Gamesmasterclass: they know more than me

Chris Cunliffe

Gamesmasterclass: they know more than me
October 26, 2020 Chris Cunliffe

One of the things I always dread most about acting as gamesmaster is encountering the player (or players) that know more about a subject than I do. It’s almost universal that each player will know more than me about something, so it’s, sadly, a dread I have to face frequently. It ranges from annoying, when the point of contention is largely aesthetic or doesn’t really matter; to infuriating, when it’s a detail that you’ve decided to hang a plot on. How should GMs handle these disagreements? And as a player, how should you best raise a correction?

There are two primary areas where the players might know more than the gamesmaster (GM): setting information or rules knowledge. Many of the solutions are the same, no matter the root of the problem. However, there is one vital thing to keep in mind and it is something I’ve highlighted in earlier articles: you are either playing the game with friends, or at least people that you’d like to be friends. A player correcting the GM is, usually, an engaged player that is trying to help to make the game better for everybody. How to handle these disagreements so that they don’t escalate out of proportion is something that you need to think about and address before it becomes an issue.

Settings

Unless you have created your own, there is always a chance that somebody will know more about your chosen setting than you. If it’s the real world, a great deal of information about places, time periods, politics, science, and so forth is available on the internet and can easily be researched by the keen. Some players don’t even need to do any research; they have expertise in a topic from existing experience or interest. If you are using a published or licensed setting, or creating your own based upon an existing media franchise (like a series of novels, movies or comics) then players may simply have read more of it than you have. Sometimes you might want to restrict how much of a setting is considered canon in your campaign: for example, you might say that anything in the Star Wars movies is ok, but the novels aren’t. This could help, but won’t solve all of your problems.

These two sources of player knowledge (recent research or personal passion) may seem like they would lead to the same problems — knowledge is knowledge, no matter how it has been acquired. However, the impact that it can have on a player’s immersion in your campaign can be staggeringly different. The player who has simply done some quick reading of Wikipedia before or during a session is far less likely to care about something being wrong than a player that has devoted a significant portion of their life to a topic.

For the former, a simple comment that the setting is different, or that you aren’t using that aspect, can settle the matter swiftly. Sometimes the detail in question might be something you want to take away and think about, but it probably doesn’t matter too much. But for the other type of player, something that is wrong about their area of expertise could throw them completely out of the narrative. Perhaps they are a historian, a sailor, or a physicist; when they provide more information (or more correct information) than you do about the time period, the parts of a ship, or the problems required to enter orbit, that can be difficult. (My wife is an archaeologist: campaigns featuring ancient Egypt are now a running joke between us.)

These are the differences that you probably can’t simply brush over; the player in question cares about the topics, or is familiar enough with them that, each time the aspect comes into play they’ll feel that disconnect with your narrative all over again. It can be tempting to avoid any topics that you worry might cause an issue, but that can be limiting in terms of your plot and worldbuilding, and miss an easy way to build engagement with the player in question.

A better answer is to have a conversation with these players; ideally before the campaign begins, if you can, or between (rather than during) sessions when it comes up if you can’t. Acknowledge their expertise and that you won’t be able to do enough research to come close to them. Apologise in advance for any mistakes that you might make and ask that they not correct anything during the session itself. However, do recognise that they may find these mistakes infuriating and will need some way to bring them to you; establish when that should be. After the session when it is fresh can be good, but late-night finishes could derail that plan. Immediately before the next session could be convenient but might not give you time to take changes into account. Between sessions could be best, but that relies on you and the player having the time to do it. It doesn’t need to be the same answer every time.

You might want to take the next step and actively use that player as a consultant. If you are planning a campaign based on a company of knights and you have a player with a degree in medieval history specialising in cavalry combat, that’s a great resource! Speaking to this player frequently and taking their advice on how things would have worked can give you and your players a much more authentic experience. You may even wish to propose co-GMing; that doesn’t necessarily mean that the player helps you to run sessions, but they would help you to plan them. They’ll know a little about what is going to happen going forward, but this slight drawback will likely be compensated for by the increased expertise and fidelity in your session — as well as the player being happier.

Rules

In terms of the rules there are two main issues at play. Firstly, as with setting, the player may know more than the GM, either through having played the game before or having read more of the books available in the line. Just as with settings, a GM may wish to limit which books in a line are available for use to reduce the issue, but that won’t avoid the knowledge that comes with greater experience of the rules.

Tabletop RPGs usually have a large number of moving parts, whether you’re playing a game that focuses heavily on combat (like Dungeons & Dragons) or one that concerns itself more with narrative (like Fate). There is a lot for anybody to keep track of, but with greater experience this does get easier. I’m not talking about incidental bonuses or penalties; everybody forgets those (as immortalised by Rich Burlew in Order of the Stick). This is more an issue when a character has a far greater impact than you’ve anticipated; perhaps an unusual combination of abilities has an unexpected result.

It may simply be that you can’t easily keep track of all of the options that your players have available to them. A GM who is a natural planner might find it easier than one who tends to improvise their game in response to player actions (I’m the latter), but neither are infallible. Consider keeping copies of the character sheets to look up their abilities between sessions, and imagine how they might interact with your plans. But, if a player has managed to achieve something very powerful, you don’t want to always plan around it — let them have their win occasionally.

Or perhaps you have a player that is constantly correcting your use of the rules or trying to explain how they work; I’ll admit, I’ve been that player. Sometimes they’re just keen to share their love of the game, or it could be down to honest misunderstandings of how the rules work — don’t forget that they may not be right. Or perhaps you decided that you like a particular setting but its rules are more complex than you’d prefer, so you chose to engage with less of the game than your player expected — but weren’t clear with them to start.

Just as with setting, the first step is a conversation. If you are trying to use the rules and a player thinks you’ve made a mistake, acknowledge the point. Remember, they are probably trying to help. Quickly think about how much impact the correction will have if you make it immediately. Is it something you can account for easily in your head, or something that will mean you have to re-stat all of the enemies you’ve created? Is it something that advantages the players, or the monsters, or would both be impacted equally? If it can be made easily and making the change would advantage the players, it’s probably worth doing.

If not, explain that you’d like to just move on for now; you don’t want to kill the session’s momentum to have a detailed discussion of the rules, or pause to re-stat. But afterwards, make sure you understand what they think you did wrong and check it before the next session. Read the book, check errata (if necessary), perhaps ask online for advice from other GMs and players of the game. Once you feel that you fully understand the issue, then you’re in a position to decide what to do. It doesn’t really matter if the player was right with their correction; I don’t think I’ve come across a game that doesn’t include an invitation to change its rules if you want to. Maybe you like the rules as written and will continue (or start!) to use them. Maybe you don’t, at which point you can have a conversation about a potential house-rule (a topic large enough for an article itself) — it’s always an option.

Either way, at the start of the next session, address the issue. Discuss how you’d like to handle it from now on: rules as written, or perhaps the way you were doing it before. Some will insist that you should play the rules as written, but many will be happy to use whatever you want, as long as everybody has the same understanding.

Exactly how you would like these issues to be raised is something to discuss with your players as early as you can — ideally during session zero, before the campaign begins. This will vary for different GMs, so go with what you are comfortable with. Some will be perfectly comfortable with it being pointed out publicly at the table. Some will prefer it to be an email sent between sessions.

If this hasn’t been discussed but you, as a player, feel there is something you need to correct, it’s best to err on the side of caution and bring it up privately. A correction can come across as a criticism, and most people would prefer that to be in private rather than in public. You may feel that it’s vitally important that you bring it up immediately and in context, but it’s still probably best to wait if you can. Only if it might impact on how you want your character to act might it be worth bringing it up immediately (for example, if a set of rules your character relies on don’t work how you had expected in play). Even then, best to check with the GM first: “hey – I have a quick question about that. Can we talk about it now, or would you rather it be after the session?”

And as GMs, we need to learn to accept these things. As uncomfortable as it can be, we’re all going to make mistakes. We’re all human — even the GMs — and we’ll make mistakes, even if we’ve written the material ourselves! The most important thing is to move on and not let your mistake become a bigger problem than it truly is — because, really, it isn’t that big a problem.