Player Knowledge and the History of RPGs

First, two quotes to start us off:

“No plan survives contact with the enemy.” (paraphrased quote from Helmuth von Moltke the Elder, a man who was actually quite keen on extensive planning and who might be considered the great-grandfather of RPGs)

“The players are the enemy.” (the storyteller’s corollary to the first quote, promoted in old gaming literature and still embraced by some gamers today)


I’ve often heard these quoted, seriously or jokingly, by my RPG playing friends.  The first one I agree with: opposition is a chaotic force, and will often ruin your most carefully laid plans.  The second one I only agree with insofar as players are an inherently chaotic force.  They are other people, and will often do the unexpected.  Unfortunately, the second quote is often interpreted literally.  Players are seen as the opposition and their characters are therefore meant to be outwitted, led by the nose, and then set upon while at a disadvantage.

Worryingly enough, I most often hear these quotes spoken seriously by my friends who have not yet run many games.  With a literal interpretation, where the hell do those two quotes lead us?  If the players are the enemy, it stands to reason that everything the storyteller does is in opposition to the players.  More to the point, it sets up a clearly antagonistic relationship between the players and the storyteller in which the two sides have no reason to cooperate with each other.  It’s like they’re not actually playing a game together.

If they are playing a game together, it’s more like a strategy wargame in which all details are included solely to “get” the players.  This is, of course, where the genre originated: the first games that we would recognize as RPGs grew out of wargames, as the logical result of a progression towards smaller and smaller unit sizes.  Eventually, each player had control of only one individual instead of many units, laying the foundation for the RPG genre that we know today.  The influence of modern gaming’s military history is still visible: the habits of secrets and hostile surprises that we have come to see as part and parcel of the RPG experience come from this background of wargaming.

But even as someone who enjoys wargames, I don’t always want to play a wargame when I sit down to play an RPG.  There’s an opportunity here to explore gaming without those holdouts baked in, and some game designers have been pushing in that direction for years.  Yet if we aren’t following in the habits of our wargaming ancestors, what do we do?

My first thought is that we should find something else to focus on.  There must be some central draw to our gaming that is distinct from the careful strategic maneuvering which characterizes the wargame genre, right?

For me, the answer is story, character interactions, and the opportunity to see our PCs doing what they do best, whatever that might be.  I find that there is a distinct pleasure to be taken in competence.  I also enjoy living vicariously through my characters, doing and being things that I am not (and might never wish to be) in real life.

Second, I would suggest that we keep in mind that we are playing a game with our friends.  Presumably everyone involved wants to have a good time, and it’s likely that they want to have a cool story too.  If everyone is down with that, you’re already several steps ahead.  You may run into issues in deciding what makes a story cool, but that can be settled through a little friendly discussion with your friends.  Speaking as a storyteller, I’ve discovered that not everything must be held close to my chest.

As I mentioned above the break, I believe that the intensely hermetic sequestering of story knowledge which so often defines RPGs is in many ways an unnecessary holdover from our wargaming predecessors.  There may still be a time and a place for it, but we should only make use of it when it is called for by the genre of our games.  And that genre should be consciously agreed upon beforehand by everyone in the game.  You don’t need to sign a contract, but people should know what flavor of game they’re about to join.  Sometimes just the system is enough.  Playing Call of Cthulhu or Unknown Armies, for example, tells your players a great deal about what to expect from the game.

The storyteller should thus only compartmentalize information when it directly improves the game; mystery games, investigations and some horror games really thrive on this.  But my experience suggests that many other games benefit from being more free with setting knowledge and plot knowledge.  After all, is there more dramatic tension to be found in being blindsided by problems you didn’t know existed, or in watching trouble brew and trying desperately to stop it before it all explodes in your face?  Unforeseen complications can heighten tension, but they rely on there being a problem that clearly needs fixing in the first place.  And, of course, they only heighten tension when the complications actually come to light, so you have to show them to the PCs sometime.

It’s also worthwhile rethinking the ways in which players compartmentalize information.  Let’s say that Della the Evoker has a super cool backstory, and plays through a bunch of awesome and conflicted interactions in which she has to deal with the malicious creatures which first gave her her powers.  Does she rebel or serve them?  Either way it’s an exciting and interesting decision with great potential for more story.

My first instinct, years ago, would have been to have those scenes occur secretly.  After all, the other PCs probably aren’t there to witness whatever is happening, right?  But which is more fun for the whole group; having all the players see what’s going on, or keeping all of these scenes secret from the other players?  My guess is that it’s more fun to have everyone know.  The other characters might not find out (at first), but Della is probably struggling to keep her interactions secret anyways and having the other players know means that Della’s player can share her PC’s awesome story without worrying about ruining the game.  So long as the other players aren’t going to abuse their meta-game knowledge, sharing is caring.

Having everyone see the horrible danger approaching just makes things more exciting when problems arise.  Ultimately, you’ll have to decide what best fits your gaming group, but I’ve seen players intentionally make ‘poor’ choices because they are in-character and because they’ll make the game more interesting.  You also end up excluding your players from scenes less frequently, which is another big plus.

So, a few opinionated takeaways:

  • The “best” amount of secrecy is the least you can manage and still maintain your genre’s expectations.  Even in my mystery games, I struggle more with how to make sure that players can find knowledge easily (and follow evidence chains) than I do with how to keep players from acquiring it.
  • Dramatic tension and suspense are best served by keeping your players informed of enough of the situation.  It’s those holes around the edges that they will pursue, as one might worry at the hole left by a missing tooth.  Then, once they know more, you can expand the scope or breadth of the mystery and hint at yet more to be uncovered.
  • Have reasons in the fiction for whatever happens, beyond simple fiat.  When the players understand that cause and effect apply, they are more likely to try to alter root causes than to simply view dungeons / what-have-you as spontaneously generated loot pools that quests point towards.  This is especially true if you follow the laws of unintended consequences every once in a while, and apply them to the PCs’ own actions.  This way other actors’ motivations become mysteries to be uncovered, just like in real life.
  • Encourage players to share their characters’ stories, especially when it enhances game tension.
  • Knowing that a bad thing is coming and must be averted is more fun than super-sudden-surprise badness.  Hint at and build towards that when possible, and embrace giving your players knowledge of it when you can.
  • Storytellers aren’t fighting their players, and vice versa, unless you all agreed that that was what was happening when you started the game.  Be careful not to start fighting by accident.

There’s still more to be said on this and related topics, but I’ve gone on for long enough.  What’s your take?  Have any good stories of dramatic tension and the fun surrounding that?  How about thoughts on what knowing the system or setting engenders in your players and their PCs?


2 responses to “Player Knowledge and the History of RPGs

  1. Pingback: What Flavor Is Your Game? | Fistful of Wits

  2. Pingback: Define Your Terms! Talking about RPGs | Fistful of Wits

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