I am always looking for good ways to give players information. As a Judge I like to talk – part of the fun of the role for me is showing off the wonky knowledge about weird goings-on in fantasyland that would otherwise stay behind the screen – and as a theorist I think it’s important for players to make well-informed decisions.
Players are much more likely to grasp information if they seek it out than if I simply blab on about things they may or may not care about. In the afterschool class, kids whose expectations have been set by modern skill systems will often ask for a Knowledge roll or an Intelligence check when what they mean is “tell me what my character knows about this situation.”
This is a tough moment for an OSR GM. I support the impulse to ask for a knowledge check because the dice add extra significance – if the kids roll a natural 20 they will treat the info I give them as much more valuable than if I just told it to them. However, calling for a knowledge check doesn’t add much to the experience of playing the game apart from the possibility that I will give them the info I want to disclose in a murkier or more expansive way than I’d planned. And skills are necessarily broad and vague; that a character is skilled in monster lore is less interesting to me than whether it was gained from studying bestiaries or having grown up in an aberration-haunted wilderness.
What I really want to know in a knowledge check type situation is why does your character know about the thing you’re asking about and how do you go about figuring out the answer. With this, the dose of information I want to get across can also fill in the group’s understanding of the PC who is asking and the backdrop to the situation they’re in. (Groups that are well-versed in skill systems may get some insight into the character by seeing which skills they have and how high their bonuses are, but I’d like something more concrete and flavorful.)
In last night’s Dwimmermount game I hit on an approach that I liked a lot, given a party in which every PC was an arcane spellcaster. I decided that the process of attuning themselves to the spells crammed into their brain made them an expert on the subject, so that having fireball on your spell list meant you had to have become highly knowledgeable about fire. This worked well because it gives the players the same kind of objectively defined toolkit that you get from a skill system. When an investigative situation comes up it is nice to be able to consult one’s character sheet for options, but “can I use my Knowledge: Arcana?” is to me much less exciting than “does levitate know anything about this?”
Part of what I liked here is that it tells us about the character’s capabilities; Vancian spellcasting worked for Vance because the audience is primed to see how the protagonist will use each of the spells prepared at the start of the story. Anything that increases the group’s awareness of which spells party members have memorized will make it more exciting when that foreshadowed gun is fired. I’m also drawn to the idea of spells being sentient and self-obsessed entities. Asking what fireball reveals about a situation, like casting speak with animals, gives the Judge a chance to roleplay a very different perspective on the world. I figure that conjuring up one’s fireball spell and looking through its eyes reveals a landscape defined by flammability and wind conditions and a perspective only mildly interested in human beings except as potential casters of fireball .
If I was expanding this to cover a more traditional party I might also focus on what languages characters know, as this also offers the chance to get across information into an unexpected light and tells us something about that PC’s capabilities and background.