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by Mike on 14 April 2022
I first heard about the concept of "knives" at Pax Unplugged 2019 in a panel on Worldbuilding for Lazy Dungeon Masters with Mackenzie De Armas, James Haeck, Renee Rhodes, and Morrigan Robbins.
A "knife" in this context is a bit of fiction you take from the players in your game and use to make the story more interesting. It might be a piece of character backstory, it might be an off-hand remark, it might be a description they throw out. Whatever it is, we grab it and run with it. Like a real knife, this bit of fiction may have sharp edges and someone might get cut.
For a video on this topic, check out my YouTube video on Wielding Knives.
As an example knife, in my Ghosts of Saltmarsh game, one of the players bluffed an NPC into believing that the characters' boat had been attacked by an "acid kraken" to explain the big acid arrow blast in the side of the ship. I carefully filed that bit of lore away and, many sessions later, they faced the actual acid kraken.
Wielding knives is like using the improvisational technique of "yes, and" but with a gun loaded with yetis.
We need to be careful not to take a knife and just plain stab our players. We use knives first and foremost for the fun of the game. We need to be careful not to break trust with your players. We shouldn't use a knife to take away character or player agency. If cutting with a knife might leave a permanent scar, we should check in with our players to make sure they're cool with how we're running with their idea. We don't use knives to screw characters. We use them to build opportunities for heroics and fun.
Like many advanced DM techniques, we can start with a small knife. We can use a knife to change the mannerisms or appearances of NPCs. We can use them to make small changes to the world; funny monster appearances or things those monsters say. A knife might make an overhang unstable or a lock more complicated than we had intended. We start by using knives to change the world in small and interesting ways. We don't cut too deep.
When the opportunity is right, when you know your players and you know yourself and know it will bring fun and excitement to the moment, start cutting.
Properly using knives is an advanced DM technique. It requires careful use with trusting players who understand what you're doing and, like you, are here to play to see what happens.
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