Firewalling 101 for Players

Companion to “Five Firewalling Tips for Gamemasters,” published in Roleplaying Tips.

People who haven’t played roleplaying games (RPGs) before are often unfamiliar with the concept of out-of-character (OoC) information. Unfortunately, it’s such a deeply ingrained part of roleplaying that many game masters (GMs) never bother explaining it; it’s assumed that everyone knows what it is and how to do it. Because of this, it’s easy to end up breaking the rules or “cheating” without even knowing what you’re doing wrong. And again, because GMs assume that everyone knows that using OoC information is wrong, they might never explain to you why they’re angry.

This article is for all of those confused players who have no idea why their GMs are mad at them. This article is for those players who know why their GMs are mad at them, but don’t quite get it. This article is also for those players who understand the problem, but have trouble coming up with a solution (just because you know all about firewalling and out-of-character information doesn’t necessarily mean you find it easy). Hopefully we can help you all.

Definitions

Out-of-Character Information

Out-of-character information is information that a player knows that her character doesn’t.

Remember for a moment that your character exists within a roleplaying world of his own. He has eyes and ears. He hears things, figures things out, sees things, is told things. He does not see through your eyes or hear through your ears. This means that you might learn things about the game that your character has no means to know.

If you’re still having trouble with this one, think of your character as though he were the main character in a novel. He only knows what he can sense in the world around him; he can’t poke through the author’s mind and realize that the bad guy is coming around the corner.

Example: Your party of player characters (PCs) has split up. Within the game world they are in totally different locations, even though all of the players sit around the same table. Two characters (group 1) are in a park spying on someone, and the other two (group 2) are knocking on someone else’s door all the way across town. Each group cannot see or hear what is happening to the other group. Thus, when group 1 is attacked (and of course, you know about this because you’re sitting at the same table and you hear the GM announce the attack), group 2 has no way to know about the attack. If your character is a member of group 2 and you have him run off to help, then you are using OoC information, and in most games this would be considered cheating.

Firewalling

Firewalling is one name for the process of ignoring any information your character doesn’t have. When you firewall, you base your character’s decisions, thoughts, and actions only upon information that he has, not upon information that you have.

In some situations firewalling is more difficult than in others. Let’s take the example from above. It might be easy to convince yourself that your character should have heard from group 1 by now, and thus they must be in trouble. The more comfortable you become with firewalling, the easier it will be to figure out what your character would think or do as opposed to what you would like him to think or do.

Why?

Why is the use of OoC information such a thorn in some gamers’ sides? Why do other gamers not care?

Why It’s Cheating

The use of OoC information breaks the reality of the game world pretty heavily. If your character is acting on information that he doesn’t have, then he isn’t solving the plots or furthering his goals; you’re doing it for him. At that point, why bother having a character at all? Why not just have the GM explain the plot, and you and the other players can sit around and try to solve it yourselves? Why have characters or game-world interaction as intermediaries at all?

This is how a lot of people see the issue. If you’re going to play the game through the use of a character, then you have to stay true to that character’s reality. Otherwise there’s very little point to the existence of the character at all.

To some people, the fun of a roleplaying game comes from the immersion in the experience. If you break the game reality in this way, you disrupt the immersion. To other people, the challenge of a roleplaying game comes from having to solve the plots with only the tools that they were given (their characters). Using outside information is like calling the tip line to solve the crossword puzzle in the newspaper — it takes some of the fun away from the game.

Why It Isn’t Cheating

To some people, the games are more about the players than about the characters. To them, it is the players solving plots and achieving great things. Characters and rules and game worlds are merely the framework on which these things are accomplished. In this case, because it’s the players solving things, they may be allowed to use any resources at the players’ disposal, not just the characters’.

Ask Your GM

Many people naturally assume that everyone roleplays the way they do. After all, if you’ve only ever seen one style of roleplaying, then to you that probably is roleplaying. This means that your GM might not think to tell you which style of game he runs, because he’ll assume that you already understand.

You need to ask him. If I had to go by everything I’ve seen, I’d say that the default should be to assume that such behavior is cheating, because it seems that most roleplayers play this way. But just like everyone else, I’m used to a certain style of roleplaying, so I can’t say for sure. Again, this means that you need to ask. Preferably before the game starts.

One warning, though. Because so many people assume that there’s only one way to roleplay, some GMs are likely to be unhappy at the question. This is unfortunate, but a natural outgrowth of the “one true way” approach to roleplaying. They may assume that just because you’re asking the question, you must be thinking about cheating. I recommend being as clear as possible about the fact that you’ve heard of both ways of doing things, and just want to make sure that you play the game in the way that will make the rest of the gaming group comfortable.

How?

So your GM tells you that yes, in fact, you need to firewall against OoC information. Great. But how do you do that? It comes naturally to some people, but others have a lot of trouble keeping straight what information they got where. In some ways this is just something you have to learn over time. I’ll do my best, however, to suggest a few tricks you might start with.

Get Into Your Character

The more in-tune you are with your character, the easier it is to think like him. The easier it is to think like him, the easier it is to react like him, keep straight what he knows and doesn’t know, and so on. We have some hints on how to do this among our other player articles.

Take Notes

As you go through the game, keep a notebook and pen next to you at all times. Take quick, sketchy notes about everything that happens (or at least everything that’s interesting, useful, etc.). Find a quick way to indicate which characters are present in each scene (like noting initials in the margin). When you’re about to react to something, quickly take a look at your notes about that event and double-check that the event is something your character knows about.

This sounds very time-consuming, and at first it might be. I think, however, that you’ll find this gets easier and quicker as time goes on. You’ll have to look at your notes less and less. Good notes are useful for plenty of other reasons (for both you and the GM), so the time spent taking notes has a value beyond the OoC information problem. Besides, if you start to get a feel for where you tend to mess up (for example, remembering which characters were present for pivotal conversations), then you know which things you most need to take notes about. You can ignore the rest.

Communication

That’s right, I’m back to one of my two favorite gaming soapboxes again. Talk to your GM. Explain that this is something you just have trouble keeping track of. Let the GM know that you welcome friendly reminders when he notices you screwing up, and then take those reminders gracefully. This way he’s more likely to give you some leeway when he catches you making mistakes, and you have someone to help you catch yourself when you mess up.

It’s also okay in the middle of game to step out of character for a moment to ask the GM a question. A simple, “hey, do you remember whether or not my character knows that the bad guys have the doomsday device?” can help a lot.

Keep Track of Mistakes

When you screw up, take note of the circumstances. Do you usually mess up in tense, high-adrenaline situations? Do you make mistakes when trying to put pieces of information together to solve a mystery?

Once you know when you tend to make mistakes, you can more easily tailor your efforts to the situation. For example, if you know you tend to mess up during tense combat situations, then put a post-it on your character sheet that says, “take time to think during combat.” Let the GM know what’s going on so he won’t push you to hurry.

Also try to keep track of how often you run into problems with firewalling. That way you’ll be able to see whether or not you’re getting better at it as time goes on. If you aren’t, you know you’ll have to try something new.

Don’t worry; this isn’t something you have to do forever. Just do it for a little while, until you get a feel for where your problems lie. Do it until you see that you’re starting to improve.

Remind Yourself

If you have trouble remembering things in general, one of the greatest ways to overcome that is through reminders. Firewalling is no different. List things you have trouble with and keep the list with you when you game. List pieces of information that you know or don’t know. Write up reminders of things you have trouble with.

For the longest time when playing Storyteller games I had trouble remembering to use “Willpower” in combat situations. Finally I just highlighted it in purple on every character sheet I used, and it became much easier to remember. Do the same thing here. Find a way to make the things you have to remember stand out. Even a simple post-it note with the words “Do you really know that?” can be enough to get you thinking. Eventually you won’t need the reminders quite as much.

Recruit Your GM

Actively recruit your GM to help you (and the other players) avoid the OoC information that you have trouble firewalling against. These suggestions primarily work when used rarely and for short periods of time; when used extensively they tend to break up the flow of the game and leave some players bored. So use them judiciously.

  • Some GMs split players into separate rooms when the party splits up and address the groups of players separately. This should only be necessary when one of the groups is going to encounter important information.
  • Some GMs pass notes regarding pieces of information that one character gets that other players might have trouble ignoring. Or they take the player aside and address him separately.
  • Bring a walkman. When the GM knows that something is going to happen that you’ll have trouble firewalling against, he can tell you to put it on and press play. (This suggestion courtesy of Ilya Bely.)

How Do You Tell?

Unfortunately, not all firewalling problems are clear-cut problems. Some can be difficult to puzzle out. Most problem areas involve cases where you put together two or more pieces of information and figure something out that you hadn’t realized before. What if one of those pieces of information was something your character didn’t know? You can’t just undo the realization. You can’t wipe out your memory of the epiphany.

You can, of course, not act on that information. But then what happens when you get a little more information? How can you know for sure whether you would have made the connection now without that piece of information you weren’t supposed to have?

This is a tough situation to be in!

Stay In Character

For starters, try your best to figure out what your character would do and then act on it. I know–easier said than done. Just do your best. If your character really wouldn’t have figured it out, then don’t act on it, even if it’s driving you nuts! If you really need to let it out then wait until after the game and talk to a GM or a friend who isn’t playing the game.

Keep It To Yourself

Try not to exclaim aloud about your epiphany if you catch yourself quickly enough; even seeing the look on your face might spur another player to think of something he wouldn’t have otherwise. Again, I know, easier said than done. Do your best. If you have to, excuse yourself, go to another room, and indulge a few expressions of frustration.

Use Your Mechanics

Okay, so you kept yourself from acting on that information. But now you’re in the latter situation: your character has learned something new, and you just can’t figure out no matter how hard you try whether or not you or he would put two and two together and come up with four.

In a case like this, use your mechanics. If the game lets you roll dice to perform a skill check in an area such as intelligence, then do that. If you succeed, your character makes the mental connection. If you don’t, he didn’t. Roll again the next time you face this uncertainty.

It’s a good idea to make sure your GM is okay with this one. If you don’t have a chance to explain ahead of time, just say something along the lines of, “There’s something I’m not sure my character would have thought of. Can I make an Intelligence check to see if he did?”

Ask the GM

Alternatively, just ask the GM. Take him aside, explain your problem, and let him help you make the decision.

Firewalling is a tough subject, and one that too many GMs and long-time players take for granted as obvious. This isn’t helped by the fact that it often comes naturally to some players, which means that they think it’s easy to do. Because of this, new players often don’t even know that it’s an issue, much less what it is or how it works. Hopefully this article has helped a little.

Posted in Gaming

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