Out-of-Character Information

I’ll digress for a moment. I promise I’ll end up somewhere relevant eventually!

We have lots of problems getting packages through a certain carrier. Packages arrive weeks late, and packages we have to sign for are almost impossible to get at all. At least one never did get here. It seems that this is probably because they’re kind of short-staffed.

But they never told us this. Instead they gave us lots of attitude any time we got one of those notices of attempted delivery and called them to arrange re-delivery, with no clue as to why. We’d be told they’d tried to deliver something, when it was obvious they hadn’t. When one package got lost, they told the sender it had been delivered and refused to honor her insurance claim. We’d be told that “oh, if you call between 7:30 and 9am tomorrow and I happen [emphasis added] to pick up the phone, I’ll put the package on the truck.” We’d schedule a re-delivery, and it would never happen. We didn’t find out about the lack of staff until we had a talk with some other people who’d had similar problems.

We’re actually fine with walking to their local office to pick up our packages, but they wouldn’t tell us what the problem was, so we had no way of knowing before. If they’d told us this would have ended months ago, and they wouldn’t have had to run around getting into arguments with us. And we would have gotten our packages.

No, really, this is relevant!

I see so many game masters (GMs) work on elaborate ways to punish their players for doing “bad” things, and to make sure their players don’t “get away with” cheating. But when I ask if they’ve told their players that they’re doing bad things, they almost always look surprised. Nope, they’d just dock experience points or kill characters, expecting that it would be obvious why they’d done it.

It isn’t obvious. Many times it turns out that players didn’t even know they were doing something wrong, because the GM never told them. Other times it turned out that even though they knew they were cheating, they could still be made to stop when they understood that every time they did it, the GM would dock experience points (or whatever).

Next time you have a problem with a player, talk to them. Make sure they know it’s a problem. If it doesn’t stop, make sure they know why you’re punishing or thwarting them when you do. It might save you a whole lot of aggravation!

OoC Information

“Out of character information.” It’s what we call information players know that their characters couldn’t have. For example, the party split up. One group got ambushed and the second got delayed by something. They followed the first group’s route, but because they now know there’s a group of soldiers waiting to ambush them (which the characters should have no way of knowing), they approach the situation much differently than they would have otherwise.

In games with lots of published background information this is a particular problem. Your players have read all the way through the latest book, so they know that Mr. George White is the big bad guy. The characters have no reason not to trust Mr. White, but because the players know he’s the bad guy, they go to great lengths to dig up evidence of his untrustworthiness.

What to do?

Communication: a GM’s Best Friend

Talk to your players. Some people don’t know that use of out of character info is a bad thing. Maybe they played under a GM who allowed such things before they played with you. Maybe they just have some misconceptions about how these games work; after all, if you think that RPGs are about “players” trying to “win” a game, then the use of OOC info may seem to make sense.

Sometimes the use of OOC info is unintentional, or is only debatably OOC; the players in the second example forget that they learned Mr. White was a bad guy by reading the book, and think they heard something in game. Or it makes sense to the players in the first example that if their friends haven’t come back yet, something must be wrong, and thus they’re justified in taking a more defensive stance as they continue.

Communication comes in several parts. First, make sure your players know ahead of time that use of OOC information is considered off-limits, and why. Second, when you see a player using OOC info, warn him off of it (without being accusatory). Point out that his character couldn’t know that; make the charitable assumption that he didn’t intend to cheat. Allow him to re-choose his actions. Third, if it continues, dock his experience points (or advancement points, or whatever your system uses). Note that this does NOT work if you don’t tell him why you’re doing it; you need to point out why you’re docking his points.

Fourth, if you’re having a real problem with a player who just won’t stop, then take him aside. Privately, tell him that what he’s doing is considered cheating. Point out that you’ve warned him, and told him, and that he hasn’t stopped. Tell him that if he doesn’t stop now you’ll ask him to leave, or you won’t give him any experience points for any session in which he does it, or you’ll start changing things in the run to make sure that any cheating simply serves to screw his character over.

Of course, you may not wish to go this far. Some gaming groups play together because they were friends first, and GMs in such situations often don’t want to tell someone to leave, or otherwise antagonize someone. In this case, there are other things you can do. Always keep basic communication in mind, however.

Changing Details

If the group of players in the first example insists on acting on the knowledge that there’s an ambush waiting, then make the opposition a little smarter than that. They’ve moved to another part of the building, or left altogether, or picked up new weapons, or put up magical protections. Maybe in some odd way they’re even doing something that’ll help the characters, and if the players charge in expecting a fight they’ll get screwed over.

In the second example, if you really want to use something from a book then change the details. Mr. George White is now Mr. Jack Taylor, or even Ms. Jennie Walker. Instead of being from Pittsburgh, she’s from England. Instead of having a quirk of always wearing white gloves, she insists on wearing an ugly green hat her mother gave her. The smallest details can change everything.

If you didn’t think of it ahead of time you can still save yourself. As soon as you realize your players have recognized Mr. White, turn him into a dupe whose strings are being pulled behind-the-scenes by someone else. Or he’s a decoy, meant to distract from the real bad guy (you can still base the “real” bad guy on Mr. White, but with the changes recommended above). Or Mr. White just happens to be doing something that will help the party; if they use their out of character info to stop him, then they’re just screwing themselves over.

Remember: any part of the game that the characters haven’t seen yet is fluid and can be changed. Do your best to keep it consistent with previous details, though.

Don’t Read All of the Background Material

If the game you play puts out lots of adventures and background information, then don’t read it all. Ignore paragraphs, chapters, plots, and characters, and fill things in with your own ideas or with ideas from completely different sources. If you’re just starting out, you may wish to ignore this particular method until you feel more comfortable making up your own material.

As a side note, however: If a player is playing a character based heavily in world background, then don’t change the background out from under him. Either tell him to change the character before the game starts if you don’t want to make use of that background material, or play along. Very few players enjoy seeing the characters they spent time creating changed out from under them in ways that they have no choice about.

If you have a problem with something then deal with it before the game starts, when the player has a chance to change things in ways they’ll be happy with. Along the same lines…

Don’t Go Too Far

Keep your detail-changing small and simple where possible. It only takes a few changes before all of the things your players have read are called into question. Just changing George White to Jennie Walker can completely disguise the fact that you’re using a certain plot. And even if someone realizes what you’ve done, they now can’t trust that you’ve left anything else the same. That little bit of uncertainty is often enough.

There are good reasons to keep things small and simple. You may accidentally throw game balance way off by wildly mucking with things. If you change too much, you may change a player’s entire character concept out from underneath her, and that’s rarely appreciated.

By all means, if you’re comfortable changing big things, and if your players are comfortable with your choices, then change anything you want. Just try to keep game balance, the feel of the genre, and character concepts in mind when you do so.

Disallowing Actions

If a player tries to do something based on out of character information, simply disallow the action. Don’t let him do it. You might want to ask him first why he’s doing something, however, just to make sure he doesn’t have an in-game reason for what he’s doing. Sometimes players come up with things that GMs don’t expect, and not every stroke of luck or intuition is an attempt to cheat.

Ask for Cooperation

If you really must use a certain piece of published material, ask your players not to read certain books or sections of books. Let them know that you’ll tell them when it’s okay to read those things, so they won’t feel tempted to sneak peaks rather than have to wait forever.

Remove the Player

In extreme circumstances, if someone is completely throwing off your game and causing everyone involved to have a bad time, then tell the player to leave. You might tell her to leave for the rest of the evening, in an attempt to make her understand that you’re serious about removing her if she continues to cheat. If this doesn’t work, remove her permanently.

Remember: It’s Tough to Firewall

Some groups call the process of ignoring information your character isn’t supposed to have “firewalling.” Firewalling can be difficult. Over the course of many gaming runs it can be tough to remember what your character has and hasn’t learned of what you know, particularly in moments of revelation. I’ve seen plenty of players start exclaiming about two pieces of info they just put together, only to turn completely red when someone points out that they shouldn’t know about one of them. Not every use of OOC information is an attempt to cheat!

Player intuition and guesses can sometimes imitate the use of out of character information. There are moments when players put several pieces of in-character information together that their characters do have, and then wonder whether they would have put them together or not if it weren’t for some other piece of information that the player has but the character doesn’t. In some of these cases it can be impossible to make the judgment.

This is why, unless you know a certain player has a tendency to cheat, it’s a good idea to give players the benefit of the doubt and to ask before punishing.

Use the Mechanics

Some games have abilities, skills, advantages, etc. that represent knowledge of a group or of a body of information. For instance, some of White Wolf’s games use “lore” abilities. Tell your players that if they don’t buy one of these abilities up, then they won’t know anything other than the bare public details of a group, even if they’re a member of that group. It makes it easy for you to rule on what their characters should or shouldn’t know of the world background. This can help to head players off at the pass when they try to use background information from books (particularly if they have a habit of trying to justify any information they might have read as being something their character would know).

Many games also allow you to do checks or rolls or whatever against things such as “intelligence.” Let’s go back for a moment to the last section, where I mentioned that sometimes it’s hard to tell whether a character would have come to a conclusion or not without the aid of OOC information. In these cases, you could ask a player to make a simple intelligence check for her character. If the character succeeds, she thought of the connection. If she doesn’t, she didn’t. If something else happens to help jog the character’s thoughts in the right direction then give her another intelligence check, maybe with a bonus this time.

I’ve seen games where players are so accustomed to this idea that when they think of something and aren’t sure whether their character would have thought of it, they automatically make the die roll, without the GM even having to ask!

There are plenty of ways to handle people who deliberately cheat, even without throwing them out and even when communication fails, mostly by changing small details, using the mechanics of your game, docking experience points, and disallowing actions. Just keep in mind that it’s possible for players to screw up without intending to cheat, and that you don’t want to completely muck with game balance in your attempt to keep people from cheating. Most of all, remember to communicate. Players who don’t know that they’re doing something wrong (or who don’t know that you’re attempting to punish them) are unlikely to change their ways.

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