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I generally try to keep my campaigns fairly open-ended and avoid railroading my players, or keep it to a minimum when it is performed. Generally they always tend to have a plot hook or two that they can follow, and tend to be invested enough in the presented hooks that I don't have to worry about them going too far off.

However, I have noticed at times, some players tend to have what I would equate to a "Well what do we do now that were here?" look. While none of them have explicitly expressed that feeling, when talking to them about the sessions I sometimes feel like they were struggling with deciding how to approach some of the more open ended situations, especially after some time or adventures have passed between receiving their original goal, and having the ability to act upon it.

Is it considered appropriate, to, as a DM, tell a player the thoughts of their character? For example, after describing a town they arrive in, saying something like any of the following examples :

"Your mind races with thoughts of the upcoming tasks at hand, perhaps you should look into [Group X], or go talk to [Knowledgeable Guy Y] about [Bad Thing Z]."

"The town guard stand vigilant and alert at the gate, noting down those who pass through, perhaps they may have seen [FindThisGuy A]?"

I know some players can be sensitive about being told what their characters think, but the thoughts I'm proposing are strictly a question of knowledge and goals, and not opinions of what characters think of a particular person or situation.

What are the consequences of telling players their character's thoughts as a method to help guide their actions?

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  • \$\begingroup\$ Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat. \$\endgroup\$ – mxyzplk Dec 5 '18 at 2:15
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Giving players their character's knowledge should facilitate play without taking away player agency.

tl;dr Provide description, even if it's realizations internal to the character that maximize player agency.

Provide knowledge based hooks

Class or domain knowledge that affects the story or provides a hook

The characters have training that can give them insight into a situation. This can be provided as observations of the character and the player can make of it what they will.

"Being a trained fighter, you noticed that the guards at the gates were wearing ill fitting uniforms and were holding their spears awkwardly."

"The rogue in the group overhears some peculiar phrases, and recognizes them as theive's cant. He overhears that Mr. Y is a very knowledgeable guy."

Character Knowledge

If the players are formulating plans, it can be useful to include their backgrounds or other aspects to give them some insight into what may or may not work. When provided as experience based insight as to how the world works without what the character's opinion on the matter is, allows the player to make better informed decisions.

"The bard spent his childhood as a beggar, and would know that approaching the urchin by forming a ring around him will only serve to drive him away."

Avoid directly dictating thoughts or intentions

This is clearly the demesne of the player. It can remove player agency, and make the game more of the GM running the entire show. The GM should narrate the stage and the reactions of the world to it. Not the reactions of the players to the world. That's the player's role.

Giving players clues as to how the environment is affecting them.

"The foppish noble insults the wizard's shabby clothing. It's clear he's attempting to anger the wizard."

This allows the player role play their wizard's reaction. Do they get angry and react? Do they play it cool? Do they shake it off while singing some bar song they learned last night? That's up to the player.

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    \$\begingroup\$ @Rubiksmoose My assumption is a D&D or GURPs or Shadowrun like system that is about player agency. Entirely possible that there are systems that minimize player agency. I think those are probably less role playing and more help the GM write their novella. \$\endgroup\$ – GcL Dec 3 '18 at 20:48
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    \$\begingroup\$ @Rubiksmoose I just stated that I was assuming it. The evidence that led me to that assumption is the choice of the term "DM". \$\endgroup\$ – GcL Dec 3 '18 at 20:53
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    \$\begingroup\$ +1 for proper usage of demesne in a sentence. :) \$\endgroup\$ – KorvinStarmast Dec 4 '18 at 1:05
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    \$\begingroup\$ The question has been edited to ask about the consequences rather than whether it's "appropriate", so you may need to edit your answer accordingly once the question is reopened. \$\endgroup\$ – V2Blast Dec 4 '18 at 22:22
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Generally, you should not tell your players what their characters think

The GM controls the entire world except for the player characters. What the player characters are thinking and how they are emotionally feeling is generally left for the player to decide.

Of course, there are some minor exceptions for when some effect, especially a supernatural one, causes a character to think or feel something specific, but that is not what you are asking about.

You can and should tell your players what their characters know.

The Characters will know quite a bit that the players will not know. The Players after all have only a distant and murky view of what the characters are experiencing much less what they learned through decades or even centuries of life in the foreign setting of the game world. It is perfectly appropriate to tell the player that their character knows certain things that might be relevant.

In fact, many knowledge skills are there precisely to provide a mechanical structure to that kind of knowledge. I would never hesitate to call for a check against an appropriate skill to see if the character knew something pertinent, or make it myself behind the screen.

I would never phrase this as "Perhaps you should check...". It is the Player's job to decide what they should do. But a more neutral statement of "Your knowledge of the city and its people tells you that X might know something relevant" or "You know this city keeps fastidious records and you know that Person Y has access to them" is helpful and appropriate, especially if you tie that knowledge in to a specific character that has reason to know it.

Other options

When the players seem to be at an impasse, and the plot is at a place to support it, remember you can also have information find them. For instance, if they are investigating a criminal organization, but run out of leads, they might stumble over a crime and learn in the process of foiling it that the criminal is a low-level member of the organization. While this could feel somewhat like Deus Ex if not handled well, a version of this is done frequently and sometimes openly be prosecutors in the real world where it is sometimes called ladder climbing.

Alternatively, if the characters have been loud around town about what their goals are, such as by asking in every tavern there is, someone with information may well approach them offering to help, for a price... While not precisely the same, in the real world many "mixers" or "networking events" are explicitly set up to help facilitate that kind of meeting.

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    \$\begingroup\$ The question has been edited to ask about the consequences rather than whether it's "appropriate", so you may need to edit your answer accordingly once the question is reopened. \$\endgroup\$ – V2Blast Dec 4 '18 at 22:22
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You can accomplish this by describing the situation and letting people think what they will.

I mean, you do it all the time already, right? You just say

The flag of Dobravia ripples in the evening breeze, two crossed swords on a field of blue.

Even though Grognak's standing right there! Grognak, who was raised by wolves in the frozen Northlands and has finally mastered "two" but has no concept of swords, flags, or the color blue! (He calls it "pale black".)

You're not describing what any particular character is seeing. You're describing what "the camera" is seeing, in terms that the players will understand, and leaving it to them to decide what their characters take away from it. You're describing the situation.

Similarly, you can say

The bustling market rings the town square. There's a fishmonger, a sausage shop, half-a-dozen clothiers in a variety of styles, and deeper in than you can see, you hear someone applying hammer to anvil with a force and a quickness.

You don't ask who's looking left and not talk about the sausage shop (which is on the left) if nobody's looking there. It's the situation of the market, and your players decide what's important to them.

So sure, describe the situation of their agenda, which is going to include not only what they'd have to do but the reason they'd have to do it.

Grognak, last time you clashed with [Group X] they licked their wounds and told you to come to Dobravia if you wanted a real fight. Well, here you are.

Wizzrobe, the portents of [Bad Thing Z] still burn in the Crystal of Glimmorath. According to the Academy directory, [Knowledgeable Guy Y] has set up shop somewhere around here. So how do you find a sage?

Stringfellow, all you managed to nail down of [FindThisGuy A]'s trail is that he was heading north. And this is north, and the only patch of civilization you've seen for miles. Maybe it'd be worth asking around, see if someone's seen him. You know, on the down-low.

So! What's everyone planning?

The Horrible Price To Pay

Of course there is one. Nothing's ever free.

The price to pay is that, as the GM, you know more about the world than you've told the players. It's kind of inevitable. So you need to take steps on your part to keep notes about what the players know, separate from your own notes. Maybe you can mark up your own notes in a different color, as long as you're super clear about what means what?

Otherwise you risk winding up saying something like

The flag of Dobravia ripples in the evening breeze, a flickering illusion concealing the banner of Ossian, King of the Dead, who secretly took over- crud, wait, wait, you never heard that!

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Players may feel like you're stepping on their toes or railroading them.

This is all about technique. Honestly, I try to avoid it because I don't think I'm great at it; I've had one too many players say "don't tell me how my character feels".

And it can be difficult to gauge when the players actually need help. Nobody likes when the players are having a good time talking to npcs and shopping or whatever, and the DM "reminds" them about what they "should" be doing.

The solution I've come up with is to speak about it with passive voice, using "ing" verbs. For your example, I would instead say something like:

"The upcoming tasks at hand are enough to make anyone's mind reel; looking into [Group X], or go talking to [Knowledgeable Guy Y] about [Bad Thing Z] could prove useful."

I actually like your second example, it seems like a perfect segue.

"The town guards stand vigilant and alert at the gate, noting down those who pass through; perhaps they may have seen [FindThisGuy A]?"

Maybe you don't need the last little bit. You're going to be the best judge as to how much hinting the group needs, but tread lightly.

Every group is different and some don't need or want this, but most groups would rather get along with a little help from "above" than awkwardly stare at each other, floundering over their next course of action.

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    \$\begingroup\$ @Rubiksmoose This has worked for me with D&D V.x, Fate, and various 1-page rpgs. It seems generally usable. \$\endgroup\$ – goodguy5 Dec 3 '18 at 20:45
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    \$\begingroup\$ The question has been edited to ask about the consequences rather than whether it's "appropriate", so you may need to edit your answer accordingly once the question is reopened. \$\endgroup\$ – V2Blast Dec 4 '18 at 22:22
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    \$\begingroup\$ Looks good. Regarding your example, I don't think that's third-person (or first-person) exactly... I think you mean to refer to passive voice? \$\endgroup\$ – V2Blast Dec 5 '18 at 4:22
  • \$\begingroup\$ @V2Blast I did, but I can never remember the term, for some reason. And it's technically 3rd person. The DM is talking about a 3rd person... the guard. but updated. \$\endgroup\$ – goodguy5 Dec 5 '18 at 4:23
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You're asking a lot of implicit questions here, in addition to the explicit one. I'll try to answer as many of them as I can.

Explicit: What are the consequences of telling my players what their characters think?

I can think of three:

  1. It can come dangerously close to (or outright be) railroading;
  2. Many players are justifiably sensitive to being told what they or their characters think; related, if you tell them they think something that turns out to be incorrect, the backlash is stronger in my experience;
  3. It does lend itself to compact, descriptive expressions of character expertise in some situations.

What I mean by all of those is this: As others have described, there is a divide between what a character thinks and what a character knows, and this is a very useful way to present information from knowledge-y skill checks. Say a ranger is tracking someone and makes a borderline skill check: He knows he has found tracks of (say) the orcs who have kidnapped someone they need to get back. He has found that the orcs split up, north and south. There is only one kidnapped NPC, so which group to follow?

It's certainly possible to wing it, and describe some signs that point to the captive going with Group A. ("Tell him what he sees.") It's also possible to tell him that the group that went north is bigger, and when orcs try this deception, they usually send the captive with the bigger group. ("Tell him what he knows.") And finally, it's possible to tell him he thinks the captive is with the group that went north. ("Tell him what he thinks.")

From my personal experience, the first and second options get a little tedious-- I have to keep making things up that I might not have prepared for, and most importantly I have to remember all this stuff. The third option is a lot more terse and a lot less burdensome... but the players will sometimes take that more personally than the other two. They might question their perceptions, but (my experience, anyway) they don't often question their own thoughts and as a consequence, they feel lied to. Some players will accept this as "That's the way I handle failed skill checks," and others really hate it.

But you're not really asking about skill checks, you're asking about high level stage directions. This is something that would get my hackles up as a player. Maybe not the first time, but rapidly.

Implicit: How Can I Provide Stage Directions To Flailing Players?

Well, you can do it like you're doing it, although I think the chance of bad reaction will be high. Traditionally, for the start of a game, you can also attach an NPC to them who might remind them what to do. Or editorialize a little by presenting them with something very obviously related to one of their current tasks.

However, if you find your players losing the thread of the plot like that fairly often, you can always... slow the game down a little and ask them GM-to-Players what they're thinking. If they're losing the thread a lot, you have to find out why, or with near certainty you will end up railroading them in the long term.

Implicit: When Can I Tell The Players What Their Characters Think?

  1. When you and they are very comfortable with your respective styles, and when they understand the ground rules that you use. In my case, "This is one way I handle failed knowledge checks-- is that a deal breaker?" (That means you have to have ground rules.)
  2. When they are under the influence of mind-affecting magic (which is a reason I avoid using that on the players.)
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