Pen & Paper Roleplaying games are communication. They differ from other games in that the giving and receiving of information is the vital factor that comes before anything else. Mark Rein-Hagen was completely on point when he likened the whole concept of tabletop roleplaying games to shared storytelling and oral history. Even if you hate “storygames” you can’t avoid seeing that roleplaying games are about telling each other what is going on. While the characters are right there, and see, smell, hear, and feel things, players and GM are not, and are totally dependent on what their fellow gamers tell them. The one channel to experience the whole story as it unfolds — is talk.
Experiencing the Game World
There is only this one way to experience the world: The players only know what they get told, and the GM only knows what the players tell back. That means that a GM who is giving incomplete sensory information to the players is not really adding to an atmosphere of mystery, he is withholding shared reality, and sometimes on purpose to bait the players into a trap. (“Ha, you should have asked if your characters can smell smoke! You didn’t ask, so it is your own fault that you died.”) That is not gritty or thrilling, it is frustrating; and it is not enticingly mysterious, it is confusing.
The same goes the other way around: players must communicate clearly what they are doing, what their goal is, and how they are doing it (based on the knowledge they have). Players who are vague about their intentions are similarly trying to keep options open. What do they have in hand, is it a lamp or a shield? Players who leave that unstated and switch things out (“I always have my sword drawn! No, wait, I always have an arrow nocked!“) are contributing to an information war and incentivise GMs into deliberately giving incomplete information as a way to get back at the players.
Secrecy & Character Knowledge
Even more pronounced is the issue of separating player knowledge from character knowledge. Many GMs assume (often based on bad experience, in some cases based on projection) that players will have troubles with that.
(Group A goes to the library, group B goes to the courtyard. Group B finds something interesting at the well. Group A suddenly turns around and runs to the courtyard “I think we should also go to the courtyard!” Or Group A gets attacked, and Group B storms back up to the library to help them.)
So GMs try to mitigate that by splitting up players when the party splits up.
In a face to face group that means they move to another room with one group and switch back when they reunite. In a play by post game it may mean opening a separate channel that is private and involves only those involved in the situation.
I am not a fan of playing on a need-to-know basis for two reasons.
I don’t like the message it sends about trust between GMs and players.
It may escape people who deal out information strictly on a need-to-know basis, but if you have characters in fiction say “That’s classified” or “That’s on a need-to-know basis, and you don’t need to know” … such characters are always either active enemies, traitors, or at least idiots.
Players who have taken part in a side adventure tend to tell very little of it to those who weren’t there, so there is a very strong loss of information inside a group that is kept in the dark in this way, much stronger than it would be among the characters. “We found loot in cave and killed a mid-level-boss” is usually all that gets transferred, because the players who were there want to get on with the adventure, not “lose precious time” rehashing things that are in the past.
When characters come back from a scouting mission, the 4 out of 5 players will say: “I tell the others everything I have seen.” Which communicates nothing to them. The scouts hope for the GM to relay all the important parts, sometimes because they are lazy, sometimes because they do not trust their own interpretation of what is important and what isn’t, so they hope for the GM to indirectly do the analysis for them by re-telling only the important parts.
And even when the whole group later visits the same place again together, GMs generally have the same bias: Because some or most of the players present have already seen this place, they gloss over the details. “We go down again, and back to the T-junction where we left the box.“
That is fine for everyone who was there, but
- players whose characters are there for the first time are immediately lost and cannot contribute to the situation.
- Even worse, sometimes their questions: “How far down? Where are we? Is it dark? How do we get there?” get ignored for the sake of speed, to avoid being repetitive and boring for the majority of the group.
- Even more worse than that, when they want to get back from the T-junction and the GM asks: “What way do you take?” And they do not know because nobody bothered to tell them the way. They say “My character would know“, but then dice are rolled against their INT stat, and they lose their way, etc., which sounds like great drama, but really isn’t.
It is the GM’s responsibility to explain the world, covering all sensory input that is useful. Yes, for every player. It is the players’ responsibility to explain their action, and their intent! This allows the GM to spot misunderstandings and correct mistakes to re-align shared imagination. The plans of players should not aim at tricking the GM, they should aim at tricking the NPCs. The GM is in on the trick; complete information actually helps him at portraying the results of the ruse.
Communication is the heart of the game.
Giving and receiving facts of the world is its lifeblood.
Let the information flow.
Photo by Ashkan Forouzani on Unsplash