There was a thread on EN World a few months back about the role of sages in D&D. In AD&D, there was a fair amount of material in the DMG about the services offered by experts in various fields. If the characters needed to learn the history of the Forgotten City of Thar, they could plunk down some cash and hire the services of an expert.
Over the years, that sort of expertise has shifted from NPCs to characters. Non-weapon proficiencies, and later the skill system integrated into D&D, gave the characters the opportunity to become experts themselves. The sage as an important element of the game faded away.
On one hand, that makes things easier at the table. The DM can salt a dungeon or other location with strange runes, crumbling statues, and other bits that allow for skill checks as a way to add depth, background, and hints to the game.
On the other hand, sages provided a few nice benefits. They are a great way to give the party an interesting, non-combat challenge, a fun NPC to interact with, and a world that feels like a living, active place outside of the immediate bounds of an adventure. They set up a plausible situation where the PCs have to make an NPC happy in order to achieve their goals.
There's a rather easy way to combine the two approaches, giving the characters the benefits of skills like Arcana or History while making sages (and similar NPCs) useful, interesting resources. Simply put, most experts combine off the cuff knowledge with a thorough understanding of how to find an answer. That can easily extend to the PCs.
When the characters discover strange runes carved on to a seemingly impenetrable steel door, a skill check points the way to the expert that can tell them about the runes. The character's knowledge isn't absolute, but it does carry with it an understanding of the experts, important books, and other lore surrounding the topic.
Even better, you can frame that knowledge with an interesting choice. Perhaps the characters can recall two experts who might know about the runes. Yulgash the Exile's knowledge is unmatched, but he dwells in the Forest of Brambles ever since the townsfolk caught his servants pillaging the graveyard. Tharan the Radiant is a close second, but as a high priest of Pholtus any inquiries to him might generate unwanted entanglements. Giving the characters real options is an important part of D&D, and this is one more way to introduce that.
And off to Longfield
5 days ago
As a relatively new DM, I've struggled with this in my campaign. My players expect high die rolls to equate with automatically knowing something. However, sometimes I can't fathom how they could possibly know something from over 1000 years ago that only 2 people have heard of. Going by gut instinct, I've put a few people in the land who actually know a thing or two, one is an eladrin who has lived that long due to some magic and the other is a human whose family was responsible for keeping the knowledge alive. While not exactly the same as your solution, it's helped tremendously. In a recent session, I used a skill challenge to let them search the eladrin's library for knowledge that will be useful to them.
Sage advice, as always.
Now, where's that skill challenge article I've been waiting for all month.
I'm using something similar in a new campaign I'm going to be starting soon. In the opening encounter the PCs are going to find themselves in possession of a mysterious box that they can not open, not by spell or physical means. There are clues on the box itself that will lead them to the person who crafted it, who enchanted it, all hooking them into further adventures.
I've always liked the idea of sages and other knowledgeable people, as it also provides hooks into future adventures and encounters.
I think you have to strike a balance. There are many "lore" factoids that the Characters should know by their own "past" experiences growing up, otherwise they feel like idiots in their own world. General knowledge is covered by skills, but more specific and unusual facts require that they will have to consult a sage.
A most welcome article. Thank you!
The choices example you gave in this post was an Eye-Opener.
I don't know why, but this post reminded me of playing Bard's Tale II, The Destiny Knight on my Commodore 64...the Sage was a big part of that game's plot. The character's learned a lot of what to do next from the Sage. In the end, it turns out the sage was the main villain...
It's a sad fact of the modern game that it has been streamlined to minimize time between encounters. The almost removal of spell components is a good example of this.
Nice read. I'll definitely be checking back.
Good advice. In fact, I'm pretty sure I've seen published modules, even for later editions, that included information the PCs simply cannot know without being told. The 4th Edition Eberron Campaign Guide, in its descriptions of people and locations, gives DCs for knowledge checks, and then a section of "secret" knowledge.
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