Your Character Knows More Than You Do

Hiyo, I’m Bryce. I’m one of Wil’s very old Palladium characters. He hasn’t really done a lot with Palladium in a very long time, and with me in even longer. But just because he’s not really played any Palladium doesn’t mean I’m not in here. There’s a couple others in here too. On my way up, I saw some crazy woman with  metal in her face and tattoos babbling about rivers and dreams. Creeped me out, so I just kept walking.

What I do know is that I’ve forgotten more about my world than Wil knows. See, I actually live here. I’m a mage, and for sure Wil doesn’t know horsecrap about magic. The willpower required, the studying, the years of apprenticeship. So when I know that there’s an herbalist on Market Street because I had to slog my way over there every morning to pick up laxatives for my master (don’t ask), Wil doesn’t know it until it becomes important to me. Like when I need a particular herb for an antidote. So I’ll tell him, and then maybe he can mention that “Bryce thinks there’s an herbalist over on Market Street that might have the antidote” so we can get on with things.

Now, that might not necessarily be true any more. Maybe the place burned down, or the herbalist moved away for some reason. I wouldn’t know that either if I hadn’t been there in a while. If that was before Wil started playing the game, I don’t think anybody would know that. It still doesn’t mean the herbalist wasn’t there though. I would know. Because I live here.

You often hear about how to handle the player knowing more than their character does, but seldom does anyone talk about the character knowing more than the player does. I can guarantee that the latter is more extensive than the former – at least when it comes to the character actually functioning and living within the world. This process I’m going to call “reverse immersion”, because it’s letting the character run the show when appropriate. It’s a conceptual-type-thing I’ve had knocking around in my head for many years, and is actually very close to the way I “immerse” in my characters. I let them act through me, and not the other way around.
Of course, since the character is just a construct of the player this puts us in an awkward position. When the player says the character sits down at a table in the tavern and picks up a knife and fork to start eating and the GM says, “They don’t use forks here” – the character would have already known that, even if the player didn’t. That one’s easy though…the player is merely channeling their own experience, so of course the character never picked up the fork. The character chides the player for cultural insensitivity (forks were banned after that incident some time ago), there’s a tiny retcon, and we can continue with the game.

But it seems like details that have a bigger scope are a sticky wicket for some people. Like Bryce’s herbalist shop. Some GMs would positively bristle at the idea of a lowly player adding something like that to their game world. Some players would complain that making such a statement without the GM handing them that information breaks their immersion because it pulls them out or makes them think or something. What I’m here to tell you is that in both cases, they’re not listening to the character – and the character is the one who knows. Because let’s think about this for a minute: we’ve already established that Bryce is a mage, and he had his apprenticeship in that city. It’s perfectly reasonable that he would know where there’s some herbalists nearby. Now whether Bryce, through the player, says he knew of one on Market Street or the GM tells the player Bryce knew of one is immaterial. It makes no difference at all, other than scuffing some imaginary and arbitrary line that some people think needs to be drawn between the GM and the players. Either way, if Bryce needs an herbalist shop we already know there’s going to be an herbalist shop, so we might as well let him lead the way.

In the end, these types of situations help keep the players engaged and does more to give voice to the character the player has in their head. Shutting it down when it happens just because of some notion of the players being allowed to interact with, but not contribute to, the world only serves to hurt characterization in the name of…nothing. Absolutely nothing. It serves no purpose whatsoever to set those arbitrary limits, except maybe feeding some ego trip.
So, to GMs and players alike, it’s not completely all about you. Sometimes your characters have things to say, too. You just have to listen.

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