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Well the tag is slightly misleading as these players do not cause problems. However I have encountered several players who exhibit skills their real life counterpart has without actually metagaming. As an example I encountered a player while running storyteller system and while they didn't have leadership skill they were quite fond of management stuff and assigned people that were under their command. On a similar note I had a player in D&D 5e who did not have survival proficiency (or nature proficiency for that matter) but he explained how his character set up a rudimentary water purification system.

I thought of a few solutions for this.

  1. Just tell them no. While this solution feels like the correct one my players often get excited when they utilize things like this and I don't want to be the GM that says 'No fun allowed'.

  2. Ask them to switch their proficiencies/skills to better reflect their knowledge. This feels a bit too punishing and I feel that it might end up causing them to not have the character they had in mind.

  3. Just let it fly. This is what I have been doing so far but to be honest I feel it is hurting other players and stealing the spotlight from people that invested in the required skills.

The main question is: How can I handle a player who seems to utilize skills their characters don't have?

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    \$\begingroup\$ It's referencing different systems, so I believe this is system-agnostic. It is also in regards to player behavior in general and semi-metagaming \$\endgroup\$ – ADDO Jul 1 '20 at 15:40
  • \$\begingroup\$ Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat. \$\endgroup\$ – linksassin Jul 8 '20 at 6:49
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I am going to be honest here, first of all. This is a problem for me too, because I play with a bunch of people who are really into STEM stuff. I’ve been on both sides of the player/GM line around this issue, so as a player, I can say this: it is really hard to turn off a part of your brain that thinks about problem-solving, especially if that’s part of your job. Honestly, I would try to avoid blaming your players for thinking about what they would do if they, not their characters, were in this situation.

The way I see it, you have a couple of things you have to do here.

What to do

First, talk to the players in question. I think there might be a difference in opinion. To me, it seems like your players want to do semi-realistic stuff using OOC knowledge. You seem to want that to be justified in character (please correct me if I’m wrong).

When I was in this situation, I talked to the player in question and tried to figure out a couple of things. One, is creative problem solving a part of the game they like? Two, is it a part of the game you like? Three, you say they don’t have skills appropriate to the task. How would they (this needs to come from them, preferably after a discussion about the first two things) work it out in character? Where have they heard about the idea, tried something like it, read a schematic? This can be great for worldbuilding. My suggestion for this is that you be open to ideas from the player, but veto something if it’s all the way out of left field, like a hermit-like character who’s never been in a city coming up with a plan to build a ten-story apartment building.

A note: This discussion may take a lot of time or a little. In my first example, it took about five minutes at the end of lunch break, while the second example took about ten minutes on a video call after the session, but I have to deal with something similar in a new campaign as a GM (but can’t talk about it yet because it isn’t resolved) and it so far has been twelve email messages with no resolution. If there is a way to have the talk in person or when you can see and hear the player (video call), that would be best (it may not be possible, given COVID-19 concerns, but you need to have body language and tone of voice clues as much as possible when trying to compromise).

I would, after you talk to the player individually, also talk to the group. Ask the same questions and then you and the player together present any solution you came up with for group approval. It may be useful to talk to some players individually before or after if you don’t think they will agree.

The second thing to do is pretty much the same as the other answers. If there isn’t a logical reason for a character to make that plan work, make them roll for it or veto it. Maybe the INT-dumping barbarian actually has a really great idea once in a while (no insult meant here, I thought of the logical extreme as an example).

Examples

This is an example from one of my games where this worked. I sort-of-kind-of co-GMed back in middle school with a friend for a world we built together. One of our players, playing a noble (high INT, low WIS, and no survival skills, in a homebrew ruleset), said she wanted to make a shelter for the wilderness adventure they were on according to plans she’d drawn up before the game.

The player, call her A, had a good bit of wilderness and engineering experience but the character really didn’t. I talked to A about it between sessions (at our next break between classes), and she said she liked creative solutions, we talked to my co-GM and he was not really sure what he thought about it, then A decided that the character had read some schematics but didn’t know how to do it or whether it would work. At the next session, A rolled to see whether she could remember how to build it, then a different check to see whether it worked right (which failed, but she didn’t know that until it crashed in the middle of a long rest). Another player, who IC had helped with planning did the actual building, and they used it for a while.

As a more experienced GM, I think I would have gotten group input on the decision, since we had a couple others who played the same way. We were young though, and A and I are still friends, so I think it worked out fine.

On the other hand, this is a current example from the player side. I am in a number of campaigns right now, and as a player for a D&D 5e campaign, I am on the other side of the discussion.

For context, I’m playing a formerly secluded cleric (high WIS but INT as a dump stat) in a homebrew setting, who joined the adventurers as a favor to their patron. I’ve done a few things that are similar to your player, like last session I tried blinding a dragon (This was before the flanking thing, by about a round) by using create/destroy water to make rain in its eyes. The DM was not too happy, given that the whole group, but myself especially, is good at coming up with real-world solutions (that work but often are entirely metagaming in a way), to have to try to figure out the effects of my solution again. What he did was to come up with an immediate resolution (it blinds the dragon for a round) and then to message me to say we needed to figure out how to deal with my solutions. After the session, we decided that creative solutions are going to require both an IC justification for the knowledge to see if I have the knowledge (backstory-based, class-based, race-based, or a reason to know), as well as a roll of either a skill or an attribute to put that knowledge into place (plus anything to actually do it). I think it worked out well; he had a procedure to deal with it, and I had the ability to come up with fun solutions.

The one thing we didn’t really do is to figure out what happens if I don’t have a reason to know, which so far seems to be “find a way another party member would know” (although it didn’t come up because so far we’re in the woods a lot and I’m playing a cleric of Mielekki).

Living with the procedure

In my first example, the talking it out individually plan worked, but if it doesn’t work for you, this might be time for a mid-campaign session 0 to discuss it. Get all the players involved when you come up with a resolution or if the two of you can’t come up with anything, and try to figure out a group opinion on this kind of thing and a way to resolve them. Others may like the creative solutions, or hate them.

In the second example, I think it would have been really easy for a different GM to hurt my feelings, so I would be careful with what you say. Don’t be accusative and do try to make sure they get things they want. However, be honest when something is wrong, and make sure you agree with the solution as well. It will not be fun if you can’t live with the rule, I can say from experience.

In general, for your next campaign you might want to include in the session 0 a discussion about OOC knowledge and justifying it in game to stop this from happening again without a precedent.

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The leadership scenario is sometimes inevitable depending on the players you have. It's natural for more experienced players to fall into a leadership role because they have more experience and newer players (or sometimes experienced players who don't want to take charge) aren't comfortable making big decisions and the party lacks direction. Overall it's typically not an issue unless the player starts bossing other PCs around, forcing scenarios that the rest of the party doesn't want, or trying to steal the spotlight.

As for the survival scenario, even if the player describes in perfect detail what they would like to do, you can still make them roll to accomplish it (Within reason. An untrained individual wouldn't stand a chance designing a nuclear reactor from scratch). I allow players to give me an idea of what they want to do, but that doesn't mean their character can do it.

I had a player tell me he wanted to make a chemical compound and he told me exactly what ratios he wanted to put in it. I made him do an intelligence roll because his character didn't have any knowledge: chemistry ranks and he didn't roll high enough.

You can do this for any semi-metagaming scenarios without your players feeling cheated because even someone with ranks in that skill could potentially fail it. You should never let something fly just because the player knows how to do it. You wouldn't let a PC shoot a bow and arrow just because they can do it in real life, so you shouldn't let them perform skills that their character doesn't know.

That being said, you can still allow creative solutions. The water filter is a great example. "You guys need water. What do you do?" "I want to make a water purifier by doing XYZ" "OK, make a survival roll".

It allows your player to be creative and come up with a solution, without letting them metagame.

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    \$\begingroup\$ As another example (using 5e), a player may be martially skilled and may be able to exactly describe the type of feinting and parrying and attacking that would result in killing his opponent, but his level 1 rogue is still going to need to just roll an Attack Roll. \$\endgroup\$ – Michael Richardson Jul 1 '20 at 23:53
  • \$\begingroup\$ Another example: in a real-world setting you say that two NPCs are conversing in a language that the character does not know, but as it happens the player does. The player is not entitled to demand that you repeat exactly what the character hears, so that the player can translate it. Likewise the player is not entitled to demand enough information to decide exactly how to use the available materials to make a working water purifier, when the character cannot make such judgements. \$\endgroup\$ – Steve Jessop Jul 2 '20 at 3:07
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    \$\begingroup\$ I would argue that if the PCs agree to follow along with the more experienced player's lead, that's a good thing - where social skills in 'leadership' should be kept in check is when NPCs are involved. If a socially inept character is constantly convincing NPCs to follow along with what they're saying, talking their way out of deadly situations at every turn, something has gone wrong. \$\endgroup\$ – Zibbobz Jul 2 '20 at 12:52
  • \$\begingroup\$ @Zibbobz And, there's a difference between a player whose character lacks leadership skills having their character divvy-up the party into roles, and that same player making recommendations either as part of a group-discussion ("Our characters all huddle together out of sight to discuss strategy before we attack. Right, Bob, what do you suggest our characters do?"), or to help a less tactically-minded player whose character does have leadership skills to better roleplay their character. \$\endgroup\$ – Chronocidal Jul 2 '20 at 13:20
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Most games assume broad basic competency

You tagged this system agnostic, but it does vary slightly by the system.

To start with, most systems I have used implicitly assume broad basic competency. Most games assume characters can read their native language. Most games in a modern setting assume that a character could drive on a highway under normal conditions without a special skill. While true, highly skilled leadership may be a different story, most characters are assumed to be able to competently organize an already willing group and give basic direction.

In other words, for things that could plausibly be called "basic life skills" appropriate to the setting, most games will encourage you to assume your character could approach it with reasonable competence. This is particularly true of the type of things you normally wouldn't roll for, such as giving basic directions to a subordinate, driving under normal circumstances, reading a native language, basic cleaning and cooking. Depending on the setting, slightly more nuanced things such as finding water and determining whether or not it is safe to drink or making a fire in the wilderness may or may not fall into this category.

Some systems explicitly allow for rolls for skills you don't have.

Above I mostly discussed things that would normally not require a roll. But some systems have explicit rules allowing certain things to be attempted without the relevant skill.

For instance, while basic driving may be assumed, advanced driving of the kind you may need to pursue a fleeing vehicle, escape a chasing vehicle or handle rough terrain may fall under a skill such as drive. But many systems would let someone without specific training roll to attempt one of those actions, though likely at a penalty compared to someone who was trained. What that penalty is would vary by the system.

In the event your system does not have specific rules to address a roll for an untrained skill, I would recommend simply applying your own best judgment as to whether the character should be able to make the attempt. Someone without specific survival training probably could rig up some sort of very basic water filter depending on the setting. Someone without specific leadership training can reasonably make an attempt to persuade, inspire, and organize others, especially if the group is small and already willing. Someone without intensive medical training probably could not perform an appendectomy and any attempt to do so without some sort of medical background should probably fail in a bloody fashion without the benefit of a roll.

Bottom Line

The system you are using may actually cover what to do if someone needs to attempt something they don't have a specific skill for. If it doesn't, then I recommend a middle ground between #1 and #3 on your possibilities.

When the action is something that someone without special training could reasonably attempt, let it roll (either in the sense of just letting it happen or letting them roll to see, depending on how hard it is and whether failure would be interesting). This is both more fun for everyone and more realistic. I attempt things in real life I don't have any training for. Sometimes it works, sometimes it makes things worse, but reality lets me try.

When the action is something that clearly requires significant training to even try, then just say no. I cannot even attempt to perform an appendectomy because I don't even have the background to identify an appendix. I cannot even attempt to read Mandarin because I don't know a single word of Mandarin.

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You need to draw lines between categories

There are different categories of tasks which are differentiated by their difficulty and by whether they depend mostly on knowledge or if they need something else (manual dexterity, practical experience etc.)

ADDO's answer for example mentions synthesis of a chemical compound. Having studied chemistry I can assure you that having a "recipe" with correct ratios is usually not enough to obtain good results.

In the end you can decide for yourself what goes where and it seems that you some ideas already.

Be strict about anything for which knowledge alone is insufficient.

Things like plastic surgery, flying aircraft, and synthesis of explosives for example cannot reasonably done by just knowing how to do it in theory.

Leading a small group of colleagues or building a simple shelter seem possible for the average person, especially with some relevant knowledge. I.e. there are other qualities than knowledge involved which lead to better results, but it is by no means generally impossible without specialized skills.

Require a skill for anything you determine to require much more than theoretical knowledge, especially if there is a skill for it in the system. For other tasks you should still require rolls if you feel that doing otherwise would step on other people's feet because they invested in the relevant skills. You can, however, give a bonus for ideas and ingenuity when asking for a check.

Avoid challenges that rely on ignoring general real world knowledge

If a thing is easily solvable with real world knowledge, you should not present it as a challenge. There are different opinions on metagaming, me, I just avoid challenges that are trivial using knowledge available to the average real world person. The approach to this is however a matter that should be discussed with everyone in the group.

If the player's real world knowledge is kinda halfway and /or concerns something that is expert knowledge you can again just require a check and give a bonus for ideas and ingenuity.

If you disagree with my approach on metagaming you can always require checks even if the players have relevant knowledge. In this case, however, you should establish in some simple rules what is general knowledge in your game world and what each character knows as specialized domains. Talk about it to your players.

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Learn to live with it (to an extent), but let the right player carry it out

I run into this problem a lot.

Whenever I do, I outright ask the player: And does your character have any idea how to do that?

Which sometimes gets a longwinded explaination about how he/she does know that, but most of the time is simply answered with "Well... no." That being said, take a guess what happens next. Yup, the player that has the highest value in the corresponding skill speaks up and is like "Oh yeah but mine probably would." Which is more than okay. At least it removes the spotlight problem you were mentioning. Also:

It usually gets balanced out by the opposite problem

You should not forget that the opposite problem exists as well and actually sort of removes possibilities for the players even though their characters would have that knowledge. I'm sure there are a million nature examples of things actual nature characters would know but neither the players nor the gm do and so nobody thinks of them.

Recently, a bard player of mine came up to me after a session and complained that I didn't let him roll persuasion when he went to a guard and said: "Does the monkey want a banana? Here, go fetch this banana!" and threw a rock somewhere. At first I sort of dismissed him, because it seemed so clear to me that that was a horrible attempt to convince the guard to leave his post. He then went on this whole rant about how unfair it was that a charisma player had to actually play out his stuff as a player while everyone else just said what they would do and rolled for it. And... well... he wasn't wrong. But saying "I try to convince the guard to leave his post." is not really that interesting.

Just like when the players are supposed to solve a puzzle, you wouldn't let the really dumb player playing the really smart wizard succeed with a simple "I roll intelligence to solve it." (Granted, depending on your style, he might get a hint this way).

Or the perfect leader with years and years of battle experience would probably not get away with a "I roll leadership to know what the best strategy for this battle is and then tell everyone what to do.". I mean... it would actually make sense for him to have this knowledge even if the player isn't too knowledgable about these things, but this one is just impossible to go with. The GM usually wouldn't even KNOW what the best strategy for the battle was. He could probably whip up a decent one (or make it decent by playing the opponents a certain way), but what's the point of something like that?

For me, keeping that in mind really helps me worry a little less about players working with information their characters might not actually have in other situations. I feel like it is pretty much balanced out.

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