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.

Maps from my games: lessons I’ve learned

This is a look at overland/campaign maps from my games, not tactical ones. I’ll note a few worldbuilding/prep lessons I’ve learned along the way.

Worldbuilding is highly connected to mapmaking. You can do one without the other, but I’ve never made a map without building the world with it.

Caerune

Caerune was the second rpg I ever ran. I spent ages on this map and prepping the game every week. There are cults and lairs and dark, dangerous forests. It has theocracies, elected monarchies, tribal peoples, all of which are shown differently on the banners. The banners even tell you if the lord who resides there is a King or Duke or Count or Mayor. It also tells you which Duchy its in. I’m actually really proud of the density of political information on display in the banners.

The Isle of Caerune

But I always had to explain what the banners meant to the players so it can’t have been that good.

Lesson: Make player knowledge approximate character knowledge as early as possible

A lot of the time I spent on world building went nowhere, and on places that went unvisited. I don’t think it was wasted, but I wouldn’t want to do it again.

Below is an edit with a red line showing where the players actually went during our year long campaign.

There was a lot of There and Back Again

Lesson: Don’t spend too much effort on distant places

Since they spent so long in Barrasin, I also made a city map.

The two armies were on the same side in a developing civil war.

I think the map is fine, but it didn’t see much use. when the city was about to be besieged the players got on a fishing boat and sailed far away. This was not what I had hoped for, but I learnt a valuable lesson about game prep.

Lesson: Don’t make a city map when it’s not necessary

Shattered Isle

This was an archipelago/sailing themed game. I had learnt my lessons and didn’t spend ages on deep lore, I placed some adventures I read on the map and decided some other simple things like ‘there is a medusa on this island’ or ‘this one has loads of dinosaurs on it’. The effort level was exactly as it should have been.

This is the blank version, I had another version with everything labelled for me. The player version is lost to the mists of time.

It’s too big. Players visited hardly any of it, but at least this time lots of energy and effort wasn’t wasted. It was unclear where the focus was meant to be.

Lesson: Don’t make you maps too big

Dragon Isle

At the same time I was running a game on the fabled Isle of Dragons. I’d learnt my lessons though. The pc’s mostly came from distant lands so the character knowledge matched game knowledge. I’d read some adventures/dungeons and crafted them together onto a map, without spending too much effort on the specifics of different places. The lore came out when relevant, aided by a festival in which there was a storytelling competition. I had obvious allies, obvious threats and dubious groups who could go either way.

My biggest criticism of the map is that the island is very rectangular

I really struggle to find anything wrong about the way I set the game up. I think the only real problem was that I had 3 campaign ending threats on the board. It should have been 1 or 2. I remember the players resolving to travel to a location I didn’t really want them to go to, which was my fault as I had had NPCs present it as an option to be dismissed. They were half way stuck between being heroes and being adventurers.

Lesson: Focus the intent of the player characters precisely

Mini campaign: Thaarbi island

This game was meant to run for about 3 sessions for 2 players and ended up running for about 6 sessions. It was a character funnel using ‘level 0’ 5e characters. The premise was that an evil cleric had landed on this backwater island and summoned a shadow, which can drain the strength of its targets to make new shadows.

The island is meant to be about 20miles from top to bottom, so a bit more than a days walk, given the terrain.

This was the exact correct amount of detail and it had laser focused characters, with a clear intent – survive.

The map didn’t take too long and it did its job. The lesson here is more of a ‘what went right’ lesson than learning from your mistakes.

Lesson: Maps are tools, focus on making them useable

March of Kite

This is my ongoing Old School Essentials game. The locations are all either plucked from modules and adventures or they’re reskins of places I designed previously. The player characters are adventurers seeking to maximise their treasure, and have been employed by the local baronet, Sir Jack of Kite, to help him rid his lands of various problems.

From Kite to Brighton is about a full day’s walk, with rests etc.

This is the ugliest map of the lot. By far.

It is the most functional map of the lot.

Player knowledge equaled character knowledge very quickly because Sir Jack took the players up the nearby hill and pointed out the major locations of the valley to them.

There is no wasted prep here.

This is all probably a function of having a full time job, a baby and learning where to focus my efforts.

I’ve probably put too many adventures down on the map. There are 6 or so adventures/dungeons/modules at play here. Which leads me to a lesson that I still don’t seem to have learnt.

Lesson: However long you estimate how long it will take for players to make their way through any content, double the estimation

All the lessons in one place

  • Make player knowledge approximate character knowledge as early as possible
  • Don’t spend too much effort on distant places
  • Don’t make a city map when it’s not necessary
  • Don’t make you maps too big
  • Focus the intent of the player characters precisely
  • Maps are tools, focus on making them useable
  • However long you estimate how long it will take for players to make their way through any content, double the estimation
  • BONUS LESSON: You don’t always need a map