A common question that seems to come up in our Dungeons and Dragons group is whether or not a Character shares a certain piece of Knowledge that the Player has. It is easy enough to dismiss certain items, such as the intricacies of electrical engineering in a medieval world. But what about the much more significantly gray areas? Today we look at Managing our Meta when playing a tabletop RPG.
Firstly, an important distinction should be made, even if it is an obvious one; The experiences a Player undergoes in a Game Session are not necessarily the same experiences their Character goes through. For example, a Player may feel intrigued as an NPC discusses a lost treasure, but does the Character being played share this interest? Or is the character very bored at the prospect of yet another wild goose chase for treasure?
Another example, a Player may be genuinely interested in the goings on of a group of NPCs just across the bar, but his character might be easily distracted, or be terribly unobservant. In this case it would be prudent to make this distinction clear and play the Character accordingly, much like playing a role in a Play. This level of distinction is not terribly difficult to recognize and play accordingly, but here is where it gets tricky.
If I as a player figure out a Riddle, did my character figure it out as well? If I have reasoned as a Player that most advantageous moment for using a Special Ability, did my character as well? I as a Player had an insight stringing together pieces of information from four gaming sessions, does my character now share this insight?
A good rule of thumb for this level is, if a Player came to a conclusion or realization, it is shared by their Character. Barring obvious exceptions like socially oblivious characters noticing the nuances of a conversation, generally speaking if a Player comes to any realization they should be allowed to incorporate it into the game and let it impact the adventure. There is a bit of a balancing act here. You don’t want to get so hung up on whether or not your character shares a particular knowledge that it hurts your enjoyment of the adventure, or you penalize yourself for a legitimate insight you gained from your interest in the campaign.
A fair way to arbitrate this is, find a reason for your character to share this knowledge. Look over the character sheet, find a line that is at least somewhat relevant, and draw a connection. Perhaps your character has a Feat or Trait that would justify an insight. Perhaps a certain skill proficiency, even if untrained, would warrant a certain knowledge. Or perhaps an event that happened earlier in the game session allows a certain way of thinking. Work with your party and DM in finding ways to draw these connections with your character.
There is a much trickier angle to address though, which is the inverse situation. What if my Character knows something that I the Player do not? For instance, what if my Character is a master thief and can disarm even the most complex trap mechanically, but I am completely ignorant and oblivious to such machinations? How might I play that character in this moment?
Though it is admittedly difficult to explain how your character knows something if you yourself know very little about it, generally a very surface level explanation will suffice for game purposes. I don’t need to know all the complexities of how a crossbow trap works in order to say, “I look for the primary mechanism to disable it.” Further, I may not be a very articulate person, but if I’m playing a Diplomat I might say, “I make an appeal to his sense of right and wrong” without making the actual verbal appeal myself.
The big take away from Meta Knowledge should be a balancing act of sorts. Your character is clever enough to see and realize what is happening in the world, and you should not penalize yourself by withholding certain items of information. However, an effort should be made to keep reasonably in line with your character’s world view and experiences.
For a closing example, we will consider a Half-Elf Cavalier named Victoria, who tends to be very naïve and too trusting. I as a Player will know when she is about to be tricked or led along, but will play along as this is reflective of her character. However, when plotting the course our party will travel, I readily give input and insight as to the advantages of routes available to us, even though Victoria might be somewhat too aloof to be as thorough as I am. Further, Victoria knows how to Handle Animals, especially in combat, which is something I’m completely ignorant too. So when in combat, I leave Victoria’s description vague, “Steer the horse into the fray an attack”, as opposed to, “I spur my heel in between the horse’s 8th and 9th rib an coax it using the Mandalorian Technique favored by Eastern settlers while whispering commands in a rustic language.” Victoria has that knowledge, not me, so I let her handle it.
How have you played a character while withholding player knowledge? Have you ever had to roleplay a scenario while playing ignorant to a piece of information? What ways have you justified your character sharing a realization with you as a player? Share your experiences in the comments below!
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