Tabletop Tidbits: Adding Perception Filters to Your GM Toolbox

A druid, a rogue and a paladin walk into a tavern…” At this point most people begin thinking about the sorts of punchlines that might go to a joke with that opening. But the better use of time for the typical GameMaster is to start imagining, and asking questions. What time of day is it? What sort of folk live in the town? Are they well-off? God-fearing? How long has it been since the druid last set foot inside a settlement? These sorts of questions get the mind going in a much more useful direction, and will lead to an examination of the key perception filters at play.

“Hold on, none of you saw that guy?”

For any unfamiliar with the concept of a perception filter, the basic premise is this: no two individuals have led identical lives. As such, each has a unique perspective, and how they perceive the world around them is textured by that singular collection of experiences. They will certainly have many areas of overlap with numerous others who have had shared or similar experiences, but the whole will find no perfect match. So, getting back to our trio of adventurers: when they walk into the tavern, what each takes notice of, and how they feel about (or react to) what they encounter inside will be different, even though all three have entered into the exact same environment.

What does all of this mental exercising have to do with your campaign? Quite a bit if you let it. To start off, it’s a great way to showcase elements from PC backstories and allow them to be highlighted in the game without having to deal with them directly. No need to sideline the story for a run-in with a PC’s mother if something that PC eats tastes “just like mom used to make”. Sprinkling in a few backstory snippets now and then lets you add player-written material to the overall narrative without distracting from it. Doing so can also enable you to foreshadow a direct appearance by something (or someone) from a player’s backstory without catching them off guard when the time comes.

Next, consider character growth. In life, people change and evolve over time because they are shaped by their experiences. A person’s perception filter is a key part of this journey. It is affected by what has come before, and then feeds back into the cycle to impact how future events are viewed. While the players may not be undergoing the events of your campaign personally, they are still experiencing them – which means that by keeping the perception filter in mind, and tailoring your presentation to work with it (and contribute to it), you can guide the players in developing their characters in deeper, more meaningful ways.

Remembering perception filters is also useful in helping with immersion. When the game is presented with a focus on how the characters perceive their surroundings – as opposed to merely what those surroundings are – it becomes far easier for the players to suspend their disbelief and slip into character. It’s sort of like the tabletop GameMaster version of the classic lesson regarding flat versus dynamic comic book panel composition – as seen below (God I love that book). However, instead of shifting the “camera angle” for a more dramatic “shot”, the shift is in presentation details for a more personalized mental image.

So how does one begin leveraging perception filters to their benefit? It starts with PC backstories. Jot down some notes, or get copies you can keep. People, places and events contained therein are natural fodder to build off of, but so too are situations, motivations, aspirations and descriptions. Armed with this material, go back over your campaign notes, or the notes for the next session. Think cinematically about the locations the party will be going, and the circumstances they will be placed into. Now, you want to look for “openings” that you can slot a few elements into.

An opening can be many things. It can be a characteristic or viewpoint of an NPC, the feeling a location gives off, the capacity for sounds or smells to trigger memories. Anything that isn’t being utilized directly for the campaign’s storyline is fair game to receive a backstory snippet, character-specific impression, or reference to a past opening. Going back to our trio in the tavern example, perhaps the serving wench has a laugh that’s reminiscent of the paladin’s missing sister. Maybe that mounted animal head on the wall seems to always be staring at the druid – just like the bartender. The place’s layout might remind the rogue of the last card game they participated in (the one from earlier in the campaign when the player failed that skill check and the rogue was caught cheating and the party had to make a “hasty departure”).

Inserting an element or two into available openings helps give each character (and by extension each player) a slightly different perception of the person, place or situation in question. It also feeds into how the players will have their respective characters respond to stimuli and future events. For our sample PCs, a wink from the serving wench will be much different for the paladin’s player than for the rogue’s. Likewise, the prospect of a visit to another tavern later will be met with with varying levels of enthusiasm due to the experience at this one; listen for the groan from the druid’s player.

By adding consideration (and manipulation) of perception filters to your GameMaster toolbox, you’ll be able to ensure that your presentation is always “dynamic” and never “flat”. Incorporating player content into the game will be easier, and won’t derail your story. Fostering character progression will feel natural, and won’t require heavy-handed tactics. Finally, you’ll create a more immersive experience for everyone to enjoy, and remember for years to come.

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