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My friends and I are new to RP and we've only had one session of dnd-5e trying out the starter set. As we are quite into fantasy in general, we thought we could make our own PCs. So instead of playing the premade characters, they all created their own, complete with traits, quirks and rich background stories.

One of the players has created a rogue with an exciting and very rich background, in which the rogue is a smuggler on board a ship, owned and tied in with a larger smuggling ring of sorts. Plenty of room for me as the DM to explore and include in the setting later on. Obviously, such a person has a large network, and knows a guy in every large town or city.

In Phandalin (as described in the starter set campaign) there are quite a few NPCs. When the group of PCs stands outside Lionshield Coster managed by Linene Graywind, the player with the rogue PC convinces his party that he should do the bartering, and claims outright "I know that woman through my smuggling ring". He did, at first, haggle on behalf of the group - they had some loot they wanted to sell - but he had an ulterior motive: He asked Linene (the NPC) when he would receive some diamond from their mutual smuggler superior. I went along with it and the PC and NPC had a quick conversation about it. It is not really an issue at this point, though some of the other players though it strange that he suddently could decide such things. It did, however, get me thinking:

Who should decide who knows who? What if players claim that their PCs are familiar or friends with an NPC that I, as the DM, planned to be a major antagonist to them? I know I could just let them know each other and create tension that way, but sometimes I figure it will difficult to justify such sudden friendships. The vampire who has been asleep for centuries.. "Hey, I know that guy!" How can I say "No, you don't know that NPC", without saying no directly?

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Sounds like a great adventure hook: some other smuggler has absconded with the diamond, and the PCs have a chance to get it back. ... also allows the player to explore how to handle the coworker with the sticky fingers ... – minnmass Jan 12 at 3:23
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Linene responds, "Oh, it is you! How are you doing these days? Unfortunately I'm very familiar with your reputation, so I'm not going to bargain with you, and because you're hanging out with these guys I'm going to be harder on them if they attempt to bargain with me." The "make it up as you go" sword swings both ways... – Adam Davis Jan 12 at 17:31
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Could also be a good hook for another plot. People that the PCs once knew have been replaced with something else, and doesn't remember them, because it's not them. – Zymus Jan 12 at 17:43
    
fact he knows npc does not mean he knows what he is up to, and that he thinks about someone as a friend does not mean that person is his friend. in fact can be using this to manipulating him. other thing is, if he said he knows him, is it really that person who he thinks about? maybe he saw similar ghuy while they were doing dome shady business. – user902383 Jan 14 at 9:36
up vote 59 down vote accepted

It's up to you

There are two play styles (with regard to this question at least), with their own drawbacks and advantages.

The first is to keep the realms of the world (DM) and the player characters strictly separate. I use the term "Golden Box" to describe this. In Golden Box gameplay, the players cannot define anything about the world, including who an NPC does or does not know - that is in the purview of the DM. Similarly, the DM cannot define background for the player character.

The advantages to this method include not having to deal with this sort of question. The player only knows the NPC if you, the DM, say they do. The player can argue for it, usually backed up with a background, but in the end it's up to you.

The disadvantage to this is that there is very little flexibility, and the players can feel like they have very little agency over the game.

The second playstyle, which I will not name since the only name I know it by lacks general context, allows anyone to define anything, and it is only addressed if there is an issue or will be an issue if left unchecked.

The advantage to this kind of play is that the players usually have a lot more buy-in - they have created parts of the world. In situations where this is taken to its logical end, the players define the world, the npcs, and to an extent the antagonists. This can be a very satisfying way to play.

The disadvantage of this is primarily it gives 'that guy' a free pass for a long time (to wreck your plot), and it can make a game feel directionless.

These are extremes. You usually mix them when playing a game.

I would recommend, in your situation, that you tend towards the first. When the player declares something about the setting that gives them an advantage, have them justify it, or if the situation allows, to roll for it. Don't be afraid to say No, especially if the declaration the player makes is problematic.

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Also, don't forget that you still maintain the ability to turn an advantage into a disadvantage, if a player starts abusing this. You can back it up with a failed wisdom check if you feel the need, but the PC could be forgetting important details like an outstanding tab with the barkeep they suddenly “recognize”, or that they unknowingly passed along a batch of defective merchandise and the NPC isn't happy about it. There are story hooks here, if you decide to use them. – Morgen Jan 11 at 14:07
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Just a thought, if he is so well known in all mayor cities as a smuggler, there are probably some officials looking for him. Or maybe there is a price on his head. – Toon Krijthe Jan 12 at 6:45
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“Roll for it” is a blend between the play styles that's almost its own style, and quite fun (in my experience). The players still get to decide what parts of they world/story they'd like affect, but the DM decides the odds— player abuse of their ability (in terms of game duration, plot stalling, etc.) can easily be turned into rolls with slim chance of success and high changes of failure (e.g. a 1 or 2 on a d20 “I know that guy” roll could mean that instead a town detective authority with an outstanding warrant for the PC spots him/her/it). – Slipp D. Thompson Jan 12 at 7:08
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I agree with this, but an alternative to "rolling for it" is to use the D&D 5e Inspiration Point mechanic. The house rule in my group is that players can spend an inspiration point to influence the game world, in addition to getting advantage on a roll. This forces the players to not abuse this ability, and the GM can give the inspiration point back if the GM uses the plot twist for nefarious means ("Yeah, I remember you, and I remember the deal you screwed me out of."). – bryanjonker Jan 12 at 14:00
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In this particular situation the asker could have almost had it both ways by having the NPC in question not recognize the PC. The DM could say, "She claims she's never met you before." If he presses it, "She insists she doesn't know you!" And finally, "She presses a dagger to your throat and tells you to bug off before things get serious." If they are all criminals, any one of them could have several reasons for needing to pretend like they don't know each other. – Todd Wilcox Jan 12 at 18:41

The term for this is "narrative control." There are several approaches to narrative control in games.

Back "in the day", most games (including all varieties of D&D up till now) reserve all narrative control to the GM, with players only having say over their own character's thoughts and actions. This sounds like what you're used to, and it's the usual way D&D is played.

But more modern games have brought increased player narrative control, which can take several forms:

  1. Controlled by some sort of currency (e.g. FATE points in FATE) which are spent to declare a fact in the game world.
  2. Limited to some agreed upon level, like in Feng Shui play groups are encouraged "if you're having a fight in a pizza parlor, and someone wants to pick up a pizza cutter and slice someone in the face, well of course there's one there. But there's not a missile launcher behind the counter." Here a player could declare relations as long as it's not messing with the GM too much, in which case you can just say "nope."
  3. Limited only by group consensus - GM-less and largely GM-less games are run this way, in this game mode "players can say anything, though the other players (or GM if it has one) can acclaim or veto it." Controls here tend to be of the "yes, and" improv style where others introduce complications to prevent it from being one big wish fulfillment fest.

This is something where you want to agree on an approach prior to game start, ideally, and make sure everyone's on the same page.

I used to run D&D in pure no-player-narrative "mother may I" mode. I tired of that over time and now allow player narrative of types 1 and 2 above, and it increases participation without really stepping on my planning toes too much. Your player is expecting mode 3. You can either go with that and allow for a much more freewheeling experience than D&D tends to assume, or establish some kind of narrative currency that can be spent to make such declarations (hint: Inspiration).

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The player claimed to know someone. As the DM, you can decide whether that is actually true.

Consider you were out and someone you don't remember comes up to you and claims to know you. Depending on your personality you may ask, "I'm sorry, how do you know me?" Or you may play along to some extent.

How is his character going to remind the bar owner, for example, how they know each other?

"We both belong to a smuggling ring, remember?" - a bit straightforward, he could be overheard by others even if it's true - the owner might be horrified or furious by the prospect of someone with no tact attempting to blow his cover. If it's not true, the owner might laugh it off as a joke or contact authorities once the players leave.

"We met at (such-and-such)" - maybe the owner has never been to such-and-such or maybe he just "doesn't recall".

Let's say they do recognize each other, the question about the diamond could go the same way. Maybe the owner has no knowledge of the diamond, maybe he does but stole it and plays stupid, or maybe there is a diamond.


If you don't think you can think on your feet fast enough to allow that kind of play, (I don't think I could), consider the following:

To avoid such awkward situations as mistaken identities, how would a smuggling ring signal to each other that they are members?

It might be easiest to setup some signal with your player that "this person is a part of your smuggling ring" - this could be done with a specific marking, necklace, color of sash, code-words, etc.

Then you can drop people in from time to time, but your player wouldn't be able to claim "He is wearing the symbol" - only that he knows the person, which you may consider as if he claimed he knew anybody - resulting in some kind of bluff check and a corresponding conversation.

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I like your answer, but I think it could be improved by suggesting an out of game discussion between player and DM, if you would agree. You can't tell what your players want if you don't talk to them. Also be sure not to make this player "The favorite", since it doesn't seem like the rest of them have as rich a backstory. You'll want to get them involved too. – Premier Bromanov Jan 11 at 17:24
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I do agree, the "marking" should be a discussion outside of the actual game, and though it isn't quite covered by the question, it might be worth it to discuss what kind of interactions he is aiming for (with the whole group so they can also contribute what they'd like to see)- for instance, with the diamond - was he hoping to spawn a certain kind of plot (and do the other players want to go that direction) or was he just trying to get money. – DoubleDouble Jan 11 at 17:48

Here's a funny way to handle it: if your player can narrate surprising things onto his background, clearly you can too.

PLAYER: "I ask Linene when the boss is going to deliver that diamond."

DM (as Linene): "Next Tuesday at dusk. Look for a rowboat off Cutthroat Pier, tell them the black raven flies at midnight."

DM (as Linene): "They'll want payment up front -- 200gp, as promised. You've still got the money, I hope?"

DM (as Linene): "That's the turf of the Red Crossbones gang, so you'll want to make sure they don't notice you're carrying valuables. The last team the boss sent through there, we found them in the sewers with their throat slit and no sign of the fire opals they'd been carrying."

DM (as Linene): "Then you just have to get across town and hand it off to Hank the Cleaver. Don't be late -- Hank has already sent payment to the boss, and if he thinks you're cheating him he'll send the Crimson Reavers after you. I've heard they can track by scent, and once they get on your trail they won't stop till you're dead."

DM (as Linene): "I hear this will pay off your debt to the boss -- after this job, you'll be square, and you can walk away. That's probably why he's given you such a nasty one. He's hoping you'll screw it up somehow and he can ask you to do more jobs as payment for botching this one."

Normally I don't suggest using your DM power to "gotcha" players who are trying to be clever, but in this case your player is sort of asking for it.

The downside to this approach is that you've now got a whole subplot going which is just about this character. Will the other players be okay with having this guy be the star of the next subplot? Is this subplot going to sidetrack something else you wanted to do?

The other downside is that it's hard to think of all this on the spur of the moment. Feel free to call a five-minute break if somebody does something that surprises you -- the players will understand.


Some generic thoughts:

  • During character creation, each character gets a certain amount of starting wealth. That wealth includes money, equipment, and anything else they have (such as favors owed). If someone tries to narrate that he's owed a 500gp diamond, you might start by asking: "Was that diamond counted as part of your starting wealth? Did you have the right starting wealth for a first-level character?"

  • A major activity in D&D is solving problems. If your character sidesteps one problem by saying "oh, I know the NPC, and I can get her to talk to me", that can be funny. If your character tries to sidestep all their problems that way, it's sort of boring.

  • You're totally within your rights to just say: "You actually don't have a relationship with this NPC." (Or: "Roll a Charisma check, DC20, to see if you have a relationship with this person. Low rolls mean you do have a relationship but they personally don't like you.")

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A way to say 'yes', while still exerting influence: roleplay a flashback.

(This is similar in approach to this answer to a question about engendering more roleplay.)

DM: okay, you know Linene? Let's explore this a bit. Four minutes real-time, you set the scene.

Player: uhh... okay? I was coming through here a few months ago with some illicit widgets I needed stored.

Linene: I don't want any trouble here--stay out of sight and be on your way before sunup. If anyone asks, I've never met you.

[scene continues, for a few minutes in real-time]...

Pros:

  1. You say "yes." It seems from above like you want to say yes, and it's a nice thing for many reasons to have a way to say yes when you want.
  2. You retain some control: it's not just a blanket "yes, you can declare whatever you want," it's a "yes, and let's figure out what that means. (In a scenario that I'm perfectly comfortable turning for or against you!)"
  3. It incentivizes players to be aware of their backgrounds and to look for opportunities to make them relevant.
  4. It provides low-risk spotlight moments for players that they can seek or avoid as they like.

Cons:

  1. It's still vulnerable to a spotlight-hogger. (But, I think, no more than the situation you described originally.)
  2. You'll need to be able to incorporate just-discovered past events into your timeline. Can become tricky.
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There are a few ways you could handle it.

  1. The NPC might have reacted like "What the hell are you talking about?"

  2. She could have played along with him, even though she didn't know him, for her own personal reasons. Maybe she had a particularly "hot" diamond that she was looking to offload and saw her chance to take advantage of the situation.

  3. She could have been confused and thought the Rogue was representing another organization and given him a diamond that is actually the property of a local gang lord, which could definitely end up being interesting for your part.

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The question of narrative control has been answered very well: "It depends on the game and the table preferences, but the default assumption is that the GM controls these things."

The question of how to say no without actually saying no has not seen a good answer, yet. (Several good ways to say yes without actually saying yes have also been presented.)

The answer that springs to many minds (including mine!) is to take the PC actions at face value (the PC makes the statements described or role-played by the player), and the NPC responds to them, but the GM preserves the original ground truth that the two characters actually do not know each other (either the NPC rebuffs the PC, the NPC takes the PC for a ride, etc.)

I would advise caution, here. If I were a player laboring under some major misconception about the game-- and whether or not my PC knows an NPC is a major misconception-- I would rather just be told out-of-character that I'm doing something wrong. Even the mild option of having the NPC rebuff the PC means that the game world is basically noticing and calling out the PC as a liar-- the other PCs think he's a liar, surrounding NPCs think he's a liar, the NPC in question knows he's a liar, etc. The player may not have intended anything of the sort, and that strikes me as a tad harsh for a first offense.

Basically, I challenge the assumption: I don't think there is a good way to say no without actually saying (politely but firmly) "No."

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As others have mentioned, it's perfectly acceptable to tell the player they actually don't know the NPC, directly:

GM: No, you don't know [NPC].

Or indirectly:

GM: [NPC] may superficially resemble someone you know, but as you approach it's obviously someone else."

On the other hand, if a player consistently claims to know various NPCs, it might be fun to allow that relationship to exist:

Lando: [greeting "old friend" Han Solo] Why you slimy, double-crossing, no-good swindler. You've got a lot of guts coming here, after what you pulled.

Or:

Nick: You know, that's another reason for me not to like you. That rum-head spent twenty years in jail for poisoning a kid. If you know him, you must be a jailbird yourself.

However, if a player can't take a hint, you may have to do something even more drastic:

NPC: Hey - [player]! Thank god you're here, the boss is looking for his money - you brought it, right? 100,000 gp? C'mon, man, you know he'll kill you if you don't - oh, er, hi, Boss, look, it's [player], he's got the money, see?

Relationships can go both ways. While it's well within your power to simply say, "No, you don't know the NPC," it's perfectly acceptable to change the story to allow the player to have previously known the NPC... and that relationship may not have been a good one. The NPC may not be someone anyone wants to be near.

Personally, I've had to deal with a player who seemed to have met absolutely every NPC ever, no matter how absurd (traveled from a distant land? Penpals!). Eventually, I worked his "knowledge" into a side story, in which it was discovered that the player had developed a subconscious psychic ability that allowed him to know enough details about someone's life to feel as if he knew them. And the group had just discovered that the government had started collecting psychics. He quickly stopped mentioning he knew anyone at all, even occasionally "forgetting" NPCs the group worked with frequently. Or even fellow PCs.

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