5 Firewalling Tips for Game Masters

Previously published in Roleplaying Tips Weekly.

People who haven’t played roleplaying games 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 explain it; it’s assumed that everyone knows what it is and how to deal with it. Because of this, it’s easy for a player to end up breaking the rules or “cheating” without even knowing what he’s doing wrong. And again, because GMs assume that everyone knows it’s wrong to use OoC information, they might never explain why they’re angry.

This article is for all of those GMs who don’t think to explain the concept of firewalling to their new players, or whose players don’t quite get it. It’s also for those GMs whose players just have trouble separating player and character knowledge no matter how hard they try.

Tip #1: Define Your Terms

Make sure your players know what out-of-character information and firewalling are right from the start. Make sure your players also know whether or not use of OoC information is considered cheating in your game. To you it may be obvious that this is cheating, but not all GMs run their games this way. If you want your players to play your way, then you have to tell them what your way is–and you have to make it make sense! To help, here are the definitions I’ve collected:

Out-of-Character Information

OoC information is information that a player knows that his character doesn’t. A character exists within a 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 his player’s eyes nor hear through his player’s ears. This means that the player might learn things about the game that his character has no way of knowing. (If it helps, think of it this way: characters in a novel do not know everything about the plot that the author does.)

Example: A party of player characters (PCs) has split up. Within the game world they are in totally different locations, even though the players sit around the same table. Group 1 spies on someone in a park, and group 2 knocks on someone else’s door all the way across town. Each group cannot see nor hear what is happening to the other group, because they’re nowhere near each other.

Thus, when group 1 is attacked (and of course, the players all know about this because they’re sitting at the same table), group 2 has no way to know about the attack. If a member of group 2 runs off to help group 1, then his player is using OoC information, and in most games this would be considered cheating.

Firewalling

Firewalling is one name for the process by which a player ignores any information his character doesn’t have. When he firewalls, he bases his character’s decisions, thoughts, and actions purely upon information that the character has, not upon game information that he as a player happens to have.

Obviously the term “firewalling” is metaphorical. A firewall used in computer security screens out any sort of traffic that you don’t want your computer getting. That traffic simply never reaches your computer. By extension, when a player firewalls, he simply ignores information which is not relevant to his character. He doesn’t allow it to impact his thinking or actions.

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

Tip #2: Communicate

Talk to your players. Don’t assume they’re trying to cheat. A lot of people have bad memories, or just have trouble separating character knowledge from player. Still others don’t quite “get” the concept of firewalling at all. Because of this, you’re better off trying to help the player firewall well than simply punishing him. Besides, even if the player is trying to cheat, this way of doing things lets him know that you’re watching, you’ve noticed, and you won’t let him keep doing it, so it can still help.

  • Instead of getting angry when players make mistakes with OoC information, calmly remind them that they don’t have the information they’re trying to use.
  • After the session, remind the player that he needs to better separate player and character information. (If it’s only an occasional problem, then you probably don’t need this extra reminder.)
  • If this is a recurring problem, ask the player what makes it difficult for him to keep track of the difference. Suggest that he keep track of when and how these problems arise so that he can spot and address any trends.
  • Ask if there’s anything you can do to help make firewalling easier on him.

Tip #3: Use Your Mechanics

Sometimes it can be hard to tell whether a player would have figured something out without the help of OoC information. Sometimes it can be hard for the player to figure it out!

For example, your current plot is all about this one big mystery that the characters are puzzling out. They’re picking up clues, putting them together, and drawing conclusions. Are the three clues they’ve found so far enough to cause them to reach the conclusions they’ve reached, or did they only figure things out because they found out about a fourth clue out-of-character?

In cases like this, use the solution provided by your game: mechanics. Rules system.

If the matter is some sort of clever puzzle-solving or clue-solving issue, then use an Intelligence, Wits, or Wisdom check, or whatever appropriate skill or mechanic your game possesses. If the matter is one of memory, Intelligence is probably appropriate. If the check succeeds, the character is assumed to have figured things out on his own. If it fails, he didn’t, and he can’t make another check until he obtains more information, or stumbles across something that might help him make the appropriate mental connections. You can give bonuses and penalties to these checks as you deem appropriate.

Tip #4: Keep Players and OoC Information Separate

There are various things that you, as GM, can do to keep players who have trouble firewalling away from information they shouldn’t have. Most of these suggestions aren’t things you want to be doing constantly, as they can disrupt the flow of the game or leave individual players bored for a while. Use them when necessary to make things easier on the players.

  • When the party splits up, split players into separate rooms. Address the groups of players separately. This is probably only necessary when the PCs are doing noteworthy things or getting into trouble.
  • Hand out information that only one player should know via note-passing. Again, this is probably only necessary for plot-relevant information.
  • Have those players who have trouble firewalling bring headsets. When you’re about to do something that they really shouldn’t know about, tell them to put the headset on, turn up the volume a bit, and press play. (This suggestion courtesy of Ilya Bely.)

Tip #5: Address Specific Problems

Sometimes a player’s troubles with firewalling stem from a specific problem. For example, he might have trouble thinking things through carefully during stressful, adrenalized, quick-moving situations (such as combat). In this case, try giving him a little more time to think things through. Don’t rush him. Remind him to take his time and think.

Everyone has trouble separating character and player knowledge at one point or another. For some people these are relegated to brief moments of confusion that can be self-corrected. For others, these are frequent problems that they have trouble seeing and understanding. Help your players; make firewalling easier on them, and work with them to make things easier and more fun for everyone.

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