Your point about more information being good for the resulting RP is much more on-point, and should probably be the focus there. –  SevenSidedDie Jun 19 at 16:13
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Actually this answer gives not only an element of response, but transcends the question to get through the root of the disease to address it. It is a very high quality answer as it is, and removing some part of it would only make it worst in my opinion. –  Saffron Jun 19 at 16:18
    
@Saffron this answers do not transcends the question, it avoids it. That might mean that the question could be better stated, but telling that he should not give private information to characters while he asked "How can I do this and not bog down the play" is not an answer. –  Gunar Bastos Jun 19 at 21:43
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@GunarBastos The OP's question (the one in the body of the question, rather than the title) was "How do I let my characters announce what they know in a way that enhances the game?" This answer reads as "You enhance the game most by doing this only in rare circumstances." It seems a valid answer to me. –  GMJoe Jun 20 at 5:20
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My intention with this answer - and maybe this wasn't clear enough - was to say that it's easy enough to reduce the number of times you need to pass notes down to the point where they can all be written in advance. Then the disadvantage of slowing down the game disappears. So in a way, this was just a long-winded way of solving the OP's problem with note-passing. –  Tack Jun 20 at 17:25

This seems to me more of a problem of out-of-game knowledge instead of in-game one. Just because the GM gives a piece of information to one of the player about what his character knows, it does not mean that the rest of the characters know about it.

The rest of the players should play their character ignorant of the information that only one character knows. This gives the players a chance to add drama to their adventures: What happens when they make the wrong choice? In addition, the player might chose to pass this information in character. This allows them to add, or make enhance what the GM said.

A silly example:

Bob: I try to see if there's someone in the shadows.
GM: Bob, roll perception.
Bob: Failed!
GM: You are not sure if anyone is there.
Bob, in character: Guys, I saw movement. I think someone has seen us... We should reconsider.
Alice, in character: Where?
Alice: GM, I passed my perception roll.
GM: All you see is some cloth blowing in the wind.
Alice, in character: All I see is a shirt blown from some washing line...
Bob, in character: I've got a bad feeling about this.

If the out-of-character information is getting in the way, then your only choice is to use secret notes of one form or the other.

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...you now get to watch how that character explains the information in character --> This can be really amusing on occasion. My story: The druid (D) was in bird shape, flying. He had a telepathic bond with the fighter (F). They were observing something from the ground. Rogue (R) -> F: "Is it a bird?"; F -> D: "Is it a bird?"; D -> me: "Is it a bird?"; me -> D: "As far as you can tell."; D -> F: "I didn't check"; F -> R: "Yes." We all cracked up laughing, because we could hear each stage of the telephone game happening. –  Bobson Jun 19 at 3:10
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I also think with a good group, it is enough if the GM explicitly talks to the one player scouting and the other players don't listen explicitly, because the scout will relay the information in his own words later on. So the other players do something else, while one is scouting or just don't listen in detail - works well enough! –  Falco Jun 21 at 8:40

You simply can't prevent the players from knowing things their characters' don't without actually preventing them from knowing. The age-old method is passing notes. The new-age method is a private text channel (mobile texts, private forum messaging, etc.) So far, no-one has managed to improve on those for short communications*, so you've found all the options.

Yes, the drawback is that it slows down the game a bit. That's not a horrible, awful thing though, and is a trade-off that you should probably try on for size before you decide that it must be intolerable.

Try passing notes for one session. Let the players know that you'll be doing this for knowledge available to only one character, and that it's an experiment so would they please give it a fair shot. See how much value it brings, and compare that to how much hassle it requires. Then you'll be able to judge whether it's worth it or not.

Don't be dissuaded by anyone saying that this is the "wrong" way to play or that it's outdated—this kind of secret knowledge can have surprising, emergent effects on the game that many players and GMs value inordinately. If you and your group find that the effect on play is worthwhile, that's all that matters. Just like we (well, some of us) accept the slowdown of detailed combat rules because they bring something into the game that we value, note-passing also slows down the game a certain amount while offering (to some) a particular value.

* The other traditional method is for longer communications: taking someone into the other room. This obviously has even more downsides, since a private one-on-one keeps every other player waiting without even the entertainment of being the audience. But, again, the payoff is valuable enough to some groups to make it worth it.

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There are several options here if the issue is that immersion is broken by the GM stating what the PC sees.

A) Pass those notes.

The traditional method to let players announce what they see rather than the GM is with passed notes. This requires a good bit of planning and that planning might go to waste if the players don't perform the checks you think they will make. Some of this can be mitigated by writing a general description that becomes clear on any inspection, so the player reads this description and decides how their character would say what they see to the other characters.

B) Let the player decide what they notice, let the dice decide if they saw it correctly.

This gives up a lot of control that you have as a GM, but that's not always a bad thing. You can set the difficulty of the check based on how realistic what the player thinks they saw is as well as how much it will mess up your plot. This avoids the problem of getting information from the GM to the player by flipping the direction the information is flowing.

Clearly this won't work in all situations, but in serious campaigns with experienced players who understand that story cohesion is in their hands here, this can have great success.

C) Give the player the barest of details

From there, the player can tell the party what she sees with as much detail or lack of detail as they wish. If they decide to keep the info to themselves, then as is always the case, the other players need to keep player and character knowledge separate. This is kind of a hybrid of giving the player the control to decide what happened and telling them entirely, giving them the chance to embellish the smaller trivial details while getting at the meat of what the GM intended.


It is worth noting that only a rigidly GM controlled game like DND has this kind of issue. Other games that have more flexible controls for letting players decide some of what exists in the world might be better suited for this kind of immersion. A GM controlled world will always have to transfer knowledge from the GM to the players or shoe-horn in the ability for players to decide things about the world itself.

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Why the downvote? –  DampeS8N Jun 18 at 16:43
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-1; Not answering the question 'change system to avoid problem' is not answer to the question asked. Also, bad advice. 'Change DnD into a narrative control game like FATE but with none of the rules for it' is a terrible idea. –  Jack Lesnie Jun 18 at 18:10
    
Downvote removed. I'm not sure I'll upvote, but it definitely is more applicable now. –  Bobson Jun 19 at 14:04

One technique found in games like Fate and Dungeon World is allowing the player, on a successful roll (or expenditure of a drama token of some sort) to define what's true. By using "Spout Lore" or "Declare A Story Detail," you get moments like those because the information is literally and factually new information to all other players—including yourself! If you're worried about players using this to take undue advantage in a game not designed to accommodate it, you could place limits on the kind of information that gets brought forth. In my experience, though, as long as you're on the same page about the kind of game it is, this is a great way to hand some of the creative process over to the players and get fun, surprising results.

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@SevenSidedDie In games where this takes place, the player revelation and character revelation happen simultaneously — Legolas reveals there are riders in the distance at the same time that the player decides there are riders in the distance. The querent is looking for a way to have the information come from a player character, rather than DM infodump. Is there something I can make more clear? –  Jadasc Jun 19 at 16:08
    
It occurs to me that I'm reading more into the question, such as how to reveal information from scouting separately, than is being asked. I'm not sure now if that's deliberate or an oversight in the question, so I'll ask. Objection withdrawn for the time being. :) –  SevenSidedDie Jun 19 at 16:16
    
I got clarification: the asker does indeed want, if possible, something that can also handle knowledge acquired while separated from the other players' characters. –  SevenSidedDie Jun 19 at 22:39

You cannot eat alone if you bring your friends to dinner

And you cannot pass private information if you don't show the information privately. However there is a common misconception on RPG about this, we see the "Dungeon Master" as some sort of "Storyteller" (some systems even use that word for the role), and we expect from a Storyteller words that weave a story.

We fail to see that directors in movies are as much of a Storytellers as writers in a Book, or Photographer (or Artist) when it put their art for show in a Gallery.

Do not limit yourself to words

Words are an abstraction that was created by men to allow communication between people. It is a way to convey raw sensory data into a form that can be shared with someone else. Therefore, it is always slower to absorb (and more prone to interpretation errors) than the raw input itself.

When Legolas spotted the group of riders in the distance, he used his eyes to make that discovery, not his mind, ears or any other way. In this case you could simply show to the player an image that conveys what he saw.

If your party has arrived town, and they need hear a music to know where the inn is, put the music on when they arrive town and turn it up when they succeed at the perception check, if they are making a sense motive check, passing down a note with a single word with the impression/emotion that they get from the check is enough. If it is a sense evil spell, a note with a drawing of relative position should do the trick.

If you start to use more ways to stimulate your players (and their characters) simply words, you will start to get from them more diversed (and hopefully more rich) interactions and interpretations.

What you need to be aware of

The main risk in going down this path is that you need to take into account the balance between anticipation and realization.

When the DM announce that Legolas saw riders in the distance, that builds anticipation on the other players for what is to come. That is a implicit promisse of an encounter (be it combat or stealth). If you remove this you will also build anticipation toward the Player that control Legolas, and if Legolas does not share it will not only kill the promise of the encounter, but also may build up anticipations for a future treason that may lead either to internal fighting, or to bogged down sessions because of in-party mistrust.

If you are capable to direct the anticipation of the players towards the story, then I say "go for it", if you suspect that your group will try to work secretively instead of cooperatively (and your story is not about internal disputes) then just don't.

Another thing that you need to be careful is to consider if this "DM Talking in place of character" breaks your group suspension of disbelief, or only yours. If the whole group buys it as something that needs fixing then do it, otherwise it may bog down your play just because they will not be into it. You can talk to them about and agree to at least 3 sessions (one to stop being afraid, one to learn how it is properly done, and one to decide wether you like it or not) to try it out and then finally decide if that is for your group or not.

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