How To GM Knowledge (Local)

Roleplaying Tips Newsletter #1062

Today we talk about playing at a different level than your players to make your adventures more challenging.

We begin with RPT Platinum Patron Mark Aston asking a great question about players using a local knowledge type skill:

Hi Johnn,

I have never really got to grips with how to run the skill Knowledge (Local), which is rather vague in all the D&D 3.5 material I have read.

This has mainly been due to just running adventures with no relation to a campaign world and other systems having the more concise Street Wise skill.

However I am at the start of running a campaign using the Forgotten Realms. And the use of the skill Knowledge (Local) by the PCs has become more significant.

I am tempted to treat this skill as different individual skills specific to different locales. For example, Knowledge (Local) – Freeport, Pirate Isles, The Sea of Fallen Stars, Sembia, etc.

And skill points awarded as I see fit based on PC play. Then allowing PCs to boost their local knowledge skills as and when they are awarded skill points.

However, this seems a bit cumbersome, as it means an ever growing list of Knowledge (Local) skills as the PCs explore Faerun.

I asked some other DMs on how they handle it, and received this great answer:

Modifying the DC based on how far away from the PC current location is from the area/location they are attempting the check:

  • +2 for outside their location, but in the same country
  • +5 for outside the country that they are located, but within neighbouring countries
  • +10 for anywhere beyond the neighbouring countries of the country in which the PC is currently located

Note: Higher DC mods might apply if the they are on an entirely different continent or even another plane.

This keeps the record keeping from becoming complicated by the need to track multiple local knowledge skills.

This also brings up the big question of what is Knowledge (Local) supposed to cover? Is it a continent (unlikely), region, country/kingdom, city/town/village?

Thanks for the question, Mark. I have a few thoughts.

Begin With The Goal In Mind

When looking at game design, it’s best to start with the end.

What kind of gameplay do you want?

What kind of player experience do you want?

Envision the perfect gameplay involving that skill use by characters.

Sometimes the experience transcends the rules.

My thoughts on knowledge skills have changed since being introduced to the Gumshoe system, for example.

I no longer want knowledge to be a barrier to player ideas and options.

GM: “At last, after days of travel, you arrive at the city gates of Plotsankuests. What do you do?”

Player: “What’s this city about? What’s there to do here? Can I make a knowledge local check?”

GM: “Yup. Roll for it.”

Player: “Crap. A 7.”

GM: “Well, you know the name. And…it’s a city.”

A silly example, but it shows how lack of information shuts down player engagement.

But what if getting information wasn’t the hard part? What if the fun gameplay came from figuring out what to do with abundant information?

All the choices, options, and puzzle pieces to put together.

I think that’s where the fun is at with information skills.

Take a step back and imagine the perfect gaming moment with Knowledge (Local). What’s that look like for you?

Figure that out first. Then design towards that.

The More Info The Merrier

In my new D&D campaign, I’m giving the cleric’s player permission to read the monster stats for undead up to 3 hit dice.

This is to reflect their starting religion knowledge skill.

More importantly, this gives both of us more options.

Player Benefits

As the player becomes familiar with the creatures’ strengths and weaknesses, he can help the party prepare better.

It’s great spotlight grist for him. Everyone likes being an expert and helping out.

And it offers a way to engage between sessions.

GM Benefits

What do I stand to lose?

Not much. Players well-prepared for undead encounters has all kinds of cool downstream effects.

There will be a preparation phase as the party stocks up on things. I can do some world building here, some roleplay, a bit of plotting, and some justification to spend treasure.

For example, in D&D 5E, shadows are vulnerable to radiant damage. I can create some one-shot trinkets that do radiant damage and offer them for sale or as quest items.

By foreshadowing future dangers (pun +1!) I can weave lore around legends, rumours, and fears about these foes.

The cleric player can advise on the dangers. And I can roleplay grim stories of victims who have met dark ends (pun +2) from encountering these creatures to build up suspense.

Knowing details about your foe does not guarantee an outcome. While the cleric knows about shadows down to their health and diet, they don’t know the context, my tactics, or when an encounter will trigger.

Giving the player more information actually increases the story tension!

They know what they’re up against. They know what failure means. They have prepared. But many things remain outside their control. Very exciting.

The Sneaky GM

Here’s an awesome way to surprise players:

Play a different game than they are.

While your players expect one thing because they think they know what you’re up to, you pursue a different agenda that results in unexpected gameplay.

I talk more about this in March 2019’s Musing My Favourite NPC Move – Gain Leverage and May 2019’s Musing Do This One Simple Thing To Create Compelling NPCs.

For example, the characters enter a ruined tower and get attacked by a shadow.

The PCs are ready. Radiant spells, trinkets, plans of attack.

I design the encounter so the shadow has the best chance for surprise with its stealth skills and amorphous body.

I win surprise.

The shadow attacks. Then flees.

Combat over.


Players are confused.

They’re prepared for the usual D&D grind. The first to zero hit points loses.

Instead, the wizard’s lost a couple points of strength and the party must decide what to do next.

As the characters continue exploring the tower, the shadow strikes again. And again.

It keeps attacking the wizard Ignitus, who gets weaker and weaker.

Finally, the party kills the shadow. Ignitus is almost out of strength. Players breathe a sigh of relief.

…Until another shadow picks up where the first left off and attacks. The wizard is almost at zero strength.

The cleric cries out, “Protect the mage. I’m out of restoration spells. If he drops to zero strength, Ignitus becomes a shadow!”

In this example, my agenda differs from the players’. I’m not triggering the standard encounter full of shadows whacking away until dead.

Instead, I have three goals:

  • Spawn a new shadow. That’s truly roleplaying the creature.
  • Weaken the party for an upcoming strength trap. That’s dungeon design.
  • Changing the battle from hit point grinds to protecting and saving a teammate. That’s a mission.

If players knew at start their foes’ game plan was to turn a PC into a shadow, they would have changed tactics. Only until it was almost too late did players realize the game I was playing.

Despite the cleric player having complete knowledge of the creature, the adventure surprised the group. And I was able to use player knowledge against them for dramatic effect.

Whenever possible, play a different game with foes than the group thinks they’re playing.

Lore Lets Players Drive Plot

Returning to Mark’s question, I prefer a stance of giving players more information and not withholding it.

Public knowledge of people, places, and things given to players without friction arms them with ideas and choices.

When players want to know about a city, kingdom, god, army, and whatnot, share as much detail as you feel comfortable with the knowledgeable characters.

I’m not talking a page of read-aloud text here.

Give them stuff citizens of the world would know. A high level overview (pun +3) at the least.

Then leave juicier details to the die roll. Keep secrets and clues-to-earn behind your screen.

Share the rest.

You’ll find players who have more information are more likely to take the initiative (pun +4) without your prodding.

To conclude this section, giving out more information serves your campaign better, with little cost to you.

Rolling For It

If we go with this approach, then we want skill checks to open up more gameplay. We want to serve the infinite game.

We want to avoid a Knowledge(Local) skill being a roadblock to giving players ideas and options.

Therefore, use knowledge skill rolls to glean special facts.

When a player asks to make a knowledge check, my brain shouts “Free plot hook! Free plot hook!” I want the roll to succeed.

Rather than a knowledge skill being used as a barrier by the GM to prevent information flow, we want to pivot and make knowledge checks easy routes to hooks, adventure progress, and roleplay.

In regards to how to set the difficulty of the roll, I would make it less about a yes/no and more about the level of detail being asked.

Surface and public knowledge should be easy. No roll required if that suits you.

Clues and secrets require a roll. Detailed tactical information requires a roll. Uncommon information that gives PCs an advantage requires a roll.

Rather than using modifiers, change the roll target difficulty.

This saves math. It makes rolls faster. And it simplifies your job.

Rather than fiddling with modifiers, telling a player the modifier, and doing a calculation post-roll, set a target number in your head.

Then let the player roll as normal.

If the roll meets your target number, success.

If they fail by less than five, give them half the information.

If they fail by more than five, let them know the information is out there and how or where to get it.

Easy peasy.

If players ask, or if you feel like sharing, let them know whether gleaning the information will be easy, difficult, or very difficult to stage the roll.

Otherwise, it’s a simple roll and no chart of modifiers needed.

Good Questions Improve Answers

I would also avoid complicating the roll with character location.

  • Modifying the DC based on how far away from the PC current location is from the area/location that they are attempting the check:
  • +2 for outside their location, but in the same country
  • +5 for outside the country that they are located, but within neighbouring countries
  • +10 for anywhere beyond the neighbouring countries of the country in which the PC is currently located

Yeah. I’d skip all that.

Instead, flip it back on the players.

Base your target number on the question they’re asking.

More specific questions require better skill rolls.

For example, “What do we know about this place” should require no skill check. Give’em the high level overview. Add detail based on the character’s background if they’d know local stuff.

But if a player asks, “Who’s the real power in this city?” or “What do I know about the thieves’ guild here?” and that’s uncommon or special information, adjust the target to difficult or very difficult.

And when you get great questions about specifics, turn player roll failures into game master wins.

Do this by providing a lead to the answer. Give’em a hook on how to find out more.

In this way, you can guide players to desired NPCs, locations, and encounters and have players feel like they are driving gameplay.


How Many Skills?

I would stick with one skill for a D&D or Pathfinder type game.

Those systems make skill improvement slow.

When levelling up, players won’t want to divide their meagre skill points among several knowledge skills with possible overlap.

A single Knowledge(Local) skill keeps the skill valuable enough to consider skill improvements.

If you do opt for breaking Knowledge(Local) into more granular skills, then add treasure and other ways for characters to increase these skills without using those few opportunities at level up.

Otherwise, you’ll find character sheets won’t change much in this area, and you won’t get your desired gameplay effects.

More Information Is Better

In summary:

  • Figure out what kind of game you want to run — and design accordingly
  • Create a simple system using targets instead of modifiers, and one skill instead of several
  • Reward player curiosity with as much information as you feel comfortable sharing
  • Use rolls for secrets and your best clues
  • Turn knowledge check fails into leads and hooks

What’s your worst case here?

If rolls become easy because players invest in more knowledge, and this forces you to hand out more secrets and clues, I can’t see that being bad.

Quite the opposite. Players will get even more hooks, leads, and seeds for progressing your plot.

I hope this helps, Mark.

I encourage all GMs to be generous with character knowledge.