Wednesday, 9 October 2013
On PC-Player Information Parity
Choosing when to have parity of information between PCs and their players is a difficult balancing act.
Let's look at the surprise roll. You, as DM, have to roll a d6, as do the players. Do you tell them that they are making a surprise check, or do you just tell them to roll a d6? Do you keep your result secret? Or do you openly roll a d6, telling the players exactly what you are rolling for? ("There is a group of goblins you're just about to encounter and I'm seeing if they are surprised.") Does it matter?
My own approach is usually to be as open as possible. I often, though not always, tell the players the reason I am rolling the dice. I don't care about information disparity between players and PCs in this respect. For one thing, I know that the social contract of gaming, and also just plain honesty and common sense, will ensure that the players do not make use of their information disparity to game the system or, more bluntly, to cheat. This, indeed, is probably one of the most important characteristics of a 'good' role player. This is somebody who you can tell, explicitly, "I am rolling the dice now to check if murderous elves who are setting up an ambush manage to stay silent," and who will not let it affect the decisions or actions of their PC.
And more importantly, there is a significant benefit that you get from telling players exactly why they, or you, are rolling the dice: it keeps everyone honest. Everybody knows there is no fudging. This is one of the absolute, most crucial elements for me in what makes a game 'good'. No fudging. That is the starting point from which all else follows.
But there is a limit to how much information disparity you should tolerate. Because information parity between player and PC can be both important and part of the enjoyment.
Let's use an extreme illustration: you don't want information disparity to extend so far that you give the players a copy of your dungeon map, keyed in full. Nobody, not even the best role player, can act as though they don't know the content of the map when making decisions on the part of their PC when it is right there in front of them. It will inevitably affect the decisions they make within the game - and even where it doesn't, the suspicion will remain. ("You're only turning left because you know there is a Sword +1 in that room down the corridor.")
Moreover, it is enjoyable, in its own right, to discover things. I don't think any player would like a complete map of a dungeon they are exploring, nor a complete hex map of the setting. Finding out what is out there, and being surprised by it, is half the fun.
These two competing needs - to have openness and transparency, set against the desire for surprised and mystery - pull in opposite directions. To a certain degree they are irreconcilable. One of the most interesting questions in RPGs for me would be: Which is more important - that the players know that the DM is rolling to see if the murderous elves manage to stay quiet (which preserves accountability) or that the players should be genuinely surprised when a gang of murderous elves ambush them (which is fun)?