Wednesday 7 October 2015

PC Knowledge and the Bandwidth Problem

In my last post, I wrote about how vigilance is an experience that's very hard to simulate in role-playing games. This is one symptom of a very general issue: talking is slow.

Role-playing is very low bandwidth.

This comes up a lot for lore-heavy games. There just isn't enough time, in-band, to communicate anything but short tidbits of information about the game world.

I've occasionally tried (and nearly always failed) to create a form of suspense where the players know a bunch of lore, and then in-game events relate to it.  In my imagination, players notice discrepancy I've planted, and react with appropriate alarm.

"Wait, what? A Sigornian Templar without a cassock? He's an imposter!"

In real life, they never notice.

I've seen many posts by GMs, frustrated that they've got all this canon, but the players aren't interested in doing homework to absorb it all - so they don't understand the subtleties the GM is trying to convey at the table.

"Now, over here is where the empire invaded in 485 NE, or 982 ZE by the Orgothan calendar.."

Talk Faster?

Not only is talking slow, but few players have any interest in listening to a gargantuan info-dump that I stayed up all night writing.  You could write a big setting book, but then the problem is finding players that want to read it.

I do know some players who lap this sort of thing up, (history buffs and whatnot) that love rolling around in canon and try to use it at the table, but in my travels they're a small percentage. Many people I've gamed with can barely remember the single major clue they found last session.

Nevertheless, the problem endures because playing knowledgeable characters is awesome.

So, how do we get players to feel like their characters aren't idiots, bumbling around in an unfamiliar world?

The Solutions I've Seen

a) Write down all your lore, and find a bunch of players that enjoys reading it and make your group out of them. (Be prepared for this to be almost none of your original group.)

This seems to work best with popular culture settings like Middle Earth and Star Wars, mostly because the 'lessons' aren't an info dump, but emotionally interesting stories with setting information as a byproduct.

b) GM tells you what your character knows, when it's relevant; either when the PC asks for information or when a situation arises that a knowledgeable PC would recognize as significant.

Sometimes this requires a test of knowledge skills. I see this sort of thing in the context of GM-initiated knowledge challenges (like, you need to know something about elven portals to open this portal.)  GUMSHOE has a particular take on this, where the skills in questions are just pools that can be dipped into a number of times.

This works well for some groups, but it has a few implications:

  • it creates a subtle mismatch between playing a knowledgeable character and feeling like one
  • it reinforces the 'star' pattern in the group, where the most meaningful interactions occur between one PC and the GM

c) Ditch the lore. Scorched earth - focus on what happens at the table, filling in with a sentence or two for context when necessary, but never hanging any developments on whether the players have memorized some in-game lore.

d) Let PCs propose reasonable facts. I see this a lot in the context of player-initiated plans: while the party is figuring out how to infiltrate an elven community, the bard player wonders aloud whether elven patrols could be temporarily deceived by an impression of elven music the bard just happens to know.

The GM hasn't invented any elven songs, but clearly there would be some, and it's plausible the bard might have heard one somehow - success and he performs it well enough to fool the elves. Fail the roll, and by gum he mixes it up with a Sigornian dirge and arouses the curiosity of every elven patrol within two miles.

"Orcs shamans would totally have their own private latrines!"
Burning Wheel uses this to good effect, making it the explicit method for using knowledge skills. (BW has another stat, 'Circles', that lets players propose plausible NPCs the same way, one of the killer apps of the game).

Many play groups do this informally without thinking about it much, with players asking leading questions, "Well, does the Bishop use some kind of washer woman I might know?" or observer-players lobbing in suggestions from the peanut gallery that the GM uses as inspiration (sometimes covertly, sometimes openly).

e) As seen at some Dungeon World tables, one option is to let players propose anything. Even things relating to NPC factions that have just been discovered by the party.

f) Create the lore together, perhaps using a structured procedure like a game of Microscope or The Quiet Year. This will create a group who is super-familiar with the material and deeply invested in it (because they invented most of it), at the cost that you control very little of it. (You could ask that they stick to certain parameters.)

What have I missed?


Some neat suggestions to enrich these options.

1. +Jeremy Strandberg has a tweak to option b), that runs like this.  The GM has set up a situation where one of the templars is an imposter, and calls for a roll.  If the PC passes the knowledge check, the GM says, "You notice that one of the templars is an imposter in disguise. What gives it away?" The player then gets to narrate what they notice.

This is delightful, as it makes the player the person at the table who gets to narrate being knowledgeable, while preserving traditional responsibilities for the structurally-relevant details. (Not to say the player's contribution is trivial or cosmetic, in an ideal world, the player-created detail takes on a life of its own in later play.)

He further points out this is most appropriate for 'Sherlock Holmes' or 'Cadfael' type games, where the players are creating the world while showing how smart their characters are, rather than high lethality dungeon crawls that rely on players interpreting what they see around them.

2. +Christopher Meid also tweaks option b), suggesting that the GM (or possibly the player) can narrate a flashback that explains how the PC came to know the crucial information.

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