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Sunday, October 25, 2009

What Characters Know, and What Players Know

This is Steven Petrick posting:

One of the problems in role-playing games is separating what the player knows from what the character knows. This problem arises fairly frequently when all of the players are present, but the action is centered on a few players who are technically not with other players at the time. All of the players see and hear what has happened, but the characters do not necessarily "know" what happened.

There are two ways to handle this. One is to simply continue ahead with the known information, i.e., the characters not present simply know everything the characters who were present know. This is the simplest method. The other is for the players to keep in mind what their characters know and do not know, and play them in accordance with that level of knowledge. This is the most difficult.

The problem is that some role-playing games absolutely demand that you play with the latter system. For example, in Call of Cthulhu it is important that the players operate their characters as if they are unaware that character "A" has been "converted" to Cthulhu and is now working against them until that character is "revealed" by some means. Not doing so can ruin the adventure.

This also applies, however, in Star Fleet Battles role-playing (see, there is a connection). Think of the episode "Turnabout Intruder" in which Captain Kirk's mind is switched with the mind of Doctor Janice Lester. Or the episode "Whom Gods Destroy" where Garth of Izar attempts to pass himself off as Captain Kirk and later as Spock. The players may know that one of their number is no longer one of them, but they need to follow through on the exercise and reasonably discover the problem.

Of course, sometimes the referee/dungeon master can accomplish things with a little misdirection. During a Traveler campaign I had need to have various members of the party be taken over by "the evil alien entity" (tm). So when the party split up to search a deck level on the derelict ship, I grabbed the player who had gone into the trap and went to another room. I explained the situation to him, and when we returned, with all the other players looking on expectantly, I simply explained that there had been a "treasure" in the room he had gone to, and I was giving him the option to conceal it and keep it for himself, but that he had decided to share it. The players looked over the "treasure", and lost interest in the character. I repeated this process again, and again. Finally when the group arrived on the derelict's main Bridge, which was the primary nest of the "evil alien entity" (tm), only one member of the party had not yet been taken over, and he was utterly unaware that the others in the party were now doppelgangers until he saw the originals hanging from the wall in the nest. This was despite the fact each player who had been "replaced" had become (role-playing their new status) incommunicative (not offering suggestions on courses of action or taking the lead) and ineffective (their skills became inoperative, i.e., they could not fix electrical shorts or other character capabilities). A little misdirection properly applied can help keep the adventure going. (Of course making sure there is some way for the characters to escape from your trap, when well sprung, is important to keeping the campaign going.)