Wednesday, September 1, 2010

Knowledge: How much is too much

Knowledge skills, skills that allow characters to know something that their player does not, are pervasive in the fantasy roleplay population. Almost any table top game will have some way for characters to learn something or use knowledge that they do not have to acquire in game. This can be a wonderful tool for the people who run these games. It allows new plot angles to be uncovered, it allows them to expound upon interesting concepts that they have devised and, when the action slows down, it allows them to drive it forward with well placed knowledge rolls. The concept of knowledge skills in a larp game is more contentious. The vast majority of the mechanics in a larp game are live action meaning that we desire as little stoppage as possible. Knowledge skills by their very nature require stoppage for explanation. On the opposite side of the same coin, writing out and distributing all of the information a character could uncover on a typical larp weekend could be a full time job for a staff of writers. There are pros and cons to the use of knowledge skills, in the end however it is always the choice of those who are running the game.

The pros of using knowledge skills are very similar to the pros in a table top campaign. The mechanic that is used in my particular breed of larp is generally a poll at the beginning of a module and then a quick briefing for all applicable knowledge skills, more advanced information can be gained through later interaction with the plot person. A typical example may be, "Plot Person: You see a field full of shambling undead... Player: CO Undead lore Plot Person: They are zombies." This interaction is interesting, it allows the players to be more tactical about the fight that they are about to enter into. In some cases it helps them identify the objective of a module without blindly flailing about for the first several minutes. It also allows for roleplay post module when the players stop to examine their surroundings and ask questions. These all seem like positive things. In addition the plot person is given leeway in what information he provides the players, if he wants to continue stringing them a long in a series of modules he can tell them something that leads to the next module, or he can give them information that helps them solve one of the weekend plots. The primary strength of implementing this type of system then is the flexibility that it allows with the dissemination of information.

The negatives of this sort of system are more subtle. To some players, it can appear that roleplaying is being replaced by these knowledge skills and sometimes this is true. It is almost always a mistake to honor a skill like Diplomat in a larp setting, diplomacy should be roleplayed and not skill based, there are many examples of skills that are like this. Knowledge skills must be limited to areas of study or contact skills, things that enhance roleplay rather than removing it. Some knowledge skills are almost impossible to obtain, this should be handled in some way, a baker should not be permitted to purchase knowledge arcane whosits, how did he come by this knowledge? Which leads into the most damaging part of these skills, time. Knowledge skills eat plot peoples time, they require the dedication of a single resource to entertain a single resource, something that I am generally against. Time is required when determining who can purchase what skills, when the skills are used and when the modules are created, this cost in time must always be balanced against the need to entertain everyone.

Balancing the positives and the negatives is not as complicated as in other aspects of a larp game. Generally, limit the time spent on questions before a module, force all knowledge skills to be purchased logistically between games and only permit roleplay questions post module if they forward the story. More specifically questions pre module should take the form of a poll with a description that takes no more than two minutes from the plot person. This is important, it is boring to stand out of game while someone else gets information. The logistical purchase of skills is superior to pre game purchase because it allows for discussions between plot people, it allows the people who run the game time to determine the impact of a skill. Roleplaying sessions after modules are great for the person getting the attention, it is important that the plot person makes sure that everyone else is being entertained before engaging in an hour long descriptionathon. All of these things seem simple and they are but I have seen them done incorrectly many many times.

In LARP games knowledge skills can be great! They allow plot the leeway to put information in game without having detailed write ups that they hand to the players. They allow for the organic dissemination of information and they allow players to customize their character far more than combat skills do. The dangers are clear, they can drag the game down to a crawl if misused and they can be used as a crutch to replace roleplay. If as a plot person you believe that you can deal with these downsides and mitigate them with proper organization then you should absolutely make use of these skills, if you cannot the game can be fun without them too.

Let me know what you think about this guys!


  1. Tim,
    I think you hit the serious pros and cons of knowledge skills, but there is one point I think is really key. As an adjunct to allowing players to further customize their characters, knowledge skills provide a great experience sink for higher level players.
    NERO, at the very least, scales poorly past around 20th level, and knowledge skills let players reduce their effective combat level and replace it with skills that are controlled largely by plot. I know at the extreme end of things of at least one player that, while 43rd level, has 15 levels worth of experience tied up in knowledge skills. Aside from a few details, this makes him around 28th level as far as combat is concerned.

  2. I see C.O's as a mixed bag.

    Years ago when I played I would not be caught dead with a C.O. They served no added bonus to my character. How does C.O. Baker improve my character? Do I need the silver (no)? Can't I roleplay a baker (I sure can)? Those were the darker ages.

    This time around, C.O's are very powerful. C.O. undead lore, I instantly know what I am fighting. C.O. Magic Lore, I now got insight into a puzzle perhaps.

    At a certain level/bp amt you feel comfortable with your skills you have purchased and can increase the depth of your character's power in new ways via C.O.s.

    I also feel since C.Os have been refined and narrowed down from the old days, they have been included more into plot, maybe because plot knows what C.O's to expect.

    The bad of C.O's. I see people who rely on them too much for info instead of doing investigation. This makes for a dumber player.

    Almost anyone can learn any C.O. Old school you needed to find a teacher/mentor to learn any skill whether it was a prof or a C.O. I miss this, it built relationships, made C.O's more unique, and could potentially have plot around learning/leveling up.

    Should you need a C.O for everything? Take the instance of C.O. undead lore. Say I am a paladin/undead hunter. My years of experience has taught me what a zombie is/what a skeleton is, a wraith is. Should I really have to spend 3 build to know this in-game when most of my plot would be interaction with undead? Common sense over the years would garner what the base undead package would be in this case. What would inspire my paladin to take this C.O.? If perhaps I encountered a unique undead, and this C.O pointed me in the direction of it's origin or weakness.

    I guess what I am getting at is if a player can roleplay a C.O. and it fits their character they shouldn't have to pay for it. A C.O. should be very beneficial, and shouldn't be handed out like candy either.

    My thoughts are jumbled, because I'm writing this at work. It may need clarification later.

  3. No I agree Mark, I have no COs on my characterm they are not really necessary. I think they enhance some aspects of roleplaying and detract from others. Its like a tite rope that plot has to walk.

  4. The end point is that COs should enhance the experience for everyone. Using CO diplomat instead of roleplaying diplomacy is bad. However, asking the marshal "I have CO diplomat, do I recognize any vices this guy might have that I can take advantage of" and then roleplaying the abuse of someone's weakness for wine is a completely different story.

    As for the case of high level players sinking build into COs, I'm not a fan. If you have a reason to take something, cool. But if you're just picking up everything so you can be a magnet for plot, then you're going to start stepping on the RP of others who don't have as much build as you.

  5. Plus thats really just an excuse from people who are bad at scaling...the game runs fine at higher levels if you do it right.

  6. Bill, that's an excellent point re: plot magnet. I hadn't really considered that someone might take CO's for that specific reason.

    I will say that I prefer COs for knowledges that can't be reasonably learned in-game. For example, my PC has CO's in "magic theory". OOG, there isn't really much to learn, but IG it seems likely that someone would have written something down at some point.

    That, for me, is the value of knowledge skills. It allows the IG universe to expand as-needed without someone (or someones) having to sit down and compose encyclopedias of IG information.

  7. Magic theory always seemed like a cop-out. Instead of asking the players to be experts at magical theory, they should instead just ask for levels in formal magic.

    Formal magic is magical theory.

  8. Yes, thats generally what I do or I make them interchangeable

  9. The best use of COs I have seen in the last few years is something Ravenholt does. Before game, at check-in, if you have COs they will hand you a slip of paper that tells you some tidbit based on it.

    Generally speaking, game stoppage for the purposes of answering a Lore question is really bad for atmosphere. No matter how short a time it is, it is pulling people out of game in order to convey information in a way that is not immersive and actually detrimental to maintaining game flow. Staff members should train themselves and players not to deal with COs with OOG briefings while game is running. If you want to incorporate them then either do so in some sort of implicit manner like having an NPC Baker come talk to the CO Baker guy, or do the RH slips of info thing before game, or if you want to put in the effort you can put slips of paper on mods themselves that contain info for people with certain skills. But *don't* stop game for it. Ever. The time it takes them to read the info is the time it takes them to figure it out and if they get cut down while reading, they get cut down.

    NERO has way too many game stoppages as is, having 50 2 minute holds per weekend hurts the game more than it helps.

  10. Oh, that's what I was going to say!

    A lot of those theory/lore COs can be used to godmode other players.

    Let's say my character has a theory on how things work, which I worked hard on developing despite not having any COs directly related to the topic. What happens when someone comes over to debate with me on the topic, and later drops the fact that he has CO magical theory, so he must be right. Congrats, you just stomped on my roleplay.

    I'm not saying everyone does that, but I have seen it happen on a number of occasions.

  11. Hmmm Mickey I can dig what you are saying but generally the premod questions are already in a period of game stoppage. The game may be better without them, I thought so up until this year but at the same time they definitely make some people happy. The longer ones are generally done in a one on one or one on a few environment and the players ar ethe ones chooseing to ask the questions.

  12. I like what Mickey says. Tell the players that they have the time it takes to get to the mod area to ask CO questions. That way you can get the premod questions out of the way without really affecting time flow.

  13. Tim,

    You're assuming that there's already a stoppage for the mod. Two things with this. One, making it longer is making it worse. Two, there actually doesn't need to be a hold for the mod in the first place. One of the great techniques Accelerant games all use, and I use as much as possible when running NERO, is simply doing all module briefings in some sort of IG fashion. The guy bringing you to the cave of ice trolls? Well, he also knows that if you fall off the jumpy stone you take the equivalent of an ice storm via elemental magic. Bam, now all PCs are briefed and no one had to go out of game.

    Every time we see game stopped, as staff, we should look for ways to prevent it, not exploit it.

    I regularly play LARPs that are 100% in game all the time, it's makes for much more intense, memorable, and engaging events.

  14. I will try that, let see what it looks like

  15. Couple of things:

    C.O's don't have to be a time sink. You have to know when to use them appropriately as a plot person, otherwise they can be. Usually before a mod, I'll ask players, but right when there is about 5 minutes left or so before the NPC's are ready to go. That way, the wait time isn't necessarily as long and they are gaining some info. to further rp about in the travel hold/whatever.

    I also don't agree that some are interchangeable, although really, it is whatever you want to do as a plot person. Formal magic and magical theory I don't really see as the same thing, but does it really, really matter? Not so much.

    Undead lore? Yea, if you were a paladin you should probably be knowing it after three years, but it is a little harder for a player. Say a zombie, if you fight it repeatedly you should know the skills it has....not necessarily get a slip of paper, but we have breaks we take in the real world where we aren't constantly fighting them and simply don't remember.

    Undead Lore might even give some general information about a tomb or something interesting...

    As for craftsmen, again, it's a plot tool that can be used and abused either way. I like them, mainly because I have a retarded amount of them, but I also know when it is appropriate to use them (especially when plot uses non-standard creatures or planes).

    C.O. Baker? I've got it. I've rp'd it. And I've used it on quite a few different occasions when dealing with the hobbling village.

    The idea of having to write them all out makes me want to jump off a small ledge. Not a big one, because this is a game, so just a small one.

    Last note: pc's can only come to overly depend on them if plot allows them to. If you get information, it should be to help further and enrich the game, a simple and easy way for a plot person to make someone's event and make them feel special


  16. As a player who uses craftsmans alot, I feel the need to defend it.

    I feel as a few people using craftsmans incorrectly have given all C/Os a bad name. (I feel the same thing about hoblings but that's another rant)

    I use Lore C/Os to supplement my role play, not supplant it.

    For example: Magical Theory. Ok... I see a mage in a circle doing some "odd plot" ritual. Red light flashes. And then a nearby tree suddenly sprouts bones and gets up and walks away.

    Ok... so role play... red light is usually a sign of earth or chaos magic. A circle is usually needed for formal. I could then deduce that perhaps the ritual was to embue an undead spirit into a tree, making it a chaos tree thing.

    Then I look at a marshal and go... C/O magical theory. With what I've read, added with the visual clues I have just seen... does that theory sound plausible?

    The answer then is "Yes". Good job. You verified your roleplay with research.

    Or... "No". No other reason need given. Why? Who knows. Might be a chapter thing. Red light might not be Earth in that chapter. Or I could just be completely off. The light and the tree could be completely unrelated.

    Second: In this game of hitting things with sticks... so much goes unexplained to the PCs. Stuff happens... we blanket beat the monster...get the treasure... and never have ANY idea why stuff happened in the first place.

    As a C/O user, I try to covey that I am trying to give Plot a way to relate the information of "WHY" stuff happens to the PCs. I am not trying to power game. I am trying to advance the story.

    In this arms race game where people endlessly beat things with higher numbered sticks for no good reason... it seems to me like more information and more intelligence would add to the game... not detract from it.

    I've been proven wrong before though.

  17. As with anything, the problem is with the abusers. I still like COs a lot, but I definitely give preference to the players that RP them rather than the ones that expect to be told information.

  18. As someone that runs plot frequently and strives to use CO's as often as possible and to give them value I can say they add way more than they take away. The people I find that don't like them used are often people that want to pour all of their build into combat skills, but still want to be able to use all of the information they, as PLAYERS have gained over the years of reading handbooks and playing to know everything. They get frustrated when the 4th level kid knows some piece of information and they do not.
    This is not the fault of COs but of the eternal character that breeds the attitude of omnipotence.
    Co's when used correctly can add flavor and color to the game in a number of ways. First it is a great tool the you can use to keep your players engaged between mods and games.
    During game play, as was said they are usually used during a downtime that is already occurring, and while I agree that story mod set up should be done in game, that does not mean the logistical side is always ready to go right on time. While NPCs are costuming up or the mod shack is having those finishing touches added, you take CO questions. At that time the marshal can spend some time one on one with the characters that have them. Travel holds are frequent, that is a perfect time for a marshal to discuss what things a character might glean from their CO.

    Even the dreaded diplomacy should be used in my opinion. But like everything else it is on the plot team and ownership to do it right. It is easy to tell a marshal, I have co's in Diplomacy before or during a role play session. What that means is the same thing as having a slay or a dodge in combat. I might not be able to actually dodge that blow, but this game skill lets me or I might not be such a good debater that I can convince this king to send troops to our cause, but I have spent build that says my CHARACTER can. So marshal playing the king, add that to the equation of the RP.
    It isn't rocket science it is simple addition.

    Between mods in the combat down times is a great time to send someone in or to bring a person out with cos and give them some tidbit that moves your story or their story forward.
    Experience and what you the player has learned has a place, if you have sen Zombies and you recognize their behavior or appearance then by all means act accordingly. You need not ask or be given anything. If those zombies are something different, something you would not have encountered in your travels, the person with the CO in undead lore might have some insight you do not and stop you from charging into the field of uber death zombies.

    Game rules are designed to let people be all they cannot be. We have 350 pound elf thieves that never lift their feet but dodge everything that comes their way because they want to be a nimble little thief. That is no different than a player that is not skilled in verbal debate and that did not read every monster manual and handbook, or is not well spoken and comfortable speaking wanting to know things about those subjects.

    So I think rather than the use of COs being an excuse to not role play or investigate, I think that not using them is an excuse for plot and ownership to not put in the extra work and time to make NERO more than a combat game.