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RP101: (Part 3) Tree of Knowledge
by September 24, 2004
Of more than 1,600 text-based games listed here at The MUD Connector, most of them are hack-and-slash monster killing and loot collecting games. Those games are great. But a smaller percentage of these games focus on interactive storytelling. OtherSpace and Chiaroscuro creator Wes Platt introduces readers to concepts in roleplaying.

Of particular trickiness for a new roleplayer is the concept of what one knows out of character as opposed to what one knows in character. This distinction is known colloquially as the separation of IC/OOC.

In a text-based online roleplaying game such as OtherSpace, Chiaroscuro or Reach of the Empire, it's extremely difficult to prevent Player A from finding out what happened to Player B or what Player C did to Player D. Players are able to page each other, talk on OOC channels, e-mail, and instant messenger. Staffers occasionally post logs of major events that involve specific groups of players so the entire playerbase can get a sense of what's going on in a storyline. So, it's important for players to distinguish between what the player knows and what the character knows.

Let's think of all that information out there as the fruit of a tree of IC knowledge.

What staffers know exclusively can be considered the roots: The sort of information that isn't likely to float around outside administrative circles.

What everyone knows forms the trunk, which everyone can see: Broad-based thematic information and IC news accounts about major events.

What individual players know can be seen as branches spiraling off from the trunk: Each branch is a single player's perspective of events they experience.

Sometimes, during the course of a storyline, branches can become intertwined because separate players come together for a plot. For the duration of that entwining, the separate players share IC knowledge of events. But, once they drift apart, their experiences diverge along with their IC knowledge.

Problems arise when a player who only knows about something through an OOC source, without personally learning of it while in character, assumes they know the information ICly and then uses that information ICly.

For example: Player A walks into a dark alley, where Player B lurks and waits. Player B attacks Player A, beats him senseless, steals all his stuff and drags him to a warehouse to hold him as a prisoner. Player A is friends with Player C. Because Player A is imprisoned and isolated, he cannot share information ICly. But it's possible to talk to people through OOC means. He tells Player C about his plight, revealing who mugged him and where he's being held.

If Player C just commiserates OOCly, but takes no action himself without a purely in-character motivation, the line between IC/OOC is unbreached.

But if Player C takes that OOC information, attacks Player B and rescues Player A without any real IC motivation, the line between IC/OOC is shattered.

The only reason Player C should act on Player A's behalf is if Player C learns about Player A's plight through IC resources.

For example: Perhaps Player A tells Player C that he's leaving on a trip to Destination 1 and that he'll only be gone two days. After three days, Player A still hasn't come back. At this point, it's perfectly acceptable for Player C to visit Destination 1 to investigate, asking around about his missing friend. Maybe Player C's investigation leads him to that dark alley and the waiting Player B. A scuffle ensues as Player B tries to mug Player C, but Player C prevails, subdues Player B and learns where Player A is being held.

Another problem may arise, however, if Player B abuses information obtained through OOC resources.

For example: Maybe Player B knows from reading logs on the website that Player A and Player C are IC friends. When Player C shows up in the dark alley, Player B drops out of character, leaving the IC grid to avoid the confrontation with Player C.

That's a breach of IC/OOC.

When in doubt, ignore what you know behind the scenes and run with what your character knows. As important as it is to keep the player and character persona separate for mental health sake, it is just as important to keep separate what you know as opposed to what the character knows. It's okay while watching a horror movie to yell at the screen "Don't go down in the cellar!" because you know a monster's waiting for the victim-to-be, but your input must be ignored. There's no way the victim-to-be can know what you know outside the context of the movie.

It's worth repeating: As a player, you may know much more than your character about what's happening in the IC universe. Don't abuse that abundance of information. Don't assume you know things that your character hasn't personally experienced or learned about through resources such as news outlets or other players' characters in an IC context.

Channels, pages, @mail, e-mail, logs and instant messengers are OOC context; not IC. If you learn about something only through these methods, then you cannot, should not, must not allow that information to be used by your character ICly.

Your character should only use IC information gleaned from news articles, common knowledge sources, or interaction with other players.

Comments / Discussions about this Article

Wes Platt is the creator of OtherSpace: The Interactive SF Saga and Chiaroscuro: The Interactive Fantasy Saga. He's a head-wiz on Star Wars: Reach of the Empire. (All games can be reached through his official site at

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