A long time ago, I started talking about Information Management. Wait… holy mother of f$&%, that was only yesterday! Well, I guess that whole article should be fresh in everyone’s minds, then, huh? Can I get away without recapping? Can I get away without doing a Long, Rambling IntroductionTM? F$&% it, I’m going to try.
But What IS Information?!
You might have noticed, in all of that faffing around about WHY information management is important and how to classify information that the one thing I assumed is that you actually KNOW what information is. Uncharacteristically kind of me, no? Well, I wasn’t doing it to complement you. I was doing it because THIS article is about the form that information takes in the game. And, honestly, you probably knew enough about what information is to get you through yesterday’s article. But now, it’s time to really dig in. What IS information in a RPG? And what form does it take in the game?
First of all, it’s easy to say that information is “everything that can be known about the game.” But that’s not really a useful definition, as true as it may be. And that’s why we broke it further down into stuff that impacts the players’ decisions or stuff that explains or provides context for events in the game world. But that just classifies information. What IS information?
Let’s start with facts. Facts are things that can be known about the game world. Red dragons breathe fire. The king is having an affair with an elf from Va’na’fa’la’la’la’la. A longsword does 1d8 points of damage. Those are all facts about the game world. And right away, you might notice something important that will still twist the bowels of some GMs. There are actually two different languages. There is worldspeak and gamespeak. AND BOTH ARE EQUALLY VALID AND IMPORTANT.
Digression: Gamespeak vs. Worldspeak
The fact that a longsword does 1d8 points of damage is gamespeak. It refers to the game mechanics. The fact that a longsword is a more deadly weapon than a dagger is worldspeak. It is something that the characters in the world can understand without reference to the rules of the game. Here’s another example. “The king is trying to hide his affair” is worldspeak. “If a player mentions the king’s affair, they will have advantage on any social interaction check to get the king to provide aid” is the gamespeak equivalent.
Now, there are a few things that don’t translate between gamespeak and worldspeak. There are some things that exist ONLY in the fictional world. For example, personality traits that influence the choices that the GM makes for NPCs – because you don’t generally use game mechanics to make decisions for NPCs, you ROLE-PLAY – traits that influence NPC choices may exist only as worldspeak. Likewise, lore, backstory, themes, tone, and other bits of narrative emotional set dressing really only exist in worldspeak. There are also a very small number of rules that exist only as gamespeak. Those represent mechanical abstractions that would make no sense if the characters were actually aware of them. For example, the idea that a barbarian can somehow “activate rage” and can only “fly into a rage” a certain specific number of times a day, every day? That would be pretty f$&%ing weird for characters to have any understanding of.
Now, this brings us around to a ridiculous line that lots of people like to draw in the sand between FLUFF and CRUNCH. Generally speaking, people refer to the stuff that we would call worldspeak as FLUFF and the stuff we would call gamespeak as CRUNCH. And then they drive themselves absolutely f$&%ing crazy by keeping those things separate and behaving as if FLUFF is artful and wonderful and CRUNCH is terrible and ruins games.
The truth is for MOST aspects of the game FLUFF and CRUNCH are two different ways of saying the same thing. I don’t give a f$&% how much you want to try to tell me hit points are an abstraction that don’t represent anything real in the world. Because bull f$&%ing s&%&! They exist in the world because characters can make choices based on them: whether to keep adventuring or rest, whether their friend needs healing, how much damage they’ve done to a monster and whether it’s worth changing targets. And giving yourself an aneurism trying to keep them separate is f$&%ing ludicrous.
If this seems like a ranty digression, well, it is. THAT’S LITERALLY WHAT I DO! But it will also have a very important point later. Remember it.
But What IS Information (Continued)?!
So, we have facts. Anything that can be known about the game or the world or – usually – both. But information isn’t just facts. At least not how I’m using it. A game includes A LOT of facts. Hell, there are three entire rule-books filled with facts, not to mention facts that come from setting books and from the adventure backstory and whatever information the GM has shared about the campaign world.
But information – at least the information we’re concerned about managing – information is facts that the GM DELIBERATELY shares DURING GAMEPLAY. And it is the deliberateness that’s important. Because the players learn lots of facts during gameplay BY ACCIDENT. For example, when a red dragon breathes fire at the players, they have learned the FACT that red dragons breathe fire. And when the red dragon takes half damage from a fireball spell, they have learned the FACT that red dragons are resistant to fire damage. And when an attack misses on a 17, but hits on an 18, they have learned the FACT that red dragons have an AC of 18 – or whatever, shut up and don’t fact check me, I don’t give a f$&%. But that isn’t a matter of information management.
Now, if the players – and we are so NOT getting into the bulls$&% metagaming argument again, take that s$%& elsewhere – if the players somehow know before their first encounter with a red dragon that red dragons breathe fire, that also isn’t information. And if the players guess, after seeing the red dragon breathe fire, that it’s probably immune to fire, that also isn’t information. The GM didn’t deliberately share those facts. The players either had them already from some other source or guessed them.
But while we’re on the subject, let’s talk about GMs and epistemophobia and why GMs are f$&%ing crazy control freaks.
Digression: GM Epistemophobia
Most GMs are control freaks. Now, I’m going to be kind and assume that most GMs aren’t malicious control freaks, even though I myself am a malicious control freak. Most GMs are trying to provide the best gaming experience they can. Mainly because they haven’t figured out that most players will play any goddamned thing and there’s no point spending ten hours on polish if the players will happily consume any old s$&%. But that’s just me.
Most GMs want to provide great gaming experiences. Fair enough. And when it comes to certain things, like mystery and challenge, they have some pretty f$&%ed up notions about what makes a game great. For example, most GMs are terrified of making things TOO EASY for their players. Because too easy equals boring. And since knowledge is power, any knowledge the players have will reduce the challenge of any given encounter. Thus, GMs are f$&%ing IRRATIONALLY terrified to let their players know anything. Like the AC of a given monster or how many hit points it has left or whether it is resistant to fire or whatever.
The fear is that the players will use that information to make optimal decisions and ruin the challenge of a good encounter. And that’s f$&%ing absurd. F$&%ING ABSURD. Because what really happens when players use information to make the best decisions is that THEY FEEL GOOD ABOUT HOW SMART THEY ARE. A player who cleverly recognizes the troll’s weakness to fire and capitalizes on it doesn’t whine that the encounter was too easy. They celebrate. They say “wow, it sure is a good thing I’m so smart as to know that trolls are weak to fire and that I was prepared enough to have a fire spell or else that would have sucked.”
In short, when players USE information, they don’t feel bored. They feel smart. More important – MOST F$&%ING IMPORTANTLY – they feel like their choices have a direct impact on their chances for victory. Which is exactly what you want.
So, right now, I’m telling you this, if you take nothing else away from this article, take this away: drop your epistemophobia, your fear of knowledge and what your players will do if they have knowledge. Because I will tell you exactly what they will do: they will use that knowledge to feel like winners and have more fun. And that’s how players are supposed to feel.
But What IS Information (Concluded)?!
Okay, now, maybe I can finish this section without any further rants. Information – for my purposes here – are facts about the game or the world or both that the GM deliberately shares during game play to empower the players or enhance the game play experience. And doing so makes the game better in every f$&%ing way.
If the players learn that the monster terrorizing the village is a red dragon and then they go to the library and research red dragons, any facts they learn? THAT’S INFORMATION. That’s stuff the GM deliberately shared during gameplay to empower the players or enhance the gameplay experience.
Clarifications, Facts, Implications, and Clues
Now, let’s talk about the shape information can take in your game. Because, again, I LOVE classifying things. And in general, information can take three different forms in the game. Let’s talk about the difference between clarifications, implications, clues, and facts. And let me just warn you right now, I’m about to digress again. Here it comes…
Digression: The Importance of Clarification
First of all, let’s talk about a type of information that isn’t information at all. Let’s talk about clarifications. A clarification occurs when the GM provides additional details in gamespeak after a player takes some kind of action that results in a worldspeak discovery. What do I mean? Well, I mean something like this.
“Your firebolt spell explodes against the dragon’s flank, lightly singeing its scales. It seems to have had little effect. The dragon is resistant to fire damage and takes half damage from all fire-based attacks.”
That second part there? THAT’S A CLARIFICATION.
Here’s the f$&%ing deal: those are way more important than most GMs thing. Now some will disagree. Pompous GMs who spend all of their time up their own a$&es about story try to avoid gamespeak whenever possible because it “cheapens their art”. GMs who suffer from epistemophobia are terrified of gamespeak because they are terrified of what will happen if the players know actual statistics and mechanics. Those people are idiots.
Once the players have seen a mechanical effect in play and you have described it in world speak, CLARIFY IT IN GAMESPEAK so there is absolutely ZERO ambiguity. For example, some players might have interpreted the description of the firebolt above to mean that the dragon is IMMUNE to fire. And if all they have is fire spells, they might sit around doing nothing rather than participating and wasting ammo that might at least have some effect. THAT ISN’T F$&%ING FAIR.
The same goes for things like the plusses on a magic weapon. Once the players have swung the thing, tell them flat out the mechanical effect. WHY WOULDN’T YOU?!
Facts, Implications, and Clues (Continued and Hopefully Concluded)
As I said, information is deliberately shared facts about the game world that empower the players or improve the gameplay experience. Information can be anything from statistics that make a fight easier to new options in an encounter to leads that open the path to new scenes and encounters to the solutions to riddles that will render sphinxes powerless to context that explains why the world is behaving the way it is to thematic elements that make the game have a certain emotional feel. And information generally comes in two flavors: implications and facts.
Facts are things just stated outright. For example, the fact that a red dragon is resistant to fire or that the king is having an illicit affair he wants to cover up. Those are facts. The moment the players discover those bits of information, they are empowered. They can act on them. Simple as that.
Implications are more subtle. They have to be translated. They nudge the players toward a fact, but the players have to make some kind of logical leap. For example, the fact that the red dragon’s lair is inside a volcano implies that it is resistant to extreme temperatures. Likewise, the fact that it breathes fire also implies its resistance.
Even more subtle are clues. Clues are implications that have been broken apart. Any given clue, by itself, is incomplete. Several of them together add up to an implication. And that implication leads to a fact. For example, the following are clues that the king has been having a secret affair: the king has been sneaking out of the castle regularly, the king has been buying expensive women’s jewelry, the queen feels as if the king isn’t paying attention to her anymore, the king’s mood has changed recently, and so on.
Any fact can be shaved down into an implication. And any implication can be broken apart into clues. In fact, most of the art of designing good mysteries and puzzles is figuring out how to break down a fact into multiple clues and then hiding those clues.
Another F$&%ing Digression: On Player Skill
And now we get to one of the trickiest and most contentious aspects of information management in role-playing games: the question of player skill. Now, I know it’s normally my thing to say “look, other people are f$&%wits, let me tell you how it is and why people who disagree are stupid.” But on this particular issue, I have to admit, there isn’t a good right answer.
Here’s the deal: translating implications into facts and assembling clues into an implication and translating that into fact, that s$&% is utterly reliant on the brains of the players. Your players – NOT the characters – have to figure that s$&% out. And, at that point, it isn’t a matter of role-playing.
Now, me? I don’t have any problem at all with that. Because, honestly, everything in the game is translated through the brain of the player anyway. For example, the character’s tactical decisions in combat are all reliant on the PLAYER’S ability to play the mechanical game of combat. Resource management? The same. Clever ideas and plans? The same. Deciding where to go? What questions to ask? That’s all reliant on player skill anyway. And pretending it isn’t is really stupid.
But, I realize that there is another point of view. When the fact being translated or assembled is the solution to an encounter – like a riddle or puzzle – or the solution to an adventure – like a murder mystery – that’s much more all or nothing. When a player makes a dumb decision during combat, for example, they can usually recover from it. Or their friends can help. Or they can run away. One missed opportunity isn’t likely to turn a combat from victory to total party kill. But if the party needs to solve a riddle to win the adventure and they players can’t solve the riddle, there’s usually nothing they can do to mitigate that.
Now, note that the argument about being able to play a character smarter than yourself doesn’t come into this. That’s a stupid argument put forth by stupid people. Because, no you can’t. You can’t because YOU – the player – still make all of the decisions for your character and no amount of factual nudging is going to make those decisions any smarter than the ones you are capable of making. I don’t care about that s$&%. I’m talking purely about the structure of intellectual challenges as I said above. Seriously, don’t bring that “smarter character than the player crap” into my comments. I’m tired of it. I’m done.
Purely from a standpoint of the structure of intellectual challenges, I understand why some GMs will argue that players should be allowed to make skill checks or Intelligence checks to translate implications into facts OR to assemble clues if they are otherwise struggling. And structuring information as I do, it’s actually pretty easy. For example, you might set a DC for a particular skill or intelligence check to translate an implication into a fact. And to go from clues to a fact, you could have a DC that is reduced for each additional clue the players know and set a minimum number of clues.
For example, if there are five different distinct clues that would identify the murderer, you might start with the rule that the party must have at least three clues. Once they have three clues, if they don’t guess the murderer, you could roll a DC 25 Intelligence check to tell them the answer. If they gather a fourth clue, you could make another check, reducing the DC by 5 to 20. And if they find the final clue, the DC is reduced by 5 again to 15.
This is merely a failsafe against players not figuring things out for themselves and becoming frustrated. But, honestly, if that’s a problem in your group, I would suggest that maybe your players just don’t like these sort of intellectual challenges, they aren’t good at them, or you are bad at constructing them. Either way, the better solution is probably to stick with facts.
I will say, however, that the “get a clue” roll is an utterly terrible solution that just enhances boredom and frustration. The “get a clue” roll occurs when the players have all of the clues or implications and aren’t getting to the fact. So, the GM has them make an arbitrary Intelligence check and then gives them a “hint” to nudge them toward the solution. If one hint isn’t enough, the GM keeps providing more nudges. That protracted exercise sucks for everyone involved and, if your players don’t hate puzzles before you pull that s$&%, they certainly WILL after you’re done.
Facts, Implications, and Clues (Actually F$&%ing Concluded)
… actually, that was already concluded. So, I guess technically, that player skill thing wasn’t a digression. F$&% it. I’m leaving it and just moving on.
Impact and Ease of Use
When presenting information in your game – which is what the final part will be about, though at this rate, it make take two more f$&%ing parts – when presenting information in your game, you have the choice of simply handing your players FACTS or giving them IMPLICATIONS or making them assemble a bunch of CLUES.
Part of that decision will hinge on the purpose of the information. And that’s because if the information is delivered as an implication, there’s a chance the players won’t actually get the information because they can’t make the logical leap. And if the information is delivered as clues, the players may not be able to even assemble those clues. And that’s assuming they find all of the clues. Because clues can be scattered throughout the adventure.
Consider facts, for example. Facts don’t require anything special. Once the players have the fact, they can act on it. That means it’s instantly useful. They can make the choice, they can exercise the option, whatever. Fact? Bam. Useful. And that might seem great for the players, but it isn’t always as great as it appears. Imagine you hand the players a magic sword of dragon slaying immediately before sending them off to fight a dragon. The sword will instantly kill any dragon on any hit. The players go off, attack the dragon, and win. Yay for them, right? Except, how will the players feel about that victory? They will feel like you handed it to them. The same is true if the players face a riddle or puzzle or mystery and you hand them the solution.
And this, right here, shows one of the major trade-offs that is key to information management. You must weigh the IMPACT that the information will have on the game against the EASE with which the information can be acquired or used. If information is easy to use – as a fact is – it should have a low impact. Likewise, if the information is EASY to acquire, it should also have a LOW IMPACT. If the information is HARD to use, as is the case with a very weak implication or a pile of clues, it should have a HIGH IMPACT on the game. Likewise, if the information is HARD to acquire, say it’s gated behind a difficult encounter or lies at the end of a dangerous side path or it is broken into lots of clues scattered to the four winds, it should have a HIGH IMPACT.
So, what’s LOW IMPACT? First of all, the lowest impact information is interesting information. Themes, tone, motives, explanations, backstory. In fact, that’s part of the reason why most well-written adventures and stories break down all of that crap into clues and implications. Instead of just outright stating that the ruins are haunted, it’s far more interesting if the ruins are unnaturally cold and strange whispers can be heard in the corners and the shadows loom large and flames burn green or blue inside the ruins. But only PART of the reason. We’ll talk about the rest of the reasons in the next part.
Of MIDDLE IMPACT, and of course this is a spectrum, so there’s a range, of MIDDLE IMPACT is information that gives the players an edge. Information that lets them manage their resources better, for example, like monster strengths and weaknesses. Or that allows them to gain a bonus in a social interaction. Basically, information that allows them to make encounters easier. Beyond that is information that gives the players additional – and usually better – options in an encounter. For example, knowing that rats can be frightened off with fire or that goblins won’t fight if you take down the leader. Beyond that is information that allows the players to make choices about what obstacles to deal with. Such as information about which path in a dungeon is more dangerous or what challenges they might face down each path.
HIGH IMPACT information is the information that shuts down encounters completely, like the answer to the sphinx’s riddle or the knowledge necessary to blackmail the king without any possibility or failure. It also allows the players to completely bypass encounters, such as information about the secret door that leads directly to the boss monster’s bedroom. And, of course, by its nature, all necessary information is HIGH IMPACT information.
And that brings us down a pretty simply formula. Interesting information is Low Impact. Useful information is Middle to High Impact. And Necessary information is High Impact.
The End: A Good Starting Point
And with that, we have a solid conceptual framework for distributing information in your game. You can break down information by its purpose: Interesting, Useful, or Necessary. You can break it down by its shape: Facts, Implications, or Clues. And you can understand the balance between the Impact of the information and the Ease with which it can be acquired or used.
In short, boy we had fun today, didn’t we kids? We had a very distracted discussion about the shape information can take and how that shape affects its impact on the game. But we’re not done yet, are we. Because none of this actually tells you how to decide what information to put into your game, where to put it, and how to communicate it to your players.
But if you can’t wait, don’t worry because within the next 48 hours… BWAHAHAHAHA. No. I’m just f$&%ing with you. Come back next week. Or the one after.