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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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
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.
it depends I have games that we have had less combats in 10 levels then we have in other games in 1 night
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?
or did the other PC talk over them cause they are better at it?
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?
now...what... so when I say "One player shouldn't get to out do one that put things in those abilities" you some how got "But maybe they put training in skills, stats in places, told everyone they didn't want to play that (I don't get why take social mental skills then) and that has what to do with this?!?
LARPing combat seems orthogonal here, a different playstyle for combat and physical challenges, not an issue of fairness based on this setup.
it seems that alot of people here are advocating Larping the social and mental aspects of the game.
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.
okay I didn't need to include this... except to say man I used to love rock paper scissors
 

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HammerMan

Legend
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.
hi... you have now.

I have plenty of smart people play dumb characters. I have plenty of charismatic people play low charisma... instead of playing around it we let the people who are playing the smart or charismatic characters take point (sometimes with help out of game)
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.
different problem is different

The solution is for the DM to take the player aside and tell them to give the other players a chance to shine.
hey look at that... once I started calling for Cha checks and skills that problem solved itself.
Also, did anyone even ask the Warlock if they want to be the party face?
this is INSANE!!!!!! the whole point is IF THE OTHER PLAYER WANTED TO PLAY THE XXXXX.... I don't know where the argument "Maybe the person didn't REALLY want to play what they made and said they wanted to play"came from.
Some players play warlocks or sorcerers because they like the flavour, not necessarily because they want to be the party face.
and what stops them.
 

HammerMan

Legend
So, at your table, in different scenarios, one could possibly hear...

From a player: "it's what my character would do"
From the DM: "your character wouldn't do that"

Is that accurate?
never in 32 years has that exchanged happened with me as a DM... the closest would be "Why are you doing X?" when I am confused. Maybe "Don't be a [redacted]" and sometimes "Huh?!?!" with a strange look of puzzlement on my face.

now what I have done is after a PC perfectly gave me an eloquent speech that (IMO) would convince an NPC of something said "Now roll persuasion (or bluff or diplomacy you get the idea).

another one is when I described a room and they said "I move staying to this square and that square" when there had been no traps, no hints of traps, and they somehow perfectly skipped the trapped part of the room from the book I had, I HAVE reversed the trap and hit them with "Now make a save" cause they had no reason and had not even let me get the clue out yet... then I finshed describing the room (flipping the clue too)
 

Voadam

Legend
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.
Yes a character can be designed to not be equal to the others in combat even if the class is designed to be equal to others with obvious stat primacy builds.

The barbarian can be designed with those same scores and be fairly subpar at their combat role too.

However you could do an int or charisma class, take investigation skill hit the Sherlock appropriate stats and skills, and be equal in combat to the combat barbarian or combat rogue.

I would say that a normal high dex rogue build with investigation as a class skill is sufficient to hit the Sherlock concept though.

I would generally say any build with an investigator background and investigation as a chosen skill is sufficient to mechanically support a Sherlock type character concept.

If you wished to mechanically max out the investigation and Charisma and normal combat competency expectations I would suggest go with bard and put your expertise on investigation. That seems to require zero sacrifice to achieve the concept in D&D focusing on character mechanics.
 

now what I have done is after a PC perfectly gave me an eloquent speech that (IMO) would convince an NPC of something said "Now roll persuasion (or bluff or diplomacy you get the idea).
This confuses me. If a PC gave an eloquent speech that would convince an NPC of something, why are you asking for a roll? You say there is no uncertainly (the speech "would convince an NPC"), and then you call for a roll, which requires uncertainty. Why?

another one is when I described a room and they said "I move staying to this square and that square" when there had been no traps, no hints of traps, and they somehow perfectly skipped the trapped part of the room from the book I had, I HAVE reversed the trap and hit them with "Now make a save" cause they had no reason and had not even let me get the clue out yet... then I finshed describing the room (flipping the clue too)
You are giving us an example of 1. a DM not telegraphing danger and 2. a player cheating to demonstrate... what exactly?
 

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?
I mean sure, if they’re completely stumped and haven’t made any progress, I’d give that player a clue and probably a good one since they took the feat and everything. I’m not a tyrant. I wouldn’t hand them the answer, otherwise they’d spam that every single riddle/puzzle and take all the fun out of solving it.
 

Voadam

Legend
or did the other PC talk over them cause they are better at it?
Right, you did not specify. So the shy player who doesn't talk either doesn't want to talk or is being talked over.
now...what... so when I say "One player shouldn't get to out do one that put things in those abilities" you some how got "But maybe they put training in skills, stats in places, told everyone they didn't want to play that (I don't get why take social mental skills then) and that has what to do with this?!?
You specifically did not mention face skills or desire to play a face, just a high int, high charisma warlock build which I can see being built for multiple purposes.

Here is a reminder of your example.
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...
If you want to talk only about someone designing a face and puzzle warlock instead of a machine gun warlock who wants to be good at lore, we can do so, but I was responding to the setup you put out there.
it seems that alot of people here are advocating Larping the social and mental aspects of the game.
That is because the RP of LARP is role play, which can apply to tabletop roleplaying games too. :)
okay I didn't need to include this... except to say man I used to love rock paper scissors
:)

Its funny how White Wolf LARPing changes some of the usual connotations of referencing LARPing (boffer sword fighting) versus tabletop RPGing.

You can presumably be a supernaturally strong vampire in a white wolf larp as a not strong person and have it work whereas in NERO you didn't even have a strength type attribute, just hp and weapon damage and magic and such.
 

Character skill/ability is optional, arbitrary, and subject to player buy-in.

If a player has a character with a low Int or Cha or skill, that player MAY choose to role-play their character as inhibited by that value, but ONLY if and when they wish to. That player at any time can still solve puzzles, contribute to strategies, help with planning, talk to NPCs, and so on...

They still get to play the game.

When I sit at the table to run my game and I look around me, I see players, not characters. My friends in a friend game, or invited players in an open-table game. They all get to contribute to the game regardless of whatever numbers are on their sheets.

Puzzles and riddles in D&D are intended to be challenges to the player not the character. They are acknowledgements that D&D is a game.

The idea of rolling skills for a puzzle sounds ridiculous to me. The example provided in the original post just sounds like a tedious exercise in rolling dice to progress.
 

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?
this argument is good... until you remember that for years (all the way up until 3e) LARPing social and mental challenges. I mean we sometimes would have spells or nonweapon prof, but not like skills,

Now I agree with you. In 5e we HAVE social and mental skills we can use, but for alot of people the idea of what a game was/is got formed long before the there were mental and social skills... so you HAD to use player skill.
 

Overall, the character almost always knows better than the player. We do this literally all the time with attacks. Nobody (well, almost nobody) demands their players give an exacting account of the fencing motions the Bard uses to land a blow. Almost nobody expects the zweihander-wielding Paladin to go into precise detail about which medieval sword style she's using and whether she is employing hand-on-blade techniques or the like. It's extremely clear that for at least some areas, even someone who earnestly and fervently uses that old, tired canard "ROLEplaying not ROLLplaying" is quite happy reducing SOME actions to purely "I roll to do X."

But...just because a character should know better does not always mean that they would choose better. Which is why I do not necessarily immediately leap in with "<char name>, you know better than to do that." I will do so when appropriate, but I try to be judicious about it. E.g., our party Bard has spent a significant amount of time (on the order of five years or more) among the Nomad Tribes, he knows their ways and actually achieved the rank of Storyteller among them. He would know whether doing X is respectful or not, even if the player might not (heck, even if I might not!) Sometimes that means I'll follow the player's lead, giving him an opportunity to describe a Nomad tradition heretofore unknown to the party. Sometimes that means I'll provide a friendly "hey, that might be unwise, are you sure?" Sometimes, I'll take it as an opportunity to pull another character into the action--e.g. the Druid, who actually belonged to a Nomad tribe, might have an impulse to intercede on his friend's behalf; or the Ranger, scion of a chieftain who is trying to integrate her tribe into the cities, might want to cover for the Bard's error as a display of his growing influence among the Nomads. Etc.

Overall though, I tend to be pretty liberal with "your character would know X..." or the like. As much as possible, I try to encourage my players to explain why they would do or know something, because that enriches the world. Much, much better than me simply telling people what the world is all of the time. (I mean, I obviously DO tell them about parts of the world, that's a significant portion of every session, but integrating those player-driven ideas is super important.)

The idea of rolling skills for a puzzle sounds ridiculous to me. The example provided in the original post just sounds like a tedious exercise in rolling dice to progress.
So...if no one among the players can figure it out, the party just doesn't progress at all? That sounds even worse. At least with the option (not requirement, the option) to roll for hints, you can potentially break through those times of "none of us has any idea how to solve this puzzle."
 

So...if no one among the players can figure it out, the party just doesn't progress at all? That sounds even worse. At least with the option (not requirement, the option) to roll for hints, you can potentially break through those times of "none of us has any idea how to solve this puzzle."
Personally, I wouldn't introduce a puzzle or trick or other that would completely stop progress of the players in the game. I use puzzles to block access to secret rooms, sub levels, side areas, treasure vaults, and so on. Figuring out the puzzle reveals a 'bonus' area that may open up additional content or reveal an optional treasure.

I believe a puzzle should never be a blocker. There should always be alternative options to progress in the adventure. That comes down to the design of the dungeon/adventure.

But I would also concede that I would allow a hint on a successful Int check. I just would not allow Int rolls to just completely solve the entire puzzle.
 

S'mon

Legend
Puzzles are there for the players, not the PCs. Solving them OOC is kinda the whole point. Otherwise I'd say "there is a puzzle - roll Investigate"

Personally as a player I hate puzzles, at least I hate if the GM expects me to contribute in solving one. But I appreciate that some players love them & are very good at solving them.
 

I believe a puzzle should never be a blocker. There should always be alternative options to progress in the adventure. That comes down to the design of the dungeon/adventure.
There are a number of different ways to do this:
  • puzzle with limited solutions with each wrong solution hurting the party;
  • third party that can solve the puzzle (or give hints) at a cost;
  • alternate ways to solve

Aaaaand my favorite, hints based on what the characters actually try, rather than on their Intelligence.

Story time: the party was confronted by a door with multiple locks. There were 4 clasps that held the door in place. They had the two keys to the door, which had a simple puzzle to find the correct lock, but the party was having difficulty with it. Just opening all the locks wasn’t an option, because the locks were connected among them: unlocking an incorrect lock would relock a different one.

Of the party I think only one of them had a decent Int score (the rogue, with a 14). The others all had an 8 or 10. (Maybe I should have only let the Rogue solve the puzzle?)

They were stumped. Then the telekinetic GOO warlock suggests using telekinesis to work backward from the clasps (mechanism being on the other side of the door so not easily visible). Not trigger them remotely, but use telekinesis the feel them to identify the appropriate lock. A bit outside the realm of the telekinesis feat, but I allow him to give it a try. Roll Cha (with prof) against set DC. Average. He burns inspiration to reroll (houserule in my games). Success!

And all this from a character who would not have been allowed to participate in the puzzle because the character does not have high Int.
 

Voadam

Legend
So...if no one among the players can figure it out, the party just doesn't progress at all? That sounds even worse. At least with the option (not requirement, the option) to roll for hints, you can potentially break through those times of "none of us has any idea how to solve this puzzle."

This is a situation that can come up whether you use mechanics to solve a puzzle, mechanics to potentially give a hint, or just player skill.

People with hints can still not get it.

People can roll poorly.

Preferably failure means consequences but not a full stop to the game.

The sphinx attacks the party.

The players have to figure out a different way into the puzzle locked door.

The trap goes off and is not bypassed.

Events continue without the party figuring out what is going on.
 

talien

Community Supporter
The idea of rolling skills for a puzzle sounds ridiculous to me. The example provided in the original post just sounds like a tedious exercise in rolling dice to progress.
The reason I took the approach in the original post is because:
1) not all players are good at puzzles
2) not all players are comfortable being the center of attention
3) I want to give each PC a chance to shine

Add all that up, and I'm trying to find a compromise between a character who should know something and the player who might not. Also, things get really tricky with in-world knowledge puzzles. My favorite example of this is the Doors of Durnin, where the protagonists are stumped by the password to the door because it's not in Dwarvish and it's a dwarvish door: Lord of the Rings: Why Moria's Password Was in Elvish

Would a player know the various languages in-world? Probably not. But would their character possibly hit on the answer if they were well-versed in multiple languages for "friend." Definitely.

Some players will be all too happy to rely on die rolls to succeed because they're not comfortable speaking (as the sorcerer PC shared in a recent session, "my character is an un-joiner"). Some players will be eager to answer puzzles on their own (the ranger is played by a teacher who was eager to take on the puzzles, and she guessed two without skill checks). Developing a framework that I can use on the fly to address both groups makes my life easier, makes the game go smoother, and hopefully makes it more fun to play for everybody involved while still respecting that each player is different, each character is different, and players and their characters are different but connected.
 

My own take is that the player's actions direct what the character is doing down to a certain point, but the character's abilities and die rolls tell the final tale; if you do something dumb in a social interaction, the Charisma and skill rolls can soften it, but they aren't going to completely make it right. One the opposite, even if you've got a clever idea of how to get through a location's security, if you don't have the skills to back it up, chances are it will only get you so far. But I kind of mediocre approach in both cases can come out well if the character's traits mean it executed 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?

I'm at least perfectly willing to look for the most appropriate skill and give them a roll to try and give them a clue at the very least.

(Though honestly the best compromise system I saw for doing investigations was in Chill 3e. Too bad about the designer...)
 

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.

And many people were completely crap about it even then, and even more weren't that fond of engaging with them. People overextend how universal things that worked for them worked for others.
 

iserith

Magic Wordsmith
Puzzles are there for the players, not the PCs. Solving them OOC is kinda the whole point. Otherwise I'd say "there is a puzzle - roll Investigate"

Personally as a player I hate puzzles, at least I hate if the GM expects me to contribute in solving one. But I appreciate that some players love them & are very good at solving them.
I don't like puzzles or riddles either. They tend to really slow down the pace of play in my experience and I don't care for that.

As for players solving puzzles or riddles while playing characters that don't seem well-suited for the task, my advice is to mind one's own business. As long as the players are interacting fine socially, let people play their characters how they want to play them. As a player, set a good example with your own portrayal as to how you'd do it, but leave others to figure it out for themselves. As a DM, incentivize good portrayals with Inspiration or the like. Otherwise, don't worry about it. Just about anything can be explained away in a fictional world anyway, even the barbarian figuring out a riddle. To suggest otherwise is to admit to a failure of imagination in a game based on make-believe.

Few things are worse in the context of the game in my view than some busy-body who wants to question or tell other people how to play their own character, whether that's the DM or other players.
 

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