While my recent posts on skills have focused on crafting skills, I haven’t forgotten that my stated intent was not just to rebuild Pathfinder’s crafting from the ground up, but also to rebuild Pathfinder’s knowledge skill. Knowledge, however, is a much more controversial type of skill than crafting is. And even crafting had to be defended against the argument that it should not be included in the game!
In this post I will make the argument that knowledge skills have their place. I don’t think they belong in a retroclone, or in a rules light game, but that doesn’t mean they are completely without value. Their presence in the Pathfinder ruleset is justified, even if I think it ought to be implemented better. I also hope that through this attempt to articulate a logical support of knowledge skills, I can gain a clearer picture of what is important and what is not for when I move on to designing my own version of this mechanic.
I’m familiar with two important arguments against the existence of Knowledge Skills:
- By forcing players to make a successful knowledge check before receiving information, knowledge skills create an environment where the GM often fails to communicate information which the players should be given freely. Players may not be given knowledge that their character should have.
- A game where knowledge is a mechanical ability of the character, rather than something possessed by the player, creates a gaming environment where the importance of the player’s skill is reduced. The player is not allowed to use knowledge which their character “wouldn’t have.”
Taken together, these arguments might seem like a case of wanting to have your cake, and eat it to. If the players don’t know something and the GM is supposed to tell them what their character would know; why then also should the player be able to turn around and use information their character wouldn’t know? The answer is quite simple, if somewhat flippant: because we’re playing a game. Our primary goal is not to embark upon a profound exploration of the characters we’re playing. D&D and Pathfinder are not, as -C has put it, an activity for those with thespian aspirations. Perhaps that’s what you’re doing, and if so I truly hope you enjoy it. But that’s not something I’m interested in writing about.
In a game, the player is expected to play to the best of their ability. They bring their experience and their knowledge to the table, and they’re also provided with information about the games rules, and how it functions.
But I’ve diverged from the point of this post. The fact is, depending on how Pathfinder’s knowledge rules are interpreted, both of the potential problems mentioned above can appear. But they do not have to.
In his analysis of the knowledge skill, Courtney listed three possible types of information, and posits that none of these should ever be hidden behind a successful roll of the dice.
- Trivial and of no importance.
- Non-vital, but interesting and providing some depth and background to the game.
In reviewing Courtney’s analysis in preparation for writing this post, it occurred to me that there is a fourth type of information. Imagine, for example, that my players have entered a room. It would be trivial of me to mention that the cobblestone floors have cracks in a few of the stones. I could mention to the players that the room smells so bad they can taste the pungent air on their tongues. It’s not vital for me to do so, since the smell does not affect the game, but it does help the players to imagine their environment, which is fun, so why not. It is crucial that I tell the players there are two exits on the north wall, and that there’s a large pile of stones in the corner.
4. Hidden information.
I should probably not tell the players that there’s a pile of gold under the stones. If they want to learn about that, then they’re going to need to do some work. Like maybe digging through the pile of stones.
There are two types of hidden information. The kind which can be modeled at the table, and the kind which cannot. The example above of the gold hidden under the pile of stones can easily be modeled at the table. If the players say “I knock over the pile of stones,” then voila, they’ve revealed the hidden information about the gold. However, this room also contains a hidden door on the south wall. The players haven’t seen it, but they’re pretty sure it’s there, because they saw a monster run into this room. There’s no sign of the monster now, and the only other exit from the room is barred from the other side. So they players would like to start searching the walls for hidden doors. At this point, we bring out the dice, because there’s no way for the players to describe how they look at a blank wall for a secret switch.
Based on this, I would say that there are three types of information which might be included in a game.
Player Knowledge is what the player themselves knows. When a black dragon appears, the player knows to ask the wizard if he can borrow that potion of acid resistance, because the player knows that black dragons have acid breath.
Character Knowledge is information the GM freely gives to the player, because the PC would obviously know it. If the player is in their home town and says they want to go to the local pub, the GM can simply tell them that it’s called the Pig and Whistle. When the player decides he wants to become more religious, the GM can identify a few religions the character would be familiar with. There’s no reason to hide that kind of information.
For Skill Check Knowledge, three things should be true. First, it should not be trivial. Second, the game should be equally interesting whether the players know it or not. Third, there should be more than one route to obtaining it. When a fighter encounters magic runes on the door of a crypt, it would not be trivial for that fighter to know whether the runes were arcane or divine. Even if they can’t read it, the type of writing on the outside of the door could provide valuable clues to what’s inside. If they fail to determine the type of writing it is, or even get it wrong, the game will be interesting because they’ll be less prepared for what they encounter within. Whereas if they succeed in determining the rune’s type, the game will be interesting because the player will have an opportunity to prepare for what they think is within. And, of course, if all else fails they could just go find a wizard or priest and ask them.