Date authored: Jan. 21st, 2007

Many role playing systems make the mistake to include a skill or attribute called “knowledge,” or similar. This is just plain wrong: Knowledge is an abstract concept. Knowing something means knowing a distinct, particular thing. Which means: You don’t just know, but know something. The value a character has in its “knowledge” skill tries to describe that. But it completely fails at that since it’s too abstract.

Let me precise this with an example. Suppose some guy named Jern, thief by profession has a value of 80 in knowledge. Fine. Now what does that mean? The question obviously answered is ‘how much does he know,’ but that doesn’t help: During the game, the question obviously asked is: ’What does he know?’ and more precisely: ‘Does he know XYZ?’ Ok, so there’s an ancient artifact with hieroglyphs all over it, and Jern wants to find out what it is. He get’s to roll a knowledge skill check, makes it, and finds out that this artifact will cloak him for an hour. Good for him! Some hours later, Jern has just broken into a library, looking for valuable books to steal. He gets to roll a—you guess it—knowledge check, which he not-so surprisingly pulls off. That rare book describing a forgotten, powerful teleport spell from that famous magician over there in the shelf is his now, thanks to his high ranks of knowledge!

Quite obvious is that the knowledge skill completely fails at what was its sole intention: Figuring out what a character knows, and figuring out whether he has a clue what’s going on in a particular situation or not. Because it’s abstract, but has a concrete value.

Enough of the ranting, I think it’s clear what I am trying to express. More interesting is how to overcome the problem. First of all: Make that knowledge thing something concrete. If you don’t want to change your character sheets, assume that knowledge is actually knowledge about a character’s main field of interest. If it’s a wizzard, it’s knowledge about magic. If it’s a warrior, it’s knowledge about battle tactics, weapons and fighting skills. That makes a warrior a good member in a CSI team, by the way. In any case, whatever a character could know but isn’t covered by her profession or interests means rolling a check against a penalty. The less it has to do with her profession, the higher the penalty gets. General knowledge works the same way, but the penalty is a fixed value.

However, that also means that there’s more trouble ahead. Sleek as it sounds, consider this: Suppose you decided to apply a -20 penalty to all checks for general knowledge. Also consider Grungh, an orcish warrior with a knowledge of 20. Poor Grungh seems to know nothing except wielding his weapon. Which is probably wrong, too, since everybody has some general knowledge. Grungh, too, will know about the deities of his folks, something absolutely not connected with his warrior profession. This will lead the game master to make an exception of his rule and allow Grungh’s player to roll dices without the -20 penalty sometime later in the game when it comes to that strange weather phenomenon. But any rule that needs exceptions isn’t well thought of.

I, personally, like the idea of having a ‘general knowledge’ skill and some more, specialized knowledge skills for the character’s professions. For each and every character, unless monstrously tuned, this will result in about two to four skills. They don’t necessarily need to get enhanced separately, but can be interconnected in some way, since they are interdependent. Let’s say three points more in any knowledge skill raises all other by one. Of course, that’s only a proposition.