Player Knowledge, Metaplots, and Deep Secrets

I was reading a great exploration of “character knowledge” issues over at Age of Ravens and it got me thinking (again) about this issue — which I touched on in one of my very first posts about taking a new look at the term “metagaming.”

I’ve long loved the early work of the World of Darkness, I love the original Deadlands, and I’m a huge fan of Aberrant. All of those games came from the same era of game design, where it was popular to build a game around a deep meta-story full of “secrets.” I use the quotation marks because it really seems to me that those so-called secrets were never really meant to be all that secret. I mean, yes Deadlands goes on and on about “if you’re not playing one of the Blessed — don’t read this section” but here’s the part that everyone seems to forget…

You’re going to play the game more than once…

At least, I assume that the game designer wants you to like the game enough to play it more than once. And so, if I play in a Deadlands game and run a Huckster, then that game ends and I join a new one — but don’t play a Huckster, well, I still remember everything I did before about those types of characters. It’s not like D&D where I retrain a feat and suddenly I can’t do it anymore — I’m not a pokemon.

Plus, on top of what I know about Hucksters, I also have all the stuff I learned while playing in that earlier campaign. I know how hard it is to kill certain things, I know what kind of damage a flamethrower does, I know what Fear Ratings are and how to use Tale Tellin’ to counteract that Fear Rating. I’ve probably at least met a Harrowed. And as much as those first experiences are amazing and mysterious — I think it’s kinda like First Love. Yeah, all that romance and high school drama is great when you fall in love for the first time, but it’s after you’ve been around the block a few times, failed at love and learned to love again that you really get to understand what love is.

For me — and I certainly understand that others may feel differently — I enjoy knowing a setting really well. I enjoy putting that knowledge on hold (as a character) but getting excited (as a player) when something happens that my character doesn’t understand — but I as a player really, really do… Like the next time you meet a Harrowed. Your new PC may have no idea what’s going down, but you as the player know — **** is about to get real.

I devour sourcebooks for games. I love reading all the material, learning the ins-and-outs and really just getting to the heart of a setting. I love being able to interact with a game world like my character really lives there. Makes me happy. Do I feel cheated that I know “the secrets?” No, I try to turn that into making the game better by building excitement from knowing — as a player.

Of course, this won’t work for everyone. I think too many gamers have had the experience with the guy who memorizes the Monster Manual and blurts out every monster’s stats, every encounter, every game. He refuses to go through the portal because he knows where it leads, he refuses to talk to the bad-guy cause he knows who he is, and on and on… but I’d challenge those players to try not doing that, for the sake of their fellow gamers.

And my biggest reason for enjoying players who know the system/world/secrets… I really like players to be able to sit down at the table and immerse themselves in the world of the game. That works so much better when they don’t have to constantly keep asking — “are there gnolls in these mountains?” (Or some more pertinent question…)

Anyway, that’s my take on the subject — it may not have made sense if you didn’t read the Age of Ravens post so go check it out. I’ll wait.

Thanks for Reading.


5 responses

  1. Another example – sometimes you GM and play in the same game. Even if they stick those metaplot secrets back in the GM book, you’ll see them when you’re wearing your GM hat.

  2. Another very good point. This was actually the original experience I had with Deadlands. I had a friend who loved it and we played — then I wanted to run my own game so I read the Marshall’s book. Didn’t ruin the game for me, I just had to enjoy the secrets from another angle.

  3. Thanks for the comments–interestingly I’m much like you, a devourer of sourcebooks. My group…less so.

    I’ll tell you what I think the key thing for me is, as a GM. Often these settings have ideas and moments which would be incredible to play out at the table as surprises: like the idea of Fetches in Changeling or the fact of Clarity breaks or the structure of Courts in Changeling. These aren’t metaplot events, but details of the characters journey which could be dynamite to have revealed at the table. But the main book spoils a great deal of this. I think that’s a fact of the game design, but also a little disappointing.

    Ideally I’d like to see game sourcebooks which have a split player and GM section– and perhaps a modular player section where the GM could pick some options and generate the material for the player. We’re in an age with electronic design where I wouldn’t think that’s out of the question.

    I don’t thinking knowing is necessarily a bad thing– but I do think it can steal away some great moments at the table.

  4. I would have to agree that my games are hampered much more often by a lack of grounding in the game setting than by too much knowledge.

    While it is necessary to root out and reeducate *that guy* so the blurtings and refusals die, it is great to see the look of recognition on a player’s face as they suddenly put the clues and descriptions together and realize just what is about to happen…. like getting on a roller coaster the second time.

  5. Yes, I like the roller coaster comparison. I often struggle to get my players to really be invested in the details of the game world… I’m much happier with their knowing than the alternative.

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