Player vs. Character Knowledge: Where's the Line?


Yes, I know this is a popular subject that's discussed all too often in the RPG world, but I plan to take a slightly different spin on things. Come share your thoughts!

What I would like to contribute here is not a rant about how terrible and game-breaking metagaming can be, but rather an open forum on how to solve these problems.

We are thinking creatures. It is really hard to dismiss facts that we know are relevant and try to come to the conclusion that our characters would have had they not known this information. What sort of strategies do you use as a GM to prevent this conpromising state, what do you do as players to decide how much your character actually knows, and how do you as players keep your player knowledge from influencing your character actions. The obvious solution is to let the players only know what their characters know, but that doesn't always happen.

I was once in a situation (detailed in a previous article here on Gamegrene) that, through no fault of my own, I ended up playing a lawful good character (a paladin) while knowing as a player that one of the other PC's (a cleric) was of the evil sort.

There's a dilemma here. Do I as a player use every opportunity presented to my character for him to discover this knowledge, and then let him act accordingly? I tried this for a while, attempting a Knowledge (religion) check on the cleric's holy symbol while she was casting a spell. I botched the roll, and so that decision was diverted until later.

I have another option: do I blatently ignore every opportunity presented for my character and so preserve the life of the campaign. It's very hard to make decisions based upon "what would my character do if he didn't know what the end result of his action would be? What would my character do if he didn't know what I know?" How often as players do we feel we have to push our characters towards destruction simply because they don't know what we do? Is it ok to try to preserve our character's lives based on knowledge that they don't actually have?

Sometimes our "metagaming" actually leads us to perform the same actions that our characters would, but that we as players tend to forget, as we are not our characters. I realized later that there could have had a rational explanation for investigating the holy symbol. As a fellow religionist, my paladin would simply have been interested in what order the cleric followed.

Is there a time when not enough player knowledge is used for fear of metagaming? What if a party enters a room full of sarcophagi, and they realize that they know that the skeletons inside will come alive simply because the players have seen too many movies. For fear of utilizing their player knowledge, they go ahead and steal the magic orb and awaken the doom sealed within when, had the players thought about it a little more deeply, they would have remembered that they were invading the evil necromancer's castle and that such defenses were pretty likely.

PC's also tend to be more foolhardy and risky than actual people, as we fall into the mentality of "this is a game, and, as such, this is beatable." Similarly, there is usually minimal penalty for total party kills, unless one counts the new creation of characters as such. Sometimes our player knowledge pushes us to betray our characters.

So, where do you draw the line?

If playing with an inexperienced group of players, it can be a thrill to be surprised. If playing with a mixed group of mostly inexperienced players, then I would lean towards letting the inexperienced players make the "discoveries", and perhaps telling the experienced players to hang back a bit there.

But overall, I tend to think it is more fun for experienced players to use their knowledge of a world, setting, or monster, to give them an advantage or to mitigate their disadvantage. This, in itself does not guarantee success in a well-designed encounter.

I don't think it is as fun for a group of experienced players to have to feign ignorance on a matter of tactics in an encounter. That's not what I call "role-playing", at least, it's not the kind of role-playing that I enjoy. I find it to be a tedious exercise that removes choice from players, deprotagonizing their characters.

In such cases, I will adapt the narrative to support the average level of player knowledge in game. Treasures may include grimoires of monsters that add points to appropriate lore. Backgrounds can be filled out that provide "general knowledge" excuses. Notorious monsters such as werewolves and vampires with abilities well-known to players would also be well-known in game, and I would let players KNOW that. I don't like the narrative to run counter-intuitive to the player knowledge.

Similarly, players should be allowed to use their experience with the rituals and elements of the game (ie. an obvious encounter threat such as a group of sarcophagai or a statue in the middle of a bare room) to anticipate danger and act accordingly. I've had a DM overrule a low level party of experienced players, demanding that they ignore reasonable caution in such circumstances, to the point of NPCing their action to trigger an encounter directly, and the effect in the game was unsatisfying.

Heh....I was expecting Nefandus to come out guns blazing on this one!

Whilst I think you make some fair points, Nef, the situation described above is a little more complex because it involves the potential for PC versus PC conflict. If the Paladin makes unbridled use of player knowledge and attacks the evil cleric with no obvious provocation, this has wasted an opportunity for what might be an interesting game of cat-and-mouse between the paladin and the cleric.

It all depends what the players enjoy, of course. In my own group we've had a situation where one of the party members was evil but coverered his tracks fairly carefully. The players enjoyed the fact that they knew, but their characters didn't.

Other groups of players might simply find this frustrating. In this case the situation is really best avoided in the first place.

With respect to intra-party conflict, that scenario is specific enough to cover separately. My comments are rooted in DnD, and would not apply as well to games like Paranoia, for instance, or many of the World of Darkness games, which seem to harvest player conflict as a plot engine, and which don't use morale absolutes as game architecture.

For D&D, I make sure the party is compatible from the start. I don't allow evil characters, and I make sure the background narrative supports the idea of this group adventuring together. I find it frustrating how so many players strive for "realism" in their game mechanics, but yet totally ignore the notion of working together to create narrative plausibility for their adventuring group. As the one person with the bird's eye view, it is the DM's responsibility to ensure that the seeds of plot-killing distractions of that magnitude are not sewn throughout the DNA of the campaign. Such conflicts are always less interesting to play than the exterior storyline, and always end up distracting from it while hogging spotlight for only a portion of the group.

Furthermore, for the laissez-faire purists, it seems that metagame sensibilities interfere with the player-conflict narrative, because the social expectation demands that the players at the table work together - whereas the in game conflict might require two players to be mortal enemies. How can anyone be satisfied in such a situation? The Paladin must constantly work to invent excuses to continue participating in the activity, all of which have the end effect of making the player complicit in turning his character into an oblivious idiot. Meanwhile the "evil character" player must work just as hard to find an excuse to travel with the party, when its heroic goals are obviously not the same as his own.

At some point, things have to come to a head due to the pressure or desire to "role-play" and deal with the scenario. The characters throw down and either one of them dies - which is REALLY stupid and not fun, and generally not desired by the party, the DM, or the "good character" player - and it can turn into a real-life social conflict at the table.

While I suppose some players might find some mildly humorous value in enacting a show of ignorance if their characters "don't realize" what's happening, I would put this on the same continuum as pretending not to know how to defeat the bad guy. Is it really that fun? Is it really that funny?

To sum, I'd echo lurkinggherkin's advice - the scenario is best avoided in the first place. If it was a situation I inherited, I would have an out of game chat with the players about my fears of the situation, and invite them to conceptualize a background and character that works together.

Hehe, now that we seem to have covered that issue, let's complicate things.

The evil cleric is DM's girlfriend. Our DM has actually done a surprisingly good job of not letting this affect our gameplay, at least as far as I can tell. Knowing him, he probably would laugh and encourage in-game spats between she and I, and not take sides within the context of the game.

I have a deep suspicion that the DM actually put her up to playing an evil character in order to "make things interesting". Knowing the player, she always leans toward overly innocent, almost angelic character archetypes with a focus on healing and defensive magic. As much as the DM would enjoy it, I really don't know if this player could accurately play an evil character even if she wanted to. The only difference I can determine between her "evil" cleric and a good cleric is what's written on the character sheet (not that I've seen her sheet).

So another option presents itself here. I remember reading an article here on Gamgrene (it may have been zipdrive's campaign forum) discussing alignment and "radar gaming", and somebody mentioned that alignment is what you make of it. If a PC is behaving in a manner that falls under Chaotic Evil, he would register under a Detect Evil spell even if his sheet reads neutral or even good.

I think my character will continue to react to this "evil" cleric based upon her actions, and the alignment issue probably won't even come up. Hah, now that I think about it, my character would probably be more likely to believe that his Detect Evil messed up somehow than to consider that his friend who has previously shown no evil inclinations is actually evil.

Let's poll the audience.

As a thinking creature I'd be curious what the DM had in mind. It sounds like a good "fallen paladin to blackguard" set up rather than a intra-party conflict.

I'd consider a paladin ignoring a detect evil result as a fateful slip. But I do like the idea of alignment being what you make it. Especially for D&D where classes have strict requirements.

Grr, he'd better not corrupt my character, although I certainly wouldn't put it past him. I've given him a pretty juicy background to play with, too, so I guess we'll just wait and see.

I've known a few DMs to use experienced players who aren't in the group as "guest stars" to handle NPCs occasionally. These will run an NPC, who might turn out to be not so benign in the long run. That kind of thing really relies on a group dynamic though because the social situation itself - of players at a table - asserts itself into the way the players may react.

So, if I were to use a guest star to be an NPC villain, I would do so only under certain circumstances:

1. the villain would, at some point be revealed to be extremely evil through actions and alignment, obviously so - doing things that would absolutely require the players to stop him immediately. It has to be of a magnitude that the players at the table can "read" that it's ok to act against that character, and player, that it is, in fact a part of the story.

2. There would be definite shelf date on the villain. The plan would come to fruition or the players would stop him, or he would get away. Either way, he wouldn't be a permanent fixture in the group, though I kind of like the idea of the party somehow being forced to work with a hostile due to circumstances. But I don't want the party making excuses to do so, stretching their narrative plausibility.

As for your situation, with an evil cleric played benignly by the DM's girlfriend, who I assume is not an experienced player, I wouldn't worry too much about it. Actions speak louder. It may well end up that the character's alignment gets switched at some point down the road, discretely, and nobody is the wiser. Maybe she's just learning.

I hae been the (as the Batman show referred to it) "Special Guest Villian" in a supers game. The scenario was I was basically a hired gun. My mission, determine the powers and the limits of the group of heroes. Then the rat double-crossed me and I had to convince the heroes that I was helping them now.

I also tried this as a Supers camapign. Each player made a villian as well as a hero and different players would be the villian each session. Their hero was "unavailable" for some reason. In the old "Superfriends" show, Superman was frequently off planet solving something that prevents him from circumventing the plot. My Hero, was sent back in time by "The Insideous Dr. Chronos" so part of the adventure was rescuing my character.

I think a DM should never "corrupt your character", unless you two discussed it and agreed to it long beforehand.

In my current (and currently paused) campaign, the players have very little information regarding the world and its inhabitants (other than general D&D knowledge, like fireballs = wizard, or somesuch). This plays in my favor, reducing the player-character knowledge gap.

I agree with Nefandus in striving for non-evil, similar-purpose party, with good reasons to stick together.

This is a bit of a tangent from the character knowledge discussion, but I've always felt that alignment is handled poorly in D&D. Lorthyne brings up a good point in that "Detect Alignment" should really be based on character actions or NPC motives, rather than what's written down on paper.

I especially dislike the know alignment tactic that players sometimes use to measure up every "important" NPC in the game (and then, of course, assume it's ok to attack someone just because they're "evil"). Of course, I'm also of the belief that it's not a "good" act to walk into an Orc village and slaughter all its citizens just because they're "evil monsters".

I've always wanted a create a scenario where the PCs get put on trial for murder when some surviving demi-human come forward and press charges with the local constabulary -- "We were just preparing the evening meal in our cave when these humans bust in, murdered my family and stole all of our goods. We demand justice for these brutal slayings!"

In order to keep detente with the local goblin tribes, the local lord may have to try (and sentence!) the PCs, even if s/he is sympathetic.

Murder is considered evil, and yet PCs sure do kill a lot of creatures that a just minding their own business. : )

Anyway, in the case of the paladin vs. cleric scenario, I'd encourage that the paladin's player wouldn't have his PC act in any way to "check up" on the cleric unless the PC clearly witnesses some suspicious or outright evil act from the cleric.

With the right group, this could actually be a fun role-playing scenario, especially if the other PCs start to side with the cleric because the paladin has been "acting funny".

Waldo, you can find a much longer discussion on the iisues of D&D alignments in an article around here:

I am that DM. I am also a new member of the gamegrene community thanks to my friend Lorthyne here. Well, after having read the article and your subsequent comments, let me try and vindicate myself, and I'd also like you guys to tell me what you think of what I had in mind. Also, I feel just fine doing this as that campaign (unfortunately) has been canceled.
First off, as regards to the previous article concerning Lorthyne's horrible first session. I take full blame for this-while I couldn't use my force powers to change the die rolls, I believe a session should be fun for every player no matter what you roll, and so as a DM I failed in that regard. Also, I thought that Lorthyne was experienced and wasn't aware this was his first time with 3.5, so I felt comfortable working with the "evil player" while he and our other friend worked together. If I had known, it would've been different.
Now, to alignment and metagaming. Actually, I was quite impressed with how Lorthyne played his character, keeping player knowledge from interfering with character knowledge. Frankly, I think he already knows how to balance them out. Now, let me explain why I did it. First, it wasn't my idea. We were looking at the gods and she liked Vecna, liked clerics, and decided she was going to be a cleric of Vecna. I was about to tell her it might not be a good idea, as Matt's character is a paladin, but then I had an idea. You see, Vecna plays a major part in this campaign, in that far into the future I had plans for the characters to do things like infiltrate a temple of Vecna and other things that a cleric of Vecna would make much easier, not to mention more interesing, as she would be betraying her god in the process. I actually saw some character development that could really work here. Also, being a cleric of Vecna, you know god of secrets, I thought that she would be pretty good at hiding what she was from Lorthyne, and so that wouldn't be as much of a concern. Also, Lorthyne was actually a really cool paladin (one of those without the stick up his butt), so I was curious to see how accepting he would be if he found out. Here, I was going for character conflict, but in the end, character development. I didn't think either were the type to just start killing each other. So I saw a chance to facilitate the story, drive some character development, and set up some group conflict that I knew wouldn't end up in a grave. Oh, and I had no plans to make him a fallen paladin. I once had a GM that was cruel like that and made campaigns specifically designed to destroy the PCs when he got bored enough and I can't stand it. I love to make situations that could be potentially problematic like that, but there's always a way out. I would never force a PC into something so life shattering as that.
Well, whaddya think?

I'm glad you're finally on Gamegrene, Tzuriel. Took ya long enough.
Not that I can really talk, given my 5 month hiatus. Well, I'm back now, and working on a new article as we speak.

It's ok, I forgive you for screwing with my paladin. ;) Yeah, I miss Lorthyne (the character). I really need to bust him out again one day, and maybe get him past 1st level.

I would also note that comments on articles that are old (i.e., more than two months posted) like this generally don't get too many responses. But I'll help you out.

I know they don't. I just felt I had a name to vindicate, that's all. This site is awesome-I'm glad I'm on too. But, just so you know, unless you suggested it, I'd never try to make you a fallen paladin. Like I said, my friend designed an entire adventure on trying to make my other friend's paladin fall. I think that's sick.

I agree. It all goes to intent and consent. The players consent to living in the GM's world; and the GM works with the intent on providing challenge and opportunity.