Too much/not enough player knowledge and pre-existing settings

Mood Music

Suppose I want to run a game set in the Warhammer 40k universe (inspired by the Gaunt’s Ghosts series) set around a platoon or company of guardsman. They are sent to all sorts of hell-holes, battlefields and all-too-quiet patrol routes. They fight aliens, mutants, heretics and the bureaucracy of the Adeptus Administratum. It’s going to be grim, dark and grim-dark.

I ask some friends if they want to play and I get the following responses:

Cool I really liked the ghosts books, have you read the all guardsman party? Is it going to be like that? I’ve never really read the deep lore though, will that matter?

Player with the correct amount and type of 40k knowledge

Nice idea! is this going to be set before or after the indomitus crusade cos I heckin hate the way they treated cadia, cos that place was like the fortress world i mean if anyone could’ve stood up to AbAdOn ThE DeSpOiLeR then-

Player with too much 40k knowledge (cut for brevity and sanity)

40k? Is that the one with those green skeleton guys and lizard people?

Player with too little 40k knowledge

Oh cool, yeah I’ve played dark crusade, I love playing chaos FOR THE DARK GODS loved their big red demon fellas

Player with the wrong sort of 40k knowledge
A 17th century russian warhammer

The Problem

Player 1 will understand how authoritarian, uncaring and zealous the Imperium of Man can be. They don’t know all the secrets and unsanctioned knowledge which means that: Player knowledge = character knowledge. This makes it easy to roleplay.

Player 2 might notice me contradicting established elements of the setting, which could break their willing suspension of disbelief. They also know too much about all the bad guys, all the ‘deep lore’, maybe even all the backstory from the Horus Heresy. They might be able to roleplay well but when player knowledge ≠ character knowledge, it can be an uphill battle.

Player 3 has no clue, which will be fine if we make their character be from some total backwater. It might be an effort to make the grim-dark tone really clear though.

Player 4 might have the wrong tonal expectations, which is more challenging than having no tonal expectations like Player 3. I’ll need to make it clear to them that we’ll be playing a guard-focused game, and that guardsmen are even weaker in the lore than they are in Dawn of War: Dark Crusade.

All of these problems are solvable, and this game could totally work. However it’s going to be an uphill struggle. Getting the tone and knowledge of the setting over in the first few sessions without lore-dumping, whilst reining in the people who know too much might be hard. As time goes on, these issues will be lessened, but many campaigns don’t last more than a few sessions, so the better the opening few sessions are, the better our chances of a campaign with some longevity.

I can see a few solutions to these problems. Solution 3 is the most interesting.

Not actually 40k. Just imagine they all have lasguns, zealotry and even shorter life expectancies.

Everyone is Not From Around Here

In this instance, all the player characters are from some backwater. Player knowledge ≠ character knowledge but having everyone’s characters start on the same page will smooth things over somewhat.

This solution is better the less knowledge the players have of the setting.

The Mixed Knowledge Party

We could deviate from our plan and have the party be a special operations group. This way, the player who knows too much could be a scholar who has been seconded and attached to the unit. This is our best chance of player knowledge = character knowledge. We might still have trouble with the very knowledgeable player knowing more than the GM about little details.

The Reboot/Reimagining

What about if we spend Session 0 doing a reboot?

We take the core ideas of 40k and rework them so that the tone (grimdark) is retained, but the specifics are changed.

Keep the big uncaring human empire in space. Keep the FTL travel through another realm.

Yes there are dark gods, but they are not the four from 40K, and the GM will decide about them separately.

Then collaboratively redesign the power structure of the imperium (in a basic sense) and choose a naming convention for imperial weapons and vehicles.

We create three types of alien to oppose us which everyone knows exists. A truly alien species. A humanoid alien species based on a fantasy race. A twist on the humanoid alien.

We create a splinter faction relating to the dark gods and decide why people might choose to join them.

Et cetera.

There are several advantages to this method.

  • No lore dump is needed because we are creating the lore together
  • Everyone has the same knowledge of the setting (nobody knows too much or too little)
  • Player knowledge = character knowledge
  • Tonal expectations have been discussed during session 0 through the process of creating the reboot
  • Investment should be high because the players will want to see the things they created in play
  • The GM has freedom, with constraints, to use in their planning.

I can see some downsides too, mostly to do with game prep. Some GMs like to prep a lot of stuff in advance, which can be hard this way around. However, if the main thing which is prepped in advance is imperial NPCs and scenarios/problems then it should still be a goer.

All the problems I’ve raised about player knowledge can be overcome in games. But why not evade them entirely instead?

I’d love to hear any other solutions.

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