Dealing with topics that the NPC should know but the player character doesn't (or shouldn't yet)

New to IF and I’ve been trying to come up with better default messages but having a bit of trouble.

What do you guys generally do for topics that the NPC does know about, but at that particular point in your game, your player doesn’t or shouldn’t?

For example: In the case of the Heidi game in “Getting Started in TADS 3,” if you go to the shopkeeper before you meet the burner and ask her about him, she’ll give the default response of making polite conversation.

I don’t think is a particularly bad response, and plus most players wouldn’t even get to this point, as having not met the burner yet you most likely wouldn’t ask about him, but on the slight chance they do ask about him, I’m worried that coming to a default response will make the player think that even after coming across said topic, the NPC won’t have any further response or information about said topic.

I think there’s a couple ways to go about this, but I was curious what IF authors generally do. I understand the problem is a little different when you’re expecting a more experienced audience, but I assume that a lot of IF authors try to keep both newer IF players and experienced IF players in mind.

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For me, it depends. When it’s obvious that they have played the game before and are now trying to exploit ‘inside knowledge’, I try to come up with a funny reply.

E.g. in Escape! The player must get the combination to open the safe from Fred (the npc). When they enter the right combination without having talked to Fred first, it’s obvious they are cheating as it’s a 4 digit code. The reply says something about very lucky guesser or cheating and informs that there now is no golden watch in the safe. And yes, I can make the safe’s combination random, but I like this better because some people will try this for sure.

Or, when they refer to an object that no one in their right mind would consider without prior knowledge, I also try to give a funny answer. In Escape! when they ask Fred about it, He will look at you suspiciously and say something like “we haven’t been there yet, buddy”.

When they just refer to it (not by the npc), the interpreter will say something like “At this point in the game, I have no knowledge of that”.

I share your concern that, once you give a default answer, the chance that they will try to manipulate the object again will be less likely. So, when the object becomes relevant there should be some sort of a message to indicate that.

I think a response of “Why do you want to know?” might work well for the example you give. It suggests that there’s information to be gotten at, but that the NPC isn’t ready to reveal it.

Another option might be: “Well, what do you know about him?” Again it suggests that the player needs to do more work and come back.

Don’t be too subtle. One of the most difficult things for an author is assessing how hard a puzzle that they have designed is. Players will walk right past a clue that you figure you couldn’t have made more obvious if you’d rung a bell and flashed all the lights.

This is really the sort of fine tuning that you need beta-testers for, but in the meantime I’d read the craft of Adventure (PDF) – all sorts of useful tips from Graham Nelson himself.

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