Monday, February 27, 2012

Moldvay - Your character doesn't know that

In this section, Moldvay says:

"A player should not allow his or her character to act on information that character has no way of knowing (for example, attacking an NPC because that NPC killed a previous character run by the player, even though the NPC and current character have never met). If the players get careless about this the DM should remind them. The DM may, in addition, forbid certain actions to the characters involved. The DM should make it clear to the players before the adventure begins that characters may not act on information they don't have. It will save lots of time later."

This can be a tricky policy to implement, especially in an old-school campaign where you want to emphasize player skill over things like class features or "skill checks".

What Moldvay is referring to is more story-based knowledge, however. This can be interesting to monitor if, for instance, you're running "White Plume Mountain" for the fifth time in twenty years. How many players know right where to go to lay hands on Blackrazor? Or which doors will eat you in the "Tomb of Horrors"?

More interesting still is when this comes into play as a result of inter-party intrigue or struggles. This can be as basic as the party thief filching an extra gem from a chest while no one's looking, to something as complicated as one player's character paying to have an other's assassinated. In all these situations, its a good idea for the DM to take an active role in maintaining the "fog of war" - it keeps the story as compelling as possible and helps maintain immersion.

It's not always possible to completely keep player's from acting on prior knowledge though - players can be crafty, and will often go out of their way to look for way to exploit or otherwise act on their knowledge. Such as a character going into another character's backpack "for a torch" or something, because the player knows that character stole his character's healing potion. It might be a good idea to let players know you're going to be on the lookout for such actions, and impose some sort of penalty for infractions, such as a hit on experience points.

From behind the screen it can be more obvious than a player thinks that he or she is acting on prior knowledge. I had an instance where one of my players owned and had obviously read a module I was running - obvious because he was heading in a beeline towards the biggest treasure in the adventure, which was well out of the way and hard to find and get to. When this became obvious to me I discreetly made a couple of location changes - the player was confounded when he didn't turn up the treasure he was looking for, and kept going back to search again. It was hard to keep a poker face during this!

What are your experiences with players acting on knowledge their character's don't or shouldn't have?


  1. Most people I've played with have been pretty good about that--although my current campaign's party is obviously VERY diligent about bringing each other up to speed when necessary. :-)

  2. Generally I find people do the opposite - they bend over backwards to avoid using out-of-game knowledge. They'll say, my character probably doesn't know that fire kills trolls, so I won't use fire on it. My character doesn't know Mike's guy is bleeding to death behind that door, so I won't look behind the door. Etc. Had the person not known at all, they might have done that anyway.

    For this reason, I try to err on the side of letting people use out-of-game information if they can come up with even a thin explanation of how they'd know it in-game. Otherwise it's too painful to watch people self-hamstring to avoid being unfair.

  3. I am really liking this Moldvay series.

  4. Probably our best work in this arena was "A bodak, you say? *roll roll* Our characters have never heard of such a thing, despite our out-of-game knowledge that it will kill us all with its gaze. Well... I guess we charge it." I survived... the rest of the party was not so fortunate.

  5. I also remember a time that, despite a small dilemma over the situation on my part, the DM was totally OK with my using player knowledge of what Nereid's do if you get their veil, even though I was playing a Hengeyokai martial artist. Crane spirits know all about faux-Grecian mythology, right?

  6. I think this is mainly a problem of experience player with newbie character.

    In my experience, the player can usually come up with some reason why his character would act on the player knowledge: I had a potion, now I don't, I wonder if the party Thief took it so I ask everyone to turn out their bags and pockets. All this knowing that the party Thief passed the DM a note, rolled percentiles, and the DM asked for your character sheet - all shortly before you discovered your potion missing.

    As for an experienced player with a newbie character, I this this is more of a distinction between gameplay as player skill vs. gameplay as role-playing. I can see a campaign where an experienced player says "Hey guys I think these things are undead, try to turn them" when he knows full well they're Ghouls. I can also see a campaign where the player says "Eew, gross grey Goblins, let's try to just intimidate our way out of this" even though he knows they're Ghouls. In the former the player enjoys the benefits of experience. In the latter the player pretends at inexperience and enjoys the roleplaying opportunity. And I think both players sound great. But maybe if Player A is in a group of all Player Bs and the DM is a B, that might cause friction.

    Finally, I think it's silly for a DM to say "you wouldn't do that" or offer some game penalty for the player acting out of character. The DM controls the whole dang world and each player just has his own character to make decisions about. Let them play, for god's sake, let them play or they will leave you alone with your toys.

  7. I have an idea that a good adventure has enough variability in the possible outcomes that having played the adventure before doesn't help. This isnt to say that players should be allowed to act on prior knowledge, but that a good adventure has built in hedges against it.

    Freedom for the players to act, freedom the DM to act, randomness in encounters, non-linear dungeons and wandering monsters all have that effect. Puzzles, riddles, and other problems where there's a single solution tend to give an advantage to prior knowledge, hence they're not my favorite things to include in dungeons.

    I always figured it was a good thing if two groups could sit at tables next to each other, play the same adventure and not be able to tell.

  8. I once played with a guy (he was not the DM) who would call you out on even your most basic assumptions - anything the DM did not explicitly tell you was likely to meet with, "Your character wouldn't know that!" Almost every out of combat action turned into an argument. "Why don't you trust Evil McBadguy? He may be standing there twirling his moustache, but you don't know that he's a villain." "Why would you wear your armor to Evil McBadguy's foreboding mansion - he just invited us for a social visit." "Why would you break that big red glowing gem - your character wouldn't know what a Lich's phylactery is."

    I think most of the other players wanted to throttle him by the end of the session - i certainly did. Luckily, it was just a Con game.



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