One of the greatest challenges to a GM is giving the players enough information that they can resolve the conflict of a story, but not so much that they have detailed instructions on how to go about it. This problem leads to some of the most frustrating tropes I’ve seen in roleplaying games, and can result in the players feeling helpless within the context of the story and in the GM looking rather like a jerk. In this essay, we’re going to examine some ways of disseminating information to the players (and thus their characters), both good and bad, and the consequences of those methods.
Let’s begin with the bad ideas.
Three Common Informative Mistakes
• Infodump: This method involves long, long explanations, usually delivered straight from a book and not in-character. Typically, this covers information the characters “would already know,” and that’s fine. The problem is that listening to people read from books is boring, and that the players aren’t likely to retain the information (especially if you ask them to engage different parts of their brains — i.e., playing their characters — after the infodump is over). Infodumps can happen in character, as well, and this presents problems of its own (see next point).
• The Jive-Talking Wizard: I saw this term on Beth Kinderman’s website, and I think it’s pretty appropriate. It refers to the all-powerful being who appears in order to get the characters together and set them on the right track, but won’t, for reasons only known to himself, impart enough information to do the job well. When asked for details or more helpful information, he typically simpers, changes the subject, vanishes, thunders “That’s not for you to know!” or otherwise says “Screw you” to the players. I’ve seen him as a god of humor, an actual wizard (Gandalf is almost a literary example of this tactic, but Gandalf also takes personal risks and gets down and dirty in battle, too, so he doesn’t really count), a computer, a Sidereal Exalt, and mentors and rulers of all kinds.
As is probably obvious, the Wizard is a bad way to dispense information for several reasons. First, it puts the characters in an obviously subservient role. That’s sometimes appropriate, depending on the game in question, but it chafes a lot of players, especially when it’s so apparent. Second, it flies in the face of logic: Why does this guy need the characters as pawns? Why can’t he just handle things himself? Why is he being so stingy with information if he wants the characters to succeed? (The answer to these questions, of course, is that having too much information would make things too easy on the characters (this is a fallacy, but I’ll cover that later), and the GM wants things to be challenging. The Wizard makes things less challenging and more annoying, though.) Finally, the Wizard does nothing to engender any kind of interest in the storyline. In fact, he does the opposite: The players feel like they’re being ordered around, not told what they need to know, not given control over their lives, and generally treated like machines. Most of us get that kind of treatment at our jobs, and we don’t want it during an escapist hobby.
• File and Forget: Most GMs, myself included, make up most of the happenings in their stories on the spot. That’s fine. Some of the best storylines I’ve come up with involved me taking a flippant comment from a player and running with it. The problem comes not when GMs make up information on the spot, but when that information doesn’t remain consistent. If you give the players a juicy clue that wasn’t part of your original plan, write it down. Information that turns out to be false because the players interpreted it incorrectly or didn’t cross-check their facts (I’m amazed at how often players assume that anything out of the mouth of a sympathetic NPC is unassailable truth, but that’s a separate issue), that’s fine. If the information turns out to be false or irrelevant because you forgot what you told the players, that’s a failing on your part.
Informing Players and Making them Happy
With all of the above in mind, how do you, as GM, give your players the information they require without teasing them, annoying them, misleading them or inundating them? Here are some suggestions:
• Use the Supporting Cast: Having NPCs tell the players what’s going on is fine. Just remember a few simple principles.
First, the NPCs are not omniscient. A character’s mentor might be truly wise and powerful, but said mentor has a limited scope of knowledge. Asking for information outside of that scope results in no information, or, worse yet, misleading information. I recommend always mixing in something useful with misleading or useless information. After all, a game session only lasts so long and every hour spent chasing false leads is another hour that players will remember as pointless.
One way to keep in mind what a given NPCs knows is to stat that character. I’m not as stringent about statting everybody in the world as I was 10 years ago, but important supporting characters still get write-ups in my notebook. If I know, for instance, that Dr. Jones has a high rating in Archeology but nothing at all in Occult, his information about the Dread Book of Niffugcam is going to be skewed appropriately. Having NPCs with limited bases of knowledge serves a number of purposes. In addition to avoiding the Jive-Talking Wizard problem (since the NPC doesn’t withhold information, he just doesn’t know everything the players need to find out), it also helps the players see the NPCs as individuals. Once they know that Dr. Jones can help them translate Sanskrit, but that he doesn’t know a thing about art, they won’t bother going to him to help them identify which artist drew the prints found in the Dread Book.
Second, the NPCs have their own agendas, but you need to know what those agendas are. Sometimes, a character’s agenda lets him work closely with the players’ characters, and sometimes it involves keeping information hidden. By way of example, consider Orpheus. In case you don’t know, Orpheus is a game in which the characters work for a company that solves ghost-related problems, and the company has a somewhat…checkered past. In the chronicle I ran some years back (that I unfortunately did not log, or I'd link to it), the characters’ boss was obviously uncomfortable with some of the goings-on at the Orpheus Group, but wasn’t ready to share everything with the characters for fear of endangering them. As such, he told them what he could when he could. They suspected him of being a villain a couple of times, but when the chips came down, he was unequivocally on their side. The bottom line here: Know what your NPCs want as well as what they know, and have their behavior reflect both.
Third, pay attention to what the players ask. If they ask the wrong questions, give them the wrong answers. I’m not talking about letting them discuss how to translate the Dread Book with Dr. Jones in the room and then later having them find out that Jones could have helped translate it, but didn’t speak up because the players didn’t ask. That kind of nonsense (always followed by a simper and a “tee-hee”) is comparable to the Jive-Talking Wizard in its irritation level. What I mean is, don’t allow the NPCs to be psychic. An example: The characters come across a body mauled by an animal and find wolf-prints nearby. They immediately start asking poor overworked Dr. Jones about werewolves. Now, in fact, the creature responsible was a were-coyote, which has very different implications for the story, but the players have jumped to a conclusion (admittedly, it’s a pretty easy one to jump to) and so Dr. Jones can’t really correct them.
• Let them learn gradually: A way to avoid the infodump problem is to let the players find out crucial information over a period of time. It’s been my experience that groups often split up during investigation or information-gathering phases (“OK, I’ll hit the library, you go talk to Dr. Jones, and you get on the Internet”), and this is a golden opportunity for you as GM. By letting each of the players find a nugget of information, you aren’t asking all of the players to remember pages worth of data. The players can put everything they’ve learned together and analyze it as a group. This also plays directly into my next point…
• Let them earn the info: …which is, nothing’s free. The characters should have to work to find out what they need to know, even if the only work involved is deciding whom to ask. Note, though, that it’s incumbent upon you as GM to present more than one avenue of approach for investigation, or, at the very least, to avoid shutting the players down if they come up with something that you didn’t think of. I’ve played in games where the GM had very specific ideas about how problems should be solved, how the players should go about getting from point A to point B, and what the players should know at various stages of the game. I accept that sort of thing in computer “role-playing” games, because the computer program has to proceed in a specific way. As a human being, however, you are above this sort of linear progression, and can allow players to learn from whatever sources they can think of. (And this really all goes back to a point I’ve made before: Players like it when their ideas pan out. They don’t like it when they try something clever and the response from the GM is “That’s clever, but I didn’t think of it first, so it won’t work.”)
• Give ‘em what they want: I played in a World of Darkness game once many years ago in which our characters found it necessary to infiltrate a Technocracy base. For those who didn’t play Mage: The Ascension, that’s a bit like infiltrating the Death Star, only the Stormtroopers can shoot straight, don’t all carry master keys, and generally aren’t complete idiots. It’s walking into the meat grinder, we knew, so we wanted to be prepared. So, calling in our contacts and a lot of favors, we got a complete readout of the base, a schedule for the guards, technical data on how everything worked, and lists of staff and their capabilities (from a scientific/magical standpoint). Far from making it too easy on us, we discovered exactly how screwed we were. Having the information gave us the possibility of victory; without, we’d have been dead. To take a cinematic example, consider The Usual Suspects. The characters know that the job they are being forced to do is a suicide mission, but they know everything they need to know to pull it off.
My point, here, is that if the characters go into a situation blind, they can justifiably blame you if things go wrong, especially if you’ve been coy or downright misleading up to that point. If they know everything they could have known (or if they skimped on their research), they’ve got no one to blame but themselves.
This isn’t to say, of course, that things can’t go wrong or that the enemy can’t have tricks up its collective sleeve that the characters couldn’t foresee. Such surprises are very much in-genre for most of the settings of role-playing games. The point is that there’s a difference between information the characters could not possibly have known and information they should have known, but you wouldn’t tell them.
An example: Against my better judgment, I played in a Dungeons and Dragons game run by a first-time GM. She had her story all planned out, she said (which should have been a big warning sign). I played a druid, one of the other players made a duelist character, which is some jumped-up form of fighter that uses two weapons or something (I don’t like the d20 system and I don’t keep abreast of the 1.4 billion prestige classes currently available). Anyway, his character and mine walked into a bar and got jumped by a lot of toughs. The duelist hit one of them with a blow that should have killed him, and the player, quickly doing the math, figured that the “bar brawler” had to be a high-level fighter to survive. Turns out all of those brawlers were high-level fighters.
Ignoring the cliché of a bar fight breaking out in a D&D game (I'm not opposed to the classics), the GM really should have given the duelist’s player some kind of check to notice that these guys were all armed, that they carried themselves like professional fighters, that they look battle-hardened, etc. Instead, she chose to lure the player into a sucker bet. That’s not a good way to get people excited about playing in your game.
• Don’t tell them everything: The more you reveal to your players, the less they’ll fill in the blanks. I love it when players come up with explanations for what’s going on. Sometimes I even replace my actual plots with player-inspired lunacy. It’s a question (like most of Storytelling) of balance — give them as much information as they need, but not so much that they don’t need to find out how the story ends.
Four Simple Tricks to Avoid Under-Informed Players
• Know what there is to know: When I write scenarios and settings for game companies, I tend to spend a lot of work count on an area’s history and what has come before the players arrive. That’s because if the GM knows what’s happened, he’ll know what the players can potentially discover. I can’t predict, as a writer (or as a GM, for that matter) what the players are going to do, so the best I can do is know what information the players can find and let them find it. In my opinion, writing down the history of your setting or events is more important than statting out your antagonists. You can make up stats on the fly or use characters out of a book. Making up history and keeping it consistent is much trickier.
• Some Information is Crucial: One of my guiding principles as a GM is that I don't ask for rolls if I'm not prepared for the result. This principle is especially true in the information-gathering phase of a story, and I tend to run highly investigation and mystery-focused games, so I have to be conscious of what the players know and how they can find out the truth. In any given investigation-focused scene, thinking about what information the characters must walk away with. I'd even advise giving players the same information in a couple of different ways; it allows for confirmation and nuance. For example, a group of characters are looking into the disappearance of a local high schooler. Her parents think that she was a model teenager, but investigating her online presence (avenue of investigation #1) reveals chat logs and a browsing history of a decidedly more prurient nature. Discussion with her friends at school (avenue of investigation #2) reveals that she had an "older boyfriend," but that she had been "caught behind the bleachers" early in the school year. Same information - the girl was secretly sexually active and engaging in risky behaviors - but two points of reference and several opportunities for follow-up investigation.
For further consideration, have a look at the GUMSHOE system. I haven't played it yet, sadly, but I've read Trail of Cthulu, which uses GUMSHOE. The basic idea is that rather than rolling dice to have your characters obtain clues, you spend points. As such, you'll never miss a clue or a plot point due to a failed roll. You can spend points based on different investigative skills, though, so you'll get different information depending on how your character goes about it.
• Consider the characters’ avenue of approach: If you’ve got a group full of combat-ready characters who can barely read, they aren’t likely to spend days in the library looking through hoary old tomes. They’re more likely to go beating people up for information. Look over the character sheets, pay attention to how the players like to do things, and structure the information and the vectors of the information accordingly (players, this also means you need to play your characters appropriately — your hulking barbarian with no idea which way to hold a book probably shouldn’t suggest going to the local scribe and asking to poke through scrolls, though he might well suggest poking the scribe with sticks until he finds the information for the party).
• Everything is fluid: I’ve said this before, but it bears repeating: Be ready to scrap a plan, a fact, a character or a plot point the second your players come up with something better, especially if they have all the information and come to a completely logical conclusion that just happens to be miles away from what you came up with. You’ll usually find that tweaking a few details makes all the difference, and that you don’t need to change everything, just enough.
In closing, remember that you aren’t telling the story to the players, you’re telling the story with the players. They should be informing you just as you inform them.