Behind the Screen
As a DM, you weave intricate stories and build fantastic worlds. But when it comes time for players to meet those creations, how do you dispense the right information in a fun way?
When it comes to our games and worlds, we have no lack of information. Some of us have notebooks dating back decades. Others have gigabytes of data stored in Google Drive or on World Anvil. So what’s the limiting factor in getting that information across to our players? Their attention. And so enters the attention economy.
Without going too far into the weeds (and losing your attention — thank you very much), we must treat attention like an economy because it’s a limited resource. With the rise of social media and algorithms eroding our attention even further, it’s more limited than ever. You cannot dump ten minutes of lore onto your players because they won’t retain it. You probably can’t even dump five minutes. Or two.
Furthermore, out of the one minute of lore you may dump, each player will selectively retain certain pieces and forget others. Each player finds different bits of information valuable, interesting, or unimportant. With a solid understanding of the attention economy we face, let’s get into how we make it work for our tabletop roleplaying games.
To make things easy, let’s break down the types of information we need to give. Let’s call it the RPG Information Pyramid.
The base of the pyramid is the largest and represents essential information. This is information that your player characters need in order to make decisions in the game. The bulk of information you relay as a DM should be this essential information. Let’s look at an example.
While searching for Carmen Sandiego, the player characters need to decide which city to go to next to look for her. Essential information might be the names of nearby cities and how far away they are. You might relay the methods of travel required for each and the environments they’re likely to encounter along the way.
Giving Essential Information
It’s important to note that rolls aren’t required for essential information. Don’t hide what the players need to know to play the game. A roll means there’s a chance of failure. They shouldn’t fail to have what’s essential. Not having what you need and not getting it from your DM is incredibly frustrating. It leads to an awkward stalemate at the table and someone just making a decision blindly to keep the game moving.
Essential information can be given by NPCs but be prepared to just tell the players if the NPC conversation doesn’t get to the right info. It can also come from the world. When the players are considering nearby cities, they might see a map on a table. Or recall something their grandpa told them. Just be sure that the information gets to them.
The next portion of the pyramid is helpful information. You give a decent amount of helpful information throughout the game but not as much as essential. This is information that is helpful to player characters as they make decisions but they don’t need it. They could proceed without it and not be frustrated. Let’s build on our example.
One of the players wants to ask around for clues about Carmen Sandiego. You might call for an Investigation or Persuasion ability check. If they succeed, the player learns that Carmen was last seen talking with Marovian merchants. One of the cities in your essential information is Marovia. Interesting. Helpful. If they fail the check, they might get false information or something unhelpful — like she was seen ordering coffee quite often.
Giving Helpful Information
As you can see in the example above, helpful information is easily given with player characters attempting something. But it’s important to remember that failure shouldn’t be boring. So if they fail to get helpful information, avoid saying that you learn nothing. Instead, give them false or unhelpful information. Something should still happen.
Helpful information can come from NPCs, found documents, recalled information, etc. Since we’re usually calling for a roll, the options are limited only to your and your players’ imaginations.
At the top of the pyramid is secret information. You give less secret information than you do helpful and essential. Secret information captures a wide variety of situations. The player characters might unlock something extremely helpful. Or they might unlock something unrelated to their current quests but extremely valuable. Either way, secret information should always be exciting. Let’s see it play out in our example.
Acting on their helpful information, the player characters set out for Marovia. Along the road, they encounter bandits. The heroes easily dispatch the bandits but find something interesting in the leader’s pocket. A treasure map. Exciting. Secret.
Giving Secret Information
There are two significant ways to give secret information (and likely dozens more). First, you can drop secrets throughout the game like in the example above. Second, you can reward player characters for their efforts. Maybe they’ve finished a long quest and some secret information is a reward. Or they make an extraordinary effort by succeeding on an ability check by more than 5. In that case, they acquire the desired helpful information and gain some secret information.
Secret information is similar to helpful information in that where it’s coming from is limited only to your imaginations. Hidden rooms, NPCs, treasure hoards, etc.
For even more on the power of secrets, check out Sly Flourish’s excellent article on using secrets and clues.
Another type of information you will give is soft information. Think of this as the immersive flavor you give to your game. The smell of the coffee shop. The delicious meal that the inn is serving. The color of the night sky. The sound of boots on cobblestone.
This doesn’t show on the RPG Information Pyramid because it can exist at every level. You can flavor the essential information as well as the secret information. Along with the location of the city of Marovia, you might describe beautiful sunsets over the mountains to the west. Or with the treasure map, you might describe the soft cloth that the charcoal map was drawn on.
With soft information, just keep it simple and light. Remember the attention economy. Players aren’t going to put up with a five-minute description of the wine and cheese buffet in the king’s court.
You can see that there are many facets to giving information. Despite the almost scientific breakdown above, dispensing information is an art. I hope the RPG Information Pyramid can help guide you but it’s certainly not the only way to approach giving information.