The Inquisition: Characters vs. Players

Can these guys just stand up there and say “I’m good at swordfighting”?

Sometimes it happens right away, and sometimes it takes a while for a player to realize, but eventually every player comes face to face with one of the great hobgoblins of roleplaying games: meta-gaming. For you neophytes, meta-gaming, simply put, is behaving in a way that betrays a character’s in-game knowledge. We might also call this “breaking the fourth wall” or “acting out of character”, but this behavior most often takes the form of a character acting on knowledge he or she doesn’t have. It can be as meaningless as “he doesn’t have many hit points left, he’s only CR 3” or as suspension-of-disbelief-shattering “I teleport 438 feet to the northwest… oh, right into the room my friend is in.” I, personally, don’t mind meta-gaming that much; it’s the kind of thing that can easily be walked back or simply undone by asking “Why does your character do that?”

But I don’t want to talk about meta-gaming today. I want to talk about something related, though. By it’s definition, meta-gaming occurs when the player has knowledge that the character does not have (that he or she learned by sitting at the table while a side-plot was being played out, that he or she learned by reading the rulebook or a supplement, or that he or she learned by stealing a peek at the GM’s notes, or something). I want to get into a maybe more-frequently encountered situation: what happens when the character knows more than the player ever could?

One of the players in my longest running game was a very smart guy, but he played a character, a wizard, who was a super-genius. Literally, this character was several standard deviations outside of normal intelligence for his species. This is all well-and-good, considering the Dungeons and Dragons rules (3.5) accounted for this kind of supreme intelligence within their ability score scale and he was awarded a commensurate number of extra skill points and bonuses on intelligence checks.

However, I can distinctly recall a situation in which we were faced with a particularly troublesome puzzle whose solution had thus far eluded us. He argued that his character, and by extension he should have some additional insight into the workings of the puzzle. He argued that his character was far more intelligent than he was, and thus that level of natural talent should be expressed in game. I sympathized with his point: his character was far smarter than he would ever be, and thus should be able to accomplish things of which he couldn’t think. Imagine a similar situation: you stutter, but your character is an extremely persuasive and charismatic speaker.

We’re used to playing heroic or extraordinary characters when roleplaying; though it is a sobering and rewarding experience to play a character who is completely mundane. By their nature, these heroic characters will do something exceptional. And while this exceptional capability is usually expressed in terms that are easy to imagine (swordplay, archery, slinging spells), sometimes they come in forms we might not be able to easily imagine, such as charisma, persuasiveness, and outright intellect. We’ve seen systems that have tried to apply the same skill-treatment to social and puzzle-solving skills as applied to physical and martial skills, and we usually remember that those skills (IMO) are rarely played rules-as-written (prime example: Diplomacy in DnD 3.5 – and I know some of you will disagree about this).

One of the key issues here is that it’s easy to visualize someone being a good swordsman physically or being incredibly beautiful (when I was a kid all Charisma-dumped characters were hideous hags and all Charisma-enhanced characters were stunningly handsome), but it’s much more difficult to identify that there is an element of intelligence and instinct involved in being a champion duelist, be it with the sword, the pen, or the podium. Anyone who’s ever been in debate knows that an intelligent debater is just as dangerous and persuasive as a charming one, and anyone who’s ever played a sport knows that players with an eye for strategy and tactics can run with much more physically gifted athletes.

So the question becomes: how can you roleplay someone who is incredibly intelligent if you are not incredibly intelligent? Put better, how do you play someone with mental capabilities that far exceed your own?

First, we’ll inevitably retreat to the comfort of our rules set? Don’t the rules account for these kinds of things? Well, yes, of course they do (or any system that is worth its salt should). We get more skill points or bonuses to certain types of rolls for being intelligent, a better modifier on social interactions for being persuasive, and so on. But we still face problems such as the player who walks into every situation and asks to roll Diplomacy. Or the player above who wants extra help on puzzle solving because he’s a genius.

I think we can all agree that the first situation (the Wordless Diplomat) is not the way most of us want to be playing. We want to roleplay, not roll-play. So, my question to you: what is the acceptable amount of roleplaying necessary to be able to roll your skill in social situations? And I don’t have a good answer to that question. I typically weight creative roleplaying more than raw character sheet skill, but both are important for success in situations. A good diplomat with a poor in-character argument is probably on the same footing as a crappy diplomat with a good argument. I usually don’t let my players just declare “I’m trying to Fast Talk this guy”. If that’s what you’re doing, do it! However, to be fair to my players, they might not believe that they can Fast Talk effectively. It’s a totally reasonable position that you as a person might be terrible at thinking on your feet, but your character (by his/her stat block) might literally be among the best in the world at it.

So, I am left wondering what the players’ responsibility is in, you know, actually being a good player. Roleplaying, in itself, is a skill, and naturally some are much better at it than others. Some people are really great problem solvers, others can slip into and out of numerous characters at will, and still more have vast reserves of creativity and energy for creating worlds, races, nations, pantheons, and so forth. I feel that we should be rewarding players for quality role-playing if that’s what is most important to us. I do feel bad sometimes that the player who spent no points on social skills might end up being a more effective party face than the player who put a ton of points into it, and that’s bad for roleplaying. Because gaming for a lot of us is about getting outside our comfort zones and trying something new. Putting more weight on roleplaying tends to push the players who are more comfortable with social interaction to the social interaction roles.

Is there a solution to this problem? I don’t know. I think that roleplaying system designers have been trying to solve this particular puzzle since Gary Gygax invented DnD in his basement. What I know for sure is that we should reward good roleplaying, we should reward creativity, inspired character design, quick thinking, well-designed characters, and so on. In short, we should reward and therefore encourage the kinds of behavior we want to see in our games. I typically hate using a die to determine that which roleplaying should determine, so I put more weight on the roleplaying. But it’s obviously a fine line to walk.

PS. Coming back to the “intelligent people should have an easier time solving a puzzle” idea, I really like adding non-modifer benefits to show that a character is better at a certain task. Maybe the super-genius can have 6 minutes to solve a puzzle instead of the party’s normal 5 minutes, due to the fact that she thinks faster. Maybe the tactical genius can rearrange himself before combat starts, showing that he always seems to be in the right place. In a social situation, maybe the party face has more paths to success, much like options in Mass Effect or KoTOR, rather than just being flat better at being generically “persuasive”. There needs to be a way to show that a character has more ability than a player – we don’t, after all, make our fighters stand up and wield a greatsword. But we do make our diplomats come up with good arguments? That seems a bit unfair to me.

Photo credit: Flickr user hans s. CC BY-ND 2.0

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One thought on “The Inquisition: Characters vs. Players

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  1. Of course there is a two edged sword to your aspect. The person who is naturally glib wont waste points on social skills he can roll past. I make everybody rollplay it out and then I make them roll. I interpret their take on this through their die roll. Both parts have some impact. This lets people that aren’t comfortable with roleplaying practice and get better while not giving extra benefits to other character because of the player’s skills.

    The roll is important, because it covers lots of small factors. Perhaps the speaker reminds the queen of her favorite nephew. Or they use a turn of phrase that she detests. The words are important because this defines how they are going about this. Are they being dominant and blustery? Flattering and devious? Honest yet humble?

    As for the intellectual, this is harder. Especially in the negative. It would be horrible to say, “you aren’t smart enough to think about that.” In many cases, I let the players collaborate and apply it through the filter of the characters collaborating. Bob may have come up with the great idea, but in character, Jill’s wizard might have figured it out.


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