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I have recently finished my second session of a game universe I am only vaguely familiar with (namely Rogue Traders in Warhammer 40k, but this is a generic question). This universe has a very heavily developed environment, feel, culture, following, etc. but I only know the very basics while the GM/other players have a significant amount of experience with the world (the GM actually works for the company who makes the universe).

Needless to say, I feel a little lost. I've tried reading up on the universe, but I feel like I'm too far behind at this point to catch up. While the others were had things to get done at the space port, I was wandering around the slums because I didn't know what else I should (read could) do.

How can I get around this world with which I am so unfamiliar? How do I feel like I can contribute to the team without just becoming a growth attached to another character?

I'm hoping for answers that don't involve reading up on the universe and rather ways to fit in to the universe without knowing the universe. Not that I'm lazy (which I am).

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Excellent question! I've had this problem both as a player and as a GM of players who aren't familiar with the setting, and I could really use some good techniques for it. –  SevenSidedDie Jun 20 '13 at 16:49
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+1 for a good question relevant to many players and GMs... And also for "the GM actually works for the company who makes the universe," which I will definitely quote out of context later. –  GMJoe Jun 21 '13 at 5:02
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7 Answers 7

up vote 21 down vote accepted

I had the same sort of problem when I first played Changeling (as a LARP), I knew very little about the system, my characters abilities or indeed anything going on.

This is actually a really good opportunity for you to learn with your character, you only ever get this once per system and it can be a fantastic experience - there are several key things you need for this however.

  • A helpful GM. Speak to the GM, explain that you know nothing about the system and explain that you're looking to them and the players to help you with this - that you want stuff to feed you info as you play. That you intend to play your ignorance and to roll with it like a runaway wagon wheel down a mountainside.
  • Play your character as ignorant of everything, yes the universe is a massive place; 40k has a huge history and a lot to learn. But backstreet kids, dropouts and nobody's don't necessarily know anything about the wider picture, Xenos, anything.
  • Get a hook, ask another player for a hand IC and OCC, see if one is willing to be a relative or something, like a mentor. Quite a lot of players will be more than happy to take you under their wing IC and OOC.
  • Be prepared to fail. Stuff WILL go wrong when you start up, you'll cross the wrong people, say the wrong stuff, bump the wrong elbows - but as you do you'll learn, this can be immensely fun and get the rest of the players into trouble - this is another reason for them to take you under their wing and learn.
  • Learning - you can't know EVERYTHING about a system, so pick one bit and read everything about it you can, it's a start and a helpful crutch you can speak about as you and the character learn together.

I had immense fun with my ignorant Pooka's screwups and chastisements in Changeling, getting into trouble and doing all the wrong things as he learnt about the world as I did. It can be a fantastic experience for a game.

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I second everything here, but I especially support the "Play your character as ignorant..." This means that your personal lack of knowledge will rarely cause a break in character, gives in character reasons to explain things to you, and it has been a useful plot device in a lot of literature to help the readers find out about the world without providing a huge info dump up front. –  TimothyAWiseman Jun 20 '13 at 17:23

Meta game, in group: Ask the GM and the other players off line for help. Ask them to suggest things, then modify them while asking your GM if the new idea is feasible.

Meta game, solo: Also, look at source material in wiki, web, and paper form. Art work is great way to look at this -- I'll plug Jon Sullivant's blog here. There are novel set in the world as well. So, it would be easy for you to catch up if you had the time to do the research.

In game: It is a futuristic sci-fi setting. So, any sci-fi tropes should work just fine especially these ones. Personally, I would pick something your character is interested in and work towards that goal. Make sure it is an open ended one, so no find who killed my wife and kids instead go for become the leader of a large underground railways smuggling telepaths away from the bad inquisition or some such large goal. Think of something you, as a GM, would like a player in your position to do. You should liaise with your GM there as well.

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Regarding wikis, there is an extensive WH40k wiki available for research. As time goes on, this is true of more and more game settings. –  SevenSidedDie Jun 20 '13 at 16:54
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+1 for sci-fi tropes; you don't need to know the entire universe's details if you can check that "cyborg cop" fits in with the way the universe works with the GM –  Rob Jun 27 '13 at 7:49

Make him a cypher.

"Cypher" (more commonly "cipher") means "zero," or "empty."

A cypher character just leaves blank all the parts that you can't fill in because you don't know the setting. As you play, every time you encounter something that you'd like to attach your character to (a place, a philosophy, a political group, a family), you just write that in.

This lets you discover your character at the same speed that you are discovering the setting.

It'll require some accommodation by your fellow gamers, as they'll have to refrain from forcing you to commit to concepts you don't yet understand. Most groups and GMs should be quite willing to support you, at the very least in the interest of getting the game off the ground faster.

Conceits like suffering from amnesia, being mistrustful, or simply having everyone pretend they already know all about you, can help provide in-game justification for this practice.

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These are sometimes called "No Myth" characters. –  SevenSidedDie Jun 25 '13 at 22:53

Typically when faced with such a situation, I tend to play my character as reserved and mysterious. I am unwilling to talk about my background (because I don't know much about what it is yet) and spend much of my time following other characters around, lending aid when appropriate, but mostly just observing them.

Out of character, that buys me time to learn more about the environment, setting, rules and companions, and how that group interprets and plays all that out, while I slowly flesh out who my character really is. In character, I appear as a loner type who acts as though he is there out of necessity, for reasons that are slowly revealed to his companions (as I figure out what those reasons really are).

"Fake it til you make it"

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This. This right here. It's easy to turn "knows nothing about" into "nothing is known about". Play aloof, play mysterious, talk little, trust less. You''ll eventually be able to integrate and learn based on the actions/words of your compatriots. It's how i've gotten up to speed with a nWoD changeling larp (my char was outside of changeling society for 2 years, i trust nobody, and am slowly opening up as i (as a player) grow more confident.) –  acolyte Jun 25 '13 at 18:38

The easiest way to get familiar with a world is to read a book or watch a movie set in that world. Or maybe even play a computer game. For the 40K-Universe, there are a million books (some good, some rather not) and a few good computer games.

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I'm not sure how this is an answer to the question being asked, since the poster specified "I'm hoping for answers that don't involve reading up on the universe and rather ways to fit in to the universe without knowing the universe." This means both that he already knows this strategy and that he's looking for a different strategy. –  BESW Jun 24 '13 at 6:28
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@BESW although I agree with your comment, I think it's unfair to downvote my answer based on the fact that I was not telepathically gifted enough to know the author would edit his question an hour after I posted this answer. –  nvoigt Jun 24 '13 at 6:56
    
Fair enough, I'll quote from the original post: "I've tried reading up on the universe, but I feel like I'm too far behind at this point to catch up." –  BESW Jun 24 '13 at 7:04

I was in a very similar situation a little while ago. My answer: I played an escaped sex slave who grew up in captivity and therefore know next to nothing about the outside world. It made for some amusing scenes and allowed me to be ignorant of the setting's history, customs, etc.

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There are really three types of knowledge in any role playing game:

  • Player knowledge
  • Character knowledge
  • Game mechanics

I'll cover them in more detail below, including how to cope with not having that knowledge.

Player knowledge

This is information that you, the player, should have, generally about the setting you are playing in, above and beyond what your character knows. In the short term, the best way to cope with not having information about the setting is to ask the GM. A lot. Ask if there anything that you as a player should know about any person, place, or thing you come across. You should get a pretty good feel for what is going on, and it'll let your GM know that he should give a few extra pieces of information, rather than assuming you already knew. Try not to be too annoying - if your GM (or other players) start sighing (or worse, crying softly into their hands) when you open your mouth, you might want to throttle the questions back a bit. Don't be shy, though. If everyone but you seems to know what they're doing, go ahead and ask for some help.

Also, skim the player's guide. Skip the parts about game mechanics for now, and focus on the basics of the world you're in. It shouldn't take long to read through, and will most likely give you a wealth of information. Some worlds have a huge amount of information, but that's why you should skim, rather than try to take it all in at once.

Character Knowledge

This is information that your character knows. Since you, as a player, don't know much about the world, it's hard for your character to know anything about it. Thus, the simplest choice is to make your character a blank slate. Amnesia is an easy out, as is growing up in a commune far from civilization or on a backwater planet no one has heard of. My preference is to add some flavor to the lack of knowledge. Perhaps your character has been in stasis for ages, and is long out of touch with technology, locations, and current events. That would give you the chance to say, "Hey, I recognize this space port - but in my day, it was a tenth this size, and most of those fields were nothing but rocks!" You (and your character) may not know about your location, but you could make up a few details about what the place used to look like, a hundred (or a thousand) years ago. Either way, that gives you an excuse to tag around with others and ask stupid questions to random people (players and NPCs alike), including "Can we hunt in town?" and "What, you pay for food before you eat it?" and "So, officer, is it called a tip or a bribe here?"

Another method is to ask the GM to feed you thoughts and memories your character would have, but that you as a player don't know about. For a little while, at least, your character's thoughts and memories will be controlled jointly by you and the GM. Eventually, you'll know enough to take full control.

Similarly, you could find an NPC (or another PC, for that matter) to follow around. Rather than the GM telling you your character's thoughts, he would have your guide tell you what's going on. This, too, can result in humorous situations, as you loudly ask your sidekick why the cops are looking at you funny, or why you're hiding from the scary looking men with big guns.

Game Mechanics

Game mechanics are simultaneously the most important and the least important part of a role playing game. On the one hand, they define the universe your character lives in, including how and when to roll dice, consult tables, or run screaming. On the other hand, rolling dice is really boring without the flavor of role playing.

For the most part, the GM will let you know when you need to roll, how many dice, how to read them, and so on. Player's guides will also cover game mechanics. If you want to rules-lawyer or make your character as dangerous as possible, you'll need a deep understanding of the rules, but otherwise a general understanding will get you a long way.

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