How to handle fishing for GM hints and knowledge skills

I ran an excellent second session last night, and emphasizing the “describe to live” until the GM calls for a test rules worked really well.

The situations that stumped me were when the Cleric and Magician kept wanting to use skills like Lore Master or Theologian to see if they knew facts or knowledge that pertained to the current situation. I kept trying to dissuade them from “Can I test Lore Master to see if I know anything?” and also the Burning Wheel style wise-usage of “My character knows this” and the GM calling for a test to see if it’s true wasn’t quite working either. When left directly to description, I felt like I was “saying no” or “no you don’t know much about this” too much, when players felt like maybe they should have had a roll.

How do you deal with character-knowledge based mechanics or “use this skill to get hints from the GM” type situations in this game?

If you take a look at the factors for Lore Master, it’s fairly obvious how you would use learning a new spell or read auras. If they describe doing one of those things, then you test Lore Master to see how it went. So the one that seems to be tricky is recall lore. I think the risk here is that they get it wrong, but you only make the test if there really is a risk. If they encounter some trolls and ask you if they know anything about trolls, then you can have them make a Lore Master check. If they fail, you can tell them that these are special trolls that are only vulnerable to ice, or you can tell them that trolls are vulnerable to fire but make them afraid. If they encounter an engraving of a battle, and they ask if they know anything about the battle, but there’s no immediate harm if they don’t know anything about the battle, then you could just treat it as a good idea and give them a little info, but not enough to actually help them with anything. Once they encounter a situation where that info would actually be useful if they ask about specifics, then you can have them test with a chance that they get it wrong or get a condition.

Thinking about it more, you really may want to save the Lore Master test until the exact moment that the knowledge is being used and the players are actually making a decision based on that knowledge. So instead of making the Lore Master test when first seeing the trolls, you make the test as they lay bleeding on the ground. If you pass, you burn their bodies and you’re good to go. If you fail, you do it wrong and they’ll come back (twist) or you remember that you need to burn them but your uncertainty makes you afraid (condition). It’s tough, because the players might want that info upfront. The Good Idea, though, could be that you remember there’s something special about killing trolls, but you can’t think what it was while they’re right there about to kill you. That way you give a hint to the player, but a hint that doesn’t help them until they make the roll.

That’s all very useful advice. I guess I’m just thrown by wondering if asking the GM for character knowledge is permissible at all, since it’s not a description of character action on the player’s part. Is character knowledge a special case, or exception to the “Describe to Live” rules? And if it’s an exception, I’m stuck up on how I’d rule the procedure for it.

Monster knowledge is easy… use Hunter or Dungeoneer, etc. Good results give you useful info on overcoming the monster… bad results give you useless info on overcoming the monster. (And this begs the question, should these types of rolls be made by the DM?)

But what’s the procedure when the cleric asks if they know any information on burial rites that will help them open the sarcophagus… is that stretching, on the part of the player? Saying “Nope” in situations like that doesn’t feel right. At the same time having them state what they know, then roll Theologian at a very high Ob to see if it’s true, like I’d do with a -wise in Burning Wheel, doesn’t feel quite right either.

Hmm… So the cleric is standing over the sarcophagus, he wants to test Theologian to open it? I would say no. If you really like the idea and want to make Theologian a help skill for the laborer test, then that sounds like a fine call as the GM. I think asking what you know about something is a perfectly valid in-game action. I do that all the time in real life! I’m not waiting for someone else to give me a response, and I don’t put it in terms of “What do I know about this?” but I do consult with my own memories and thoughts on a daily basis. If you want, encourage them to describe what they are thinking about, how they are trying to recall this information. “I think I once read an old tome about the burial rights of these people, do I remember anything that might be useful for opening this sarcophagus?” That’s almost the same as “I feel around the chest to see if I notice any traps or mechanisms, do I notice anything?”

Most knowledge tests will be triggered by a physical action: looking at something, reading something, sniffing or tasting something, etc. You describe that action and the information you’re seeking. If the information might be worthwhile, the GM assigns an obstacle and calls for a test. So, for instance: looking at the sarcophagus, studying the symbols, if any, etc. Try to get them to describe the physical triggers that help them recall the lore. Or failing that: “I sit down with my head in my hands and think hard.”

Also, quick and dirty guide to knowledge skills: Hunter (animals and natural beasts), Lore Master (magical phenomena, practices and creatures), Theologian (spirits, undead, gods and the Otherworld) and Scholar (geography, history, lineages).

Does that help?

Oh, and riffing on jovialbard’s post:

I’d consider allowing you to test Theologian to determine whether there is a ritual you could perform to avert a curse that the sarcophagus builders had left on it. That would then require a Ritualist test to perform the ritual. I would not allow you to use a Theologian test to find a trap. Finding traps is a Scout test. However, if someone offered up the idea that their knowledge of the culture’s burial rites might lead them to know something about how the sarcophagus might be trapped, I’d seriously consider allowing Theologian to help the Scout test (as per Suggested Help​ on page 136).

Try to get them to describe the physical triggers that help them recall the lore.

This is exactly the advice I was looking for. That makes a lot more sense. Thank you. (And all of the specific suggestions help a lot as well.)