A random Twitter poll about perception checks and an unrelated forum discussion on using Middle Earth as an RPG setting got me thinking about the way GMs handle “out-of-character” knowledge. For GMs of a certain type, keeping strict separation between what the players know or believe and what the characters know is overwhelmingly important. After all, you don’t want characters inventing gun powder and machine guns, allowing them to take over every medieval kingdom, do you? For GMs at the other extreme, player knowledge is fine, although for technical knowledge they may use character scores and cultural assessments to judge how successful medieval versions of modern inventions will be.
This range of responses to player/character knowledge affects one area in particular: using books, film, and other media as source material for a setting. It’s a tempting choice for most GMs, because it saves some effort and allows players to get the feel of a setting quickly, allowing them to “act” like characters who really do live in that world. But this runs into the player knowledge problem: how do you prevent characters in Tolkien’s Middle Earth, for example, from finding the One Ring, or killing the Balrog before it kills the dwarven colonists (or battles with Gandalf)?
You can, of course, not worry about whether players change what’s supposed to happen, according to the novels. Or on the other extreme, set the date after the events of the novels. But even in those circumstances, allowing players to quickly find locations or items without the same effort that characters in the source media had to use may feel a bit off and spoil the mood. What do you do when a player says “I go to the Gates of Moria, say ‘mellon’ to open the gates, and go inside”?
The strict separation GMs usually either flat-out tell the player “Your character doesn’t know that”. Or, if feeling generous, they call for knowledge and perception rolls to see how close the PC gets to the location of the gates, and whether the PC knows what the inscription says and figures out what it means.
I tend towards the opposite extreme, myself, and don’t like knowledge rolls or perception checks. But that doesn’t mean I wouldn’t make it easy. It’s been a while since I’ve read The Hobbit or LotR, and even a few years since I’ve seen any of the movies, but I don’t remember them giving precise locations for the Gates of Moria or other points of interest.
A Middle Earth character probably knows which direction to go from where they are to reach the Misty Mountains. If they are from a region within sight of the Misty Mountains, they probably know the names of the peaks in the range. Very specific types of characters may even know where the mountain passes are. But unless you’re Gandalf or a member of a dwarven expedition that’s seen historical records relating to Moria, you wouldn’t know where the gates were. And if a player wants to use player knowledge to get to Moria… fine. Where are they, exactly? Even if you are allowed to read the books during a play session (and you shouldn’t be allowed to do that. Just saying… ) Fellowship skips over the gritty details of how to find the mountain, let alone the gates into the mountain. Moria is in the “middle” of the Misty Mountains, which I see according to a Tolkien wiki are about 700+ miles long, so a player without special knowledge could get within about a hundred miles of the gate’s location, I suppose. Then they could spend a few weeks or months searching for the gate.
From the perspective of people in Middle Earth, a PC searching for Moria would look like a kook, running back and forth across the foothills trying to find some lost city of the dwarves. With luck, they might become the Heinrich Schliemann of Middle Earth. Play this out! Make the PC actually set up camps, gather resources, and explore the region.
I may develop more ideas on this later.
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