Yesterday, Issara Booncharoen proposed a solution for a condition found in my sage abilities system - namely, that being not enough points to know what the players might like to know. In his words,
"... The difference between number of points the character has and the threshold for whatever the next level is is the number of minutes/hours/days required reading/working things through from first principles/achieving things through trial and error before the player can start using the skill normally. Say a player has 8 points in a field and wants the answer to a question relating to it, they know enough to know where to look and can find the answer to the question with two hours research, if they can get access to the book. Or they know what sort of people would know the answer, and it takes two hours (assuming an appropriate environment) to hunt down someone who might know that information and interact with them to the point where they're happy to answer your simple question."
In my words, if you're 1 knowledge point shy from amateur status, it will take less time looking up the information in a book than if you're 9 points shy. From that, it should be possible to search for knowledge even if one has zero knowledge points - something which admittedly I find problematic.
Suppose that we take a specific example for which this system would work.
I can see right away how a bit of study can help there. Pluck the plant (or draw a reasonably decent picture of it), take it to the local druid that's used to these things (is an amateur) and get them to say, "ah, that's a primrose." Libraries are rare, but digging through the right books for a day or so could get the same answer. Works great!
Now let's take an example where it doesn't work.
This is a hands-on activity, one that requires a steady hand, a good eye and plenty of personal experience looking at thousands of tree branches and knowing instinctively what is good to cut and what isn't. Moreover, it requires an adept hand that makes a clean cut with the knife, causing the least possible damage to the tree. How do characters learn this through a few hours of study?
Answer is, they don't. The proficiency assumes the character has cheerfully spent their free time performing the activity, even in the midst of running through adventures, personally examining nearby trees, stopping to chat occasionally when passing near an orchard with some pickers, sharing ideas with a fellow at the tavern before turning in, making use of their years of original expertise gained as a child (indicated by the player having chosen that class or field) and so on. The character can't get that information out of a book; the character has to live that proficiency.
When I look over the other proficiencies associated with bushes & shrubs, I see the same pattern. Horticulture, Grafting and Silviculture are pruning on a grand scale; bonsai trees and topiary are artistic pruning. Viticulture is a mix between artistry, horticulture and gut instinct. The only actual proficiency a library would be good for is the identification proficiency.
This is the pattern with other studies as well. While some things could be looked up, most things are hands on experience working in the field, from properly employing a sextant to experimenting to invent a previously non-existent humanoid that can breed offspring. The only shortcut to these things would be to actually have the amateur, authority, expert or sage present, doing these things for the player.
And perhaps that is best. Perhaps the player, rather than trying to shortcut their own knowledge, should accept that the solution is to bring along someone of needed ability until such time as that ability has been gained by a player. This in turn would help compliment the manner in which the player gained that ability.
Yesterday, I said I could get behind Issara's proposal. I'm not so sure now, having given it some thought. I think we all want to circumvent limitations. Sometimes, however, it may not be the most fruitful means of expanding the game's play.