What Defines Reality at the RPG Table?

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The in-game world in a tabletop RPG is subjective. Everything exists in the thoughts of the people sitting around the table. This theoretical world only becomes a shared reality when one person tells the others what they think exists.

More concretely, if words don’t come out of your mouth, the part of the world you’re imagining doesn’t exist for the table as a whole.

It took me a while to realize why this is so dangerous. As a GM if I imagine important things that I don’t describe, players often misunderstand what I imagined in the physical space around their PCs. This can lead to unfortunate situations where they make decisions that are reasonable based on how they imagine the world and utterly stupid based on how I imagine the world. The problem isn’t that the players are stupid, crazy, or reckless; I gave them a bad view of what’s in my mind.

This kind of miscommunication can lead to some very frustrating games of Twenty Questions as players grope around the metaphorical landscape trying to get the GM to illuminate details that their characters should be able to easily perceive. It’s frustrating for both the players and the GM.

Players aren’t immune to failing at this kind of detail communication either; since they aren’t traditionally the final arbiters for the table’s shared reality, when players fail to communicate it affects the game in a different way. Players sometimes don’t mention things they imagine about their character or their character’s actions and only realize later that the GM didn’t default to imagining the same things. This is the classic situation of “but I totally bought rations at the last town,” when buying rations would be a reasonable thing to do, but the player hadn’t explicitly mentioned it.

As the GM this puts me in a bad position: either I have to tell the player that since it wasn’t in the shared reality (they didn’t tell the table before) it isn’t true, or I can tell them that it’s fine, they can have done something after-the-fact. Neither of these is ideal. Players who get shut down for not conveying their mental model of the world clearly tend to become paranoid and over communicate every little detail, no matter how irrelevant or boring.

Players who are always allowed to do things “after the fact” face the temptation of saying they would have done things they wouldn’t have because it’s convenient for their characters to have done them. Most groups want to build their narrative chronologically, with a planned release of secret information over time for dramatic effect. So a lot of gamers I know look down on a player changing their actions after-the-fact as something that verges on cheating. Even if I don’t think it’s a big deal in a specific case, it tends to make people grumpy if some after-the-fact action changes are allowed and others are not. And if I wanted to run a game where players could retroactively change the continuity of the narrative at any time I’d be better served by a less traditional RPG.

The other dangerous thing about the table’s shared reality is that it makes secret-keeping feel far more clever than it is. In real life secrets can be hard to cover up… there’s often physical evidence or multiple people who might spill the beans. If I want to keep a secret from my players in a game, it’s pretty darn easy. Literally everything in a tabletop game is secret until you tell the table about it.

Because it’s hard to keep secrets perfectly in real life, keeping secrets in a game feels seductively valuable. It’s not… and when I started seeing everything as secret by default I realized that if I keep a secret perfectly, it adds nothing to the game. It’s never revealed and none of the players know or care about it’s existence.

Instead of hoarding secrets like dragon gold, it’s more fun to slowly reveal them over time. Building up clues and hints gives clever players something to puzzle over. For unobservant players who don’t care about figuring out secrets it may just be background color that makes the world seem a bit more chaotic and real. When a secret is revealed later that color may take on interesting retroactive significance.

Hoarding secrets is a common pitfall for players too. If you’re playing a character with cool appearance, dark secret, or interesting back-story and you never bring it up in game you’ve lost the opportunity to share this cool aspect of your character with the other people at the table. Don’t hold character secrets close to your chest. Get them out there and let them define you in-character. If they cause messy complications, that’s one more thing the GM can work into the fabric of the story, and GMs almost always appreciate PCs with opportunities for more story!* If you ask some GMs will even be willing to conspire and help you yank some skeletons out of your closets.

This post has mostly talked abstractly about when to communicate the things you imagine and share secrets you’re hiding. I’ve read posts on similar topics and they always make me think, “but how exactly do I describe something so the other people here see what I’m imagining?” It’s a question that I struggled with for a long time. In my next post I’ll be offering a few concrete tips.

* Note: This isn’t a license to be an asshole. If you do things that seriously hurt or kill the other PCs without asking the players if that’s okay, you’re going to deserve whatever censure you get. If you knowingly hurt players by pushing their out-of-character buttons without making sure that’s something they’re okay with, you should probably rethink why you’re taking part in this hobby.

3 thoughts on “What Defines Reality at the RPG Table?

  1. Pingback: Tools for Tabletop: Narrating Descriptions | 1000d4

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