Epistemology is one of those words I have to use occasionally, but rarely enough that I still have to look it up. It boils down to the Theory of Knowledge, or “How we know what we know”. If anyone here slogged through an International Baccalaureate program, lightbulbs may have just turned on. But then again, you probably already knew what Epistemological meant.
So what the hell does this have to do with D&D? There’s no high level philosophy going on. I hang out with friends, I drink beer, I roll dice. No one is contemplating the order of the universe. At least not in any campaigns I write.
But Epistemology is important to us because it concerns belief, truth, and to some extent, perception of reality. And these three things are powerful tools in the hands of a savvy DM. A DM able to convince players of certain truths can reduce the divide between what the character experiences and what the player is experiencing, which in turn increases player immersion.
Using your infallibility
As DM, your word is law. Although no one will directly say it, you are their perception of the world. Not just in your words, but your mannerisms, your body language, and how you treat the dice rolls in front of and behind the screen. One of the trickiest things a DM can do is provide information in such a way that it is credible to not just the character, but the player as well. For instance, Nick is searching the room for a secret door, but his dwarf rolls a 2. If your response is, “mmm… yea, you didn’t see it. Anyone else want to roll?”, what you really told Nick was, “There’s a door! Just keep looking.” If the DM really wanted to make the players believe the roll, he or she could instead say, “Despite the poor roll, you thoroughly comb the room for any signs of escape route. Nothing catches your eye.” In this statement, you acknowledge the poor roll, describe their character’s action truthfully, and in a way that character would have perceived it. After all, a poor roll doesn’t mean the character looked around from one spot and shrugged; it means that character scoured the room to the best of their ability (even if it was a poor attempt). This way, the player, as well as the character, has doubts as to whether a secret exists in the room or if they simply performed miserably.
Speak with exact certainty… From the player’s perspective
This ties into your word being infallible. When you describe a phantasmal image to the player, it’s easier to give them the knowledge that it is fake than to hide it with a few choice words. For example, if a low level illusion creates the image of a charging orc, don’t say “an orc appears out of thin air, and it looks like it is charging you. Roll for will save.” In this case, you’ve already shown your hand. Instead, roll the will save behind the screen. If successful, describe the action under the caveat of it being an illusion. If not, pull the stops out. “An orc screams and runs toward you with his bloody falchion drawn. He’s closing in on you, and he’s ready for blood!” As a general rule, if you describe anything as less than certain, the players will instantly err on the side of disbelief. Good news is, you can use this to your advantage. Tell the players that “they think they see a ghost on the other side of the chasm”, and watch the party try and decide if you’re messing with them or not.
Conversely, to instill fear in the players, have them fail roll checks for things that don’t exist. Most DMs have been known to include the occasional “Phantom Roll” just to keep players off guard. Even better, have them ‘pass’ the checks. Maybe they hear or see something that isn’t actually there. For best results, only do this during a single session or story arc; you don’t want players always doubting their senses… Just when it counts.
Altering perception is fun, but keep it simple
Like epistemology, messing with your players isn’t an everyday affair (unless you’re a philosopher or sadist, respectively). It’s fun to complicate things occasionally, but it’s also easy to get carried away; before you know it, you end up with a PC sliced in twain and a session gone sour. And while you should never be afraid to shred a PC every now and then, be extra careful if their lifeline is your description of the surroundings—player life and death should (mostly) be in their hands, not yours. You should also consider just how much is too much. For your hack-n-slash players, dial back the “maybes”, and dial up the targets. For a group more interested in the exploration, story, and intrigue, go for it; but as always, keep tabs on the mood. If the players aren’t enjoying the uncertainty, don’t double down on it.