The Perils of the Exhortation Response
As I’ve argued before, it’s unnatural for any character — PC or NPC — to be a totally blank slate.
In any new situation, pretty much everyone involved is going to connect that event to whatever knowledge they have that might seem relevant. Looking at a mysterious light crossing the night sky, one person will see a UFO, one will see a meteor, one will see an experimental Air Force jet. Even the fourth person saying, “I have no idea what that is” probably has three or four ideas, rather than none, and simply can’t decide among them.
For this reason, telling PCs to act like they have no ideas is weird — and, in fact, puts experienced players at a disadvantage to novice players. The novice player might guess that maybe fire can stop the troll’s regeneration, or try fire out of dumb luck, and the GM will allow it.
The seasoned player, however, is stuck with essentially two options.
- Cheese it.
Player: I dump lamp oil on its twitching body and ignite it.
GM: And how do you know to do that? You’ve never encountered a troll before.
Player: I don’t know anything about trolls. But all of my recent traumas in the Great Dark have left me a pyromaniac. So I just feel like setting it on fire.
- Become movie-dumb (i.e., take up the idiot ball).
GM: From beneath the bed, you hear a faint cackle. You can see a vaguely humanoid, shadowy shape curled up under there, and the glint of something that looks like a knife.
Player: I crouch down by the bed, stick my head under it, and say, “Bobby? Is that you?”
The simple fact of the matter, however — and this is important to my suggestion later — is that any PC or NPC is going to have ideas about what’s going on. There are no vampires in our world (that I know of), but if you started encountering signs that your sibling was being stalked by blood-sucking undead, you’d almost certainly start drawing on what you think you know in order to protect your own.
In a world with real monsters, pretty much everyone will think they know something useful. That includes any NPCs standing around in the same scene!
If a player is experienced, then maybe her character’s folklore will be right a lot of the time, like Fox Mulder’s. But every once in a while, she’s going to be very wrong.
Even if you never take Hellfire’s approach.
Particularly if you follow my own advice later.
But let’s look at Hellfire’s approach before we get to that.