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I have a player who is an elf wizard and his entire backstory and goal is knowledge related. He made his elf well over 200 years old and claims that his character has read a massive amount of books (pretty much reading since his elf character could read and hasn't stopped) and that's all his player apparently has ever done. That's cool and I can skirt around some of that using homebrew lore, enemies, and locations but he continually argues with me and other players that his character would just, "know that already" since he spent hundreds of years reading books from all over the place.

How can I allow him to keep the mega bookworm aspect from his character's past without having to appease him by basically allowing him to know everything like lore or city info or what-have-you? He also claims (even though he knows I won't allow it) that his character should be learning spells much faster since he's already studied them and read about them and so on.

An example from a session a few weeks back: Setting - Party has taken over a pirate ship and the party's original crew has all died. They've taken several pirates prisoner.

Wizard: I'll steer the boat back to Waterdeep.

Me: You don't know how to work the ship or any aspect of giving out commands to do so (neither do any of the other PCs) and you've never been on a ship before now.

Wizard: I've probably read about them in a book at some point so I would know how to steer a ship, the names of the ship parts and what commands to give.

Me: Uh...no. (the best thing I could come up with was:) You may have read something about boats in more than one book even but you've never had experience and you more than likely would not be able to retain all of that information to be able to efficiently sail a ship.

Wizard: Then I do my best to recall everything.

Me: ...Make an intelligence check.

I get that characters may have done something a while back and want to recall something but just reading about them and saying that your character has read basically 90% of the books in Faerun doesn't work for me. It makes the other PCs feel undervalued as well and I've had more than one ask why he can do that.

I'm stumped and I can't think of a legit argument or reason that makes sense with the whole elf character being a brand new adventurer at level 1 (wizard) but has lived for hundreds of years and knows everything but just hasn't has the actual experiences yet.

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    \$\begingroup\$ Reminder: comments are for clarifying content, not posting small or incomplete answers. Please use answer posts to submit answers instead. Prior comments containing answers have been removed. \$\endgroup\$ – SevenSidedDie Oct 28 '16 at 22:35
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    \$\begingroup\$ The player has apparently read the D&D rulebook but is unable to apply it correctly, why would his character be any different? \$\endgroup\$ – mxyzplk Oct 30 '16 at 14:04

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There are a number of reasons why the character's book knowledge may not be useful at a given time. There are also a number of reasons why the character's knowledge wouldn't be as extensive as your player seems to think.

1) Book knowledge isn't practical experience.

You can read all the books in the world about riding a bicycle, and you'll still fall off the first time you actually try to do it. There's tons of sensory information that simply can't be reduced to words and absorbed, to say nothing of muscle memory.

2) Fantasy settings are not usually full of technical manuals.

There are no printing presses; everything is written by hand. Nobody writes a book explaining the basics of sailing, because that would be a massive waste of effort; it would be far easier to teach people how to sail by actually taking them sailing. This is especially true for things that are basic day-to-day skills for a decent segment of the population. Why would you write a book about how to do X when everyone you know already knows how? Books that include the application of these skills will usually be journals, and will either gloss over the details so no knowledge is necessary, or simply use sufficient explanation for someone who already knows how to understand what is being described.

3) Information in books may be highly localized to a specific place and/or time.

Knowing exactly how kayaks are built & operated by the jungle tribes in the distant land of Gobbeldey-gook doesn't help you operate a Gibberese catamaran. Knowing how ancient Gibberese oared catamarans were built & operated doesn't help you operate a modern Gibberese triple-masted caravel. Any books a centuries-old elf has read are likely to be tens, hundreds, or even thousands of years old, and has a higher chance of being out of date than the elf might realize.

4) Information in books may be straight up wrong.

Unless the book was written or dictated by a major deity whose portfolio includes honesty, its source is capable of deliberately lying, being factually incorrect, or both. History books in particular have a high risk of being revisionist, potentially to the point of being a complete whitewash. The idea that historians should faithfully record what actually happened, regardless of who it makes look bad, is pretty much limited to modern liberal democracies; in a fantasy setting writing a history book that doesn't flatter everyone powerful in the area is a good way to get a visit from some soldiers, assassins, or "adventurers".

5) Not every book is in Elven.

There are a wide variety of languages in the Forgotten Realms, and plenty of books won't be available in languages the character speaks (remember, translating a book involves writing out the translation by hand). If you can only read Elven, then most of the knowledge you get from books will be on topics that an elf thought was worth writing about.

6) Literacy might be rare.

In real world history, most people in the medieval period D&D is based off of didn't know how to read & write. This not only substantially reduces the number of people out there writing books (why learn to do anything that pays less than being a scribe if you already know how to read & write?), it also substantially limits who writes books. If only nobles and priests have both the knowledge and the spare time to write books, you should expect the list of topics available to be fairly limited. Admittedly, literacy may not be as rare in D&D settings (PCs can always read & write common, for example, though PCs are by definition a special case), but it's almost certainly not the >90% we're used to in the modern day.

7) Does the character's backstory actually give them time to read that many books?

Part of being a wizard is doing a lot of reading & studying, yes, but it's specifically studying magic. Wizards don't have innate access to magic the way sorcerers do, or clerics, or warlocks, or just about any other class; wizards get magic by studying and practicing magic a lot. Becoming a level 1 wizard is a lot like getting a PhD in neurochemistry; being brilliant helps, but it still takes years of focused effort. Even being an elf doesn't give you enough time learn magic and read up to expert-level on sailing, wilderness survival, monster lair layout, and all the other million and one things it can be helpful to know when you're an adventurer.

8) What world-famous library were all these books in?

When books are hand-written, copies are hard to come by. Many books will only ever have one copy in existence. A library with copies of even a quarter of the material plane's extant books would be famous across the planes, and almost certainly wouldn't allow random elves to wander in and spend a century or two perusing the stacks.

TLDR: Knowing lore, especially about old stuff, is pretty reasonable (though an appropriate knowledge check should still be required). Knowing how to do things should generally be a hard sell; few people have both the practical knowledge necessary to produce a book about mundane skills and the spare time & literacy needed to actually write a book (or hire a scribe to take dictation, I suppose).


Non-Canon Alternatives

The books don't really explain what elves actually do with all that extra time that doesn't involve being trained in every skill ever as well as being an accomplished mage, archer, and poet. Here are some options that rest on unofficial attempts to explain why elves are mechanically at about the same competency level as humans despite having been an adult for decades or even centuries longer.

The elf may not really remember everything he read while in long-time.

There's an excellent thread on the GitP forums, So You Want to Play an Elf, which, while written for 3.5, is largely fluff-focused and thus fairly easily translated to 5th edition. To summarize the relevant bit, it argues that elves perceive time differently than other races do: what shorter-lived races consider normal is short-time to an elf, and they only perceive the world that way in stressful situations that require them to do something out of the ordinary. Elves (unless crazy or very unlucky) pass the vast majority of their lives in long-time, which is a lot like being on a very relaxing sort of autopilot.

If you go with this interpretation of elves, then the elf probably has trouble consciously remembering things he read in long-time. Alternately he may be one of those lunatics who avoids or is incapable of entering long-time, but that would almost certainly give him a pretty poor reputation in elven society (which might very well limit his access to an endless supply of books).

Elves may focus on learning largely useless meta-knowledge, rather than picking up a broader knowledge base.

Another possible explanation for why elves aren't masters of every possible skill or talent is that when an elf learns something, they obsessively learn everything about it, spending a lot of time picking up trivia that few shorter-lived races would bother with.

A human trained in Arcana could probably tell you that the evil wizard is casting Hold Person. An elf trained in Arcana spent an extra thirty years picking up the knowledge needed to tell you that not only is the evil wizard casting Hold Person, the specific version of the hand gestures he's using is typical of the Broken Mirror school, founded by the tiefling Uk-shae 2217 years ago. The elf could further explain the history of that particular school/style of arcane magic, as well as each of the seventeen known variants of Hold Person's somatic component and their origins, plus which variant is a quarter of a second faster, which variant is a full 6% more mana-efficient during the current phase of the moon, and then follow up with a discussion about the philosophies of the various scholars (probably elves) who did the research to determine said speed and mana-efficiency.

With this fluff/crunch interpretation, elves definitely know tons more than shorter-lived races, it's just that most of that knowledge is completely useless minutiae. Elven bards could be the exception to this rule, or they might simply know a truly horrifying amount of trivia to match the breadth of their knowledge/skills.

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  • \$\begingroup\$ Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat. \$\endgroup\$ – SevenSidedDie Oct 31 '16 at 21:10
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This can be solved mechanically

Just to take a different tack: If he wants to recall how to steer a boat, ask him to make a roll against his Navigator's Tools Proficiency, and/or Vehicle Proficiency. If he doesn't have them, he can make a general Int check for very general knowledge. If his claim is that he should be able to roll any skill on any subject by virtue of having read a book about it, that needs to be reflected in the mechanical build of his character. Those skills exist for a reason and there is a character building economy to control their acquisition.

There are ways to build highly skilled characters. Wizard is the wrong class for that. A Rogue/Bard multi class is closer to mechanically being able to do what he wants to do.

In short, don't let a player have a very powerful ability for free, just by declaring it in their backstory. They must back up any ability with the appropriate mechanic.

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    \$\begingroup\$ Player: "Yes - I was trained for 10 years by the best fighter in the land!" - GM: "But your sword skill is zero you cannot just win a fight by citing your cool backstory!" - everyone has to buy their skills and should look out that their story matches their character sheet. \$\endgroup\$ – Falco Nov 2 '16 at 10:50
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    \$\begingroup\$ Or to look at it another way: even if it's plausible for a person to exist who has perfect recall and can translate book-learning into practical action and who has read books about almost everything and therefore is good at doing everything, that person is forbidden as a starting PC, because the points balance doesn't allow it. A character who has read a lot but can't translate it all into action is fine. \$\endgroup\$ – Steve Jessop Nov 3 '16 at 11:48
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Roll with it

Let's address this by taking things back to 5e fundamentals. Working from, "How To Play", from PHB page six.

1. The DM describes the environment

"You've taken over the pirate ship but your crew are all dead. What do you do?"

2. The players describe what they want to do.

"As an ancient elf I've read historical books about ship battles and construction. Using the lingo I remember I steer the ship back to Waterdeep."

3. The DM narrates the results of the adventurers actions (often relying on the roll of a die to determine the results of an action)

"Controlling a ship based on what you read in some book long ago? Sounds Very Hard (PHB p.174 has the table). Make a DC25 History skill check. Is anyone able to help and give Advantage?"

On Success

"Your grasp of the lingo is suberb and the books were surprisingly accurate. You're steering the ship back to Waterdeep but then...."

On Failure

"Damn! This must be a newer model because none of the parts you're looking for are there. What is the rest of the party doing?"


The player claiming their character knows everything isn't a problem as long as you can bring things back to the standard 5e conflict resolution mechanic of rolling some dice. Rather than arguing about it just buy into the trope the player is developing for their character ("Greatest Trivia Nerd of All Time"), set a DC arbitrarily based on how hard that seems, and see where the dice take you.

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    \$\begingroup\$ "...as long as you can bring things back to the standard 5e conflict resolution mechanic of rolling some dice." This is a perfect thing to keep in mind when facing future issues like this or similar! \$\endgroup\$ – krakenships Oct 28 '16 at 23:23
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Give him exactly what he wants.

I know, I know, but please, hear me out.

So, you've read all of the books you could possibly get your hands on and have acquired hundreds of years worth of knowledge? Excellent.

Using your example of the ship, a suggested DM response:

You have read (roll D100)...... 65 books on sailing. 23 of them directly contradict each other, 27 of them are on various different ships, 4 of them are about space ships, and the rest are Titanic rip offs.

You recognize that to properly man a ship of this size you need an experienced crew with a lot of hands on experience, otherwise you're going to have problems with navigation charts, underwater reefs, rocks, and currents. Your knowledge of how hard this is tells you that attempting to crew a ship of this size with no experience will likely get you all killed.

If he chooses to argue with this, understand that you've acknowledged his background and paid tribute to it, while giving him a very logical and sound reason that comes FROM his background as to why this isn't reasonable.

This will make the character feel useful, while simultaneously undercutting the seemingly overpowered nature of this particular back story.

Here's an example of how to fix him trying to steal another player's thunder:

Rogue: I can pick that lo......

Book smart player: I've read up on these locks, so I can handle them easily!

DM: Yes, you have read up on them, and your knowledge of these locks is such that it takes a practiced hand and years of experience in dexterously handling lockpicking tools in order to successfully avoid the lock breaker mechanism. One error could spell disaster for an amateur lockpick by permanently locking the door. Do you still want to try your hand at lockpicking without skill in thieves tools?

Knowledge is a good thing to have, and a walking encyclopedia is a fantastic asset. But if he thinks knowledge replaces experience and training, he's grossly mistaken and needs an adjustment to his thinking.

As for the arguments on learning things faster: He actually has a point. If all he does is spend his time studying new spells, I would argue that it's logical he could learn a new one outside of levels as part of his studies. This would be strictly home brew, but creating a success chart and having him use gold for experimentation would be a great way to encourage his job as a spell crafter. It could even add story hooks to your game when he accidentally triggers a spell that has extremely unintended consequences.

If you do choose to implement this, don't forget to add in a random factor for information his character just plain forgot. Nobody remembers everything they read perfectly. So have him roll a D20 (or whatever you choose) and on a low roll (1-5 on D20, a 1-2 on D6, etc), have him be unable to recall any specific helpful details.

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    \$\begingroup\$ This. The player seems to think that steering a ship involves nothing more than standing at an oversized steering wheel and driving it like a car. \$\endgroup\$ – chepner Oct 29 '16 at 13:38
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    \$\begingroup\$ Of course, spending all your time studying spells means you have no time to study sailing, or anything else for that matter. He spent all of his time on spells. \$\endgroup\$ – PipperChip Nov 4 '16 at 20:11
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    \$\begingroup\$ While I tend to agree, that's all of his time NOW, not before. Example, I spend most of my research time in real life focused on WoW, but that doesn't mean I forgot how to repair a RADAR, radio, or operate a PBX switch. \$\endgroup\$ – Lino Frank Ciaralli Nov 4 '16 at 23:04
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Walk back your decision to allow into the campaign characters with game-breaking backgrounds

The player found a flaw in the system and, instead of pointing out the flaw and the two of you working out something reasonable, the player ruthlessly exploited this flaw: The player realized that there's no limit the complexity of a character's background.

You're fortunate that the player only wrote into the character's background that the character memorized books for 200 years. The player could've also written that his character's father is Elminster, that the character's married to Dove Falconhand (and family dinners are awkward), that next week the character's investments in Sembia will be worth 10 million gp, and that the artifact in his head gives him complete control over Lord Ao.

The player's taken the idea that, because the rules don't say he can't have a character with an enormously powerful background, that means his character can. As a DM, you need to politely explain that the expectation is not that anything is possible but that anything is possible with the DM's permission, and you—the DM—can't continue to permit a PC who knows everything, no matter how many times the player writes into the character's background My toon knows everything!

So, take the player aside and explain that you made a mistake in approving the character's background. After having the character in the campaign for some time, you've realized his character makes the game too difficult to run, and either the player can play a different character or the two of you can work out how the character can somehow lose 200 years of accumulated book knowledge.

You made a mistake and allowed into your game something you shouldn't've. That's okay. That's happened to me, and I'm pretty sure it's happened to everybody who's ever run a game.

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    \$\begingroup\$ "and either the player can play a different character or the two of you can work out how the character can somehow lose 200 years of accumulated book knowledge." -- These options sound like "reroll" or "the character in-universe loses 200 years' reading", but there's a third option of "the character out-of-universe just has that background note quietly erased/revised, and nobody in-universe comments on the change, like it was that way all along". \$\endgroup\$ – doppelgreener Nov 1 '16 at 12:28
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Reduce it to Mechanics

The player expects too much benefit from their backstory. A background story of this sort should not be used as a skill. It should be used to justify having skills (e.g. History, Religion and possibly Arcana) with good backing stats. All of that is in the character-building economy.

More than a Backstory?

If they want more from the backstory, then perhaps you grant them a class feature such as the Bard's Jack of All Trades but that has to come at the expense of something significant from the Wizard feature set.

Maybe all that book-readin' came at the expense of their early training and they never mastered Cantrips... "I don't need that silly prestidigistuff, just bring on the Magic Missiles!" Or they give up the 2nd level feature Arcane Tradition... "Focusing on one Tradition? Ridiculous - I will learn them all with equal fervor!"

Disagreement

If the player is unwilling to give up on their interpretation, then you are going to have to challenge them on it in play. Their character, like the player, thinks they know it all but they don't. They will make pronouncements that are frequently wrong because they have misinterpreted details or applied the wrong lessons.

They read a lot about galleons and triremes but they are unfamiliar with this longship.

Ancient Elf Wizard Bookworm: Well, its kinda like a trireme but with only one back of oars. Should be simpler to manage. What's the worst that can happen!?

rolls ...

At this point the character has no skill and is trying to do something very difficult. Basically, if they don't roll a 20, its going to go poorly. If they get that 20, they somehow manage to limp the ship back to port - but slowly.

... not-20

DM: Apparently you put all the mustaches on one side and the beards on the other. The ship founders when you get in some heavy waves. Fortunately, I always wanted to run a desert island adventure... digs out a 10 year old map

Ancient Elf Wizard Bookworm: Oh! My character read a lot about those..

DM: You seem to lack the Survival skill so it seems he much have focused on sand-castle building and stories where skeletons were found on desert islands. Anyone else?

Half-orc Barbarian with a Heart of Gold: I can find water in a fire pit! Elf! Gather some wood for a fire...

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Sure, He's Read it...

That's a "Just Say Yes" moment....

But does he recall it?

That's where Int, Wis, and proficiency comes into play. What he can recall is a function of his attributes and proficiencies, including skills, tools, and languages.

More simply put, it's just color for why he's succeeded, not grounds for advantage nor bonuses to the attempt.

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The sort of god-like knowledge the player wishes to have can't be simply acquired without cost. Some gaming systems include skill trees or proficiencies, to limit characters. Counter-intuitively, this makes the characters more interesting. This know-it-all player is likely a bore.

Is the player role-playing this love for literature? Or was it something he did in his history? Is he is obsessively visiting libraries now? (Do libraries these even exist in your world? Or is information hoarded?) If he still reads what he can find, then use this to implant the ideas for the next adventure. That solves one problem - how to guide the players while remaining in character.

But he's using this unearned and unlimited fountain of knowledge to short-circuit challenges in the game. He intends to be an expert at every skill and profession.

I would handle this by letting him believe it to be true. Full on Dunning Kruger.

So he takes control of a sailing ship. The crew throws him overboard. Regardless of what he may know, why would the crew risk their lives in the open sea with a guy who is clearly not a seasoned captain. Would you? Or, the crew quickly sees he's a charlatan or worse (he's using the same terms our enemies use!) and they set him adrift. His knowledge does not confer a specific type of leadership or physical know-how. Consider, anyone can tie a certain knot with a few moments of training. We can indeed get that from a book, if it is illustrated. Now, can your wizard friend do it from 50' up, about a freezing sea, inverted, on 2" ropes, in a gale? No? He'd be a useless noob on a ship. And he thinks the crew would trust him to navigate? Wot?

So let him do what he thinks he can do and punish him and the party for it if they are foolish enough to believe it. If he is dis-satisfied by the outcome, then perhaps he can spend time learning basic seamanship. Until then, he's marooned, every time.

In game, I'd let the player make a "rocket science" check, but he'd fail it every time. It would not necessarily be obvious. "You're confident you've fixed your position using the map and sextant and the ship is sailing in the right direction."

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The rules sometimes do not make sense, and this is true across D&D editions.

The objective of the rules is to create an approximative model of reality that tells you what modifiers to apply to rolls, or what and when to roll.

It is perfectly fine and expected that they don't try to model something veritable. Sometimes things you can build just make no sense, and it's up tu the players (DM included) to make up for it.

Just to draw from an edition of the game I'm more confident with, in 3.5e you could be a 700 y.o. elf at the start of the game and you still had to start at the same level as your 15 year old half-orc companion. How to fix that? Play an old elf who never adventured before.

So, translated to your case: don't play a "very experienced savant" if your character can't have the relevant skills to back the claim up, or accept that you will still need to roll the dice (maybe with advantage if it's for academical knowledge) to have studied that particular thing.

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This is easy. Go buy a unicycle. Next time player says I know something, tell them: you know how to ride a bike, right. You have seen a unicycle right. It's just like a bike. Here you go ride it. Then hand him a 2 pieces of sticks. Tell them: You have read about making fire rubbing two sticks together right. Here you go. If you can start a fire with just these 2 pieces of stick then your character can do everything they have read. 3rd. Ask them what their favorite book in real life is. Then ask them what is the first sentence on Random page #. If you fail all 3 tests, then your character has loose knowledge of something but no actual ability to do it

Seeing something doesn't give you the ability to do everything you saw, Reading something doesn't give you the ability to do everything you Read.

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He is a Bard!

In most older versions of D&D the bard had an ability called Legend Lore or similar wich allowed them to know things and identify objects based on their extensive knowledge of legends and stories.

In 5E this is a bit watered down, but it still exist in the core abilities of the Bard.

Most notably the ability Bardic Inspiration can be interpreted precisely like this. The Bard draws of his store of knowledge to give very helpful advice. In addition the ability Jack Of All trades closely models the ability to have "Have read a tutorial on everything".

Simply make him a Bard, refluffed as a Wizard. You could even change the College of Lore a little to make it more fitting — like change Cutting Words to something non-offensive, like (just a suggestion):

Well Timed Warning: expend Bardic Inspiration to give bonus on a non-AC defense

If he complains and says he want's to be a Wizard (not want to lose out on spellcasting power or somesuch) then explain that if he did nothing but study random literature then he clearly have spent less time to study magical lore — it's a trade-off.

He is not level 1

This is a pet peeve of mine as a DM. If we are to start as level 1 characters some backstories or concepts just won't do. No you can't be the "greatest swordmaster in Waterdeep" and be a level 1 fighter — it just does not make any sense.

There are many good solutions to this, such as:

  1. He has learned a lot, but this adventuring thing is new. It takes time and experience to put things to use in practice, and handling all that stress...
  2. He aspires to be such a character, and he reads everything he get's his hands on between adventures.
  3. Start at higher level if he want's to be awesome from the start.
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  • \$\begingroup\$ It's worth noting that in 5e, legend lore is an actual spell (available to bards, clerics, and wizards). \$\endgroup\$ – V2Blast Aug 14 '18 at 2:02
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Reinforce the Character Background

In D&D 5E, mechanical benefits of a character's backstory are captured in the character's Background. Typically, these benefits take the form of skill, tool, or language proficiencies.

The Background captures the only mechanical benefits of the character backstory. Point to this when the player attempts to leverage his backstory in areas where his Background does not confer mechanical benefits.

Work with the player to ensure that the character's Background is an accurate representation of his backstory. Once everyone is satisfied in this regard, everyone should be more receptive to enforcement during play.

If the player asserts that his backstory should confer more utility or power than a Background provides, have a conversation about game balance and fair play.

Backgrounds also suggest personality traits to describe the non-mechanical aspects of a character. Even if your group doesn't typically emphasize this part of character creation, encourage the player to think about how the character's background has shaped his personality. This will provide an outlet for him to express this aspect of the character without breaking the game.


For This Character

Although this character's Background is not stated in the question, we can analyze the backstory described. A voracious appetite for book-learning is best captured by proficiency in intelligence-based skills such as History. An appropriate Background might also confer connections or prestige among other scholars.

Skill proficiency effectively captures the notion that, although the character is well-read, to make practical use of the knowledge requires that he understood it when he read it, remembers it accurately, and can effectively apply it under pressure.

For personality traits, such a character might be annoyingly enthusiastic about sharing trivial lore or correct people with technicalities when it isn't appropriate. Perhaps the character idolizes a particular author and relates to events by interpreting everything in the context of his works. Be creative!

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As the GM I would work with the player.

I would give him advantage on history based checks and saving throws only, ONLY HISTORY. Beyond that I'd explain to the player it makes it unbalanced and cannot be allowed.

If they keep arguing it remind them you are the GM and at any point in time rocks can fall.

If he still argues explain it this way, a new book from the 1980s may talk about the USSR, and if you read it now it is absolutely no longer accurate.

History is written by the victorious party. And changes with leaders, so remind him that the histories he read about might not be the true or accurate history. Remember when people thought the world was flat? Well there were books written proving it was flat until it was proven otherwise. Remind him how time changes everything.

If they still keep on it I'd make in-game comments like, you remember reading this river as if you read about it yesterday only 5 ft deep and 10 ft wide. As you look at the river now you see it a as only half this size. This little town didn't exist in the book you read 15 years ago because it was established 14 years ago.

I'd do a lot of well it was how you read about it, once at least but is no longer the case. Because time changes everything.

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Practice, not reading, makes perfect.

Read as much as you want about riding a bike - you will still fail the first time.

For anything that’s not an answer and requires physical and mental coordination, tactile or other integrated sensory knowledge, or team management, give the tasks the DC they would still deserve.

Otherwise, if he wants skills with that rote knowledge too, RAW has one solution. He can choose to be two levels of a Knowledge Cleric and divinely channel for skill in any talent for 10 minutes twice a day. If he wants to claim he learned all those skills too, he can add background as to why he can only channel skills from his vast repository of knowledge twice a day. Early dementia, maybe? A magical curse?

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Some suggestions

  • Make him meet a character that's lies about a monster encounter
    • Think Loch Ness, i.e. he can't have read about it.
  • Make him meet a not yet discovered species
    • Might be something for him to write in a book himself.
  • Make the facts of a book he read wrong or incomplete
    • "The book did not mention that the *** was poisonous"
    • "The book forgot to mention that *** was immune to"
    • ...
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Their character may know a lot of information because they're an extreme reader. Other answers have addressed that book knowledge is not the same as practical experience, and you should probably go with that guidance.

But this character sounds like an extreme introvert. You could rule that he has a crippling phobia or hates dealing with practical stuff. Maybe he's so pain-averse that taking 1 damage starts them whining and moaning as if the world was ending. That level of extreme book learning comes at a cost, and any game-mechanical advantage which the player gains from it should be balanced by a mechanical disadvantage so that their character is not far more powerful than they should be.

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I recommend a couple of things on your end as the DM.

Determine how rare or common books are in your world setting. Mass publications in a fantasy setting are highly unlikely.

As some have mentioned before, application of knowledge (Wisdom) is different than the acquisition of knowledge (Intelligence). Drawing connections can take time and having others understand those connections can be nearly impossible.

Another avenue to consider is how invested an individual can get in their routines and in this case their backgrounds. The character in question sounds like he should have never left the great library. His reason and purpose for adventuring seem unclear and almost as if they do not mesh.

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Have Him Roll For It

You could have the the player roll to remember what he read because even a character with a high intelligence would forget things sometimes. Or maybe you could tell the player that his character did not have any books on whatever topic the player is trying to say he read.

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I think it is reasonable to attempt to sail the ship even with no experience. It's better than drifting until the supplies run out. An alternative is to get the pirates to help sail the ship, but that idea has its own risks.

Since astronomy and math are stereotypical wizard pastimes, he can plausibly calculate his latitude and be a passable navigator. They also have a fair bit of time to figure out what to do. And healing spells can save them from accidents that would prove fatal in reality. I'd say they can actually get the ship back, but they'll have to roll well for it and will probably all die.

If you don't want a total party wipe, but don't want him to sail the ship perfectly, know that while latitude is fairly easy to figure out, longitude is much, much harder. This problem was not solved in the middle ages and the eventual solution required an accurate timepiece. It's quite plausible they could end up on some island with the same latitude like Ruathym or some smaller place unmarked on official maps.

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The corect answer is that the player cannot play a character smarter than they are.

If a character truly had this depth of recall that the player has insisted on in certain situations, they would have to be fed all sorts of information all the time about anything the party came across. You as the DM would have to tell the player that they recognize the strengths and weaknesses of most monsters, the tactics that will be used against them, the true intentions of any NPC (because the elf is amazing at reading body language), the nature and origin of any magic items that the party came across, and probably the terrain and georgraphy of most places the party visited.

While a background feature realistically gives a character experience in one narrow field, their background literally cannot be "I know everything" because since the player does not, they will not make decisions realistic to the character. A character who is an expert on ships and navigation (along with everything else) would have known how the ship was bound to have ben laid out, who was responsible for each function, how to immobilize the ship from the water, and a whole host of other knowledge that would have affected how the party handled the situation. If a character is smarter than a player, the player cannot accurately represent the decisions of the character. You must tell them that they can have a history of a bookworm, possibly give them some crunch for it like advantage on history checks, but firmly insist that they cannot "press X to win" in any given situation.

For a longer and better analysis of this issue I reccomend reading some of the Angry GM. He writes about it here, and has several more articles on his own website about this exact problem. http://www.madadventurers.com/angry-rants-challenge-the-characters-not-the-players/

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  • 5
    \$\begingroup\$ Being able to play a character with different or greater capabilities than their player, including intelligence, is frequently a draw to RPGs, so your first sentence is quite concerning to me. Are you asserting that nobody should be allowed to play a character smarter than they themselves are, or just to prohibit this player from that activity? \$\endgroup\$ – doppelgreener Nov 3 '16 at 18:23
  • \$\begingroup\$ @doppelgreener The character can have a higher intelligence than the player actually might. But they cannot use it as a "press X to win." By and large, people play RPGs to be presented with situations to solve based on information given. A player who says "My character's stats mean I know most facts about the world and therefore would overcome this challenge" breaks the concept of the game. \$\endgroup\$ – Bartimaeus Nov 6 '16 at 18:12
  • \$\begingroup\$ @doppelgreener The other problem is one of decisionmaking. If you go by the theory that your character is smarter than you are, you shouldn't be allowed to make decisions for them, because your decisions would not be as good as the character's. What if the player used the wrong spell in combat or moved in the wrong place? The character is smarter and wouldn't do that. The player actually can not play a character smarter than they are. Since we as DMs don't take away player agency in combat, we can't do it to them outside of combat by allowing them to abdicate the decisionmaking process. \$\endgroup\$ – Bartimaeus Nov 6 '16 at 18:18
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This is simple. And incredibly evil but fun for a DM.

Keep in mind the below RP is for a serious campaign with serious consequences, no safety net, and permadeath. Modify the ending as you see fit (maybe he had a sudden bout of clairvoyance ... as a not so subtle DM hint)

Book worm: I have read books on how to control ships and should be able to sail it back to Waterdeep.

DM: memory roll: secretly roll one d20 to see how much knowledge he has retained (comes up 5 as an example). Add his knowledge / lore skills pertaining to sailing if he has any (he has 0 for this example). Roll a d100 and multiply by 10, this becomes how old the book is compared to the ship in years subtract this to the roll (rolls a 45 which becomes 450). You can reroll each time it hits 100 and keep adding 1000 years for each successive nat 100 rolled.

**ex: memory / book knowledge of this ship equation: 5+0-450 = -445

best roll possible with no lore modifiers 20+0-10 = 10**

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DM: success check: secretly roll to see if he would be able to manage it (d20 rolls a 15) add and subtract skills / other modifiers (0 for skills -10 for untrained). Take the first knowledge roll (-445) and add it to their success check.

ex: 15+0-10-445 = -440

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DM confidence check: secretly roll a d20 (rolls a 10). Add in the original knowledge check to this (5). Add in cocky modifier (1* "number of times he has used i-should-know-that excuse" during that session) (10 in this case)

ex: 10+5+10= 25

0 = not confident minimum will always be 3

40+ = He's got this!

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DM: You are reasonably confident you can work the vessel and sail it to waterdeep.

Book worm: ok I start getting things ready.

DM: secretly rolls a reflex save for bookworm (d20=5)

DM: A stiff wind catches the (whatever) sail snapping a coil of heavy rope around your right leg ripping it out from under you. You smack your head against the deck and black out. Everyone else watches as your body is flung towards the bow of the ship. Secretly roll to see if his leg is ripped off, broken, dislocated, or released from the ropes whip affect (rolled a 1 in this case). The whip effect severs Bookington Wormstrom's leg at the hip with a sickly sounding pop. His limp body hurdles toward the port side stairs leading up to the bows deck. The wizard's body slams into them with such force he breaks through. A split second later everyone hears a distinct fleshy snapping thud.

DM to player of the late Bookington Wormstrom: please roll a new character you can choose one of the captured pirates. At Least you will now know something about sailing.

I use this style of play quite a bit especially when someone wants to play a fool in a serious game. If this game is a casual, lighter hearted game he would instead be hanging upside down with all the pirates laughing uncontrollably. The DM might then say: what would you like to do next? Batten down the hatches perhaps?

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  • 3
    \$\begingroup\$ Have you tested these numbers in your game, or are they just made up on the spot? \$\endgroup\$ – GreedyRadish Oct 30 '16 at 7:11
  • \$\begingroup\$ mostly made up on the spot for some reason people don't act that way when I DM. I think in this particular situation they fit because you would need to take into account the age of the book compared to the age of the ship. This might be a bit steep but that depends on how fast things change. The ability rolls are always a separate roll from confidence level but the confidence level modifier is the knowledge you can dredge up. The main point to it is putting metagaming like that to rest real fast while staying in game and keeping it plausible. \$\endgroup\$ – Cc Dd Oct 30 '16 at 7:20
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    \$\begingroup\$ I only asked because on this site we really prefer that you have actually playtested any homebrew suggestions. Numbers made up on the spot can have a huge impact on the statistical outcome of different things, and you really shouldn't allow a player to roll on anything you don't want them to succeed/fail if you play with automatic success(20)/failure(1) rules as many groups do. \$\endgroup\$ – GreedyRadish Oct 30 '16 at 11:27
  • \$\begingroup\$ I have had similar situations where this works well. Not so well for player characters but that is part of trying to keep it realistic. \$\endgroup\$ – Cc Dd Nov 1 '16 at 21:34
  • \$\begingroup\$ More complicated than necessary. Non proficient rolls with disadvantage would fit the 5e mode. DC 15-20. \$\endgroup\$ – KorvinStarmast Aug 14 '18 at 2:41

protected by doppelgreener Nov 3 '16 at 18:20

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