Meta-gaming and Trust
Personal scenes, be it dreams or otherwise, are a balance between meta-gaming and trust. In a group prone to meta-gaming they can be helpful to force players to only act on character knowledge. But in a trust lacking group they can cause player vs player tensions you probably don't want at your table.
I will try to give a couple of examples and their effects, drawing from both my own experience and from the dnd live streams I watch.
The spectacularly talented Matt Mercer from Critical Role uses Whispers and one on one scenes to provide character only knowledge to his players. For important dream sequences he asks the rest of the cast to leave the table. At one point in campaign 2 one of the players was giving detailed expository of their backstory and requested the players not present leave the table.
Critical Role have an experienced cast with loads of trust and few problems with meta-gaming so why do they do this?
- It builds suspense. Critical Role is a show and isolating cast members like this builds drama and tension in a scene. It would do similar things at your table.
- Forces players to re-tell scenes in character. Players will never retell something exactly the way the DM described it. This gives additional role playing opportunity as players need to relay the information entirely in character.
The British version of Critical Role. High Rollers, led by Mark Hulmes, takes a different approach. Mark shares all scenes openly at the table, only occasionally passing notes for personal character information.
This has a few advantages:
- It's faster. No requiring players to move or the DM to get up to whisper in their ear means they can move on with play faster.
- Player engagement. Players engage with the backstories and personal journeys of the other characters more easily as they get to see it unfold.
It also has a few drawbacks:
- Accidental Metagaming. Occasionally the player fail to distinguish between what they were told of the dream and what they witnessed. This is entirely accidental and never malicious but does happen.
- Less Immersive. With all the others still at the table the DM pushes through the highlights of the dreams, trying to get the information across before the other players get bored.
My Experience as DM
I have used both approaches at my table over the last couple of years and I will highlight a couple of them.
The party sent the Dwarven Barbarian to negotiate a deal with a pirate captain to smuggle them out of a town where they were wanted. I took the player into another room to discuss the deal. The captain was actually a slaver and the cost of transport would be custody of one of the party. I won't go into details about the deal or the subsequent negotiations and eventual escape.
Outcomes of this approach:
- Gave my Barbarian player a chance to shine. Street smarts and ability to survive in a cut-throat world were part of her character concept and I gave her the chance to do this away from the Bard.
- Led to mistrust between the players out of character. Despite her informing the party of the conditions in character, I encountered issues with players believing she was going to betray them. With more mature players this is less likely to be an issue but most of mine were fairly new at the time.
- I had to abandon a story arc as the other players could never resolve their differences regarding this pirate.
So with new players this didn't work so well. Your mileage may vary however.
After some time it became appropriate for my Half-Orc Paladin to receive some dreams from his God. I decided to try again and give him the opportunity to tell the others in character. While my now more experienced players didn't have trust issues this time I still wouldn't call it a success.
- I felt rushed and less able to create immersion away from the table. I was worrying about the other players and didn't describe the dream as well as I could have at the table.
- The player chose not to relay the dreams. Hence they didn't come into play at the table and the cool story arc wasn't developing how I expected.
- The other players didn't learn about the Paladin. The newest member of the party he was the least attached to the campaign and having his cool scenes in a different room didn't help them care about him.
For a later dream I decided to run it at the table with the others present to compare the differences. This approach worked better for me.
- I could use all my tools to set the scene. Music, props and the DM screen were available to me being at the table. This increased immersion for the Paladin player.
- The others players are now really excited to explore the Paladin's story arc. Though they don't know about it in character they are more willing to go along with him since they know there is something cool at the end of it.
- The players felt they had missed out on something now they knew what had happened in a different room.
As shown by Critical Role, with an experiences group keeping things secret definitely can work, but requires a lot of buy in from your players.
Advantages to secrets:
- More role playing opportunities
- Increase immersion for one player. (If you can pull it off)
- Can give players a chance to shine.
Drawbacks to secrets:
- Other players less engaged
- Risk of trust issues between players
- Reliance on player to bring the secret into play
Advantages to telling everyone:
- Engagement with backstories
- It's faster
- No one has to leave the table
Drawbacks to telling everyone:
- Risk of Meta-gaming
- Less dramatic/special for the player involved
- Less role playing as the player does not need to inform the party
DMate's answer has some excellent recommendations for your situation. I will draw from them and add some of my own.
- Run the scene openly but make it clear to the other players that they do not know this information until it is shared with them in character. Whether you include the abilities gained as well is up to you. I would err on the side of keeping that private.
- Run the scene privately but inform the others that the character was visited by a dream in the night. Then it is up to the player to share the details, but giving an overview should go some way to negating trust issues.
- If you want to ask their preferences, ask the entire table. That way they can't know it is intended for them. Plus you know for the others for future reference.
Apologies for the long winded answer. Good luck and happy gaming!