I have played roleplaying games now for about 10 years and there is one problem that is like some kind of ever-present white noise. I have not found a really good solution for it.

When player play against each other, using non fighting skills like Diplomacy or Sense Motive, they very often do not play the values on their sheets. There is one guy who is (in general) just good with talking but playing a stupid character, and another playing a Bard or something similar but who is just not good with talking. Or perhaps there is a riddle to solve in the game. This always ends up with players talking about it as if they are themselves and not their characters.

The problem that emerges from this is one of balance. Those who put all their points into fighting have a big advantage compared to those who put their points into 'communication' skills.

I would like to know how to solve this.

  • \$\begingroup\$ @Michael That sounds like an answer rather than helping clarify the question. If you have an answer to offer, please write one below in the Answers section. Thanks! \$\endgroup\$ Jan 24, 2017 at 16:27
  • \$\begingroup\$ There are really two questions here, with different solutions: One is about PVP, the other is about party-collaborative puzzle solving. They really ought to be severed, in my opinion. \$\endgroup\$
    – Novak
    Jan 24, 2017 at 18:17

6 Answers 6


First of all, puzzles usually don't really fit into the rules of most games. Players don't solve them by using the mechanic abilities of their characters, they are solving them by using their own deductive reasoning. That's why I would recommend you to design challenges, not puzzles. A puzzle can be a nice distraction, but if puzzle solving becomes the main activity in your game, you don't need to roll characters.

Regarding roleplaying social interactions: It is usually far more fun and far more immersive to actually roleplay how you would convince an NPC to cooperate with you than to just roll a die ("You have to abandon your evil plan for world domination because.... Ha! 20! You MUST do what I say."). But if you resolve all verbal interactions with pure roleplaying, then social skills aren't relevant, and those players who built their characters especially for these situation are punished.

There are two ways to apply social character skills in a meaningful way without preventing roleplaying dialogs:

  • Roll before the dialog, and make the roll impact the initial attitude of the NPC. When the player rolls bad, the NPC will be distrusting and unreasonable. When they roll good, they will be friendly and easy to convince.

    This works especially good for price negotiations. When a PC wants to buy or sell something, look up the recommended price in the rulebook, and then increase or decrease it with a fixed function based on the outcome of the player's skill check. Make that the price the NPC believes the item is worth and then haggle in-character.

    This doesn't work very good, though, if your game system has a wide variety of social skills. It is sometimes hard to predict in advance what skill(s) will be applicable to a conversation before you know what arguments the players are going to make.

  • Roll after the dialog. Listen to what the player has to say, rate how convincing this would sound from the perspective from the NPC, and use that rating to give the player's character the challenge rating for the roll. If the player made a really convincing argument, they get an easy roll. If their argument is obviously flawed, their character will need some really great social skills to sell it.
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    \$\begingroup\$ The 2nd option is the one I tend to use. +1 \$\endgroup\$
    – BlueMoon93
    Jan 24, 2017 at 11:52
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    \$\begingroup\$ Were I running into this problem, I'd probably roll the player's skill check in secret and let them talk it out without knowing it. Then they would be free to come up with their argument, and the roll would only affect how the NPC reacted to it. \$\endgroup\$ Jan 24, 2017 at 18:55

"Or let me give another example. There is a riddle to solve in the game. This ever ends up player talking about it as if they are themself and not they characters."

Make the riddle something that real players wouldn't know, then this isn't a problem anymore.

For example:

You see a carving of farmers working a field. Above them is a hole that looks like something can be put in. On the table are glyphs with symbols on them.

Let the players roll knowledge and skill checks to figure out what the glyphs do, or detect scratches or burns on the glyphs, etc... When they finally get the information that Pelor is the God of the Sun, if the warrior with low intelligence suggests that glyph, that's not too far out of character. While the warrior might not have initially known what the glyph was, they are certainly smart enough to know that the sun makes sense above a field.

To sum it up for next time:

  • Create a puzzle/challenge like before
  • Make a few of the elements in the puzzle unsolvable without in-game knowledge
  • Make the player characters use their skills to solve these elements

By doing this, you can guarantee that the players cannot use meta-knowledge, and if they do, it's very obvious.


It seems like you're talking about an issue with different paradigms of play. You want Abstract Game Mechanics, where all problems are solved by the characters, not the players, even ones which the players can solve; whereas your players go by Fiat Gated Ingenuity, where the players solve problems, sometimes using their own skills, sometimes using their characters' skills as their physical representation in the game world.

The solution here is, as usual with most such cases, talking to the players. Explain that you'd want them to direct the characters instead of using them as tools, so that the characters can solve problems on their own. Maybe the players are doing this just because they're used to that paradigm, not necessarily because they find it more fun. In that case, everything's easy and you can just switch to AGM. Otherwise, there'll be some compromising required.

The bottom line for AGM is that all attempts at resolving a conflict need a mechanical representation - be it hitting a kobold with an axe, trying to convince a king to lend you aid in a quest or figuring out the proper placement of colour-coded keys on a pedestal. Try always calling for a check and not taking no for an answer.

  • \$\begingroup\$ The paradigms of play article is nice. First time I've read it, but it is very thought provoking and helps me analyze my own style of DM'ing. \$\endgroup\$
    – Aviose
    Jan 24, 2017 at 16:40
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    \$\begingroup\$ @Aviose The blog in general is pretty good. I've binge-read it in about a week and got a lot from it. It's also written by a user of this site, Magician. \$\endgroup\$ Jan 24, 2017 at 16:43

I'm convinced that the "social skills" of a character does not affect on what he says, but how he says it -- body language, eye contact, voice intonation etc.

You can have those skills but at the same time say dumb things and you can say smart things but look nervous or non-confident while saying it.

Imagine that when a player rolls a bad number during a comunication skill test it means that his character is saying what he says (even if it's the smartest thing in the world) but not in a convincing way: he's looking sideways, his arms are shaking and he's speaking low like he's ashamed. Even if what he says sounds pretty convincing, the way he says kills it entirely.

Puzzles, and problems solved through intelligence.

If it's a puzzle that involves visual interaction, you can describe things diferently to characters with diferent levels of intelligence and knowledge.

  1. to the barbarian: "you see a strange rune that looks kinda like a dragon"

    to the mage: "you see the sigil of the lost city drankenhëin"

  2. barbarian: "you see a pillar with a horizontal pole attached to its middle"

    mage: "you see a rotative lever"

  3. barbarian: "you see a bunch of weird icons in the wall"

    mage: "you clearly see a series of mathematic symbols disposed in a logical way where... (explain the complicated part)"

This approach presents the same cue through different levels of understanding about the problem.

  • \$\begingroup\$ Please review the edit I made to make sure it means what you intended. I corrected some spelling errors and added some format to make it easier to read \$\endgroup\$ Jan 24, 2017 at 14:24

The best solution I've found for this is broadly applicable, but came through another game entirely: Exalted.

Exalted player characters are so influential on the setting that they warp its internal reality. This is laid most thoroughly bare in leading groups/cities/nations: any setup works. If the PCs set up capitalism, it works. If they set up communism, it works. If they set up a theocracy, it works. Kleptocracy, gerontocracy, radical anarchism, totalitarianism, whatever, it all just works because their personal puissance makes it so. They can even set up joke societies, like Friend Computer's, if tat's what they're into, and those societies will work! They still need to explain how they are ordering their society, but only so the storyteller can describe the results appropriately. (I've simplified this description significantly, but it's essentially accurate)

Exalted also has "social combat," which operates in a way that parallels physical combat. You make arguments, you can flurry multiple arguments, you can study your opponents' arguments (aim), etc. This is all resolved using pure dice pools, just like regular combat. Like the nation-building stuff, you do need to describe what arguments you're making for narrative continuity, but whether those arguments are effective is resolved by the dice, not by the storyteller's willingness to accept them. This can lead to some silly moments, but that's okay! Sometimes very persuasive people (or regular people with gullible followers) will convince people of zany, off-the-wall ideas, and it is a natural and correct that they be able to do so.

(I personally, in real life, once convinced someone that all steak is made of coconuts. Steak. The thing defined by its origin in cows.)

You should import this approach wholesale to any game crunchy enough to support it. Ask your players to describe what arguments/bluffs/diplomacy/jokes their characters are making, but let the dice decide whether those arguments are effective.

(For intra-PC roleplay, just stay out of it. If the smart bard somehow finds the dumb barbarian very convincing, consider it a character choice and move on.)


I have more experience with this on the player end than on the GM end. But one thing to remember is that the GM can (and sometimes should) filter information to the players according to their base stats/skills, and should certainly filter the results of their actions to the game world according to those stats/skills.

If a character with low social skills and no decent knowledge of the society he's in (say, a stereotypical barbarian or an obnoxious character who happens to be a foreigner) then don't give him the information that comes with it. Where an oblivious outsider sees a vaguely exuberant crowd milling in a chaotic market, a streetwise outsider might see two factions steadily provoking each other, and a cultural insider might know something about those two factions and what they're likely to do.

Trouble comes in, potentially, when oblivious outsider tries to use information not really available to him, because he overheard you saying it to a different character.

This can be mitigated at the player-GM level by gently reminding the player in question that he doesn't have that information because you didn't give it to him; it is not common knowledge. It can also be mitigated by filtering the character's results against his stats/skills, or against die rolls influenced by the same. If someone is really seriously overplaying his characters' communicative abilities, I feel free to treat their eloquent monologues as "Well that's how it sounded in your head. Apparently the crowd heard Bludthunder the Barbarian ranting incoherently about faction politics he doesn't understand. Streetfox, you're not sure if he realizes it, but the King's Loyalists might have just settled on who is going to serve as an example, today."

(It's important to make clear what you're doing, though. And it's important to realize that I just gave an EXTREME example of that technique.)

When done right and with cooperative players, this is highly effective. But I will also point out that it can be REALLY frustrating for the player at first. It steps right up close to the line of player agency in ways that "I run the grue through with my sword!" "No, actually, it just bites your sword arm off...." doesn't. I have a long-standing character in an on-going game with a deep deficit along these lines. I fully embrace it and occasionally point out to the GMs that I intend not to remedy it in the near future. And it still frustrates the hell out of me sometimes. It is strong medicine.

This is related to this answer, but emphasizes the results of filtering information in the social domain as well as the puzzle domain.


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