Playing Characters Beyond the Player’s Ability

Sometimes I get the impression that a few game masters (GMs) would rather their players just played themselves. They don’t want people to play something unusual or unexpected. They don’t want characters to be special or unique in any but particular, approved ways. And they don’t want characters to have any abilities that the players can’t play.

Whoah. Hold up there just a second. That last one would seem to leave a whole lot of things out, wouldn’t it? I’d have an awfully hard time playing a mage in a fantasy universe, or a fighter pilot in a science fiction universe if that were a rule in roleplaying games. Clearly there’s something strange going on here.

“If You Can’t Play It, Don’t”

There is a handful of attributes and abilities that seems to fall into this quandary of ours. Depending on the GM, you might find abilities in here like: lying well, persuasion, strategy, etc. In other words, anything that can be roleplayed out — anything that comes out through thought or conversation.

I’ll use an example that I heard about not all that long ago. A player in a game wanted to play a mage (mage characters must have, by the rules of that game, a high intelligence). However, the player had trouble thinking fast during game-play. So he’d do things like hurl fireballs when his teammates were in the way, when a different spell would have done the job with much less collateral damage. And he did this repeatedly (but not in an intentional effort to screw up the game). Some people believe that if the player can’t roleplay the intelligence of the mage, he shouldn’t play the mage.

Why?

For a moment we’ll look at why this is a semi-popular opinion. Why is it important to people that players be able to carry off the intelligence or persuasiveness of their characters when they aren’t required to look as brawny or beautiful, or be as observant?

#1. Difficult Conversations: All right, let’s say for a moment that a player character (PC) is much more charismatic than his player is. The PC is trying to win someone over to his cause, but the player is saying things in-character that would cause his intended ally to cut off his head. How on earth is the GM to handle this? This can be a very awkward and difficult situation for a GM.

#2. Unwise Actions: A lot of people see the uncertainty of whether or not the PCs will succeed at their actions as being part of the fun of the game. Presumably making up for a smart character’s lack of player intelligence would require handing him the answers, which isn’t much fun.

As you can see, GMs are worried about awkward conversations, handing out of answers just because of a high score in a stat, and similar discontinuities and discomforts in their games. How do we fix this and enable people to play the characters they want to play, without making the GM’s life unduly difficult?

There Are Solutions!

There are ways to help such situations. There are good reasons to make use of them, too. Step back for a moment and look at what is (in essence) being said to the player who has trouble playing his character: “Sorry, but you can’t play the character you want to play because you’re too dumb.” Ow. Not a good way to go. So what do we do to help these players?

Use Your Rules

Your players don’t know starship navigation, so you let them roll dice to see whether their characters can plot a course correctly. They can’t bench-press a small car, so again, you let them roll dice to see if their characters succeed. Why shouldn’t players use the rules system to correct other disparities in ability? It’s just a matter of figuring out how to make the process less awkward.

#1. Difficult Conversations: Let’s say that the PC has a knack for charming people. Hold the conversation as normal. Any time the player is in danger of blowing everything by saying something obnoxious, have the player make a relevant ability check. If he succeeds, give him a quick conversational pointer. (If you don’t like giving so many ability checks, just give him disaster-aversion pointers without them.) If he chooses to ignore you that’s his decision, and things presumably go badly accordingly. After all, even the most charismatic person has an off day.

Instead, or in addition, you can hold the conversation as normal. But at the end or beginning of it (or at a crucial juncture), you have the player make a single relevant ability check. The result of that roll helps to skew the general results of the conversation. It might not make up for huge gaffs and blunders, but it can modify the general tone of things. Just assume that the character found more persuasive ways to word things than the player did.

If the player prefers, there’s another option you can use for particularly difficult conversations (but I don’t recommend it for use in every conversation, or even a large number of them). If the player knows what his character is trying to convey over the course of the conversation but doesn’t know how to bring it all together, then have him explain what he’s trying to do. Have him tell you roughly what he’s saying, what he’s trying to say, the effect he’s going for, and so on. Then have him make the ability check to see how things turn out.

#2. Unwise Actions and Other Intelligence Matters: We’ll go back to our example of the mage who can’t think fast under pressure. When he’s about to make a huge mistake, give the player a relevant ability check. If he succeeds, warn him and give him a chance to change his mind. If there are mistakes he makes repeatedly, help him find ways to learn — suggest that he write a note to remind himself, for example. If the problem is pressureful situations such as combat, then give him a little extra time to think over his actions and help him to not feel stressed or pressured. Don’t let the other players push him.

There are other uses for intelligence, however. The two examples we’ll play with at the moment are strategy and investigation. If a player is having trouble living up to his character’s ability to strategize, then make use of ability checks to help him. When he succeeds, give him hints. If he succeeds particularly well, sit down and strategize with him a bit; help to walk him through some of the ideas.

If a player whose character is carrying out an investigation is having trouble thinking of the right questions to ask an ally, have him make the ability check. If he succeeds, suggest possible questions to him. Or if you can’t think of anything and he succeeded well, give him one or two “free questions” to ask later — essentially, “oh, we forgot!” questions.

This last suggestion is a tricky one; you run the risk that your players will say, “well if we’d known that we would have done something different!” Let them know ahead of time you won’t allow this unless the changes are particularly small and easy to make (otherwise the game can turn into an administrative nightmare). You can always come up with a kludge like, “you got distracted during his answer and didn’t register most of it at the time; something reminded you of it just now.” Sure, it’s a kludge, but if it makes the game more fun, some people might prefer to use it. If that isn’t the sort of roleplaying your group likes, then use some of the other suggestions in this article instead.

But What About That Handing Out of Answers Thing?

Ah, right, there was that worry about handing out answers and making things less fun. Luckily, there are plenty of situations (particularly with these sorts of abilities) that aren’t black and white. Just because the character thinks of the intelligent thing to do doesn’t mean he thinks of the right thing to do.

Make it clear to your players that when you help them like this, you aren’t giving them the “correct” answers from on high. You’re simply providing likely answers. Then do your best to provide answers that seem like things the character would think of. This doesn’t necessarily make them exactly right, but it might help push the player into thinking of the right thing. Either way, it’s still up to the player to decide whether the idea is the right one, and what to do about it.

Hand out multiple answers wherever possible — particularly for very plot-relevant points that you’re loath to just give away. “Well, you might try this, or perhaps you could try this other thing.” Another option is to hand out partial answers, that don’t do much good unless the party puts them together with something else.

If you just can’t shake the worry that you won’t be able to avoid screwing things up, then have someone else help the player instead. If there’s another player who excels at strategy, have him give pointers. You can still have the character make the ability check first. You should also be certain that the other player is someone who will help and suggest, not take over. Be sure that the final decision of what to do always comes from the player of the character whose choice it is.

In addition, instead of having players make ability checks, you can always secretly roll the ability checks for them. That way you don’t have to worry about the player figuring something out from the simple fact that you had him roll dice (or from the results of the roll).

Make Allowances for Reality Breakage

There are non-rules intensive ways to give a little aid now and then, too. For the most part, you need to simply keep in mind that the character is good at things that the player is not.

If the character is good at military strategy, then simply decide that any military strategy constructed by that character is likely to succeed. Sure it’s full of holes from a reality standpoint. Turn a blind eye to the holes, or assume that the character is picking up on a weakness or unusual circumstance that is inobvious to everyone else; what is the circumstance that would make his plan reasonable?

If the character is charming and persuasive, then simply decide that characters will react favorably to him, even when he’s saying the wrong thing. Assume that the character said something more charming, or decide that he has some odd quality to him that makes him likable despite his bad manners. If the player is horrible at lying but the character is good at it, decide that the character is just more believable than the player sounds.

If you’re going to do this, it can help to tell the players ahead of time. That way they won’t wonder what drug you were on when you let so-and-so get away with such-and-such, but wouldn’t let someone else do something similar.

Disallowing Characters Players Can’t Play

I’ve explained all of the different ways in which you can help a player to play a character that’s normally out of her depth. I’ve hopefully shown you some of the reasons why this can be a good idea. But is there ever a circumstance in which you should tell a player not to play a character she can’t handle?

Probably so, but it depends on your gaming group:

  • Is the player completely unwilling to work with your attempts to help her play her character?
  • Is the group in general overly frustrated with the small slowdown that these methods cause?
  • Do you have a group of roleplayers who can’t stand the idea of skewing reality?
  • Is the player frustrated with her own inability to portray her character?
  • Are there other types of characters the player is interested in playing?

If things seem too unwieldy, talk to the player. If she’s interested in playing something else, great; problem solved. If she really wants to play the character she has, though, why not work with her to find a solution?

Roleplaying is largely about escapism of one kind or another. If you’re willing to allow someone to escape to a stronger identity, or a faster one, then why not a more charming or intelligent one? Is it really such a good thing for your game and group to tell a player that he’s too dumb or too obnoxious to play a certain kind of character? There are ways to solve these problems that allow players to play the characters they enjoy. Give them a try.

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