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How Much Do You Tell Your Players? Part Two: How Magic Works

Last week, I wrote about some tips for describing a room so players have enough information to work with and make interesting decisions. Today, let's talk about another major decision you'll have to make about how much to tell your players...

Scenario 2: How a Specific Spell/Magic Item Works

After one of their characters was killed in battle, the members of my Valkyries group started asking me a lot of questions about bringing people back from the dead. These new players, still getting a handle on how magic worked, tried to reason a way they might be able to bring the wizard back to life.

The characters in D&D know they live in a world of magic and monsters, but it's your decision how much people actually know about these sorts of things. For example, in the world of Game of Thrones, everyone has heard stories of giants and dragons, but almost no one believes they still exist. Stories of wargs and resurrection are far less well-known, and genuinely shock characters who are exposed to that sort of magic.

Meanwhile, in Lord of the Rings, magic is more accepted, though not entirely understood by common folk. And while some things surprise the characters, such as walking trees or demons made of smoke and fire, the idea of cloaks that make you all but invisible is accepted as "elven magic." (If I'm misremembering anything from Lord of the Rings, please forgive me, it's been years since I've cracked one of those books open.)

My solution: Make an Intelligence check

It depends how much you want your world to rely on magic, but in general, my answer remains the same: the players are entitled to roll a skill check, to see if they know/understand the magic in question. Maybe they can roll an Arcana check to discern the nature of a magic item, or a History check to learn how common resurrection magic might be.

The other variable for knowledge of the arcane (such as resurrection magic) is this: you have to decide how common the knowledge is. Personally, I prefer that resurrection magic not be something so common/well-known that it can be picked up at any local temple, so I made the difficulty for the History check hard. Our fighter got a 15, so I told her something along the lines of, "You've heard rumors of magic being able to bring people back to life. You've never seen it done, and you're not sure if they are exaggerated, but the stories go that servants of the gods, priests in high temples, tend to be able to access that sort of power."

What I didn't say is, "Revivify is a 3rd-level cleric spell, but can only be cast within a minute of the creature's death. Resurrection and raise dead are higher level spells, but they are more costly..." and so on. Mostly, that's because there's nothing less interesting to me than D&D characters talking about spell levels in-character.

But again, it's entirely up to you. If you are running a more high-magic campaign, then maybe magic items are a lot more common, and you will allow your party to know a bit more about the items they find/hear about. And this principle can be carried on into other games as well. If you're running a game of Star Wars: Edge of the Empire, you can determine how much your party knows about the Force and the Jedi. Here, you can use the films as reference: when A New Hope begins, Luke has never heard of the Force, and Han Solo and most of the higher-level Imperials think of the Force as a "hokey religion." However, you might decide your party knows a bit more about the Force, through the stories they've heard (i.e. the movies your players have seen, since it's very difficult to make your players forget the things their characters don't know).

Next week, we're gonna talk about when players want to know the motivations of another character - especially a player.

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