There must be something in the air. Or maybe it’s a reaction to Alternative Facts. I had this week’s article scheduled and outlined before I even became aware of Updated: Elf or Scroll, Handling the Info dump by Phil over at Takes Of A GM on essentially the same subject. Since I agree with everything Phil has had to say, the question then became, did I have enough to add to make this article worth writing?
Clearly, since you are reading this, the conclusion reached was a ‘yes’… but not before this article underwent a substantial restructuring and a slight change of direction.
I’ve long advocated that anything the GM delivers as an ex-cathedra pronouncement should be completely truthful in terms of what the PCs “experience”. That doesn’t mean that it has to be complete, or even completely accurate; but it should be a faithful description of what the PCs could see, touch, taste, smell, and hear. Interpretations should be left to the player, and no accuracy is guaranteed.
Beyond these limits, truth cannot and should not be assumed or taken for granted. No, the expectation should be omission, Error, Distortion, and Falsehood – and the occasional grain of accuracy.
Whenever I’m providing information to the players that their characters are not directly experiencing, there are five questions that I need to answer to my own satisfaction before I can proceed:
- What Truth Need Be Told?
- Who is doing the telling?
- What is their source?
- Why and How are the wrong?
- How and When are the PCs to extract that minimum of Truth?
The answers to these four questions tell me everything I need to know in order to determine the source and degree of inaccuracies in the information provided. They are modeled on the questions I pose of everything I read on the internet, leaving out only the maxim, “extraordinary claims require extraordinary proof”, which I also apply right at the beginning.
What Truth Need Be Told?
What is the absolute minimum accurate information that I need to have the players emerge with at the end of the scene?
Who is doing the telling?
More specifically, what motivation do they have to lie? What is their intention? What biases do they have, what prejudices, what agendas? What are the flaws in their information, their understanding, their logic – and should these be immediately obvious to the PCs?
What is their source?
How do they know what they are saying/writing? Every time they accept someone else’s results, information, or conclusions, it adds another layer of capacity for… let’s put the gentlest face on it and call it ‘inaccuracy’.
Why and How are they wrong?
Knowing the sources of inaccuracy, I am in a position to identify possible inaccuracies. In an RPG, I get to generate and provide the inaccuracies – something I’ll get to in short order, because that’s at the heart of today’s article.
How and When are the PCs to extract that minimum of Truth?
These two questions are deeply interrelated. ‘How’ will often require resources that the PCs don’t have access to at the current moment, and the resulting ‘when’ is relative – defined in terms of gaining access to those resources. Most of the time, the truth should emerge by the end of the scene; in most of the balance, the truth will emerge later in the adventure; and, in just a few cases, it may be quite some time before the truth comes out – if it ever does. But the road to truth needs to be an explicit consideration.
Correcting The Players
The inaccuracies that I might/will build into any infodump are not the only source of confusion, however, and the rest must be carefully guarded against. On many occasions, I’ve given information to one player because his character saw or otherwise experienced events first-hand, only for the report they subsequently make to the others to contain wild errors, ad-hoc assumptions, or misinterpretations reported as confirmed fact. It’s also a common occurrence for a player to misremember something, or – more properly – to remember a theory or interpretation as fact.
If these are inaccuracies being generated by the player when the character would not make those mistakes, I don’t hesitate in correcting the record; doing anything else only encourages confirmation bias.
If they are being generated by the character then on his own head be it. When opportunity presents, I’ll make sure that the player has an accurate recollection and that his character intended to willfully deceive the others, and leave it at that.
As GM, you absolutely need to control what falsehoods are in play. Players are going to make decisions based, directly or indirectly, on those falsehoods, and you need to not only know what those decisions are likely to be so that you can do game prep accordingly, you need to ensure that the truth eventually comes out so that everything makes sense to the players, or they will become paranoid and turn that paranoia against you.
Types Of Inaccuracy
I ran through the basic list in the title of the article: Truth, Omission, Error, Distortion & Falsehood.
There are times when the best way to deceive is to tell the gods-honest truth – but in a way that won’t be believed. If three people have told you something and a fourth tells you something different, the temptation is to believe the three, for example. But if those three are all getting their information from the same place, the weight of numbers suddenly vanishes. There are certain people who I wouldn’t believe if they told me the sky was blue – not without independent spectrographic analysis. At best, I will take what they say at face value, subject to later confirmation.
Has anything been left out because it didn’t seem important? Dismissing exceptions to expected results of testing is a natural thing to do, but it makes the basic assumption that the exceptions are the results of error and do not invalidate the results. This is one of the most subtle and pernicious forms of confirmation bias – you expect to see certain results, so you discard every result that doesn’t match that expectation.
Another source of omission can be ‘common knowledge’ – not including some key fact or assumption simply because everyone knows it. That results in presenting a fact, and then presenting an interpretation as the logical consequence when the information provided is insufficient to support that interpretation. At the time, these unspoken assumptions may have been so widespread in their belief that the conclusion did indeed follow logically – but if the conclusion is later found to be invalid, or to have exceptions, or is simply forgotten, it leaves the conclusion on shaky ground.
That leads directly into inaccuracies by error. People make mistakes all the time, and sometimes those errors are preserved as part of the record. Errors of logic, errors of assumption, errors of source, errors of authority, they can all abound.
Exaggeration. Hyperbole. Bias. Prejudice. These can all cause people to interpret or misrepresent facts, or even ignore them, because they don’t fit the picture of the world held by the person doing the reporting. These are the flaws that lead to other sources of error not being detected.
It’s usually much harder for specifics to be subject to distortion, while sweeping statements and generalizations are more subject to this problem.
There are any number of people who I consider sincere in their beliefs while regarding those beliefs as flawed, unfounded, or wildly inaccurate. My level of trust in these people is directly proportional to the extent to which they permit pragmatism to overrule their beliefs, their willingness to compromise and reevaluate.
The same should be true of information sources in an RPG. Sincerity is no measure of accuracy.
All the preceding types of inaccuracy have one thing in common: they can be ‘honest inaccuracies’, reported as truth by people who believe what they are saying, no matter how absurd others might find it. But for every one of them, there is a darker variety – the deliberate falsehood or deception.
Sometimes there are good reasons for such to enter the official record. Deceiving an enemy in war, for example. Protecting sources of intelligence. National security or prosperity.
Most of the time, there are less obviously-valid reasons. Some of these remain understandable, even pitiable – defending a family member’s reputation, for example, or denying taint by association.
But the majority are pure self-interest, calculated or instinctive attempts to satisfy a priority need of the source – one that outweighs probity and honesty in their ranking of needs – or simply because an individual has adopted a pattern of deception.
This ranking of inaccuracy sources has one uncomfortably-gray area: self-deception. This is when an individual perpetuates a falsehood because they have convinced themselves that it is true, regardless of any evidence to the contrary. Self-deception straddles the areas of Distortion and Falsehood, presenting a type of falsity which is nevertheless an “honest inaccuracy”.
Application Of Theory
Every source of information that is presented to a PC will suffer from one or more of the above, usually in different areas or subjects. Unless you start by understanding the source, it is very difficult to reconcile any random assemblage of types of inaccuracy as applied to an individual with a coherent world-view; it is usually far easier to determine a coherent world-view and use it as a guide to the types of inaccuracies that their information will contain.
Such world-views are most simply expressed as a core belief or priority or value and a sequential series of sub-beliefs, priorities, and values (for the sake of brevity, let’s call these principles when the terms are used collectively in this way) that assume dominance unless contradicted by one of higher rank. Asimov’s three laws of robotics work in exactly the same way.
Characters are often at their most interesting when contradictions emerge that force the reappraisal of a higher-ranked principle, or when a high-ranked principle forces a character to act in a way that we would consider abnormal. It’s not even necessary to identify “normal”; we can all recognize something that falls outside that pattern. Such conflicts are inherently dramatic in nature.
By identifying the principles that drive the source who is providing and infodump, either in written or dialogue form, you can quickly identify any content in the infodump that would be rendered in an inaccurate manner as a result. At least, you can after you determine one additional answer, an extremely critical one – but one that can’t be answered until you have profiled the character’s principles.
Does the source have any reason to deceive the intended recipient of the information?
Every communication is aimed at someone. If you are writing a book, your information is aimed at the generalized population of your readers. The same applies to a blog like Campaign Mastery. In any other form of mass communication, the target is some identified subpopulation of the total audience – whether that’s making a speech, giving a televised or published interview, or communicating through social media. If you are writing a letter, the content is aimed at a named recipient unless you have good reason to believe that someone else will become privy to the content, muddying the waters. If speaking privately one-on-one or to a specific group of people, they are the intended recipients. Some official reports are aimed at the general public, others at the immediate superior.
The relationship between the source and the intended recipient is always the primary source of distortion within the content, or lack thereof.
An example: Lord Vuillan in the Zenith-3 campaign
In the Zenith-3 campaign, the PCs are currently engaged in an encounter between three NPCs: Lord Vuillan, Vuillan’s companion – a giant lynx-like creature named Laissan – and another person named Skazgrath Dragonfang. Vuillan and Laissan are capable of merging to form a giant humanoid of immense power. When the PCs first encountered them, they were in that form, and it was in the midst of an emergency; they immediately got the PCs on-side by rescuing some children endangered by that emergency.
They then separated and Lord Vuillan introduced himself. The opening paragraph of that introduction established the principles by which the PCs could assess his story:
“My name is Lord Vuillan. I come from a very distant place in a realm very different to that which I see around me. In my home, Magic is sentient, alive, and aware. Some is positive, an ally, aide, and friend. Some is dark, dominating,and evil. Each strives to overcome the other. Both manifest in various forms of inherently magical creatures, like Laissan, here.” The lynx nods his or her head in greetings, then gently nuzzles the man, who turns his head to look into it’s eyes for a moment. “Yes, I agree,” he says to it, before turning back to St Barbara (The PC on point, and team leader). “Much of what I am about to tell you should not be divulged, it is not my place to do so, but Laissan recognizes you as the Noble Defenders of this realm, and that earns you the right.”
So the intended recipients of his communication are the PCs, and is calculated to either get them onside or prevent their interfering in whatever he’s doing. That doesn’t mean it’s untrue; but that is a clear potential distortion, a context into which everything else that he announced must be placed.
“Lately, something has changed in my homelands. Some white spirits have become subtle, sly, and corrupt, while some dark forces have begun to find common cause with their former enemies. Why this has occurred is unknown to us. We have come to refer to those white spirits who have secretly turned to the dark as Fallen, while those former dark spirits who have turned to the light are the Redeemed.
“One of the Fallen corrupted a human advisor to the throne. Skazgrath Dragonfang, once one of the most trustworthy and honorable in the lands, who was seized, little by little, with an insatiable craving for the thrill of exerting power over others. Dragonfang eventually committed an unforgivable act of Treason, handing over the infant son of King Althea to be raised by Dark Spirits.
“Of course, the child’s disappearance was discovered.almost immediately, and a search commenced, but no trace could be found. Clearly, the abduction had been performed by magical means, and since the Royal Palace was warded against Dark Spirits it could only have been by one of the Fallen and his human companion. Accordingly, King Althea reached out to his allies amongst the Redeemed, who eventually learned much of the story and relayed it back to the Throne.
“In the meantime, I was assigned the task of hunting down whoever was responsible, a task which Laissan was more than willing to join me in pursuing.
“Not suspecting the culprit to be one of his trusted advisors, the King shared his intelligence with them and sought their counsel. It was Dragonfang who pointed out that the child had now been missing for so long that he would now be irredeemably besmirched of spirit by the encounter, and so must be considered dead in terms of the succession. ‘A Lord’s first duty is to those he rules,’ he reminded King Althea, ‘and he cannot forsake that responsibility in order to indulge in emotions as would any other man.’ Though the King acknowledged the truth in this counsel, his heart was rent by the desperate need to rescue his only child and the pain caused by the mere suggestion that he would have to abandon him to his fate. His spirit crumbled into ruin with every passing hour; he seemed to age three decades overnight. Unable to face this terrible need for the moment, he dismissed his advisors and retired to the arms of his equally-devastated wife, Queen Martrude. Immediately the rumors began to spread that he was no longer fit to rule, having been overcome by grief.
“While most of those present also struggled to reconcile the hard truth laid bare by Dragonfang, and the Royal Family was overcome by grief anew, the traitor fled, knowing that it was only a matter of time before his true role in this tragedy stood revealed by the Redeemed. So desperate was he that he that he abandoned our realm altogether and went into hiding here, foregoing the casual use of magic – for Laissan was empowered to sense it whenever he cast a spell, and could find no trace of him – that is, until his gate spell went so badly awry, leading us here just in time to rescue the innocents he placed into danger.
“Understand this: Dragonfang and his companion spirit – whomever that may be – are incredibly dangerous foes. This world is endangered by his presence here, for he cannot resist the urges that led him to this pass. He is also the most wanted villain in our history, an advisor who betrayed his trust and his throne and made a civil war all but inevitable, a generation hence. He must be captured, alive, and returned to my realm to face judgment and stern questioning if the child is to be rescued before all hope of undoing the harm he has wrought is extinguished. We will do whatever is needful to achieve this goal. we would rather we do so with your consent and aid, but will go through you if we must. What say you?” he asks as he and Laissan re-merge..
Now, the PC being addressed was also attempting to rescue the children, so Laissan could surmise that ‘protective of children’ is a trait of the intended audience of his statement. Everything he said could be truth, or it could be a complete fiction based on this observed trait. The last paragraph spells out what he wants the PCs to do. Or the truth might be there, but shaded slightly to appeal to his ‘target audience’.
As it happens, much of the circumstances and inclinations of the group also accord with his story, so the PCs have accepted it at face value. But they have only Vuillan’s word as to the cause of the emergency; it could all be a deception to engage the PCs as allies in his take-down of Dragonfang. Have they bought a bill of goods, or is there substance to his claims? Time will tell. But there are some hints that the truth may be more complicated – Dragonfang’s advice to the King is something that Vuillan clearly agrees with, even though it was delivered when Dragonfang was supposedly deeply corrupted.
It’s entirely consistent with the known and experienced facts for Vuillan and his too-cute-for-words companion to be the “bad guys” of the situation, responsible for the kidnapping of the Prince, forcing Dragonfang to flee in desperation before he was stitched up for a crime he didn’t commit, and enlisting the PCs as unwitting cats-paws. The rescue of the children could be a hint that he is not completely dark-spirited, or it could be a coldly, callously, calculated maneuver to win the assistance of the PCs.
The PCs have made their choice. We’ll see, next game session, how it pans out for them – and whether or not its too late to change their minds if they have to do so!
If there’s something that you want the players to be able to refer to in the future, one option is to provide a handout. There are three alternatives worth contemplating in terms of layout.
Where the information is essentially factual, a straightforward layout is most efficient.
Where the information may be unreliable or incomplete in whole or in part, consider a two-page layout like that shown to the left, in which empty panels are placed opposite each block of text so that players can write ‘corrective notes’ as the truth comes out, then compare the two, placing their ‘revised versions’ of each passage in context with its neighbors. Variations use two columns, one with text and one with empty space, or large empty areas underneath each block of text.
The major drawback of this approach is that it makes it obvious that space is being provided for something in the document. One way around that is to provide a copy of the document in an editable form to a player who brings his laptop to the gaming table, and let him change it as new facts are uncovered.
But – and this is a new trick that I’ve just thought of – you can simulate the effect by producing two copies of a document: one complete for the GM to use, and one with selected words obscured or removed completely that alter or remove the meaning of the passage of text. Nouns, verbs, and adjectives work best, but the occasional critical pronoun can also pay big dividends. There’s a big difference between “He”, “I”, “They”, “We” and “You”!
If you’re feeling particularly nasty, you might provide in-text alternatives for the players to cross out as they are proven incorrect – ones that completely transform the text: “In the era of the great worm/blight/mushroom, when the trident/stalk/shadow of time/place/home did wander freely upon the farm/court/place was the enemy of passion/revenge/security imprisoned in the eternal bonds of nightmare. Woe unto us/them/you when he is released!”
What can you really get out of the above? “Sometime before I write this down, something wandered around, and someone was locked up ‘in the eternal bonds of nightmare’, who will cause trouble for SOMEONE when is released.” The minimum truth, and only real clue: ‘the eternal bonds of nightmare’.
There are four sources of information to the players in an RPG.
Ex-cathedra Narrative accurately describes what the PCs see, experience, remember, decided, or how they have interpreted those things. Flaws are based on the limitations of their senses and/or any errors in their logic and/or active deceptions being perpetrated against them.
Written text & other records are written by someone to be read by someone else, and reflect the relationship between those entities and the principles and flaws of the source. The information may contain a grain of truth, or may be misinformation that can be exposed by the PCs – if they say the right thing to the right person, ask the right question, compare with an alternative source, or find out the hard way. Its reliability can be anything from 0 to 100%. There are various practical methods of obscuring meaning that may be of value.
Verbal information overheard is essentially the same as written text, though the PCs may or may not be amongst the intended recipients.
Verbal information directed at the PCs is also essentially the same as written text, but the specific relationship between the source and the PCs is the dominant factor.
Handling infodumps can be one of the trickiest things to get right. Just about the worst approach is for the GM to drone on and on about something. The more interactive you can make your presentation, the better. But be prepared to implement the required levels of obfuscation, distortion, error and outright falsehood. Your players may hate you for it – but will be grateful in the long run.