One issue I always have when I’m on the players’ side of the table is with common world and game knowledge. How much does my character actually know about the monsters or magic in the world he lives in? Does my character know in-depth info about the political structures of the megacorp he is working against, or just that they have them like any large company? Will saying that having basic knowledge of the sort he could obtain in his
home village mean
the GM makes him a prison-bitch he is denied gaming opportunities that a different background might have allowed, or will it be something he can shrug off as he advances and grows?
Coming to a mutual understanding of exactly what is common knowledge for your game is not an easy task. Gaming books provide lots of information that is necessary for playing but might not be readily knowable by the characters. What is known to one class or type of character might not be known to another, but many of the dangers they will face together require teamwork and interaction. Each player likely thinks of common game and world knowledge in a different way and is thus operating on a different page than the rest. There are a lot of places for pitfalls to develop when it comes to common knowledge.
Like Einstein Says – It’s All Relative
So how does a group deal with common knowledge in a consistent way? I don’t think it is possible to ever have a single truly definitive answer. Setting, game mechanics, and personal play style are going to be factors of every situation where common game world knowledge comes up. Every situation where game and world knowledge comes up has multiple people’s interactions, and each one of those interactions can affect the game and the story at the table. Take this example: A publisher gives a creature a very high damage resistance, maybe even regeneration. He places a line in the monster’s description that they have a vulnerability to a certain type of metal. This piece of knowledge is now out there somewhere, but in order to use it the players must know it and their characters, more importantly, must know it. Is this tidbit of knowledge meant to be a treasured golden bullet that the PCs learn after hardship? Is it well known to the cavalries of brave soldiers who protect the frontline from these monstrosities and thus the metal is in high demand? Will the players glean this knowledge from reading over the book? If they do, can and would their characters have it and thus know to modify their weapons with the metal? The context of the knowledge within the world is extremely important, but only really to that one situation it is relative to. To a person in a far off country where that creature is not a threat, the previous metal might be nothing more than a paperweight.
This is one of the primary reasons why common knowledge is so hard to lock down in a game. Too laissez faire of an attitude about common knowledge and many of the challenges that lack of knowledge intensified are cakewalks. If it is assumed that characters know about any magical item the player reads about, then characters seek out such things. Not always a bad thing, but possibly a free pass to acquire that killer app for the game. The reverse, too restrictive, and first party characters are nearly wiped out by level draining undead because they don’t know enough to run away. The joys and perils of the game? Absolutely! But it cannot be denied that the accessibility of the game and world knowledge is a major game changer.
Well Defined Setting Knowledge Is Always Helpful
Sometimes the setting and mechanics present things to help you out when it comes to common game world knowledge. Eberron books are written with a very in-world feel and lots of instances of in-world narrative that suggest what people might know. If you are reading it inside of an Eberron book, then it is likely that the character might be able to read it somewhere within the world as well. This is probably the thing that makes me love Eberron the most. I can generally pick out what my character would know without having to make a roll. Generally, I’m going to be on the same page as my Game Master who has read the same books. Giving lots of hints as to what the common people know is great, but there is one thing better.
Some books will tell you straight out what is known to the people and what is hidden from the general populace. When it is laid out like this it is easy to determine what characters know. Sometimes the game books mix mechanics and setting information, giving you a target that you have to roll for in order to get knowledge of that level about a world instance. This can be handy, if only in the sense that it helps a group gauge what sort of knowledge is present in the world for a character with a particular score in a relevant area.
The Dreaded Knowledge Roll
No matter how well defined the setting knowledge might be, there are always going to be instances where you have to test whether your character knows something specific. In those instances it becomes time for the Dreaded Knowledge roll!!! Why dreaded? Once again, it is relative. It all depends on how your group handles it. Some groups play by the rules that if a person fails a roll to know or remember something, then there is no chance to have that knowledge until a new opportunity to learn occurs. When the piece of knowledge is infinitely important in that one moment when the roll is made failure can be devastating. Does the tech know that the type of fuel rods he bought for the ship leak deadly radiation? Does the PC who is of a monstrous race know about the xenophobic (read torches and mob) tendencies of the country they are travelling to? Failing that knowledge roll can sometimes cause major issues, but it can also cause great opportunities for play experiences that rely on roleplaying and quick wits. Failure can be fun, when seen from the right angle. In contracts, sometimes, having too much knowledge too easily accessible can be the problem. Being able to make a roll and know a particular thing can undermine opportunities to engage the characters in the story. If a character makes a roll and identifies the handwriting of the true villain, then the planned scenarios to hassle the PCs in their investigations and reveal the true scope of the treachery might be lost. A good Game Master will rework the story and find ways to make it meaningful, but knowledge can be the most dangerous thing out there.
Hash It Out Beforehand – Roleplay It After The Fact
So one thing I realized as I was writing this is that every instance is going to be relative to the situation. Too much or too little knowledge can be good or bad, in equal measure. Every group’s play style is going to deal with game and world knowledge differently. The only thing I can really say for certain about the issue of common knowledge is that it should be addressed by the group, preferably before the game starts. I’m a fan of including something about what most characters know in the Game Charter  (which is really just a better term for Social Contract). Saying something as simple as “You probably know a little bit about monsters of low levels and the war. You can make a roll for more info if you’ve got a relevant skill.” provides a baseline for players to work off of and starts everyone off on the same page.
That will at least get everyone on the same page to start, but it isn’t going to eliminate all the issues. When disagreements or contentions about whether certain knowledge is common or knowable come up I have one suggestion. Let the piece of knowledge stand (information is tricky in that the effects of knowing something can’t really be taken back) but justify it with roleplaying. A player read about the special monster killing metal and the Game Master wanted that to be a secret revealed in-game? Even though the player might try to keep it out of game, some part of his mind is going to be working on how to make use of that knowledge. So let it become in-game, but make the player pay for it with a good story about how he overheard soldiers talking in a bar or actually listened to the ravings of the madwoman who said her aluminum pitchfork drove the monster away.
Most issues with common knowledge come when it isn’t commonly known what is considered common knowledge. What kind of experiences have you had with common knowledge in your games? Any instance where knowing or not knowing something had a major impact? How does your group handle determining what is well known and what isn’t?
(Images: Public Domain)