In January, I wrote an article called The Hierarchy Of Deceit: How and when to lie to your players. There’s one type of deception that was poorly covered in the original article, though it was hinted at in the subsequent article on deceptions that are meant to be penetrated, I See It But I Don’t Believe It – Convincingly Unconvincing in RPGs. The undiscussed mode of deception: giving the impression that the GM is an expert in everything that he needs to know about.
Last week, in the comments to Thatch and Confusion – creating a village, this capability was obliquely shuffled onto center stage. EricG wrote,
The info in the blue boxes is amazing, how do you know all this information? Do you have lists for possible medieval industries? And how do you know so much about civic and social dynamics (e.g. the relation between workforce, economic value and dependence)?
At the time, I gave a fairly short answer to the general question and moved on to the specific questions, but it highlighted the omission that I mentioned at the top of this article.
Expert In Everything
A GM has to be – if not an expert – then at least well-grounded in a vast number of fields of study to be able to create his game worlds and justify his adjudications on various matters brought up by the players. If he exudes confidence in his knowledge, then those rulings will have a weight of verisimilitude that stifles table debate and allows play to continue.
In the discussion of one piece of the occasional punditry that I offer through my Twitter account (as and when they occur to me), I alluded to the list of subjects that the GM has to at least have a working knowledge of:
You never know what will turn out to be useful information. In the past as GM, I’ve drawn on information on subjects as diverse as biology, genetics, politics, history, music, art, sociology, real estate, banking, economics, computer science, software design, desktop publishing, cooking, geography, geology, thermodynamics, engineering, metallurgy, movies & media, publishing, journalism, mathematics, and many more fields besides.
Let’s say the PCs have to stop a story being published. Knowing something about the process of publishing and printing a newspaper, and the deadlines involved, creates a far richer, more detailed, and more interesting passage of roleplay than proceeding from ignorance. Knowledge of the laws relating to publishing and secrecy are also going to be immensely useful.
I have neither a law degree nor a journalistic qualification. I can’t even say that I’ve studied either one to any sort of degree. Yet, the situation demands that I have, at the bare minimum, a solid layman’s knowledge on the subject. The more you know, or appear to know, the more interesting you can make the resulting encounter for the PCs.
The PCs in a Fantasy Game have arrived in a Fishing Village within a hostile nation, preceded by a not entirely-unjustified reputation. The children flee from them, the women lock themselves indoors. Most of the men are at sea pursuing the daily catch, and the rest are no match for the PCs and they know it. The players know that if they force the locals to assist them, as soon as their backs are turned, messengers will be on their way to the local capital; it would be far better if they can persuade the locals to tell them what they need to know willingly, letting both sides part amicably. The GM needs to know something about the society and economy of fishing villages in order to know who is still around to be approached, but he does and decides that one vessel is still in port, repairing their nets. The PCs offer to help (in order to earn some good will). The GM needs to know something about how nets are constructed in order for the NPC to sound credible – sure, he could simply say “The fisherman shows you how to repair the nets. After watching you for a while to make sure you’re doing it right, he wanders away to direct work on re-tarring the hull of his vessel,” but how much more interesting and credible would it be if he were able to actually roleplay the instruction given to the PCs?
I’ve never been in a Scandinavian Fishing Village, and have never studied the economics, sociology, and logistics of the fishing industry. I don’t have the faintest idea of how nets for commercial fishing are made, never mind how they were made in a pre-industrial era.
The PCs have to hack a computer to get key information. This is a machine with sophisticated anti-hacking defenses. Fortunately, one of the PCs is supposed to be an expert hacker. This is supposed to be a key step in advancing the plot. While it could be achieved by simply having the PC make a Hacking roll, it is anticlimactic at best; in order to emphasize the significance of the result, it has to be delivered melodramatically and be shocking and unexpected, or the scene will have all the impact of wet spaghetti.
If the GM knows something about computer security, he can break the process down into smaller steps that make the scene both more plausible and dramatic; this, in turn, takes some of the pressure off the information itself. Knowledge gives the GM options. Even if he makes the details up so that he isn’t actually telling players (or, in this case, readers) how to actually hack a computer, he can give the whole scene credibility by describing the process as it proceeds, building up to the revelation. This sort of thing can be the difference between a good game and a great one.
When it all goes horribly wrong
Equally important is the fact that his credibility can be completely shattered by getting the details wrong. Take a look at this review of the premiere episode of the new drama, Scorpion: Scorpion Brings the Stupidest, Most Batshit Insane Hacker Scene Ever (make sure to read all the venting in the comments, too).
Now imagine that these comments are coming from your players and are directed at your RPG plot.
We expect Hollywood to get details like physics and computer science (especially vulnerabilities) wrong, and can tolerate a surprisingly high quotient of nonsense if it looks good on screen. We can even forgive some of it because it makes for a more visceral experience – this is why there are so many Hollywood myths for Mythbusters to bust. Knowing, for example, that the “Big Heist” techniques used in such genre movies don’t actually work doesn’t stop us from enjoying Heist movies. Knowing that the explosives recipes given in some media are total nonsense (or leave out key ingredients) doesn’t stop us enjoying those movies and TV shows, either. And to be fair, I don’t think Scorpion is quite as bad as the review states, but it’s still pretty bad.
But knowing something about the subject helps keep silly mistakes at bay, which is vitally useful when those silly mistakes make a nonsense of your plot.
GMs have to be experts in everything. But they don’t have time to become experts in anything outside of their own real-life expertise and the craft of being a GM, which is a big enough headache on its own. It’s not enough to be able to pretend to be credible; you actually have to seem like you know what you’re talking about, and you have to know enough to avoid silly mistakes. Sounds impossible, doesn’t it?
It’s not. And the solutions to this seemingly-impossible conundrum are what we’re here to talk about today.
Accumulate background information
I watch documentaries that are of interest. I watch TV shows that are of interest. I keep mental notes of what seems plausible and what doesn’t, in other words, I employ my critical faculties. These are things that we all do.
More importantly, I remember things of interest and integrate these into a flawed, possibly massively incorrect, gestalt view of the subject.
Watching NCIS can give me an education, however spurious, in everything from Military protocols to Investigative Techniques to Hacking to Security… the list is not inexhaustible but is far vaster than you might think.
What’s more, information can be mentally tagged by degree of reliability. We all do this, as well – when watching a news report or documentary, we look for signs of evident bias and potentially flawed assumptions. We know that shows like NCIS are fiction. Some shows contain more credible foundations than others; when Numb3rs explained how rolling codes work and are employed in auto remote-locking, you know that most of the information is credible because the show took great pains over the mathematics, to the point where each episode was used as the basis for a subsequent university lecture in higher Mathematics.
A lot of the information that I have on Medieval Sociology comes from an archaeological TV series from the BBC, “Time Team”, supplemented by other documentaries and readings. Informed critical reviews of relevant fiction can also add to the totality.
You can never be sure where the next critical piece of the puzzle will come from. Watching an episode of The British, another documentary series currently showing on Australian TV, suggested that the period on which D&D is most-heavily modeled is post-Agincourt. It did this not by presenting information that I didn’t already have, but by emphasizing that this was the coming-of-age of the concept of the “Professional Soldier” as opposed to conscript armies of peasants. However, the devastating effectiveness of longbows at that point in history is at odds with D&D – it’s as though the social concepts and precepts of one era had been superimposed on the technology of an earlier time. This defines a pair of relationships – D&D to the Norman era, and D&D to the later Middle Ages, regarding technology and some social aspects and the broader social patterns, respectively. This in turn gives me a framework and context to integrate other facts as they come to hand regarding these specific subjects into my background understanding of the standard “D&D World”. What’s more, a keener awareness of the palimpsest jigsaw that makes up the “D&D World” makes it easier for me to conflate changes that I might desire for this campaign or that. Being able to state that “Aspect [x] of the world derives from historical period [y]” makes it easier to isolate those aspects of the game world if I wanted to replace the source with historical period [z]”, for example. I might want a world in which the practice of separate temples to different deities has been abandoned, as was the case when Catholicism became the dominant religion, but in which the Greek Pantheon is worshiped as an integrated whole. Or Manichaeism. Or whatever.
To some extent, it doesn’t matter how accurate the information you gather is – just how credible you can make it.
Skim relevant articles
When I can reasonably expect some subject to come up that I don’t know enough about, I’ll look for relevant articles and snippets. I have a number of reference works – the list offered in The Literary GM: Expanding your resources for a better game is just the tip of the iceberg – and then the world of online sources. For example, if I know that I need to know something about Vellum, as I did for the village article, and Wikipedia doesn’t seem to serving up the answers, I’ll do a Google Search. That’s how I found Pergamena.com’s FAQ, which I referenced in Thatch and Confusion. I’ll search out and skim relevant articles and commit the most useful bits and pieces to memory or as written notes.
If I need to know about medieval Scandinavian fishing villages, I’ll search for exactly that – “medieval Scandinavian fishing village” returns 1,360,000 results, plus some photos. If I know I need to know something about repairing nets, I’ll dig out the 1964 Boy Scout Manual that I bought in a garage sale many years ago, then search for “repairing fishing nets” (4,750,000 results, including “Learn to make and repair your own fishing nets” and “Knots Used to Repair Fishing Net” in the first half-dozen results. Ten minutes spent doing such research gives enough local color and specific information that I could comfortably fake the narrative. I would also spend a minute or two reviewing my knowledge of the game system (relevant skills, magic, and the backgrounds of the PCs) so that I can integrate those relevant details – and watch out for obvious traps, like the “Mend” spell in D&D 3.x, which could bring the whole encounter to an abrupt halt. I may need to insert some detail about the village being renowned for being rabidly superstitious about the use of magic, for example.
Wikipedia is your friend
While there can be controversies about individual articles, this is still one of my most-tapped resources. As with all other sources, I don’t rely on it as gospel, but interpret what I learn relative to information derived from other sources. Again, it’s surprising how far a few minutes research and skim reading will carry you. In particular, I watch out for key terminology.
No, It’s Not
Wikipedia is becoming less useful. I’ll save the details for a dedicated rant on the subject at some future point, but the long and the short of it is that they are pursuing credibility at the expense of comprehensiveness, and in the process throwing away irreplaceable reference material.
In the bad old days, I was in the habit of saving any web page that contained pertinent or useful information for future reference, because web sites came and went so quickly. Better to risk having out-of-date resources than no resources at all. Over the last decade, I had started to get out of that habit, because Wikipedia and Google were so good at providing what I needed. Now I’m getting bitten every now and then by self-censorship on the parts of these internet giants, and am seriously considering reverting to old habits.
Read, read, read
Don’t think you are alone in these needs. Provided you don’t intend your work for publication – and sometimes even if you are – other authors have had the same needs in the past, and satisfied them with varying degrees of effectiveness. Don’t reinvent the wheel unnecessarily. If you remember that you have a book by John Grisham that describes a South American jungle village, dig it out, skim to find the relevant descriptive passage, scan and paste, or simply copy what’s there – then modify accordingly. Heck, it may be enough simply to re-read the relevant narrative and fix the image in your mind.
For example, you may need to come up with an exotic form of nuclear reactor to power a starship. You might remember a description of something interesting in a novel or TV show, or you could create your own by remembering the name of a subatomic particle that sounds interesting and coupling that with the word “reactor” in a Google search. To demonstrate this, I chose “Pion Reactor” (sounds nice and exotic, doesn’t it?) Searching for that alone produced a bunch of irrelevant results because there’s a web analytics tool called “Pion Reactor” – but filtering the results by searching for “pion reactor -analytics -platform” pulled up a number of pages. In particular, “Muon-catalyzed fusion” – a Wikipedia page – sounded interesting, especially since the preview excerpt talked about Pion Decay, which is why it came up in the search results. Skimming a little further down brings me to “Pion-induced fission – A review – ResearchGate”, with the preview text refers to “Virtual Pions” as being useful intermediaries for triggering nuclear reactions. A quick skim of the first article mentioned for general principles of such reactions and then incorporating “Virtual Pions” as a key element the reactions gives me enough to come up with an entirely fictitious reactor design, with particle physics that probably wouldn’t work in real life but that sound really cool – and the fact that it’s only marginally tied to reality lets me alter the characteristics, performance, and behavior of the resulting “reactor” to my plot needs. A quick refresher on what Pions really are from the first page to come up in the search, the Wikipedia page dedicated to the subject “Pion”, and maybe a second search on the subject of “Virtual Pion” and I’m ready to go. Elapsed time – more than three minutes, less than ten.
I got a lot of the information relating to the tanning and dying industries that was so pivotal in the example within “Thatch and Confusion” from a work of fiction, “A Civil Action” – both Movie and Book – and was able to simply project it into the past. I didn’t even need to crack open the book.
Generalize, then extrapolate
That was because I knew that the book was set in a modern era, when all sorts of artificial chemicals are employed, which – according to the site I had already referenced had cut production times from months to a days – and which would almost certainly be more polluting than the older techniques, because of the intensity of industrial production, if nothing else. That was fine – I generalized the process into the statement that “parchment production uses chemicals and treatments that have an ecological impact”, then extrapolated what that impact might be.
Establish your credentials
There are times when you need to establish your credentials as someone who knows what they are talking about, especially when you don’t. The best way of doing so is to undersell your expertise on a subject that you do know well, or have prepped more extensively for. By stating that you aren’t an expert in the subject and then demonstrating a repertoire of expertise in that subject, you establish that if you don’t undersell your credibility on another subject in the near future, and have clearly “done your research” because your narrative contains key terms and details, which you can readily explain/describe, your players will accept whatever you offer without blinking unless they know better. And even then, you simply suggest that you’re simplifying for game purposes, implying that all you need is suspension of disbelief sufficient to move the plot forward. This is exactly what Hollywood does, usually implicitly rather than explicitly, employing dramatic visuals and sound effects to make something seem plausible.
Everyone knows that space travel is silent, ships won’t make “swoosh” sounds. But repeated audience testing has shown that without the sound effects, the purported speed of such vessels doesn’t register properly. Put a sound effect on it, and suddenly it seems to be traveling fast.
I want to end with a lesson from “The Making Of Star Trek” by Stephen E. Whitfield (a pseudonym for Stephen Edward Poe). The first draft of the pilot was sent out to a number of consultants for technical review; a number of points were made in response, some of which were adopted, and some of which were not. One of the ones that did have an impact was the use of a “Laser” to do various things; the comment came back “A laser wouldn’t do that,” or words to that effect. Someone (possibly the author of the criticism) pointed out that light was made up of photons; if you took the “ph” and used it instead of the “l” in laser, you got the word “Phaser” which – being something completely different from a laser – could do whatever was needed by the plot. Because it was completely made up, no-one could say it couldn’t have the abilities projected onto it by the plot.
In that moment, the relationship between technobabble was definitively established, and from that moment on, there was no excuse for getting the technical details wrong.
And that takes me back to that review of Scorpion. The real problem – well, one of them – is that they attempted to use technical language that would be familiar to the audience and make the terminology do what their plot required. Five minutes work should have revealed the plot holes and potential fixes – instead of “software” use the term “spacial model” or “dataset”, describing it as the window within which the aircraft need to fly in order to successfully land on a runway of this length, suggest that the on-the-ground versions won’t work because the “window” takes account of current atmospheric conditions, and describe the breakdown of the airport systems as being the software that gathers and interpolates this data. The aircraft on the ground have a backup copy of the last window provided by the airport systems before they went down, but the ones in the air have a copy that has been updated with the integrated wind and atmospheric conditions at different altitudes. This pushes the incredulity point farther away, making the situation and solution more credible. Oh, and the Wifi attempt failed because instead of an incremental update (small file), the aircraft systems only hold an integrated real-time model (a big file). Throw in a passing comment about the system permitting airports to be much smaller, releasing a lot of valuable real estate`for development, and you’ve used technobabble to cover all your plot holes.
In the case of the Pion Reactor, if Pions won’t do what you want, just invent a new particle – the “Trion” perhaps? – which has the unique metagame characteristic of being exactly what the GM needs. No-one can state what a ‘Trion Reactor’ can or can’t do…
The vulnerability of technobabble
It would be remiss of me to end this section without pointing out the major flaw of technobabble, a flaw that means that if abused, technobabble can do more harm than good.
The problem is Consistency. Having introduced a plot device and cloaked it in technobabble, the use of that plot device to solve future problems is seductively easy. The leading example of this phenomenon is the “Deflector Dish” from Star Trek: The Next Generation and related shows within the franchise like Voyager. It became a magic bullet that could solve almost any problem if “reconfigured” properly, and lost almost all its credibility as a result.
Dr Who’s Sonic Screwdriver is in the process of succumbing to the same problem.
A moment ago, I stated, “No-one can state what a ‘Trion Reactor’ can or can’t do” – but that’s wrong – there is one person who can and should – you, the GM.
That’s why Game Physics is so important. By looking behind the technobabble to explain how things work, they explain what things can and can’t be used for. Technobabble that isn’t backed by a functional game physics is a minefield in which the GM – and his campaign – are playing hopscotch.
I’m no expert
My professional training is as a programmer and an analyst programmer. I’ve had training in Bookkeeping, attended some first-year university courses about 33 years ago, and have completed a four week course in graphic design and desktop publishing. I’m a self-taught digital artist of mediocre caliber – skilled at some image manipulations, barely adequate when it comes to creating new images (with exceptions). I’m a self-taught composer. In fact, virtually everything else I know – where’s that long list again? “Biology, genetics, politics, history, music, art, sociology, real estate, banking, economics, computer science, software design, desktop publishing, cooking, geography, geology, thermodynamics, engineering, metallurgy, movies & media, publishing, journalism, mathematics” – is the result of self-education.
And being very good at faking expertise when I need to.