Thursday, October 31, 2013

Literacy in the rpg world

Something for me to think about for Bedine, literacy.

No, not among the players. I assume players can read :-)

Instead I'm talking about the pc. I think just about every rpg ever assumes the pc can read. While a universal literacy assumption is reasonable in a modern day/future setting, historical/fantasy rpgs also assume pc literacy. The data dump to the player by reading books is an old, old trope.

In the real world, literacy rates were low, even among the upper classes/elites of society. Scribes were a well paid profession in the real world for a reason. Old versions of the Dungeon Masters Guide only obliquely reference the literacy issue in their tables of wages for common professions when they listed wages for a scribe (scribes are among the better paid of the commoner professions).

In Baldur's Gate it's entirely reasonable the player can read, after all they did grow up in Candlekeep! In NWN1 the player is attending an hero school at the beginning of the game. It's reasonable that at least basic literacy would be taught to a would be hero, knowing which book on the evil wizard's shelf is the one that has his plans is a useful skill in the hero trade. In NWN2 Daeghun could reasonably teach the pc to read given his knowledge of the pc as carrying the shard, and there are bookshelves in the players house so there are certainly books around.

On the other hand fantasy worlds are full of barbarians, nomads, tribal groups and other such societies where learning is an oral process, possibly supplemented with pictures or pictographic representations. What about a pc from these groups? They can be highly intelligent, yet illiterate. Back to the example of the evil wizard's shelf, how does the nomad know which book to take? How do you give them information while in the dungeon, so often done with a reading data dump?


  1. Hi Kamal,

    Just to add my comment as per our last discussion ... I do believe "information dumps" can be applied with a little "poetic licence" if you want the player to absorb some of the campaign's more detailed background. However, if we make the assumption that such "info dumps" (while mechanically made available by clicking on books and the such), are (for sake of gameplay) simply knowledge that the PC would possess in one format or another from living in the world, then I think that is acceptable.

    After all, even barbarians have their "shamans" who pass down lore to their tribes, which even the simplest barbarian may recall when required. It is simply "unlocked" to the player when they click on the book entitled "History of the Barbaric Northlands" sort of thing. i.e. The PC does not "read" the book (perhaps), but has that knowledge already.

    Anyway, poetic licence as I say .... :)


  2. Reading is the way the player communicates not necessarily the avatar. I wouldn't do undo work on this concept other than maybe making books all "presumed" to be symbols or just not using reading/writing.

    Much better to see your time pay off in the story and encounters and areas.

  3. I would agree with EE here. If you are finished with the story and generally the module, maybe you could implement something regarding literacy, but it's certainly not the main dish.
    With so many custom stuff going on in the modules nowdays, what with custom UI, elaborate scripting etc, it's natural that you want to do something about the books in Bedine. It could be cool, yes, but I wouldn't bust my head about it... at least not so soon in the progress of building.


  4. Some may hate this, but maybe make info dumps using cut scenes with Bards and the like telling the story. Add a Journal entry for the player to easily access the information after the cut scene is over.