I like RPGs to move fast. I only have a few hours per session, only once every month or two. I want stuff to happen. I don’t want to get bogged down too much in exposition or referencing, so I tend to run games with simple, easy-to-remember rules, and very little required setting knowledge. Exhumed is kind of the exemplar of this approach—rules that fit in one pamphlet column, the barest hints of implied setting, and a bunch of amnesiac PCs. I’ll never say, “Let’s stop to look up the rules for this.” Players will never say, “What would my character know about this?” When you know just as little as your character (and vice versa), things go pretty fast.
Even so, though you wouldn’t know it from reading any of the games I’ve designed, I really enjoy playing in extremely rich, detailed settings, and I love making characters to take advantage of my own setting knowledge. One of my most fondly remembered PCs was a know-it-all servitor of the Angel of Etiquette in In Nomine, who could tell you anything about the political goings-on in the game world—because, having read every book backwards and forwards, I could do that. My last character for 7th Sea was a deceptive skald, in large part because I relished the chance to pretend to be from a range of nationalities, and his back story took advantage of the pseudo-Norse myths of his homeland. And lately, I’ve loved digging into the world of Invisible Sun for an online campaign, for which I’ve created an eccentric researcher obsessed with challenging some established magic orthodoxy.
As a designer and GM, however, I’m (now) well aware that it’s not safe to assume every player will share my level of interest in the “lonely fun,” in reading all the details of a game between sessions. I learned this the hard way, after multiple missteps. It’s a big bummer when nobody’s shocked by your “big reveal” because they didn’t get around to reading the rule book as closely as you … or because they weren’t even aware of the supplemental materials you drew from. Plus, as a writer and designer, I’m a lot more interested in interesting tools, whether in the form of rules tweaks that do what I want better than other games I’ve played before, or the building blocks that let groups create interesting settings and characters rather than expecting them to get excited about my own ideas.
Still, I can’t help but want to make a game that more actively accommodates both of these approaches somehow. I haven’t decided yet whether it would be fun or simply a jerk move, but I rather like the idea of explicitly stating that your character knows as much about the setting as you, the player know. Much as some character build options might be unlocked by fulfilling certain prerequisites (e.g., you can take this feat if you first take this skill), you’d only get to play a very knowledgeable PC by fulfilling the prerequisite of deeply nerding out with the game book itself.
In a game with a detailed fantasy geography, for instance, the default assumption might be that PCs begin play as uneducated peasants who only know the village they grew up in, and in-game events will change all that. If you’ve been reading the book or playing awhile, though, you’re free to make a character who’s already a well-traveled explorer, or politically well-connected.
But wait, you say—wouldn’t the book have secrets that shouldn’t be available to all characters? And, well, I guess not. I’m not saying every game should be designed this way, just that I’d like to try running (and maybe designing) some games this way sometime. I suppose you could mete out secrets in supplemental books, but personally, I’d love to see how far you can take the idea that your character has access to everything you’ve absorbed as a reader and player. Maybe your character does know the mysteries of a dozen secret societies, then—how’d they get that knowledge? Who wants them dead for it? If knowledge is power, then at a certain point, you could become powerful enough to get a target painted on you.
We’ll see, I suppose. Right now I’m focused on revising a couple of games with much more implicitly defined settings, but I could see giving this a shot with some other idea in the long run. In the meantime, I’d love to hear about games or campaigns that already do this, and how it’s worked for folks. Feel free to comment here or ping me on Twitter.