controlling the mail, or Tommy Tutone’s Rule of Game Mastery

In two consecutive weeks, in two separate campaigns, players were frustrated with the flow of information—NPCs who, in response to PC queries, didn’t give enough or the right kind of information or give it quickly enough. In the first, I was the GM. In the second, I was the player.

So I wonder: What can I as a GM learn? What can I as a player learn?

GM lessons

In the first session in question, I was GM. It was the second session of gameplay in a new campaign. The heroes, still relative strangers to each other, were lost and exposed. A job that was supposed to be ceremonial and not difficult went sideways. A wizard much more powerful than them put them to sleep, stole the item they were chosen to retrieve, and teleported the whole party to an unknown place. There, while they were still asleep, all the heroes’ weapons, armor, gold, and other supplies were stolen. Then, after waking and fighting off a small harpy, they made their way to a lone hut in the distance. Rice-farming lizardpeople lived there.

“I hate these lizardpeople!” one player muttered with a laugh, after a few minutes of roleplaying. This was the first sign the players were frustrated, and it surprised me.

It told me they weren’t picking up what I was laying down. In response to specific PC questions, NPCs hesitated and gave each other tense and meaningful looks.

In hindsight, I could’ve added other details. What I was going for was: this is a night of fear:

They were on edge because tonight was the night the harpies would come to take the villager’s monthly offering of food.

It was also a night of bitter argument:

This family—as indeed the whole village—was being torn apart by this question: do we leave this place for a new home because it’s too dangerous here, or do we stay and fight?

I wanted to avoid saying, “You get the feeling you walked in on an argument” or “They seem on edge or tense.” I hoped to describe it so they came to the conclusion themselves.

I think I needed more and various kinds of details to paint a picture of an interrupted argument. The italics are ones I in hindsight wish I’d added:

  • hesitation in answering

  • sharp-eyed glances

  • bitter remarks from one NPC to another

  • put downs, spoken as if the other wasn’t there

  • brooding silence

  • folded arms

  • derisive huffs and snorts

Or of fear:

  • “Go home! You know what night it is!”

  • Panicked: “You took the incense stick! Go put it back between the grain baskets!”

  • “You killed a harpy?! You’ve doomed us all!”

  • nervous fidgeting and glancing out the window

  • huddled in a corner

  • muffled crying

  • too insistent that “everything’s fine!”

You get the idea.

Possibly, I set too great a challenge for myself. Just one of those—argument or fear—might’ve been enough, but both at once? Definitely I overestimated how clear a picture I was painting. Perhaps I underestimated how anxious the players would be to re-equip and figure out where they were—they just weren’t in a chatty, attend to the emotional state of NPCs mood. There was also the crosswind of the anti-hero PC speculating about killing these NPCs and asserting he didn’t care about them.

There was a lot going on. And I didn’t provide the context my players needed to understand the NPC’s actions. Live and learn.

Player lessons

The very next week, the shoe was on the other foot. I was a player wanting more/faster information out of an NPC.

Obnoxiously, I said in character, “Well, you’re not a very good spy, are you?” (In my defense, it was true to my character, who is an impeached former mayor. Impeached for a reason, including imperiousness.)

But in short, I as a player failed to practice the very thing I as a GM hoped the players would’ve done a week earlier:

stop and wonder, “What’s going on with this NPC? Am I putting them out? What would happen if I got curious about them instead of simply pumped them for the information I need?”

Emotional intelligence. Empathy. Humanity.

Yeah, when I was a player, my character was just a big “give me what I want!” jerk too. In fact, I might’ve been a bit of a jerk toward the GM.

Here was the scene:

Colville: information