RPT#120 – 5 Firewalling Tips For Game Masters
A Brief Word From Johnn
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People who haven’t played roleplaying games before are often unfamiliar with the concept of out-of-character (OoC) information. Unfortunately, it’s such a deeply ingrained part of roleplaying that many game masters (GMs) never explain it – it’s assumed that everyone knows what it is and how to deal with it. Because of this, it’s easy for a player to end up breaking the rules or “cheating” without even knowing what he’s doing wrong. And again, because GMs assume that everyone knows that using OoC information is wrong, they might never explain why they’re angry.
This article is for all of those GMs who don’t think to explain the concept of firewalling to their new players, or whose players don’t quite get it. It’s also for those GMs whose players just have trouble separating player and character knowledge no matter how hard they try.
- Define Your Terms
Make sure your players know what out-of-character information and firewalling are right from the start. Make sure your players also know whether or not use of OoC information is considered cheating. To you it may be obvious that this is cheating, but not all GMs play this way. If you want your players to play your way, then you have to tell them what your way is! To help, here are the definitions I’ve collected:
Out-of-character information is information that a player knows that his character doesn’t. A character exists within a world of his own. He has eyes and ears. He hears things, figures things out, sees things, is told things. He does not see through his player’s eyes or hear through his player’s ears. This means that the player might learn things about the game that his character has no means of knowing.
Example: A party of player characters (PCs) has split up. Within the game world they are in totally different locations, even though the players sit around the same table. Group 1 spies on someone in a park, and group 2 knocks on someone else’s door all the way across town. Each group cannot see or hear what is happening to the other group. Thus, when group 1 is attacked (and of course, the players know about this because they’re sitting at the same table), group 2 has no way to know about it. If a member of group 2 runs off to help group 1, then his player is using OoC information, and in most games this would be considered cheating.
Firewalling is one name for the process by which a player ignores any information his character doesn’t have. When he firewalls, he bases his character’s decisions, thoughts, and actions only upon information that the character has, not upon game information that he as a player happens to have.
In some situations firewalling is more difficult than in others. Let’s take the example from above. It might be easy for the player to convince himself that his character should have heard from group 1 by now, and thus they must be in trouble. The more comfortable the player becomes with firewalling, the easier it will be for him to figure out what his character would think or do – as opposed to what he would like his character to think or do.
Talk to your players. Don’t assume that they’re just trying to cheat. A lot of people have bad memories or just have trouble separating character knowledge from player. Still others just don’t quite “get” the concept of firewalling at all. Because of this, you’re better off trying to help the player firewall well than simply punishing them. Besides, even if the player is trying to cheat, this way of doing things lets him know that you’re watching, you’ve noticed, and you won’t let him keep doing it – so it can still help.
- Instead of getting angry when players make mistakes with OoC information, calmly remind them that they don’t have the information they’re trying to use.
- After the session, remind the player that he needs to better separate player and character information. (If it’s a rare problem then you don’t need to give the extra reminder.)
- If this is a recurring problem, ask the player what makes it difficult to keep track of the difference. Suggest that he keep track of when and how these problems arise so that he can spot and address any trends.
- Ask if there’s anything you can do to help make firewalling easier on him. There might be things you can do to help.
- Use Your Mechanics
Sometimes it can be hard to tell whether a player would have figured something out if they hadn’t used OoC information. Sometimes it can be hard for a player to figure it out!
For example, your current plot is all about this one big mystery that the characters are puzzling out. They’re picking up clues, putting them together, and drawing conclusions. Are the three clues they’ve found so far enough to cause them to reach the conclusion they’ve reached, or did they only reach it because they found out about a fourth clue out-of-character?
In cases like this, use the solution provided by your game – mechanics.
If the matter is some sort of clever puzzle-solving or clue- solving issue, then use an Intelligence, Wits, or Wisdom check, or whatever appropriate mechanic your game possesses. If the matter is one of memory, Intelligence is probably appropriate. If the check succeeds, the character is assumed to have figured things out on his own. If it fails, he didn’t, and he can’t make another check until he obtains more information or otherwise stumbles across something that might help him make the appropriate mental connections.
- Keep Players and OoC Information Separate
There are various things that you, as GM, can do to keep players who have trouble firewalling away from information they shouldn’t have. Most of these suggestions aren’t things you want to be doing constantly, as they can disrupt the flow of the game or leave players bored for a while.
- Split players into separate rooms when the party splits up. Address the groups of players separately. This is probably only necessary when the characters are doing noteworthy things or getting into trouble.
- Hand out information that only one player should know via note-passing. Again, this is probably only necessary for plot-relevant information.
- Have those players who have trouble firewalling bring headsets. When you’re about to do something that they really shouldn’t know about, tell them to put the headset on, turn up the volume a bit, and press play. (This suggestion courtesy of Ilya Bely.)
- Address Specific Problems
Sometimes a player’s troubles with firewalling stem from a specific area. For example, he might have trouble thinking things through carefully during stressful, adrenalized, quick-moving situations (such as combat). In this case, try giving him a little more time to think things through. Don’t rush him. Remind him to take his time and think.
Keeping track of mistakes and the circumstances they happen under can help to pinpoint trouble-spots like this. This is an amount of effort that probably isn’t necessary unless a player is having serious, recurrent problems.
Everyone has trouble separating character and player knowledge at one point or another. For some people these are relegated to brief moments before they realize what they’re doing and correct their own mistakes. For others, these are frequent problems that they have trouble seeing. Help your players – make firewalling easier on them, and work with them to make things easier and more fun for everyone.
Thanks for the great tips Heather!
Be sure to check out Heather’s web site for more great tips and GM articles. She’s a professional game writer and also writes for fun. Let’s hope she graces our ezine with more tips again. http://www.burningvoid.com/
Here’s a reader request that I’d like us to mull over and give our two cents on:
“What allowances do you make for a brand new player coming into an existing game, and how do you handle a player who wants to switch characters? Do you distinguish between a player whose character died in the course of the game and one that is simply sick of the character they have?”
As a bit of a background, the reader is GMing a campaign where the player wanted to play a new character but demanded that they get the experience points earned by their previous PC. Do you agree? How do you introduce new characters in your existing campaigns then, and how do you deal with the issues of game balance and power levels (i.e. a weak character accompanying more experienced characters)?
Email me at:
- Use NPCs To Test Optional, Variant, And House Rules
From: Andrew P.
OK, so you’ve just bought that new source book, with all these neat skills, weapons, ideas, and such, but how do you bring them into an existing campaign?
Firstly, very slowly and with great care. Generally speaking, any change should be treated with care and, if possible, use an NPC to facilitate the inclusion into the game.
It’s never wise to give a PC a new power or skill because they won’t give it up, and you’ll be stuck with it if you don’t like what it does to your game. With an NPC, you can have them use the new item or rule and see how it works first. Players’ reactions are also worth noting.
I always believe in NOT handing anything to the PCs on a plate. Don’t have an NPC join the party and happily teach the PCs his style just because they asked.
Another tip related to this, for newbie GMs, is to keep the starting rules simple. Don’t allow TOO many of those optional rules into the game just because a player likes them. If possible, restrict race and class choices as much as possible to start with. Maybe even keep the PCs restricted to non-magic using humans.
- NPC Rivals
In a starting campaign, it’s always a great GM tool and player motivator to have a competing NPC party of similar interests in the area they operate in. Have the NPC adventuring party take the jobs the players didn’t and the PCs can hear of their great successes afterwards. Next time they see the other party interested in a ‘job’ the PCs will go out of their way to steal the glory away from them!
- Monster Design Advice
From: Joeri T.
I personally believe that the challenge as Game Master lies not in the dreaming up of abilities for your monsters, but in integrating the right combination of them in a believable, non-world destroying, adversary.
The right monster is usually tailored to the PCs with a good mix of combat prowess, special abilities, a few innate special abilities and any spell casting it might need to hamper the PCs. This mix should blend in with the monster, its surroundings and the story line.
If the PCs run into a sphinx, for example, it should not appear in the middle of a crowded city, but a desert would do nice. It should also have a reason to be there, say guarding a pass with an old path. All these factors raise questions of their own and must provide answers to satisfy you and your PCs.
- Who made the sphinx guard that path?
- Why is the path so important?
- How long ago was the sphinx placed there?
- Encouraging Players To Provide PC Backgrounds
Regarding ‘Have Players Write Their Character Stories’, I have a sure-fire way of encouraging players to provide detailed, typed character backgrounds: offer them additional points before the game. I call these Character Creation Points.
Keep them reasonable. PCs can get up to 5% more points from whatever their original allotment was. In Champions, characters start with 250 pts so I reward 0-10 points; it’s not enough for a new Power but it’s enough to increase one substantially. In Vampire, I reward 0-5 points so the PC can’t get a whole new Discipline. It’s also nice if you provide a typed response to the players, explaining why you made your decision.
Character Creation Points have always worked for me. By submitting the character to the Storyteller for approval, players tend to pay more attention to whether the character fits the story. The process also opens up the lines of communication so you can discuss the character’s development later.
- Plot Twist Idea
From: Aki H.
Have the party prepare for a long dungeon crawl…hiring an NPC guide, buying a map, loading up on equipment, whatever. And then hit the party with the biggest and meanest trick/ creature/ambush only an instant after they walk in the front door, rather than saving it for the end.
Could provide a very interesting shock effect, catch a party unawares, and give a very misleading image of what they are in for.
- MAC D&D 3E Utility
I just discovered this: http://homepage.mac.com/crystalballmac/
I had looked for Mac/Mac OS X DM tools and didn’t find any. Then I stumbled on this by accident. It’s really thorough although the interface needs work.