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?
 

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Michael Tresca

Michael Tresca

HammerMan

Legend
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.
and again and again it comes to exception to rule...

if the 8 cha 10 int fighter twice in the campagin gets a moment where his soldier back ground or his quick thinking saves the day or handles something I know 0 people who would complain... it's when it becomes a habbit. when EVERY social encounter they say "Lets just RP through it" knowing they are better at it then the 20 cha 14 Int other character that spent skills on this... on the other hand all I hear on these boards over and over again is that spending points on 'buttons to push' is only good when the right classes do it with the right buttons....
 

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HammerMan

Legend
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.
why should the dumb fighter get 3/4 the spotlight over 20 sessions?
 


What if we play around with @Lanefan ’s example.

Same premise. Over the course of 20 sessions, the DM throws 5 riddles against the party. One Barb (8 Int), one cleric (10 Int), one Rogue (12 Int) and one wizard (18 Int). The Barb’s player loves riddles and come up with 4 answers, and the Rogue gets the last one.

Scenario 1: the Barb explains that in his tribe, to pass the long nights, they tell riddles around the campfire. He personally is not particularly good at riddles, but he knows a lot of them simply by sitting around the fire with his froends. Is this a problem?

Scenario 2: now, the wizard is an elf. His first language is Elvish, but he also speaks the human language enough to get by. Is it a problem if he solves riddles despite not being as fluent in his second language.
 

Voadam

Legend
i disagree. we are playing a game where the character skill matters not the player.
That is a playstyle preference and varies table to table. 5e D&D RAW can be very much about player skill.
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.
Every class rocks at combat. All of them. That is the desired balance point for classes.
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?
If instead of a barbarian, its a paladin with the persuasion skill you are in the same boat.

He has better hp, AC, to hit, and damage, and he gets to mechanically rock in the area you put points in.

In 5e with the background system giving you two skills and bound accuracy, most anybody can be decent to good at any of the skills mechanically.

I dump statted int as a 5e valor bard and put expertise on arcana to be a pretty good mechanical magic and demon sage expert.
 

HammerMan

Legend
What if we play around with @Lanefan ’s example.
okay lets
Same premise. Over the course of 20 sessions, the DM throws 5 riddles against the party. One Barb (8 Int), one cleric (10 Int), one Rogue (12 Int) and one wizard (18 Int). The Barb’s player loves riddles and come up with 4 answers, and the Rogue gets the last one.
As a DM I would tell the barbarian to invest in a mechancial way to do so.
Scenario 1: the Barb explains that in his tribe, to pass the long nights, they tell riddles around the campfire. He personally is not particularly good at riddles, but he knows a lot of them simply by sitting around the fire with his friends. Is this a problem?
by itself no... but it sure can hint at one
Scenario 2: now, the wizard is an elf. His first language is Elvish, but he also speaks the human language enough to get by. Is it a problem if he solves riddles despite not being as fluent in his second language.
again... you have used entirely IN game explanations... what I oppose is OUT of game skill

here lets try this
2 players sit down, one really good at talking people into things and really smart (math, riddles you name it... heck he reads engeneering books for fun) but he plays a Barbarian with an 8cha and a 10int. the other is pretty slow at figureing things out, and is shy and doesn't talk alot, but He is the fastest at the table, the strongest at the table, and know 3 martial arts... he playes a Cha 15 Int 14 Warlock that boosts both every chance he has...

Over the course of 20 sessions, the DM throws 5 riddles against the party. the barbairan just solves 4 like blurt out answer cause to him they are obvius, (the warlock is let to have 1) and of the 10 times they need to talk to someone 8 of them the barbarian player takes over and IRL is a smooth talker so he can get the NPCs to agree cause he can get the DM to agree...

after all that how would you feel about them LARPing combat and physical challages?
 


HammerMan

Legend
Every class rocks at combat. All of them. That is the desired balance point for classes.
but not every character.

if my rogue puts a 15 in cha and 14 in Int so I can play sherlock holms like character leaving my 13 in dex and 10 in Con I am not even CLOSE to rocking in combat.
If instead of a barbarian, its a paladin with the persuasion skill you are in the same boat.
except then teh player didn't dump something to get a benfit elsewhere and expect a work around...
He has better hp, AC, to hit, and damage, and he gets to mechanically rock in the area you put points in.
we both have Cha and both have trained skills... not him taking OTHER skills AND getting to just gloss over mine.
In 5e with the background system giving you two skills and bound accuracy, most anybody can be decent to good at any of the skills mechanically.
yup... and you get to choose... I don't let players choose to be good at A and B then pretend to be good at C cause they are out of game... "I don't care that you are a rock climbing champ, your character has an 8 str and no training in athletics"
I dump statted int as a 5e valor bard and put expertise on arcana to be a pretty good mechanical magic and demon sage expert.
you spent resources on being good at something... what does that have to do with me saying you shouldn't get to be good at things YOU DONT PUT RESOURCES IN!!!!
 


HammerMan

Legend
I used to larp. I was okay at fighting with foam weapons (not great but not the worst). we had players who could run rings around other players. Like the movies 1 hand behind there back could parry and dodge anything another player through at them. Should those players (llllik90% of the larpers also TTRP) been able to larp combat at a D&D table with an 10 str 8 dex character?
 

Lanefan

Victoria Rules
What if we play around with @Lanefan ’s example.
It's actually your own example, but OK... :)
Same premise. Over the course of 20 sessions, the DM throws 5 riddles against the party. One Barb (8 Int), one cleric (10 Int), one Rogue (12 Int) and one wizard (18 Int). The Barb’s player loves riddles and come up with 4 answers, and the Rogue gets the last one.

Scenario 1: the Barb explains that in his tribe, to pass the long nights, they tell riddles around the campfire. He personally is not particularly good at riddles, but he knows a lot of them simply by sitting around the fire with his froends. Is this a problem?
Situationally dependent. The Rogue got lucky; no problem there. As for the Barb, as DM I would first ask myself whether the Barb's player had in the past also come up with perhaps-too-convenient explanations as to why said Barb happens to be good at things it otherwise likely wouldn't be; and if I see a pattern developing then the smackdown hammer comes out real fast as that player clearly is not acting in good faith.

If there's no pattern then fine, the Barb's good at riddles.
Scenario 2: now, the wizard is an elf. His first language is Elvish, but he also speaks the human language enough to get by. Is it a problem if he solves riddles despite not being as fluent in his second language.
This one's trickier. We roll for fluency for each language known, so the wizard's degree of familiarity with the riddle's language would be a known thing. That said, if the wizard was at least vaguely competent with the riddle's language his Intelligence would carry the day from there; if not but he used Comprehend Language or similar on the riddle to translate it, still no problem.
 

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.
Who are these “face” or “smart” characters that are falling behind in combat? Bards, Wizards and Clerics are extremely useful in combat, buffing, debuffing, controlling and even their cantrips deal adequate damage. Awesome out of combat as well, with a lot of useful skills and out of combat spells.

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 Bard gets bardic inspiration, song of rest, an extra skill (and free choice of skills)….I feel like I am forgetting something…..it’s on the tip of my tongue…..

oh, yeah, full spellcasting, including the ability to select the best spells from other casters spell list.
 

Ovinomancer

No flips for you!
The easy answer to the question of riddles is really to just not use concrete riddles. Riddles that are actually written out or spoken and have a specific answer are always and entirely aimed at the player, not the character. If you have any issue with this (and there are many legitimate ones to have) then maybe just skip the riddles? That was my solution -- riddles, if they appear, are abstract things and are resolved through player action declarations introducing specific fiction on them that can be leveraged (like knowledge checks that determine that this riddle is about sheep). That solves the issue nicely. Being smart or proficient is an aid, but being smart and proficient is even better. Players can even leverage their backgrounds if they find a way to make them apply (a solider character might recall telling riddles as a camp activity and suggesting that this riddle was on of those).
 

Voadam

Legend
okay lets

As a DM I would tell the barbarian to invest in a mechancial way to do so.

by itself no... but it sure can hint at one

again... you have used entirely IN game explanations... what I oppose is OUT of game skill

here lets try this
2 players sit down, one really good at talking people into things and really smart (math, riddles you name it... heck he reads engeneering books for fun) but he plays a Barbarian with an 8cha and a 10int. the other is pretty slow at figureing things out, and is shy and doesn't talk alot, but He is the fastest at the table, the strongest at the table, and know 3 martial arts... he playes a Cha 15 Int 14 Warlock that boosts both every chance he has...

Over the course of 20 sessions, the DM throws 5 riddles against the party. the barbairan just solves 4 like blurt out answer cause to him they are obvius, (the warlock is let to have 1) and of the 10 times they need to talk to someone 8 of them the barbarian player takes over and IRL is a smooth talker so he can get the NPCs to agree cause he can get the DM to agree...

after all that how would you feel about them LARPing combat and physical challages?
In the 20 games how many of them involved combat where presumably both characters participated fully? I would think anywhere from every other game to multiple times a game.

Did the warlock player who "is shy and doesn't talk alot" choose not to talk to the NPCs and leave it to the player who is comfortable talking to NPCs?

Is the warlock player wanting to play a problem solving face role and is being shut down by the barbarian player, or is he playing a high int high charisma eldritch blast machine concept and is pleased having someone else do the uncomfortable talking?

LARPing combat seems orthogonal here, a different playstyle for combat and physical challenges, not an issue of fairness based on this setup.

LARPing combat is a different playstyle where there is a combination of mechanics (say hp and damage inflicted per hit) and player skill. Or if it is a White Wolf LARP combat is resolved through rock paper scissors.
 


again... you have used entirely IN game explanations... what I oppose is OUT of game skill
It is an in-game explanation for an out of game skill. That is something that is so ubiquitous in RPGs that I have never seen a group that didn’t do it.
here lets try this
2 players sit down, one really good at talking people into things and really smart (math, riddles you name it... heck he reads engeneering books for fun) but he plays a Barbarian with an 8cha and a 10int. the other is pretty slow at figureing things out, and is shy and doesn't talk alot, but He is the fastest at the table, the strongest at the table, and know 3 martial arts... he playes a Cha 15 Int 14 Warlock that boosts both every chance he has...

Over the course of 20 sessions, the DM throws 5 riddles against the party. the barbairan just solves 4 like blurt out answer cause to him they are obvius, (the warlock is let to have 1) and of the 10 times they need to talk to someone 8 of them the barbarian player takes over and IRL is a smooth talker so he can get the NPCs to agree cause he can get the DM to agree...
If the problem is that the Barbarian is hogging the spotlight, the problem isn’t that he has 10 int, 8 cha, the problem is that he is hogging the spotlight. He would be hogging the spotlight if he had chosen to play a Hexblade with 16 Cha, who can use Cha to attack, power their spells, and power their skills.

The solution is for the DM to take the player aside and tell them to give the other players a chance to shine.

Also, did anyone even ask the Warlock if they want to be the party face? Some players play warlocks or sorcerers because they like the flavour, not necessarily because they want to be the party face.
 

HammerMan

Legend
Who are these “face” or “smart” characters that are falling behind in combat?
characters who use there options for other things... aka not combat focused
The Bard gets bardic inspiration, song of rest, an extra skill (and free choice of skills)….I feel like I am forgetting something…..it’s on the tip of my tongue…..

oh, yeah, full spellcasting, including the ability to select the best spells from other casters spell list.
 

HammerMan

Legend
The easy answer to the question of riddles is really to just not use concrete riddles. Riddles that are actually written out or spoken and have a specific answer are always and entirely aimed at the player, not the character.
agreeed... heck sometimes I purposefully make up ones that require ingame lore I know the players out of game don't know... it allows for the flavor text AND the roll.
If you have any issue with this (and there are many legitimate ones to have) then maybe just skip the riddles? That was my solution -- riddles, if they appear, are abstract things and are resolved through player action declarations introducing specific fiction on them that can be leveraged (like knowledge checks that determine that this riddle is about sheep). That solves the issue nicely. Being smart or proficient is an aid, but being smart and proficient is even better. Players can even leverage their backgrounds if they find a way to make them apply (a solider character might recall telling riddles as a camp activity and suggesting that this riddle was on of those).
 

The easy answer to the question of riddles is really to just not use concrete riddles. Riddles that are actually written out or spoken and have a specific answer are always and entirely aimed at the player, not the character.
Exactly. As a DM, I would be pretty annoyed if I spent the afternoon coming up with a clever riddle only to have the players roll the dice the moment I told them the riddle.
 

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