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This question results from a small debate I had last weekend with our gamemaster during a session on Call of Cthulhu.

A player wanted to check if an NPC is alive or not. The players had put zero points in medicine. The players argued that they would not check anything complicated, just check his pulse or something. Our GM ruled that this might very well be possible for a "normal" person with a basic education and no special knowledge and the player himself might very well be able to check a pulse in real life. The way he spend points on his character however does not reflect this. It is something the player might know or can perform, but his character can not since he is lacking the relevant stats.

IMO this is very reasonable. However I am concerned about the implications for the reversed case.

If a character has skills and knowledge that the player does not, how can a player still make use of them? Of course if a player might be of average build but his character is a well-muscled person, it is easy to identify that his character might be able to, for instance, lift a heavier object than the player himself might be able to. But how about non-physical talents?

If a social or intellectual solution is needed, we have a problem. Say we have a room with a solid locked door. A player would say "I use my high mechanical skills to open the door". Any good GM would ask the player to be more specific about how he is actually planning to do this, and only if he can provide a reasonable plan of action would the GM allow him to roll on his mechanical skills. However in this case the character has high mechanical skills but the player does not and therefore is unable to come up with a plan of action and therefore will probably not be allowed to just roll on mechanics "out of the blue".

This problem gets more serious if we move away from physical skills to intellectual and social skills and gets even more serious if we move away from concrete actions to a more conceptual level of coming up with a general idea or plan for something.

How would you be able to use a character with a mechanical skill (or something even more abstract) of 90 or 100 (being the best of the best) without being an excellent mechanic yourself? How would a GM be able to make a fair judgement without being an excellent mechanic himself?

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    \$\begingroup\$ RE: "Any good gm would ask the player to be more specific." Out of curiosity, why? What makes you think that asking the player for more detail in this situation (when it's already known that the player can't provide more detail) makes one GM better than another? \$\endgroup\$ – Hey I Can Chan Jan 30 at 11:23
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    \$\begingroup\$ "Any good gm would ask the player to be more specific...." Perhaps I'm not a good GM, but generally I wouldn't. The character has the skill so they can at least try and get a roll. I might ask whether they are willing to be destructive or only non-destructive and if they are willing to be loud or insist on quiet and apply modifiers and story results as appropriate to those answers. \$\endgroup\$ – TimothyAWiseman Jan 30 at 17:16
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    \$\begingroup\$ "It is something the player might know or can perform, but his character can not since he is lacking the relevant stats." If it is any recent version of Call of Cthulhu (I don't know about older ones), every skill has a default value. For Medicine it's 1% and for First Aid (which is what I'd consider 'checking the pulse' to fall under) it's 30%. So even if you didn't put a single point in First Aid, you still have a 30% chance of successfully performing it. Was this considered at the time? \$\endgroup\$ – Suthek Jan 31 at 12:00
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    \$\begingroup\$ @TimothyAWiseman yeah...what happens with skills that a player cannot have? Like knowledge of arcana or hyperdrive tech or anything that doesn't exist as knowledge IRL? A very reasonable wat to handle this is to ask what is the outcome they are trying to get - "I want to read the magical inscription" or "I want to fix the FTL engine" but it's probably impossible to be any more precise than that. \$\endgroup\$ – VLAZ Jan 31 at 12:14
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Things don't happen if nobody at the table knows how they could.

The right thing to do in the Medicine case was ask for a Know roll, assuming you're playing Call of Cthulhu 7E (CoC7E) and you want to determine if you know something that's general knowledge but not in wide circulation, like how to check someone's pulse or breath to see if they're alive. If you're not playing CoC7E, or if you are and want to know why that was the right thing to do, read on.

A prelude: did this actually matter? It's easy to fall down the rabbit hole of task-oriented resolution systems and start demanding rolls to not choke on breakfast and other trivialities, but I'm assuming that the life-or-death status of this NPC isn't something you had an arbitrary amount of time and safety to verify but was actually dramatically important.

Like: you encountered a nameless horror from beyond the stars, responded appropriately with ten lit sticks of dynamite, and now the cavern is collapsing and you need to know if you need to salve your conscience by bundling this motionless body up and struggling to get it to safety, or if you can pray for their soul and run for your life.

The Story: Why You Need To Know How

I mean, you don't need to need to know how. You can resolve a Mechanics roll to open a door at an 8-bit computer game/children's pantomime level of sophistication: Bernard wants to use his Mechanics skill to open the door, so he walks over to the door and does a couple of squats in front of it while a ratcheting sound effect plays, and if he passes then the door pops open.

But that's silly, and Cthulhu generally isn't silly. You don't necessarily want the precise steps to bypass a given door with Mechanics. You want to be able to narrate "open a door with Mechanics" in a manner consistent with the rest of your narration.

Now, in most Cthulhu games worth their salt that's going to be tense and atmospheric, so yeah, you're going to want somebody at the table to know how you can tinker a door lock open in order to adequately describe the faint chiming noises as you work screws loose and they drop and the lurching geometric shadows as the door wobbles open missing its lockplate and one set of hinges.

But note: somebody at the table, not necessarily the GM.

The Rules: What the GM Needs To Judge

In general, when you're taking dramatic action and the outcome is in doubt, that's when you pull out the dice or other resolution system to determine what happens next. At a minimum the GM needs to know that someone at table can describe what it looks like when you succeed and when you fail. It may also be necessary to know other things in order to apply the system properly; generally the system should tell you what you need to know to use its own mechanics to judge relevant challenges.

In the specific case of CoC7E, the GM needs to know two things: is this an exercise of skill or a question of general knowledge/inspiration/blind chance, and if it's an exercise of skill is it regular, hard, or extreme? Even someone unskilled might possess relevant general knowledge; a scrappy hobo with a satchel of dynamite probably never learned how to check a pulse, but a university lecturer certainly might have heard it come up in general faculty discussion. Those are the two factors relevant to determining what kind of roll to call for and how it should be read.

So in the case of "using mechanics to open a door", which is an exercise of skill, the minimum necessary bar to clear for the GM to allow it in CoC7E is that someone at table needs to know: what it looks like when you succeed, what it looks like when you fail, and whether or not opening this door with mechanics is a regular, hard, or extreme challenge, which in CoC7E can be roughly paralleled to the mechanics skill that would be required to construct the lock in the first place. You don't need a mechanical engineering degree to get all that; you can probably ask Siri and get something reasonable in a couple of minutes.

The Final Call

So ultimately if you're having trouble you're falling into one of these three buckets:

  • You don't know if an action is possible in the rules or in the story. Unless it's extremely compelling you're better off letting this one lie as impossible. You don't have any way to judge one from the other.
  • You know an action is possible in the story but not if it's possible in the rules. Taking a quick break to check the rules or search the Internet for help is fine, but ultimately the GM makes a call and the game continues. Further research outside the game is a matter for table policy; I'd be up for it, but some GMs don't feel like relitigating a table argument feat. some rando on the Internet.
  • You know an action is possible by the rules but not how it's possible in the story. Taking a quick break to try and brainstorm or pull examples from the Internet is fine, but as before, the GM makes a ruling and the game continues.
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Cast Off Your Double Standards, and Accept That People Are Different

The Double Standard

But how about not physical talents?

Any good GM would ask the player to be more specific about how he is actually planning to do this and if he can provide a reasonable plan of action, he would allow him to roll on his mechanical skills.

I sense a double standard here, and challenge the notion that there's something innate that makes one group of skills easily roleplayable and the other not.

Consider such an action as jumping over a chasm. That's 'just' a physical, easily describable action, right? You just get maximum speed and push off when you reach the edge, right? Wrong. As a former pole vaulter, I can tell you that a myriad of specifics goes into each jump or vault, specifics as esoteric as the correct gradual acceleration curve, or the change in the length of each step depending on overall number of steps available for the run-up.

But often, non-physically-oriented players and GM not only skip over such details, but don't even realise they're a thing. Even physically oriented people often don't have the words to describe the actions that they can physically perform in real life! (That's because being skilled at doing a thing and being skilled at describing it are not the same thing.) And yet somehow games don't grind to a halt when it comes to describing an axe swing in an RPG due to the player not providing enough details, and everyone still has fun playing out combats. The last part is the most important one.

Your Bias May Vary

The above is the stereotypical bias in RPG circles, but it's not the only possible one. I have seen circles who go so far as to have no social stats and resolve it purely based on player skill, but at the same time reduce, say, a medical drama scene to 'I roll Physician and he gets better' and a physics-and-engineering puzzle to 'roll Engineer to reverse the polarity and move on'. Now, I would find such glossing over the science in a science fiction game to be defeat the purpose of playing in a sci-fi game in the first place. But did that ruin the fun for the players and GM? Nope, not for that group!

Things do get complicated when a groups consists of people with conflicting biases, and they're not willing to accommodate each other. There's been a case of a group which put great detail into the description of martial arts (the members being practitioners in real life). A non-physically oriented player joined their campaign. When a combat started, said player went for broad-strokes descriptions of his actions, while others went for their usual highly-detailed and specific descriptions. The majority got various benefits from being specific, such as bonuses for naming a particularly appropriate counter to an NPC's attack. The newcomer didn't. And that caused a very unfun experience for him, both because much of the game's content was above his head, and because his character constantly looked incompetent compared to his party-mates.

A Strategic View is Not Inherently Bad

Obviously, not all players and GMs are compatible. Still, it's possible to reduce the problems like the one above by accepting that people are different, and try to zoom in more or less depending on whether the person is interested in and/or knowledgeable about the area of expertise. When necessary, let people make strategic, broad-strokes, bird's eye view descriptions and decisions. When necessary, zoom in.

It may seem that some things cannot be abstracted like that, but that is more a matter of habit, assumption and personal preconceptions, than of some inherent property of the action. Some months ago I had my character roll Investigate to gather rumours and clues throughout the city. That's a high-level abstraction of an activity. In another party or another campaign, the GM would demand going into details, describing the procedures involved, the districts walked through in search of witnesses and otherwise insist that the activity can be neither abstracted nor condensed nor summarised. It's a matter of subjective preferences, and willingness to try. Likewise, 'shoot an orc', 'repair a spaceship', 'open a door', or 'become the Sultan's trusted evil vizier' also can be abstracted, or they can be detailed.

If someone isn't good at zoomed-in gaming in a given topic, but wants to try anyway, offer a partial zoom-in, and offer some advice, and/or break big scary confusing choices into bite-sized, easier-to-comprehend ones. Explain the broad consequences of favouring one decision over another, and don't ask 'gotcha' questions. If a character should know that a given approach is non-viable and the player doesn't, the GM should say so to the player. If a player asks for a hint because the character should know, the GM should give the hint. That's actually a great way for a player to become acquainted with a topic in real life; I'm not a rocket scientist, and 99% of my knowledge about ∆v, orbital mechanics, and effects of planetary gravity on atmospheric composition come from RPGs.

A big part of RPGs is trying what it would be like to be someone else - someone with radically different skills and abilities. Deaf people may want to play hearing ones. Monolinguists may want to play diglossics or even polyglots. Humans may want to play multimillennial elves. If a player can only play a PC who has a similar skillset, then the overwhelming majority of roles becomes unavailable, and so does this whole huge part of RPGs. And that would be a sad loss. So let roleplayers roleplay.

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    \$\begingroup\$ I would upvote this multiple times if I could. As someone with a range of both technical and physical skills, I can definitely say that both are complicated, and I have often had a harder time appropriately describing how to do something physical, rather than something technical. All the mechanics that go into throwing a proper punch, or how to brace to lift something heavy properly, or how to throw a knife at a target, or how to duel with a sword. These are all complicated things that our characters have no trouble doing, even if we-as-players don't know how \$\endgroup\$ – guildsbounty Jan 30 at 12:33
  • \$\begingroup\$ I disagree. The issue here is not about specific knowledge or complexity of a topic/skill. It’s about its’s abstractability. On its highest abstraction level a player might still know that it is possible to use a pole to jump a gap and come up with it as a general idea while the GM still has enough information to judge if this solution could be valid or not under the given circumstances. All following details can be left to a dice roll. At his highest abstraction level using “physical science to influence energy and forces” (mechanics) is next to impossible for GM to judge as valid or invalid. \$\endgroup\$ – MrTony Jan 30 at 15:30
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    \$\begingroup\$ @MrTony Thing is, most things are abstractable. But people may have preconceptions that make them unwilling to abstract them. Some months ago I had my character roll Investigate to gather rumours and clues throughout the city. That's a high-level abstraction. In another party or another campaign, the GM would demand going into details. Likewise, 'shoot an orc', 'repair a spaceship', 'open a door', or 'become the Sultan's trusted evil vizier' also can be abstracted, or they can be detailed. If a character should know an approach is non-viable and the player doesn't, the GM should say so. \$\endgroup\$ – vicky_molokh Jan 30 at 15:41
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    \$\begingroup\$ It should be noted that in many RPGs, your character is capable of doing things that NOBODY can do in real life. I will never be able to throw a fireball from my hands or repair a warp core drive because these are fictional constructs. Just because medicine and lockpicking are things that exist in reality doesn't mean they should be treated any differently in the context of a game. \$\endgroup\$ – Darrel Hoffman Jan 30 at 17:59
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"I use my high mechanical skills to open the door". Any good gm would ask the player to be more specific about how he is actually planning to do this.

Don't worry about specifics here. When the rogue is picking locks, the player doesn't have to describe every single movement about adjusting the pins and holding the tumbler just right. A medic can heal their friends without the player having to know the procedure to treat bullet wounds. The character has a right to have knowledge that the player doesn't if their skills are high enough. The GM could then describe his actions to reveal how exactly he opened the door.

If you want the door to be a puzzle, or an obstacle you don't want them to just "roll-play" their way through, his skills could reveal clues. e.g. he has located the part of the wall beside the door which contains the hole for the lock or something, but the player still has to come with the idea of chipping away the wall here to loosen the lock.

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  • \$\begingroup\$ I disagree. The lockpicking skill already indicates in general what will be done. A set of tiny tools will be used to manipulate the internal mechanism of the lock to open it. At the end of the process the door will be intact and so will the lock. I don't know what "I use my high mechanical skills" means. Is the player trying to just end run around lock picking? Are they planning to force the door open thereby destroying it to lesser or greater extent? Do they plan to try to disassemble the door and or frame leaving it intact but in pieces? How about "I use my chemistry skill"? \$\endgroup\$ – Eric Nolan Feb 1 at 14:53
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    \$\begingroup\$ @EricNolan My point is that the Rogue could tell the GM, "I am using my lock-picking skills to open the door" and it would be clear what they are doing, without having to have knowledge of how to pick locks themselves. Sure, the GM could ask for further clarification or detail on what the player says, but the player should not have to know exactly how one opens a door with "mechanical skills" if the character does. \$\endgroup\$ – colmde Feb 1 at 15:07
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If a character has skills and knowledge that the player does not, how can a player still make use of them?

By making a skill check, usually by explaining what they're trying to do and how they're doing it. Some things are simple enough that they don't require a check.

A player wanted to check if an NPC is alive or not. The players had put zero points in medicine. The players argued that they would not check anything complicated, just check his pulse or something. Our GM ruled that this might very well be possible for a "normal" person wtih a basic education and no special knowledge and the player himself might very well be able to check a pulse in real life.

It depends on the situation. If it's relatively obvious that the NPC is alive or dead, the GM can just answer for the reasons you've laid out. If they're on the cusp of death, barely breathing, covered in blood—if it's not obvious—then make a medical skill check. They might get the incorrect conclusion if they fail, and that's fine.

If a social or intellectual solution is needed, we have a problem. Say we have a room with a solid locked door. A player would say "I use my high mechanical skills to open the door". Any good GM would ask the player to be more specific about how he is actually planning to do this, and only if he can provide a reasonable plan of action would the GM allow him to roll on his mechanical skills. However in this case the character has high mechanical skills but the player does not and therefore is unable to come up with a plan of action and therefore will probably not be allowed to just roll on mechanics "out of the blue".

The player explains what their character is attempting. Are they picking a lock? Making a lever to snap off the hinges? Chipping at the door frame? Going through the wall? You don't need to hear a detailed plan, but as a GM you should be convinced that the character's attempt could work.


The place where this can get confusing is when it comes to puzzles. Usually that involves a discussion with the GM and players to decide if puzzles are player- or character-facing or some mix, like characters rolling for a hint when the players are stuck.

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  • \$\begingroup\$ +1 for the skill check - the Character might decide to check for a pulse, having heard about it, but their lack of medical knowledge gives them a disadvantage to their check to actually locate a pulse. Think about the scene in "The Little Mermaid", where Scuttle (the seagull) is trying to check the Prince's pulse! \$\endgroup\$ – Chronocidal Jan 31 at 13:11
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Why does a player need the skill? The characters are what matter. In my games (as GM or Player) I stress the importance of personality separation. A player may have knowledge from out of game sources (like hearing the DM tell another player that the sword he just picked up is talking to him telepathicaly) the out-of-game knowledge isn't anything the character can know (the sword holder hasn't said anything to the party yet) so the one player/character CANNOT act on the out-of-game knowledge. It's the same with skills, a player and character can differ in skill sets so only the user of the skill (player or character) needs to know what to do, the other doesn't need to know how to do it OR describe it.

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