Suppose your players aim to stop raiders somehow able to slip past the town’s defenses. They meet the woman who leads the city guard. Mid conversation, the rogue’s player says, “I’m sure she’s behind the raids. We should just kill her.” In your game, did the rogue really say that out loud? If not out loud, did he whisper to the other characters? What does the guard captain make of the troubling whispers?
Or suppose the players offer to give a dragon a magic item in exchange for safe passage, but the negotiation scene pauses as the players debate which item to trade. Does the dragon hear their talk of a cursed sword?
In a battle, when the players discuss the best way to maneuver their foes into a fireball’s area, do their foes overhear the strategy?
How much discussion at your game table carries into the game world?
At many tables, none of the discussion at the table reaches the game world unless it suits the players—sometimes after a dispute over what happened and what was just a joke.
Scott “The Angry GM” Rehm settles the disputes and answers such questions with a convention he calls the murky mirror. “The players and the characters are reflections of each other in a murky mirror. They aren’t perfect reflections. But they are synchronous. If the players are sitting around and talking, then so are the characters. They are saying basically the same things, though they might be using different words.
“For example, when the player says, ‘My character refuses to help because he thinks the orcs are all savages because he saw them murder his parents,’ his character is probably saying something like, ‘Scum like you butchered my parents and I’d rather have every one of my fingers broken then lift one of them to help a monster like you.’” By the convention, whether players talk about their character or in character, they communicate a similar message in the game world. When players at the table exchange jokes and banter, characters in the game joke and banter. So when a non-player character named Elmo causes the players at my Ghosts of Saltmarsh table to erupt into a round of joking, the heroes in the game find the name just as funny, but for different reasons.
The murky mirror usually applies to scenes, the parts of the game where characters with a goal face obstacles to overcome. See How to Use Scenes and Summaries to Focus on the Best Parts of a Role-Playing Adventure.
In D&D, a 6-second combat round may take 20 minutes to play out, so the synchronization must allow plenty of latitude. In practice, the party can’t limit discussion to six seconds or less. Still, players can’t pause a round for a 10-minute strategy discussion.
This murky mirror convention can benefit the game in a few ways:
Raised stakes. The players’ actions in the real world trace to consequences in the game world. When someone says the wrong thing, they can’t backpedal and claim they intended an out-of-game joke.
Immediacy. The game world and the game table both live in the moment.
Immersion. Players stay closer to their characters.
Faster pacing. Even loose synchronization between the real world and the game world adds urgency to fights. “If I see my group stopping every turn in combat to discuss every action, I will stop them and force whoever’s turn it is to make a decision,” Angry writes. “You only have a few seconds to act. What do you do?”
The murky mirror suits games where players dive into character and strive to prevail through skillful game play.
Most game tables settle for an informal convenience where players drop in and out of character, often only affecting the game world when it suits them. The banter and joking stay out of game.
This represents a looser, beer-and-pretzels style where players aim to spin a yarn for some laughs. Or possibly a style where storytelling takes the focus. Some players who favor narrative compare the forgiving style with a writers’ room. Most TV shows come from a team of writers who gather in a room and imagine story arcs and character beats.
In the loose style of most game tables, when players stop a scene to decide whether to accuse the guard captain or what magic item to trade, we assume that the actual discussion happened earlier. Or we assume that the characters’ time together leaves them with unspoken signals or a mutual understanding. After all, heroes in the game share experience in the imaginary world that players cannot match.
Introduce the murky mirror at a campaign’s launch or just before key scenes. Marty “Raging Owlbear” Walser says, “Occasionally for a very important scene, I tell the players, ‘You are now live.’ No out-of-character talk.’ It can really ramp up tension.”
Most of the time, the murky mirror just requires in-game reminders that, say, players in the tavern overhear the players’ argument. For dangerous lapses, the GM should remind players and allow a do over. If a player blurts, “I’ll bet she’s behind the raids. We should kill her,” then ask, “Do you really want to say that?”
“After all, the point of the murky mirror is to make things easier and more fun and less bitter and fighty for everyone. You shouldn’t be using it to gleefully pounce on a player who makes a stupid mistake,” Angry writes. That seems forgiving for a GM who makes a brand of raging. As players learn the convention, such lapses will become rare.
I see one potential downside to the murky mirror. Players who know they cannot freeze time to make plans may weigh the game with too much advance planning. As a dungeon master, I love when the players pause to plan—it shows an appreciation of the game world’s stakes and obstacles. But advance planning for every possibility delays diving in and playing. That’s the heart of the game.
To adopt the murky mirror while still allowing some flexibility to stop time and strategize, consider allowing flashbacks. The flashback mechanic borrows from roleplaying games like Blades in the Dark and Leverage. Players can announce flashbacks to recall planning they did in the past. It gives players a formal way to stop time and spin strategy. Players can only flashback from a situation they could have planned for.
An informal flashback can come from the GM. If the players stop a scene for the planning they could have done earlier, you can jump in and frame the planning as a flashback.
I still want to know. How much talk at your game table reaches the game world?
The last time I really played was in 3.5 with some friends while I was still in the Marine Corps. This was sometime in 2006. I had two very different DMs that I played with. One was very mechanics and combat-oriented for the games we played, so there wasn’t a lot of roleplay at all and the games were mostly a dungeon crawl. Obviously, no table talk translated into the game.
The second DM planned his whole campaign out in advance with maps and specific encounters and all of the stuff that should be in a gaming session beyond simple combat. I don’t think I ever played a session with a pre-made adventure. Table talk often made it into the game and we were also required to roleplay what our characters were saying whenever we encountered an NPC.
Don’t get me wrong, I love a game where it’s focused on intense combat and pushing the limits of a character’s abilities, but the games where we needed to get into our characters’ mindset were often more satisfying in the end.
I like this, because when people come up with movie references (or plans that are similar to ones in movies), they always seem to have to justify it by saying “Did you see that… scroll… called Die Hard?” when in reality, their characters probably just have heard of a legend with a similar plan in it that they all understand the reference to.
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I’ve been a big fan of the “Murky Mirror” approach ever since I read that article a while back. It works well to keep players from debating what they want to do for 20 minutes, and adds a bit of challenge to social roleplay situations since the PCs can’t coordinate perfectly unless there’s some reason ingame (like telepathy) that allows them to do so.
Angry’s admonition not to use it as a way to “pounce” on players is pretty critical though – it really pays to be more on the forgiving side with mechanics like this.
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