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New DM here; our group is in the very early stages of a D&D 5e campaign. My players have been hired to provide security for the wedding between Lord P (whose nefariousness was established in previous sessions) and Princess Q (the players know she is widely beloved, but little else). I've tried to drop copious hints about what's really going on: that Princess Q is also a spy whose goal is to learn what Lord P is up to.

My problem is that I truly can't tell whether the players have figured this out or not. No one has come out and said "oh, she's a spy!" But it could be that they consider this obvious enough that no one has bothered to repeat it out loud. (Right now the party is focused on figuring out whether Princess Q is in immediate physical danger, and from whom; this additional knowledge wouldn't necessarily have affected their actions yet.)

Knowing that Princess Q is a spy isn't crucial for the plot, but it would add interest to the story and could affect the party's choices later. I think the players would enjoy deducing this fact for themselves rather than being told straight out, which is why I haven't been more direct; it also wouldn't be realistic for these low-level characters to be told explicitly about high-level espionage operations.

I ask the players for a summary at the start of each session, to remind us of what's happening and let me assess what they think is important. But I don't think I can ask more specifically without giving things away if they haven't in fact figured it out. ("So, what do you guys think Princess Q is up to?" is pretty suspicious.) How can I probe what my players have and haven't figured out, in a way that isn't too obvious?

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    \$\begingroup\$ Two important questions: Do you run this game online or in-person? And do your players frequently withhold information from each other? \$\endgroup\$ – GMJoe Dec 27 '19 at 1:14
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    \$\begingroup\$ In-person. We've had two salient cases of players withholding information (one in this campaign, one in the previous one where I wasn't DM), but the default is to share everything. \$\endgroup\$ – A. S. K. Dec 27 '19 at 1:50
  • \$\begingroup\$ Welcome to RPG.SE! Take the tour if you haven't already, and check out the help center for more guidance. Good first question! \$\endgroup\$ – V2Blast Dec 27 '19 at 2:03
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Before I answer, I would ask you, as a DM; What difference does it make?

What would you change in your game if you knew the players knew that Princess Q was a spy? Would PQ change her tactics? Would PQ know that the players know? How did she find out since no one is outwardly saying anything in- or out-of-character?

To me, it sounds like what you really want to know is if your DM'ing skills are being correctly interpreted by the players. You say that you've dropped hints. But since no one is saying "She's a spy", you are curious if you're playing your NPC's correctly.

I could be completely wrong, but that is what first comes to mind.

With that said, the best way is to ask the players about ALL the NPCs in general.

Don't say, "So what do you guys think of NPC X?" Ask for more global feedback, such as, "I've tried adding some back story to a bunch of the people you meet so they are not so two-dimensional. Is that coming across?"

If they can't tell, then it's time to figure out a new way to get information out. Maybe they aren't looking for subtle. Maybe they aren't invested in the story line enough. Maybe they see the clues but think they point to someone else.

If they say they can tell, ask for examples. Someone will likely pipe up about PQ and you can go from there.

I ask for that kind of feedback all the time. In a session I ran a couple months ago, I physically handed them a bunch of notes/scribbles from the local scholar on how to solve the puzzles in the dungeon they were about to explore. Some I made obvious, some more subtle, and a bunch of non-related drawings. After it was all over, I asked how and if the notes helped. Most were figured out, some didn't make sense until I told them, and even some of the "fake" notes became part of the adventure as they tried out new things.

In the end, that feedback helps me shape future sessions as I know what they pay attention to.

So just ask for feedback about the adventure, specifically the NPCs, and see what they have to say.

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  • \$\begingroup\$ Asking about all the NPCs sounds like a great way to go. This will also be a fairly intrigue-heavy campaign (compared to our last one), so we have a good reason to review who's who at regular intervals anyway. And asking for examples will help me figure out what types of information the party pays most attention to. \$\endgroup\$ – A. S. K. Dec 27 '19 at 3:20
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As long as you have the caveat "without hinting at the secret," or "without being too obvious," or anything of the sort, then there simply is not sure-fire guaranteed way to do this.

I will also comment, as an aside, that reliance on knowing everything that the players believe can be a sort of a crutch. It's a very human tendency in this position to want to know what the players believe, so that you can be in some sense "optimally challenging" for them-- it's useful to know when they're stumbling around in the dark going in the wrong direction, so you can add clues. It's useful to know the opposite for the same reason. But it's very easy in my experience to get caught up in trying to be perfect, and accidentally ruin things.

That said, there are three related things I do when I am GM-ing:

  1. I overtly encourage one or more (as many as possible) players to write up in-character game logs of each session and make them available to me and hopefully to all of the other players. (There is a tacit assumption of cooperative PCs at my table; this will not work as well if the PCs are scheming against each other.)

  2. I ask that each session start out with a recap of the previous session. Usually the write-ups are a little long for that, so what I'm looking for is a five or so minute summary and as much discussion and back and forth between the players as is needed.

  3. If possible, end the session with something like a shared meal, or some activity where the players can talk about what just happened and I can listen in. If I'm any kind of GM at all, the players should want to talk about the game at least a little bit when we're done.

These don't always lead directly to what I want to know. But they often lead to something at least as valuable-- they lead to what the players are interested in. Often these overlap. Sometimes I can guide the conversation without being too obvious. But I nearly always get good information from these.

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  • \$\begingroup\$ I think written game logs would be difficult to pull off with this particular group, but I really like the idea of in-character recaps as a way to get at "how do you know this?" and "why do you care?" We do have a shared meal that would be an ideal setting to try this. \$\endgroup\$ – A. S. K. Dec 27 '19 at 7:17
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    \$\begingroup\$ @A.S.K. You might be surprised-- I nearly always get at least one player that likes writing. Writing and gaming are adjacent hobbies. Also, stress that you're not looking for Milton, just a fair effort. \$\endgroup\$ – Novak Dec 27 '19 at 7:37

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