Idiomdrottning’s homepage

Playing Ignorant

When I know more than my character

There are game styles, some subcategories of story games, that are built around the idea that there are no secrets for players. There can be surprises and resolved secrets in play, through play, through creation, but not through revelation.

But in D&D, the way I play it, of course there are secrets, exploration, and discovery.

As I wrote the other day:

That’s the main reason you even have a DM role at the table instead of playing all coop, going through a dungeon together. One person takes it upon herself to have that map and key and text in front of her, getting spoiled by its secrets, and keeping them from the players and their characters until they’ve turned the appropriate stones and pulled the correct levers.

That’s a wonderful tool that goes a long way to maintain a sense of mystery in the game.

There are times when you need to go beyond even that: when only one or some of the characters know something. One character gets a secret vision or dream or goes on ahead and finds something out.

There are two main categories of tools here.

Just pretend that you don’t know

Play as if you didn’t know. You’ve spoiled a li’l corner of the game’s immersion and you’re gonna have to consciously strain to not act on what your character isn’t supposed to know.

Restrict the information

Make sure the player doesn’t know what the character doesn’t know. Pass notes, take of your headphones, leave the room, take a player aside etc. This is effective but leads to downtime for that participant taking them out of the mood and flow of the game.

This can also be used for when there is something the players wanna talk about that even the DM doesn’t know. The infamous “poison under nails” story that AsIf once posted to Story-Games:

Many years ago I had a Troublesome Player - a real shit-stirrer - who decided that his character hated hated hated one of my NPCs, so bad that he wanted to kill him. This NPC was a staple character in my D&D world, a character I liked to imagine had plot insurance, though only in a de facto way (Players recognized him as a significant part of the setting, found him useful, returned to him for missions and advice, etc).

So TP challenges me to a fight, and everyone is excited. We broke from regular session and actually took a day to prepare ourselves for the big duel.

Next day we assemble at TP’s house, and the battle is played out. Wishing to be as impartial as possible, and also to focus on the fight from an “immersed” perspective, I hand over the GM role to one of the other Players. After a few rounds of swapping damage and narrative positioning, TP succeeds in scratching my character’s face. He begins smiling deviously. The room goes quiet. Everybody else knows something I do not.

I ask what’s going on. TP reaches into his pocket and pulls out a piece of paper he had written the previous night and had already shared with the other Players. He hands it to me. It reads: “POISON UNDER NAILS.”

I’m required to make a saving throw. I fail. My favorite NPC is dead.

Pretty interesting story! This sort of thing also happens all the time in the Knights of the Dinner Table. (Sometimes the KotDT cross the line over into cheating, like reading the DM materials in a way that’s not OK. I encourage showing the players the module and monster stats, afterwards, to verify, but reading ahead in the module, for example, is never OK.)

This sort of secrecy can help the DM run some enemy NPCs more fairly, and it can also be fun for the DM to not know how the players are gonna approach the dungeon or what they’re gonna do.

So what’ve we got there? A technique that adds a lot of value and fun to the game but can come at a significant cost. Conclusion: ya gotta case-by-case it! Information restriction is great, so use it… sometimes! Our group could probably stand to use it a li’l more often, actually. “Pretend-that-you-don’t-now” saves time and energy, so use that sometimes too. I think one of the reasons why this problem isn’t that much of a problem is that most of the time, either approach works. It’s such a small thing that pretending is doable, while also being such a small thing that missing out on it is bearable & quick, too.

So we have a spectrum of secrets from “enh, super easy to pretend about” on to “whoa that’s a major mystery”, and a huge overlap of “could go either way” in between.

Learn to use both techniques. Learn to pretend you don’t know when you know, while also setting up tools and techniques to make information separation easier or at least possible.

When my character knows more than me

The opposite problem is when your character might know more than you through study, lore, etc.

On this homepage, I usually write about things I have figured out the answers to, I’m writing down stuff that I really wish someone had told me when I was first starting out. But now we’re gonna touch on an area where I’m not sure of the best approach.

Rolling for it does not feel good, denying the roll doesn’t feel good either.

I’ve experimented with using “passive knowledge” stats sort of like passive perception. Everyone is walking around with a constantly rolled ten so if they have a plus seven in “nature lore” I might say “Hey, Alice, you know that the moss on these trees aren’t supposed to grow like this. They’re on the opposite side of the sun from where they’re supposed to be.” or whatever. I felt this worked great, it was natural and unintrusive. It was also a lot of work as a DM, trying to keep track of all of their knowledge skills. I don’t even use passive perception anymore, let alone these other passives.

So knowledge rolls kind of crept their way back into the game. They had become less and less of an issue as we’ve “lived in this setting” for several hundreds of sessions, but we took in a new player who naturally wanted to know if his character knew things.

IDK, I think this is a problem no-one but me ever complains about, how I think it sorta breaks my relationship with the character if a die roll can suddenly inject knew knowledge into my brain.

I’m more than happy with some Library Use rolls where your character hits the books, or when you seek out a sage and get a diegetic info dump. That’s more than OK, that’s actively awesome.

The jarring and unsatisfying part is when it’s “Do I already know this? Let me roll. Alright, a 23! So DM, tell me what I know about this!” Am I really the only one who doesn’t like that?

There are exceptions, like Fire on the Velvet Horizon or Ruins of the Grendleroot where the writer have provided plenty of lore tidbits that can be recalled or found and as DM you’re so eager to dump ‘em in that you’re like “OK, any port in a storm, even a behated knowledge roll”. FotVH is especially good in this regard; it contains tidbits collected diegetically, by scholars. But usually it’s like “Uh… Uh.. What do I even tell ‘em?”

This is where the “lived-in setting” was so great. The players, over time, grew well-matched expectations of “OK, so everyone in this world knows what an elf is since probably your own school teacher or fruit vendor is elven, but no-one has breached the Gates of Era-Dhum since the age of the old ones”. Is it just me or is it just so socially awkward to constantly have to go “nope you don’t know, nope you don’t know” to the point that you almost get roped into revealing stuff that they by all accounts actually should not know?

Then there’s the, and this issue is more widely known and discussed, the question of probability. The game, as ran out of the box, lends it self to “Oh, I wanna try to rolling too” and dice probability being what it is, the DCs get pretty skewed. And more often that not lead to wonky result, like the jester knowing something the cleric would be more likely to know. My first solution was “Only one person gets to roll”, while lately I’ve been trying to math out a solution; for example, if you set the DC to 19, that should be pretty good for four people of average stats to roll. It ignores the “niche protection” aspect (so sometimes maybe the jester knows more than the cleric) but compensate for the “four people are rolling a check that was designed for one person to roll”. IDK.

This sort of character knowledge is something that’s still on the drawing table for me.