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Dealing with Player Ignorance

Running one of my convention games. (Not the game in question)

I have GMed many convention games, but I ran into a new problem a few months ago. One of the players in my game had a fundamental misunderstanding of a pretty simple scientific principle. I will not go into specifics because I do not wish to embarrass that player or narrow down which game I am discussing.

The players were engrossed in the game and having a blast trying to come up with a solution to my challenge. They were all great people and it was a very positive game, however suddenly one of them suggested an action that defied the laws of physics. Two other players jumped on board, and the remaining players looked at me with their eyebrows raised.

I casually asked for clarification, hoping they’d catch the mistake themselves. No luck, so I very politely questioned their logic, asking if that was really what they meant to say. Surely, their basic elementary school knowledge was just a little rusty, right? Wrong. They defended their position, restating their faulty understanding of earth science. The logic behind their actions was sound, they just didn’t state the right materials to do what they wanted. I was at a crossroad, do I impose my scientific understanding on the game to insure it’s correct and risk embarrassing the player, or roll with it and prioritize fun over academic correctness?

Against ever instinct in my teacher body, I rolled with it. Why? Well there were two main reasons.

First, I didn’t want to penalize the characters for the players’ ignorance. They had found a good solution, but simply did not have the scientific background to choose the right materials to make it work, even though the materials were available to them. Often we play characters with knowledge or qualities different than our own. Shy players can roll skills to give speeches and technology dummies can roll to hack computers, so it didn’t seem fair to kill their creative idea when their character would have known exactly the right material to choose.

More importantly, I didn’t want to kill the fun. It was a one shot game with people I didn’t know well. If it had been my normal gaming group, I might have argued the point and then bought the player a beer. I didn’t know these players well enough to push them. They might have gotten mad and walked away, or been perfectly polite but not enjoy the rest of the game. We were all there to have a good time and it seemed pointless to risk that over a small mistake in their plan. That said, if this had been a campaign I would have pressed the point because I wouldn’t want the physical laws of my universe to be altered long term, but again, I would know players in a campaign game enough to debate it with them.

Did I make the right choice? I still ponder that question. The game finished smoothly and everyone seemed to enjoy themselves, but maybe they would have enjoyed themselves if their plan had failed. It really boils down to an individual’s personal goals for the game. Mine was for my players to enjoy themselves, and I succeeded, but I might not make that same choice again.

Oh, and after the game I casually brought it up to the player privately and suggested they look it up when they got home. The teacher side of me couldn’t give up completely.

(This article was first posted on goldenlasso.net)

Written by

Kimi GMs and plays tons of different tabletop systems, but her favorites are the Wild Talents, Savage Worlds, Traveller, and Pathfinder. She is a regular host on the Happy Jack's RPG Podcast , and attends conventions throughout California. Kimi is an avid cosplayer and also loves to make music with her folk band, The Merry Wives of Windsor. You can check out GoldenLasso.net to read more of her articles about gaming, costuming, comics, and more.

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9 Responses to "Dealing with Player Ignorance"

  1. shortymonsterNo Gravatar says:

    I think you’re right to differentiate between players you know and players you don’t. Not everyone knows the etiquette for gentlemen eating breakfast in 1870s England, but if my regular player group gets it wrong, I’ll drop them a subtle hint if it would make sense for their character to know it, but when running for strangers, with only a limited amount of time to spare, it’s best to just carry on, and if there’s time post game, do as you did, just politely give them the nod.

  2. rabaliasNo Gravatar says:

    For me, judging on the example, I’d just say “sure, you can do that – but your character would know that you need to use XYZ materials instead of ABC”. I wouldn’t see that as starting an argument or putting the players in their place.

    The more difficult case would be where the plan literally could not work. It depends how glaring the error was – if they’re like ignoring gravity or something then it’s back to the drawing board for them. But if it’s a relatively detailed point, then I think you’re right to roll with it and move on. I’d even acknowledge what I was doing “eh, what the hell”. After all there could be other areas where you as GM are less knowledgeable. I dread to imagine what fun the two lawyers in my game could have if we ever had a trial or something in my games – I hope they’d know to keep quiet!

  3. snidermanNo Gravatar says:

    “Did I make the right choice? I still ponder that question. The game finished smoothly and everyone seemed to enjoy themselves…”

    Then you made the right decision. In a con game, you have 3-4 hours tops to get everyone settled, pass out sheets and props, introduce the setting and basic rulebase, and get through a fully fleshed-out micro-adventure. Even if the players were “wrong,” this isn’t the time to derail the game because you want to suddenly give them a crash course in physics or astronomy or chemistry or whatever bugaboo seems to have gotten your goat.

    It’s a con game with strangers you’ll likely never see again. Let them remember you as the GM who let them do awesome real-world-defying stuff. You don’t want to be remembered as Karen Killjoy who launched into a tirade on “This is why your plan of action is foolhardy, and here come the consequences.”

    As a GM, how would you react if the players began pointing out errors in your setting/the way you run your game? “Excuse me. That’s not how that works in real life. You see, I’m an expert in the field, and it works like THIS…” I know I’d be pretty annoyed with Capt. Know-it-all.

    Sorry for the tirade, but I don’t see the problem here. It sounds like you wanted to MAKE it a problem and plan to do so if it surfaces again. And THAT’S the problem.

  4. HyveMyndNo Gravatar says:

    I dunno sniderman. I totally agree that for minor things, the GM should just let it go. Especially if stopping the game to correct the player’s assumption will put the kaibash on everyone’s fun. Doubly so if it’s a con game, as people don’t really know each other and tend to get offended more easily.

    But what if the player’s assumption is *way* off and breaks the continuity of the game’s reality? What if the player says something like “I fly up to the roof of the skyscraper and check the door to see if it’s open.” I mean, unless they’re playing a character who has the ability to fly that plan is impossible. Both in the physics of the real world and the physics of the game. Is it reasonable for the GM to point this out, or do they just let it slide?

    That’s an extreme example to prove a point, of course. But where along the “reality scale” is the breaking point? The point where the GM is allowed to correct the player’s incorrect assumptions? Plus, this wasn’t a case of a player poking a hole in the GM’s setting or criticizing their GMing skills. This was a lack or real world knowledge, shown by the fact that several other players at the table realized the incorrect assumption.

    I think rabalias had a pretty decent suggestion. As the DM, just say “Your character would know that (insert correct information).”

  5. MichaelNo Gravatar says:

    I agree with what had been said above, really. If It’s a minor thing, I would just let it go. The whole point is to have a good time, so – as long as what they are doing is not a big deal – it’s probably for the best. I always try to figure out if saying no would get us somewhere more interesting (or, alternatively, preserve the verisimilitude of the game, as in the ‘flying’ example). Since it did neither of those things in your case, you definitely did the right thing.

  6. JazzIsBluesNo Gravatar says:

    If the logic is sound but they’re shaky on the specifics, I would run with it and let them go. Reason being that as you and others have rightly stated the character knows things the player does not. ie. Most role players have at best a limited understanding of how to fight with a sword, but their characters might well have an intimate knowledge of how to do just that.

    Now if the logic is unsound, that’s a different animal in that case I take the same view I would a fundamentally flawed battle plan. You takes what you gets.

    As always just my 2 krupplenicks worth, your mileage may of course vary.

    JiB

  7. KillwatchNo Gravatar says:

    Yes you did the right thing for a one shot. But in a standard group I would look at their sheets see if they have the correct skills. If they do let them know it wouldn’t work. If not let them try and fail.

    If you wanted to be a dick you could have allowed them to try but then make some element of the attempt otherwise fail.

  8. @RA_WhippleNo Gravatar says:

    I think we’re all in syncopation. The fact the precise example is omitted suggests a broader application more “conducive” to just an explanation of earth science. rabalias observes character experience is more relevant than player experience. I would have brought the point to the surface, in private, in a long-term situation to avoid unpleasant surprises later. I would have tries to work with the player. I would have brought up the matter in a group setting if it were to affect the whole group – such as a misunderstanding of rules, for example. The latter would involve the group’s play experience within my system.

    The broader application is to Player Skills (know-how) versus Character Skills (know-how).

    In my real life, so I can assume the possibility in my make-believe life, there have been occasions when I could do no wrong (or do no good). These have been occasions when I have practiced the exact same skill, with the exact same level, but achieved diametrically opposed results. I could say, rolling my eyes with my ironic tone: I rolled a 1 or a natural 20. That is in my real life. So, why not as a fact in my make-believe?

    Do I know how to handle a light saber? Am I adept at fast-talking? Am I a charmer? Is my Character?

    The thing about that example of player knowledge versus Character knowledge is the role-playing player (role-playing) /should/ not give up the role-play simply because they believe they do not have the necessary skills in real life to do what the Character can do in make-believe. Role-playing is not about dicing any more than life is about winning.

    A player’s awkward role-play of a social skill, for example, might be just as successful as a winning performance by Alec Guinness – which is not to say the result will be a forgone conclusion based on the performer. “These droids you are looking for are not the droids you are looking for,” may be very incriminating phraseology, yet just as successful as the original line may be unsuccessful. I have experienced that in real life. So why not in my make-believe, too?

    That’s not to say the explanation /has to be/ a difference in knowledge between player and the player’s character. Maybe a particular NPC merchant will listen to the character’s request, same as the good GM will listen to the player’s logic, and reward the player and his character with the item they want rather than the one for which they are asking. I have seen this happen in real life too.

    At the heart of it is the question: what do you want your actions as GM to inform your players about in your game?

  9. Philo PharynxNo Gravatar says:

    I would have mentioned the correct part in passing, but gone with it. Going on with it is to drive the fun of the game. Correcting it is to work at decreasing the ignorance of the world. There’s more than enough bad information out there. Giving a little right information in a low-key way is good. With more details it’s hard to tell if this is the sort of thing that would ever come up in the real world. If it is, and they try it wrong, that could be bad.

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