a Christian podcast about tabletop RPGs and collaborative storytelling

Fuzzy Lines of Knowledge

Those who listen to the podcast (which I would assume is basically everyone who will ever read this) know that I’ve been trying to finish up a degree in network security for several years now. I’d been hoping to finish it this year, but a recent trip to the community college where I’m taking my classes yielded the unfortunate news that I’m actually four classes away from graduation, rather than two. Kind of a bummer, but now at least I know exactly what I need to graduate. It occurred to me as I sat down to write this that despite the fact that I’m closing in on 40, a lot of my friends and colleagues are also in school, and that I’ve been in it more or less continually since I graduated from high school, despite the fact that in my late teens and early twenties I was burnt out on it and was a much worse student than I am today.

“That’s nice for you, Peter, but what does this have to do with gaming?” you may ask. The real answer is probably “not much” but it does bring up some interesting thoughts about character advancement. Most of the time, character advancement in an RPG has some kind of “ding” to it. You collect XP or character points and eventually buy a measurable improvement in something. You used to have no ability to pick locks but now, all of a sudden, now you can pick them half the time. There are a few games out there that base advancement on usage (Burning Wheel in particular springs to mind) but they’re rare.

On a mechanical level, it makes sense – real people learning skills do so gradually. My own knowledge of computers started out with a virus infection back on 2009, led to me building a PC for the first time, listening to a security podcast to avoid having it happen again, and then led to classes and more self-teaching that have brought me up to the level of competence that should be sufficient for an entry-level IT job at some point in the near future. However, most of the time, the process is gradual. I didn’t jump from complete ignorance to low-level professional knowledge in a sudden spasm of development – I picked up a few facts here, a few more there, learned how those facts work together, and slowly it came together. I no longer have any trepidation at all installing software (or even operating systems) poking around in the guts of a computer, swapping cables, etc. I have the beginnings of some instincts as to why systems behave the way they do when something goes wrong, but if you asked me to point to a specific date when that transition occurred, I couldn’t do it. The lines between ignorance and knowledge, trepidation and confidence, are fuzzy and ill-defined. And, for that matter, exactly how much I know (and how much I don’t know) is similarly hard to nail down because of the way the human mind works.

While clarity is often more important than flavor in an RPG context, I wonder if there’s some value in taking the time to describe what each level of competence means in terms of a character’s own perceptions and those of the people around them. This can lead to complicated feelings around one’s own knowledge and skill sets. For example, I feel pretty good about my computer skills when I’m talking to family, friends, and coworkers, but I feel considerably less at ease when talking to folks who actually work in IT, because I know they have more “ranks” than I do, and I worry about getting a job in the field even after I graduate because I feel like I’ll never “catch up” to the entry requirements. This strikes me as something that could be really interesting in games, but I’m not sure I’d want to attach more numbers to an already-crowded character sheet. I do, however, feel like some notes in a character’s backstory about how they feel about their skills could be an interesting bit of character development. Does the guy with a lot of ranks in lockpicking feel awesome when he pops a locked door open, or does he feel like knowing how says bad things about who he is as a person? Does the wizard cast her spells with flair, or does she try to avoid using magic for fear of looking foolish and “doing it wrong?” How do these people feel about what they can do, and how do they feel about how they got there? Do they think that because they learned gradually that most of their knowledge is out-of-date, or do they feel more confident for the practice? We seldom do much to explore how characters feel about different aspects of themselves in a gaming context, but I think there’s probably a lot of interesting and fun material to be found there.

As usual, I’d love to hear your opinions on this stuff, both the real-world and in-game bits.

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