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?

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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?
 

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Michael Tresca

Michael Tresca

Voadam

Legend
In both the players figure out puzzles or the characters figure out puzzles there is the chance of failure.

People can roll low with good stats and advantage.

People can get stumped by a puzzle.

A DM has to handle the situation either way.

Maybe it is a puzzle lock and instead of the puzzle solution opening the lock it has to be picked by rogue using his skill proficiency, knocked open by the wizard using a spell slot, bashed open by the warrior, or bypassed another way (teleport, ethereal, move on to a different room, find a guy with a key).

The central issue here is more style of how you want to handle things, mechanical stats, player skill and first person roleplay, or a mix.

It is mostly a play style preference. Which can legitimately vary person to person.
 

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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.
In a case like that, it seems to me the problem is the DM, not the player. Why is the DM throwing so many challenges that they expect one of their players to sit out?
 

HammerMan

Legend
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.
and again... as long as you are useing those checks...

if 1 player dumps 2 stats, and raises 2 others (no matter what stats) and then can use out of game skill to get multi auto successes in skill/ability checks that they dumped, that is un fair... especially if they are at a table with someone who spent on those stat/skills but can NOT do the out of game skill as well.
 

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?
Paul Erdos was one of the 20th century’s greatest mathematicians. Very intelligent man. Was he particularly good at riddles? Probably not.
 

Voadam

Legend
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
Well that is only if you think the mechanics of Strength and Dex and Con are balanced against roleplay aspects of Intelligence, Wisdom, and Charisma.

If you think the mechanics of the physical stats are balanced against the mechanics of the mental stats then it makes sense to roleplay however you want. Have the tank fighter be Hannibal from the A-Team and love it when a plan comes together, or be Hannibal the general who is a creative tactical genius and leader of men. Have the sorcerer be the quiet guy who thinks up solutions to problems. Have a beer and pretzels wizard who just wants to blow things up with fireballs.

Under the mechanics view, high int mechanically rewards int focused classes (wizard) the same way high strength rewards mechanically strength focused class builds.

Nobody is punished.
 

HammerMan

Legend
Paul Erdos was one of the 20th century’s greatest mathematicians. Very intelligent man. Was he particularly good at riddles? Probably not.
and what makes you think every single player is exactly as good with riddles as the character they are supposed to be playing? do you think every actor who plays Sherlock should have to solve every crime?
 

HammerMan

Legend
Under the mechanics view, high int mechanically rewards int focused classes (wizard) the same way high strength rewards mechanically strength focused class builds.
how about having a Dex primary Int Secondary Rogue? or Cha Secondary Rogue? compared to teh double dump int/cha fighter who just happens to be better at riddles and can talk his DM into things...
Nobody is punished.
except the player that WANTs to be smart AND spends resources on it
 

and again... as long as you are useing those checks...

if 1 player dumps 2 stats, and raises 2 others (no matter what stats) and then can use out of game skill to get multi auto successes in skill/ability checks that they dumped, that is un fair... especially if they are at a table with someone who spent on those stat/skills but can NOT do the out of game skill as well.
But I do get use from high Int, high Wis and high Cha. A wizard or cleric uses their sky-high main stat for their attacks and their skills, while the Barbarian needs to invest in Str, Dex and Con, leaving very little room for any mental skills.

Suppose a party with a Barbarian and a Bard. The Barbarian needs to invest in Str, Dex and Con, leaving few points for mental stats. So which is more unfair, the fact that the Barbarian is on occasion permitted to interact with NPCs and the DM does not call for a roll, or the fact that the Barbarian is shut out from the entire social pillar and the part of the exploration pillar dealing with puzzles?

To me, the approach that shuts out a player from a large part of the game is more unfair.
 

Lanefan

Victoria Rules
I know you had more...but this is a huge pet peeve... why would you want the players to sit around all night not having fun
It's their choice whether they remain stuck on the puzzle or either a) move on to something else or b) come up with an entirely different solution.

I've played in a game where we spent almost three entire sessions stuck on a riddle on a door whose answer, in hindsight, was dirt simple - we just couldn't find it as players and it was the sort of thing that couldn't really be hinted at without handing us the answer. But, stubbornly, we stuck at it and finally got through. (I forget now whether what was behind the door was even essential to our mission or not)
 

HammerMan

Legend
Suppose a party with a Barbarian and a Bard.
and with the defualt array he can have an 8 in 1 stat... heck if he plays human it's a 9
The Barbarian needs to invest in Str, Dex and Con, leaving few points for mental stats.
if you choose to max physical and minimize mental you shouldn't get to complain about not having mental stats...you made choices (I guess if we rewond to 3d6 place where you got you MIGHT have a point)
So which is more unfair, the fact that the Barbarian is on occasion permitted to interact with NPCs and the DM does not call for a roll, or the fact that the Barbarian is shut out from the entire social pillar and the part of the exploration pillar dealing with puzzles?
not shut out... just not able to take over from someone else who DID invest in those areas...
To me, the approach that shuts out a player from a large part of the game is more unfair.
BOTH APPROCHES SHUT OUT....
 

and what makes you think every single player is exactly as good with riddles as the character they are supposed to be playing? do you think every actor who plays Sherlock should have to solve every crime?
How does anyone know how good a particular character is at solving riddles? You assume that a character having a high Int means they are good at riddles. This is demonstrably not the case in reality.
 

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

Indeed, I'd argue adjudications - auto-success or otherwise - should be made based on the PC's approach to a challenge rather than on the DM's conception of the PC's stats.

Further, what really is the problem, as a player, with another party member succeeding at the Thing even if they weren't the obvious choice for being the one most likely to succeed at said Thing? Isn't that a benefit to the whole party?
Put another way: If the DM, and the other players, are making sure that spotlight time is being shared, what harm is really being done when the dumb Barbarian solves a few puzzles over the course of campaign?
 

Lanefan

Victoria Rules
In a case like that, it seems to me the problem is the DM, not the player. Why is the DM throwing so many challenges that they expect one of their players to sit out?
Sometimes a character just isn't the right tool for the task at hand.

When there's lots of fiddly traps and locks a knight in shining armour isn't of much use. When there's lots of close-quarters foes a wizard isn't of much use (or shouldn't be, anyway - stupid combat-casting rules notwithstanding). When all you're facing are mindless undead and constructs an Illusionist or Psionicist isn't of much use. When you're up against a puzzle...you get the picture.

The DM just has to ensure there's enough variance in the challenges to allow everyone their chance to shine.
 

HammerMan

Legend
I've played in a game where we spent almost three entire sessions stuck on a riddle on a door whose answer, in hindsight, was dirt simple - we just couldn't find it as players
I refuse to play like that as an adult. I have MORE free time then 3/4 my group and even I wont give up 3 nights off to just get nowhere. I have some friends that can only play once a month (sometimes not even that by end of year) so this could be 3-4 months of 'play time' for them
 

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.)
Are stats the only useful measure for how well someone might convince someone else? How about the fighter with low CHA but the Soldier background. Indeed, she might be the only one able to influence the guard who had fought in the same war. Etc.
 

HammerMan

Legend
How does anyone know how good a particular character is at solving riddles? You assume that a character having a high Int means they are good at riddles. This is demonstrably not the case in reality.
no... I assume that the player that made a mental character over a physical one should get priority in mental moments. If not then that mental character should get to Role Play past physical obstacles too.
 

Lanefan

Victoria Rules
Are stats the only useful measure for how well someone might convince someone else? How about the fighter with low CHA but the Soldier background. Indeed, she might be the only one able to influence the guard who had fought in the same war. Etc.
Oh, of course: situation can change everything.

Here that familiarity might make the Fighter the only one in the party with a realistic chance of influencing the guard but said Fighter's low Cha is still working against her when she tries.
 

HammerMan

Legend
Indeed, I'd argue adjudications - auto-success or otherwise - should be made based on the PC's approach to a challenge rather than on the DM's conception of the PC's stats.
i disagree. we are playing a game where the character skill matters not the player.
Further, what really is the problem, as a player, with another party member succeeding at the Thing even if they weren't the obvious choice for being the one most likely to succeed at said Thing? Isn't that a benefit to the whole party?
it depends... if I make a 'face' party member and someone else makes a Big tough guy... he gets to be awesome at combat where I always fall behind, when it comes time to talk out the issue I expect him to take the back seat I do durning combat... and if more then once or twice he talks his way around it I would tell my DM I expect to do teh same next combat.
Put another way: If the DM, and the other players, are making sure that spotlight time is being shared, what harm is really being done when the dumb Barbarian solves a few puzzles over the course of campaign?
the problem is when the spot light is not shared... why should the barbarian get more hp, better ac and better tohit and damge then me... AND when we get to what I spent points on and he didn't he can just talk through it?
 


The DM just has to ensure there's enough variance in the challenges to allow everyone their chance to shine.
I strongly agree that DMs should present a variety of challenges. So, in the course of 20 sessions, the DM presents 4 puzzles. The dumb fighter’s player (who loves riddles) gets 3, the rogue gets one.

The barbarian roleplays that he solved one with dumb luck, his character knew another, and for the third, even though the player figured it out, in game, the wizard takes credit for it. What’s the harm?

Especially if we consider that Int isn’t a one-to-one correspondence to ability to solve riddles.
 

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