An Incomplete Education
“Your party sits in the restaurant, anxiously awaiting the governors arrival. He walks through the door, attendants on either side of him, yellow robes billowing behind him.”
“I stand immediately!” the Bard blurts. At last, this is his big chance to put all that charisma to use. The rest of the party follows suit much less eagerly, but even the Barbarian knows that this meeting is important.
“Very good, the governor sits at your table.”
“Governor Basho, thank you for deigning to hear our petition. Would you like anything while we talk? Food? Drink?”
The Barbarians player rolls his eyes at the Bards speech and wonders how long he spent preparing it.
“The governor fixes his gaze on you and smiles thinly. ‘I would like a glass of warm wine, that is all.’ he says in a clear voice.”
‘I go to the bar and order the largest glass of wine they serve, then bring it to the governor.” The Bard says enthusiastically.
“Are you sure you want to do that?”
“Yes, and I leave a generous tip as well.”
The GM sighs, then narrates “As you set the wine in front of the governor his eyes flash and his face draws taught ‘Do you take me for a drunkard!’ he hisses, ‘You insult me, even though I risked meeting you at all. I will not do business with adventurers who utterly lack respect.’ And with that he pushes his chair back and walks out the door.”
“Wait, more wine is bad?” the Bard asks the GM.
Failing to use mental stats in an RPG can do more than mess up a single scene, but can throw your entire campaign far off course. Role Playing Games take a decent amount of time, but progress toward goals can easily be set back or outright stopped by a misunderstanding on the part of the players about what the rules of the world are. The bard in the example was obviously trying to care for the governors needs in the way that his player would try to care for the needs of an important person in our world, but because he wasn’t familiar with the setting, he instead caused an awkward situation.
Most RPG systems have a stat (or several) that govern a player characters ability to inquire about the world around themselves. In the Cypher system this falls under intelligence, in D&D 5e it encompasses most of the intelligence and wisdom skills. While these skills can be employed to look more closely at newly uncovered items or facts, it should also be remembered that they reflect how well the character already knows the world that they live in. This is especially important for the game master to keep in mind. I hate to pile more responsibilities on the GM’s already-full plate, but when they notice a character acting against type in this way, it might be appropriate to ask the player to make a roll to see if they know what consequences their action will have.
This can lead to something that not all game groups are comfortable with, which is above-table narration. This is the type of narration where nothing in the scene is providing this information, no character or ancient tome or vision, but the GM still relays facts or stories about the RPG world to the players.
For some gamers this might seem to take away the immersion of the RPG, yanking them out of a scene and giving them information that their characters would have learned in elementary school. For these players my advice is to ask questions and take notes during above-table narration, it’s exellent fuel for in-depth role play later.
Other players might find above-table narration tedious and confusing. “Why do we need to know what color flowers the tribe leader laid in after being shot and running all day and night?” (Because they have healing properties, the GM side of my brain replies). To these players my best advice is not to drift off, stories tend to become more interesting the more you envision them, and more confusing if you’ve missed the last dozen bits of narration because you were checking your phone.
The final, and possibly most difficult, objection that you might hear to above-table narration is from the GM themselves, because to some GM’s this method of storytelling might seem like cheating. There should be an epic quest and a small dungeon and a mini-boss and a puzzle before the players learn what caused the Fourth War of Rebellion, not a single history check. Perhaps it seems like your story is being cheapened, but in reality your players aren’t going to be able to enjoy the story you’ve created if they never encounter it.
The Voice in Their Head
Aside from above-table narration, the conscious use of mental stats in RPG’s has one other side-effect: player characters are walking around driven not only by their players will, but also by that little voice in the back of their head, the GM. Some players may find this intrusive: “It’s my character and he’ll do what I want.” But in the real world we all know a bit of our local history, our social norms, our standards of wealth and law, and each of us is governed by these as well as by our own desires, so is it really that intrusive to have the GM’s voice in our characters heads, guiding them to the norms of the setting?