This might be a broad topic, so let me focus on one scenario, where I would like to hear which actions and methods fellow GMs use.

A fantasy campaign runs along. BLUE plays a character who is dumb as a door, but good at fighting. The mechanics of the game reward player with combat techniques and lots of hitpoint, but mark out that the character simply isn't very bright.

GREEN chooses to play a bardic character, wise in the ways of the world, and witty as the day is long, but clearly no match compared to BLUE.

Now, in real life, BLUE is a well read fan of literature and the game lore, where GREEN isn't that strong on reading in person, but is a good chap around the table.

GM has prepared a series of riddles and clues, and explains these to the players. BLUE quickly figures out the answers to these, and sort of blurts them out. This happens from time to time, and puts me in a bit of a bend, because the riddles were meant to be "for" GREEN, while BLUE does the muscle work.

And here is my question. Of course, skills like swordplay or running fast won't be carried into the game itself, since were playing tabletop, but out-of-game skills that players carry can easily make a character figure out things, they wouldn't normally figure out themselves.

How do you bar real world skills from throwing the party synergy out of balance?

And as the GM, I don't want to hide the riddle behind the rules and go "The villain says a riddle, roll Wisdom to solve it."

Riddles are just the most common place where it's obvious that skills shine through. But it also carries a great deal in the plot as a whole, if the players feel who is going to backstab them, who might be telling lies, and generally seeing the bigger picture.

How do you convince the characters to hold information back, when figuring stuff out is clearly the advantage to the group. Once said out loud, it's too late for the GM to say "No no, GREENs character needs to figure this one out himself..."

Both game mechanical, social and psychological solutions are welcome.

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    \$\begingroup\$ related: this, this, and this. \$\endgroup\$
    – Miniman
    Commented Oct 9, 2014 at 21:59
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    \$\begingroup\$ 1) Are the players having fun? 2) You say "GREEN's character needs to figure this one out himself", but not it's player? Then could you just have GREEN's character figure out the answer, even if BLUE's player found it? \$\endgroup\$ Commented Oct 9, 2014 at 22:25
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    \$\begingroup\$ Having the self-possessed bard get beaten to the punch by the dim-witted barbarian sounds like a good opportunity for in-game comedy. :-) \$\endgroup\$ Commented Oct 10, 2014 at 13:20

7 Answers 7


I've run into this problem a few times at my table. I found that the two most effective ways to retain the realism and our perception of character are either to explain it with fluff or make both player skill and character skill important.

Explain it with Fluff

You have to keep in mind that the characters in most parties most likely think in very different ways. Just because the barbarian can't understand the theories the wizard spouts off doesn't necessarily mean that he's dumb. In fact, his hard lifestyle might have made him a lot more practical at solving practical problems than the wizard who has been shut up in his study for the past who knows how many years. Similarly, even though the dwarf may only have an INT score of 8, he's spent his life working stone, he has a knowledge base that nobody else in the party does. Perhaps you can explain the characters sudden epiphany with one of these devices.

If you really know your group well, you might know their particular puzzle solving strengths. In that case, make the puzzle you intend for them to solve have a theme their character might know about. This takes a very good knowledge of your players but if you can pull it off, everyone will stay immersed and nobody will every be the wiser towards your cunning ruse.

Combining Character Talents and Player Skill

If you enjoy using mechanics more than fluff to solve this problem, consider making these riddles a partial skill challenge. While posing the question, make sure to give some fairly obvious hints that knowledge in certain skills may prove useful to finding the solution. For example, maybe a riddle has an allusion to some hero in the lore that only the bard with his expertise in history would know. Once he catches on and makes a history check, you can tell him some information from the story that makes the answer much easier to find. If you want to make it a particularly hard challenge, make it so that multiple of these hidden clues have to be discovered so that the players can figure out the puzzle.

In the end, if none of these work, it isn't a massive problem. Sure it didn't make much sense as far as characters go, but the plot is advancing and everyone will soon get into the proper mindset again. It's far worse to make a barrier to plot advancement than to see one easily overcome by the wits of your players.


If you're into it; you can write down the riddle in multiple descriptions and give the appropriate one to each player. The description for a character who is dumb as a door might be little more than "you see weird symbols on the wall" without even drawing them in the image (thus not even allowing the player to figure it out unless the others talk him through it, just as it'd realistically would go in such a situation.

However, the really smart characters would not only get the full picture, they might even get a bunch of hints. Hell, if they're really smart you might even just write out the answer at the bottom for them.

One of the key ideas of these riddles is that people perceive the puzzle differently; by giving each player the same starting information the players can all see the puzzle the same, even though the characters would not. By changing the initial information, you get closer to how it'd play out in a real life situation, where some people see more connections between elements than others.

  • \$\begingroup\$ Straight up giving the answer to the smartest player seems a bit flat for my taste, but I see the logic in obscuring the components they need. \$\endgroup\$
    – Nils Munch
    Commented Oct 10, 2014 at 14:48
  • \$\begingroup\$ I like this approach in principle but in practice it sounds like way too much work for me as a DM. +1, but would be better if you could give suggestions for streamlining it. \$\endgroup\$ Commented Oct 10, 2014 at 23:10

First, figure out why the puzzle exists in your game in the first place.

  • If the goal of the puzzle is to challenge or entertain the players directly, then focus on that and don't worry about their character resources so much — those are secondary to the experience you're going for in the moment.

    • You may be thinking, "But what about game balance?" Most systems that strive for balance really don't really treat the permission to "roleplay" smarter as a balancing factor. In many versions of D&D, for example, every stat can be a combat stat; there's really not much reason to worry about forcing behavioral restrictions on low-Int characters, because Intelligence is already just good by itself.

    • You can use the skill check as a fallback when the players can't resolve the situation using their own wits alone. Give players some time to process what's going on first, then let them roll if they're well and truly stuck (probably with greater risk of some sort than if they'd just solved it for real).

    • You can also incorporate game stats as a way of achieving sub-goals of the challenge. E.g. once you figure out the pattern of the whirling blades someone still has to dash through them to get to the other side.

  • If the goal of the puzzle is to provide a game-mechanical obstacle for the characters, it may be worth asking yourself why a puzzle — which tends to be a very metagamey experience — is there in the first place. I mean, does it actually enhance the atmosphere to have a lich's vault unlocked by sudokus?

    • If the puzzle is just there in-fiction for "flavor," (Door of Turin style, for instance) and not intended to be a puzzle for the players themselves, you can just make it unsolvable at the real-world level: something that relies on unique knowledge (e.g. as mediated by a skill check) rather than mere wordplay and logic.

There are 2 sides to this argument.

  1. Player's ability to solve problems are independent of stats and should be treated as such.
  2. Good roleplayers should roleplay problems, independent of the player's ability.

both of these are valid arguments, but this is where "GM Identity" kicks in. Each GM will have a different answer to this problem, and that's why every GM has a differnt style of GMing. IMHO let the players do what they want with their characters, but encourage good roleplaying whenever possible. Inevitably, the player will insert their personal ideas and abilities into the character. This is unavoidable. (even the best roleplayers I know fall victim to this.)

Maybe bring this particular issue up with your group. Discussion always leads to results and as a GM, your players want the game to be as fun as you do, so see what they have to say (just don't insult their roleplaying. Be friendly.)


Would you expect a fighter to be played only but someone that is good at fighting? We use dice and numbers to get around this problem. The same is true of smart characters. If it is an real in game problem use dice. If you want the player to sort out a problem then you have to let them all do it and just say the smart character actual solved it in the game world even if the player did not in the real world. We let players plan combats out of game for there characters and let the non tactical player take advantage of this even if there character should have been able to do it on there own, this is no different.


Two methods come to mind, and they are not mutually exclusive.

First, provide a "Good Roleplaying" bonus. Maybe it's an XP multiplier at the end of a session based on player votes for best RP, or a spot award of a handful of XP at your discretion. Maybe it's a Force/Fate/Luck/etc point. This may help more for Blue.

Second, allow relevant checks for hints/suggestions, of varying quality or quantity based on degree of success. This could help Green in your scenario.

So you lead in with the old "4 legs in the morning" riddle and Blue blurts out the right answer. You're well within your rights to ask him to check Int to see if his CHARACTER knows that. Let's assume he fails. Green COULD take the OOC knowledge, but then, if you've set the precedent of good-RP awards, he should know that's out of the question.

Hope this helps!

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    \$\begingroup\$ I don’t understand why using another player’s suggestion would disqualify somebody from an RP award, especially if you’re using the suggestion to help play your character’s intelligence appropriately. \$\endgroup\$ Commented Oct 10, 2014 at 22:34
  • \$\begingroup\$ Sure, "salt to taste" as they say. It seems somehow disingenuous to me, but I can't really put my finger on why. \$\endgroup\$
    – Smithers
    Commented Oct 10, 2014 at 23:58

Make the Riddles Really Hard!

Use vocabulary that no one knows, or leave out parts that are almost necessary for the solving of the puzzle. Then characters can roll Knowledge skills for a chance to get hints. The hints would be fairly large ones, depending on the roll, and give enough information for GREEN to solve it, but without them, BLUE has very little if any chance to get it right. Make it hard enough that Deep Blue could not guess it, but with the hints, almost anyone could.

Just be sure to give the hints to the GREEN only. Have them written on sticky notes or some other method. He's welcome to share what his character figures out with the rest of the group, and then BLUE or another player may still jump in and solve it, but GREEN gets the spotlight as the enlightener of the group, and the skills he spent on Knowledge are not wasted.

PS. I know that Watson was the Jeopardy one and Deep Blue was the chess one, but the pun was irresistible.


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