Storytelling Tip: Make Knowledge Checks Seamless And Engaging

From Johnn Four

Roleplaying Tips Newsletter #0552

Storytelling Tip: Make Knowledge Checks Seamless And Engaging

You and I want to become awesome storytellers, and this tip goes a long way in helping transform game mechanics into entertaining GMing for us.

Knowledge skills offer rich gameplay opportunities:

  • They can tie PC backgrounds into what’s happening right now in the game.
  • They give you a way to smoothly offer clues and insights about the current situation.
  • Aside from skill check rolls, it’s all description.
  • You can roleplay with them and weave in PC personality.
  • They validate players who choose to put character resources (points, ranks, etc.) into these skills.

The problem is we do not bring these skills into the game enough, which is a shame.

There are two main reasons knowledge skills get underplayed.

We Do Not Encourage Their Use

First is we GMs tend to get passive with them. We wait for players to ask if their knowledge offers any insight to the current situation.

On some level we could be testing player skill by making them remember their character abilities and bring them into play at the right moment.

We can still do that, and have our storytelling too. I’ll tell you how in a minute.

They Kill Roleplay

Second is all the numbers talk and crunch degrades the narrative potential these skills can offer.

Often, you are in the middle of some great roleplay and you do not want to kill it by stopping to make knowledge skill checks.

In addition, knowledge could enter play often, so you avoid all the added numbers and crunch such skill checks would introduce.

What’s A GM To Do?

Here is the key tip:

Transform character knowledge skills smoothly into fascinating game narrative.
Do this in two steps:

  1. Get rid of the skill checks and decide what the PC would automatically know about the situation.
  2. Narrate PC knowledge into cool mini stories.

Ditch The Checks

Don’t get me wrong. I like dice rolls. They make a game of things.

But instead of making every knowledge check a dice roll or test, make most of them automatic.

For tricky points of knowledge, or ones that are the crux of a plot point, ask for the dice roll.

For knowledge that’s not crucial or that adds to the flavour of gameplay, decide if a PC would just know that information and then tell the player.

Still allow and encourage “would my character know this?” questions from your players. The game gets boring when it’s all combat and tactical. Details are fun!

However, aim to answer such questions with automatic checks 80% of the time.

Automatic checks solve the problems of interrupting roleplay and bogging the game down with too many dice rolls and calculations.

How To Ditch The Checks

Step One: Start by implementing a system to capture all the PCs’ knowledge skills.

You want easy reference here. Just photocopying or printing whole character sheets won’t work. It takes too long to shuffle the papers.

Instead, you want a system that’s slim and makes finding skills fast and easy:

  • Spreadsheet
  • Index cards
  • Table on your GM screen
  • Page in your GM binder

You also want to sort all the skills by knowledge type. Grouping things by what skills each PC has makes reference a pain because you almost always look things up according to skill type first, then by what PC has that skill.

For example, the group encounters a nasty monster. You want to quickly find your monster lore category and see who has skill in that. If you group the info according to PC, then you have to check each PC for that skill – several lookups instead of just one.

Obvious? Tell that to a younger Johnn Four who first tried to do this by keeping current character sheets in a binder. Too much page flipping killed that idea fast.

Step Two: Next, start thinking in terms of what skill level would offer automatic knowledge in various situations.

In D&D and Pathfinder for example, it’s called Difficulty Check or DC. Get into the habit of assigning DC levels to knowledge opportunities. Do this for awhile and it becomes fast, easy and a habit.

Johnn’s inside voice: Hmmm, this monster is rare and it hides in its lair and remote locations mostly, so most information about it would be in the form of legends and myth. That’ll make this difficult knowledge unless you’re up on myths or history. Feels like DC 23 to me.

Step Three: Then you compare PC knowledge to the required skill level and decide what the PCs would automatically know.

I have some narration advice on how to parlay this information in cool ways, which I’ll cover in the next section.

Some games have automatic skill successes built into the rules. D&D has a Take 10 rule where you can add 10 to a skill rank to see a the PC has an automatic success.

If your game does not offer this, house rule it in after a short discussion with your players.

Remember, you can still ask for dice rolls and knowledge checks whenever you like. But you want to make this automatic most of the time so you can get into a storytelling groove, and keep the game and roleplay flowing without rolls.

Here’s how I think of it. I know some stuff in real life. That knowledge comes to me automatically. Rarely do I need to think hard for six seconds or a minute about something. I just know it and it’s there.

Exceptions include remembering facts, like names. Also, stress. That makes me slower. Plus, for more involved subjects, it sometimes takes a bit of thinking or discussion to wade through all the info locked away in my noggin.

For example, someone asks you how to play an RPG in general terms. You’ve got a lot of knowledge on that subject. No skill check needed. You just know it. So the conversation simply carries on.

So too would PCs have their knowledge on tap, automatically, most of the time.

Why bog the game down with too many skill checks? Narrate the automatics and enhance the game with better storytelling instead.

Then use knowledge skill checks strategically. Save them for:

  • Cases of high expertise (spotlight time)
  • Drama (the anxious pause while we wait for the dice result)
  • Gamified fun (would a high success or failure create interesting game circumstance?)

Narrating Knowledge Into Cool Mini-Stories

To transform character knowledge skills smoothly into fascinating game narrative, we first get a skill tracking system in place and then start making most checks automatic.

Now, we move on to how to GM these automatics and turn them into stories.

We do this with a tip I learned from Toastmasters. I’ve been going to Toastmasters since January. I highly recommend it for game masters. You learn a lot, and you learn by doing.

In Toastmasters, you are always reminded every story has three parts:

  • Beginning
  • Middle
  • End

It sounds obvious, but when you listen for it, people rarely structure their talking this way. The start in the middle, or the end. Or they skip the middle altogether, leaving you a bit confused.

As GMs, we commit the same sins. We also do not take advantage of this often enough in our games and narrative to provide great storytelling.

In our case here, we want to turn the act of revealing what the PCs know into great short stories. Think 10 seconds or so. Which is quite a few words, when you think about it, so lots of room to tell a mini story.

The Beginning

We start a good knowledge story with an introductory sentence or two personalized to the character.

Bam! Instant hook. The player will pay attention to you immediately because you’re talking about their character. And once you do this a couple of times, they’ll know they’re getting some great spotlight time this way, too. You will have their complete attention.

Frame It Up

How do you know where to start? What kind of introduction can you make?

For that, I have a simple tool. It’s called framing. Or, at least, that’s what I call it. Another word for it might be lens (what kind of lens do you see the story through?) or angle (what’s the story angle here?).

I frame all knowledge checks by their source. How did the PC get this knowledge?

Then you reference the source in your introduction. This frames things up nicely in two ways.

First, you let the player(s) know some character knowledge is about to be revealed that’s pertinent to the current scene.

Second, you bring the character into the equation, in an in-game roleplaying way, guaranteed to add flavour and great details to the scene.

For example, the PCs are walking to the city and there are some useful plants alongside the road.

You could wait to see if the players ask if they spot any useful plants alongside the road.

In which case, you could ask for skill checks. Then wait for the roll results. Then either look stuff up in the rules or think a bit about what properties you want to reveal.

Or, you could offer automatic checks and keep the narration going smoothly without spending time on all that:

“Andrius, you have good Herb Knowledge. When you were studying in college you came across a book of herbs. Some flowers alongside the road you’re on now were mentioned in that book.”

That’s a great introduction. It’s in game and in character. It’s got PC history in it. It gets the player’s attention and has the player anticipating what you’ll say next about these flowers.

And it took three seconds.

In the future, when your group understands you’re interpreting their characters’ knowledge skills via storytelling, you do not need to be so obvious about the PCs’ skill use coming into play.

You could just say, “Andrius, when you were studying in college you came across a book of herbs. Some flowers alongside the road you’re on now were mentioned in that book.”

Frame things up by how a PC got their knowledge and use that for your introduction.

While you are referencing a knowledge skill, feel free to bring any aspect of a PC into the picture! This keeps your descriptions fresh.

For example:

  • Race
  • Class
  • Skill
  • PC background
  • PC family
  • PC friends
  • PC teachers and mentors
  • Other NPCs

“Andrius, your elven upbringing has you really enjoying this walk in nature. As you saunter along, you spot some flowers alongside the road that look familiar to you.”

“Andrius, growing up you and your friends made a fort in the woods near your village. You called it The Castle and you painted it with petals from a certain flower. You spot these same flowers alongside the road you’re now on.”

“Andrius, you met a knight last year who wore a certain flower on his breast. You asked him about it and he told you an interesting story. And as you walk along the road to the city now, you spot a patch of identical plants.”

Each of these examples is fueled by the same knowledge skill. You’ve just framed it up differently, as inspiration struck, drawing from a variety of possible sources.

Next time you introduce a knowledge check, automatic or not, think, “How did the PC get this knowledge?” Think specific circumstances.

The Middle

Now we get into the meat of the knowledge check results. Tell the player what his character knows.

And make it relevant to the current game situation. That’s the key. Tie your description to what’s going on now, if it’s not already obvious.

With a good introduction, it becomes easier to weave a short story because you just continue on as you’ve begun. You’ve set the stage. You’ve framed things up in a certain way. Just carry on by adding more details.

Facts, action and chronology are the time main ways you frame up a story, whether you realize it or do it unknowingly.

So, if you are talking about something the character did, describe what action the PC took. Then the next. And the next.

And if you are talking about something the character experienced, follow the chronology. What happened? Then what? Then what?

If you are describing facts, describe the first fact, then the second, then the third.

You are still telling a story about the circumstances of the PC’s knowledge here.

Notice I structured the middle in three parts. Describe three actions or three items in the chronology. This makes the story easier to structure and short – you don’t want to delay the game with too much narrative for skill checks, heh.

“Andrius, when you were studying in college you came across a book of herbs. Some flowers alongside the road you’re on now were mentioned in that book.

[Fact 1] It was an old book written by a ranger and it had a chapter on flowers.

[Fact 2] Pictured on one page was a yellow flower with spear-shaped petals and long stem.

[Fact 3] The book said the flower offers special healing properties.”

“Andrius, growing up you and your friends made a fort in the woods near your village. You called it The Castle and you painted it with petals from a certain flower. You spot these same flowers alongside the road you’re now on.

[Action 1] You gathered all the yellow flowers you could find, then you crushed the petals and made a paste out of them.

[Action 2] You started painting with the paste, but then one boy fell out of the fort and hurt his leg pretty badly. He toughed it out, though, and kept painting – from the ground!

[Action 3] But then an odd thing happened. At the end of the day, the boy was climbing like a monkey again. Nobody thought much of it at the time, but it’s obvious now something made him heal pretty fast that day.”

The End

Good endings circle back to the beginning. They tie things up.

In the case of knowledge skills and storytelling, you deliver the best, most important, most valuable information at this point and conclude your narrative.

Best case is you offer a choice. Ending with something actionable switches the game smoothly from GM to player, from narrative to character reaction, from information to action.

“Throughout the day, these are the only interesting plants you spot. If you harvest the flowers, you could get enough to possibly make a few doses of healing salve.”

Endings should be fast and simple. Deliver the goods and stop.

That then is the recipe for a great, short and engaging knowledge check narrative. Give it context (frame it up), a strong lead (beginning), a short sequence of interesting details (middle) and a “why does my PC care?” (ending).

Make it 5-10 seconds long and watch how these little stories make your games more immersive, build up characterization and add more roleplaying to each session.

Include All Skills

Here’s the kicker. You can GM all character skills as potential sources of automatically narrated info checks. Regard every skill a PC has as a knowledge skill.

This adds a ton of great roleplaying and narration into your game sessions. It makes your games character-centric. It makes you a better storyteller.

To be good at climbing, a PC must’ve learned a few things about surfaces and climbing equipment, and been to a few places worth climbing. To be good at gambling, the PC must have played a few different kinds of games and met different kinds of people.

If you can loop in many skills into your automatic knowledge checks, you make characters seem real, integrated and more than their combat abilities.

I’m not saying you offer cross-skill bonuses and synergies (though that’s always a circumstantial option). I’m encouraging you to:

  • Make character knowledge interesting mini-stories
  • Translate more game information through character knowledge
  • Consider all character skills as potential knowledge pools
  • Make more knowledge checks automatic so you can launch into stories

Unfortunately, my flowers story as herb knowledge check might be a bit lame and not convey the potential of this GMing technique.

Look at the knowledge skill list in your game rules. Think how you can apply this technique to monster lore, region lore, NPC lore, history, item lore and more.

Think how this technique becomes an easy vehicle for you to convey more game world knowledge to your group but through great character-centric storytelling.

Next time a player asks, “What do I know about these creatures?” consider offering automatic knowledge checks to describe the foe’s properties and crunch through mini-stories.

New Contest: 100 Road Encounters

In the spirit of 100 Waterborne Encounters and 150 Benign Urban Encounters from past issues, RPT reader Paddy asks for help with roadside encounters:

“Hi, just wondering what literature you recommend or tips you might have that list and expand on hazards while travelling on the open road?

Things like flooded bridges, brigands ambushing merchants and travellers, brushfires, landslides taking out mountain passes.

Any suggestions will be greatly appreciated. Thanking you in advance, kind regards, Paddy.”

It just so happens Awesome Dice offered me a pound of dice to run a short contest, and Paddy’s request seems like the perfect opportunity.

How To Win A Pound Of Dice

To enter and help Paddy at the same time, send me short roadside encounter seeds. Like so: “The bridge ahead is flooded out.”

I will draw a winner at random July 4.

Multiple entries are encouraged!

Send your roadside encounter ideas to [email protected][email protected]

Thanks to Awesome Dice for offering a pound of dice for the prize.

Tips From Roleplaying Tips Game Masters

Have a roleplaying tip you’d like to share? E-mail it to [email protected] – thanks!

Split This Tool Into Two Sections For Faster Combat

From Jeromy

Pertaining to your article on faster combat tips, I’d like to share a trick our group uses.

We keep a dry erase board on the wall in the game room for general initiative and stat tracking. We divide the board up into sections for individual characters and then have a larger “public” section.

The personal sections track status effects and how many rounds they will last, as well as other pertinent info regarding each character.

The public section tracks initiative. We use labeled magnets so initiatives can be dynamic and not slow the combat down.

This is also where we manage time sensitive objectives. We tally up the rounds until a bomb explodes. Or we insert an “event” magnet in the initiative column to illustrate the urgency of the situation.

I hope this helps some of you speed up your combat!

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The Guilt Trip

From Jeremy Brown

I thought of a nasty and fun roleplaying way to resolve the proverbial 10 by 10 room full of orcs: the guilt trip.

The party bursts in, are ready to kill, the orcs drop their weapons, and say something along the lines of: “I know, I know, I”m an orc, you’re a (sneering sarcastically) hero, let’s get this over with, I”m only mindless fodder for my master’s wishes anyway.”

How does a party react to an orc that challenges their assumptions about themselves?

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Thoughts On Prep – Go With Your Mood

From Mike G.

Your article on GM prep mistakes prompted some reflection on how I prepare, but this then led to larger topics, like how I approach any kind of work.

I don’t like when people fall back to the old position of “everyone’s different,” because this generic statement is far from profound and tends to help with little. Yet, in this case, it might be important to remember.

I’m a teacher by trade, and before that I guess I was a college student for far too long. I’ve had my share of long and boring projects that were mentally taxing.

At the same time, I try to keep in shape, and my other hobby of armored fighting is very physical, so I’m used to tough physical challenges as well.

Over the years, I’ve noticed something about myself and my study, preparation and training habits. I finally realized I’m compulsive by nature, and instead of working against it, I run with it to great effect.

Instead of using a timer or a strict schedule for myself, I recognize what mood I’m in and I embrace it fully. I might spend three days avoiding a certain task, but once I get into the mood for it, I’ll accomplish far more than I would if on a schedule.

Sometimes I just have to bite the bullet and finish something before a deadline. I can’t tell my boss I didn’t feel like grading research papers this week! Then again, with enough lead time, I can usually allow myself time to get into the mood, so forcing it is somewhat rare these days.

Regarding D&D prep, I love making characters and setting details. Ironically, I don’t care for running the game at all. That’s a chore to me, but it’s worth it if I get to create a world and make modules.

While I like playing better than running the game, I often grow bored once I’ve hit the limit of what I can create for my one character (I don’t want to step on the DM’s toes by creating outside of my character).

Ideally, I would create the world and play inside it, with someone else running the game. Alternatively, it would be great if a friend chose to DM within the world I created. He would have freedom to create, but keeping within certain bounds.

Anyway, my least desirable part of prep is completing room descriptions and the like. If you completely ignore it, there is no atmosphere. This could be avoided with good improv, but that’s a weakness of mine, whereas my strength is writing.

I guess when I find 30 minutes of free time, the last thing I want to do is describe rooms the characters will be in for just a few minutes. If you were to look at all of my completed modules, you would see fine-looking sections with tons of detail and nice formatting…and incomplete location descriptions every time.

Session summaries are not my favorite, but I force myself to start, and then my love of writing takes over. Also, I found a way to tap into something I like (creation) when doing something I don’t (session recaps), meaning I never do bullet style summaries. These would be a nightmare chore for me.

Instead, I create colorful, well-written write-ups for the players. They appreciate it, but I like doing them because I take the opportunity to add things into the write ups that didn’t come out in the game.

Sometimes it helps me address a minor mistake or omission I made while DMing. In any case, the players seem to like reading these because they learn extra information – sort of like sticking around after a movie ends to get those few special scenes during the credits. My write-ups are time-consuming, but once I get in the mood, I crank them out.

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Additional Fire Rule Suggestions

From Rick Herron

Fire rules. The first situation I’ve used is for a medieval flamethrower. Pick a direction and for every 4 squares or hexes (the range increment I decided to use is 20′) in distance it becomes 1 square wider, starting at 1 wide in the first square.

Every 10mph of wind speed (about 16kmh) will move it 1 square after the first 4 squares.

Shooting with the wind makes the range increment 5 squares, into the wind makes it 3 squares.

Moving the direction of the flame takes a standard movement to move it 1 square from its point of origin.

For a forest fire or grass fire, what you stated in your newsletter is a good rule of thumb – my dad was a forest service worker and fire fighter for quite a few years.

However, if a fire hits the point of conflagration (more commonly known as a firestorm), it creates its own winds, and possibly even its own weather pattern.

At this point, the fire will move at the same speed as the prevailing wind and its subsequent damage should be doubled. Deciding when a firestorm occurs is the hardest part for a DM, as what creates them is still not very well understood.