Asymmetric Information in D&D

The key element of a Dungeons and Dragons game is the party. Seldom does a dungeon master run an entire campaign for just one person. A cooperative group of players is central to the game since its founding, and is so entrenched that when a player doesn’t want to cooperate, things can go very badly even outside the game itself.

But that can make for a dull story. Imagine if the Lord of the Rings had no Boromir, a friend turned foe by the evil power of the One Ring only to be later redeemed. NPCs can serve this purpose handily, but it’s harder to get player characters to change alliances and fight with one another.

One issue is well-defined moral dichotomy, which to some extent I have already discussed. Another part of the matter is that information is necessarily shared between all players. If the dungeon master tells a player what his or her character is seeing, all players hear. When crowded around a small game table, inconspicuously getting around this may be easier said than done.

It’s not impossible, though. If you pass a note to a player, other players will see that you’ve passed a note, but not the contents. If you write a text message, they will hear the ‘ping,’ but won’t know what has been communicated. These are only good for simple messages, as few players are willing to wait while their DM types out a page of details on his or her phone.

For more in-depth privileged communication, I recommend what I refer to as a “Special Session.” A special session is a session of a campaign devoted entirely to one member of a party. Generally this can happen while the other party members are asleep or after another excuse to split one player off. I have run special sessions in person and on Google Docs, exchanging DM descriptions and player actions in text rather than through speech. In the latter case it can even take place over a number of days, although it must end before the regular party comes together again, or the story might not be able to accommodate the separated player participating with the rest of the group.

I have tried a few of these methods with exciting results. For one example, I have a druid in my party who can understand spider talk, so I send him texts of everything the spiders around his druid are saying. Colleen elected to tell none of her friends what her arachnid friends were telling her, much to the rest of the party’s chagrin. Another character had a midnight meeting with an NPC who begged permission to kill another NPC party member, a zombie, whose very existence she felt was against her God Pelor. This led to a dramatic, improvised sequence in which the party debated whether to kill the ostensibly friendly zombie, and eventually Tom the Monk succeeded in converting the zombie to himself be a follower of Pelor. This substantially changed the plot going forward onto a track that I had not previously considered. A third pious character received a message from his god during prayer (an email from me) and spoke in elaborate fantasy detail of his experience of the message to the other party members. Other private communications are still playing out. Some of my players read this blog, so I won’t go into detail.

To be fair, I should note that some dungeon masters would prefer to avoid rather than encourage party infighting. for some groups it will ruin the evening. In my case so far people are enjoying the special attention that they receive as part of getting privileged knowledge. I am enjoying seeing what they do with it. I cannot recommend strongly enough to any DMs looking to add more spice to a D&D game that they should try and add some information asymmetry. It’s well worth the effort.

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One thought on “Asymmetric Information in D&D”

  1. As the player of Tom the Monk, I cannot agree enough with Sam. I take my role-playing very seriously, and, as I have chosen a character who is pious, mature, calm, and considered. As Tom the Monk, I am surrounded by a party of pagans, including half-dragons and now half-demons, I am in continuous self-doubt about my role in the party and, indeed, the world. All I really want is to return to my abbey and my beloved abbot. I love my God Pelor and want nothing but to do his will. More open than some fellow Pelorites, it was I who saved and converted the zombie, but I find myself more fully embraced by the party of adventuring pagans than by the party of (NPC) campaigning Pelorites. I need time with my co-religionists (which Sam gives me in private), but also (given the reality of the D&D game) I need to participate fully with my pagan party of adventurers. The motivational complexity is enjoyable to me.

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