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Tuesday 31 May 2016

Classic Rant: GMing, and Playing, in a Heavily-published Setting

JHKim had this to say about it: "If they aren't world-jumping strangers, though, they should know a lot about the world they live in - ideally more than one book's worth or even a dozen book's worth. One of the advantages of an established setting is that players do have more information, like people who live in the world really ought to have. My rule of thumb here comes from games set in the real world. There are thousands/millions of books about history and the real world, yet I don't find it stifling, and I don't have a problem with having historians in my historical games. I find that they make good gamers."

I would say that, no, sorry, but the CHARACTERS should know a lot about the world, not the PLAYERS. Those are two different things. And what the Character does or doesn't know about the world should be determined by his sensory guide, the GM, not by what the player has or hasn't read in a book.

The "knowing" that setting-book material creates is not good emulative knowing. If you grew up a farmboy in Pissantdale you're not going to be very likely at all to know what the best restaurants in Waterdeep are, much less that Alusree Lovebringer is a secret Red Wizard agent. You certainly won't know there's a beholder city in the Underdark below Calimsham, and while you might know that Elminster is (allegedly) a very powerful wizard, you shouldn't know that he's a 214th Wizard/18th Cleric/3rd Chosen of Mystra/1st Demigod, or that he can't cast Prismatic Sphere on Tuesdays because of emotional harm that he suffered in the 15th book of the "Elminster In Heck" novel series.

If as the GM you're going to change ANYTHING, then that essentially invalidates EVERYTHING about the predetermined canon-knowledge anyways, unless the GM specifically gives away the things that are different too. Unless he says "in my game x, y, and z will not be the same but everything else will", the setting-knowledge basically becomes worse than useless as your PC will now not only be assuming stuff he should have no business knowing, he also may be assuming stuff that is inherently untrue.

The basic answer is that players need to depend ON THE GM for what their character knows, not on other sources. And the game-play experience is superior if they are not trying to debate the GM on what "ought" to go in an area of the setting, and in fact never know what to expect (unless their PC should know, in which case the GM will tell them).

Setting material can be useful if, for example, I can tell a player, "you're from Sandomdale so read the Dales' Sourcebook section on it, where everything except a and c are things your character knows, or at least thinks he knows, as truth". But even then, its only mostly a time-saver. So it is sometimes possible, too, for players to take out-of-character notions they have about some of the world and translate that into things their character might BELIEVE about his game world, sometimes I've explicitly emphasized that. Sure, your PC BELIEVES that Elminster is an incredibly powerful Chosen of Mystra, but in the game world it could be utterly and totally untrue. Your PC may BELIEVE that Waterdeep is the biggest city in the realms, but maybe that's just exaggeration. You won't know until you get there.

Generally, though, the best situation is if players assume they don't know anything going-in about the game world. Setting material is there for the GM's benefit, not the player's, and for the GM to dole out as he sees fit with as much or little modification as he cares to.


(January 23, 2011)


  1. Yes, I generally give them a 3x5 card of things they believe to be true and they can discover the rest. Anything they should know, I will tell them when it matters.

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  3. Lately when I've given my players background info, I'm always careful to point out that some of it may not be true, but it's what the character has been told.