Personal scenes, whether dreams or not, are a balance between meta-games and confidence. In a group prone to meta-games, they can be useful in forcing players to act only on the knowledge of the character. But in a group that lacks confidence, they can cause player vs. player tensions that you probably do not want at your table.
I will try to give a couple of examples and their effects, based both on my own experience and on the live broadcasts of what I see.
The spectacular talent Matt Mercer of Critical Role uses Whispers and one in one scenes to provide the unique knowledge of the character to its players. For important sequences of dreams, ask the rest of the cast to leave the table. At one point in campaign 2, one of the players gave a detailed explanation of his background story and asked the players who were not present to leave the table.
The critical role has an experienced cast with great confidence and few problems with the meta-game, why do they do this?
- The suspense is built. The critical role is a show that isolates cast members, as this creates drama and tension in a scene. I would do similar things at your table.
- Forces players to retell scenes in the character. The players will never retell something exactly as the DM described it. This provides an additional role play opportunity, since players need to convey the information completely in the character.
The British version of the critical role. High Rollers, led by Mark Hulmes, takes a different approach. Mark shares all the scenes openly at the table, only occasionally passing notes for personal character information.
This has some advantages:
- It is faster. It is not necessary for players to move or for the DM to get up to whisper in their ear means they can continue playing faster.
- Participation of the player. Players get involved with the background stories and personal trips of the other characters more easily as they develop.
It also has some drawbacks:
- Accidental metagaming. Sometimes, the player does not distinguish between what they were told about the dream and what they witnessed. This is totally accidental and never malicious, but it happens.
- Less immersive With all the others still on the table, the DM goes through the highlights of the dreams, trying to transmit the information before the other players get bored.
My experience as DM
I have used both approaches at my table over the past few years and will highlight a couple of them.
The group sent the dwarven barbarian to negotiate an agreement with a pirate captain to get them out of a city where they were looking for them. I took the player to another room to discuss the deal. The captain was actually a slaveholder and the cost of transport would be the custody of one of the parties. I will not go into details about the agreement or the subsequent negotiations and the final escape.
Results of this approach:
- It gave my barbarian player the opportunity to shine. The intelligence of the street and the ability to survive in a fierce world were part of his character concept and I gave him the opportunity to do this away from Bard.
- It led to distrust among the offside players. Even though she informed the party about the conditions in the character, I had problems with the players who thought I was going to betray them. With more mature players, this is less likely to be a problem, but most of mine were fairly new at that time.
- I had to abandon an arc of the story since the other players could never resolve their differences regarding this pirate.
So with the new players this did not work so well. Your mileage may vary however.
After a while, it became appropriate for my Half-Orc Paladin to receive some dreams of his God. I decided to try again and give him the opportunity to tell others in character. While my now more experienced players had no trust issues, this time I still would not consider it a success.
- I felt rushed and less able to create a dive away from the table. I was worried about the other players and I did not describe the dream as well as I could at the table.
- The player chose not to transmit the dreams. Therefore, they did not come into play at the table and the story was not unfolding as expected.
- The other players did not learn about the Paladin. The newest member of the party was the one who had least joined the campaign and having their great scenes in a different room did not help them worry about him.
For a later dream, I decided to run it on the table with the others present to compare the differences. This approach worked better for me.
- I could use all my tools to set the scene. The music, the accessories and the DM screen were available to me when I was at the table. This immersion increased for the Paladin player.
- The other players are now very excited to explore the arc of Paladin's story. Although they do not know it in character, they are more willing to agree with him because they know there is something great in the end.
- The players felt they had lost something now that they knew what had happened in a different room.
As the critical role shows, with a group of experiences, keeping things secret can definitely work, but it requires a lot of acceptance from your players.
Advantages of secrets:
- More role playing opportunities
- Increase immersion for a player. (If you can get it out)
- It can give players the opportunity to shine.
Disadvantages to secrets:
- Other less committed players
- Risk of trust problems between players.
- Dependence on the player to put the secret into play.
Advantages of telling everyone:
- Commitment to backstories
- It is faster
- Nobody has to leave the table.
The disadvantages of telling everyone:
- Meta-game risk
- Less dramatic / special for the player involved.
- Fewer RPGs since the player does not need to inform the party.
The DMate response has some excellent recommendations for your situation. I will draw from them and add some of mine.
- Run the scene openly, but make it clear to other players that they do not know this information until they share it with them in character. Whether it includes the skills gained is also up to you. I would be wrong to keep that secret.
- Execute the scene in private, but inform the others that the character was visited by a dream at night. Then, it is up to the player to share the details, but providing an overview should help resolve the trust issues.
- If you want to ask your preferences, ask the whole table. That way they can not know what is meant for them. You also know by others for future references.
Apologies for the long answer. Good luck and happy game!