|August 23, 2010||Posted by John Arcadian|
Imagine this fairly common scenario: The character sheet talks about a backwoods, uneducated fighter with a low intelligence score. The player knows that the word puzzle on the wall can be solved by removing every third letter and putting the min order. The fighter might not know this, but the player does. Should the player be able to bring in their knowledge and find some way for the fighter to have brought it up, or should the Game Master enforce the character backstory or let the player flex their own knowledge in the game?
Unless you are playing yourself, there is always going to be a divide between what the player knows and is capable of and what the character knows and is capable of, but how should that divide be played out? If the sheet says the character’s charisma couldn’t convince a cat to sleep but the player gives an incredibly eloquent speech that would net her an Oscar, what wins? I think that this is always going to be a hard question to answer, due to the unique merging of player and character that occurs in all sorts of gaming. Mechanical skills are used to represent things the players aren’t capable of, but without the player controlling the character nothing would happen. So which element is more important to the game and to the player’s, and the group’s, fun?
I’m pretty sure there is no definite answer, but there are a few overarching ways that I can think of to approach this Player or Sheet conundrum when it comes up:
- Extreme Realism To The Game World – The player doesn’t exist in the game world, so they can only puppeteer the character in a way consistent with the sheet. If the sheet says the character has no skills in an area then the character can’t even begin to attempt it with a reasonable chance of success.
- Logical Grey Area – Even if it isn’t on the sheet, there is no way to represent every little bit of accumulated knowledge a character might have. Sure the character isn’t skilled with dealing with royalty on the sheet, but her chance flipping through the channels one day might have ended up on a history channel show about royal customs, so we’ll let her knowing the correct way to curtsy stand.
- Moderate Realism To The Game World – The player plays as close to the character as they can, but they will never have the knowledge and perspective of the game character. The player might suggest something that the character wouldn’t necessarily have thought of in-game, but they can pull in enough character knowledge to support it. This happens occasionally and we don’t worry too much about it so long as it isn’t an extreme breach of the character.
- Fun Grey Area – Sure the warrior failed the roll to force the door, sure the barbarian did too, sure the thief failed to pick the lock, but one good kick from the mage and it popped open despite his low strength. Why the hell not? It’s not like it will happen all the time, and that was a damn lucky roll!
- Extreme Lack Of Realism – Who cares if the character can only jump a foot and a half off the ground, the way the player described that awesome wire-assisted kung-fu leap through the air and landing on the giant’s head was great. I’ll even give a +5 bonus!
There are an endless number of situations where a player or sheet conundrum might come up, and each one probably has many suitable answers that depend on play group, style, game, and countless other factors. The Player or The Sheet is an incredibly big question with no real right answer. In one situation Extreme Realism might be the appropriate response, while in another situation in the exact same game the Fun Grey Area might be a much better fit. So how about it? Ever had a deep issue between the player or the sheet? Does your group have a particular way of playing it when it does come up?
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About John Arcadian
John Arcadian is the head of Silvervine Games, a freelance writer and art director, a website developer, a builder of sonic screwdrivers, and a purveyor of kilted mayhem. When he isn't out causing trouble in his kilt... Well, no, that is pretty much what he does when he isn't running RPGs or or trying to take over the world.