The importance of knowledge skills

Seian Verian

New member
So, basically, right now I am attempting to design my own tabletop system!

There are many things I'm going to need to try to figure out about it, but for now I thought I might make a thread about a relevant question

(if I end up needing to ask many questions, maybe it will be necessary for me to make an overarching thread for discussion about it? But for now I think getting answers to specific questions is easier with individual threads)

An important thing I am considering right now is what I should do about knowledge skills. Specifically, mechanical skills that directly represent a character's knowledge within a given field, rather than their actual ability to do any kind of action.

The issue I'm having is, with the design of my game I've become aware of an issue that will mean that, depending on the setting and what abilities characters have, characters may have essentially infinite access to information that is known to society. This seems to somewhat negate the premise of what a knowledge skill normally does.

Should I not have knowledge skills, and leave character knowledge largely up to roleplay and simply what it makes sense for them to know?

Should I make knowledge skills finite, so that eventually they'll be easily maxed, representing how easy it can eventually become to gain all the knowledge that can be gained through normal educational means?

Should I make higher levels of knowledge skills actually represent a magical connection to a concept, meaning they can more readily gain access to knowledge on something even if they haven't learned it through experience?

I'm not sure what the best way to handle this is, so I was hoping for some input.
 

CWalck93

Doom Priest of Peace and Happiness
Validated User
Honestly? Depends on the setting. Personally, the way I have done it is give players several general skills that cover knowledge (Humanities, Science, Underworld etc.) and then allow specializations so that somebody who is really good at business would have Humanities: Business.

Some systems (Spycraft 2.0 for example) has an Education bonus. Basically what happens is if its something the character should know or may know, make a skill check, add the Education bonus and see what happens.

Probably looking at the second option if that's your characters are going to have 'infinite knowledge' in your setting.
 

Seian Verian

New member
Okay, so, what I'm thinking now, probably...

I was thinking about, in this game, having multiple "tiers" of skills. There's the broadest level of a skill (which in this case might well be "Education"), and different levels of subskills which get increasingly narrow.

Given the way that the rolling system works, it will actually be possible to turn portions of your total score for a roll into automatic successes. So if someone has a sufficiently high score for Knowledge rolls in general, they essentially could just recall absolutely anything known to man, without fail.

I'm strongly considering, however, just allowing extremely high levels of knowledge skills to result in the potential to gain knowledge that they wouldn't normally have access to, magically. These levels would, of course, be completely inaccessible to someone who doesn't have the magical nature required. This would keep knowledge skills potentially relevant throughout even the highest-level games, and game master could absolutely control what sort of knowledge can be gained through this.

...Is there any particular reason I shouldn't do this, or that something else would be better? In my cosmology it's perfectly justifiable, I think.
 

Alon

Registered User
Validated User
Well, it depends on what the setting is and what the story you're trying to tell with the system is. At one extreme, if you're telling the story of a small military unit, like your average war action movie, then you may not need knowledge skills at all, and the INT-related skills may be more about using a specific tool (like a codebook, complex explosives, a raft if it's more of a commando story, etc.). But for the most part, stories will often revolve around specific knowledge. Some examples:

Let's say your story takes place in the modern era. Let's also say it takes place in New York - I used to live there so I can give specific examples for relevant knowledge. Maybe you're telling a detective story - could be hardboiled, could be Call of Cthulhu, could be a spy thriller, could be whatever. Or maybe you're telling a story for which politics is relevant, like a lot of the more hardboiled superhero stories in which the mayor, chief of police, etc. are important characters (as in Batman).

So let's talk about what you can learn from Knowledge: New York Politics. Let's say the PCs are investigating some corrupt development deal, and are trying to talk to some NPC who's on City Council who voted for it as did the entire council save one member. Can they trust this NPC if staff insists they run a clean shop? Maybe they should instead talk to the one member who voted nay? The PCs can argue amongst themselves what the near-unanimous vote means. Now let's say one of them has a lot of ranks in Knowledge: NY Politics. The PC learns the following fact: New York practices councilmanic privilege, which means that on matters internal to a City Council district, including development approvals, all members of the council defer to the member representing that district. Unless the NPC the PCs are talking to is representing the district the corrupt deal takes place in, the yea vote means nothing and the NPC is as trustworthy as ever, while the single nay vote is likely a gadfly who likes to grandstand or who has some personal feud rather than a commitment to clean government.

Same kind of esoteric knowledge can apply to any world you construct. Say you're running quest fantasy. The PCs trundle to a fishing village where the locals complain that the place is unsafe because there are brigands raiding their stores, and could the party please find and get rid of them? The PCs now have a quest and may even be able to squeeze a reward. But, who are the brigands, where are they, and what is their strength? Say the PCs can glean the following information:

- The brigands are actually former privateers who have taken to raiding villages since the royal navy protects merchant ships from piracy too well. Their commander was a war hero, for which the king knighted him; the king might still not miss him tooooo much if he learns he turned into a common robber, but he's still worth more alive than dead. Learning this requires knowledge of politics, to know what happened to the privateers from the last war. With even better knowledge of politics, or knowledge of military culture, the PCs can also learn that naval crews have intense personal loyalty to their commanders and therefore the privateers' strength is the size of a typical pirate crew minus desertions, say 30 people in this setting. (Golden Age Caribbean pirate crews were far larger, numbering in the low hundreds, but quest fantasy is a lower tech level with smaller ships than the Golden Age of Piracy.)

- The best hideout in the area is a cove five kilometers south of the village along the coast. This information is too vital to rely on a single skill, so there must be several ways of figuring this out: a multiday search of the entire area, or really good knowledge of geography, or the information above about who the brigands are plus moderate knowledge of geography (because if they're former privateers then they're logically likely to hide near the coast, making the search easier).

- People in this region mistrust strangers and will often lie to them, and therefore nothing the villagers say to the PCs beyond "brigands are robbing us" is reliable. The villagers mostly just want the PCs gone, and if they get rid of the privateers or vice versa, either way they win. A local reward is unlikely to be substantial. Learning this requires knowledge of anthropology or general knowledge of this region.

All of this is useful knowledge for tactical decisions, as well as the strategic decision of "do we even want to bother?".
 

Zaleramancer

Social Justice Warlock
Validated User
Hello!

I'd like to ask you: What do you want your knowledge skills to do, and why are they there?

It's a very important question to ask since that shapes how you proceed with them: Different games will have radically different approaches depending on their design philosophy.

For example, I think the role of "Knowledge skills" in (for lack of a better term) more traditionally designed tabletop games comes from a desire to define the difference between player and character knowledge more strictly, and to allow knowledge to flow from one to the other in play. If you play for long enough, you will know things about the world and characters that they themselves don't know. You might know, for example, that their mentor figure is secretly one of the antagonists because you're savvy with the genre conventions, or because you asked the GM to make that so for the melodrama. You might know how to identify particular places or items or characters- you know what a Medusa's stats are and where to find them.

This out of character knowledge can flow into the character's knowledge because of rolls or skills that define what they do and don't know. Before the question was asked, "Do you know what a unicorn even is, really?", that knowledge was never defined. It's a superposition! A successful roll can mean that your character *does* know and you can act on your out of context knowledge.

However, the reverse can also happen- your character may have knowledge you don't. They have lived in the game world their whole lives, and you may be a situation where are presented with something you know nothing about and you ask, "Oh, my character grew up in these woods, could I roll to see if the know about this?" The character's knowledge flows to you.

A lot of PBTA games don't have moves that define what you do or don't know, because they expect that to be handled by the Conversation. Everyone sort of talks about it and makes a sensible judgment. It has worked pretty well in my personal experience, so long as you're playing with people who aren't willfully disregarding good will and play practices. In a lot of PBTA games, there may be moves that allow the players to investigate the situation or other characters to help find things out that they can use in play, or moves that help them define the world itself- fellowship has a non-rolled move for adding to the game lore about the playbook you are playing as.

So, it really boils down to why you want to include them and what you want them to accomplish!
 

MetaDude

Married to a Scientist!
Validated User
...knowledge skills. Specifically, mechanical skills that directly represent a character's knowledge within a given field, rather than their actual ability to do any kind of action.
I'm not sure I understand why you would even consider skills that don't represent actual ability. Presumably, RPGs are about characters doing things. If a knowledge skill doesn't convey any impact in action, why would I even consider taking one?

If your setting involves modern tech, where one can easily Google information that is unknown, then I'd say the big advantage of knowledge is time. As a non-plumber, I can tackle any plumbing problem, given access to the internet and sufficient time. A plumber would instinctually know than you turn off the water supply before attempting anything, but someone who only relies on internet may take hours of research to gain the confidence needed to take on a plumbing job.
 

Seian Verian

New member
Right... Thank you all for your input. After a lot of consideration, I think I've decided that the way I want to handle skills that largely have to do with knowledge is as such:

Skills such as "Science" and "Technology" don't actually reflect only raw knowledge in a field. While actually knowing a certain amount of what they deal with is required to have the skills, there is no skill for simply knowing something. Instead, the skill represents your familiarity with and ability to -use- that knowledge in meaningful ways. Thus, someone with Science -> Social -> Linguistics, would not only know a great deal about how language works and specific knowledge related to that, but would be able to use it to analyze linguistic information and notice linguistic relationships between things. This would be distinct from someone who has studied linguistics, but doesn't know how to apply it, or simply knows a lot of languages but doesn't know how to extrapolate from that knowledge. Such individuals would have, at best, a lesser proficiency in the skill, even if they "know" more.

Does this seem like a reasonable way to apply things?
 

kingSpaceLizard

Registered User
Validated User
As a couple of people have pointed out I think Knowledge skills provide a way to allow the players to solve problems without having to fight. If the game is focussed on investigation in any environment then they are actually critical as opposed to just useful.

Seian Verian Seian Verian I think your comment "the skill represents your familiarity with and ability to -use- that knowledge in meaningful ways" is the key in modern games. The less advanced the setting the more like gold dust the knowledge skills becomes in their own right. Only in a sci-fi game with online AI or skill chips available at your fingertips/eyeballs do they become redundant. As MetaDude MetaDude mentioned they are less useful in a modern game because the knowledge is available easily, even if the tools and the aptitude aren't.

Giving people some basic general knowledge skills (e.g. not things like Occult Knowledge) at some level 0 or skill system equivalent to allow skills rolls is reasonable with more depending upon access to education. Remember that in older settings the distinction between knowledge, folk lore and myth can be politely described as fuzzy so level 0 knowledge could mean all sorts of things which may not be the truth. Maybe they'd open some skills at level -1, like level 0, but its actually wrong or even dangerous.
 

ash adler

Registered User
Validated User
While actually knowing a certain amount of what they deal with is required to have the skills, there is no skill for simply knowing something. Instead, the skill represents your familiarity with and ability to -use- that knowledge in meaningful ways. Thus, someone with Science -> Social -> Linguistics, would not only know a great deal about how language works and specific knowledge related to that, but would be able to use it to analyze linguistic information and notice linguistic relationships between things.
That's pretty much how I like to handle knowledge skills. Having the skill by itself is enough to recall (or have the GM explain) memorized facts and the like; rolling the skill is for trying to apply that knowledge to a practical end.
 

1of3

Registered User
Validated User
Specifically, mechanical skills that directly represent a character's knowledge within a given field, rather than their actual ability to do any kind of action.
Why is that? Usually, you will use your knowledge to get something done.

- There are monstrous foot prints. Can you identify the monster?
- You want to intimidate someone. Can you drop some local bigwig's name?
- You see strange writing. Can you read it?

In any case, you do not roll to know something. You roll to find out, if you can apply your knowledge to the situation. Maybe the foot prints are smudged. Maybe that writing is in a dialect you don't know. Maybe you know who rules the local underworld, but the person you try to intimidate doesn't. You are too clever.
 
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