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What Your Character Knows That You Don’t

I’m sure I’m not the only person who’s found themselves in this position.  You tell the GM you want to use a skill, say you’re going to hack into a computer.  The GM says, “OK.  How are you going to go about it?”

“Huh?” you swiftly and intelligently respond.

“How are you going to hack into the computer?” he repeats.

Well…now what are you going to do?  Damned if I know, and you may not either.  Our characters aren’t extensions of ourselves.  Instead, they are unique individuals with expertise that we don’t have.  I’ve made a few pieces of armor back in my SCA days, and I know a bit about how to swing a sword.  As a backpacker, I’ve spent a good bit of time walking down the trail carrying everything I need in a pack on my back.  Does that make me the equivelent of a D&D adventurer?  Hell no!

So what do you do when your GM expects you to tell him/her what you’re going to be doing while using a skill…a skill that you personally don’t have a clue how to use?  Well, at that point, you’re pretty well hosed.  You’re only choice is to pull something out of your butt and hope it works.  In this example say you’re going to use the most common passwords or something.

For me, it was always annoying when the GM expected me to possess knowledge that my character would have but I wouldn’t, sort of like reverse metagame thinking.  However, some GMs will do that.  With all that build-up, here’s how Uncle Tomcat would solve this problem.

First, talk to your GM before the first session.  Find out how they handle skill usage.  Many will give bonuses if you describe your actions, others will require you to do so, and still others won’t care either way.  If you have a GM that wants bonuses, you may need to do a bit of research.  You don’t have to be proficent with the skills in question, but know the basics of what they do to use that skill.

Also, for world basic knowledge, be prepared to ask your GM if your character would know something.  After all, as I’ve already said, your character has knowledge that you don’t.  However, often the GM will know what your character will know but hasn’t thought about it yet.  A polite prompt may help them remember key information your character has that you need to deal with the situation properly.

The key thing is to talk to your GM about it, outside of the game if possible, and deal with it there.  Some GMs may not be flexible.  In those cases, my best advice is to find another game.  Inflexible GMs are among the worst thing you can have!

September 6, 2008 - Posted by | RPG |


  1. If you can’t tell me exactly how your character bakes that epic pie, you can’t do it. Period. Sucka.


    Comment by Liambic | September 6, 2008 | Reply

  2. “How are you going to hack into the computer?” eh? Let’s see what answers we can give…

    “The usual way.” (translates)-> Hey, my character probably has a routine.

    “Successfully.” -> My character is very confident, and I’m a smartass.

    “With my eyes closed.” -> My character is stupidly confident. Hopefully he is justified in that confidence.

    “I brought a hatchet.” -> My character does not actually understand what “hacking” means in this context.

    “I’m going to reverse the polarity of the gigawatts flowing through the flux capacitor so that the megabytes send the packets to my handheld rather than to the computer’s HTML. Then I’ll switch the hard drive’s RAM and flash the CPU, and finally execute a trojan in order to shut down the security and infect the DSL.” -> I don’t know anything about computers, but here are some buzzwords. Now roll the damn dice.

    “By using my Computers skill.” -> Now roll the damn dice.


    Comment by Scott | September 6, 2008 | Reply

  3. I think the best way to handle that situation is to swat the GM on the nose with a rolled up newspaper.

    Comment by Patriarch917 | September 6, 2008 | Reply

  4. @Liambic: We don’t know ANYONE who’s like that, now do we? 😉

    @Scott: You’re just pulling stuff out of your ass, aren’t you? Well…works for me 😀

    @Patriarch: I thought of something similar, but instead of a rolled up newspaper, I was thinking a sledgehammer. Same difference though 😉

    Comment by Tom | September 6, 2008 | Reply

  5. I would try explain to the GM you are aiming for character representation based on the skills and knowledge of the character not the player. Stress that are you not a “roll-player” role player but you are not a method actor either.

    Ask him to have a look at this website article on character representation:

    This may not sit well with your GM, especially if he is lazy or is an “adversarial style” GM. Your other options are then to either: find a better GM, play a character who only does things you know about, or start reading up about the skills your character has that you do not.

    I’ve had this frustration a few times as a player and its now something I ask the GM about before I agree to play in the game. If they don’t (or won’t) get it and I’m keen for a game I will create a character with mainly combat, physical and discussion skills that tends to encounter this problem less often.

    Comment by FatAlibert | September 7, 2008 | Reply

  6. Pretty much, yeah. Although “By using my Computers skill” is a pretty good answer to that question, in all seriousness.

    Comment by Scott | September 7, 2008 | Reply

  7. As a GM, I might ask a general “what are you doing?” to get an idea of what sort of fluff to describe the action with but would never expect a technical explanation for a skill… I mean, do you expect players to describe how to perform surgery? Or how they cast that heal spell?

    And if I had a GM really expect it of me, I’d start to ask him how every NPC did everything they did… and then see how long it took them to stop asking me to describe every skill I had.

    Comment by justaguy | September 7, 2008 | Reply

  8. “And if I had a GM really expect it of me, I’d start to ask him how every NPC did everything they did… and then see how long it took them to stop asking me to describe every skill I had.”

    Good idea, I’ll have to remember that one : )

    Comment by FatAlibert | September 7, 2008 | Reply

  9. If someone in the group knows something about the activity in question, consult that person. If not, describe it as well as you can. Descriptions bring life to roleplay, and if nobody knows better, make a smart guess.

    Comment by Tommi | September 7, 2008 | Reply

  10. @FatAlibert: FWIW, I’ve taken that same route, explaining to him that I don’t know how to do everything my character knows how to do. Of course, I don’t play with that DM any longer thankfully!

    I now ask the GM that question before I start playing as well, unless of course I already know the GM, like with Liambic.

    @Scott: Very true. As a GM, I’d allow that one, but I’m the type that gives bonuses if you describe the action and doesn’t penalize you for not actually knowing a skill 😉

    @justaguy: The important question is, do your players know what you’re asking for? I’ve had GMs who wanted a bit of fluff, and other GMs who wanted me to describe how to perform surgery (luckily, I could BS my way through that one pretty good). The problem is, they asked the same questions to start with.

    @Tommi: I agree completely. If I take a skill that I’m not that familiar with in reality, I do a quick ‘net search these days and find out a bit about the skill and those who possess that skill. It’s always easier to make that smart guess when you’ve done a bit of research ahead of time 😉

    Comment by Tom | September 7, 2008 | Reply

  11. @Tom

    Good point, yeah they do (in general). But that’s an important part of the GM-player discussion at the start of games.

    Comment by justaguy | September 7, 2008 | Reply

  12. I agree fully. Really, I wish there was better player/GM dialog in a lot of groups. It would avoid a lot of that mess 😉

    Comment by Tom | September 7, 2008 | Reply

    • A simple and intnlligeet point, well made. Thanks!

      Comment by Rennifer | January 8, 2015 | Reply

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