Character Knowledge, Player Knowledge & the Differences Therein
We’ve all heard it. Keep your understanding of the scenario as a player separate from what your character is going to act upon. Metagaming is one of the weirder sins of role-playing, since it works on such a strange depth of immersion. You have to drop into the mask of your character to such an extent that you make a conscious effort to forget that you’re sitting around a table, contemplating a sheet of paper and a handful of dice, and narrating a fictional persona. You have to become the fictional persona on some level, following the established motivations without overthinking the rational consequence.
It’s hard to do. And it’s a great moment when you have a group with such synergy that everyone at the table can get to that point collectively, narrating this fictional world and undertaking fictional conversations with the same ease that we navigate the real world outside of our gaming tables.
But that’s not what I’m talking about here.
What I’m talking about is the inverse. To be sure, there is more than enough to talk about with metaknowledge and all that entails, of how there’s no way that your character would know things that you picked up from long years of playing the game and perusing its rulebooks. But what happens when your character is confronted with something that they would be generally used to as a matter of inhabiting their world, yet it’s something that you have utterly no connection to?
Consider: I’m playing a young priestess of Desna in the Rise of the Runelords game we’ve been slowly working our way through over the past couple of years. She’s a 17 year old girl from a small town on the outskirts of the greater world. She’s fought goblins and undead and demons. She’s even died once. All in all, a pretty basic character for a D&D game. Other than rules revisions, she could be anyone’s character from the past 40 years.
I have literally no way to make sense of the things that this character has gone through. I can imagine it, sure. That is the basis of my role-playing for her. But if I, personally, were confronted with even a single encounter that she’s been through, I’d probably die on the spot. If I had to fight wave after wave of zombies, it would be a horror movie rather than a lighthearted fantasy scenario. For her, that’s not even enough to break a sweat or be concerned about. It’s a mundane part of her daily routine.
So, when I’m stuck in a situation with no immediately logical way out, my first instinct is to see if my character has a better handle on it than I do. I will admit to being stumped by the way things happen in games from time to time. It could be that it’s an off day for me, there’s some sort of miscommunication between the GM and me as a player, or it could be any of a myriad of other things going on. These are the points when I want the GM to throw me a bone and tell me something that my character would know about the scenario that I, as a player, would not.
Because there have been plenty of situations where not knowing something that my character would innately be aware of would have gotten my character killed. This can come in the form of having the character blunder into a situation that the GM expects the player to recognize, or it can come through an imperfect understanding of the rules, which works to the player’s disadvantage.
I’ve played and read through enough of the classic adventures to understand just how brutal they were inclined to be. You only need to be confronted with a couple of ‘Save or Die’ scenarios to get a feel of the way things were in the early days of the hobby. This is why games like D6 Star Wars were so groundbreaking at the time. Cinematic games allowed your character to have a death that actually meant something, where AD&D and Call of Cthulhu enshrined the meaningless and unmourned death by random happenstance. Characters didn’t have to die from a simple bad throw of the dice. Part of this came from the advent of ‘character points’ and the like from games like D6 Star Wars, but part of it also came as part of the understood conventions of the genre.
Lately, there’s been a movement that’s been trying to romanticize the ‘Save or Die’ era of gaming in the OSR axis of the hobby. One guide I skimmed talked about the purity and flexibility of these rules and the mindset that went with them, contorting itself through justification after justification. The best example of the idiocy of this particular writer was the description of a room within a scenario, where the players had to describe every action that their characters were going to take to search the place. And if it didn’t occur to a player to move the moose head in just the right manner, the treasure of the scenario was never going to be found. It was a case of trying to replicate the old ‘hunt the pixel’ video games in a pen and paper setting.
Narratively, it makes far more sense for a player to simply roll the dice and have the GM describe what happens in the case of a success or failure. As a player, I’m not exactly well-versed in larceny (although, if I were, my collection would likely be that much greater), and I’m not able to read the GM’s mind to decipher what exactly is expected. As such, I can only fumble about the room haphazardly. My character, on the other hand, is a lot more used to doing shit like this, especially if the skill ranks reflect that amount of practice.
This is not to mention that having a group of players rub every square inch of the room is a lot less interesting than things like role-playing or combat. Personally, I’d much rather get a description of the area, investigate the parts that seem to be important, and move on. If I need to throw some dice to get that done, here’s hoping I don’t end up critically failing in the effort.
It also brings to mind an example that I remember from an old Star Frontiers module. (Whuf. There’s a game that no one has any interest in reviving. We’ve had seven editions of Gamma World, but Star Frontiers? Let it stay dead, it seems.) At one point in the adventure, the characters get trapped in a hallway full of junk and the air quality starts to degrade rapidly. I can’t remember if the air was being rapidly sucked out, or if it was a case of simply running out of breathable oxygen over the course of a day or so. (And I’m far too lazy to dig the module out to reference the event in question.) Anyway, the text of the module explains that there are a couple of solutions for the characters to live through the encounter, including using a battery to split the water into hydrogen and oxygen.
This was a module that I was reading some time in middle school. At the time, none of the implied solutions would have been terribly obvious to me, so it looked like some sort of awful, awful death trap that killed the module on the spot, full stop. And thinking about it now, my character would have been able to come up with one of the escapes with a couple of minutes of consideration and investigation. But the way the module was designed, it didn’t matter that my character would have been able puzzle it out; he was going to get punished for what I, as a player in middle school, didn’t know to do.
Obviously, there has to be some give and take when applying this sort of logic. The one end of the spectrum, where the OSR dipshits want to dwell, the character is only able to know things that the player himself knows or undertake the actions that the player specifically outlines. The extreme other end of the spectrum has the player refusing to narrate any of his actions, assuming that a simple roll of the dice removes him from having to actually think about things in the game or play his character.
But at the end of the day, gaming has grown past the ‘Save or Die’ mentality of 1970’s D&D. It should also be able to leave the ‘I lovingly caress the moosehead both clockwise and counterclockwise’ sort of actions with it.