[Author’s note: This started out as a couple of paragraphs about rolepaying, but morphed into something long and rambling… sorry about that.]
Generally speaking, roleplaying a character in an RPG is done through action; doing things and saying things that are appropriate to your character. However, the opposite is actually just as important; not doing things and not saying things that are inappropriate to your character. Of course, much of the time, this passes unremarked.. there is no particular need to call attention to the fact that your weedy wizard isn’t engaging multiple opponents in melee combat, as he presumably isn’t very good at that and therefore has no reason to do so. That said, occasionally a character might have an opportunity to do something that he is mechanically inclined towards, but that doesn’t make sense with his concept.
This is likely to arise as a result of two possible situations…
Firstly, the PC might have a minor ability as a result of his race/class/whatever, which doesn’t gel with his background. I once made a D&D bard and toyed with the idea of making him illiterate (“It’s hereditary… my grandfather was a dwarf.”). I didn’t run with it in the end, but an illiterate bard would still have the “read languages” thief skill at a low percentage, despite not being able to read.
Secondly, a skill or stat might encompass quite a wide spectrum of abilities, most of which make sense, but not quite all. My current Numenera PC is trained in the numenera (ancient, super advanced technology). This technically encompasses all aspects of the numenera; recognising it, using it, understanding the theory behind it, etc… However, my character’s background suggests that his training is a “Yeah, I’ve seen something similar before” kind of thing; recognising it and using it, but not necessarily having any of the theory.
[Side note: There is also a related situation where a character might not be good at something, but loses nothing by taking a shot at it; e.g. the strong characters have failed to break down a door, so the weak ones might as well roll and see if they get lucky. This doesn’t make sense in game, as a weak character is not going to bother trying to break down a door that someone stronger has just failed at. Some, though not all, of the points below would apply to this situation too, so it’s worth having in mind.]
In these situations, there is a balance to be had between the mechanics of the game and the playing of the character. Fully roleplaying the character would involve saying, “I don’t care that my character sheet says he has a 5% chance to read any language… he’s illiterate, so he can’t.” Similarly, my Numenera PC should simply refuse to use his numenera training for any rolls that are more theoretical or scientific in nature. Obviously, the downside to doing this is that you are voluntarily making things harder for yourself (and, crucially, the group), so a couple of points should be considered before going too far down this route.
1) You should still be able to fill your primary role in the party. It’s one thing to have an illiterate bard who refuses to use one of his more minor abilities; it’s quite another to be, say, the sole party thief and come up with a background that precludes you from picking locks or disarming traps (or, heaven forbid, a cleric who refuses to heal). This is not to say that you can’t possibly play that character, but you need to at least work with your GM and other players to ensure that you’re not heading into an adventure with hundreds of locks that they’re expecting you to pick. This leads into the second point…
2) You need to know your group. My Numenera group is very character and story driven – they will have no issues with me occasionally foregoing a minor advantage, if it makes sense for the character. However, if you’re playing in an event game and you add a frustrating half hour to the game because you refused to make a dungeoneering check, you’re not going to be very popular.
Chances are I’m either preaching to the choir (if you’re a roleplayer) or waffling like an idiot (if you’re a powergamer), but this is my soapbox and I get to pick my topics… so cast off the shackles of that high dexterity and refuse to be the party scout, because even though you’ve got a better than average stealth skill as a result of natural talent, your character background is that of a librarian. (Not the greatest rallying cry, I’ll admit… for some reason, my spectacular good looks have failed to translate into natural talent at public speaking.)