Asymetric Information as a Narative Tool

So Tuesdays I said I would talk about tabletop role playing games, and so that is what I will be talking about today.  Incidentally, the short story from a couple days ago was connected to a game I am currently playing in.  The character Nettle is my player character in a game my friend is running, and I took the opportunity to expand her backstory a bit with the short story, as well as taking the opportunity to start the short story with a strong feeling of world, as there is a lot about the setting that has already been decided.  Anyways, today we are going to talk about who gets to know what, and why in tabletop rpgs.

In the traditional rpg set up, there exists a fair bit of asymmetry between Dungeon Master knowledge and player knowledge, but generally fairly little asymmetry between players.   The only real exceptions would be if the DM wanted to keep certain things secret from some of the players that only one character would know, such as if a player’s character was possessed or something, or if a character has a certain special secret that they set up ahead of time with the DM, like if they are secretly the daughter of the big bad, and they want to spring that on the other players for dramatic reasons.  Other than that, anything one player knows, every other player has the option of knowing, there is rarely secret information between players, even if there is stuff that their respective characters might be keeping from each other.

On the other hand, in the traditional system, the DM usually has a ton of secrets.  Any part of the world that the characters have not explored or heard about is kept secret from the players as well, during combat the exact statistics of the enemies are rarely presented, and anything the DM wants to be a surprise in the story, is kept from the players.  I want to stop for  a moment and try to analyze why each of these different secrets are kept.

First lets look at the motivations for hiding story elements.  I believe this is largely a function of the fact that most people are interested in being surprised by a story, or learning something new in a story, as opposed to just roleplaying a character who is surprised or is learning something.  In most forms of narrative media, discovering and following along with the plot is something that is done in a set order and with the intent of discovering things for oneself.  This is why people care about spoilers for movies and tv shows, they don’t want to experience the events in the wrong order, and lose the surprise.

Similarly, players don’t want to experience events in the wrong order in a game either.  It would be entirely within the realm of possibilities for a GM to tell their players “At the next castle you will battle a troll and then discover the fact that the princess is secretly a ninja chipmunk.”  Traditionally that would not be what players want to hear, as they would rather experience the troll “first hand” and discover the secret of the princess along with their character.  So in terms of narrative, you could almost say the secrets are something of a social contract in order to allow players to experience things together with their character.

Another social contract present in most traditional tabletop games is the clear separation of in character and out of character knowledge.  Just because you yourself know how to make gunpowder or build a calculator, does not mean that your characters have this knowledge, and it is generally considered bad form, or even “cheating” if you simply say your character is going through the steps to accomplish something that they have no possible reason for knowing.  Similarly, using the knowledge that the characters are inside a game that is supposed to have fun and reasonable challenges, in order to have your character fight the captain of the guard because you think the DM wouldn’t make her super strong, or you saw her stats written down in the DM notebook is entirely outside the bounds of acceptable play for most groups.

Sometimes it can be really hard not to mix these two things together.  If one of the characters knows that the guy in the floppy hat is named “Ragdabit” and keeps calling him that out of character, one might accidentaly start calling Ragdabit by his first name, even if your character doesn’t know it.  Or if the party is split up and one group discovers something that effects the other party, it can be hard not to take this knowledge you know as a player and use it to help out your character.

It is for this reason, as well as preventing players who actively want to “cheat” from doing so, that many DMs will strive to keep character and player knowledge as close to each other as they can, so that players will not accidentally spread the knowledge to their characters and in general no one has to worry about knowledge transmission along the 4th wall.  This can be another reason why a DM would hide narrative information, as well as explaining why combat stats and information about the world might be hidden from the players.  This is also usually why DMs will keep most of the palyers out of the loop during a possession or something like that, in order to prevent the party from reacting differently towards the player they know is possessed or corrupted.  On the other hand, when a player has a secret in their backstory, it is often more for dramatic effect that they keep it secret, though depending on how big the secret, it might be to prevent other players from having their characters act on the knowledge as well.

Connected to the idea of making sure player knowledge and character knowledge is kept separate is the concept of difficulty.  Typically an rpg will involve puzzles, combat, social encounters, and more that are designed to be difficult, to require thought, or successful use of in character skills, or clever combat maneuvers.  One of the DMs responsibilities is usually to make the situations challenging, and allow the characters to use their smarts, stats, and creativity to solve the problems presented.  It can actually make it harder to have really cool moments for your character if the player has all the knowledge already.  If your character guesses that the dragon is weak to fire because of its icy surroundings and the lack of interior lighting, that’s cool, but if the player already knew that, the characters revelation becomes less impressive.  By acting with less information, characters and players get more chances to be clever or creative in solving problems.  In combat situations, discovering your foes strengths and weaknesses can be part of the battle itself, and so it can cheapen the battle to have the knowledge ahead of time.

Therefor, the three main reasons one might hide information from one party or another are as follows:  To create a stronger narrative in which the players are entertained by the twists and turns of the story.  To prevent intentional and unintentional mishmashes between in character and out of character knowledge.  And finally, to allow more expression of skill in challenges by making knowledge part of the challenge, allowing lack of knowledge to be overcome in character.  All of these seem like pretty good reasons for hiding information, but sometimes, especially in games outside the traditional sphere, the information dynamic is changed.

Before I go on to reasons why not hiding information can be positive, let me first discuss why the GM is usually entirely in the loop.  First off, in a traditional DM role, the Dungeon Master has so much responsibility and their power within the game is so far reaching that it rarely makes sense for them to not have a given piece of knowledge.  When the DM is playing everything in the cosmos besides the player characters, unless the secret is entirely self contained in a character, the DM needs to know everything in order to accurately play all of their relevant actors.  As long as someone or something knows or is affected by the secret, the DM has reason to know in order that they don’t do something inconsistent.  If the player is secretly the son of the mad queen, if the players run into her, its likely she will act differently around her son, then around random adventurers.  The DM is required to keep their knowledge and the separate knowledges of hundreds of different characters all sorted out in their head to some extent, and they don’t get the luxury of discovering along with their many characters except in response to player character action.

On a narrative level, DMs generally do more of the creating of knowledge and surprises than participating in them, though there is always a certain amount of surprise that comes from reacting to the players and how they deal with each event.  Usually its important to have the DM know the secrets in a narrative sense so that they can tie them into the broader story, or at least give the secret a place to tie in.

Finally, challenge, in the sense that it exists for players, does not really exist for DMs.  They should try and be clever, and creative in how they react to the players actions, but ultimately they control the world, and most of the time they are setting themselves up to lose battles, be outwitted, or be figured out.  The challenge a DM faces have to do with content creation and making sure players are happy, not really anything within the system usually.

Now that we can see why a DM usually has to know all the secrets, it becomes easier to see why players might want to know more.  In less traditional rpgs, the line between DM and player can get less strict or disappear entirely, and at many points in this spectrum the veil of knowledge can need to be moved.  Typically this is when players begin to take on more responsibility in all three of the different areas described above.

The first area again is narrative.  There are a lot of rpgs out there where the players have a certain amount of power to define the world, make statements of fact, or compel the story down certain paths.  In the example I gave above, with the ogre and the ninja squirrel princess, a party that wants more control over the story might want to hear about the plans ahead of time in order to weigh in on the plot, change it, or adjust themselves to fit it better.

Perhaps one player hears the DM tell them about the situation, and then asks the DM if the castle could be guarded by a Minotaur instead of an ogre, because his character’s family was murdered by minotaurs and it would make the battle, and the story more interesting.  Perhaps another character hears about the ninja squirrel princess and is really interested in the character, wanting to add more details and help with the creation, explaining that ninja squirrels do battle in the trees with the fearsome chipmunk samurai.  Perhaps another player hears of this upcoming plot twist and wants to retroactively make his character involved, having been a supporter of the ninja squirrel infiltration movement in his youth.  When everyone is involved in the creative process, sharing information can make it a more rich experience, and potentially a more compelling story, at the cost of some amount of surprise factor and a bit of a disconnect between player and character.

In the realm of separation between player and character knowledge, sometimes players will want to play their characters only getting into certain kinds of situations, or having incredible good or bad luck.  If your cool elvish swashbuckler never looks like a fool, you are going to want to have all the out of character knowledge you can in order to make situations resolve in a way that keeps the integrity of the character you want to play.  Sometimes it can be enjoyable to have an amount of control of decisions and knowledge that you don’t have in everyday life.  If you want your character to always just barely stumble into the correct path for entirely the wrong reasons, you need to know what the correct path is so that you can get your character stumbling there.  If you want your character to have the worst luck in the world, then you need to know what the worst piece of treasure for her to pick up is, or the worst door to open.  By giving the character more knowledge, you can allow them to play their character in certain ways that would be impossible with zero information.

Finally, in terms of difficulty, this is again something that can be regulated by the players in more progressive systems, instead of leaving the level entirely up to the DM. In a lot of systems these days, there are in game reward systems which push players to play up negative traits of their characters in order to make a situation more difficult or up the ante.  When the player can make the encounter harder or easier on themselves with various in game systems, it becomes a lot less critical to make sure knowledge based difficulty stays existent.

When I started writing this article, my aim was to talk about a certain kind of asynchronous knowledge system or rather a couple of more unique ones, but I think I will save the discussion of those for another day.  For today I think I gave a pretty good overview of the basic motivations behind keeping secrets and reasons why one might not do so in rpg systems.  Next time, we can talk about knowledge differences in competative games, in which the players are not necessarily in full cooperation with each other, as well as systems that use knowledge disparity as a game mechanic or as a plot point.  When knowledge becomes part of the game itself…



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