This column provides advice for DMs whose campaigns are in trouble. Do your players constantly bicker or complain about issues both inside and outside of the main campaign action? Do your best ideas fall flat? Have you set up a situation that you now wish you hadn't? Worry no more, because Jason Nelson-Brown has the answers to save your game!
Keeping Your Game on the Table and out of the Books
This installment of Save My Game examines what happens when players bring out-of-character knowledge into the game. What's a DM to do if one of the players has memorized the Monster Manual and insists on giving the other players tactical advice mid-combat?
Problem: I Know That Monster!
My players have memorized the Monster Manual, so they recognize every monster I throw at them. How can I keep them from using out-of-character knowledge in the game? -- Maggie at Wizards of the Coast
Back in late 1980 and early 1981, I read my first D&D book -- the Monster Manual, which I had borrowed from a friend. Here were all the monsters I had read about in legends and mythology, and dozens more besides, all gathered in one place. I had no idea what a Hit Die or an Armor Class was, but what a COOL book! So when I started to learn the actual rules of the game shortly thereafter, I already had a basic knowledge of D&D monsters.
Heck, the same situation occurred just recently when I ran a D&D game for my three kids. My oldest daughter (who is the same age now as I was when I started playing the game) has been leafing through D&D books for most of her life, and her favorites have always been the monster books. So about 3 seconds after I started to describe the short reptilian creatures thought to have taken the book their characters sought, she blurted out, "Hey, I know, those are kobolds!" Now kobolds are pretty common creatures, so that outburst wouldn't have been so bad -- if she hadn't started to follow it up with an assessment of their relative threat level to the party.
A few seconds into her disquisition on kobold capabilities, she evidently realized that she'd overstepped a boundary somewhere, because she clapped a hand over her mouth and looked at me with an abashed expression that clearly said, "Oops, I don't think I'm supposed to know that." Knowledge (local) checks were made to determine character knowledge about creatures of the humanoid type, and play resumed.
Cuteness aside, this anecdote illustrates a simple fact: Even a ten-year-old just starting to play D&D understands on some level that one shouldn't use out-of-character knowledge in play. Ten-year-olds, however, have the good grace to be ashamed when they are caught out, and they generally try to avoid skirting the rules once they realize their error. The same cannot be said of many adults.
Solution 1: Talk It out
You can begin addressing this situation by simply talking to your players. Stress that they don't have to "play dumb," but you would appreciate it if they would "play nice" -- that is, within the established intellect and knowledge of their characters. If a given PC has lots of Knowledge skills and a high Intelligence score, the player could reasonably assume that her character really does know a lot of information about monsters. But if a PC has few appropriate Knowledge skills and/or a low Intelligence score, ask the player to avoid acting overtly on information that her character could not possibly have. More explicitly, inform the group that players must not use out-of-character knowledge to lead, direct, suggest, or advise other players on their actions.
Solution 2: Exercise the DM's Prerogative
As DM, you're perfectly within your rights to step in and forbid an action that is clearly based on knowledge to which the PC isn't entitled. The situation is similar to what happens when a PC gets charmed -- the players know that the PC had to make a Will save (and probably that he failed), but their characters have no reason to instantly become suspicious of that character. Thus, the DM can and should forbid them to give the charmed character the third degree until and unless he takes some action that would arouse a reasonable suspicion. And even if one PC becomes aware that all is not as it should be, the rest of the party doesn't know it until she shares the information in character.
Solution 3: Impose a Penalty
Players have great freedom to direct their character' actions, but limits do exist. Players must be able to draw the line between what they know (or guess) as they sit around the table and what their PCs do inside the game. If a player persists acting in a way that is unreasonable for his character -- even after being warned -- or pushes too far and too often into the gray areas of what his PC might know in-character, feel free to impose an XP penalty after the adventure. Since the player is not really playing the character, he should not receive the full normal award that would accrue for proper play. If out-of-character knowledge becomes a persistent problem, then you and the offending player -- or perhaps the group as a whole -- need to have a serious conversation about play style.
Look, you can't erase a player's mind if he's already memorized the darned book, so at some point, you just have to trust him to do his best. On the other hand, you have every right in the world to tell him to shut his yap when he's trying to give complex tactical advice and instructions to other players based on out-of-character knowledge. Feel free to stomp on that kind of activity -- and hard. You can try talking it out with the players and forbidding certain actions that are based on player knowledge. If all else fails, impose an XP penalty on the offending character for failure to play the character -- and the game -- properly.
About the Author
Jason Nelson-Brown lives in Seattle with his wife Kelle, daughters Meshia and Indigo, son Allen, and dog Bear. He is an active and committed born-again Christian who began playing D&D in 1981 and currently runs one weekly campaign while playing intermittently in two others.