Steal My Idea: The Character/Player Knowledge Paradox (and what you do about it)

Game Master (GM): The flames of the torch dim. 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. All humans can only see 5 feet in front of them. So what do you say the one member of the party who has the ability to clearly see 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.

How about a totally different strategy in the same scenario?

Sometimes, keeping player and character knowledge separate won’t do it for you. You may find yourself purposefully wanting to keep that information away from the other players, even if those players are proficient at separating player and character knowledge.

In the dark dungeon scenario mentioned above, you have one player that can see in the dark. In order to give them additional information no one else knows, you can pass that player a note.

Yes. I feel the collective eye roll. Yeah, it’s literally the most common tactic. People use it in any and every situation. Despite that, I’ve seen GMs fumble with note passing more often than I’ve seen them succeed with it (myself included). For that reason, here are some ways to make note passing go quicker, smoother, and make it better for everyone at the table.


If you are going to pass a note, try to do it when at least half of the other players are involved with something else. You can wait to reveal information until the other players have a distraction, or you can plan a few events or questions you designed to keep those discussing something amongst themselves for a spell.

Write the note before the session

If you know the group is going into a dungeon with that oppressive darkness and that one character can see through it, write out some basic notes for that character. Things like:

–    You see a pressure plate on the floor. It looks like it will spring a trap.

–    There is a kobold constantly watching your party as it silently walks backward. It constantly stays about 60 feet from the edge of the party. It doesn’t seem to notice that you can see it.

If you don’t have everything planned –which is fine- but you know where they are going, have some cards with some blank spaces on them. Here are a few ideas:

–    You find ___________

–    While it vanishes around the corner, you catch a glimpse of ___________

–    ___________ in front of you, you see ___________

–    You notice ___________ coming form ___________

If a character has a different heightened sense, such as sent or psychic abilities, you can make notes for them that focus on noticing things with those abilities.

Give it something unique that confirms what you know the character would know. You’re writing these in advance. Take this for example:

You 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.

With that description, don’t just put (beholder) after it. Perhaps you could write something like, “the beholder muttered arcane words about reversing time to itself.” is far more interesting. Also, try and make it flavorful. Tailor the language to the character knowledge for that character.

You probably won’t pass all of your prepared notes out. The player may still have to pass perception checks to see hidden doors and scurrying critters.

Use technology!

Sending a text message is private and you can probably swipe or thumb-type faster than you can scribble with a pen. In addition, you can still have some drafts at the ready so you can fill in details about dragons or traps or whatever they may notice.

If you’re playing online, you have even more options. Virtual tabletop websites often have a private message feature. has the whisper option, which lets you send private messages to specific players. For some of us, typing with a keyboard can be very fast, so cranking out messages or filling in the blanks from your premade draft messages can be done while other players are discussing something that doesn’t need your input.

If you’re using a VoIP program like Discord or Skype, you can easily send individual messages to players. Also, text messaging is still an option.

Using technology makes it easier to send messages containing things like maps, large images, and full-color images.

Take the player out of the room and tell them

While this is different than passing a note, I need to address it as well.

Taking a player out of the room is the second most commonly used method, yet I think it is the one people should use most sparingly. There’s a sense of tension and mystery when the GM walks a player out of the room. The remaining players will- without fail- gossip and discuss what might be going on. Suspicions will rise. Calm players might get twitchy.

But most importantly, you will create a feeling of isolation.

That can be a good thing. However, if you don’t want to make the player you take a side to become othered by the group, don’t do it. It will take much longer to get the group to stop being suspicious than it takes to make them that way.

To answer the question in the title: Yes, but do it when you’ve thought about how and when you do it will effect all of the players. It’s a lot to take into account, but it will make for a smoother and more fun experience.


Twitter: @RexiconJesse

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