Roll to Confirm

I Know What I Know
March 11, 2014, 10:33 am
Filed under: Uncategorized
A player recently asked if his character could know that an encroaching enemy was a swarm. I said that if he, as a player, thought it was a swarm, then his character thought it was a swarm. I said let’s make a deal: “If I’m ok with you using meta game knowledge then you have to be ok with me making up my own monsters and traps and classes and spells and applying different abilities and challenge ratings and xp totals to them.”
The player responded with:
I am OK with knowledge checks if you’d prefer that. But I am also OK with you adjusting monsters, as long as they don’t violate the spirit of the base model. For example a swarm immune to aoe. I see both sides…but I think our charcters (sic) should have some knowledge. If you feel out characters wouldn’t know anything about something tell the players. Some of the fun is finding out stuff.
The spirit of the model in every case is creating a unique challenge for the players, no?
In this instance I see myself with two options:
1. Insist that you, as players, forget everything you’ve ever seen, read or heard about role-playing games, literature and science and pretend that your characters are as ignorant as they were on day they were born.
2. Allow you to make assumptions and draw inferences that, although they may be wrong, are based upon experience and tradition and the themes upon which the game we’re playing are built.
I would suggest the first option is distasteful and antithetical to the game we’re playing. Therefore I’m left with option two.
The weakness, as you have at least alluded to, is that players must trust that the DM won’t create a challenge that circumvents the “fairness” or “balance” of the game. I might point to such esoteric monsters as the ear-seeker, the lurker above (or below), the rust monster or the mimic as creatures designed explicitly to mess with the party. (I’ll leave looking those up as an exercise for the reader since you probably won’t encounter them in my game.)
Now, I must stress again that I don’t actually care much for “fairness” or “balance” in my games. I do design the world in a way that makes sense to me for a party starting out. That is to say, you start in a village surrounded by level 1 monsters. But that doesn’t mean there aren’t things out there, lurking on my random encounter tables, that will kill you quite unfairly.
I agree that your characters should have some knowledge, I just prefer to settle that based on my description and your problem solving abilities rather than with a roll. I can’t describe how much issue I have with using a roll for this stuff. It’s boring for the player, it undermines the dungeon master and it takes all the drama out of encounters.
I think that the uneven distribution of knowledge in these situations creates good drama. There are times when you go into a situation knowing pretty much exactly what you’re facing. An example is the last big battle where you knew you were fighting bandits on horses led by a fiery battle maiden. That can be fun. And the challenge there is “how do we prepare for this situation.” Another challenge might be “how do we react in an unfamiliar situation.” I understand the impulse to want to quantify every mechanical aspect of every situation in a game. It probably stems from having bad dungeon masters in the past who lord their knowledge over the players as well as the natural urge that many of us have to be in control. That’s not my game. What I don’t tell you in any instance is what I believe will make for the best game. I don’t think it has to be said that if I wanted your characters to die, they’d be dead. Then the game would be dead.
I think I’ve proven that I’m here for the long haul and I’m here to make your gaming experience just as good as I can. Not always instantly satisfying. Not always without some tense moments. But always compelling, always interesting, always unique.

3 Comments so far
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My concern with this approach isn’t about the mechanical nature of the game so much. I don’t need to roll to determine whether I know something or not. At the same time, part of what is fun about the game is discovering and uncovering things, even when (perhaps especially when?) we as players already know it, but our characters may not.

I’m not suggesting rolling is the answer, and mayhaps it was okay knowing that the red-headed she-demon was a bandit but I sometimes prefer to have the wizard of oz behind the curtain, because that can be fun too.

Comment by Fik

I think maybe we’re talking about two different things.

I suspect you’re referring to “plot elements” whereas I’m talking primarily about in game challenges like monsters or traps.

Having said that, in terms of a trap, would you rather roll a die and be told “you saved” or “you take x damage,” or would you rather be told “there’s a strange groove in the wall with some flecks of dried blood around the edges” and try to figure out how to circumvent it?

Comment by S4M

I agree with this post entirely. There is something amazing about coming up against a threat so alien so unique that you aren’t quite sure you can even face it let alone defeat it. It seems more real. Were I to know the entire abilities and capabilities of that floating head that came into my camp at night I would know whether to get a pike ready for its head or to run for the hills screaming about Icabob Crane. I have spent a long time reading and learning about D&D and other pen an paper games and I sometimes have knowledge that takes away some of the fun and challenge of the encounter. “Wait that is an ooze, it moves slowly let’s just kite and kill it rather than trying to melee it and getting swallowed up. This might mean that my character sees the light at the end of the dungeon tunnel, but somehow I feel as though I have cheated myself out of te fun of being swallowed up and having to find a way to counter that cool ability. While I don’t want my character to die, I also don’t want to avoid having the fun that is built into these monsters. When I face something unique like a mold monster infesting the corpse of a long dead dwarf whose very spores infect your mind and possess your body in time… Well then that little part of me that began reading those pages long ago can’t help but squueeee a little at that.

Comment by librarylegend

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