Wednesday, August 12, 2015

Playing on Player Expectations: Player vs. Character Knowledge

When I reviewed EX1 and EX2 the other day, I pointed out that those two adventures scream for using out-of-game knowledge. In other words, why use Alice in Wonderland as a game basis unless you want players to use what they know from the books? It's almost trivially easy to disguise monsters, locations, literary characters, etc. so players don't recognize them and must confront them afresh.

So if you use them, it's generally because you want them recognized.

In general - I want my players to use their player knowledge. I'm using things they recognize because I want them to recognize them, and decide if they want to risk betting on what they know was true before. After all, these mind flayers might be magic-using, not magic-resistant. These pink slimes might be edible, according to the USDA, unlike those acidic ones they found a while back. Peter's version of hobgoblins might be different than the book says.

But equally, I might be using trolls that are vulnerable to fire and acid. I may have put that chess puzzle in knowing my players have a chess fan amongst them. And so on.

I did that because I want to take advantage of player expectations.

I draw the line, however, between player knowledge, and player abilities. Players can use whatever knowledge they have about the game, the setting, and other games and settings and whatnot. But they can't leverage their knowledge into in-game invention, in-game skill bonuses, and in-game shortcuts to power.

In other words, I want players to use their knowledge about the game situation and familiarity with the setting, opponents, and problems at hand to solve the problem at hand. I don't want them using real-world skills to replace those of their characters.

Good example: Player A knows that a cranky old witch in a swamp with skull-topped fencing and a strange hut is probably Baba Yaga or close enough. Player A decides to be very respectful and address her as grandmother. OK!

Bad Example: Player B knows how to make explosives. Player B's PC makes explosives, despite having no in-game knowledge to base this off of. Not OK!

I've GMed for players who can code computers, mix explosives, design and build structures, survive in the woods, shoot guns, speak a bunch of languages, draw professionally, play games at high levels of skill, compete in martial arts, fix cars, write books, and more. Their characters don't get to do those things unless their characters have the in-game ability to do so. Player knowledge of this type might help, in that on a meta-level we can ensure believable results and solid game rules and rulings.

I've mentioned this before. It sounds like a fuzzier line than it is in practice. If Player A knows zombies are often vulnerable to salt in games, fiction, and real world myth, Player A is welcome to toss salt at zombies and hope it's a good guess about how these zombies are statted up. If Player B knows how to break someone's arm the easier way, Player B's character doesn't get to use Arm Lock or Wrench with any kind of bonus. If Player C has to roll a contest of Tactics skills against an opponent, and Player C is former military with a great knowledge of tactics, Player C doesn't get a bonus . . . but I'm fine with Player C placing his character on a really good hex for combat using his real world understanding of what hex would be a good one to stand in.

All in all, this is both a fun way to play (challenges player skill, challenges character ability, and challenges your luck with dice all at once), an easy way to play (no firewalling!), and a way to draw off existing material so you can all enjoy the flash of recognition and the gamble of betting on what's not yet confirmed in this particular game. It's also a lazy way to play, in the best sense - no one has to do anything except know what they know, and play with what they have in their head and on paper in front of them.

This is kind of a long way to say, if I use stuff people recognize in a game, it's because I want them to recognize it. Use new stuff if you don't want them to leverage what they know. It's just easier.


  1. I'm with you on this one Peter. There are games like Esoterrorists that I play to the players' knowledge. I got a French Professor in the group, they find clues written in French (poorly translated through Google). I've got a guy with a Masters in theology. Heck that clue written in French deals with a controversial piece of scripture that the church removed from the bible in the 13th century. It's a ton of fun to watch them use their real life skills in game.

    1. I ran a post-apoc game that way, and encouraged people to put points into skills to back their real-world skills. It worked well.

    2. Would love to do that with a post-apoc world. I need to get my Fallout groove going.

    3. It was the best of "make yourself up" with the best of "make up a character from scratch." I recommend the approach.

    4. Haven't played post-apocalyptic for years - I'd love to give it another try some time, and this is an idea I'll steal if I ever find interested players.

  2. I agree that the line is less fuzzy in practice.


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