Greatest Hits 2013: Passing Notes at the Gaming Table

by Ameron (Derek Myers) on December 16, 2013

While the Dungeon’s Master team enjoys some well-deserved vacation time, we’re breaking out the greatest hits and shining a spotlight on a few of our favourite articles from 2013. We’ve searched for hidden gems that our newer readers might have missed and our long-time readers will enjoy reading again. Enjoy a second look at these greatest hits from Dungeon’s Master.

One use for notes at the gaming table that I hadn’t really considered when I wrote this article was to use them as a storytelling aids. This was raised by a reader in the comments of the original article. The idea is quite simple; the DM passes a note to a player that briefly explains what that PC sees, hears, smells, etc. Then it’s up to that player to flesh out the details and describe it to the rest of the party.

I love this idea. Too often we forget that D&D is a shared storytelling experience. But in most games the DM does the majority of the descriptions and exposition. Passing a note to a player that has only the essential points and then getting that player to use their imagination to fill in the blanks is genius. It allows the players really feel like they’re part of the story. It also gives them a chance to develop their character by putting that character’s interpretation and opinion on things.

For example, the PCs meet a new NPC for the first time and the DM has a note that says something like: Male Elf, dark hair, well dressed, well spoken, no weapons visible. Depending on who gets this note we’ll get a different take on this NPC.

      • The Half-Elf Paladin might say “The Elf before us is dressed in his Sunday best. He speaks with a tone that reveals his education and privileged upbringing. He seems harmless enough and I believe we can trust him.”
      • The Eladrin Wizard might say “The Elf before us is likely a spellcaster. His fine clothing, lack of weapons, and confident swagger betray his power. Tread lightly and don’t say anything that will anger him.”
      • The Dwarven Fighter might say “The Elf is soft and dim witted. He flaunts his wealth and doesn’t even have the good sense to carry a weapon so he can defend himself if he gets into trouble. That tells me he’s used to having body guards and servants. I already don’t like this lazy, privileged Fey.”

All of these examples have validity but are coloured by each player and the character he’s running. I encourage DMs to try this note passing exercise a few times and see what happens. The players setting the stage may add a detail that you can then use to make the story more interesting. Just be sure to act like that was the plan all along.

From January 21, 2013, Dungeon’s Master once again presents: Passing Notes at the Gaming Table.

passing-notesOne thing that has always been challenging for D&D players is to have their character do something that none of the other players know about. This might be something harmless like visiting an NPC from the PC’s past, or it might be something devious like stealing from another character in the party. Passing notes has always been the way that one player let the DM (or other players) know that their character wanted to do something that the rest of the party should not be aware of.

The problem with this approach to secret communication is that as soon as one player does it the rest of the players get suspicious. They have their characters do things that they shouldn’t have any reason to do. Things like checking all their pockets to ensure nothing’s been stolen, or keeping an extra close eye on the note passer’s character during the night watch.

The reason we find it necessary to pass notes is that a lot of players (most players in my experience) can’t separate player knowledge from PC knowledge. If they hear one player say “My Rogue picks the Fighter’s pocket and takes the jewel,” the player running the Fighter will often get upset with the players running the Rogue, even though his PC has no idea anything inappropriate has happened. Because the player knows out of game what’s happened he’ll often change the way his PC acts as if the character knew this detail.

Sometimes it actually makes things more interesting and exciting if one character can get away with a fast one and the players don’t know about it. For example, we once had a game where the party’s Rogue was a degenerate gambler and owed a lot of money to a loan shark. In order to make money fast he stole the party’s treasure map (which was genuine) and switched it with a fake one. He then sold the original to another adventuring party for a sizable cut of their haul and paid off his debts. Meanwhile the party (including the Rogue) followed the fake map in the wrong direction and found nothing. None of the players or their PCs ever found out about the switch although some did become suspicious when they later discovered that the Rogue’s debts were gone.

Had the Rogue’s actions been spoken aloud to the DM with the other players present there is no way they’d have still gone on their quest. The players would have made a stink about the whole thing and treated the Rogue differently, possibly even killing him. They would have used their out of game knowledge to influence their in game actions.

As the DM I encourage the PCs to do what’s best for them, even if it’s not always in the party’s best interest. I see it as a way for the players to better develop their characters. If they’re playing a non-good character who wants to take actions in accordance with their alignment then who am I to say no. The trick is to give players this freedom without tipping anyone off as to who’s doing what. Sometimes a player will talk to me between games and explain what they want to do in a certain situation. That’s easy enough. But there will be times when the player wants their character to do something right now because it can have immediate consequences.

A long time ago we played a party of evil PCs. They were always trying to get the better of one and other. Sometimes they would actively act against another PC with intent to harm them, while other times they just liked to mess with each other. In order for each player to have a chance to do their thing I made a rule that I would collect secret notes from all players at regular intervals. This gave the players who wanted to do something sneaky the chance to act when the impulse struck them. Because I asked for notes from everyone it didn’t single out any one PC. At first I got a lot of blank pages, but after a while they started getting more and more creative. Sure there were the occasional “I steal from the other PC when his back is turned” notes, but since it was an evil party they all expected this from one another. Most of the notes ended up being about character development and not plans to kill one another. They were notes about behaviour and things their PCs look out for. Some were about NPCs they wanted to meet secretly or items they wanted to buy. There were even some occasions where two PCs would try to take the same secret action.

Eventually we moved away from the evil campaign and the need for passing secret notes disappeared. However, I think that DMs should consider doing this more often. In today’s game it doesn’t have to be paper notes. I know that at my gaming table everyone has a laptop, smartphone, or both open and active during games. Some players don’t print hard copies of their PCs making these devices necessary; others use an automated dice roller. The point is that if everyone has a device out and active during play why not use these tools to add something to your game? Players can send text message, Tweets, emails, or IMs to other players or the DM. It’s a lot more subtle than passing notes and it’s instantaneous.

Likewise the DM may have specific notes he wants to send out to some or all PCs during the adventure and he too can use these tools. In fact a well prepared DM can have messages composed in his draft folder and just hit send at the appropriate time.

If you’re going to use these electronic tools in your game you need to make sure that everyone knows what’s going one. Firstly everyone needs to have access to a device – if one guy doesn’t have a device than this plan won’t work. If the DM is getting secret messages and a PC falls unconscious because he drank the wine one of the other PCs poisoned you’re certainly not going to suspect the character being run by the guy without a laptop. Secondly everyone needs to let the DM know the method they’re going to use for passing e-notes. If the DM doesn’t have a Twitter account there’s no point in Tweeting your plan to sneak off in the night and make sweet love to the princess. Ideally everyone should use the same method for communicating that way the DM doesn’t have to keep checking his email, text messages and Twitter account every 5 minutes. If they’re all coming through one channel the DM is less likely to miss that really cool thing you want to do right now.

There is a risk that by using e-notes players will get so wrapped up in their messaging that they won’t focus on the game that’s going on in front of them. Remember that this is still a table top role-playing game. If you wanted to play video games you could have stayed at home and played WoW. The key is to use the tools at your disposal but don’t over use or abuse them. Use them when needed but don’t use them for the sake of using them. Much like our old method of passing notes at regular intervals, DMs may want to say that every 15 minutes he’ll stop the game and give all players a chance to check their inbox and send any outgoing messages that they may need to send before the game advances too far.

Regardless of how you decide to get secret information from the PCs to the DM and vice versa, I think we’ll all agree that there is a need for some method to exist. Even in a party of five lawful good characters the players should still have a way to get a message to the DM without the other PCs knowing about it (maybe he’s setting up a surprise party). This is something that you should discus with your gaming group and make sure that everyone understands the best way to accomplish this. Even more importantly it never hurts to remind players that they have the freedom to have their character do things without the rest of the party knowing.

Do you use secret notes in your campaign? Are notes necessary with your group or can your players separate what they know from what their character knows? Does anyone use e-note passing? Has it helped or hurt your game? What other methods would you suggest for players to let the DM know they want to take secret actions?

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1 dan December 17, 2013 at 10:01 pm

One of my favorite stories is of a player who would regularly pass notes to the DM in plain view of the rest of the party to mess with them (both in and out of character). On one occasion, he had no major in-game plans with which to mess with the other characters, so he spent the session passing notes with the DM playing tic-tac-toe.
Also, fairly recently, our chaotic evil sorcerer/druid (a human with a blue dragon bloodline) passed a note to the DM while the party was distracted with an in-game commotion. We didn’t even notice the note passing across the table in front of us until its trip back, when the player reacted. In game, his character had taken a chest we had just recovered for a village, and tried to take the money for himself. He discovered a large chunk of some kind of metal, but none of us knew what had happened.

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