Who Knows Better, a Player or Their Character?

Physical stats in RPGs are usually handled by rolls of the dice, but how to handle mental challenges without biasing against a player or their character?

PC.jpg

Picture courtesy of Pixabay.

The "C" in "PC"

In Dungeons & Dragons, players take on a role for their character. Because tabletop games aren't live action role-playing games (LARPs), physical abilities are handled with ability scores and die rolls. A player doesn't have to do a flip if they want their character to jump over a chair, for example. So feats of strength, of agility, and overall health are relegated to a game abstraction that lets players control characters who may look nothing like them. This is particularly important in playing characters that are more alien from a standard humanoid.

But things get complicated with the mental attributes: Intelligence, Wisdom, and Charisma. How smart, wise, or charismatic a character can be depends on a combination of both die rolls and how the character is role-played. It's may be easier to play down than up in this case: playing a dumber character is feasible while playing a smarter character (smarter than the player, that is) requires some help with die rolls.

If the massive thread in Corone's article about how video games affect role-playing is any indication, there's quite a bit of variance in how groups approach this dichotomy. And some of that has to do with the game's level of abstraction.

Just How Abstract Are You?

Some players may reference their character in third person ("Talien tries to intimidate the barkeep") while other players may role-play the experience out ("Listen bub, if you don't do what I say you'll be mopping up more than beer"). Most groups probably shift between the two, with a player role-playing their character's efforts and then the dice determining success.

The abstraction challenge happens when these two are wildly out of sync. When a player role-plays exceptionally well, should he be required to still roll to see if their check succeeds? Or maybe just a check with advantage? Conversely, should a player who role-plays poorly be penalized because they're not as charismatic as their character?

Tabletop role-playing games have a tantalizing promise that anyone can be whatever they want, but the reality is that complex characters that are markedly different from their players are harder to play, from both a role-playing and abstraction perspective.

All this comes to a head in a staple of dungeon crawling: riddles and puzzles.

Who Knows What?

I've previously mentioned how there's a lot game masters can learn from escape rooms. GMs have always drawn on a variety of sources for their in-game challenges. Thanks to the increase popularity of escape rooms, there's been an explosion of riddles and puzzles. But there are limits.

Escape rooms put players in a physical role without a lot of expectations that the player will role-play it. It's expected the player brings all their skills to the game to the succeed, and by working together as a group any flaws one member may have are offset by the talents of other team members. This is why escape rooms are often used for team building purposes.

But since the player isn't playing a role, their physical and mental capabilities are no different from their daily life. No player will play poorly because they're playing a character who isn't good at puzzles, for example. Not so in tabletop RPGs, where playing better or worse than "you" is part of role-play.

This becomes problematic with thinking games, where the push-and-pull between a player's brain and their character's brain might be at odds. Should a player not mention the answer to a riddle because the character wouldn't know it? Should a character be able to tell their player somehow what the answer is?

My Solution

When it comes to any puzzles, I've learned that there's a fine line between enforcing role-play (thereby staying true to the character's mindset) and having fun (thereby giving the player agency in the game). To that end, I pose riddles and challenges and then use skill checks, with a target number giving hints. The higher the roll over the target number, the more hints the character gives their player.

In my current online D&D game, players are participants in a game show. There are five categories with gold prizes ranging from 10 to 1,000: arcana, history, nature, medicine, and religion. The easiest questions have a base DC of 5, while the hardest have a base DC of 14. The answer determines how many letters the character automatically guesses, increasing the DC by the number of letters, with the player left to puzzle out the answer from there.

For example, a 100 gold piece arcana question of "what powers the mechanical automatons guarding the keygnome front gate?" with an answer of "clockworks" and a DC of 5 (categorized as an easy question that I think the player might guess anyway) would have a "solve" DC of 15. Players roll an arcana check for their character: a 15 or higher solves the puzzle, while a 10 would just give the word "clock" and the player could potentially puzzle it out from there. For characters who are well-versed in a topic (e.g., druids for nature, clerics for religion) I give them advantage on the check. I also try to make the questions relevant to the game, rewarding players who are paying attention to our in-game fiction.

What this does let players still feel their character is confident in their knowledge, while ensuring their players aren't passive participants. There's still a roll to determine the answer, and a bad or good roll can make the puzzle easier or harder. I also still have the ability to tweak how hard the riddle is by changing the DC as needed. Some puzzles may have longer letter counts but be easier to guess.

It doesn't have to be just letters. When figuring out colors, shapes, or any other aspect of a puzzle, rolling high enough could provide hints that solve some but not all of it -- just enough to let the player feel like they're making progress but not so much that the character automatically solves everything and there's nothing for their player to do. Conversely, the goal is to make players who are not nature or arcana experts still feel like their character is competent enough to know things the player doesn't.

I developed this methodology in 5E Quest: Mastherik Manor, but the streamlined version I'm using in 5E Quest: Clockwork Carillon has led to a much faster and engaging game. My players are enjoying it so far!

Your Turn: How do you manage player vs. in character knowledge when using puzzles or riddles?
 

log in or register to remove this ad

Michael Tresca

Michael Tresca

As DM, I find that worrying about the separation of player and PC knowledge uses up energy that would be better allocated to my other duties in running the session. In the end, I've found it works just fine with the player choosing how to play their character in any given scene and the DM adjudicating any of the characters actions as needed.

Also, I'm loving the D&D Jeopardy idea @talien. Stealing it for a future session.
 

log in or register to remove this ad

Kannik

Adventurer
Our groups also favour the hybrid model:

For interactions, if a player chooses to run it first-person/extemporaneously we'll run it straight off that with back and forth; if they want to rely on their roll with some third-person narration then we'll base it off the roll. We're perhaps fortunate in that in the first case we haven't run into any situation where someone has RPed an interaction contrary to what's on their sheet, but in that case I can see we'd give a little reminder and either replay it over or call for a roll (with perhaps a max +/-2 modifier to account for the previous RP).

For knowledge, my response of late to "Does my PC know this?" has been "I don't know Do they?" This allows/prompts the player to think about their character and the RP "appropriate" response (especially by saying no -- choosing failures can be great). If they are unsure, we can roll. If the knowledge is something obscure or specialized, I may call for a roll, but ask "Perhaps -- how might you know about it?" and base a modifier to the roll based on the character.

For Puzzles and other similar things, if the players can solve it out, great, and they can say whom within the party and the fiction came up with the solution. (This is in a similar vein to what may happen in combat encounters, with table talk and tactics being discussed and encouraged.) If a player would like a roll it's handled similar to the last case of knowledge above, and results will give hints/clues, or straight up parts of the solution if it's a more complex thing where everyone would have a chance to solve a part of it.

For searching or devices or etc, if a player does a specific action and that's what's needed to work, then it works. Again, if it might be a stretch for or contrary to the character, I will ask. If a player chooses to use a check and it succeeds, I'll reply with a really good hint such as "You see drag marks on the floor."

Mix and match as needed. :) Diversity of playstyles is what I try to accommodate, with nudges towards RP-centric resolutions. Also RP could be first or third person, so long as the player is acting and directing their character as a character from their character's point of view.
 

jgsugden

Legend
I'd agree with this if it weren't for the long-standing example of wizards and mages having memorization capability directly tied to intelligence via both the number of spells they can prepare each day and how easy/hard it is to learn (i.e. memorize) a brand new one.

Do you put memorization under Wisdom, then?
No, and I do not need to do so. "Memorizing" spells is more than just memorizing information. If it was just memorizing information, anyone could do it. In older editions, where you had to roll against your intelligence to learn a spell, we were measuing the capability for you to understand the spell - what I'd slot into mental acuity and ability to reason in 5E ability score terminology. When we're determining how many spells we can prepare, our mental acuity would be what is expanding our storage space.

Further, memorizing is data going in. Recall is data coming out. Anyone ever cram for a college exam and get a good grade? Do you recall all those things you crammed into your brain now? You memorized it at the time, but your ability to recall it now is diminished.

To me, if anything represents the block of information that is stored as memorized material, it isn't the intelligence score of the PC - it is the proficiency bonus for being training in one of the intelligence skills. That represents the outcome of your practice with the skill.
 

If a player chooses to portray their character according to their personal characteristics - personality traits, ideal, bond, flaw - then that may be worth Inspiration. Someone with an Int 8 may choose to have "Sometimes I'm dumber than a box of hammers" as a trait or flaw. When they then portray struggling with a riddle, they can be rewarded for doing so. What I'd never do is say "Nope, your Int 8 character wouldn't think or do that." That's not for me as DM to decide. Players decide what their characters think and do.
Yup. This reminds me of an experience from 4e (the edition was incidental). I had rolled up a swordmage. The character was a defender, so had high Str, high Con, and high Int. Of course, this meant that her Cha was an 8.

The adventure gets underway, and pretty soon, the situation is clear, something weird is happening, snd the party is stuck in the inn with the other guests. The staff has disappeared, and a weird effect is messing with the guests.

My character goes from group to group, checking to see if they are OK. Actually, the principal reason fir this was that they other characters were acting pretty self-involved.

“Nope! Your 8 Cha character would never think of doing that!”

You are not roleplaying your character properly. Because no one would check in on other people unless they were trying to get something in return.

Since then, the players are the masters of their characters. Maybe the dumb as rocks barbarian heard the riddle before. Maybe he got lucky. Maybe he has some useful insight. Or maybe, like normal (even less intelligent people) there just happen to be a few very limited or specialised things they are very good at.

Either way, it is not the DM’s role to police the players playing their characters.
 

Just to build on my previous point. Requiring characters to have high (or even just decent stats) to interact with certain elements of the game just ends up screwing over certain character concepts.

Melee characters are already splitting their stats between Str/Dex and Con without forcing them to make a minimum investment in Int to participate in puzzles. Meanwhile, the Int, Wis and Cha primary classes get to benefit from double duty of their prime stat.

The game is poorer overall if monks can’t solve puzzles because high Dex, Wis and Con doesn’t leave much room for Int.
 

South by Southwest

Incorrigible Daydreamer
I'm confessedly new to DMing, but my current D&D group has been together for four years now and we all know and trust each other, so my comment here might be naïve, right? Anyway, where I am with this right now is, "So long as the player is sincerely trying to play their character honestly and in keeping with their chosen traits and personality, I'm happy as DM."

I am pleased to report that so far (crossed fingers) all players in our new campaign have done this.
 

HammerMan

Legend
Just to build on my previous point. Requiring characters to have high (or even just decent stats) to interact with certain elements of the game just ends up screwing over certain character concepts.

Melee characters are already splitting their stats between Str/Dex and Con without forcing them to make a minimum investment in Int to participate in puzzles. Meanwhile, the Int, Wis and Cha primary classes get to benefit from double duty of their prime stat.

The game is poorer overall if monks can’t solve puzzles because high Dex, Wis and Con doesn’t leave much room for Int.
the reverse is true though... it punishes the character that spent points on Cha and Int over Str/Dex/Con if you can role play as if you had a high Cha Int but they can not role play a high STR/DEX/COn
 

Just to build on my previous point. Requiring characters to have high (or even just decent stats) to interact with certain elements of the game just ends up screwing over certain character concepts.

Melee characters are already splitting their stats between Str/Dex and Con without forcing them to make a minimum investment in Int to participate in puzzles. Meanwhile, the Int, Wis and Cha primary classes get to benefit from double duty of their prime stat.

The game is poorer overall if monks can’t solve puzzles because high Dex, Wis and Con doesn’t leave much room for Int.

Yes to this.

And, no, despite what others might say to the contrary, it doesn't punish the player who invested in the same skill to let players play their characters however they like. When the dice come out, the player who invested in the skill is more likely to succeed and the player who did not is more likely to fail. YMMV if you insist that players must roleplay according to their stats - a self-imposed frustration, IME.
 

Lanefan

Victoria Rules
Yup. This reminds me of an experience from 4e (the edition was incidental). I had rolled up a swordmage. The character was a defender, so had high Str, high Con, and high Int. Of course, this meant that her Cha was an 8.

The adventure gets underway, and pretty soon, the situation is clear, something weird is happening, snd the party is stuck in the inn with the other guests. The staff has disappeared, and a weird effect is messing with the guests.

My character goes from group to group, checking to see if they are OK. Actually, the principal reason fir this was that they other characters were acting pretty self-involved.
This sounds cool so far.
“Nope! Your 8 Cha character would never think of doing that!”
And runs hard aground on a poor DM.
You are not roleplaying your character properly. Because no one would check in on other people unless they were trying to get something in return.

Since then, the players are the masters of their characters. Maybe the dumb as rocks barbarian heard the riddle before. Maybe he got lucky. Maybe he has some useful insight. Or maybe, like normal (even less intelligent people) there just happen to be a few very limited or specialised things they are very good at.

Either way, it is not the DM’s role to police the players playing their characters.
Yes and no. In the case of your attempt to check on others in the inn, all the DM has to do is have those NPCs respond naturally in character to a generally-unpleasant person coming up to them and checking their welfare: much more suspicion, rejection, or rebuffing than would be the case were it a higher-Cha character doing the checking.

As for the dumb-as-rocks Barbarian, if he "happens to have heard a riddle before" once that's fine; but if-when it becomes a pattern there's a problem that needs sorting, be it by DM policing or that of other players*, as the player is not playing true to the character's known weakness.

* - which IME is often far more effective.
 

HammerMan

Legend
Yes to this.

And, no, despite what others might say to the contrary, it doesn't punish the player who invested in the same skill to let players play their characters however they like. When the dice come out, the player who invested in the skill is more likely to succeed and the player who did not is more likely to fail. YMMV if you insist that players must roleplay according to their stats - a self-imposed frustration, IME.
it only punishes them if you can decide auto success to the people with the low/dump multi times over a campaign... if you do it more then once or twice I would suggest even when they come up withsomething awesome you make them roll
 

HammerMan

Legend
This sounds cool so far.

And runs hard aground on a poor DM.

Yes and no. In the case of your attempt to check on others in the inn, all the DM has to do is have those NPCs respond naturally in character to a generally-unpleasant person coming up to them and checking their welfare: much more suspicion, rejection, or rebuffing than would be the case were it a higher-Cha character doing the checking.

As for the dumb-as-rocks Barbarian, if he "happens to have heard a riddle before" once that's fine; but if-when it becomes a pattern there's a problem that needs sorting, be it by DM policing or that of other players*, as the player is not playing true to the character's known weakness.

* - which IME is often far more effective.
I agree with you... the DM CAN ask for a cha skill to see if they react poorly, but they shouldn't tell you "You wouldn't do that"
 

I’m currently running Tomb of Annihilation which has quite a few riddles and puzzles. I haven’t once asked for an intelligence check and don’t plan on it. It’s my players who show up to the table to have fun and be entertained, not the characters. The juice in riddles is in the process of solving them, so why give that process to a make believe person? That being said, I’ll give hints or nudge the players in a certain direction if they get creative with their characters skills and abilities.
 

Lanefan

Victoria Rules
Just to build on my previous point. Requiring characters to have high (or even just decent stats) to interact with certain elements of the game just ends up screwing over certain character concepts.
Anyone can freely interact with any element of the game at any opportunity, regardless of stats.

What varies due to stats - as it should - is the reasonable expectation of such interaction resulting in a successful or useful outcome; and that's what stat-based bonuses and penalties* are for whether applied via hard-coded mechanics or soft-coded roleplaying.

Edit to add: * - or, in older editions, the roll-under-stat mechanic, which IMO is much better and more granular than the 3e-4e-5e bonus system.

When my Strength-8 Rogue tries doing something physically demanding she shouldn't have nearly the chance of success as her Strength-17 counterpart.

When m Intelligence-8 Fighter tries solving puzzles he shouldn't have nearly the chance of success as his Intelligence-17 counterpart; and if the puzzles are being solved by roleplaying rather than rolling this kinda needs to be soft-enforced somehow.

When my Charisma-6 War Cleric tries being a diplomat he shouldn't have nearly the chance of success as his Charisma-17 counterpart. (and this one has happened: much like @FrozenNorth 's example, we had brought some very foreign rescuees home and once we got there everyone completely forgot about them except my Cha-6 Dwarf, who tried his best to tell them what was what around here and how best to proceed. They listened to me then pretty much told me to get lost; and only much later did we learn these "rescuees" were from a nation seeking world domination and who were/are at war with pretty much everyone, and that we'd probably just given a group of their spies free access to our continent. Oops.)
 
Last edited:

Lanefan

Victoria Rules
Yes to this.

And, no, despite what others might say to the contrary, it doesn't punish the player who invested in the same skill to let players play their characters however they like. When the dice come out, the player who invested in the skill is more likely to succeed and the player who did not is more likely to fail.
Except if the whole point of the roleplay side of the game is to NOT use dice and instead settle things by actual roleplay as far as possible, then what?
 

HammerMan

Legend
I’m currently running Tomb of Annihilation which has quite a few riddles and puzzles. I haven’t once asked for an intelligence check and don’t plan on it. It’s my players who show up to the table to have fun and be entertained, not the characters. The juice in riddles is in the process of solving them, so why give that process to a make believe person? That being said, I’ll give hints or nudge the players in a certain direction if they get creative with their characters skills and abilities.
everyone talks about DMs calling for one, what if a player did?

What if all the players were stumped and the 19 Int wizard with Keen mind's player said "Man my character is WAY smarter then I am, can he figure it out" how do you handle that?
 

Lanefan

Victoria Rules
everyone talks about DMs calling for one, what if a player did?

What if all the players were stumped and the 19 Int wizard with Keen mind's player said "Man my character is WAY smarter then I am, can he figure it out" how do you handle that?
Situationally dependent. If the puzzle/riddle was particularly difficult and they'd given it an honest try as players I might give a roll or just flat-out drop a hint. But if there hadn't been a real attempt on their part, or if I got the sense they were fishing for metagame clues in order to avoid potential danger, then I'd leave 'em stumped all night long if I had to.
 

darkwillow

Explorer
When it comes to any puzzles, I've learned that there's a fine line between enforcing role-play (thereby staying true to the character's mindset)
30 years ago, nobody was enforcing roleplay, puzzles were solved by the players and it was fun and worked just fine. I don't think we needed more "rolls and checks" to make it funner. Sometimes a DM might mess up a puzzle, making it too obscure so hints were dropped.
 



the reverse is true though... it punishes the character that spent points on Cha and Int over Str/Dex/Con if you can role play as if you had a high Cha Int but they can not role play a high STR/DEX/COn
Not necessarily. If as a character, I invest in Cha, I still get all the benefits associated with that investment. I still get better Cha saves. If I take the Inspiring leader feat, I still provide more temp hp when I speechify. When the DM calls for a skill checks (and I don’t know as any DMs that NEVER call for skill checks), I’m still a lot better off that a low Cha character.
 

Related Articles

Visit Our Sponsor

Latest threads

Level Up!

An Advertisement

Advertisement4

Top