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I'm running the 5e starter set for the first time - remotely - with a bunch of friends. The party speaks a range of languages, and we'll be using Google Chat so each of us will have our computers handy. I'm considering allowing players who share a language to g-chat each other without the party (or me) "hearing." For example, 2 halflings whisper an escape plan or surprise attack plan as the rest of the party loudly distracts human guards in Common. I'd just ask that they notify me "We're having a hushed conversation in halfling."

I'm also considering, as DM, individually g-chatting characters overhearing a language no one else can understand (e.g. a bunch of orcs yell "Get the wizard first" to each other in Orc, and only the ranger hiding in the trees understands).

I'm not experienced, so I ask those who have done this: What are the drawbacks, and did you find them to overwhelm the immersion benefits?

Thanks!

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    \$\begingroup\$ This question is perfectly answerable as long as answerers keep in mind Good Subjective, Bad Subjective - we don't want your uninformed opinion, we want to hear experience from those who have done it or seen it done. \$\endgroup\$ – mxyzplk says reinstate Monica Apr 17 '15 at 1:49
  • \$\begingroup\$ Are you going to play entirely by chat, or will it be play-by-voice except where secret communication is involved? It makes a lot of difference (if you normally use voice, secret chat is REALLY distracting, but if you chat everything it can work nicely depending on the type of game) \$\endgroup\$ – Erik Apr 17 '15 at 9:19
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There is nothing inherently wrong with sharing secret information; I have done it myself by either sharing notes or talking with individual players in private. I believe it is possible to offer some basic guidelines:

  • Share information quickly, a few words at most. Players may lose interest if you spend too much time in secret communication with any one of them.
  • For longer correspondences, share the information during a break in play.
  • Some information is too trivial to keep secret, particularly when the player will immediately share it with the group. Orcs shouting "Get the Wizard!" likely falls into this category.
  • Don't get too carried away with secret sharing. Most of the time its fine to rely on the players to maintain a separation between their knowledge and their character's knowledge.
  • If you expect the players to encounter secret information during the game, you can prepare the messages ahead of time. You can use this as a heuristic - if its worth writing out ahead of time, its worth sharing secretly.

Secret information can make the game more immersive and make role playing easier. Ultimately its up to you as the DM to decide what information is worth sharing secretly, and I encourage you to experiment in this area (or talk with your players) to see what feels right.

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    \$\begingroup\$ +1 for pointing out that knowledge kept secret from a character doesn't always need to be kept secret from the player. Where to draw the line depends on the campaign, of course, but I've found most players are willing to maintain separation of player/character knowledge if it means they get to be 'in on the joke.' \$\endgroup\$ – GMJoe Apr 17 '15 at 7:44
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Don't do this.

I've run remote games with sidechannels before, and unless the game is about the side channel (i.e. using the paranoia java app that does all sorts of cute things) trying to keep track of state (the status of all the secret information in my head), the narrative (what's going on) typing (which is still slower than talking) and keeping track of more than one conversation just gave me a headache.

It also wasn't much fun.

This is D&D. This is a game about killing monsters and taking their stuff. Especially in a starter adventure, it's about killing monsters and taking their stuff. If people want to language swap, they can preface it in main chat with " Shhh, no one knows what I'm saying " And the party can get back to a central-spotlight roleplay of killing people and taking their stuff.

If you have a party experienced in the venue, comfortable in the rules, comfortable in their characters, willing to play an intrigue filled game, and using an intrigue enabled system, then yes, private messages are pretty cool. I've certainly texted people across a table before. But that's an advanced skill to be added to add nuance to the game, not a hammer to be applied to an introductory adventure.

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You should really request to be involved in any secret whispering happening between players. If you let them talk together then that means you are missing information, which might be relevant to you. Imagine, for example, someone is eaves-dropping on them and speaks Halfling... he'd have to know what the players said, but you don't know and asking them for a recap or saying "I want to be listening this time" would be really suspicious.

If you're simply there by default, you'll get any information you might need for your story and nobody will be suspicious.

Also look at the type of game. Players keeping secrets from one another is not the usual D&D approach, since the default assumption is that they're a group of characters who trust each other. Unless your game has in-party distrust as a key component, it might cost more than it gives you back. A lot of the time you'll be waiting for a secret conversation to play out, only to end it with "Okay, I'll recap everything to the group now", which is just dragging things out.

And finally, if you do have secrecy high up and are playing by chat and are willing to do some searching, you can add an extra level of cool by looking for an online tool that translates text, with a secret key to convert it back. Then, you can share different keys for different languages and communicate in the main channel. Only people who have the language key can read the text, but the non-verbal parts can still be done in the common language. It gives a slight overhead because of the added copy-paste steps, but it means that people who are present but don't understand the language still have something to do (as players) and still get the non-verbal clues that you would normally get when watching people talk in a language you don't understand.

You could get lines like: John looks at his Dwarven companion for a while, then looks back to the two Elves. He speaks in his accented Elven. "Agfdkd fhdjkfg artuih sdfouidfg weriuhwer afwitre?"

If you enjoy secrecy and in-character dialogue, the guesswork this generates could be a lot of fun for the players.

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  • \$\begingroup\$ That's actually a really cool idea. Would make it hard for such things to look like actual language though. Especially in your example, where nearly the whole message was obviously typed on just the middle row of the keyboard... \$\endgroup\$ – Weckar E. Jun 13 '16 at 12:21
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I suggest using a single chat room, but putting tags around text when it's in a different language:

Thief: <Halfling>Hey, should we loot this guy before the party notices?</Halfling>
Sorceror: <Halfling>Yeah, I'll distract them.</Halfling>
Paladin: What?
Sorceror: I think I see an evildoer over there!

For your Orks, you could just yell gibberish, unless you know at least one party member understands Orkish.

This is how you'd do it at a real table. The thief would go: "I say in Halfling: The Paladin's feet are pretty hairy."

This is vulnerable to metagaming, but it's no worse than you'd have in a tabletop game.

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