Knowledge-based Characters

by L. Drew Davis (drewd@mindspring.com)

How do you properly deal with characters with a lot of knowledge abilities, especially mystical ones? Here, I mean the stereotypical sorts of bard, or sage, or fortune-teller. Assuming the GM and player have a life, there’s no way that the GM is going to write down everything that they character would know (most of it probably isn’t even invented at the start of the average game), and there’s no way the player is going to memorize it all and recall it.

Very often, these sorts of characters just turn into “GM mouthpieces”, a convenient excuse for the GM to tell the players something he would have told them anyway. The GM just substitutes “Fredrico happens to know that” for whatever other reason he may have had for dropping the tidbit.

The drawback here is that the character is really deprived of his ability. There’s no chance to make connections, or recognize a bit of background, or have that extra bit of knowledge beforehand. Without some care, playing these characters becomes an endless series of glancing at the GM and waiting for him to fill in what you would say whenever a question arises, not the most fun.

A few things I like to see when I’m playing such characters:

  1. Always inform the character privately of his knowledge. Most of the time he’ll just pick up the note and then promptly announce the information to the party. But you need to leave him that choice, and that moment of foreknowledge, not just short-circuit the process by announcing the facts out loud.
  2. Try to take advantage of such characters with a few pre-game briefings. When you know some event/fact is looming near in a game, tell the player beforehand, so he can naturally work the information into the game at the appropriate time.
  3. Get the player to stooge for you a bit. Write some scenes with the character in mind, and fill him in on his part, with some dramatic dialogue or whatever. (Beware of being simply mysterious, though, as the other players are promptly going to pounce on the diviner observing the omen and demand some details. He’d better be prepared to supply them, or the scheme dissolves quickly.)
  4. When you (as GM) get a chance, write up some background material and give it to the player, especially when it’s not relevant to the current adventure. Mix in some “just random stuff” with the pointedly relevant bits, and leave it to the player to figure out which is which.