GM Essentials: How to keep a handle on clues, communication and collateral damage.

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This plan is flawless, I tell you! Flawless! (Courtesy of Corbis Images)

Regulating the flow of information can be one of the most difficult parts of running a game. Give the party too much information, and you’ll spoil the ending for the clever players or risk entire portions of your plot being bypassed altogether. Conversely, if you are too vague, stingy or incomprehensible with your clues, you’ll wind up with a group of bored, frustrated players who are probably going to find the next available suspect and cram them into a industrial mixer full of borscht until they start coughing up some information.

Contrary to the title, this article is really for the benefit of your players. Treating them with fairness and delivering information with clarity are two very important steps to running a successful game, and after the jump we’ll look at a couple of common pitfalls in this neck of the woods and get a better idea of how to avoid them.



Running a tabletop game can be difficult, sometimes. You have to paint a scene in narrative, most of which is largely subjective, and try to get your entire group on the same page at the same time so they can get a solid grasp on what’s going on and act together as a team. Players, on the other hand, have to figure out what the GM is trying to convey and make quick, tactically sound decisions based entirely on an imaginary narrative construct and the occasional battle-mat.

It doesn’t matter if your players are trying to crack a convoluted mystery or gain the upper hand on a tough opponent in pitched combat, making sure they have a clear, solid understanding of exactly what’s going on is absolutely crucial.

The Problems 

1. Problem Exists Between Character Sheet and Chair

Players frequently do stupid/crazy/outright suicidal things. It’s a time-honored of player characters in any system, and a deep, integral part of the culture. Part of the appeal of gaming is to cut loose in a reality where we have the power to change and effect the world around us, and the consequences for doing so are usually quite diminished. It’s only natural, then, that players get up to all sorts of poorly considered malarkey. A few examples from my gaming group include:

  • Dropping a live grenade into a hospital waiting room full of injured people to take out a single orderly.
  • Eating fistfuls of psychedelic mushrooms in the middle of hostile territory.
  • Mounting a 16″ artillery shell (the biggest weapon on a WWII era Battleship) on the front of a golf cart.
  • Interrogating plot-important NPCs by cramming them into an industrial mixer full of borscht.
  • Breaching the castle walls by BASE jumping off of a dragon with a wolf strapped to each hip.
  • Attempting to right a damaged, tilted spaceship on the ground with demolition charges, blaming the subsequent carnage on an enemy combatant with a rocket launcher.

As you can see, with a history of actions like this, it can be difficult to tell when a player doesn’t adequately understand the situation, or they’ve simply decided to damn the consequences and enact their ill-advised dash for glory. Learning the nuances between those two possibilities is something that really only comes from experience running games and getting to know your players well. However, there are a couple of  good warning signs that could indicate that the player doesn’t clearly understand the situation as you’ve tried to explain it.

  • The action they are about to take would cause more collateral damage than is typically acceptable for the character. A Chaotic-Neutral Tiefling sorcerer might be utterly apathetic about who or what happens to be standing in the blast radius of their Fireball, but the odds are pretty good that the party paladin isn’t that ambivalent about the fistful of orphanages that his plan might wind up razing. Regardless of what their intentions might be, it’s always a good idea to make sure that the player characters know what’s about to happen if they perform a certain action, as long as it’s reasonable for their characters to understand the potential consequences as well.
  • The action would be completely ineffective. This one is much more of a giveaway, especially in combat. While some players might fritter their turn away for the hell of it, most gamers treat every second their character has a chance to act as sacred, especially in combat. If an attack has no chance of hitting or doing damage, a spell would be almost impossible to cast under the conditions, or if a thrown explosive would go off well before the enemy gets within the blast radius, the player is probably imagining the situation differently then you are. This sort of thing can cause a lot of consternation in players, especially if they’ve become heavily invested in the game.

2. Different Ways of Thinking

One of the problems I’ve witnessed very frequently in my time as a gamer is that two different people will have two very different ideas about what will happen under any given set of circumstances. We all have our own physics engines in our heads, ones we mash together from personal experience and theoretical knowledge and beliefs about the way the world works. Naturally, since we each have our own different set of experiences and ideas about things, our mental physics engines can generate some very, very different theories about a specific course of action. As the GM, your personal paradigm of physics goes, but it’s also polite to tell your players that the frayed rope will probably not, in fact, hold their weight before you send them plunging into a bottomless ravine of suffering.

3. Insufficient or abstract information

This one is the most subtle and insidious issue of the lot, which is problematic since it is also the most dangerous member of the trio. Games with an element of mystery, whether it’s a riddle-locked door in a dungeon or a campaign focused entirely around a string of detailed investigations, will suffer from the most from this sort of problem.

The most common cause of this issue is separating what we know about the game we’re running from the information that we’ve given to the player party. Hints, trails and clues make a lot more sense when you already know the answer to the question, so it can be difficult to plant a sufficient amount of evidence or avoid laying down clues that are utterly incomprehensible if you don’t already know what the answer is.

A good solution to this sort of issue is to take your various bits of evidence and use them to come up with as many different conclusions to the mystery as you can. This will give you an idea of how the party might misinterpret your clues, and will let you plan in advance to feed them bits of evidence that will contradict an incorrect theory and help steer them back in the right direction.

If you find that you’ve placed a clue that is useless without a more specific knowledge of the situation as a whole, sprinkling a few bits of lesser information around to help the players understand the connection between the piece of abstract evidence and the mystery at hand is much better approach than abandoning the clue or just giving them magical context out of nowhere if they make a successful skill test.

A Few Solutions 

There are a number of ways to help the players build a better understanding of the situation at hand, but I’ve found these to be the most useful.

1. Deal in concrete details, especially in regards to time and space. 

While nothing can quite break the narrative immersion like tossing a “you’re standing in a ten by ten room” into the middle of it, making sure your players know exactly how much space is readily available can be crucial. This doesn’t just apply to the size of the area they’re in, but where they are standing within it as well as the locations of any other relevant, detectable details.

Time is just as critical, if they are going to a certain point, make sure they know how long it will take to get there. They might be able to detect an enemy well before they come within effective range of any weapons the party may have, so make sure you have a clear grasp on where the enemy is and how long it will take them to get close before you let the players waste ammo or blow the element of surprise.

2.  Make accommodations for different styles of thinking.

You might be weaving a tale of whimsical-yet-deadly intrigue that plays out within a delicate dance of masks and shadows,  and they might be used to using hard, straight-forward logic to solve concrete problems.  This will likely create a scenario in which they are utterly fed up with the phantom trails of vague and ephemeral evidence and the ill-understood machinations of the inscrutable and senseless shades that dot your story… while you get profoundly irritated at them for ignoring the vast majority of the plot and shoving important parts of a story-crucial NPC into the blades of a garbage disposal in an attempt to get information.

As with any form of art or media, know your audience and what they are looking to get out of the experience. While you shouldn’t necessarily cater to their every cognitive whim, making provisions for people with different ways of thinking will go a long way towards reducing everyone’s frustration.

3. Put yourself in their +2 boots.

There is a very significant difference between the character and the person playing them. The player is sitting around a table with friends, comforted with pieces of colorful plastic, various renderings of  high-fructose corn syrup, and if your group is anything like mine, copious amounts of alcohol. The character, conversely, is right there in the thick of things. They (usually) have the skills and training to do whatever it is they’re about to attempt, are paying a hell of a lot more attention to their surroundings, and are actually seeing, hearing and smelling the environment around them instead of mutually imagining it with another person.

In short, they will know a hell of a lot more about what’s actually going on than the person playing them. While this sort of thinking can easily lead to one of those tedious “Clearly, as a master thief…” scenarios, it also pays to keep in mind that the gulf between In Character and Out Of Character knowledge goes both ways. If the character would know that performing the action in question would be completely ineffective and/or result in gratuitous amounts of self-inflicted harm, don’t be afraid to let the player in on that little secret as well.



3 thoughts on “GM Essentials: How to keep a handle on clues, communication and collateral damage.

Add yours

  1. This is one of the reasons why I like games more to the rules-heavy side of things. It’s less ambiguous what the laws of physics are. In games where the GM is the main arbiter of rules, then they need to provide a clear explanation of what kind of universe it’s in. Some of the actions you mentioned would make perfect sense in games with more of an over-the-top action-movie sensibility. But in a more realistic world, they are pretty ridiculous.

    Consistency matters, and it can be hard to judge your own consistency without feedback. One GM made the ruling that modern body armor wouldn’t provide any protection against heavy weapons. Within an hour or so, he had no problem with a rifle launched grenade fired into a cluster of bad guys and it only knocked them down with minor or no injuries. In one case he was being more realistic, in the other he was being more gamist. He’s a good GM when it comes to stories and worlds, but he’s darn annoying with the rules.

    I often ask a GM to give an example of what kinds of movies/TV shows/books he is using for his mindset for this campaign. That helps to get the players and the GM on the same page.

    As a final word, if the players keep wanting to play in a different style than you want, it might be time to figure out what atyle of game the group wants.


    1. Using books or films, particularly films, is a great way to get everyone on the same page about that sort of thing. From a personal perspective, my group has played more Exalted/Scion than any other game, and that was the first serious game for a couple of the players. It can be difficult to get out of the “rule of cool” mindset when you get plunked into a grittier setting, so making sure everyone is on the same page there is important.

      Thanks for the story about the rifle grenade, that’s an excellent example of someone rendering something with their internal physics engine (whether or not they believed that that is what would happen in reality) that’s completely different from what the players might expect.


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