What The Player Knows Vs. What Their Character Knows

Roleplaying games have a built-in potential difficulty: there are differences between what a character in a game knows about the setting around them (notably, specific details of spells, magic items, and monsters) and what the player portraying that character knows, often from perusing rulebooks, articles about gaming, or published adventures. I say “potential” because the game can be played in ways that are blind to this difficulty, or see it was a justified advantage for players, or dismiss it as no difficulty at all—and such ways of playing the game are perfectly valid.

Whatever one’s position, the gap between player and character knowledge remains, and therefore holds true in the Realms. I have always wanted to minimize it by increasing “in-character” knowledge to immerse players in the setting, so “meta” knowledge of rules and monster attacks and spell details matter a lot less. If story comes to the forefront, and character choices and actions become paramount over game mechanics, meta knowledge fades in both utility and front-of-mind real estate occupancy, and players settle down to enjoying and participating in the unfolding situations presented in play—usually, in the process, becoming both more invested and more engaged in the setting.

It’s not my intention here to debate the pros and cons of meta knowledge (a waste of time if there ever was one, because doing so is really advocating one style of roleplaying over others). Rather, I wanted to look at how I have used in-game information in Realmsplay down the years.

First, there’s playing style. Yes, I know I just said there’d be no debate or advocacy of playing style, but what I meant was: here’s how “we” (that is, my players and myself, in the “home” Realms campaign, settling on our preferred style and voting on it, within the group) play, and how it has led to information sharing.

So here it is, in short: whatever comes out of your mouth comes out of your character’s mouth (so no standing four feet away from an orc discussing how the party is going to attack it, next round, without it overhearing). The exceptions: unless you preface what you say (in practice, because we’ve done this for years, omitted because obvious or signaled by a different tone of voice) with the words “player-to-player” or “player-to-DM.” (An example of the former: “Player-to-player: pass me a d12 and the bowl of chips, please.” An example of the latter: “Player-to-DM: my character has lived here most of his life; have I ever seen this guy before? Or that badge on yonder surcoat?”) It’s this last example that’s germane here: my players gain lore knowledge constantly, during unfolding play, through my answers to their queries. Which is good because it puts the players in the driver’s seat, initiating lore gathering.

The problem facing the DM (me) is that suddenly serving up knowledge dumps, or asking the players a barrage of questions (“Are any of you checking for secret doors? And in the room you just left, too?”) is that it harms the flow of play, and tips off players about lurking perils or what the DM thinks or hopes they should be doing…or won’t do. And whatever happens, those around the gaming table have been yanked out of the immersive roleplaying experience.

The key way I’ve tried to address the knowledge gap without falling into these two traps is to establish ongoing ways of feeding the characters lore—all sorts of lore, accurate and otherwise, useful and frivolous, so that as in real life, the players filter out or ignore much of it, and seize on what interests them. This begins when play starts; in the finite-length library mini-campaigns, players were given Player Packs of relevant information about laws and customs, with an accurate map of their starting village and a crude map of whatever they knew or had heard of the wider world around, that they could study or glance briefly at or ignore, as they saw fit…but they had it. Then I established caravans and peddlers (as well as the expected traveling bards and minstrels) as the bringers of news (and gossip); in a village on a trade-road, the town turned out to buy drinks for the wagon-merchants in return for the latest jests, colorful tales, and news. Clubs, taverns, and guilds echoed such “current clack,” distorting it through the filters of their own prejudices and misconceptions—as did sages and courtiers and philosophers, curating it yet still filtering it through their personal world-views.

Smart players, who paid attention, soon picked up on the less-than-subtle hints I was dropping about how certain sources of information were not to be trusted; what are now known in the 5th edition of the game as “factions” were dishing out their own propaganda, putting a “spin” on everything to discredit rivals and attract trust and trade to themselves. So were individuals, often to deliberately manipulate adventurers—bands of dangerous armed folk used to doing violent, decisive things who could be bad to have as enemies, but very useful when deflected into conflict with one’s own rivals or obstacles to one’s own schemes. If a local guild has been blocking you getting wines or swords to sell, and you can trick PC adventurers into butchering most of the guild members, suddenly you have a much better chance at getting those wines or swords. Particularly if they’ve eliminated guild members assigned to spy on you, or who personally detested you and were being very attentive at hampering you.

My players got very good at “getting a feeling” for when they were being fed lies or half-truths. Which is not only a real-life skill of stellar worth, it added a lot of depth to ongoing play. Characters thought a lot more about when they should draw weapons or ready spells and “have at” someone or something—and that in turn made the fights they did have more meaningful, gave them more opportunities for diplomacy, and had them considering consequences, implications, and “where they stood right now” more often. Which in turn engendered feelings of satisfaction around the gaming table more often.

It’s akin to a movie, by pacing and music and the choice of shots and screen time, highlighting a moment of action so it can be savored, rather than the same moment rushing past almost unregarded in the fast and furious heat and frenzy of the chase or fray.

I primed my players to pay attention to misinformation by inflicting Non-Player Character “con men” (please understand the term to here include con women and con nonhuman sentients) on their characters early on, so they could be smacked by the consequences of being duped, and so learn to be wary. This not only warned them to watch for falsehoods, it pulled them more tightly into experiencing the setting as characters within it, so they mentally left behind what they recalled from reading the latest Realms-related adventure or rulebook . . . and could recall less of it in the heat of play, at the gaming table.

Which in turn simulated their character being frustrated by a fleeting, faded, incomplete memory of “something they’d once heard” about a monster or spell or the strange local customs of this town or who the local Zhent or Harper spies were, rather than having it complete and clear in their minds and using it to advantage in play, but sacrificing some of the fun and “shared imagined realism” of the play experience.

Because there’s nothing more realistic than being frustrated by an elusive partial memory when you really want to recall it all.

And nothing more triumphant than remembering it when you need it, too!

Moreover, adventure might be defined as “someone having a horrible time, somewhere else and long ago,” but an enjoyable roleplaying situation can often aptly be defined as “out of frustration, triumph!”

Which, come to think of it, would also make a great motto for your ennobled character’s blazon of arms!

From TEGG on Twitter

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