Getting In Your Own Brain’s Face – Making Knowledge and Other Passive Skills Active

A couple of weeks ago, I posted a guideline on when the players should reach for the dice in a roleplaying game – when the momentum in your game’s world is interfering with something important to them, or when they’re about to interfere with that momentum.

But what does that mean for a lot of traditional games, especially for their more passive skills – knowledge skills? How can a player character get in their own brain’s face?

If you look at your average roleplaying game, you’ll likely see that it defines characters in terms of their skills; what they can do and what they know.

The “what they can do” skills are easy to map to this “get in the face” idea; the proactive or responsive interpersonal action your character takes leads directly to a skill like “Persuade” or “Intimidate,” “Electronics” or “Mechanics,” “Martial Arts” or “Small Arms.”

But what about the “what they know” skills – the knowledge skills, like “Core Worlds” and “Xenology,” “Arcana” and “Common Knowledge?”

Image by TomNatt; used under Creative Commons by-nc 2.0 license.

In the average game, these are used when a player wants to work out whether their character has any facts already in their head about a thing they’ve discovered, a place they’re in or a person they’ve met – if they roll well enough, the Game Master parcels some more information out to them.

While that may not pose any issues for your game, to me it undermines the idea of accepting risk when reaching for the dice. These tests tend to be the most inconsequential; if you fail, you simply don’t get any further information. Not only that, everyone at the table can take a shot if the initial roller fails (by dint of odds, it may even be the least-educated character who more often comes up with relevant facts).

Sure, you can get wrong information from the GM if you fail the roll badly, but while your character mightn’t know it’s incorrect, you as the player definitely do; as fun as it can be to run with that error, there’s still a natural inclination to shy away from using the information that you know to be wrong.

There’s also an assumption of “make a check; if you fail, no biggie but you don’t discover thing X” when thing X is something you need to discover in order to progress the story forward.

Finally, it sucks when the opportunity for the players to invest more in the game world via some additional details is restricted by a bad roll.

So, how do we bring knowledge more directly into rolling when it matters?  How do you get in your own brain’s face?

How to get in your brain’s face

  • Knowing stuff doesn’t get you in the world’s face – finding stuff out does. Making it active; doing some legwork and using your existing knowledge to look in the right places and ask the right people. Success earns a bonus on a later skill check for when the player’s character gets directly in the world’s face.
    • Some rules have suggested that failure indicates that the people relating to the facts you’re trying to uncover get wind of your questing and prepare appropriately; maybe this results in a negative when you do make the later check.
  • The GM issues players additional facts on the current situation based on the character’s stats and skills without need to roll (they will still need to roll later if they want to apply the facts in an advantageous way).
  • Activity always takes time. Have a clock running; every piece of research that fails gives the enemy more time to set something of their own up. Ideally, advancing the clock has some sort of noticeable but not immediate effect on the world, so the players know the pressure is on.

To sum up:

  • If a character possessing a piece of information makes sense based on their abilities skills and background, the game master should give their player that information; it will help them invest in the game world more.
  • If your game rules include knowledge skills:
    • Naturally intelligent characters may get broad but still general knowledge.
    • Characters with specific knowledge skills will get more specific, detailed information based on their ranking in skills applicable to the situation.
  • If a player wants to use information their character has acquired to help them get in the game world’s face (or push back when the world gets in their face):
    • If your game rules don’t include knowledge skills, the game master can decide whether the information grants the character a bonus to their action’s roll (maybe spending a Fate Point or some other in-game currency is needed).
    • If your game rules include knowledge skills, allow a roll with success giving a bonus to the eventual action roll. Failure should have some consequence; a loss of time and/or the target becoming aware that the character is snooping around.

What games do this well?

Feng Shui Second Edition

The classic action ropleplaying game, Feng Shui, now in its second edition, was the first time I saw an RPG that did something different regarding player character knowledge. As its core ethos was letting players be action movie heroes, most of its skills were based around taking action; it built player character knowledge directly into the action-based skills:

No one with Driving has to roll to know the difference between a stick and an automatic, that Citro├źns come from France, or that Porsches cost a lot of money.

Feng Shui, 2nd. Edition

It still includes traditional knowledge skills as Info skills, which represent specialised areas of knowledge (history, geography, the criminal underworld, the factions of the Secret War, etc.).

Fantasy Flight Games’ Genesys system (as I’ve seen implemented in its Star Wars line) also does a great job of putting pressure on: Any roll, even Knowledge skills, can result in Threat that the GM can spend on boost dice for their characters (because word of the PCs’ snooping got back to them, they’ve been able to prepare) or setback dice for the players’ characters (e.g. a loss of time or stress from not finding out the information they need) – and then, of course, there’s Despair…

However, I have to reserve the most praise for Atomic Robo: The Roleplaying Game. It already has a great base in the FATE system, which uses Aspects to describe and sum up the key parts of player characters-as-story concept (e.g. World-Famous Robot Adventurer; Royce Got Me Booted Out Of The Canadian Armed Forces; Graduated From MIT At Age Twelve). As they imply a lot about a character’s personality, competence and back story, they’re a great guide as to what a character is likely to know; players can apply that knowledge to action rolls by invoking those Aspects (spending a Fate Point for a re-roll or +2 bonus).

On top of that, though, it eliminates traditional “Knowledge” skills; almost every skill reflects a character making a direct impact on the game world, which the FATE rules reinforce by ensuring every skill has at least two each of the actions Overcome and Obstacle, Create an Advantage, Attack or Defend – even the traditional “get a clue” skill of Notice, which has three of the four actions (except Attack, of course) so you can still get in the world’s face with it.

Even the Science skill and its specialities become active through Brainstorming, where player characters can do their own scientific inquiry into the odd events of a session, introduce uncovered / related facts and actually tell the game master what’s really going on, and come up with their own technological solutions to problems (each with its own aspects and flaws) via the Invention rules.