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Layering understanding: Players vs characters & audience

January 27, 2021

I often find a lot of good ideas in RPG theory/understanding by looking at other games or media genre analysis, and something I’ve been thinking a lot about is how speculative fiction ends up presenting a double hurdle. The creator has to present a strange/different world to the audience, and then, often, the difference between what is normal for the characters in that world vs. unusual/exceptional for those characters.

RPGs, however, have an additional layer; the group is both the creators and the audience, which means:

  1. You need the group to find a way to coordinate on what they’re creating – this either usually comes in the form of setting text, safety tools, guided or (most of the time) unguided discussion up front, or direct tools in play.
  2. You need to figure out what aspects are more fun for the players to know, but their characters don’t, vs. what is fun to be revealed to both the player and character at the same time.

Consider, for example, a religious or folklore belief of a character in a fantasy game:

  1. The belief is cosmologically true; the player and the character both know this.
  2. The belief is cosmologically true; the player knows this, the character is unsure.
  3. The belief is cosmologically true; the player is unsure (assuming a GM game, the GM knows), the character is played as believing it true.
  4. The belief is cosmologically false; the player knows and the character does not.
  5. The belief is cosmologically false; neither the player (again, assume a GM knows) nor the character knows.
  6. The belief is actually irrelevant to the events in play – it might never be proved or proveable in play. (Add in every possible iteration about player/character knowledge as well.)

Of course, in this case I’m using fantasy religion and presumably some thing like “Dragons are enemies of the gods” or whatever, but you could easily put in stuff like “The government is working for aliens” or “This elected official was against the war the whole time” or whatever is relevant to the setting/game.

Ah, but designing for this

Now also ask how you communicate this in a game text to a group?

A lot of older games in the 80s and 90s would have a GM section, where the “truths of the setting” were placed, however, this simply assumes players who won’t read it, or haven’t GM’d the game, or played in the past and been exposed to the “big reveals”.

I’m not even saying there’s ONE way to do this; several of these options might be better for a given genre, setting, or game, or worse for them. I do think, however, it’s a complicated idea about the roles of creator(player, GM, etc.), characters in play, and how we play them, and it’s not like you can simply shove a bunch of theory at a group and say “yeah now play this”.

The easiest way is that everything presented is both true for player and character; you don’t have to do a lot of mental displacement. The next easiest method is that the players have full knowledge while the characters may or may not have knowledge (common in a lot of horror games).

I don’t have easy solutions, but, as usual for me, mapping out the issue is the first step towards getting the navigation tools around it. My suspicion is that the solutions will probably be very game specific about “You know this vs. your character knows this” and that a broader theory would not be mentioned in any given game (or to a group you’re running with).

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