Player vs. Character Knowledge

Much as I would love to preface this blog with a declaration of my long love for Dungeons & Dragons, with a nostalgic description of the hours spent painting tiny figurines in my parent’s basement, of the creative and social skills I learnt through the fine crafting of stories and situations as Dungeon Master: I can’t.

I did have a short phase of building models from the Warhammer series, but frankly, I was busy practicing my Centre Deal at the time that I would have (should have?) been getting into role-playing.

Like many other geek-centric activites however, it fascinates me deeply and I try on occasion to peer into the rabbit-hole that is it’s home. Just recently I spent over an hour watching Youtube videos of a Dungeons & Dragons game being played. Yes, I did that. And it was fucking fantastic!

Penny Arcade “is a webcomic focused on video games and video game culture, written by Jerry Holkins and illustrated by Mike Krahulik”. They “also created… PAX, an annual gaming convention”, where (amongst many other activities) they sometimes play (and film) celebrity D&D sessions.


An interesting aspect to me of D&D culture is the crossover between play and performance, and one specific thing that makes me very excited to think about is the concept of “player vs. character knowledge”. This concept basically establishes that the character you are playing does not share the same knowledge as you yourself in reality. This is a two-way street: although she probably knows far less than you do about eg motor vehicles and the internet, her understanding of eg magic and fighting probably eclipses your own.

This seems so basic and obvious as a fact when sitting around a table-top role-playing game, but surely the same applies to any moment we step onto a stage? Let’s assume for the moment that at any point that we find ourselves on stage we are assuming a “character”, accepting that that character may be EXTREMELY close to our normal “player” self (and perhaps indistinguishable in some cases).

The amount of knowledge shared between our two identities depends on the style and technique of our performance. It is something which is accepted (but maybe not always clearly stated) by the actor and the magician, but less so by circus artists. The usual way that this aspect is explored in the circus arts is by the juggler “discovering” that she can throw and catch the ball. By the aerialist “accidently” getting onto the trapeze whilst trying to change a lightbulb. I think (hope?) we can discount such examples for now.

If I am playing the part of an actual mindreader on stage, then obviously that character (let’s switch at this point to use the word “persona” instead, it has less connotations of fantastical oddness (and let’s use “performer” instead of “player” from here on in!)) has no knowledge of the magical technique that I am actually using to accomplish the apparent feats of ESP. The persona believes himself that he is reading minds, and I as performer must be able to use the magic technique so imperceptibly that perhaps I too can forget it is there. But what of presenting myself in the persona of “a juggler”?

How much of my performer (real life) knowledge is neccesary or desirable? Obvious things can be cast aside: the sad death of my hamster that morning, the shockingly high fee I am receiving, not knowing if the technician will hit my cues at the right moment. But more related to the performance itself: if I am about to juggle dangerous objects, then perhaps the persona should not know that he has done it 500 times before, or that the knife blades are dull and harmless. If one prepares for a drop on corde lisse, perhaps the persona should only be in that moment, not in anticipation of an (to them) unknown future?

Almost any act should appear to be fresh and new and never done before: is performer vs. persona knowledge a key part of that illusion? When discussing learning lines, we often talk about learning the text, and then “forgetting” it, so that when we speak it is as if spontaneous. Can we apply that to all our skills, at every moment?

Perhaps there is a finer distinction too? What about “audience vs. persona knowledge”? We can expect the persona to know more about the actual performance (the actual moment) than the audience does, and they should trust us with that. But perhaps the audience knows more about performance in general? If the persona is telling some story, then perhaps they don’t even know that they are on a stage, or in a theatre? If they are fourth wall up, then clearly the knowledge of the audience is at some odds with their own knowledge! But if the audience trusts the persona, then they too will play the game, and allow themselves to succomb as well to their role in the performance.

So it all comes down to that? Establishing that we all have roles to fulfil, that the performance is a game, and that each participant has a responsibility to play by the rules. Maybe if I’d spent more time playing Dungeons & Dragons it would all be much easier…

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