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.

In Closing...
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...


  1. Not sure what it is, but your images specifically seem to be blowing up RPG Bloggers. If there are any quick fixes you can try we'd appreciate it, otherwise I'm sure Dave can look into solving it whenever he's around this morning.


  2. I dunno what the problem is. =( SORRY! I'm adding the images to my blog posts using the usual blogger tools. My feed is handled by feedburner. I've reduced the image size to 160px width (down from 320), and I've turned on Summary Feed at Feedburner to limit my feed to 250 characters for syndication. This doesn't to seem to have helped though. =( I'm sorry! Please don't burn me at the stake! I'm not a warlock trying to curse the site.... ah crap. this is bad press for me.

    I will review all my feedburner settings to see if anything is amiss.

  3. Hmmm.

    First, allow me to point you toward a post of mine precisely about letting PCs know about stuff and then use it against them.

    Also, I don't know how tongue in cheek your post was, but I can't help but feel some contempt on your part for players.

    In my experience, when players whine, it's because they're not having fun.

    When players say 'I should know that' it's usually because they can't understand anything that's happening and are growing frustrated.

    So to say that I disagree with your post is an understatement. Then again I'm perfectly willing to accept that we have different styles about GMing and leave it at that.

  4. Or that you have really whinny players....


  5. Hey Chatty! Thanks for dropping by! I think my current group; it is the later; a whiney player (who is soooo going to flame me). And it's sort of tongue and cheek. I suspect we have similar game styles actually, at least from what I've read on your blog. I guess this post is really about: being prepared. If this becomes a chronic problem, then the DM needs to do more preparation. The post was prompted because I've seen this happen both as a player and a DM for a variety of reasons, and both sides of the table are often at fault. I think we are in agreement; I guess my post was a little too ranty and should have been written more carefully to emphasize on the main point of pre-game character development as a remedy for this problem.

    Unless of course, your player is simply just a whiner. =D

  6. It's all good Jonathan.

    Prep is good... Using email, wiki, Google groups and other social media tools is a great idea actually.

    As for whinny players, the best solution is to make them DM for a few sessions... :)

  7. "In my experience, when players whine, it's because they're not having fun."

    Really? In my experience it's because they're whiny little bitches that always want more MOre MORE!!! :D

  8. A good friend of mine is a therapist. She hit me with a gem the other day, "Whining is just anger...squeezed througha teeny tiny pipe."

    Whiny player suck, but I agree with chatty. If they arent sitting in rapt attention, hanging on your every's because they are not. For any number of reasons.

    As for OoC information and immersion breaking. That's a tough one. We even tried "talking sticks" in which to say some thing OUT of character, you had to hold a colored stick up in fron of you while you said it. I know...pretty lame, but it helped.

    Jonathan, you are also right though...sometimes a cigar is a cigar.


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