Last time, I talked about portraying NPCs and the world in the third person. Something like this: “The ranger moves to you table and whispers a rumor about the Iron Circle gathering forces just south of Harkenwold. They seem to expect some petty payment for their service of information brokering.”
So I’ve been reading Dune, because I’m in “dire need” of geek-cred or something. Whatever. It’s not just because I’m insecure about attempting to start the book twice and then giving up like some wimp…
I’M EXCITED FOR THE MOVIE.
Anyways, a cool feature of that series that I’ve enjoyed, love it or hate it, is that you the reader are told each character’s thoughts. Not just one character, ALL characters (as their thoughts become relevant). There are conversations between people that totally change dynamics once their thoughts are revealed. One person in a conversation is terrified that their treacherous secret will be found out. The other person hopes to reach out and express their gratitude to the other. You as the omniscient reader can see how they’re talking past each one another. You have all the information.
I’ve found that one of the cool things about this third person mode of description is that you can reveal things you wouldn’t otherwise be able to if you were “play-acting.” That or the players would have to (correctly) read your masterful acting cues that convey the emotions, expectations, or desires of the character that you are portraying. For that you gotta have some major trust in your abilities.
With third person narration, you can tell the players about their thoughts, emotions, hopes, desires, patterns of behavior, past actions, future actions without the possible ambiguity in your performance. And then watch as the players act on that information. It is more than likely that they will act on this information and move to make more interesting choices. That or just appreciate the information given and then move on.
Take that last sentence from the example I mentioned at the beginning of this article. How would you convey the fact an NPC seems to “expect some petty payment for their service of information brokering”? If you’re clever, you could convey it with physical cues: you hold out your hand and look over both shoulders as if doing something very secret. There are ways, it just takes time and effort that might not be available to you at the table.
You can use this method of third-person narration to convey all sorts of information, especially about NPCs, in an efficient manner.
How about this one: “What you just said hurt him deeply. He silently vows to make you pay for what you did twenty times over. Watch your back.” Some nice foreshadowing without making them an over-the-top ’50s bully: “You’re dead, McFly!”
Another: “Their hope with giving you this assignment is that you’ll embarrass yourself and bring shame on your branch.” This one shows off the drives of the NPC. They want you to fail. But no subtle person would dare say that out loud.
And another: “She’s been giving adventurers like yourself these kinds of deals for weeks so that they’ll publicly endorse her products.” How could you know that? You couldn’t, but it adds to their character and situation. This pattern of behavior speaks to who they are. It’s a perspective you get to have as both a player of the game and an audience member. What will you do with this information?
Last one: “This is the last one of these meetings that he’ll come to. He’s both restless and too old for these kinds of day-long debates about evil necromancers and giant spiders.” This one is almost entirely flavor for a character, but it’s something you would miss in their inaudible internal monologue. How many complex villains and heroes have you put into your role-playing game that have died without being at least somewhat understood by players? Wouldn’t it be nice to be able to have characters that don’t have to scream “GUYS, I’M A GOOD GUY” or “CAN’T YOU SEE HOW EVIL I AM?” An “audible” internal monologue can do that. They do it on TV all the time. Leverage that!
Now, maybe you’re just a better GM than I and you’ve already come up with ways that you would give that information to players without having to resort to third-person narration. Good on you. But remember, using words takes less time and effort. And the statements you make are less likely to be misinterpreted by the players than your actions. You gotta really risk it all on your acting skills.
What I’m saying is that third-person narration is a nice way to add sophistication and subtlety to your game without making it more difficult for the GM or the other players to play.
It’s a simple, clean way to give solid information to players, if you don’t mind [TRIGGER WARNING] metagaming.
But if you believe, as I do, that more information is better and that good information provides interesting choices, then let me offer you this GMing tool to your toolkit: Just say what’s going on; in their heads, in the past, in the future, in front of their eyeballs. Feature all of best, relevant, and flavorful information.
I’m also perfectly willing to accept that this is all stuff that other, older, smarter people have said before. That’s fine. I’m slow to the party.