Sudden character details and talent reveals.
I have talked before about asking players questions to get them to volunteer for a scene or add details. For instance: Do any of you happen to speak the old languages of the elves? Who looks like the biggest threat? Have you had any run-ins with the local law before?
Sometimes there is a lot of hesitation on the players part and I have to assure them that I am prepared to continue regardless of their answer. Maybe no one can speak to the elf, or everyone can. Maybe I change the question to who looks weakest or the attackers target everyone equally. Maybe there is no true law enforcement here or an outside bounty hunter has tracked you down. When I ask the players these questions I am mostly looking to get them more involved with the story making process and help it move along smoothly.
Today I want to talk about players volunteering character details and talents. I’ve thought about this in the past but I recently listened to Ray Otus podcast, Plunder Grounds (one word?), where he mentioned a situation where a character who wasn’t a bard and had not previously described themselves as having musical talent should auto-fail an attempt to play the piano (or maybe to play it impressively). I highly recommend the podcast and might be misunderstanding (I am not trying to call anyone out and don’t believe in any ONE TRUE WAY to RPG) but I have to differ slightly with that idea. I would probably find it delightful if my barbarian player, Kurg the skull smasher, suddenly revealed a talent for song. Who is to say that the thief hasn’t had dealings with all sorts of unlikely customers and speaks fluent drow. I want to learn more about their stories, especially the unlikely and unexpected bits. I generally don’t approve of anything but the briefest prepared backstories at character generation, but I think reveals like this are great places to explore the characters more and mesh them with the setting.
To be clear, a reveal like this should always lead to questions. (Where did you learn that? How come it’s never come up before? Is there anything else you’ve been hiding?) Also it should probably not be contrary to already established details. (I thought you said you were raised by elves, how are you also raised by dwarves?) But that’s not to say characters cant lie about their past, or offer an explanation for a truly unlikely reveal. Also I am not opposed to occasionally retconning, especially if the original story has not come up yet in an interesting way. The players will still have the mechanical opportunity to roll and fail so I am not overly concerned about abuse of this power. And there are some obvious limits. (did i mention that my character is also a level 20 wizard because I went to Hogwarts one summer, or that I am 30 ft tall, was dipped in the pool of invulnerability as a child and also the world’s most famous brain surgeon?) Generally I would much rather assume they have the means to engage the story rather than not. And finally, it’s just fun to find out more details about the players.
What do you think? Is it giving the players to much power? Or asking for abuse? Is it unrealistic or game breaking? Am I only focusing on good examples? Have you ever been surprised / delighted / upset by such a reveal