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As a Game Master I'd occasionally like to communicate premonitions or sensation to my characters, as a benefit of their backstory, or as a means to give them opportunity to be deeper tied into the narrative world. For example, a wood elf character is in Neverwinter wood on a fey night, and I'd like to give his player the information that something is unusual, perhaps:

As the moon rises, your heart begins to beat enthusiastically to the rhythm of drums that always seem to be just beyond the edge of your hearing, and you feel the need to dance, in spite of your fatigue.

However, this communicates something about the character that is not strictly under their players control. How can I communicate this kind of setting information, without reducing player agency?

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    \$\begingroup\$ You should specify a system if possible, since certain systems have aspects of this built into their mechanics, while others don't. \$\endgroup\$ – Ryan Thompson Oct 8 at 2:35
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    \$\begingroup\$ This really is a case where different game systems have very different ways of handling things. Some variant of Dungeons and Dragons is implied, but please clarify. \$\endgroup\$ – Novak Oct 8 at 4:22
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    \$\begingroup\$ This wouldn't happen to be the very specific Feywild random encounter with a fireplace creating a musical enchantment that compels those who hear it to dance? It would make a significant difference if you know that there's a magical compulsion, versus if there's simply a 'feeling' in the scene. \$\endgroup\$ – Zibbobz Oct 8 at 13:11
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    \$\begingroup\$ Please remember that if answering, you need to support your statements with either your own experience or things you've seen so that you can talk more specifically about how things worked out. \$\endgroup\$ – NautArch Oct 8 at 13:44
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Suggestively and Subjectively, If At All.

Based on your reference to Neverwinter, I am assuming that this is some version of Dungeons and Dragons, which has no general mechanic for this sort of thing, only specific mechanics for things like Cause Fear spells. I also recognize you're not talking about those special spells or spell-like effects.

The general guidance here is, "Don't. Really, don't." In Dungeons and Dragons-like games, this is an often-unwanted intrusion into the player/character agency, as you rightly recognize in your question phrasing.

Even so, I understand the desire to provide this kind of guidance, and there are situations where it can be appropriate, and one technique I have had some success with:

  • If your players ask, then by all means give the mood-setting guidance you want to give. I've had this happen a number of times where the player will just up and ask me if his characters thinks or feels a certain way. Surprises me every time, because that's not how I play my characters, but it does happen.

  • You can skirt the issue in a number of ways, with a number of semi-weasel grammatical constructions, many of which boil down to use of the subjunctive mood. What the subjunctive does, in so many words, is express something hypothetical or something assumed, inferred or implied, but not really known to certainty. So I found myself saying things like, "You might be feeling the hairs on the back of your neck standing up, right about now," or "Most people would be revolted by this." Those phrases can be highly suggestive and evocative, providing clear mood, tone, and guidance, but they don't actually take the agency away from the character. The player can always decline that hypothetical, and they are somewhat prompted to accept or decline, almost required to do so in a way. I found it very effective once I realized what I was doing and was able to do it on purpose.

(Having worked so hard at it so long ago, my high school Latin teacher would be so proud of me, right now. Next week's lesson: Ablative absolute, or, "You too, can sound like Julius Caesar in two easy words.")

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    \$\begingroup\$ This is great, and very similar to techniques I use. Another option in the same vein, which has also worked well for me, is to describe the atmosphere as a fact and let players figure out their responses-- something like "it's unsettling and frightening" explicitly tells players what the "expected" feeling is, but they get to interpret it themselves through their characters. \$\endgroup\$ – Upper_Case Oct 8 at 16:43
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    \$\begingroup\$ One thing to consider is that human's will generally react in certain ways to specific stimuli. For example, a human being scared of a tiger pouncing them is natural, and telling a player their heart is racing would not be taking away their agency in that case, methinks. \$\endgroup\$ – Behacad Oct 8 at 23:55
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If the system you are playing has mechanics for creating feelings in PCs ...

Do it the way the system says to. For example, if a PC in a D&D 5e game is afflicted by the Frightened condition, then its perfectly acceptable to tell them that they are afraid of X.

If the system you are playing assumes that the PCs inner state is inviolate ...

Don't do it at all.

Instead describe the environment and allow the player to decide how that makes them feel. Speak to the senses, not the mind. Perhaps:

As the moon rises, the air for you becomes hot and perfumed with woodland scent, you hear, or almost hear, the rhythm of drums speaking to your fey heritage. The walls between worlds are narrow tonight and the Feywild is only the width of a shadow away. Despite your long day's travel the night calls to your blood.

Same sentiment but now the prompts are totally external.

That said, very few people will object to your method of doing it - suggesting that they feel certain emotions is not the same as telling them they do. Humans empathize with one another and assuming that a person exposed to a kitten will be filled with feelings of "Awww, isn't that cute!" is perfectly OK - rely on the player of a psychopath to correct you and point out the kittens fill them with uncontrollable rage.

If the system is a mixture ...

Use the mechanics when appropriate and don't otherwise.

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    \$\begingroup\$ This; so much this. Let the player interpret the sensations and turn them into feelings. \$\endgroup\$ – Matthieu M. Oct 8 at 10:52
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    \$\begingroup\$ What about external auras that do not have mechanical descriptions? For example obelisk that radiates unnatural calmness and joy? Or an evil meditation room that makes you feel you want to meditate in it, but far too weak to have any mechanical compulsion effects? I always narrated it like "you have this feeling and you know it's from the outside, you are free not to act on it" and it worked well. Your answer leaves such cases out totally. \$\endgroup\$ – Mołot Oct 8 at 11:33
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    \$\begingroup\$ @Mołot 3rd paragraph from end \$\endgroup\$ – Dale M Oct 8 at 11:59
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    \$\begingroup\$ @Mołot: "Radiating calmness" works as a good distinction from "you feel calm" already. \$\endgroup\$ – R.. Oct 8 at 20:48
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Guiding, Not Directing

I am going to have a different take on this than other answers, and say that giving your characters some emotional pushes is fine within reason. The important point here is that you still give your players their agency despite what their character may be feeling. Remember, people choose their actions despite their emotions all of the time, and your PCs are just as able to do so.

You set the scene and then let your players act in it.

Your example with the Woodelf is actually a really good example of this. The PC is given enough sensory information to know that something strange is going on, but is still able to respond to it however they see fit. Maybe they hate their heritage and do something to ward off the feelings it brings up. Maybe they lean into it and try to wander off, and the rest of the party has to stop or follow them. In that case it really isn't any different from the rest of the roleplaying you are doing.

Upfront Backstories

I would definitely suggest being upfront with your players and letting them know that you will, on occasion, drop little tidbits about their backstory to help flesh out a scene or move the plot along. Make sure that everyone is on the same page before you do so, and set some limits on what you add to their characters' pasts. Aim for small additions when you need them and build off of whatever backstory your PC already has whenever possible.

There is going to be a right and a wrong way to go about this, and a lot of what the other answers are trying to avoid is that wrong way. If you have a PC that broods about being an orphan and growing up alone, introducing an NPC or a Bad Guy as their long-lost sibling is going to be jarring and make that player feel like you just ignored their story. If you tell a Cleric that they can sense an undead presence in a crypt and that they run into the crypt to find it, you have taken away their agency and that player would have every right to be upset.

Going back to your example, telling the PC that he can hear drums and feels the need to dance is perfectly fine. The main thing to focus on here is that something is happening in the world around them, and is causing that effect. The fact that this is an external force is very important. Depending on whether this is the first time something like that had happened, you could tell the player directly that it is caused by fey energies in the area or at the very least, that the PC has experienced this before when near fey powers. The most important thing to remember is that after giving out that knowledge, you let the player decide how to respond.

Do's and Don'ts

Just a quick and dirty list for reference. This is in no way exhaustive but should give you a good feeling for how to handle things in your game.

  • DO Give your PCs urges and insights, based on external factors
  • DON'T Tell your PCs how they feel or how they act
  • DO Build on a PC's backstory, and only add small details when necessary
  • DON'T Ignore what a PC considers important to their story, or add huge changes to their history
  • DO Use a PC's history to advance the plot or tell a more interesting story
  • DON'T Forget that tabletop games are collaborative and that your player deserves a say in how their PC is used to tell the story
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    \$\begingroup\$ I am going to guess that you arrived at this superb advice by trial and error at the game table. :) Your clear Do's and Dont's are nice and concise ... I'm bookmarking this one. \$\endgroup\$ – KorvinStarmast Oct 8 at 14:54
  • \$\begingroup\$ Agreed, this is a great answer, especially the Do/Don't list -- done right it should be clear to the affected player that the DM is indicating a tie-in to the character's backstory... but this also relies on the DM having discussed/learned the player's backstory from the player before the campaign (or at least before the session) started. \$\endgroup\$ – TylerH Oct 9 at 18:22
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Don't tell them what they do, tell them what they feel

Music in a minor key sounds sad. Someone who hears it is saddened by it. But this doesn't impact their agency - they might act more reserved, but "saddened" doesn't prevent anyone from doing anything. Similarly, for

As the moon rises, your heart begins to beat enthusiastically to the rhythm of drums that always seem to be just beyond the edge of your hearing, and you feel the need to dance, in spite of your fatigue.

Those aren't consciously controllable things, for most people at most times. It's appropriate for a player to respond by saying they ignore those feelings (if they do). If there's some kind of compulsion or charm effect involved, obviously that's different, but without the character's knowledge that there's magic involved, there's no reason to spell it out (except, perhaps, asking for the appropriate save).

A caveat: this is only applicable to things which affect everyone nearby. You shouldn't tell a player that their character feels attracted to a particular barmaid (unless she's actually a succubus) or that they trust the shopkeeper (unless he's charmed the PC). You should tell them feelings that the current situation would evoke in most reasonable people. Allow (and encourage) pushback; the players know their characters better than you do and will be able to tell you if feeling a certain thing is not in line with their character.

For example, if your players respond to the above by saying, "Okay, I guess I dance," it might be appropriate to remind them that just because the music makes them feel like dancing doesn't mean that they have to do it. If your players are weaker roleplayers, it might be appropriate to tell them what they feel less often and ask what they feel more often.

Remember, as DM you control and describe the world. That includes everything not in control of the players. Emotions are typically not fully controlled by the one experiencing them, but neither do they control that person.

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    \$\begingroup\$ Adding on to this, a way to "hedge" your descriptions of how the characters are affected by the environment is to say they "might" feel a certain way - the increased heartbeat is an involuntary response, so that's fine as is, but you could instead say "you might even feel the need to dance" to avoid declaring that this must be how the character feels. \$\endgroup\$ – V2Blast Oct 9 at 5:33
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    \$\begingroup\$ I'll second that, there's nothing fundamentally wrong in telling a player what their character is feeling, feelings or sensations are not something one controls (Adam Koebels said it in a better way in one of his "Office Hours"). Nevertheless, it won't work with all groups so experiment carefully A technique that could be useful to try to get buy-in from the players is [Paint the scene][1] : in a nutshell, you tell them how the character feels and ask them why. [1]: gauntlet-rpg.com/blog/paint-the-scene \$\endgroup\$ – Boulash Oct 9 at 9:43
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    \$\begingroup\$ This is exactly right. If you tell a player their character has certain emotions, they have the agency to deal with that however they choose. A lot of really interesting things can happen at the table when a player describes how they are dealing with their character's emotions. Telling the player about the emotions can act as a seed or catalyst for some really great interactions between players/characters. If the DM left the players to volunteer this info, it very often might never have been explored at all. \$\endgroup\$ – Rykara Oct 9 at 19:00
  • \$\begingroup\$ I basically agree with this, but I'd avoid the word "feelings", because feelings are a fertile ground for role-play, and telling me what my character's feelings are seems like a loss of agency. But I don't think you really mean feelings in that sense. It's more mental sensations. The "feeling" that some malevolent being is in the next dark room when you wake in the middle of the night isn't an emotion — it's something else that arises in the mind beyond your control in a different way from anger, disgust, joy, sadness, fear (and the more complex emotions that build on those). \$\endgroup\$ – mattdm Oct 10 at 1:33
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    \$\begingroup\$ @mattdm I'm explicitly saying that emotions should be described by the DM. Many emotions are visceral things, and it's what you do with them that matters. I mentioned that "you should tell them feelings that the current situation would evoke in most reasonable people". As is oft pointed out, "courage is not the absence of fear, but the triumph over it". This is a judgment call: not all emotions should be described by the DM, and it's wrong to do so in many scenarios. But emotions are a valuable narrative tool, especially in a situation like that described in the question. \$\endgroup\$ – Spitemaster Oct 10 at 19:04
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As the moon rises, your heart begins to beat enthusiastically to the rhythm of drums that always seem to be just beyond the edge of your hearing, and you feel the need to dance, in spite of your fatigue.

Almost everything here is an observation; hearts do beat without the person's consent. The only bit that isn't is "you feel the need to dance".

As the moon rises, your heart begins to beat enthusiastically to the rhythm of drums that always seem to be just beyond the edge of your hearing, and you feel an urge to dance, in spite of your fatigue.

Now I've replace "a need to" with "an urge to". This is a subtle difference, and may not always be required. But the idea that the fey magics or atmosphere create urges is quite normal. At the same time, there is no requirement of behavior here.

What the player does with those urges is up to them. They may rebel against them; the constant and casual use of fey magics to induce altered mental states might be exactly why they left the elves and went out into the rest of the world.

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This really depends on the circumstance.

If magic is involved, mentioning a compulsion to act in a certain way is, by no means, off the table. What they decide to do is still up to them, within the bounds of the effect. See my link on that below.

Some things are simply autonomic-- the feeling of a chill or a fear effect might make the hairs stand up, but how they react to it is their deal.

What removes agency is something more like "You start to dance" and if you do that, it SHOULD be a big deal. In-game there are plenty of things that are mechanical and remove agency--fear effects, charisma spells and the like.

The other circumstance is the style of game. With my players, I use backstory to help paint the picture. A charismatic NPC character who has things in common with the PC's background might get a description specific to that character. (I might mention that the NPC reminds them of their sister back home.) My game tends to favor a personalized approach, as I outline in the answer to this question:

I also believe in using that personalization to help describe knowledge checks in a fun way.

But, if all descriptions are general, that is for the whole table, there's less of a chance to personalize responses.

My way of running gives characters CHOICES, but depending on the mechanics of the particular circumstance, I do throw in feeling. This is all about style of gameplay and what the players like and want, along with the kind of game you want to run.

TLDR: In the circumstance you've given, magic is involved. And when magic is involved, a manipulation of feelings is allowed. It's weaker than a fear effect, for which there are mechanics, but it's present and I don't feel it removes agency.

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