February 14, 2011

Common Knowledge is Not

Common. The wizards of your world might know that the Pale Tower is the source of all necrotic energy on the world, but the player who is running a wizard does not; not until you find a way to communicate this information to him. The typical campaign is full of information that could be considered common knowledge; things every person knows. The problem arises when a player, who does not know the information, is playing a character that does know the information.

Think about the real world, there are a lot of things we consider common that really are uncommon from the frame of mind of someone who is not from our world. You can access the internet, you can turn on a computer, you know the United States is made up of smaller states, you know the capitol of your state, you know the uses of a gun, you know traffic laws. These are all things you just know, most people can’t even remember when they learned the information; the information is now a part of them.

The standard way to handle the conflict is to include Knowledge type skills in the game system. When something comes up the DM asks for a Knowledge roll to see if your character “remembers” the information. However, should players really be rolling to “remember” common knowledge? A real-world analogy is, should you make a modern day character roll to “remember” that a red sign means stop? It is silly to do so and so would rolling to “remember” a bit of common knowledge that a character would know. Instead, a DM should simply state the character knows the info and move the game along.

The best option is to find a way to get information to a player before the knowledge is needed in game. This way the player actually knows what the character knows. There are a few methods of doing this.

Some GMs hand the players information sheets. These contain all the needed relevant information. The only problem with this is, most campaign worlds are expansive. The amount of information can be overwhelming in its volume. You can end up giving the players sheet after sheet until they have an encyclopedia’s amount of material. There is also the problem of whether or not the players actually read it and remember it. However, there are some players who eat this kind of stuff up.
A sub-method of this is to create a binder with all the information and give the players access to it. This is a paper version of the next concept.

Another method is to create an online wiki of your campaign world. There are a number of places online that allow you to do this fairly easily. Instead of handing players sheets of information, you can direct them to the appropriate website where they can look over the information at their leisure. This also lets you to add to the wiki as needed, allowing you to prioritize the information you give out during the campaign.

A third option, and one not often utilized, is to read the long forms of text to the players. At first glance this seems like a horrible idea. However, there are ways to make it work and work to good effect. Create an information sheet as you normally would and then at the beginning of the game session have the players read it out loud to the rest of the group. Divide the information up and allow each player to read a portion. If you do this before each game session the players will soon have a lot of the more common knowledge that their characters have. They will also retain it better than simply reading it, since this method includes an auditory and active component.

You can also combine a couple of these methods for further exposure. In the end the goal is to catch the players up with the knowledge their characters already know. Do you have any other tricks/methods for integrating character and player knowledge?
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