Whadday Know?

If there’s one moment in play in any tabletop game that I dread, it’s the moment a player asks “What do I know about…?” Doesn’t really matter what the topic is: ugh! I was reminded how much this sets my hackles off after a brief flirtation with The Nightmares Underneath recently. No surprise, given that game’s OSR style: who knows what and how they know it is one of the original questions of RPGs.

Why dread, you ask? Because every method out there has upsides and downsides. And when it comes to a game that simply doesn’t address this — common in conventional tabletop games — you gotta roll your own.

GM Tells You/the Table

If you could shut up and let me tell my story, that’d be great.

This is the traditional approach, preferred by the elders since time immemorial. “The GM Runs The World” includes information about the world by default. Then it’s on the GM to decide if it’s something all characters would know, or perhaps some characters based on context like class or culture. Do you share that privately with the player’s character? I tend to just say it and rely on the other players to play toward their ignorance.

Upsides: Tight creative control, consistent authority.

Downsides: Creatively exhausting. Need to keep copious notes or have an impeccable memory.

Defer to Canon

Well actually, if you look back at the second edition of this supplement you’ll see that the tribes live to the northEAST rather than the northWEST and for some reason the editor decided to completely break established canon so now nothing means anything and I don’t even know why I bother trying to keep it all straight for you people.

The is the other traditional approach, made necessary in the case of setting-rich game settings. I think there’s something of a platonic ideal that canon leaves creative space for the GM to add their mark and make the setting their own. In my personal experience, though, you’ve got varying degrees of “canon mastery” in some games (see: Glorantha, Ars Magica, the World of Darkness, Star Wars and umpteen other licensed settings). Things can get real icky fast if you’ve got conflicting levels of canon mastery.

Upsides: Creative consistency. Everyone agrees to defer to the source material, which can put the brakes on unmitigated GM fiat. Potentially very deep material that touches on topics the GM might not have considered.

Downside: Requires a ton of brain space to keep it all straight. Might break tempo if someone needs to look something up. Creatively stultifying for some folks. Canon lawyers are the literal worst.

Player Makes Shit Up 1: At the GM’s Invitation

Make up the origins and traditions of my homeland? Right now? Here? Um.

I personally like this one, but it works best at a table where collaboration is an established expectation. It can backfire if the players are caught by surprise! I’ve sat at tables where the GM has been very iron-fisted about who gets authorship over what, and then throws this on the table. The sudden expectation, demand really, that you cough up something creative up can be tough. I differentiate this from the next method because it’s still the GM deciding when and how the players can drop some truth.

Upsides: Collaboration creates investment. Good creative challenge for the GM to fit a player’s ideas into the ongoing situation.

Downside: Lots of trust required! A bad-faith player (gasp!) can badly misuse the invitation. Pressure to “be creative” can either lead to players frozen in headlights, or bad ideas. I said it! We all come up with bad ideas sometimes. Off-tone with what’s already in place, or just boring. I’m personally willing to accept the risk, especially if the player is open to workshopping their idea a bit.

Player Makes Shit Up 2: Explicit Player Prerogative

Just don’t forget to peek out once in a while.

There are some games, typically in GM-less/GM-ful games like Archipelago and Dream Askew, where each player is responsible for answering questions about entire categories of setting elements. It’s a good method, quite a lot like having a table of GMs, with the additional wrinkle that everyone needs to feel out what is a good and appropriate contribution to what has come before. There are also more conventional games where players are tasked with answering questions tied to the character type they’re playing. Band of Blades does this with the nameless campaign roles (commander, quartermaster, etc.) when someone needs an answer about how the Legion operates, or in the case of the quartermaster, how their stuff works. In Legacy and its variants, players are asked to establish setting facts prior to play based on character choices.

Upside: Specifying what players are responsible for focuses the game’s themes. Unambiguous source for answers about categories of things, which also creates (ideally) consistency over those areas.

Downside: There can still be blanks, and the players still need to figure something out. Creative clashes don’t have an easy resolution. Same downsides as the other version of PMSU1 (bad ideas, freezing up). Game probably needs to be designed around this concept, although I could see a case for trying this out at a table willing to collaborate this way.

Everyone Hashes It Out Together

Nobody stays clean, everyone’s responsible.

In heavily collaborative games (which isn’t a design or game type, it’s a play culture decision), nothing says you can’t just open every question to everyone. I mean other than trying to wrangle as many creative visions as players, no easy answer for creative conflicts, and the very real possibility that the game just stalls out then and there. It’s the pizza topping problem: every person you add doubles the time it takes to reach consensus. (Yes pedants, that may not actually be what the pizza topping problem is.)

Upside: Potentially tons of good ideas if folks remain charitable to everyone’s input. Great ad-hoc method in any game when the GM is cool with dropping in “whatever.”

Downside: This is probably aspirational at best, and social pressures almost certainly come into play eventually. Pushy players will push for their ideas, impatient players will seek expedience over engagement, etc.

Introduce Uncertainty

I’m thinking of methods like Spout Lore from Dungeon World, or –wise skills from Burning Wheel: randomly determine who has authority! The player might want to make a tactically useful assertion, or just wants to add something they think is beautiful or interesting, but the uncertainty means the GM might fiddle with your input.

Upside: Generates creative energy. Uncertainty can be fun. Good creative challenge for the GM to fit new ideas into the ongoing thing.

Downside: Potentially uninteresting if the player is only concerned with tactical advantage. The game needs to be built with this idea, although “what do I know” can usually be roughly mapped to an existing skill or stat.

Last Thoughts

When I’m playing a game without explicit rules for determining what a character knows about something, my personal preference is for the GM to provide answers in situ based on what the character’s about. When my creative juices inevitably dry up due to the heavy ongoing load, I’ll fall back on letting the player whose character’s jam overlaps most with the topic in question provide an answer. That’s fun for me but it’s my second impulse, not my first, because I’ve got control issues.

In a perfect world, we’re playing a game where this question has been taken into account. This is well outside of trad tabletop orthodoxy, though, so you usually find it in trindie and storygame type games. My favorite baked-in approach is when the player rolls to establish the truth of something, with varying success. That feels the most like both the player and GM got a say in the final answer. I like being able to nudge ideas around a smidge.

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