Friday, January 28, 2011

The Problem with Knowledge Skills

One problem I’ve always encountered in roleplaying games is the “knowledge check” dilemma. At most tables I’ve played at, if a player has a knowledge skill, they activate it by rolling the skill. If they succeed, the GM tells them aloud what they know about a particular topic. Then, the player does one of two things. They either repeat the same thing that the GM just said…which now seems redundant. Or they simply turn to the rest of the group and say, “I share this with the party.”

Either way, this results in the spotlight being moved away from the character with knowledge skills. Furthermore, this makes knowledge-based characters extremely boring to play. If you’re a wise, knowledgeable character, your speciality is to have GM to tell you stuff while you passively listen.

In most of my games, I’ve tried to combat this with the sidebar. I pull the player aside, tell them what their character knows, then let them go back to the table and relate it to the group. This has worked brilliantly in the past. Often, when the player retells the information, they will put their own spin on it, making the information slightly colored or biased – which it should be. Also, it enhances roleplay, since the players can talk about the new information in character.

However, with a big group, this has proved detrimental. Constantly pulling players aside with a big group pauses the action, and with a group as large as ours, it often caused more distractions.

So, what to do? I ended up robbing an idea from myself.

Some History
Back in the day, I used to write a lot of adventures for the Living Death Campaign for the RPGA.

For those not familiar with living campaigns or organized play, the idea is that you make a character using a typical set of RPG rules and then are able to take that same character to different conventions around the country and advance them. Eventually, organized play evolved so that it incorporated home play as well. Now, you can take a character from your own "home game" and plug him/her into just about any convention with gaming in it around the country.

During those years, I noted that often certain skill checks would come up time after time. The Living Death Campaign was a horror game set in 1890's Gothic Earth, so there was always a lot of rolling "Forbidden Lore" or other types of investigative skills.

In the modules that I wrote, I started putting in bulleted lists of information, telling the result of different kinds of rolls that I knew were going to inevitably come up. For example, in a module, I would have a list of information that you might be able to get from a Forbidden Lore check. And this information was incremental, telling how much information would be released based on how high the skill check was.

Cards with Information
So, to avoid the incessant sidebars, I've started printing up pre-written blocks of information for different kinds of skill checks throughout the game. I try to make the cards look attractive and aesthetic. That way, the players know they are getting something special. And they are easy to hold onto for players who like to do that sort of thing.

For really big, earth-shattering revelations, I can even dress up the information cards with a picture or something like that. This really calls attention to the information and gives the player something visual to latch onto.

The best part? It doesn't slow down the game at all. I just pass it to the player and the game rolls on without pause. This doesn't mean that I never write hand-written notes. I still do, because things always come up that I don't anticipate. But even with a hand-written note, I often have to pause the action. Also, in a short, quickly-written note, I often don't get a lot of information across. So while I'm a fan of quickly written notes, I like these pre-written notes even better.

This might seem hard to do, because you think it difficult to predict what skills would come up during a game. But I think that in most games are certain number of knowledge skills always seem to come up. Also, as the GM, you know what is coming in the session. If you know that Mysterious Species X is going to arrive in the next session, you can craft all kinds of pre-written notes for the players ahead of time based on Species X.

I also color code these cards of information. For a basic pass on a skill test, the Explorers get a black bordered card. For more degrees of success, they get a red-bordered card. Etc.

The higher the degrees of success, the more cards of information they get. So that's another bonus. Someone who rolls really high gets a tangible reward that they can hold in their hand for what they know and how well they know it.

The only drawback to this is that you have to be pretty firm-minded as GM. After printing out an information card and cutting it out, you have to be willing to say to a player, "Nope. You don't get this one. You didn't roll high enough." And then, you have to be willing to put that card away - or even throw it into the recycling bin.


  1. There was a discussion on the official Dark Heresy board concerning something similar, namely how to make the players as knowledgable about the setting as the GM.

    It's slightly different since it's about the setting in general and not only specific queries, but I think many of the same methods apply.

    Also, the Imperial Primer mentioned seems like a great tool as an introduction for your players.

  2. Come on man, "One problem I’ve always encountered"? Back in the day we *were* the knowledge check, yo.

    You never had that problem with the Minions!


  3. That's because our group was always small enough that a sidebar wasn't too distracting.

    But I've always wanted to be able to run a character like Duck Sauce had in the Legend of the Five Rings playtest that you guys did. A character who is all about the knowledge and still remains really important.

  4. I really, really like this method, btw - even if the group is small enough for 'sidebars' to work. As a player, it feels somehow more meaningful to read something over a couple of times and then tell the others what I know rather than simply telling them what you told me a second ago. I've been considering how I might do something similar in my games.

    I also especially like the 'tiers' of knowledge based on the result. Sidebars or cards, I think knowledge checks should be handled in tiers whenever possible.


  5. @Martin - The link to the discussion was a great one! And as far as the imperial primer, I wish I had had that at the beginning of the campaign.

    Interestingly enough, what has caught most of my players up to speed was the Eisenhorn Trilogy by Dan Abnett. Just about all of my players have now read all three of those books. I'm not suggesting that a GM try to "make" his players read three books (those sorts of efforts are always doomed to failure), but if it can be encouraged, the Eisenhorn Trilogy is simply amazing. Heck, even my wife loves it, and she doesn't game.

  6. @General It's really a great trilogy and one I'm going to tell my players to read.
    In fact I think I'll re-read it myself soon. Hehe!

    Another interesting suggestion I read about somewhere was to give each character some document or prop relevant to his role/ship role.
    Ie, a summary of the history of the expanse for the Seneschal, a detailed ship datasheet to the voidmaster etc. So that when a player asks about the ship the voidmaster can quickly answer it instead of the GM.

    I'll try it out when we get rolling on our campaign.

  7. Re: "how to make the players as knowledgeable about the setting as the GM"

    Taking that a bit out of context, I actually find that "problem" to be interesting - and perhaps presumptive. I think this depends on how you want to run your game.

    Personally, in my games, I'd rather the players *only* know what I specifically tell them about a setting. In fact, in the case of an established setting to somewhat-knowledgeable players, i'm likely to preface the setting with "you kinda know the feel here, but any given fact may or may not be true in *my* permutation". As a GM, I don't find players' ignorance burdensome - I actually find it to allow for greater flexibility and more dramatic setting-based reveals.


  8. @Penguin Well, to me it can be both a blessing and a curse depending on the game and the campaign I'm trying to run.

    For example, when running a CoC game I think it's a blessing. The characters don't know what is lurking out there and react accordingly. And it takes place in a familiar setting so it's easy for them to feel "at home".

    When playing 40krp (or any other game with a made up setting) I usually like it when the players are familiar with it and are able to relate to background hints that I drop (Saint Drusus to make an example) and use the setting in a way that make them seem to really "belong", for want of a better word.

    Not the gray mysteries of course, but things like knowing what the different adeptus are etc.

    Hmmm... am I making sense? :)

  9. I think you and Martin might be talking about different things. The link, "how to make the characters as knowledgeable...", presumes that the players *don't* know anything about the setting; but then asks the question, "How do you get them up to speed?"

    Certainly, it is refreshing to run a setting when everyone in the group has no preconceived ideas about the material presented. But at the same time, in a game like Rouge Trader, you are going to be spending a lot of time downloading information to the players. The question is, how do you do that in an efficient fashion?

    This was easy in Dark Heresy. When Tony played with us, I explained that it would be perfectly reasonable to play a character who didn't know much about the Imperium. So, as the character learned about the universe, so could the player. However, the Rogue Trader system assumes that all of the characters start the game having been around the block.

    I like the idea of a fact sheet for each character. Just something really quick, easy, and not very long that tells you what each character should know.

  10. @General Yes, that's exactly the point I was trying to make in a more roundabout way. :)