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Information Laundering 101

My Current Project


What is Information Laundering? Well to quote from the authoritative source, the Slayers Guide to Games Masters, information laundering is: the transformation of "dirty" player information into "clean" character information.

Properly used and understood, information laundering can give a modern, forward-thinking Munchkin a vital edge over his or her (although let's face it, it's a him, so I'll stop with the gender neutral crap right now) GM.

The problem of resolving situations where a player knows something that his character doesn't is one that roleplaying has had to face since its inception, and different groups have handled it in different ways.

The group I played with during my teenaged years used the classic "leave the room system". By contrast, my current Thursday and Sunday groups uses a dual system of maturity for them, and amnesia for me (a notorious session amnesiac).

Leave Room System: players physically leave the room whenever events are occurring that their character is not aware of.

Maturity System: players are mature enough to refrain from acting upon information that their character is not aware of.

Amnesia: player has the memory of a goldfish and thus forgets everything he's heard within five minutes of hearing it, regardless of whether or not it's information his character is aware of.

All systems have their disadvantages, especially amnesia, which renders your character functionally incapable of meaningfully participating in any scenario role beyond that of "bloke who walks around behind party twatting anyone who the other guys start twatting".

My particular low point with the "leave the room" method involved a campaign that my then-friend Rich P started when we were fourteen or fifteen. This was played at my house, on Saturdays from 12 to 5, with play occurring in the front room, and "players not present" sitting in the back room.

Rich was starting the campaign with the premise that the characters did not know each other, but would - upon arriving as strangers in a city - meet up with each other and form an adventuring party. But he decided that it would be unrealistic were we to arrive in the city at exactly the same time, so he started us off at staggered intervals.

I was the last one to start play, some twelve hours, and two and a half play sessions into play.

Yes, I spent two complete Saturday afternoons and a bunch of one more sitting in my back room, alone for the last few hours, waiting for someone to poke their head round the door and tell me I could come in.

Lets just say I'm not a big fan of the "leave the room" technique.

Because of the problems involved with leaving the room, and the impossibility of making people amnesiac (you're just born that way - unless you suffer a traumatic head injury, in which case you weren't), most groups fall back on the classic "Maturity" method.

Which is where the opportunity for some subtle cheating arises provided that you can successfully launder the dirty player information into clean character information.

Let's go through some techniques.

Desire Based Laundering

Desire based laundering is perhaps the most widely used information laundering technique. It's best explained by example, so I'll use an incident that occurred in my Sunday group's Call of Cthulhu campaign (John is GMing Horror on the Orient Express) just a few weeks ago.

We start with General Tangent's character, a journalist with an interest in history, laid up in hospital after having been badly wounded in a previous session. Meanwhile, TAFKAC's character Mr Drake, a private eye with absolute no aptitude or interest in history, is scouring the city for clues, and has just been given a stack of history books which he is about to put to one side (it doesn't occur to him that they could be at all useful).

So General Tangent was in possession of very useful player information (that TAFKAC's PC had some books that General Tangent's PC could usefully spend the day reading) and therefore needed to launder that dirty player information into clean character information.

What he came up with was classic desire based information laundering:

General Tangent: I'm really bored. I could do with something to read. I'll get the hospital staff to send a message to Drake asking him to bring some books in for me to read.

And of course, Drake isn't going to waste a load of time and money buying books when he's got a stack of them he's wanting to dump somewhere, now is he?

Telephones, mobile or otherwise, can often provide a convenient means of information laundering.

"You know, I really feel a bit lonely. I really want to talk to Bill. I'll stop the car at the first payphone I pass."

A few minutes later.

"Hi Bill. How are things go- What's that? There's a car bomb under my car set to go off at midday? You've been trying to get hold of me all day to let me know? Wow! It's so lucky I called you!"

The thing to remember is that you need to convert a "hard" player fact into a "soft" character desire.

Pre-Induced Desire Based Laundering

This is a variant on the above technique which avoids the suspiciously arbitrary nature of standard desire based laundering. A classic pre-induced desire based technique is to avoid mentioning that your character is eating, thus storing a behaviour-change trigger that you can later use.

For example:

Player One: [Shortly after learning, out-of-character, that there is a bomb under his car set to go off in twenty minutes time at noon] I haven't eaten anything today, have I?

GM: [Warily] No.

Player One: Well I must be feeling pretty hungry then. I'll do a u-turn and head back to that diner I just passed a couple of minutes ago.

GM: [Grumpily] As you tuck into your brunch the parking lot is filled with a huge fireball as your car explodes.

Player One: Oh no! That's terrible! I could have died! Wasn't it incredibly lucky that I happened to stop to get a bite to eat?

GM: Wasn't it.

This sort of technique is much harder for the GM to argue against, because your character hasn't eaten all day and is therefore hungry. A clever launderer will avoid reuse of behaviour-change triggers and will attempt to always have at least a couple of potential triggers active.

Time/Pace Management

This is probably the simplest of information laundering techniques, relying as it does on manipulation of game time.

Imagine a 1920s gangster game, in which your character is in his apartment preparing to go out for a drive. Unbeknown to him (the PC that is, the player knows all about it), an assassin is waiting outside in the bushes, preparing to shoot him as he exits his front door. Meanwhile, his best friend (a fellow PC) is frantically driving across town, hoping to get there in time to prevent the assassination.

The answer here is simple: run the game clock down. Have a leisurely breakfast. Do the washing up. Notice as you do so that you haven't cleaned the kitchen for a while, and so do a bit of cleaning. Do anything rather than walk out through the front door and get shot.

That's a simple, slightly contrived example, but it does illustrate the technique. Note also that it includes a combining of techniques; I'm sure you've all noticed that the kitchen not having been cleaned for a while is, of course, a stored behaviour-change trigger.

Cliché Neutralisation

Some player information is gained through the recognition of clichés. The guy in the black hat is evil. The old man who approaches you at the bar and offers you to buy you a drink is a patron who will offer to hire your for a quest - and not the lonely old pervert he would most likely be in reality.

Plots are transparent things at the best of times, but the typical roleplaying scenario is particularly so - compared to a game plot, a Barbara Cartland romance novel would look like the Da Vinci Code's elder brother. A scenario is usually littered left and right with the myriad metaphorical "adventure this way" signs that are necessary to keep five bickering, dysfunctional, retards (a.k.a. a typical adventuring party) heading in the right direction.

This effect is then further magnified by the fact that the GM usually presents you with only edited highlights of your characters' lives, only mentioning events, things and people that are significant.

So let's imagine that through not so skilled use of cliché reading, you've figured out that the kindly old man who's offered to let you stay the night in his castle for nothing more than the pleasure of your company at the feast he provided is actually an evil old pervert death mage who will, during the night, kill you all in your beds and then raise you as zombies. (Except for the halfling thief who will be kept on as some kind of sex toy).

What do you do about it?

Well the obvious thing to do is to set a trap in your room, stay awake, and then jump the bastard and slot him as soon as he enters. But this is, of course, use of player information, and will therefore be barred by your GM who will insist you go to sleep. "You can't just go around assuming that everyone you meet is trying to kill you," he'll say. "He's just a kindly old man who's done nothing whatsoever to arouse any suspicions."

You need to launder this cliché-derived player information.

Luckily, we have a specialised weapon in our armoury designed to take out specifically these kinds of clichés: cliché degrading facets. A cliché degrading facet is an aspect built into your character at character creation time that will be inherently destructive to any clichés that the GM might expect players to ignore. Now these can be built using advantages and disadvantages, where a system supports them. But cliché degrading facets can equally be used in systems that do not support character traits; in fact these systems are sometimes superior as you can claim that you are "roleplaying", thus neatly diverting attention from your true, long-term munchkin aims.

Let's go back to the example above. Imagine if, during character creation, you had read out the following character history to the GM and your fellow players:

"Okay, my character's called Pieter DeRealto, and he's a slight but wiry ranger from the mountains to the north. He grew up in a quiet and peaceful village, the son of the village blacksmith and the local midwife, and he soon learned to love the mountains. However, when he was seven a kindly old villager befriended him, giving him presents of exotic food stuffs and allowing him to play in his home, and then proceeded to spend the next several months sexually abusing him. As a result, he is extremely suspicious of people who offer aid or hospitality without any apparent gain on their part."

I think it's pretty obvious what the cliché degrading facet is there. With a character history like that, staying up ready to ambush the old man could not in any way be described as cheating. Hell, the gullible might even fall for a claim that it's roleplaying.

So what you need to do, before the campaign starts, is attempt to deduce every cliché your GM might come up with (the road that obviously leads to danger; the "harmless" hanger on who will kill you in your beds and steal the treasure; the crying peasant/child/widow who will only send you on a quest long on danger but short on reward) and built in a countering cliché degrading facet during character creation.

Stealth Laundering

Let's imagine a more unusual cheating scenario: you're playing a tournament game at a convention that you secretly played before, at a different convention with a scratch (junk) character. You're now playing with your primary character, and you want to use the player information you now possess to ensure that your primary character plays a perfect scenario. XPs and acclamation will be yours provided that you can successfully launder the player information you have into clean character information.

Now this is a slightly different situation from conventional information laundering. We are usually concerned with forcing a grudging acceptance of information that everyone at the table, GM included, knows to be player information - which means that our laundering doesn't have to be subtle, it just has to work. In this case thought, the laundering has to not only convert the player information into character information, but also do it is such a way that our cheating is concealed.

Which is where we get to stealth laundering.

Now in this example, much of the player information will relate to random choices - which corridor leads to a trap and which leads to treasure, for example - allowing us to simply make the right random choice each time. And similarly, where a deduction is required (solving a riddle, for example) you can simply appear to deduce the answer.

But even in those cases stealth laundering may be required, for fear you start to appear implausibly lucky or clever. So let's look at how we can launder in a stealthed environment.

Time/Pace management is usually the most effective technique to use in this kind of situation. When your party approaches a corridor which leads to treasure, you act fairly decisively, taking the lead. By contrast, when the party approaches a corridor which leads to a trap, you hesitate for a moment, just long enough for someone else to take the lead. The key to ensuring subtlety here is to act just an instant before or after the other characters, depending on which way you want the action to go.

Player Knowledge

A related cousin of player information is what might be termed player knowledge. Player knowledge is knowledge that the player possesses in real life, but which his character does not.

The most typical way for player knowledge to cause problems in fantasy settings is when players attempt to make use of the knowledge that charcoal + sulphur + saltpetre = big bang = world domination.

Now we're typically talking about obvious situations where you have an Int 3 Barbarian played by an astrophysicist, and the characters are supposed to hire someone who can navigate via the stars. But it can involve more subtle situations where the GM is unaware of your knowledge.

Imagine that your GM has decided to base his entire scenario around the plot of this season's blockbuster novel, The Michaelangelo Code, under the mistaken belief (mistaken, because when he asked you about it you lied) that none of the players, including you, have read the book and are therefore unaware of the shocking, controversial, and hitherto-unrevealed fact that lies at the heart of the book: that the New Testament of the Bible was not, as is usually supposed, the work of 1st century followers of the son of God, but was instead written by a 17th century Portuguese forger and petty thief called Jesus de Christo.

You know, come to think of that, maybe I should give that a go... Hey! It worked for Dan Brown! Start with a riddle or two, throw in a Salvation Army Assassin...

The question is how to use that knowledge. Well where the knowledge is secret, then the the advice given in the above section on stealth laundering is highly relevant. But either way, there are certain tricks you can use when the knowledge concerned is factual and documented.

Targeted Research: This is a bit of a no-brainer, but you can back the GM into a corner much more efficiently if - rather than just announcing out of nowhere that "the answer is such-and-such" - you instead suggest a particular library or museum or temple that the characters should go to research to.

The Hypothetical Question: It's an often stated principle in life (often over-stated to the point of being a cliché) that an uneducated person can often, through lateral thinking aided by a "clean sheet" perspective, through new light on a subject that might baffle an expert. You can take advantage of this (it's often a good idea to try and ham it up in an "ignorant yokel wisdom" kind of way that your GM might mistake for roleplaying) by asking an apparently vague, searching, hypothetical question that will allow the rest of the party to zero in on the answer. (And they might be so chuffed at solving the question that they'll overlook your otherwise suspicious role in the process).

Closing Thoughts

Information Laundering is still very much a young science, and new techniques are being developed every day. However, when skilfully used it can be one of the most powerful weapons in the munchkin's armoury.

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