New Players, Knowledge, and Suspension of Disbelief

Imagine you’re reading a story about a group of people. They’ve been traveling for a while, gotten themselves into and out of loads of trouble, and in general been through just about everything together. Then someone comes upon them, refers to one of them by name before they’ve even been introduced, and in subsequent conversations alludes to things nobody outside of the group could possibly know. Wouldn’t you wonder just what the heck was going on here?

Not all game groups have this problem, but the ones for whom suspension of disbelief is important are going to. Now, under normal circumstances this isn’t a problem, but consider what happens when a new player comes in. The kind of game where realism requires keeping track of who knows what is probably also complex in its own right, with a lot of information scattered here and there—the kind where it’s perfectly easy for a newcomer to be completely lost. But if you just tell them out of character, it’s going to be a bit weird explaining the knowledge within the game itself, isn’t it?

Solving this one takes the shared cooperation of the GM, the other PCs, and the newcomer. Each side has a role to play to make sure the transition is handled smoothly.

For the other players, the job is pretty straightforward; they’re the gatekeepers of the game-specific details, determining what the new person knows when. If they aren’t willing to share, the difference in knowledge will never be rectified. So their role is to facilitate the spread of information, finding reasons why they’d let it go instead of keeping it all to themselves, possibly even excuses to share something about their past that might be important or even merely helpful to the new guy now.

The new player’s job is to learn. And what better way to learn than to ask? When knowledge matters, a new player can’t afford to just sit back and assume she’ll hear whatever’s necessary when it’s necessary; what if there’s something she could use if she knew it but her teammates can’t necessarily figure out is relevant enough to share with her? So she has to ask questions. And not only does she have to ask them, she has to ask them when she can expect to reasonably get an answer; in the middle of a tense situation isn’t near as good a time for a conversation as during a travel segment or in material that borders on downtime. If the subject comes up at the wrong time and is cut off for that reason, she needs to try again.

The GM’s job, meanwhile, is to facilitate both the sharing and the asking of questions. The new player’s not going to get too far if she doesn’t know what to ask about, now, is she? And sometimes, she needs a little encouragement to get around to asking—appealing to her curiosity as well as her need to catch up, if you will. One important way the GM can do that is to make the things that happened before relevant. Situations that give the people who were there deja vu. NPCs referencing such and such a situation, preferably in the most open to questioning manner possible. While I don’t quite recommend sticking a subject on the table with a little tag labeled “Ask about me”, some of the tactics you need to employ may come close, depending on how big a cluebat your group in general and the new player in particular require.

It is important that each group watches for the other’s tactics and responds to them. If the GM references something, and there’s time, the new player should ask questions. If the new player asks questions, the other players should try to find reasons why it makes sense to answer those questions. If the other players find an excuse to talk, even if she’s bored, the GM shouldn’t try to rush to the next scene. Cooperation is vital to efforts like these.

But if you work together, you can get the information across, and it’s less likely the newbie will be missing something vital. And wouldn’t that make it better?

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