So, information management is usually a pretty business-wonky idea, but it’s one that has a role in RPGs that can be very useful to keep in mind. Specifically, the role of information management is one of the easiest ways to distinguish between adventure, intrigue and caper/crime.
Information management, which is to say the review of what informationis distributed, how it’s distributed, and what’s done with it, has a very small role in the traditional adventure (which is why we tend to not prioritize it). Specifically, the traditional adventure manages information by being very, very tight-fisted with it. Some bits of data might be necessary to proceed (like a password or location of a secret door) but most information is purely color. It simply may not make much difference if the bad guys you’re fighting are a thousand year old cult of the Old Ones or a new age cult of destruction.
But what’s important in an adventure is that this lack does not matter. Player action is not dependent on information – what they need to do is usually very clear. Most typically, there is a dungeon, and once you’ve got a dungeon, you pretty much know what to do with it. In fact, too much information can make for problems, because players might decide to go off in unexpected directions as their options open up.
Because of this combination of clear motivation and sparse information, gaming has developed a culture of secrets. Giving players more information is treated as a bad thing so secrets are kept out of habit rather than because it’s necessary for the game.
But this is not the only model.
For games centered more around intrigue (such as espionage) then, paradoxically, there should be MORE information available. Characters know a lot about a lot, so much so that the thing they don’t know is usually the important point on which the story or game resolves. if, in contrast, EVERYTHING is a secret, then no particular secret is going to be very compelling.
On another vector, a caper game should assume nearly total information. Capers revolve around plans made from comprehensive data – it may take some work to get that data, but that’s only a fraction of the game – and that data needs to be reliable. That does not means there’s no rom for surprises and the unexpected – they’re a part of the genre – but like with intrigue, they stand out as exceptions.
These examples only scratch the surface of ways to consider information management but what they hopefully highlight is that a lot of assumptions about how things should be may just be habits. Next time you run a game where you’re trying to capture a specific genre, then take a little bit of time to think about what people know, how they find it out, and what they do with that information. A small change could profoundly transform your game for the better.
1 – Some of this also comes from the much more reasonable “no one wants to drink from the fire hose” problem. If you’re too free with information, players will get overwhelmed and disinterested. This is also an information management issue, but a slightly different one than we’re looking at today.
2 – This is doubly true when the entire setting is designed to be “wheels within wheels” to a totally arbitrary degree. Once everything is suspect, everything is meaningless.
3 – I remember my first exposure to the idea of total information transparency, proposed by Robin Laws in Over the Edge. it was a little too weird for me at the time, and it still is a bit uncomfortable, but it’s a great example of how to rethink these assumptions.
4 – Shadowrun is my poster child for this. 99% of the time I see it run like an adventure, with the run standing in for the dungeon and with a more interesting wrapper around it than a trip to the tavern. That’s fun, but when I think about the Genre,I imagine something much closer to intrigue or caper style play. I don’t think I’m alone in this perception, but the trick is that despite that sense of genre, it’s not necessarily reflected in play.