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I, a new DM who has run around 10-15 game session so far, am in the process of watching Critical Role Campaign 2 (currently at Episode 23). We all know Matt Mercer and his famous quotes like "You can certainly try" and "How do you wanna do this?". While watching, another phrase he says quite often has come to my attention "You get the sense that,...". This has started to annoy me, as it seems that he says this every time, he wants the players to come to a certain conclusion, by telling them what conclusions their characters come to. Any time he does that, I instinctively tell myself: "I never want to do that when I DM", because to me this seems to be breaking one of the most important guidelines in story telling "show, don't tell!".

As an example in Episode 23 the group was camping outside with Yasha being one of the people who took watch. After the night passed, he said starting at 2:49:19: "you get the sense that, being the vigilant beast that you are, if anybody wanted to come close to inspect, immediately saw Yasha and went 'Nope!'.". This bothers me because, as far as I noticed, the characters had no way of knowing that information. He just told them, that there characters felt that way, which to me seems to be on the same level of telling them that information out of character aka metagaming.

If I think about it more closely, I guess I can see where he is coming from. Not in this example, but usually it appears he is trying to speed up the process of the characters finding out a certain piece of information, as to not drag a scene on for too long, steering them into the right direction. This seems to come at a cost of realism/immersion to me though.

I want to clarify, that I don't want to diminish Matt Mercer personally or as a DM in a way. He has done so much good for the community and I am learning so much about DMing while watching his Campaign.

But the question I am asking myself is: Would this behavior generally be classified as a bad practice, a DM should avoid doing?

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    \$\begingroup\$ @ruffdove Different games approach this differently, we probably would need one for different style RPGs. \$\endgroup\$ – NautArch Mar 6 at 18:11
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    \$\begingroup\$ This is not opinion based. This is exactly the kind of subjective question our experts are equipped to answer. \$\endgroup\$ – Thomas Markov Mar 6 at 20:54
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    \$\begingroup\$ Bare in mind that unlike most games, CR has both players and an audience, so there can be some licence to point out details that the characters may not know (but doesn't ruin anything) that add to the viewers experience. \$\endgroup\$ – DBS Mar 9 at 13:37
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    \$\begingroup\$ It's also worth noting, I think, that Matt has been playing with a bunch of his buddies for several years now, and their rapport is one of joking and fun along with the serious. So when he describes a night that nothing happened in, and wants to give his friends a laugh, he makes a joke. In this case, he's just joking around with "Yasha is way to scary to attack" vs. "You don't notice anything all night. Get a long rest" \$\endgroup\$ – Carson Mar 9 at 19:50
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I'd say there are 3 different types of conclusions the DM can tell the players about and I'll address them independently. There may not always be a clear line between them.

Conclusions based on what characters know, but players can't know

Consider something like:

You get the sense that they're telling the truth.

What the characters are actually observing are probably a wide range of cues based on facial expression and physical demeanour, which would be difficult to communicate to the players. Even if you manage to do that, the characters may have skill and knowledge the players don't have (comparable to the character knowing other languages), so simply reproducing that may not even help the players reach the conclusion the character already reached.

In conclusion, it can be good to explicitly tell your players these types of conclusions.

Of course you can also do some "showing" at the same time, e.g.:

They seem quite nervous and they're avoiding eye contact. They're clearly hiding something.

Conclusions players should be able to reach themselves

Consider something like:

After ramming into the door, you get the sense that it's reinforced and no amount of ramming will bring it down.

Let's compare that to:

You ram into the door with all your might. A momentary stinging pain runs through your body, as if you just ran into solid concrete. The door didn't even seem to move a fraction of an inch.

I would argue the latter is much better storytelling. You're explaining what the characters are feeling and seeing in a way that allows players to more easily visualise what happened and makes the conclusion clear. The former leaves you wondering how and whether the characters actually came to the same conclusion.

The only real difference between this and the previous type of conclusion is whether you can actually communicate what the characters experience in a way that allows the players to reach the same conclusion the characters reached.

I would dissuade a DM from communicating these types of conclusions, generally speaking. But naturally the line between the two is going to be fairly subjective, it is easier and faster to just present the conclusion and the DM may also decide to be a bit more explicit if the players just aren't reaching the conclusions they're supposed to.

Conclusions the characters don't actually know

I'll just take your example from the question:

You get the sense that anything that was out there during the night didn't want to come close, because of how scary Yasha looks.

This sounds like something characters have absolutely no way to know.

If it were coming from the characters, they would be making multiple assumptions about what NPCs or monsters (that they possibly didn't even see) are thinking. It's not unreasonable for characters to make such assumptions, but those need to actually be based on something, something you should probably just be telling the players instead. Explicitly sharing the conclusion, even with what it's based on, I feel would be separating players from the characters they're playing more than necessary. I want to think what my character is thinking (if possible), rather than just having you tell me what the character is thinking.

If it's not coming from the characters, that would put you into the perspective of more of an outside observer. I personally wouldn't like that in an RPG, and I don't feel it's in line with the typical narrative structure of RPGs (i.e. from the characters' perspective). But opinions may vary here, it is a reasonable form of storytelling, it could help with generally setting the scene (especially if it's a very everyday part of the characters' lives, yet very unusual and noteworthy to us) and I wouldn't say it's "wrong" as such. Although, if I were to go this route, I wouldn't phrase it as you getting the sense of something, but rather just as a matter of fact (basically just start with "Anything that was out there...").

What I might say instead to keep it from the characters' perspective without sharing the conclusion:

As you wake up, you see many bandit footprints on the ground. Upon closer inspection, they seem to converge towards Yasha and then disappear, as if they simply started slowly backing away.

OR: You briefly wake up during the night to a terrifying roar that leaves the forest in a dead silence, only to realise it was just Yasha's snoring. Apart from that, you slept like a baby.

This assumes players slept through the night (probably rarely a good idea), but it should communicate the basic idea I'm going for well enough.

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    \$\begingroup\$ Agreed. Most people typically have a conscious mind and a subconscious, with the latter typically being where, e.g., hunches come from; while the players control their characters' consciousness, it can be useful for the DM to co-opt their subconscious minds from time to time... provided the DM knows the character well enough to tell what they would conclude. Showing rather than telling will typically lead to better storytelling, but can also leave the players to draw the wrong conclusion. \$\endgroup\$ – Justin Time - Reinstate Monica Mar 7 at 19:55
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    \$\begingroup\$ re: faster and easier: the faster part might be a factor in a live-play D&D show. IIRC, Matt has talked about feeling some pressure to keep the pace up because he knows there's an audience. But I think more likely it's just his style of storytelling, even if it sometimes means a subtle meta hint to the players about the world around their characters. But it does work as a way to more quickly (and more interestingly especially for an audience at home) get through parts of the game that aren't necessarily exciting. \$\endgroup\$ – Peter Cordes Mar 8 at 12:40
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    \$\begingroup\$ @Zibbobz That's why I said it sounds like something characters can't know. If it were coming from the characters, they would be making multiple assumptions about what NPCs or monsters (that they possibly didn't even see) are thinking. It's not unreasonable for characters to make such assumptions, but those need to actually be based on something, something you should probably be telling the players instead. Explicitly sharing the conclusion, even with what it's based on, I feel would be separating players from the characters they're playing more than necessary. \$\endgroup\$ – NotThatGuy Mar 8 at 15:39
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    \$\begingroup\$ For conclusions in the first category, I like it when a DM says something like "Based on your experiences as a [adventurer/class/background/other], you know that ... / this could suggest that ...". This doesn't need to connect to any particular specific mechanical knowledge advantage (but if it does, mentioning that is even more appropriate). It makes it feel more like my character is being active rather than the story or world just stating things. \$\endgroup\$ – aschepler Mar 8 at 18:57
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    \$\begingroup\$ The last method can be great if you're treating the game to some extent like an episode of a TV show. As an example, in a Star Wars: Edge of Empire near the end of the session a group effort yield a pretty heavy setback. The characters were stranded on a backwater planet and didn't have access to great sensors, but I wanted the players to know what the actual effect was. I described it to the players at the end of the sesh: After the credits roll the music keeps playing. We see the planet and the camera pans up to deep space. A cruiser come out of warp, maybe it's Imperial? Fade to commercial. \$\endgroup\$ – aslum Mar 8 at 20:33
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Different DM styles work better in different player groups.

There is no universally correct way to be a DM. Yes, some techniques tend to work better than others. But a DM's best practices will depend on the needs and expectations of their group and campaign.

Matt Mercer does what he does in the Critical Role sessions because that style of narration works for his players. His style may or may not work for you and your players.

The answer by ruffdove outlines some possible benefits or detriments of using this narration technique. Telling the players what their characters sense can help cue them and convey necessary information. Discussing things out-of-character should not be viewed as some mortal sin, as it can help steer the game in a direction that everyone wants, and ultimately improve the quality of the game. On the other hand, only your players can judge how well this technique works for them.

For example, I like immersion too. In my early games, I wanted to play out every line of dialogue of every character. But this made the scenes drag on forever, and the players wouldn't ask the plot-driving questions I wanted them to ask. It became difficult to convey whichever key points of information I wanted to communicate, and any character interaction felt like a chore. After some discussions with my players, we adopted a different technique: we roleplay the few lines of dialogue to set the tone, and then the DM skips ahead and summarizes the conversation out-of-character. This helped avoid long, awkward, boring dialogues and improved our games immensely.

When you're DM, you should discuss with your players about what sort of narration and DM style they prefer. This process will likely involve reassessment, feedback, and adjustment over many sessions and campaigns. Much of the art of DMing is about communicating with your player group and finding the style that works best for them.

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It is not a bad practice

From my experience, there are very few tables where such practice is frowned upon. In fact, you can't eliminate "telling" things completely, you always do both as a DM.

Wikipedia describes "show, don't tell" as a literary device:

Show, don't tell is a technique used in various kinds of texts to allow the reader to experience the story through action, words, thoughts, senses, and feelings rather than through the author's exposition, summarization, and description.

The game is not a text though — it's a dialog between players and a DM. As a DM, you should convey unambiguous information, but you also should be clear and keep it short. The longer the description is, the more chances for players to misunderstand it, and some things are hard to "show" quickly.

As a result, good DMs always interpret things a bit. For instance, a DM could say "This is a 7x3 ft. rectangle with an appendage shaped like a handle, it is dark and cold to touch, it also has half-inch bumps by its perimeter". Or she can say "This is a sturdy metal door, enforced with rivets". The latter is shorter and less vague.

One can argue that characters can't figure out the fact the door is "sturdy" without an actual attempt of breaking it. Neither they can know it is "metal" without performing a chemical analysis. However, we neglecting characters' past experience this way. They have seen a lot of metal sturdy doors to be pretty sure this is one of them.

It is also the DM's job to get everyone having fun and keep the story moving forward. Matt Mercer is doing a great job by maintaining the balance between openness and clarity, using a clever set of tools. "You get the sense, that" is one of these tools, which he uses when players should be nudged to a specific direction when they are stuck.

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    \$\begingroup\$ +1 just for: You can't "show, don't tell" when you show things via telling them. \$\endgroup\$ – Novak Mar 6 at 21:22
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    \$\begingroup\$ FYI, the phrase "show not tell" is specifically used in writing and is about describing a situation to lead readers to a conclusion rather than just telling them the conclusion. The phrase is in fact only applied when people "show things via telling". I agree though that this rule of thumb is not always a good match for RPGs where more than one person is telling the story. \$\endgroup\$ – Barker Mar 7 at 15:17
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    \$\begingroup\$ @Barker: And where you don't have the luxury of writing time to come up with a clever and efficient way to show everything you need players to understand. And some things are hard to show quickly. \$\endgroup\$ – Peter Cordes Mar 8 at 12:51
  • \$\begingroup\$ @Barker fair point. Edited the question. \$\endgroup\$ – enkryptor Mar 9 at 21:42
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Too Long, Didn't Read: No, it's not automatically a bad practice, or prima facie evidence of a bad GM.

It's A Useful Tool

Like all tools, it can be overused; like all useful tools, it's easy to get into the habit of overusing it.

A platonic ideal of gaming (for many people, at least) is to create perfectly fleshed out settings that are complete unto themselves, that are populated by player characters that are also perfectly fleshed out and also perfectly pre-aware of all the nuances of the perfectly fleshed out game world.

But this is essentially impossible. I could write lengthy paragraphs about this, but it's just not possible for the average hobbyists to create deep, Tolkien style worlds (because we have jobs and responsibilities and lives) nor is it possible to get all that information into players' heads, nor is it possible to narrate with the same information speed as five sets of eyes, ears, and noses.

Its Use Is In Speeding Up The Narrative

There are times when characters are in unfamiliar settings, and you want to slowly develop some aspect of the game world so that they players have a realization or get to figure things out. A repeated motif that the players slowly connect to other things can be very powerful and very satisfying for the players to figure out. But that's for the players.

But there are also times when the players are in familiar settings and should-- or should at least have the chance-- to just realize something that is obvious to them. Are my narrative skills up to the challenge of describing the characters walking into the wrong bar on the wrong day? Sure. But it might take me five minutes (say) that I would rather spend elsewhere. And frankly, in a random group of five characters, they probably should not all be that oblivious. This is for the players, but it's mainly about the characters and efficiently transferring ephemeral character knowledge to the players, at the time when they need it.

That's how the narrative gets sped up.

There Are Definitely Failure Modes

That said, there are some failure modes, here. It is certainly possible to use this technique so heavy-handedly that it begins to feel coercive. I've never seen a GM come right out and say, "You get the sense you dislike this guy," but it's not uncommon to see, "You get the sense this guy is untrustworthy," or the even more common, "You get the sense this guy is hiding something."

The first one of those is probably coercive and as a player, I'd rebel. The middle one is highly situational-- it might be a legitimate abstraction of a character's wisdom state or some socially-related skill, or it might just be the GM putting a thumb on the scale. The last one is awkward and heavy-handed, but it's a common convention (again, possibly backed up by mechanics) to signal that this NPC still has some use to them.

Without being coercive, it's also possible to just lean on this mechanic too much until you have a narrative that seems more meta- and out-of-character than direct and in-character. How much is too much? That's a judgment call, not a hard line "You're doing it wrong," call.

This Is Where The Mechanics Of A Game Come In

And having mentioned stats, this is where stats and game mechanics can and do come in.

In D&D (and the D&D-adjacent world) the social stats of a character, such as Intelligence, Wis, Charisma, and certain skills associated with them, play a major role. This is actually a textbook application of the Wisdom-Insight skill in 5e, and if I'm pressed for time it's exactly how I'd narrate things: "You have the felling/sense that...."

It's also how I, personally, would narrate an NPC using a charisma-based skill against the players, like Deception. On the one hand, I don't want to say, "You believe him," which feels too coercive to me. But, "He seems believable," would be in bounds for me.

Summary

No, it's not automatically a bad practice. It's often a good practice, if the GM is making good judgment calls about how and where to use it. But like any other tool in the GM toolbox, it can be mis-used and over-used.

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There are pros and cons to this kind of DMing

The cons for this kind of narration are:

  1. It discourages players from thinking critically about what their characters see and hear by removing their need to do so. Many players find it fun and exciting and get a sense of accomplishment when they correctly interpret information on their own. This takes that away in many cases.

  2. It can decrease engagement with the game world and story. If the DM always gives them the answer for how to interpret details, then they're going to stop paying attention to details. This usually detracts significantly from player immersion.

  3. It removes an opportunity for role-playing and team work. Players faced with raw data and no conclusions have a chance to role-play the debate over what the facts mean. This can be fun in and of itself, but this tactic forestalls that.

  4. It detracts from a sense of mystery to always "get a sense" of why things are the way they are. The tactic immediately dispels mystery and uncertainty, which many players find is a fun part of the game. In your example, finding signs that creatures came near their camp but then moved away creates an air of mystery and danger. Who were they? Why did they approach? Is the party being followed? Stalked? This sense of mystery is dispelled by the DM's narration.

  5. It will often give characters information they shouldn't have. The example is frankly ridiculous--how in the world could players "get the sense" of why creatures they did not even see approached and moved away? The DM basically told them that the creatures were such that they could be physically intimidated and put to flight by the very appearance of the character on guard. But there's no way the characters could know this unless the guard actually saw them and witnessed their reaction to her.

The Pros

  1. Telling players what they conclude is a way to help them when they're stumped. If the players are spinning their wheels on something and need a hint, then this kind of tactic is a way to push them in the right direction.

  2. It gives the DM better control of pacing. If the game seems like its slowing down, then jumping ahead through PC thought processes is one way to easily speed it up.

  3. It can be a quick jump to what should be very obvious conclusions. If you describe an NPC as fidgety, sweating, and constantly glancing at the door, it's probably okay to just give the PCs the obvious conclusion that he is nervous. This will prevent any unwanted player misinterpretations that could derail the scene, like "he swallowed poison and is waiting for an antidote." Sometimes you want the interpretation to be obvious and this is a way of signaling that.

  4. It can account for the fact that a character might know things that the player does not. For example, a player may not know all the little nuances of how animals behave, but his druid character will. This can be simulated by telling the player, "you [your druid] get the sense that this bear is frightened and is thus likely to lash out if you approach."

So is giving the sense of things best practice? That's largely subjective, but for me and the people I've played with, the cons usually outweigh the pros. For me, it is a tactic that is best saved for when there are no better alternatives for getting the PCs on the right track and getting the game moving, for when the conclusion should be obvious anyway, or for when character knowledge far outstrips player knowledge. On the flip side, if the players are the sort that prefer combat to mysteries, or if the players just have short attention spans or aren't good at making inferences (this will often be true of very young players) then the approach may be more optimal in more situations.

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    \$\begingroup\$ This feels like a “my preferred play style is better” answer. \$\endgroup\$ – Thomas Markov Mar 6 at 18:34
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    \$\begingroup\$ You're right. Hopefully my edit fixes that. \$\endgroup\$ – ruffdove Mar 6 at 19:00
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    \$\begingroup\$ Another pro: Not everyone is a good narrator. Instead of fumbling around with several conversations, a DM could say "After several conversations, you conclude that there is something strange going on in the mines". \$\endgroup\$ – Davo Mar 6 at 19:24
  • \$\begingroup\$ @Davo: Yeah, but then you don't get to roleplay the fun interactions when the players try to interrogate the miners... \$\endgroup\$ – Kevin Mar 7 at 2:50
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Show not tell is a great rule for general story telling, but DnD isn't just story telling, your "scenes" also need to convey information to other people helping you tell the story. Sometimes it is hard to convey that information clearly without telling it to players. This is for two reasons:

  1. Your players aren't actually in the world you are describing, so many of the subtle hints from the environment can be hard to convey. Go back and read your favorite novel, many of the parts that convey subtle information actually come from the reaction of the main character to the environment, not the description of the environment itself.
  2. You players do not have the same background and experience as their characters so they may not pick up on things their characters would. A character's skill list, class, and background can help you decide when there are things that character might just intuitively know, even if their player has no clue.

That said, sometimes it can be fun to put the pieces together on your own, but be careful to make important information standout or hurry your players along if they key in on some unimportant details. When important information is "hidden" in descriptions (showing the situation rather than telling), be ready for at least some of players to want to thoroughly investigate every little detail of everything you tell them in case it is a clue to something you are trying to tell your players. To much of this and your players will get frustrated at the pacing, and feel like they are missing out on things they don't pick up on.

When it comes down to it, sometimes it is just more clear and more fun to let players know "you get the sense they don't like dragonborn" rather than have a 20 minute conversation about the NPC's sneer at you dragonborn character.

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Yes, adding ilogical conclusions is bad for several reasons. The main one is that if you want to tell players "you would know this" stuff, just tell them -- don't confuse them. But in this case (the scary barbarian) it's harmless.

If a GM says "some tax collector orcs come over to check your papers" you know for sure that's what they are(*). On the other side there's "2 orcs in robes with scrolls guarded by 4 warrior orcs come your way". It could be an attack, a set-up, or it could be tax orcs. Figuring it out is part of the game. But "you see some orcs approaching as if they're tax collectors coming to check your papers" could be either one. It's phrased as merely a description, but seems to be telling players stuff their characters would know. It's almost a trap ("but you said they were tax collectors" -- "no, I said they were like tax collectors").

One more: "an ogre comes your way as if it wants your help". Sounds like the GM is out-of-game telling us this ogre is the adventure hook. Or maybe this ogre pretends to ask for help so it can get close? The GM should pick one. Either out-of-game tell us: "an ogre matching the description of Groc the friendly approaches", or just describe it: "a dazed beat-up ogre stumbles across the path in front in you".

And of course "show don't tell" is always good advice, and works fine in RPG's. Say the forest creatures leave when Gloomlor the Fierce is on watch and come back when he sleeps. Or if it needs to be explicit a helpful farmer can explain the shy forest folk's fear of Minotaurs. My orcs could have city badges and be calmly inspecting everyone's papers.

It also gets annoying fast when you notice it. In my group players would do it: "I climb the fence as if I'm looking for my dog" or "I nod to the wizard as if to say 'get ready to cast invisibility'". We used to call it "No leading the GM". Any sentence with "as if" got groans for what might come next.

(*) The players may shrug -- OK, tax collection orcs, now I've seen it all. Or they may want it explained how they know this and want details "before they get too close, what else do I know about them?" But no matter what, the players can bank on these being TCO's.

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  • \$\begingroup\$ You wouldn't mind me using those orc tax collectors in a campaign I am planning? They would feel right at home. \$\endgroup\$ – TreeSpawned Mar 8 at 9:34
  • \$\begingroup\$ I like your point on the 'as if' crutch - keeping that for future reference. \$\endgroup\$ – KorvinStarmast Mar 8 at 13:22
  • \$\begingroup\$ @TreeSpawned It's a trope, right? What look like monsters aren't the real badguys. "You killed 1/2 the bugbears? Thanks for nothing. We were paying them to protect us from the human bandits". And the tax for killing tax collectors ... very high. \$\endgroup\$ – Owen Reynolds Mar 9 at 0:16
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    \$\begingroup\$ @KorvinStarmast That part of the Q jumped out at me. Of course the GM could say "you would know the local creatures are afraid of barbarians", The Q seemed to be about the phrasing: "you get the sense that (something no one would ever conclude)". \$\endgroup\$ – Owen Reynolds Mar 9 at 0:20
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I think it's very good practice

This entire answer is qualified by own experiences playing both tabletop RPGs and live action roleplaying for nearly 20 years and thus is going to be very anecdote driven.

I Know Something You Don't Know

One of the key things that I've learned in my many years of play is that as the GM, or the DM, or the NPC, or the Director, or literally anybody who is not a player character is that you have information that the players do not have. Generally, that information is an understanding of the perspective of the NPC without having to commit to the real life time commitment that their characters would do.

It's generally not reasonable to ask players to give that time commitment either. Your players have lives outside the table and much as I might want us all to spend 24 hours playing, the reality is we all have work in the morning.

That said, Gorthokk the Destroyer doesn't have work in the morning. Gorthokk has a full 24 hours to meet with the mayor; discuss the meeting with his teammates; take some time to walk the grounds around the mayor's estate; recognize that this mayor lives in a small palace that's for some reason located in a rather small town. Gorthokk thinks something is wrong here.

The Skill Check

As far as I'm concerned, there is no greater tool in a DM's toolbox than the skill check, and more specifically the knowledge skill check. It becomes the manner by which you can convey information behind the curtain to the players in either a straightforward or indirect manner, both have their purposes.

To exemplify this, in a 20th level home game I'm running the players are participants in the Blood War between demons and devils. They are located in a massive illusion created by Fraz-Urb'luu and are being assisted by the archdevil, Titivilus.

Sessions proceeded in a somewhat straightforward manner for about 8-10 sessions until last week. While taking a long rest in a Mordenkainen's Magnificient Mansion, all three of the casters were afflicted by horrendous nightmares which disrupted and cancelled their long rest.

I required several skill checks in response. The party's Illusionist handily succeeded on the Arcana check, so I informed her that it was almost certainly a dream spell. The party's cleric nailed the History check, so I reminded him that Fraz-Urb'luu (FU) is able to cast the dream spell 3 times per day. From then, the party put the pieces together and realized that dream requires you to be on the same plane as the target. Afterwards, it was a short logic leap to realize that Titivilus might not actually be Titivilus.

Players Know What Their Characters Know

In a subsequent session, the players spent time recognizing that there were multiple hints dropped that they didn't pick up on (i.e. a 'devil' that was being chaotic in his assistance in combat with demons; persistent use of illusions that allowed him to leave and come back; constantly staying with the party but not near the party; being cagey with his answers; etc.).

Additionally, the players began to plan how they wanted to proceed now that they've managed to eject FU from the group. One of the things they latched onto was whether they had any real time constraint because the disguised FU kept pushing that time was important. This was a situation where I as the DM needed to remind them that there are several good reasons why time was likely still critical and I did this again via skill checks.

Now I could've allowed them to think that time wasn't a major factor since they as players came to that conclusion based on a logical train of thought. However, that train of thought, skipped over several important stops that had major story elements that their characters know about. Given that players are playing characters, they are entitled to the knowledge of those characters. And the characters know that if they take a slow approach, it's entirely possible that Dispater will be killed and his essence absorbed by a demon lord which could have serious consequences for the stability of the Nine Hells and thus the multiverse. Presumably, this is bad, otherwise why would their god have sent them here to stop this exact thing?

It's not like this information was ever concealed from them, they knew this. But as players, they learned that information probably 10 months ago; for their characters it was maybe 6 days ago.

The Perils of Saying Too Much & Not Enough

Some years ago at a LARP I play at, we had a big battle which went very south for the players. Shortly after the start of the battle, the players' front lines were decimated by catapult fire that wrecked an otherwise good defensive setup.

My character was the commander for the players' forces during this battle. It was a fight that had been built up to for about 4 months of events thus far. As a whole, we'd gotten a plethora of information via knowledge skills and honestly, I felt some of it was contradictory (which isn't supposed to happen but c'est la vie).

Buried somewhere in that pile of information was that the enemy has catapults, but as it was presented it wasn't clear if it was this enemy or another bigger one. One could argue that I was supposed to pick up on it as being a key piece of information and definitely applicable here, but when the information was provided to me, there were no knowledge skills to help me sort out what was useful from what was worthless. And with the benefit of hindsight, a lot of it was worthless.

So in summary, the players lost the battle. And frankly, a lot of players were mad about it (myself included). Not because we'd lost, but because we'd felt cheated (I mean some were probably mad because they hate losing). But honestly, the biggest thing that annoyed me was that I didn't get to feel like a competent military commander. And the reason that I didn't feel that way is because I was denied the chance to use the knowledge skills I'd learned for that purpose. I'm a player playing a character, I don't actually have all the skills he does; the purpose of knowledge skills is to help bridge that gap.

Afterwards, when I spoke with the event director he didn't seem to realize that what was obvious to him wasn't obvious to the rest of us. But the fact is, he's the writer, he knows the motivations and plannings of his big bads. The players don't. He knows that the catapult information is important, but when you make it 11 point font Times New Roman and stick it in a pile of other information it doesn't really stand out as such. And he's not confused by enemies with similar sounding names, because they're all relatively straightforward for him since he's writing.

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    \$\begingroup\$ Agreed on this. "Your character walked off and left his ancestral sword behind, because you forgot that (three weeks ago in real-time, five minutes ago IC) you'd set it down" breaks immersion more than almost any amount of "you get the sense that ..." narration. \$\endgroup\$ – Errorsatz Mar 9 at 21:48
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Characters can know things that players don't. So I wouldn't universally rule it out.

The Sherlock Holmes video RPG games confront this problem in spades. The character is an amazing prodigy of observation, deduction, and reasoning; the player, however, is not. How to handle this?

While video games can have a few more tricks up their sleeves, an in-person DM will pretty much have to tell you things, one way or another. One option is to reference the character's abilities directly, something like "your intelligence lets you put a few clues together and sense that ... "

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