As a GM, you have several important jobs. Many of them involve not rolling your eyes or smacking the s$&% out of some moronic player every time they decide to do something “creative” because they are “role-playing” because, goddammit, role-playing is all about “expression” regardless of the fact that you’re sharing the table the with five other people who aren’t interested in your agender demisexual cat-elf bard with multiplayer personality disorder, they just want to play the f$&%ing game…
Sorry. My therapist has suggested I work on identifying negative thoughts and strangling them like I wish I could strangle…
As a GM, your single most important job is communication. I talked about that a long, LONG time ago when I talked about narration as one of two legs comprising the two-legged stool of GMing. Yes, GMing is a two-legged stool: even if you’re not unstable when you start doing it, you will before long. Because players will drive you f$&%ing…
The point is…
Actually, looking back at that article about narration, I called Role-Playing the third leg of the two-legged stool and if I don’t point that out, some moron in the comments will feel the need to scream it out as if THAT is the ONE of my many, MANY inconsistencies that finally proves I’m a hack bulls$&% scam artist…
Information management. Part one. Understanding information and its role in the game.
You Are What They Know
Information management is the GMing skill that involves delivering information that the players need in order to enjoy your game. See, role-playing games are games about making decisions and dealing with the consequences of their stupid choices. Or their smart choices. Even though those are far less likely when it comes to players. Sorry.
Point is, as the GM, you are responsible for literally everything the players know about the game – both in terms of the mechanics and in terms of the world. The players know NOTHING about the world except what you teach them. Even when you think they do. Sure, the players SUPPOSEDLY know the rules of the game as explained in some rule book and sure, the players MIGHT know something about the setting if you’re running from an established setting book or if you’ve handed them a f$&%ing sixty page document you wrote yourself to introduce them to your brilliant world, but even if the players have actually read and retained any of that – fat f$&%ing chance – even if the players have read any of that, you are constantly either reinforcing that information or destroying it through gameplay.
Look at it like this. Let’s say the players do the un-f$&%ing-speakable and read the Monster Manual and discover that goblins are cowardly little bastards who only fight when they have a strong leader and or a massive numerical advantage. But every time they fight goblins in the world, they fight savagely to the last. Every last goblin goes down swinging and screaming curses. Eventually, the players will come to realize that goblins are tenacious bastards who never, ever give up or run away, no matter how stupid impossible the odds are. Basically, goblins are like red-skinned, midget player characters.
Alternatively, let’s imagine that the players NEVER read the Monster Manual and know nothing about goblins. They are attacked by a horde of goblins and as soon as the first couple go down, the remaining goblins rout. Later on, during another encounter, the players kill the hobgoblin commander and suddenly the goblins break and run. Soon thereafter, the players come upon a small group of goblins who instantly surrender because they are outnumbered.
The point is, it doesn’t matter what the players learn before the game. It is still your actions, DURING PLAY, that teach them everything they know about the world. And the game. Because, after all, everyone executes the rules a little differently. And players learn about your management of the rules by watching you make judgment calls. My players, for example, have recently learned that I love – I f$&%ing LOVE – using resistances, vulnerabilities, immunities, and traits liberally on all of my monsters to invite creative strategies. They learned that after they discovered they could literally kill a magma ooze elemental by pouring enough water on it and that waving torches in the faces of normal animals like rats and wolves worked a little like a low-level cause fear spell.
So, even if your players do have some external information to draw on, you are still responsible for everything they know about the entire goddamned world and the game and everything in it.
But today, I’m not talking about training your players by running the game. I’m talking about the purposeful delivery of information about the world and everything in it. And about the importance of good information management.
What Is Information?
When I talk about information management – when I talk about anything really because I love to make up my own definitions for things as if I’m some kind of goddamned gaming philosopher king presiding over the topic from a tower of ivory dice – when I talk about information management, I am speaking very specifically about the GM deliberately communicating information about the game world in order to empower the players.
Yeah, I said “empower the players.”
See, role-playing games are all about decisions. The players are presented with various hypothetical situations and they have to decide how to handle those situations. Their choices will allow them to resolve various conflicts. And their actions will also have consequences that follow. Right? But here’s the thing that makes role-playing role-playing: those choices are based on reason. Which is why it really, REALLY annoys the motherloving f$%& out of me when a player decides an action using a die roll.
The point is, a random choice isn’t really a choice at all. Unwitting choices say nothing about the characters, the situations, or the world. If there’s a button that will dispense 10,000 gold pieces but kill a random member of my family, my pressing it doesn’t mean anything if I didn’t know what it would do. It just means I press random buttons. But if I do know what it does, my choice to press it or not press will say something about how much I value money and the likely proportion of my family that I consider to be a$&holes.
At a very basic level, information turns random actions into meaningful choices. That’s the first level of empowerment.
But there are other forms of empowerment as well. For example, suppose the button is actually far more likely to kill my closest family member. If I take that to closeness to refer to the level of emotional connection, than I am now far less likely to want to press that button given that I’m more likely to lose one of the few family members I can actually tolerate.
So, at a higher level, information allows me to assess the outcome of my choices. That’s the second level of empowerment. Information lets me make better choices.
Information can also create new choices or new options. That’s another form of empowerment. If I discover, for example, that the button kills not the CLOSEST family but the NEAREST family member, I might actually just ask my older sister to accompanying me to see the nifty gold-dispensing button.
Thus, the next level of empowerment is that information creates new choices and new options.
Now, some information can actually resolve a conflict all by itself, rendering an unpleasant or painful choice moot. That’s pretty much the highest form of empowerment there is. If I acquire a set of plans for the gold-dispensing, family-killing button and it reveals how to disarm the family-killing portion of the mechanism, the question of whether or not to push the button is moot. The information removes the conflict.
That’s final level of empowerment. Information can remove obstacles or render choices moot.
On top of all of that, though, there is another type of informational empowerment that gets overlooked often. And that is contextual empowerment. See, part of the assumption of a role-playing game is that the players can actually lose themselves in a fantasy world. That they can believe that their characters COULD be real and the world they inhabit COULD exist. That’s way more important than you might realize in the decision-making process because it provides weight, stakes, and an emotional connection to the choices. Look at it like this: if no time had been spent on the details of your character’s family, that cash-dispensing, family-killing button might give some players pause. But other players won’t blink an eye. After all, gold is a tangible thing that they can use to buy magical items and a warhorse and s$&% but family is just words on paper. The choice has no real weight unless the player believes that the character’s imaginary existence has some emotional value to it.
If the players don’t have some emotional connection to the characters and the world they inhabit, the choices they can make – the meaningful ones – are limited to those that directly impact the character as an entity in a game. The choices of gold-for-family-members won’t mean anything to a beer-and-pretzels group of dungeon sloggers. There’s nothing WRONG with that. Hell, I’ve had a lot of fun over the years with beer-and-pretzels play. But if the GM wants the opportunity to create more types of meaningful, emotional choices, the GM has to maintain the illusion that the world COULD be real. That’s what we call “bringing the world to life.”
And information empowers that too. Because the world must behave in a reasonable way.
Here’s the thing: if the world behaves in a random and crazy way and the players can’t make sense of why things happen, the illusion of the world as a real place filled with real, living things will just collapse. No matter how much the players want to lose themselves in the characters and the world, if the world is a mess, they won’t be able to. The world must appear to function on reason. And that means that everything must happen for a reason. And to make the players believe that everything in the world happens for a reason, they have to be able to sometimes see those reasons and then see the things that happen because of those reasons.
So, the greatest level of empowerment that information can provide is an understanding of why things are happening the way they are in the world.
Now, here’s where we start breaking things down into more useful categories. It’s all well-and-good to talk about information as empowerment. But when it comes to planning and running games, it’s always more useful to have concrete categories for things. Besides, I love making up names for categories. And, in general, I divide information up into four broad categories.
What you have to understand, first of all, is that information doesn’t exist in a vacuum. See, whatever you might think about the importance of world-building as part of the narrative, the truth of the matter that the value of information changes depending on the situation. Yes, the Hobgoblin Wars of 1,256 FE that ending with the Sacking of Redshirefenvilleton may be an important part of the history of your campaign world and the underlying causes of that war may involve themes that have reverberated through history and defined the current relationship between elves, humans, and goblinoids; but if the party is currently fighting a necromancer to protect the dwarven kingdom of Dun Mynin, that information is irrelevant.
Thus, the first of the four broad categories of information is Irrelevant Information. And I only bring it up because GMs are f$&%ing full-to-bursting with irrelevant information. That campaign book you wrote about the history of the world? That’s mostly a bunch of irrelevant bulls%$&.
Any information that doesn’t pertain to something the party is doing right now or will be doing in the very near future is Irrelevant. It’s information they don’t care about. The problem is, the players may not realize they don’t have to care about it. So, they might waste some of the precious few neurons they actually have on retaining it, thus clogging their stupid brains from remembering important… sorry.
The point is, players have a limited cognitive load. Everyone does. And the more you try to cram into a player’s head, the more likely it is they are going to forget some key bit information later. Or be unable to find it in their voluminous notes.
And that leads us to the first rule of Information Management: Informational Proximity. Yes, I know I got distracted from the other three broad categories to tell you this. I have a f$&%ing plan here. Just calm the f$&% down and LET ME DO MY JOB! Sorry.
The idea of Informational Proximity is actually pretty simple. Any piece of information you share, whether it is tactical advice, historical context, or whatever, should be shared as close to the point in the game to which it actually pertains as possible. Put another way, the players should only be given the information they actually need at the time when they need it.
And that’s why your entire campaign book is garbage. Because, at the time of character generation, the players only need as much information as they need to create their characters. The rule of informational proximity is true even of “interesting world-building factoids.” You might be full of interesting facts about the history of the town the players are currently hanging out in, but if those don’t have some sort of relevance to the current situation, they will just clog the players’ brains.
Interesting, Useful, and Necessary
If it somehow isn’t f$%&ing clear from the above, Irrelevant information is s$&% you should keep to yourself. It’s useless. It clogs brain space and wastes time. And that leaves us three actually, useful categories which I call Interesting, Useful, and Necessary.
First, Interesting information. Interesting information is information that is relevant to what’s going on in the game – that is, it pertains to something that is happening in the game right now, or just happened, or will happen very soon, or that happened a little while ago but left an unanswered question, but not so long ago that the players lost interest in the question. Or forgot about it. Because RELEVANCE!
The key thing that makes Interesting information merely Interesting is that, in general, it doesn’t impact the players’ choices or actions. At least, it doesn’t intentionally or deliberately impact the players’ choices. We’ll come back to that. Interesting information mainly provides context, explanation, or theming. What do I mean by context and explanation? Well, that’s information that makes something in the world make sense. Either something that is about to happen or something that has already happened. That doesn’t mean to say that Interesting information provides a warning. If information allows the players to predict that something is about to happen, that pushes it into Useful territory. But Interesting context is the sort of information that, after something happens, the players look back and say, “oh yeah, that makes sense because of that information we had before.”
Interesting information almost exclusively provides that level of empowerment that I called “bringing the world to life.” Strictly speaking, since Interesting information does not impact the choices the players make, it doesn’t really affect the game. It really exists solely to create the sense of a living, breathing world. That said, even if the least immersive and engaging sort of beer-and-pretzels game, a little bit of Interesting information does drive home the point that the world does act according to some patterns and things aren’t essentially random.
Bringing the world to life is also where themes and tone come in. That’s the third thing that Interesting information provides. Interesting information can set the mood for the game and the world. The fact that thirty adventurers died plundering a particular tomb is rarely enough to scare the players off, but it does provide a sense of dread and danger before the adventure and a sense of triumph after the adventure is completed. And this is one of the most often overlooked aspects of Interesting information. Information that SEEMS Irrelevant might actually be Interesting because it helps set the mood for the adventure.
For instance, my players were recently investigating a string of disappearances in a poor ward of a city. One of the missing persons was a bard that most people considered to be a lay about and con artist. The bard was already dead at the start of the adventure. So, no information about the bard other than his last known location and habits were of importance. But still, as the party was asking about the bard a woman shared a sad anecdote about how the bard had sat with her dying child and kept the child’s spirits up until he died of fever. Why? Themes and tone. That anecdote – alongside other interactions – emphasized how bad off the people of the ward really were. The ward was full of sad stories. And the adventure was about people disappearing who no one would care about. Little people. Poor people. Street people. That anecdote, aside from the tragedy, helped show that these overlooked lives did have value. And the players cared about resolving the disappearances a little more because of the human element.
Useful information is information that impacts the players’ decisions somehow. Either it makes it easier for them to make better choices or it provides them additional options. This is the sort of information we might associate with things like knowledge and insight skill checks. Examples include the trait of normal animals in my world to be frightened by fire. When facing rats or wolves, brandishing a flaming branch provides a legitimate additional strategy for dealing with them. Information about monster strengths, weaknesses, and abilities all fall into the Useful category by improving the players’ combat efficiency. By using the most effective tactics and avoiding the least effective, the players can deal with monsters more efficiently and conserve resources.
But, for most GMs, Useful information tends to begin and end with battle. And sadly, that’s not the case. Useful information can also have an impact on other encounters. For example, information about a nobleman’s illicit affair can provide leverage in a negotiation. If the players use that information, they might get bonuses during their interactions or they might simply be able to blackmail the nobleman, resolving any further conflict with him.
See, Useful information sits on a spectrum. On one end is information that might simply let you mitigate a dangerous situation if you’re smart. The sort of information that comes from correctly interpreting some soot on the floor as the scorch marks from an ancient fire trap. On the other end is the information that allows you to completely subvert or avoid an entire obstacle. That’s the map that shows you exactly where the trap is and tells you the safe path through the room.
But Useful information takes other forms beyond those bits of information that help succeed in encounters and scenes. Useful information can also help the players decide on the path to take through the adventure. For example, if the party is trying to find a missing group of explorers, the fact that their tracks lead off the to the left instead of the right at an intersection might let the party avoid half the dangerous encounters in an adventure.
And then, of course, there’s warning and foreshadowing. As I noted above, once information goes from providing context for a future event to providing some kind of warning about a future event, that s$%& becomes Useful information. It allows the players to prepare and plan a response to something that might otherwise have caught them by surprise. The easiest example might be the identity of the monster that dwells in the cave the party is about to visit. Defeating a nameless beast is a lot harder than defeating a dragon and defeating a dragon is harder than defeating a red dragon. That knowledge is power.
Although I’ll cover it more in part two, it’s important to think of Useful information in the same way you think of magical items and similar treasures. And, eventually, I’m going to strongly advise you to dole it out much the same way. That’s because Useful information, at its worst, makes challenges slightly easier, and, at its best, completely subverts challenges.
Yes, that is a good thing. It is a f$&%ing GOOD THING to sometimes allow players to completely subvert challenges. And to make challenges a lot easier. Why are GMs so f$&%ing terrified that the players who are SUPPOSED TO WIN THE GAME BY DESIGN ARE GOING TO WIN THE GAME!?!!!
And that brings us around the final type of information: The Necessary. Necessary information is information without which the players cannot bring their current adventure, campaign, or encounter to a successful conclusion. And as important as Necessary information might be in a particular encounter, adventure, or campaign, it is the LEAST important type of information to understand when it comes to Information Management. Weird, huh?
First, some examples. The identity of the killer in a murder mystery represents necessary information. Without that information, the players cannot solve the mystery. The method by which the ghost can be laid to rest is necessary to solving the haunting. The location of the dungeon is vital if the players are going to plunder the dungeon.
For the most part, people don’t f$&% up necessary information. Most of the time. There is one big, important exception coming in the next paragraph. In general, if information is required to complete the adventure, GMs are usually pretty good about identifying it and handing it to the players. The only thing GMs tend to do is front-load it. That is to say, if the players have to visit the dungeon to plunder the dungeon, the GM tends to just tell them where it is at the start of the adventure. That’s fine.
The exception comes when the information IS the adventure or is part of the challenge of the adventure. For example, in a murder mystery, the information about who did the killing IS the adventure. If the players don’t find that information, they can’t solve the mystery. And the adventure fails.
And that causes lots of GMs lot of problems. For some bats$&% insane reason, while it feels perfectly fine to let the players FAIL at an adventure by dying, it feels absolutely wrong to let them fail at adventure because they couldn’t figure out the information they needed. Which is why most murder mystery D&D adventures aren’t really murder mysteries at all. Instead, they are usually chases or tracking adventures in which the party is really trying to somehow “catch up” to the killer in some way. They rarely have a list of suspects to cull down. Instead, they follow a popcorn trail until there is a scene that basically reveals who the killer is. And then the rest of the adventure becomes about catching or killing the criminal. It’s a subtle distinction, but an important one.
The truth is Necessary information is kind of misnamed. Yeah, I know I’m the one who named it. Leave me the f$&% alone. It’s a good name. But it’s important to understand what it is and what it isn’t. Necessary information is information the party needs to bring about the resolution THEY WANT, but it isn’t information the party HAS TO HAVE. If they don’t have it, they can’t succeed. But it’s okay for the party to fail at an adventure if they fail. If they really can’t catch the killer, well, they failed. There will still be another story next week.
Thus, it’s important to think of Necessary information the way you think of life-or-death encounters. Every time you put a battle in front of the players, there’s a chance they will die and the adventure (and the campaign will end). Every time you hide a bit of necessary information behind a challenge, there’s a chance the players won’t find it. They won’t get it. And then the adventure is over. They have failed. Now, while that failure is less severe than death, it can actually be just as difficult to deal with because the players rarely realize they have failed. I’ve talked a lot about that already, though.
The end result is that Necessary information tends to take two forms. Either it takes the form of exposition and the GM just hands it out at the start of the adventure, or it gets hidden behind challenges during the adventure. The method for laying the ghost to rest might involve research and interaction. The killer’s identity might have to be inferred by putting together a bunch of clues. That sort of thing.
The Shape that Information Takes
It’ll probably come as no surprise that this article only talks about half the issue. I mean, hell, that’s pretty much the norm for me. First I talk concepts, then I talk execution. I provided a solid framework for identifying information and the role it players in your adventures. But how do you actually present that information? And how do you even break down what information you need to present? Well, that’s going to take more discussion. But hold on to your f$&%ing hats because I’m going to shock the s$&% out of you. The second part of this discussion will be live on this website within 48 hours. Yes, no waiting two weeks or whatever. At least for the second part. The third part – because this topic will require some further discussion – that you’ll have to wait for.
Now leave me alone. I have to do my anger management yoga bulls$&% so I don’t rip out my therapist’s aorta.