August 5, 2008
"My Character Should Know That..."
Have you ever heard another player at the table utter the above words?
Well, I've heard it far too many times. This post is dedicated to those players who think their character should "know something" during a non-combat/role-playing encounter. Sometimes they should, sometimes they shouldn't. The only one at the table who really knows is the DM. Nonetheless, as the DM, it can get very tiring if the same players (or gods forbid, all of them) keep using this tactic to wear you down. The reason they do it is because it works. The reason it works is because the DM _wants_ you to know some things some of the time; all in the interest of internal consistency and storyline progression. However, there are times where your character does not know something. There are times when your character should not know something, but in the confusing mess of 50 dice, 12 or 13 npcs, 10 maps, a couple of notebooks, and no less than 3 rule books, the DM slips out something that shouldn't have come out.
"OK OK, YES, Zanazabar just knows that the Mad Gibbon King is buried under Matchbook Hill! OK, are you happy now?"
Then it sinks in. And this makes DM's very very angry. Like, HULK angry.
Ok, maybe not that mad; but it IS annoying and can wreak havoc on gameplay. So, this post is also dedicated to the DMs across the universe who have to deal with these role-playing munchkins and need some advice.
For the Players
First of all... stop.
Stop asking for handouts.
Stop nudging the DM using metagame speak at the game table with statements like "I should know this or that." or even worse "He should know this or that."
Instead, write it down on a little piece of paper, maybe even slip the DM a note that says something like "Hey, would Zanzabar the Necromancer know where the Mad Gibbon King was buried? I mean, I wrote his backstory such that he grew up at a mortuary." Or, something similar. Whatever you do, don't break character. Metagaming during a "non-combat encounter" destroys immersion, ruins the flow of the encounter. Maybe some gaming groups never establish this "flow" so you are reading this going: WTF is he talking about. For those of you who know, I'm with you.
(BTW - us old-school D&D players just call it role-playing; "non-combat encounter" is like it was created by a career Warhammer gamer who worked in the marketing department. "Oh sigh, here's another 'non-combat' encounter.. can I just sit this one out? Role-playing is sooooo boring." What asshats... ) But I digress...
Secondly, for the players, establish what your character knows and doesn't know outside the game table. Use email, your group's wiki, or (OMG!) the phone. Get into your character's head and establish their backstory's knowledge horizon. This might only take 5 minutes or much more, but whatever it is, write it down for future reference. Have your DM help you brainstorm ideas - especially if the campaign is in a homebrewed setting.
For the Dungeons Masters
Players are like toddlers. They want and want and want. They will cry and whine and beg and crawl to get it. They will push you to your limits. So, when a player breaks character mid-sentence with some ugly, mind-jarring game speak during a role pla... i mean "non-combat encounter", stop them. Politely ask that they save their discussion for what they might know and don't know until afterward. Remind them that playing both the King, his Councilor, and all the jesters in his court is taxing on you creatively, and that everyone would benefit if the suspension of disbelief is maintained a few minutes longer. Group hug? Either that or smash the table into a million pieces like the Hulk - come on; you know you want to...
But what if Zanzabar the Wizard did indeed know something about the burial location of the Mad Gibbon King? Then it is your responsibility as the DM to say something to the player ahead of time. Or, even better, slip them a prepared (i.e. printed) note about what they would know just before the beginning of the encounter.
A good strategy is to establish a regular rapport with your players by email - individually. Discuss their character's long-term goals within the campaign arc; establish their knowledge horizons, and decide what are their motivations. A simple exchange of one or two emails in this respect goes miles towards maintaining the longevity of a particular character's development over the course of a campaign. Maybe this is too much immersion for some player's (I'm looking at the 4E designers), but trust me - gaming this way is just better.
Whatever the details are, there are times when player knowledge does not match up with character knowledge. It goes both ways too. Sometimes (perhaps more often) the player knows things the character does not (maybe your players all have copies of the Monster Manual at home). In either situation though, everyone benefits if the player and DM don't "break character" during the role-playing. It makes the game more enjoyable for everyone; its one of those things that separates D&D from all those other silly games. And please, for the love of the game, stop with the "My Character Should Know That!"
I hope this post makes sense to some of you...