This is a tool that hardly any GMs I’ve encountered use to its fullest extent. Here’s a question to see which side of this fence you’re camped on. List in your head the top five requirements for a good place to run a game. How many free rooms did you include? One? My answer is universally two; one to hold the group and one for taking individuals aside for private conversations, otherwise known as Face Time.
Any of you who’ve played in a game of mine know that I’ll often pull my players aside and give specific information to specific players (depending on the build of their PCs) and then watch what they do with it. I call this part of Face Time “the telephone game.” I learned this game in kindergarten. The teacher would sit the class in a circle so she could whisper something into the first kid’s ear who’d whisper it to the second kid. They’d pass it on to the next kid and on and on till it got to the last kid. Then they had to repeat what they’d been told by the kid next to them. Never fail, what that last kid would report to the group was consistently not what the teacher had told the first kid!
When I first experienced this it baffled me. I couldn’t imagine how a reasonably intelligent person could possibly mess up hearing a phrase and then repeating it exactly as they’d heard it. I assumed that someone in the circle was foiling the game on purpose. I’m older now and have met far more people. I have come to understand that most people are incapable of playing this game successfully.
A majority of people you meet simply can’t pass along information without putting a spin on it. I don’t know why, but there you are. So what do I do? I use it in my games.
Puzzles are so much more fun than having the answers just given to you or rolling through combat after combat. So what I’ll do is privately give pieces of a puzzle in as direct and uncomplicated a fashion as possible to different members of my group and watch them attempt to put it all together. Some of the players will relate the information reliably, but most will not. Most will hear what they want to hear and embellish so that the other PCs hear what they thought they heard. Many GMs want to keep the suspense up, but can’t think of a way of doing this except by stonewalling the PCs information gathering. Here’s a more enjoyable alternative!
One time I slipped up and accidentally gave a Player (one of my favorite Players in this regard) some bit of information with the rest of the group listening. Then when he turned and gave the group his modified version, the rest of the group was completely thunderstruck because he was the source of much of the group’s info…up till now. It was hilarious! I think it went something like this:
GM: Okay. You peek over the hill and see one enormous troll and six heavily armed orcs looking around for your group.
Player1: Got it. I go back to the group.
PC2: What did you see?
PC1: Not much. Couple o’ orcs.
Player2: That’s totally not what he said!
Player2: Dude! I’m sitting right here!!
Good times. 🙂 Anyhow, there are other ways to use this tool as well. I’ll frequently pull Players aside just to ask them what’s going through their PC’s mind or to ask them if they’re enjoying the game so far. It’s important to find these things out if you’re going to slant your game toward your PCs and if you want to keep your Players happy. The worst thing is to have one of your Players sulking and thinking about how they have far more important things they could be doing with the evening they’re dedicating to your game out of habit. However, this sort of information is so much easier to give in private. I’ve been in games I wasn’t enjoying before and wasn’t able to talk to the GM about it because they didn’t want to leave the table and I didn’t want to precipitate a public argument about the viability of their game.
Keep in mind though that this tool can also be over used. When your players split up, split them up physically. It helps maintain a game’s mood. However, don’t spend more than 10-15 minutes with one group or the other. The last thing you want is for some of your players to start feeling bored. Most games are one evening a week. That means if your players go through a game feeling bored it is at the same time an agony of waiting what now amounts to two weeks before you get a development in a Player’s story (I’d put a book down if it took that long to develop) and a complete frustrating waste of 1/7th of their free evenings this week. So be aware, get the info you need, give the info they need and don’t neglect anyone.