Biblyon the Great

This zine is dedicated to articles about the fantasy role-playing game Gods & Monsters, and other random musings.

Gods & Monsters Fantasy Role-Playing

Beyond here lie dragons

Mental mismatch

Jerry Stratton, October 20, 2010

A common question that used to come up on Usenet and other old forums was, “how do I play characters with very low mental abilities when the others are normal?” Just recently, the question came up again on RPG Stack Exchange, and that reminded me I wanted to write about it.

Working with mental abilities is always tricky, because players make decisions for their characters. Unlike physical abilities, which can be completely separate from player ability, mental abilities are shared. In games like Gods & Monsters, players, not characters, are expected to solve riddles and work through problems.

… when players use player knowledge as character knowledge, and it makes reasonable sense, allow it. (The Adventure Guide’s Handbook)

But die rolls also matter for mental abilities, and players will need to role-play their character’s mismatched stats even as they maneuver the character through the game using their own knowledge and skills.

The Absent-Minded Professor: “The Forgetful Professor” by Per Lindroth, 1929.; intelligence

The easiest example, and perhaps most common, is a character with high intelligence and low charisma; this is the genius who doesn’t know how to interact socially. Your stereotypical genius almost always follows this template. They’re very smart, uncharismatic, and either lacking in wisdom or just average. Mitch Taylor is, I’m sure, a great guy. But he’s never going to be a leader of people. In the same movie, Chris Knight is a little off-stereotype. He’s smart and charismatic; a natural leader. He’s seriously lacking in wisdom—but he’s working on it, which is the beginning of wisdom.

“There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy.”

“That’s all he did. He loved solving problems, he loved coming up with the answers. But, he thought that the answers were the answer for everything. Wrong. All Science—no Philosophy.”

We have many examples of such high-intelligence/low-something-else characters in fiction1. But what does it mean to have a high wisdom and a low charisma, a high charisma and a low wisdom, or a high wisdom and a low intelligence? These are more difficult, because we don’t really think as much about charisma and wisdom in real life2.

Sometimes I do get the feeling that people ask these questions because they want an excuse to act out, to be the annoying character. I get this feeling most when the character in question has a low charisma. A player on Usenet long ago created an AD&D3 ranger with charisma 6, intelligence 3, and asked:

The problem I’m having is how to keep his Good alignment. He is too dumb (I think) to think about what is good and what is bad: a man in a bar accidentally bumps into him, he think it’s an attack and hits the man who dies because of the wounds. Is this evil or not? I know that he won’t do evil willingly but what if accidents happen where people get killed/hurt by his actions? He’ll just think the man attacked him and that it was the guy’s own fault.

What the player left out: the character’s wisdom must have been at least 14. That’s the minimum wisdom for a ranger in AD&D.

A good rule of thumb with characters like this is that the abilities shouldn’t be interpreted in such a way that the character becomes unplayable. Interpret the stats in a way that makes the game more fun. Play your character such that your strange numbers mean more adventure, not less, and more fun—for everyone.

In this case, other posters replied very astutely that “It would take an incredible amount of convincing to get him to believe that someone meant him harm… He naively assumes the most innocent motive for every action, because he’s not socially ept enough to become cynical.”

This is exactly right. A character with a low charisma and intelligence and a high wisdom won’t have anything to get in the way of doing good. There are no rationalizations in that character, no excuses.

A character with a low charisma is a pushover in social interactions: they lack social skills and are unable to take charge in any gathering. A character with a high wisdom is adept at navigating moral questions. That’s why it’s the requirement for prophets in Gods & Monsters, and clerics in D&D. Intelligence helps sorcerors learn; agility helps thieves sneak. Wisdom helps prophets do the right thing. A character with a low charisma and high wisdom may not get along with other people well; a character with a low intelligence and a high wisdom may not be rational or able to learn. But they will know about life, and will know that it’s the choices a person makes that make a life well-lived.

A mismatch between charisma and either intelligence or wisdom is relatively easy. The character is wise, or intelligent, but is also socially inept; or, the character is socially very adept, but just not very smart/wise. The character of Gilderoy Lockhart in Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets is a great recent example of this type of character. Gilderoy knew exactly what to say and how to act to influence anyone he felt like influencing; but his intelligence was probably only average, and his wisdom was low. He mistook adulation for accomplishment, a strong marker for low wisdom.

Another example of high charisma but low intelligence and/or wisdom is the stereotypical gang leader. They’re leaders; they know how to manipulate people and use that ability to form a gang around them—usually someone in the stereotypical gang is stronger than the leader, and someone else is smarter than the leader. But the gang leader maintains their position through manipulation.

In all cases, a high score means that the character knows stuff. The difference is in what the character knows. High charisma means that the character knows how to deal with people and can manipulate them. High intelligence means that the character knows how to reason logical problems and has the skill to learn facts necessary to solve them. High wisdom means that the character knows the right thing to do and has the courage to follow through on their convictions.

Maybe it will help to define the mental abilities colloquially. Each of them is a kind of “smarts”.

Street smarts. Street smarts are about interactions: how to manipulate or avoid gangs, how to properly appease the street thugs and ringleaders, and where to find sympathetic folks for assistance or recuperation. Charisma is less about reality than about the perception of reality.
Book smarts. Book smarts are about rational thought, about learning facts, making charts, weighing options. The character with a high intelligence knows that two and two make four, even in unfamiliar circumstances.
Life smarts. Life’s choices require intuition, a philosophy, and principles. Life requires the courage to do the right thing, and the conviction that the choice should be followed through. The wise person knows that there is a right and a wrong in the universe, and the distinction is not difficult to make.

In many ways, it’s having more than one high mental ability that is the truly difficult character to play. A character with high intelligence and high wisdom will find conflict between the rational choice and the right choice, just as the character with the moral code of Chaotic Good will find conflict between freedom and caring. The character with the high charisma and the high intelligence may have to choose between being smart and looking smart.

The character with mismatched abilities is easier: focus on the ability that the character “has” rather than the ability that the character doesn’t have.

  1. And probably in reality, but I don’t want to get into that here.

  2. Charisma is often relegated to little more than appearance, despite its importance to great movements throughout history.

  3. I’m assuming second edition AD&D, because first edition also had minimums for the other mental stats.

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  2. Wandering monsters ->