Passing Notes at the Gaming Table

by Ameron (Derek Myers) on January 21, 2013

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 Joe Lastowski January 21, 2013 at 11:11 am

In my current home game, we try to handle most of our secret note passing via email in-between games. We haven’t had the stereotypical out-for-himself-only rogue, though, so issues like the map thing you mentioned have never come up.

When running the Drow encounters campaign, the DM had specific secret assignments for members of each house, so I printed them out on little slips of paper and handed the appropriate ones to each player. That worked well enough.

I’ve also played with the idea of open secrets. It works best with mature, experienced players. But when everyone knows the secret ahead of time, and agrees that there’s no way their characters could know it, it can lead to some great roleplaying. Like I said, though, everyone has to be on-board and willing to suspend their meta-gaming. A lot of times that can work if there’s a creature that appears one way to only one character, or a voice that only one PC can hear. I let the other players know about that fact ahead of time, and then they are willfully ignorant, which makes the scene much more fun.

It’s a fine line to walk, though. I like the idea of getting notes from everyone. It really depends on the players and the type of group you’re running.

2 Brian January 21, 2013 at 12:54 pm

In my games, I have a simple houserule which I think works. Instead of having PvP rolling and secret communication with the DM, if one player wants to do something (attack, steal from, etc) to another player, the victim gets to decide the result. So, if the rogue wants to steal from the fighter, the fighter gets to decide if the rogue is successful or not. I think it’s a fair way of doing this, and it prevents anyone from being upset at how their character is being screwed over and played for a chump by someone in the party. It also encourages players to agree on cool scheming and cloak and dagger stuff if they are so inclined.

As a player, I’m not a fan of the whole “jerkwad rogue” archetype, and really don’t like it when another player is trying to steal from the party. It hogs the spotlight and makes the other characters out to be chumps. And it is difficult to have fun playing D&D when one player is using it as an outlet for his anti-social behaviour and trying to troll the rest of the party.

I also think that the whole “it’s my alignment” or “it’s what my character would do” is a weak defense. It’s the equivalent of the alleged comedian Jeff Dunham saying “I’m not racist, my puppets are” while we can all clearly see his hand up the puppet’s ass. The character didn’t fall from the stars, he was created by the player. If the party doesn’t want the kind of game where everyone’s trying to steal from and backstab each other (which D&D isn’t even a good system for), it’s the player’s responsibility to come up with a character that will fit in with the party.

That doesn’t mean you can’t be a thief and can’t have your moments. An example of a good thief character who can get along with the party is Bender from Futurama. He wants to kill all humans, but he has the Planet Express crew on his “Do Not Kill” list. He regularly steals, but rarely steals from the rest of the crew.

And I really don’t see the problem with “meta-gaming,” but that’s another post

3 Incubi January 21, 2013 at 1:10 pm

Just last night I played as a PC in a 4.0 campaign for the second time in a month, also the second time in four years. Prior to that I had been DMing for 3.0 . First of all, it was an entirely different experience. Second of all, as nearly all of the PC’s are evil, and there are at least 3 separate motives between 8 PC’s, there was a large need for note passing. I personally support this idea, as a DM and a PC, though I do agree with you in saying that it does arouse suspicion and I’m very excited to incorporate the idea of a designated note time into my campaigns as well as the one I’m playing in. Another idea I would like to toss around is setting up some sort of system to accurately depict how well a PC is able to disguise their scheming, treacherous, or just plain murderous intentions. I feel like utilizing perception and stealth (in 4.0) and sense motive and bluff (in 3.0/3.5) seem kind of lame, I’m looking for something a bit more personalized and challenging. Any ideas? Thanks.

4 Ameron (Derek Myers) January 21, 2013 at 2:10 pm

I want to be clear, I’m not suggesting that the players should be passing secret notes to screw over the other players, although allowing note passing does give sneaky or unscrupulous characters opportunity to do this more easily. I’ve found that most of the time the notes are about personal goals or objectives that don’t really involve the other characters – at least not directly. When one or more players do try to have their character act against the party it’s certainly not automatically successful. There are still rolls as necessary. There is also the risk that if the rest of the party (in character) notices one guy doing something he shouldn’t (like stealing from another PC), they’ll call him on it and the perpetrator will suffer the consequences. I too won’t permit any player to be a total dick and then say “It’s what my character would do.” However, if the mostly good aligned party agrees to let an evil PC adventure with them I feel that they made their own bed and will have to deal with the possibility of the evil PC doing something evil.

5 Svafa January 22, 2013 at 12:22 pm

Most note passing we’ve had in our current game has been from me to the party, rather than vice versa. Typically it’s of the “here’s what you see” variety, and even with that I’ve mostly stopped passing notes and instead giving a “so-and-so sees…” caveat beforehand. The players do fine without using the metagaming, and it’s led to some good ideas and roleplaying opportunities that might not have otherwise arisen. I’m thankful our group gets along well also. They tend to be the “X [to the DM]: I want to steal A from Y, do I need to roll? Y: Nah, it’s yours. DM: I guess you succeed.”

I like Brian’s houserule. I think I might just bring it out if we get into a situation that needs delicate handling. I don’t foresee it being needed in our current game, but it could be useful if we ever get to the follow-up of our current game or start the Dresden Files game we’ve been discussing characters and locations for.

6 Rewolf January 29, 2013 at 12:42 pm

Note passing etc is a good idea. The thing I do dislike about it is that players still know or at least have a suspicion that the other(s) are doing something behind his back. The best game/roleplay imo is when a player or the group doesn’t know anything at all about the action. Our group has it own forum on which we discuss random things an dthe game, but we al have a private section of the forum where we can communicate with the DM. For example, my character is a Dwarven Runesmith who have been kicked out of his home because he came too close to revealing or uncovering a secret of the Dwarven authorities and was banished upon death. The group doesn’t know anything about this cause I only told them I was a Runesmith on a quest. This adds a lot more drama once it does come out, plus the reactions would be more genuine.
The issue which could come forward from using electronics, is also one you adressed with the notes…if the players someone looking on his phone or a phone vibrates for example, they could get suspicious or know something is going. Though you can trust on (some) players with good roleplaying I would still prefer trying to get a real reaction then an anticipated one.

7 Landon Kresie February 8, 2013 at 1:36 am

I had a DM that would randomly pass notes all game. Some were relevent to the story, and some were not. It created an interesting dynamic at the table because we were never sure what the notes contained, and took the focus off the notes.

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