I read some questions about how to have players ask questions, but I happen to have the opposite issue. While players asking questions is nice, I often am in the situation where they ask too much about the settings, and I don't know how to handle it without doing an infodump.

One recent example is a Shadowrun team moving to Hong-Kong for a run and making rolls to "know everything about the Hong-Kong Triads, their organization, leaders and known headquarters. The characters have the skills to find it, but that is a LOT of info to dump on them.

I could write a three pages document and hand it to them, but I would like to avoid it if possible (especially considering only one adventure will happen in that location).

How can I give my players what they want, without dumping a load of info on them?

  • Correct me if I'm wrong. I think you misunderstand your players. They don't want to know everything about the triads. They want to know everything interesting and relevant about them. – user4000 Mar 8 '14 at 23:02
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    @MrJinPengyou Which is still a LOT of info :) – Cristol.GdM Mar 8 '14 at 23:12
  • Good point lol. And sadly I don't think cooperative storytelling can help you here. – user4000 Mar 8 '14 at 23:20
  • Actually some players like to get every shred of info just-in-case. It's usually the control-type ones, who do not trust the GM to judge what is interesting and relevant. Some other players may enjoy useless information to have some in-depth background. If presented correctly an accord on e.g. "How the triads (don't) fulfill certain cliches." (think of "restaurant's backroom") might help them with immersion. I had one player who usually lacked engagement totally go out of his usual way, when he was able to ask me (non-relevant) details on a cryptography puzzle. – NoAnswer Jul 14 '14 at 16:30

12 Answers 12

up vote 36 down vote accepted

"You've just moved into town and you wanna know the big players. Fair. There's the basic info you're going to get from your usual methods - you're shadowrunners, this is part of the job. BUT - tell me a) how long do you want to spend researching, b) how low of a profile do you want to keep in this, c) how much are you willing to spend? Detailed, fast, quiet, cheap - pick 2."

The trick to good info management isn't withholding information from the players, it's about figuring out what methods and prices they have to pay along the way to get what they want and building the adventure from that.

Are they doing things discreetly? Or are they leaving trails? Will some groups tag them as trouble makers, potential rivals, or good suckers to throw in on a bad job?

Are they pissing people off along the way? Making enemies in a town where they've got few allies?

Are they throwing around a lot of money? Are small time runners looking to jack them? Are big time players suspecting they're just a front for a rival corporation/group?

Are they asking "too many" questions about a particular group and word is getting back?

It's not just the price you pay in time and effort, it's also what the rest of the world thinks of that, and the actions everyone takes in response.

Mechanically - it's as easy as a dice roll. Fictionally, as a Shadowrunner, you're stepping into someone else's mess and maybe you want to step carefully.

As far as playing it out and not writing massive setting stuff, ask the players in return - "What are you looking for? Are you looking for employers? Marks to hack/rob?" and target your answers around that. For some details, on a successful roll, you can turn the question back on them - "Well, 'Uncle Knife' still runs the docks, which is damn impressive in day and age, but he did something that has caused all of his rivals to back off - you only figured it out when you looked at a shipment record from something 2 weeks ago. What was it?"

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    +1 for how they are getting the info and asking to pick up to two methods (quiet, fast, cheap, detailed...). – LIttle Ancient Forest Kami Mar 9 '14 at 15:01
  • I also like "quiet, fast, cheap, detailed". But what hinders a PC to try and pick three of them at once? Of course, the one left out will probably lead to problems in Shadowrun... – NoAnswer Jul 14 '14 at 14:20
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    @NoAnswer: if they refuse to pick then circumstances will pick for them. Given the options Bankuei offers, if they're told they can have two and they try to pick 3 including "fast", then time will simply pass and their deadline will come and go without getting to "detailed". If the three includes "cheap" then they'll blow their budget before getting to "detailed". Suppose you want to catch a bus, and I tell you you can get to the bus stop any two of "walking, on time, having eaten breakfast". You don't get to say "oh, I'll do all three". You either run, or skip breakfast, or miss the bus! – Steve Jessop Mar 25 '15 at 18:13

Anyone who's done research (or a book report in school) knows that you don't really learn "everything" about a subject. Even if you have the skill, you don't have the time. So I-as-DM wouldn't let someone get away with learning "everything" in the first place. :) But you do want to reward players for thinking...

So, let them put the time in, but make them roll the checks at the moment they need to know it (with whatever bonuses you would get from doing the research). This has two advantages: - you as DM don't have to supply a whole pile of extraneous information (especially if you're not going to be there long, you don't want to think up the life history of all these people they'll likely never meet) - the players actually get a bit of a bonus because they can ask questions they didn't know to ask in advance, meaning their research gets them better answers. (And for you, it means you're going to be answering questions related to the adventure, which means less off-the-cuff whole-cloth work.)

If your group is a bit meta, you can handwave some of this - yep, you spend a few hours and now know a whole bunch of trivia not worth mentioning, plus these few important tidbits (hand over stuff that will be useful this adventure).

If your group has a history of trying to abuse research (in the "I said I learned everything, so of course I know the alarm codes to the Triad Boss' secret vault!" sense), then I'd be tempted to hit up Wikipedia, edit in a few useful tidbits, and bury them in paperwork. ;)

  • This is closest to my GM style, especially because I know I'll have to improv something later that I might not have in the data. – CatLord Mar 8 '14 at 3:32
  • Nice. If you're using a system where studying/research is a skill roll or tied to experience, you could give them that roll while studying (so they get the benefit of the experience right away). On a really good roll you might drop a free clue ("EXACTLY what you needed to know!"), on a bad roll you might make a note that they got some piece of information WRONG. After that, when they try to recall a particular datum (already researched) you might want to give them a memory or int roll to recall it. Depends on the system and your GMing style. – As If Mar 8 '14 at 5:37

The way I'd solve this is that I'd hand over a lot of the diegetic control to the player in question. Tell them the scope and give them a rough outline of what their PC knows and then basically tell them "You're the one with the knowledge; you tell me the details". If the player is reasonable, they will come up with "facts" that fit very well into the narrative without disrupting the overall flow.

We've started mixing collaborative aspects into our GM-led games as of late, and it really eases the burden on the GM as well as lets the players feel more invested in the world you create together.

Of course, there are certain caveats when using this approach:

  • Players misuse their newfound powers: If your player is all about boosting their own character at the expense of the whole group, you might get a player who says something like: "Yeah, so there's these sub bosses who are totally in an honour debt to me". Remind the players that that's what their character thinks they know. The more outlandish the facts they come up with, the more likely that it's gonna turn out to be wrong.

  • Players have a hard time coming up with good things: If players can't come up with anything at all when asked, try exercising their collaborative storytelling muscles by playing some purely collaborative games such as Fiasco or Microscope. They are GM-less and require no preparation beforehand, so they'll also give you a break from your preparations. After a games of these, your players will have a much easier time making things up on the spot.

  • Very interesting idea! I don't know how easy it would be to apply in shadowrun though. – Trajan Mar 9 '14 at 17:09
  • Do you have any particular concerns regarding Shadowrun or is it simply gut feeling? – evilcandybag Mar 9 '14 at 17:16
  • Shadowrun has a huge background (5 different editions and the almost-canon Earthdawn), filled with secrets and plots that runners should ignore, not create. – Trajan Mar 9 '14 at 17:25
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    +1; Example: Recently a player in my campaign asked me (between sessions) how common audio recording devices were in the setting. My first response was, "How common do you want them to be? :)" I later went back and threw some history of the phonograph as compared to the history of the telephone at the player (as the setting already had established landlines as commonplace), which did help him feel better about grabbing a recorder for himself, but from my perspective, the initial response was sufficient for the game. Let the players help build the setting, and they become more invested in it! – Brian S Mar 10 '14 at 14:52

The way I would rule this is that, unless the character has a very specific knowledge skill, you can make a general ruling as GM about how much information about something as secretive as a triad organisation would be reasonably available to the characters being played.

They might know what the general organisational structure of the Triads is, there might be a few names of people that are rumoured to be involved/in powerful positions within the organisation etc, but realistically they aren't going to have encyclopaedic knowledge of everything there is to know about the gang close to hand. This is particularly the case given that it sounds from your question that the team aren't even from Hong Kong.

If however, the team is prepared to put in legwork and do their research to find out more detailed information, then you have a whole new box of tricks you can use. Assuming they use the matrix to do their searching, the kind of stuff they are going to be looking for isn't exactly going to be available on Google, and they are likely to set off warning alarms that someone is snooping around in places they shouldn't. At the very least it will put the gang on a much higher state of alert, but if they do badly then it could even allow the gang to trace their search back to individual members of the team.

Remember that powerful organisations such as the triads have huge amounts of resources that they use to protect themselves, probably including a vast network of informants, matrix security protection etc. It is this kind of stuff that would be extremely difficult for the team to get information on however good their knowledge rolls are.

I've used the specific example you gave in order to make my argument, but whatever the game system and world, the principle is still the same. Knowledge rolls or their equivalent aren't an instant win button to give all the information available, so my argument would be that you don't need to give the players everything they want as it doesn't make sense with in the fiction of the game.

This was a big issue for me when running an Eclipse Phase campaign, where everyone is literally swimming in information. But think about life in the year 2014. There is plenty of raw data, a whole lot more data synthesized into information, and just as much opinion. Telling the three apart can be very difficult, particularly given that many people and organizations actively work to sow disinformation. No matter how much research you do, you're going to come across this fundamental problem in an information-rich environment.

In my Eclipse Phase game I addressed this before each adventure by creating one-page info sheets on topics I was reasonably sure players would want to research. The information was assumed to have been gathered by the player characters' muses, but depending on the setting it just as easily could have been gathered through first-hand research, legwork by contacts, and so on.

The information was organized in a top down fashion, so that items at the top of the sheet were broad, generally-known information that was almost completely reliable: The triads have operated in the city since the 1980s and have steadily gained control of several criminal activities, including but not limited to illegal drug distribution, money laundering... .

Information lower down the page is more detailed and less reliable: A leadership struggle late last year led to a restructuring, and eight bosses were reduced to five, all under the control of Kuí, who is rumored to have taken control through ruthless means.

I actually assigned visible "reliability ratings" for each piece of information, which gave me the ability to drop in red herrings from time to time. Giving the players information while explicitly calling out the variable reliability of the information worked pretty well. If the players ever asked for specifics about a particular item on the info sheet, I would ask them how willing they were to expose themselves. The more you look for specifics, online or off, the more likely you are to attract unwanted attention.

You don't say you have any problem with the characters having that information, only with having to invent it, write it all out, and hand it to the players.

So, you say, "OK, your characters know everything available about the Triads". Give them a few highlights so that they feel like they can "see" the setting around them, describe roughly how deep their knowledge goes, and say that if they have any specific questions as they go along, or if anything they encounter in game is related to their knowledge, then you'll tell them. Within the limits of what their characters could realistically access, of course. They can't expect to recognize every member by sight, unless they got into the really good databases. But if the name of a bar comes up, and it's a well-known Triad front, then you'll tell them that as soon as they encounter the name but not before.

It's not really any different from if a character has the skills to look up and save/memorize the stats from every NFL season up to 2076. OK, so their character knows it. Doesn't mean you have to invent a few hundred quarterbacks and their attempts/completions/yards/touchdowns/interceptions for 60+ years of football and hand the player a piece of paper, then get started on the running backs. If they meet an NFL player, you'd tell them whether he's any good or not and maybe his stats for this year, if you find it easy or if the player really wants the character to be able to drop exact numbers into conversation.

Or for that matter, data is siloed in the Shadowrun world, but you might still expect that something like Wikipedia exists. I don't know the canonical situation, I think I stopped following Shadowrun before Wikipedia was that big of a deal, but let's suppose it does. It does not follow that your players get to say any word they like, and you have to fake a Wikipedia page for it just because their characters could read the page. The GM is entitled to spend time and energy on what's relevant.

'Sure. Your character does all that research. You spend a day, now roll to cover your tracks so people don't know you were 'asking about the triads'. I'll tell you if and when your knowledge becomes useful, or you can ask me specific details at any time. Also, due to that, you work out that Tracy is most likely a hostage of the Chun'Wu Triad.'

Give the character the knowledge, in detail, in full, pending Complications or required rolls. Give the player the synopsis. Any tactical advantages gained by analyzing the data, as well. The player is the General, not the foot-soldier. He needs to know the upshot of the actions, not every single detail about the actions themselves.

This applies to information-based skills as well as physical based skills - you don't give endless detail about the kind of sword slash the character is doing and where he learnt it and how he holds the grip - you just tell the player whether he hit, and maybe a cool bit of detail about where, and how wounded the enemy looks.


You came with idea "job in Hong Kong" and they went along. Your fault for making it interesting, you need to prepare. Analyze their PCs and make rolls in advance and tell them what they sources got them with X days of work for Y yens.

You yourself had a good idea, but make the hand-out shorter, fitting one A4 sheet, tops.

If they push for more info, use Bankuei's excellent answer - how long they can afford to spent? How much? What's the consequences?

Let them built the setting

"Clanarchy", "Honor and Blood" and "Lady Blackbird" use that: let them create setting (especially if it's one-time thing). This is similar to evilcandy's answer.

Roll and mark success levels. For each success level a player tells a fact about Hong Kong Triads, police, etc. You just warn them not to abuse this (set limiters, like "you can't name facts on special forces or "Facts about your target, Mr. Hi Yuan, are mine and mine alone".

This way they'll build the setting in such a way they can do something about it. Also, feel free to join in: for every three facts they get, you add one about target of their mission.

You don't know Hong Kong but...

Client wants to make sure you succeed and assigns you a guide. Guide also watches you deliver what you promised you will. (Enter NPC)

NPC will have enough data to come up with three standard plans and if they are creative you may reward them. More info will take time and time is something NPC is wary of - he wants the job done on time after all.

Actually, I don't think this is how knowledge skills work in Shadowrun. The knowledge skill is neither "exact details on every triad branch's lair including building plans" nor "investigate unseen about...". It is more of an abstract measure for the probability of a PC to know something related to a specific topic.

In this case the dice system of shadowrun has the unique ability to easily measure a quality of success. If a player asks a general question like "everything about the triad", I'd propose to have him roll and answer with number-of-successes general info bits like "Triads is the collective term for competing criminal organizations stemming from China", "You know the name of at least 4 groups, two of which are active in Hongkong", "triads are strongly hierarchical", "you do know the name of a local leader", "the triads engage in drug and weapon deals", "the cliche about the restaurant's backroom is totally wrong, instead they use offices in clothing factories", "...". Have them ask more specific questions after that general info round and answer with details according to the number of successes.

This gives you time to come up with answers and at some point the players will be satisfied with the information they got, because they ran out of questions. If they don't, you should keep track of the detailed questions asked and disallow rewording to get another check. The bits of information can be prepared beforehand with a mind map. In the center of the map would be "triads" then you can write and link infos on different detail levels all around. Like everything on the left side could go into more detail about the organizational aspects of triads. To the right side you could add different levels of detail about their activities. Other directions could go for "places", "persons", "...". You can also do the mind map on-the-fly to serve them the knowledge a second time for overlapping questions or if the players (but not the PCs) forgot about it between two sessions.

Something you can use as a GM tool is the every fun NPC. Maybe they roll high enough to get a temporary contact. This contact can be someone who wants out but the more vital they are, the more they'll be targeted by assassination attempts and such before they can give out pertinent information. Sure the party might glean a few actual useful facts but someone in the triads has to be suspecting that someone is taking a lead off of third base and sprinting for home. The more vital, the more heavily watched. Your players just happened to get a head start in their defense.

I would suggest deciding how much info you want them to know, and then if they get really annoying, punishing them for trying to push you too far.

For example, Player wants to learn about the Triads in the area. He can get a lot of "common knowledge" by asking around, reading books, reading the news, things of that nature. But if Player wants really detailed info that the Triads would probably not want the local nobodies knowing, then it could potentially be dangerous for Player to pry for such information. It wouldn't be unbelievable for the Triads to find out who this guy is who's walking around trying to investigate their business. And when they find out, what do you think they would do? I would think they would probably jump him on the street and try to kill him. An encounter like this would serve a couple good purposes. Firstly, it would force the story to move forward so the character stops snooping around and wasting time doing something he doesn't need to do, and it would also teach the player that the world he's playing in is dangerous and he shouldn't recklessly pursue things like this with such persistence -- unless it's essential to the plot ;)

  • So you'd punish players interested to know more about the setting because the GM is unprepared? – user4000 Mar 8 '14 at 22:53
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    Some skills are dangerous to use depending on the situation. If the first thing you learn about someone who is dangerous is 'if you seek him, he will seek you', you might want to re-assess – TysoThePirate Mar 8 '14 at 23:41
  • "If you seek, they do, too" is an info to be shared and emphazised. Plus, I don't think any criminal organization goes around killing everyone who "asks around". They'd be quite easy to find, trap and put to justice, if they'd be doing so reliably. I think they would rather seek out the one asking and tell to back off. Of course, nothing says "back off" better than a punch to one's face. The difference is that crime bosses need their minions to be back out of jail in a short amount of time, in case they are caught. – NoAnswer Jul 15 '14 at 9:45

I'd give them a "menu system" (or at least an abstraction of one if you're playing a fantasy game) by telling them they've found information on lots of subtopics, then list the subtopics and leave it to them to "drill down" to find the specific things they're after.

So, in your given example: "know everything about the Hong-Kong Triads, their organization, leaders and known headquarters"

Assuming they made the necessary roll(s), the first thing I'd do is give them a list of triad groups operating in Hong Kong. Then they can pick one, and give them a brief paragraph overview. If they want to know about specific leaders or locations, they can keep asking more detailed questions.

Think of it as similar to having Wikipedia access. There's a ton of stuff there, but you need to click on links or type in search queries to get to specific items of information.

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