One topic that comes up commonly in tabletops is the concept of “in-character knowledge” versus “out-of-character knowledge” (Sometimes abbreviated as OOC). The quick version of these two ideas is that “in-character knowledge” is information about the setting, NPCs, etc. that a player’s character is aware of and “out-of-character knowledge” is information about the setting, NPCs, etc. that the player themselves is aware of and is usually far more extensive. While there may be some overlap, out-of-character knowledge usually refers specifically to knowledge that the player has that their character does not.
Newcomers to roleplaying may have some initial issues keeping in-character and out-of-character knowledge separate. A player may know much more than their character does about the “best” way to handle a given situation, but this could be an unfair advantage. Part of the GM’s role is to make sure that players are assisted in keeping in-character and out-of-character knowledge straight, though this is something that the players themselves can help with.
A common example of out-of-character knowledge is the overarching idea of a one shot or campaign. This is understandable since the GM is likely to share some important information about their game to draw in players and get them interested. The players typically know more about what to expect than their characters will, especially in the first few sessions of an extended game. Another common example is world knowledge. If a group of Star Wars fans are playing the Star Wars RPG they know all about the Empire and Vader’s redemption by Luke. However, their characters will only know what makes sense for them. Which means that it is unrealistic for a character in this world to see Darth Vader as redeemable and good even though the players know about his turn in the movie. Similarly if a game takes place at the same time as already known events like the Battle of Endor it is equally unlikely that the characters will know about the battle or when to show up without being told about it from someone else in the game.
The primary issue with out-of-character knowledge mixing with in character knowledge is that it can change a player character’s actions and behavior such that there is a disconnect between what they would normally do without the out-of-character knowledge and what the player has them do by using that knowledge. Most of the time, this is just a simple mistake on the player’s part and is easily fixed by reminding them about what is and is not in character knowledge and not counting the mistake as having actually happened in character. More significant and/or repeated use of out-of-character knowledge may lead to the GM having to talk with one or more of their players about the problem before it gets out of hand. After all, having a character break the fourth wall and magically solve everything by having knowledge that they shouldn’t usually isn’t very fun for most people. Using Star Wars as an example again it makes no sense for a random group of bounty hunters to know all about the thermal exhaust weak point in the Death Star and when it will blow up Alderaan. Therefore, it makes no sense for the group to show up at the right time and know where to shoot to blow the whole thing up. This is an example of someone using out-of-character knowledge to meta-game. Sometimes, however, the out-of-character and in-character lines can become blurred. Sometimes there are roleplays in which the characters have travelled to the past in which case they might have knowledge about the events of that time equal to the player.
In the end, mixing in and out-of-character knowledge should be avoided, but isn’t always a huge deal. Then again, it can lead to altering major plot points and ruining the roleplay experience for a group, unless altering major plot points is, in and of itself, a major plot point. GMs should use discretion in how they handle this issue, though this becomes easier to do as you and your players become more accustomed to roleplaying overall.
Written by: Andrew Miller