Game Master (GM): The flames of the torch dims. The oppressive darkness of the dungeon pushes in. The walls feel closer. The air is thick, making each breath a notable struggle. Holding your hand out before you, the only thing you see past your wrist is the light reflecting off your fingernails.
Darkness. Dungeon. Oppression. Got it. Now that everyone can basically only see the five-foot square they are in, what do you explain to the one party member who has the ability to see clearly in the dark?
Scenarios where one or more players are privy to something other players aren’t are common. Perception checks of differing results are one of the most common situations. But you as a GM need a variety of ways to dispense that information to the players. I’m a believer that you should never ALWAYS rely on one method. Have a favorite, sure, but mix it up. Keep your players from being able to predict what you’re going to do or how you will do it.
Dispensing information a limited number of the characters should know is a deep subject with lots of answers, and none of them work in all situations. Here’s the first method you can used to deal with it.
Player Knowledge and Character Knowledge
Keeping player knowledge and character knowledge separate is my favorite method. However, it doesn’t work with all groups. Being a player and knowing a character is actively working against mine is fun. I can spice that up, having my character start defending or caretaking the character who is plotting against me. It can make the betrayal all the more meaningful, or maybe those actions will make them change their mind. Either way, the potential for increased drama is there.
Character knowledge: I see a glimpse of a strange creature. Its round body floats above the ground. A large mouth salivates as the giant eye above its mouth stares into the pages of an ancient tome. Tendrils, each with an eye of their own dart around, swivel about, checking their surroundings. I’ve never seen such a thing.
Player Knowledge: Yup. That’s a Beholder. You (as a seasoned D&D player) know its AC, spell list, move speed, and more.
Character knowledge: “We need to get inside that abandoned starship. Yes, we could fly a shuttle through the exhaust port and get inside the engine room that way. Or we could use our ship to punch a hole straight into the room we need to access. It might damage our ship, but I think it’ll hold. We must vote on which plan to do, for both come with risks.”
Player knowledge: The GM obviously has something horrible already planned for us inside that long-ass exhaust port. I doubt the GM would let our ship get completely destroyed from ramming the other ship. That’s not their style.
Reacting as the character based on their knowledge and personality rather than reacting based on the knowledge of the player is pretty almost completely up to the player. I find it to be a deeply rewarding way to roleplay, offering new unexpected experiences and emotional highs (and story-driven lows).
While using character knowledge over player knowledge is almost 100% on the player, the GM isn’t off the hook. As the GM, you can do things that encourage or even reward using character knowledge over player knowledge.
If a player uses unconventional thinking that’s aligned with their character’s style, reward them. Perhaps someone is more willing to deal with them, giving that character an edge. Like if a human character meets a goblin NPC in the wilderness, but the human acts respectful to the goblin. Maybe their act of respect and their nonjudgmental attitude makes the goblin return the gesture.
Likewise, a player may know that a dragon the party is fighting has a cone attack breath weapon. But If they rush in and do the move their character would probably do, it sets them up to get caught in the (almost certainly coming) breath attack. However, the action would be in character and story cool. If the player does it, give them an edge. Maybe the dragon doesn’t catch as many people as it could in its attack. Maybe the dragon doesn’t do the cone attack but performs a different but equally important action. Maybe you already mixed up the dragon’s abilities and show that this one has a line attack instead of a cone attack.
In addition, sometimes acting like a character instead of a player ends up giving you an advantage. As a GM, I have an easier time predicting what friends of mine will try and do and can plan for it. But when they play a character who has their own motivations, interests, and method of reasoning? That’s usually harder. Players who play to their character’s strengths, motivations, and understanding not only get a richer roleplaying experience (usually), they can also add a lot of positive drama and tension because their actions.
So as a GM, do all that you can to reward players who keep player and character knowledge separate.
Continued: Should the GM Pass Notes to Players?