Tip: Plant Character Knowledge Before the Game

Characters in Dungeons & Dragons worlds bring knowledge that players lack. And that knowledge goes beyond sword swinging and spell crafting. Rolls that call for religion, nature, arcana, and history all check a character’s in-world knowledge. Sometimes characters know better than players. For example, as a DM, I warn players whenever their characters’ knowledge of the world says that a particular monster will likely kill them in a fight. Maybe your 1st-level characters shouldn’t attack the manticore.

For my latest game, I planned an investigation where the characters’ knowledge might help connect clues and would certainly provide perspective. For instance, the players could succeed without knowing Zuggtmoy and Lloth feuded as hated rivals, but that tidbit would help explain a discovery on the Abyssal plane of Shedaklah. I preferred not to interrupt the narrative for a Religion check and information dump. (Believe me, when the characters made the discovery, nobody wanted to pause for my lecture on religion.) I considered planting the lore in the world, but describing, say, an open book turned to a page about the rivalry seemed forced at best. So I adopted a tip from DM Tom Christy.

Before an adventure, Tom considers the essential backstory and pertinent lore that might arise, and then reveals it to individual players before play. “I love to find out which characters are trained in pertinent skills, and then feed their players information ahead of the session.” This knowledge can come from skill proficiencies but also from each character’s background, nature, and outlook. For instance, the druid knows of the cursed trees surrounding the grove, while the dwarf knows about the flooded mine.

During the game, players can share their knowledge in-character. When a player reveals knowledge, Tom rewards inspiration.

slips containing written adventure background information

For my latest adventure, I wrote the useful bits of game-world lore on slips of paper. Before the game, I awarded the slips based on the characters’ experience in the world. So the elf who knew religion got facts about the demon queens. These tidbits even included personal information about a key non-player character one adventurer would have met.

I explained, “These slips list things that your character knows. Right now, they’re just some of the countless facts you happen to know. Sometime during the adventure, this information may become pertinent, and then you should share it.”

This technique boasts key advantages: The information sharing comes when players find it important and feels organic to the in-world narrative. More importantly, players get the spotlight to share lore as their character instead of just having the DM tell what characters know. DMs already spend enough time talking.

Related: In D&D, Letting Everyone Roll Certain Checks Guarantees Success, So Why Bother Rolling?

4 thoughts on “Tip: Plant Character Knowledge Before the Game

  1. Jean-Francois

    I used to do that and i have no clue why i stopped! Thanks for reminding me of that useful way to give information that the characters can share with each other!

    Reply
  2. Tinkerer

    A possibly interesting expansion of the idea is to draw up a list of local rumors etc (I’m thinking of the old B1 module), and then:

    * Each player gets to hear a number of rumors equal to d4+(CHA bonus) [popular people tend to hear more!]

    * For each rumor, roll 3d6; if the value is less than the character’s wisdom, the character knows if the rumor is likely true or likely false (“you tend to believe”); if the sum is equal to or greater than the character’s wisdom, they get it wrong (think it’s true when it’s false, or vice versa)

    This could also have the advantage of players hearing the SAME rumor, but getting conflicting information about it (“I hear there was huge pile of gold!” “Nah, I’ve heard the same rumor, it’s nothing but rubbish!”)

    Reply
  3. Ilbranteloth

    In addition to preparing info ahead of time, both group info and per-PC info, I encourage my players to read anything they want about the setting. Of course, if you’re running a published adventure (I generally don’t) there may be some things you ask them not to.

    But the characters live all day, every day in that world, and it really enhances the immersion. For example, I had a player who was a minute Waterdhavian noble. So she took home my copy of Volo’s Guide to Waterdeep and devoured it. When the PCs were in Waterdeep, she could tell them where to go, and they didn’t need to ask the DM.

    There’s just enough different in my campaign that not all 100% accurate anyway.

    We also talk a lot between sessions and before the campaign even starts. So lots of info is provided outside the table, so it is known as it should be when we are at the table.

    This doesn’t have to be a mechanical, gamey thing. Just communicate and provide info.

    Reply
  4. Pingback: Secrets, Mystery and Information in D&D: The DM's Vow of Silence | Illusory Script

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