Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Get Out of that Book! Player vs Character Knowledge.

I have decided to skip on posting our campaign history in favor of writing a more comprehensive background and adding it as it's own page. After reading my post from last night I have realized that it's just too much text to cram in here.

The topic for today will be player vs. character knowledge; a difficult and sometimes unavoidable problem. Just to make sure we're all on the same page, lets get a better understanding of what I'm talking about.

With most rpg's, the players in the group control one or more characters- choosing their appearance, race, occupation, mannerisms, abilities and so on. Every player has their own vision of what a 'cool' character is. Some imagine themselves as an expert assassin, hiding in shadows and striking only when the enemy is most vulnerable. Others may see their characters as savage barbarians, stalwart knights, bumbling wizards or elven archers - the possibilities are endless! As brand new adventurers in a hostile fantasy world, these characters have yet to experience the wonders and horrors that await them. Dark crypts hide shambling skeletons and living shadows. Crumbling wizard towers await, crammed full of animated furniture, emotionless golems and let us not forget the mightiest of the mighty - immense dragons soaring through the skies, raining death and fire upon all in their path.

These are all things that players love about role playing games. They wait eagerly in anticipation of these new and alien experiences, yet that is exactly where the problem lies.

You see, while at level one Gorgmaul the Dim has never seen a dragon or skeleton warrior, his player Paul the Accountant has seen plenty of movies, played other games and read all of the monster books cover to cover. Paul knows that skeletons are weak against bludgeoning weapons and that they can see even in pitch blackness; the fact that Paul knows this could lead to a potential problem because Gorgmaul would have no knowledge of skeletons this early in his career.

Whats a GM to do? Do you forbid the players from reading sensitive material? Do you swap a monsters stats for those of another? Maybe just let them roll with it following the time tested theory that ,'It's a fantasy world, I'm sure they heard about it somewhere...'

Here's my take on a few of these ideas as well as a few gems of my own.

1. Let Them Read the Books!
They are going to do it anyway. It's not a matter of them being cheaters or dishonest. It's just human (gamer?) nature to want to look at monster manuals. The pictures, stats and descriptions are too cool to keep away from avid players. To be honest I find that making the monster books available helps the game, as players get excited or even scared when a formidable enemy appears.

On the other side of that coin, the monster books always stay in my possession during the game. It's one thing to have a passing knowledge of a creatures abilities, but to have a point for point write up of the enemy is just unfair to the GM and to the other players at the table.

2. Let Them Validate Their Knowledge.
A player who can role play a valid and creative reason that they may know something deserves to know it. After all, it is a role playing game. If your great uncle Torvald the Bold once crossed the barren wastes in search of the Amulet of Gilmar, only to be blinded by 'the great iron basidracocus' and tells the story at every Feast Day, I would be willing to let you know a bit about the creature. Of course 'I heard it in a tavern.' or 'I read it in a book.' won't earn you anything but a stern gaze.

Players are also encouraged to use skills such as knowledge and even craft or profession if it would provide the proper insight. Skills are a great way for players to use knowledge they may or may not know outside of the game world.

3. The Bait and Switch.
I use this technique VERY SPARINGLY and I urge other GM's to do the same. Switching stats or monster abilities is a cheap and dirty way to throw players off balance and turn their knowledge into a weapon against them. You can only swap so many creature stats before your gamers feel like you are toying with them. While players shouldn't use outside knowledge to gain an upper hand, neither should game masters use their powers to abuse the very mechanics of the game. Many players pride themselves on learning about enemies, items and objects. Changing the fundamentals of them makes all the effort on the players behalf worthless.

I find the bait and switch technique works best for unique and boss characters. This past Christmas we had an encounter with a demonic Santa lookalike, who kidnapped children in his giant bag and summoned evil snowmen to fight alongside him. The Evil Santa was basically a re-skinned bearded devil with a magical spiked candy cane (aptly named CandyPain) rather than a glaive. He was a wild success, but only because the character was memorable and fit the bill. On the other hand, having players encounter a dragon with the stats of a wyvern would only cheapen the effect or worse -leave them unprepared- when they finally meet the real thing.

4. A Fish Out of Water
Nothing throws a wrench in the works like messing with the status quo. I'm not referring to the bait and switch again either. What I'm saying is: Use your imagination! There are plenty of ways to keep your players on their feet without messing with built in game mechanics. As a Gm, you are the narrator of an epic tale and it is up to you to set the stage in unique and interesting ways.

Even the most mundane monsters have the potential to shine if presented in the right way. I've had armored skeletons whose chests were glowing with unnatural light. Assured of their evil, the party assaulted them full-blast only to discover that some mad necromancer had filled their chest cavities with vials of alchemist fire...kaboom! Paul the Accountant never counted on that! Or how about a mobile guard tower full of gnoll archers thanks to a wily animate object spell? Even a lowly goblin could eradicate a party with an appropriately powerful bomb strapped to his back. It is completely possible to alter and change a creature without having to change its internal mechanics. It might take a bit more effort, but the payoff is well worth it.

5. When in Doubt: Rule 0.
Normally a last ditch effort when a player doesn't want to cooperate, a GM should never have a problem using the power of rule 0. Just tell the player 'Your character doesn't know that, try something else.' If they refuse to cooperate, you have all the tools you need to fix the problem right at your fingertips!

Say your party discovers they are going to encounter a troll - a creature none of them knows anything about - yet one creative player stocks up on vials of acid anyway. He claims that he has heard stories that they can regenerate and has deduced (arguing his 17 Int score) that acid would prevent it. Don't argue, get creative.

When the players reach the troll lair they find it already dead and the place being looted by a group of not so nice adventurers! Protective of their loot and generally nasty to begin with, the troll slayers engage your party in combat. Who is to say that an enemy bard or wizard doesn't cast shout at the party? It may do minimal damage, but all those shattered acid vials won't feel too good, let alone the condition the other equipment will be left in.

I'm not suggesting that GM's out there bully their players, but I am suggesting that you not let yourself be pushed around or rule jockeyed so that PCs get an unfair advantage. Use every weapon in your arsenal, but only if you have to. Remember, this is a game to create epic tales and memorable experiences, not fight against your players because they know more than their characters should.

In closing, I guess my final advice on the topic would be to use your best judgment. If something smells fishy, it probably is.


  1. Great post! I especially like your advice on Bait & Switch.

    1. Whoah! My first comment! Thanks a ton!

  2. Maybe limit the number of entries a player can access in the rule book based on the character's intelligence/race/profession?

    What would be funny, if you also banned players from reading the rule books if their characters couldn't read... hehehe! Maybe that's why my players gave me the tag of EvilDM?

    I prefer to run a game system where the players cannot react to any given situation unfairly, or even out of the character's in-game life knowledge base, due to the fact the player knows all there is to know regarding encountered mob, NPC, etc.

    1. Sorry, as a post script to the above - a good example is something I've encountered whilst playing Skyrim on my pc: you kill an NPC in a tavern, or other building, out of sight of everyone else, step outside and WHAM! The guards are all over you like a rash! How the hell did they know about what went on inside?

      Similar thing when players act on knowledge they shouldn't act upon. :)

  3. I think I like the validate knowledge-rule best of all. It works well in most of the games I play in (I don't GM...yet), although sometimes it leads to discussions of what can and cannot be done/known in the setting. GM has the last word on that, though.