All the World's a Stage: What does your character know?

Anne Stickney
A. Stickney|02.06.11

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All the World's a Stage: What does your character know?
All the world's a stage, and all the men and women merely players. In World of Warcraft, that player is you! Each week, Anne Stickney brings you All the World's a Stage with helpful hints, tips and tricks on the art of roleplay in WoW.

In life, your existence is limited to the sum of what you know -- your past experiences, present situations, friends and family, news that you've read, schooling that you've had. There are three different types of information out there in the world. First, there's the information that you already know. That's easy enough to identify, because you already know it. Second, there's the information you don't know. Again, that's easy enough to identify -- an artist is well aware of the fact that he isn't a brain surgeon, and he's got no idea how to perform surgery if asked to do so.

Then there's the third, much murkier type of information -- the information that you don't know you don't know. What does that complicated sentence mean, exactly? It means that your world is limited to what you've experienced in it. In that limited existence, you've learned a lot about what you can do and a lot about what you can't do. But beyond the limited space of your existence, there is a whole world of information that you hadn't even thought about exploring -- because you simply don't realize it exists. By now, I'm sure you're wondering what the heck all of this has to do with roleplay.

What applies in the real world also applies to that character you play. Characters have things that they ought to know, given their experience -- and they also have things that they don't know. A rogue can watch a spellcaster freeze someone in a block of ice, but he's got no idea how to do that for himself. However, the rogue is also aware that he doesn't know how to freeze people. Just as in real life, with characters in roleplay, it's easy to identify what your character knows and what your character doesn't know. But it's establishing that third level of knowledge that can help bump a character into a more "realistic" frame of mind. So how do you sort all this out when creating a character?

Knowing what you know

We've talked a little bit about creating a character and rooting it in lore, using timelines as references. Along with rooting your character in the lore, you should also be looking at the span of his or her lifetime and establishing what kind of information your character would logically know about. The first and most obvious level of this is determined by what class you're playing -- as I mentioned above, a melee class wouldn't really know a heck of a lot about spellcasting, and vice versa.

Beyond that, however, is the more tangible level of basic knowledge. Does your character know how to cook? Does he know what plants are good and which are poisonous? Does your character have a grasp of basic history? Is he a scholar, and if so, what is he specializing in? Is he book smart, or street smart? Does he know the art of negotiation? Is he schooled in the social graces of high society, or is he the rough-and-tumble sort who knows exactly what to do when a bar brawl breaks out?

Does he have a basic grasp on current politics, or is he the sort who doesn't really care who is sitting on the throne? Does he view the opposite faction as an enemy, a friend, or something completely different? If stranded in the wilderness, does he have the basic knowledge to survive, or would the nearest murloc eat him for brunch? Establish a short list of what your character's basic knowledge is. It doesn't have to be all-encompassing; a general guideline will do.

Knowing what you don't know

Given the list that you've created, what exactly is your character aware of that he doesn't know about? Again, the simplest level of this is class-related. Generally speaking, the list of things your character doesn't know is going to be the complete opposite of whatever list you've determined above. A character who is street smart wouldn't know the first thing about scholarly work; a character who views the opposite faction as an enemy likely doesn't know much about that enemy's society.

In the context of your character's life -- where he's lived, what kind of family he grew up with, what experiences he's had -- what has he learned along the way? Not in terms of what he can do, but in terms of what he cannot do? What kinds of experiences has he had that were unsuccessful? What personal limits has he set for himself?

Establishing what kind of lessons your character has learned over time can help to fill out this list. Maybe that unfortunate scar on his leg is from a time when he learned that he doesn't know how to successfully climb a tree or steal a fresh pie cooling on a windowsill. Perhaps that Gilnean has learned how to trust people -- or on the opposite end of the spectrum, that he doesn't know how to tell the people he can trust from the people he can't.

Knowing what you don't know you don't know

This is the hardest thing for most people to determine -- because in real life, you aren't even aware of what you don't know you don't know. But with a character, it's easier to establish this kind of fuzzy logic. Look at your character's history and where he's come from. In the realm of his existence to date, what kind of information would he be completely unaware of? In the case of different races, a human who was born and raised in Lordaeron would likely have little knowledge of the history of the night elves.

Likewise, a night elf wouldn't really know a whole lot about the other Alliance races unless she'd taken it upon herself to research and learn as much as she could after the Third War, when the Alliance formed. In terms of classes, what classes has your character encountered? Has he ever seen a death knight or a Forsaken? Does he understand what it means to be undead? If the character is Forsaken, would she know anything at all about the Horde, or has she remained largely secluded?

Establishing the limits of your character's knowledge helps ground him and makes him a little more "real." If you're aware of what exactly your character doesn't know, you're actually helping to create moments of roleplay by leaving opportunities for him to learn. It's those gaps in knowledge that leave openings for other characters to interact with yours and for you to understand how your character would respond to unfamiliar situations.

When it becomes an issue

Knowledge is, however, a double-edged sword. One of the telltale signs of godmoding or of a Mary Sue is the fact that they appear to know everything. There is a line between what you as a player are aware of and what the character you play is aware of, and you have to keep that line distinct -- otherwise, you run the risk of godmoding as well. By establishing a list of what your character knows, what he doesn't know, and what he's completely unaware of, you can help prevent this from occurring.

If you're playing a scholar or an incredibly intelligent character, there should be a definite list of things that your character doesn't know about. Just because he is an expert in the subject of history doesn't mean that he automatically knows the dates and times of every major war, or the names of those involved, and definitely not the personal situations of those involved. Nor does it mean that the street-smart rogue knows how to get out of every fight she encounters or how to win against any type of opponent.

Some roleplayers choose to play a "double-class" character -- a character who knows the ins and outs of playing two distinctly unique types of classes, like a priest who's gone so far into the shadow that she began practicing the warlock arts, or something similar. There's nothing wrong with this, of course, but keep in mind if you're attempting to do this, your character should still have that list of things she doesn't know -- things that she cannot comprehend.

Know your limits

With all the knowledge you as a player have of the game, the storylines, the history and lore, it can be difficult to keep the line defined and separated between what you know as a player and what your character knows as a rough-and-tumble troll just starting out in Azeroth. Think about who your character is, where he's been and what he's seen, and use that as a starting point. While you may be aware of what's happened in Stranglethorn Vale, your character might be completely ignorant of the fact.

Another area where limits come into play is the simple act of character interactions. Yes, you can see another character's name and class simply by mousing over him and taking a peek at his nameplate. But if you're looking at that person through the eyes of someone who has never met him before, it's unlikely you'd know his name until you introduced yourself. Nor would you know what class he happened to be. There are telltale clues for most classes; obviously, someone running around in full plate armor is more likely to be a warrior or paladin. But your character wouldn't know for certain until he asked.

Likewise, it's highly unlikely your character would know anything about that other character's history -- where he came from, what his experiences have been up to this point, all information that can be easily read with an RP addon like FlagRSP or MyRoleplay. Using that information to try and steer a character in one direction or another is playing dangerously close to the line of godmoding and should be avoided.

In the end, the less your character knows, the more he benefits from roleplay interaction. By establishing the limits of your character's knowledge, you're essentially creating a list of things that would take your character completely by surprise, interest him, turn him off or even frighten him. Playing out situations like that can be incredibly fun -- much more fun than running around on a character who knows every bit of information in existence.

Keep in mind that while the Warcraft world seems incredibly small to us, to our characters, it's huge. The sum of all knowledge in Warcraft can be equated to the sum of all knowledge in the real world -- and just as it's impossible for anyone in the real world to know everything there is to know about anything, it's similarly impossible for a character to do so within the context of her world. Believe it or not, in roleplay, ignorance is not only bliss -- it also makes for great entertainment.

All the World's a Stage is your source for roleplaying ideas, innovations and ironies. Let us help you imagine what it's like to sacrifice spells for the story, totally immerse yourself in your roleplaying or even RP on a non-RP realm!
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