One of the most common things I've seen both GMs and Players struggle with is figuring out just how much knowledge about a given topic their character might have, especially when the character doesn't have that many skill ranks in the given subject. The disconnect between how a gaming system works, and how the real world works for knowledge. There's also the myriad factors no one ever considers that comes into play as well. Today, I want to talk about that...
How High Is My IT Skill
I work professionally in IT for a state university. Now, on a 10 point scale one of my games of choice says that I should thus have an IT skill of about 5 because that is what a "professional" level for the skill is. Want to know a secret though? I do not have a skill of 5 in IT. At most I'd say I have a 3 or a 4. The reason for this being that my job doesn't have me doing as much direct help on the machines as it might imply by the title, and because what I do do for the most part, the areas I cover, is a lot more specialized than a skill like "IT" would cover. Simply put, I don't think I have the justification for IT at 5.
This is interesting though, because a PC with my job? Totally would have that skill at 5. At the same time though, I likely have dozens of skill ranks in skills that would never show up on a character sheet based off of me. Most of those might be Lore and Knowledge skills, sure, but the fact is that there's a lot of information I'm privy to that simply put can't, and won't be represented on the character sheet. Things like middle ages sword fighting techniques, battle tactics, and some general knowledge of weapons, armor, and smithing skills. Other things like the few odd wrist locks and throws I know, as well as the sampling of martial arts I took as a younger person that I still remember. They'd never be on a sheet,but I know them.
Me vs. My Character
This is where the myriad of other things comes into play. How many things do you consider to not be special to know because it is common knowledge. Want a good example? Facebook. Most of us take Facebook for granted and don't even notice some of the power Facebook gets us. Skip tracers (people who hunt you down to pay debts) use Facebook all the time to track people. They exploit social networking like crazy for it. This is common knowledge to me. It is likely news to some of you. Others are probably nodding their heads and going "that makes a lot of sense" you knew it, sure, but you didn't realize that you knew it until you read it.
The thing is, our interests and hobbies expose us to a whole ton of information that we pick up without knowing it. Those middle ages tactics I know about? That comes from a life time of reading fantasy novels, playing in RPGs, and associating with the people involved in those circles. Those circles, by the way, have a lot of overlap with SCA, martial arts enthusiasts, and people who research those things for the fun of it. Gamers are the kings of trivial knowledge because so much comes up at the game table that it can be hard to not have some of it soak in. Even worse, that info will then become useful again later, in another game sometimes, and now it's really cemented in there.
Drawing The Line
So, where do you draw the line? Well, that really depends on you now doesn't it? It also depends on your game. As a player, I'd take a moment to consider your character's history and compare it to yours. Would they have come across the knowledge that you think they should have? Especially considering they have no skill in it? For anything that is pre-modern days remember that they don't have the internet. The world is a lot bigger, scarier, and less well known. For modern day characters, ask if they actually do use the internet as much, or in the same way, as you do?
Most of what they could come across can be sussed out this way. It also gives you a better idea of the character, which can be fun to play into.
As a GM this can be harder. It gets especially harder when a player knows more about a topic than you do because it can feel like you're robbing them of their idea. Even harder though is when you come across one of the core foundations of how a person thinks, like trying to explain that the very concept of a "stress point" doesnt exist in a smithing character's knowledge pool because physics doesn't actually work the way it does in the real world and having to go with that.
The Point of This?
The point of this? Well, like with some of my topics this isn't meant to give advice or an answer. What I realy want is you to think about it. As a player, as a Gm, and - potentially - as a game designer. How do you tackle this? How do you address all the random knowledge a person has accrued over a lifetime - without realizing it - but that isn't represented on the char sheet?
It's definitely something to ponder on.