Imagine this fairly common scenario: The character sheet talks about a backwoods, uneducated fighter with a low intelligence score. The player knows that the word puzzle on the wall can be solved by removing every third letter and putting the min order. The fighter might not know this, but the player does. Should the player be able to bring in their knowledge and find some way for the fighter to have brought it up, or should the Game Master enforce the character backstory or let the player flex their own knowledge in the game?

It's a divide, get it?Unless you are playing yourself, there is always going to be a divide between what the player knows and is capable of and what the character knows and is capable of, but how should that divide be played out?  If the sheet says the character’s charisma couldn’t convince a cat to sleep but the player gives an incredibly eloquent speech that would net her an Oscar, what wins? I think that this is always going to be a hard question to answer, due to the unique merging of player and character that occurs in all sorts of gaming. Mechanical skills are used to represent things the players aren’t capable of, but without the player controlling the character nothing would happen. So which element is more important to the game and to the player’s, and the group’s, fun?

I’m pretty sure there is no definite answer, but there are a few overarching ways that I can think of to approach this Player or Sheet conundrum when it comes up:

  • Extreme Realism To The Game World – The player doesn’t exist in the game world, so they can only puppeteer the character in a way consistent with the sheet. If the sheet says the character has no skills in an area then the character can’t even begin to attempt it with a reasonable chance of success.
  • Logical Grey Area – Even if it isn’t on the sheet, there is no way to represent every little bit of accumulated knowledge a character might have. Sure the character isn’t skilled with dealing with royalty on the sheet, but her chance flipping through the channels one day might have ended up on a history channel show about royal customs, so we’ll let her knowing the correct way to curtsy stand.
  • Moderate Realism To The Game World – The player plays as close to the character as they can, but they will never have the knowledge and perspective of the game character. The player might suggest something that the character wouldn’t necessarily have thought of in-game, but they can pull in enough character knowledge to support it. This happens occasionally and we don’t worry too much about it so long as it isn’t an extreme breach of the character.
  • Fun Grey Area – Sure the warrior failed the roll to force the door, sure the barbarian did too, sure the thief failed to pick the lock, but one good kick from the mage and it popped open despite his low strength. Why the hell not? It’s not like it will happen all the time, and that was a damn lucky roll!
  • Extreme Lack Of Realism – Who cares if the character can only jump a foot and a half off the ground, the way the player described that awesome wire-assisted kung-fu leap through the air and landing on the giant’s head was great. I’ll even give a +5 bonus!

There are an endless number of situations where a player or sheet conundrum might come up, and each one probably has many suitable answers that depend on play group, style, game, and countless other factors. The Player or The Sheet is an incredibly big question with no real right answer. In one situation Extreme Realism might be the appropriate response, while in another situation in the exact same game the Fun Grey Area might be a much better fit. So how about it? Ever had a deep issue between the player or the sheet? Does your group have a particular way of playing it when it does come up?

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18 replies
  1. mrtopp
    mrtopp says:

    For this very reason, I have always hated the “soft” ability scores in roleplaying games. It bites both ways — the high charisma character being played by *that* guy. A character with off-the-chart intelligence being played by the dumbest guy you know.

    So it depends. In your puzzle scenario, if instead you had a character that was an absolute genius being played by a moron, would you let them hand-wave the puzzle, pointing at a stat on their sheet?

    If the answer is “no”, you are expecting the players to solve the problem. Not the characters. The guy playing the fighter needs to be allowed to contribute his solution, because this is what you’re really asking for.

    As a final note, I solve the soft abilities by making them something more intrinsic — an ability to remember esoteric facts, strength of will, that sort of thing. It allows the players to play their characters how they like, and not have their character’s personality shaped by the dice.

  2. Rhamphoryncus
    Rhamphoryncus says:

    For most things you can use the character’s stats. Wanna jump the chasm? Sure, what’s your jump (acrobatics) roll? Build a trap, Craft (trapmaking). Etc. It’s easy to visualize what the character can do, as opposed to the player.

    Puzzles are a special case. You *could* treat them the same, letting players roll to solve them, but I’ve never seen an adventure that listed a DC for Advancing The Plot. You’d need good backup plans for when they fail (and you can be sure they will!) Also, it’s just not as fun to be handed the solution, rather than figuring it out yourself.

    If you wanted to straddle the line for puzzles you could have hints that you give out with successful intelligence checks. Of course you could give out those same hints if they’ve agonized over it for several minutes — the real world equivalent of taking 20.

  3. Rhamphoryncus
    Rhamphoryncus says:

    Oh, and for speeches I’d prefer to give bonuses if the player gives a good one. Penalties too, if they say something spectacularly inappropriate, but only after a “did you really mean to say that?” look.

  4. dizman
    dizman says:

    Sheet is used only to help players visualize what their chars. can and can not do. My players for the most are intelligent but the most inteligent guy likes barbarians with low cha and low int wis=marginal. He has the BEST ideas solutions plans, combat tactics whole math in his head. Should i have said:”NO! Your car is to dumb and to unintersting to npc for you to do that” or, “Seems like a good idea roll with +4bonus diplomacy(int check whatever)” this wayeven though wizard with 26 int didnt solve puzzle or bard didnot convinse npc with diplomacy. Why not allow. Different thing is i want to make a sward wit no skill in weaponsmithing.

  5. Matt Droz
    Matt Droz says:

    Huh… I always thought it was pretty straightforward. I’m a relatively smart guy, so when I play a character of low(-ish) intelligence, like my half-orc barbarian (INT 10), I just make INT checks to see if he may have figured out the same thing as I did. Usually only a DC 10 or DC 15.

    Caught on so much, the table’s been calling my successes “Orc Epiphanies”.

    I mean, what else are ability checks made for?

  6. Kikatink
    Kikatink says:

    I agree with Matt Droz above. Ability check either way. Sometimes the “bright” character may need a little inspiration to help with a puzzle. Sometimes the “dull” character can come up with a solution. Remember nobody is wrong all the time, even a broken clock is right twice a day.

  7. callin
    callin says:

    Good points on the question of who you are challenging in a certain situation, player or character. With puzzles I tend to challenge the players and as such expect the players to solve the puzzle.
    However, it is possible to solve puzzles while playing a “dumb” statted character. In one game we ran across a puzzle wherein we had to cross an area with poisonous gasses that would kill us quickly (holding our breathe was not enough). The walls were made of a flaky substance that if mixed with water and put on a cloth over our mouth would allow us to breathe. I, the player figured out the solution fairly quickly, but my character was an incredibly stupid character. To resolve the two facts, I had my character do something useless while at the same time revealing the answer. My character became fascinated by the flaky walls and began picking at the wall. Without me saying anything the other players eventually figured out the solution. A little creative role-playing goes a long way.

  8. Kurt "Telas" Schneider
    Kurt "Telas" Schneider says:

    Great way to present the question! The Arcadian’s right in that there is no “one right answer”.

    If a character is better than the player at something, I let (even encourage) the other players to contribute. If a teenager is playing an old soldier, the other players can contribute to the tactics he’ll employ. I may even allow an ability/skill check to get hints from the GM.

    If a character is worse than the player at something, I’m a fan of these workarounds: The player can contribute to the puzzle by providing input to another player (as above). The player can make an ability/skill check to see if the character can “use the player’s brain”. For riddles and non-game-mechanical puzzles, I prefer to just discard the character sheet entirely and let the players work on it. The last isn’t “in character” at all, but it’s fun enough that most groups don’t really care (at least IMHO).

    Your mileage may vary, yadda yadda…

  9. Lugh
    Lugh says:

    There’s also one element that’s always ignored when this question is posed: Adventuring is a team sport. If You the Player figure out something that You the Character can’t know, why not just tell Mage the Player who isn’t as smart as Mage the Character? Now you’re *both* playing to the sheet, and the obstacle is neatly bypassed.

    Unfortunately, this generally doesn’t work as well with social checks. As numerous teen comedies have proven, hiding in the bushes and feeding the guy lines never works.

  10. mercutior
    mercutior says:

    This is not as “grey” as you’d think. You want your players to have fun. It is not fun for players to sit around and not be able to figure out a puzzle (or anything else in the game) because their characters are unintelligent. Characters are supposed to be heroes, so let them be heroes, even if it means their players are a bit smarter. Also no one (DM included) likes a stalled game. How many times has a DM gotten tired of his/her players’ failed attempts to solve puzzles and said “make an intelligence check” to speed it up? Let’s face it the true beauty of the game is the confluence of players and their characters. Now abuse of this is a different story. If you have an intelligent player who consistently plays a beefed up fighter at the expense of all things cerebral, and said player constantly has the smartest character at the table, then…

  11. unwinder
    unwinder says:

    Making good speeches and solving puzzles are things that I want to encourage. They’re things that are entertaining for everyone at the table, and they’re things that take a lot of skill or effort.

    I’d rather not punish players who do these things. To me, forbidding them from solving the puzzle unless they play a high-INT character is a form of punishment. I don’t want my smartest players to feel like they’re stuck playing the smart characters.

    This does mean that a smart player with a strong character will have a big advantage over a dumb player with a strong character. But you know what? But I think that jumping in and working hard to solve the puzzle, or pull off the big performance, should be rewarded more often than just rolling the dice. Even if it does convey an unfair advantage to players who have real-life skills.

  12. unwinder
    unwinder says:

    In my opinion, when you use the abilities of the player rather than the character, you’re adding real-life effort to the attempt, which doesn’t even need to be abstracted to work in the game world. You can just count it as the character applying extra effort.

    I know college graduates who can’t spell, and can’t do simple addition without counting fingers. They’ve passed college-level English and math classes. They have a low INT score in real life, but they hit the books hard, studied tirelessly, and proofread their papers over and over with a copy of the MLA handbook.

    If a real-life dumb person can pull off something very difficult with a lot of effort, I think that a player who expends a lot of effort deserves a similar in-game benefit.

  13. Scott Martin
    Scott Martin says:

    My favorite solution was Lugh’s– if you’re working together as a team and it fits the characters better if someone else claims the solution in character, then pass off your success.

    Heather Grove had a great article called playing beyond ability, filled with tips and tricks for helping you through the reverse situation– when the player isn’t as social/intelligent as his character.

  14. scruffylad
    scruffylad says:

    Generally, it’s my players who solve puzzles. If the “dumb” character solves it, hey, lucky break. (Very few characters are so stupid that they can’t occasionally have a shot of brilliance.) Since puzzles aren’t really in the game mechanics anyway (no “solve GM puzzle” skill check in most systems) I don’t see it throwing off balance too much.

    On occasion, I’ve let players who were stuck make an ability check to get a hint, on a particularly tough puzzle or riddle. But that was more a way to keep an adventure going that had gotten bogged down at that point.

    Generally, if one of my players is showing special creativity or thought or whatever, I want to encourage that, even if it strays from the sheet a bit. Some of the best sessions have been when the players had to think their way around their characters’ limitations. (How a party with no trap disarmers gets around the hall o’ traps can be a lot of fun, once everyone realizes that there’s more to traps than dice rolls. Like moving furniture, making your jump check, etc.) On the other hand, there’s also a point where you have to put your foot down, and make sure that a disadvantage (like a very low intelligence score) is still a disadvantage. (“There’s no way your idiot of a character would be able to come up with a detailed business model like that.”)

    As a side note, playing a low-intelligence character can be a great deal of fun. I have very fond memories of an all-brawn-no-brains fighter that I played, that drove the GM nuts, and made our games more fun for everyone (GM included). I didn’t try to think my way past my fighter’s limitations, I looked for ways to incorporate them into the game.

  15. XonImmortal
    XonImmortal says:

    yeah, major issue. In our “Invasion Reno” campaign, one of the players (the newbie) was playing a character with mega-charisma and bardic abilities. At one point, he had to convince the civilians to evacuate the casino. How did he do that? “Um, go that way!”

    It took 40 minutes and puppeteering by three other players to get a better plan of action than that.

    However, with good players, this can still be an issue.

    In the system I designed, we not only have a Luck roll, but we also have a perfectly useless skill – until you want to do something not on your sheet. It’s called Useless Trivia, a percentile roll, and it’s only increased by your role-playing.

    Does the character know *anything* about Heraldry? Roll for Trivia. Hey, you’ve seen that badge before.

    Can the mage try to pick that lock? Roll for Trivia. No, this is not the same kind of lock your childhood friend played with that one time.

    You can’t increase it by spending the entire game session meditating in a cave (“glow-worm mating habits” is rarely useful in a game setting). You can increase it by spending time chatting in the bar, hanging out at the marketplace, skulking around castles, etc.

    There is no way to catalogue everything a person knows or has heard about. And not only bards will pick up idle gossip or tidbits of news. and for the GM to go over everything you hear in the marketplace is time-consuming and irrelevant, because you never really know what is going to be important 6 levels from now (not to mention, players think every piece of gossip has immediate relevance to the current plot).

    This is also *not* Information Gathering! Information Gathering is an active search for relevant information. Trivia is all the bits and pieces you come up with just being around others and watching what they do.

    How many of us would put some kind of petty arts & crafts skill on our own character sheets? Do we have a degree in it or formal training? Nope. But we know something about a lot of little things, through channel surfing, web-surfing, watching others do it, overheard pieces of conversation.

    Hey look at all the rules lawyers out there who never went to law school!

  16. John Arcadian
    John Arcadian says:

    A lot of great comments here! I’m sorry I didn’t get a chance to get back to the post until today.

    I definitely tried to pose the scenarios and intent of the post in such a way that I didn’t reveal any personal ideas on how to handle things. I like hearing everyone’s views. I personally enjoy letting things slide in favor of fun, but there are some times when it can be abused. For the most part I’ll let player ideas and roleplaying trump character sheets.

    @Rhamphoryncus – Puzzles definitely do present an odd case. They are rarely presented as “Here is a door puzzle – DC 25”. In almost all places where I’ve seen puzzles they are aimed at the players. I can see them being much more satisfying for players to solve than for a roll to bypass them, but rolls definitely have a point in revealing clues that the players wouldn’t really come up with. You put me in a room with a wooden puzzle that I have to assemble into a shape and I can probably do it in a decent amount of time. If I had to imagine it all or go off of drawings I wouldn’t be able to use my full array of senses and reasoning to do it.

    @dizman – True. It is hard to say no to a player who has a good idea, but the player could be min-maxing character build and personal ability. He might personally know how to diplomacy his way past anything, so he builds his characters lacking in those skills since he can make up for them in person.

    @Lugh – I’m actually a fan of OOG talking affecting in-game. If the group has been fighting together for a while, they should know each others tactics and accommodate. Player A saying he is going to charge becomes character B knowing to leave a path for character A to charge through. There are some instances where that doesn’t work though, but with group puzzles or group knowledge I’ll almost always let it happen.

    @unwinder & @mercutior – Int is definitely one of the biggest places this problem comes up. Other stats and skills like Strength, Reflexes, anything physical, etc. are always going to go to the character sheet. Unless you are doing a larp, you just can’t simulate those without using the stats. Intelligence scores do get into the grey area though. There are definitely some areas where they will trump how the players play, but if they did it in all cases there would be no story. I’ve always preferred the intelligence of the character to be a thing that is roleplayed instead of rolled, but there are some times when you need to roll it to sync that character knowledge up with the player ideas or remind them of something.

    @scruffylad – Playing “dumb” characters can be fun if the GM doesn’t force you to be that way all the time. I had great fun playing a dumb fighter character who had lots of in-game discussions with our group’s corrupt priest about paying his “Monster Tax”, a tax on each monster killed. This was the other player and me just joking around in-game. When the GM tried to actually make my character pay, I said hell no and began trading my “protection” for a waiving of my monster tax.

  17. Rhamphoryncus
    Rhamphoryncus says:

    @scruffylad – Seems to be a common thread there: if the player wants to act out a stupid fighter, that’s up to them, and not something the DM should impose.

    Unfortunately in D&D if you want a fighter with 18 int you probably have to swap it with your str, leaving you an 8 in str. That would suck profusely, it’s not encouraged by the game design, and *very* few people would ever attempt such a thing.

    I’m starting to blame our stat rolling method. We pick our class first, not our stats, and an 18 int shouldn’t be regarded as nearly as valuable as 18 str for a fighter…

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