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Q&A

"You found a cursed ring!" How do I let the player roleplay it without spilling the beans to everyone prematurely?

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In a game I was running, a player tripped a magical effect that would alter his behavior (failed save against compulsion magic). I took the player aside to explain, out of game, what had happened -- this would allow the player to roleplay and, I hoped, would not be as obvious to the other players (whose characters had not detected the effect yet). I wanted my player to play normally but apply the compulsion to the character's actions, in other words.

Of course, there's an obvious problem: the other players had the meta-information of this interruption in play and our private conversation, so they were suspicious of the player (and character) immediately, and had trouble suspending disbelief and playing as if they didn't know something was up.

How could I have handled that better? Should I have had a conversation with the group about what was happening, with the expectation that they'd all roleplay it? That removes some of the surprise and leads to questions of "when would my character reasonably figure out something's up?". Should I have anticipated the problem and prepared a note in advance to pass to the player if needed? (Should I then have prepared other decoy notes, so that my passing a note wouldn't by itself provoke suspicion?)

How, in short, can I help the group reduce the effects of meta-game knowledge so we can focus on the story at hand?

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On the off chance it could apply, what sort of game? (4 comments)

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Use distractions and subterfuge.

Prepare a note for each player in advance and pass them out all at once. But all notes contain irrelevant stuff save for one. Examples:

Bilbo: The ring you found in the caves is cursed. You find yourself strangely fascinated by it. You decide it is better to keep this precious item hidden for now - don't tell the others about it.

Gandalf: You observe a fascinating cloud formation in the sky. It looks like an oliphant.

Thorin: Somewhere down in the caves you must have stepped in something unmentionable. It is stuck under your boot and is starting to smell.

Now everyone will be distracted with the message they got. And even if they suspect something, they can't know which one(s) of them that got an important message.

Similarly, to prevent players from getting "meta information" of you doing hidden dice rolls (to see if someone steps into a trap etc), you could do some dummy hidden dice rolls now and then and pretend to check something.

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Good idea! (1 comment)
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The most relevant question is, why would you not let everyone know. The best way to answer is to consider what are the creative priorities for this group playing this campaign here and now, and what different levels and techniques will give or take from those creative priorities. Why do we keep playing precisely this game, with these rules, in the game world? How would secret information affect this?

Most of the time dramatic irony, where the character does not know something but the player does, is more interesting than the paranoia or lack of knowledge and the (often not quite as dramatic as hoped for) revelation. This same rule of thumb applies to secrets between players in general. Are they really worth it? To many people, no, not really.

There are a few cases where secrets are often a good idea.

Very strong player-character identification

Some games, remarkably certain immersive larps and jeepform/structured "freeform" games, aim at players experiencing strong emotions. They might rely on such hidden information, but typically the information is well-prepared and the entire scenario is built around the conceit. Information imparted as a character description is a well-used technique.

This suggests: take a break. This gives you a lot more room to figure out how to communicate the thing. Maybe send an electronic message, maybe talk to the player during the break, maybe write several players something to read. As an extra bonus, the break will not be as disruptive as a rare gimmicky thing like secrets notes that are unusual for the game. Of course, if secret notes are business as usual, there is little need to have a pause.

Competitive play with hidden information

Your game does not sound like a competitive case of Paranoia or Amber diceless throne war, but in case it is, there should be secret knowledge flying every which way anyway. Notes, some decoys and some not, are the standard way. Sending them electronically is probably an alterntive worth considering.

Players trying to win and the game master trying to tell their story

I have no particular reason to believe this to be the case with the question, but I add this for the sake of completion.

This is the classical dysfunctional rpg set-up where the players are doing their best to "win" while the game master is not there to play, but rather to tell a story to the others. Here, the fear is that the players will "abuse" meta-information and you should not give it to them, or otherwise it will "ruin your story". In this case I would advise a frank look and discussion about what you are all doing, playing this game, since it does not seem that you agree. Any tricks will fail to fix the underlaying problem of lack of creative coherence.

A surprising amount of generic GM advice assumes this kind of creative dynamic, so it is good to keep it in mind when reading such.

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In the case of actually finding a cursed ring, I rather like the technique handing out item cards when players get magical/significant loot, describing the properties of the items (including any curses). On its own, this creates a fun little stack of collected loot for the player, but also allows for the DM to surreptitiously give information to a specific player, so that they can roleplay the effects of the curse without "spilling the beans". However, in that case of there being no actual item (the player triggering and failing a save), this can’t be done.

As mentioned, the use of distraction and subterfuge could make handing out informational (and random) notes and some intervals a lot less suspicious- but eventually all players would suss that this is a method of [TOP SECRET] information for at least one other player, creating suspicion whenever they get handed out. Alternatively, if you use a laptop during the session, take quite occasional (and in my case, obsessively comprehensive) notes on your laptop while DM-ing (a practice which I worried about initially, but I found the players often used to roleplay in character and have fun, casual, interstitial interactions). While doing this, you can also message a player any confidential information. This might fall flat if they fail to read your message in time, but this could be remedied by telling everyone to keep an eye on their messages before session.

The exchange of information is certainly one of the difficult choices a DM has to make- what level of information to exchange and allow player to operate on, and then how to implement that exactly, which is why I found this question so interesting.

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