Wednesday, April 11, 2018

Don't Be Yourself

No matter how smart you think you are
When we play D&D, it's kind of expected that our characters will be stronger, faster, more dexterous, hardier, and better at fighting than us. It's really obvious: we are sitting around a table playing with dice and paper, not fighting dragons or leaping chasms.

But when we're sitting around the table, we are using our brains and personalities. And thus, it's difficult to separate the mental abilities of our characters from our own.

Today, I'm going to go through the three mental stats in D&D and explain how you can play a character whose Intelligence, Wisdom, or Charisma is higher or lower than your own. This can apply to players, or to DMs trying to create NPCs. It can also help DMs determine what sort of information they should have available to their players.

Don't Be Yourself: Intelligence

We'll start off with one of the most controversial ones: Intelligence. Intelligence is the ability to gather and retain information. I want to give a baseline for what I mean by levels of intelligence, shamelessly stolen from here:
  • 1 (–5): Animalistic, no longer capable of logic or reason
  • 2-3 (–4): Barely able to function, very limited speech and knowledge
  • 4-5 (–3): Often resorts to charades to express thoughts
  • 6-7 (–2): Often misuses and mispronounces words
  • 8-9 (–1): Has trouble following trains of thought, forgets most unimportant things
  • 10-11 (0): Knows what they need to know to get by
  • 12-13 (1): Knows a bit more than is necessary, fairly logical
  • 14-15 (2): Able to do math or solve logic puzzles mentally with reasonable accuracy
  • 16-17 (3): Fairly intelligent, able to understand new tasks quickly
  • 18-19 (4): Very intelligent, may invent new processes or uses for knowledge
  • 20-21 (5): Highly knowledgeable, probably the smartest person many people know
  • 22-23 (6): Able to make Holmesian leaps of logic
  • 24-25 (7): Famous as a sage and genius

You can probably quickly gauge where you fall on this chart. However, you probably aren't the smartest person many people know (statistically, of course). Which means by the time your Wizard is 8th level, you will generally be playing a character that is smarter than you.

To play a character with higher intelligence than you have, you'll need one of two things, and both are going to come from your DM.

The first thing you can use is a setting source book, campaign diary, or world building notes that your DM allows you to use. Books or articles related to the systems of magic in your world can also be helpful, since nearly all high-intelligence characters will be casting magic in some form.

This allows you to "fake" your knowledge of the world. Your character might be listing off the trade exports of the nearby kingdom from memory, but you, the player, don't have to know them. You simply have to read them.

Also, take detailed notes! If your DM is building the world from scratch, and doesn't have a source book to study (as many DMs often do), you can make your own. Ask for clarification on spelling and names, and write down everything. Your character's "mind" is in your notes!

The other tool you can use is your Passive Intelligence scores. Work with your DM and figure out what could be considered "common knowledge" for someone with your character's level of intelligence, especially if they have proficiency in one of the Intelligence-related skills. Again, your DM is the resource here, you are simply asking for information when it arises rather than beforehand.

The most important score you'll want to use is your Investigation score. The other Intelligence scores are about recalling different types of information, whereas your Investigation score is your ability to solve logic puzzles, make "Holmesian leaps of logic", or understand new information quickly. You know - smart person stuff.

When encountering a trap, riddle, puzzle, or strange object, ask the DM what you can glean simply by studying the object with your Passive Investigation score (make sure you've asked them if you can use this score, to set up the expectation that you'll be asking about it in game). Likely, the DM will grant you some information you got with your inspection! But if there is uncertainty and a chance of failure, they will likely make you roll to see if you succeed.

A high Intelligence character should be Investigating everything. It's the main way they interact with the world around them - gathering information, so it can be recalled and used later. They solve problems by collecting information until the solution is obvious. As Holmes would say: Elementary, my dear Watson! So, don't shirk this skill.

A debate that goes back to the early days of the hobby
On the other side of the Intelligence spectrum, we have characters who have difficulty recalling even simple ideas and words. This can be a difficult role-playing challenge for players who are quick witted and have no trouble recalling things as they occur.

The simplest way to accomplish playing a low-intelligence character is to carefully choose what you make notes about on your character sheet or campaign diary. Good players take notes, but if you are playing a low Intelligence character, you might leave off the last names of NPCs, call a location "The Citadel" instead of "The Black Citadel of Latherna", or even write down the wrong names of things. Again, your notes are your character's "mind".

When you speak in character, use the list above to place a restriction on your role-playing. If your character has 7 Intelligence, you should often misuse or mispronounce words, forget things, and lose your train of thought. Make it into a character trait, and use it to build your character in the eyes of the group. If you are constantly reminding your allies that your Barbarian character isn't the smartest member of the party, they will treat him as such, making the RP more realistic.

However, you will likely find your biggest challenge comes when your party is faced with a trap, puzzle, or riddle they can't get past, and you figure out the answer. Should your unintelligent character speak up? How would they know what to do?

Well, you can help your party. But you need to be creative in how you do so. See, nobody tries to act against their self-interests. Your character wants to get past this puzzle. So instead of banging their head on it, they might try using the parts of themselves they are good at.

This means that not only do you have to keep speaking as an unintelligent character, but you have to figure out a way to solve the puzzle using Wisdom or Charisma. You know the answer. But how would your character know the answer?

If your character is facing a puzzle in an ancient tomb, a high wisdom character would think about what sort of person would make such a puzzle, what things the puzzle would value, and what the puzzle's purpose is. They wouldn't think about the puzzle itself - just the things around the puzzle. This could lead them to garner an answer.

If your character is facing a riddle that reveals the password to open a door, a high Charisma character would try to find someone who already knew the answer and persuade or intimidate them into handing it over. They would think about the people who use the riddle. Again, this could lead them to an answer.

With a little creativity, you can still help your party solve the puzzle. But part of acting as a character is understanding what the character would do - and most people play to their strengths when they are trying to accomplish a task.

Remember that, because it'll be coming back in the next two sections.

Don't Be Yourself: Wisdom

Wisdom is a rare stat for a character to be bad at, since it's tied to your Passive Perception (arguably the most important skill in the game). However, it's much more likely that you will be playing a character with Wisdom higher than your own. For reference, here is the list of benchmarks for Wisdom:
  • 1 (–5): Seemingly incapable of thought, barely aware
  • 2-3 (–4): Rarely notices important or prominent items, people, or occurrences
  • 4-5 (–3): Seemingly incapable of forethought
  • 6-7 (–2): Often fails to exert common sense
  • 8-9 (–1): Forgets or opts not to consider options before taking action
  • 10-11 (0): Makes reasoned decisions most of the time
  • 12-13 (1): Able to tell when a person is upset
  • 14-15 (2): Can get hunches about a situation that doesn’t feel right
  • 16-17 (3): Reads people and situations fairly well
  • 18-19 (4): Often used as a source of wisdom or decider of actions
  • 20-21 (5): Reads people and situations very well, almost unconsciously
  • 22-23 (6): Can tell minute differences among many situations
  • 24-25 (7): Nearly prescient, able to reason far beyond logic

If Intelligence represents your ability to gather and recall information, Wisdom represents your ability to analyze and understand that information. This isn't the same as making a leap of logic: logical thought requires you to have enough information to support your hypotheses. A wise character uses their intuition to make the leap without the logic.

Some might call it... faith
A high Wisdom character is generally going to have some areas they specialize in, whether it's understanding animals, people, the world around them, etc. If you are playing a character with higher Wisdom than yourself, you need to think in those terms.

For example, let's say you have a character with high Wisdom and proficiency in Survival. Maybe they are a ranger. Your character would have great intuition about the resources and tools needed to make it in the wilderness. They would have a good sense of an environment and likely be able to tell what sort of plants are edible or poisonous.

For this character, you should treat the world as if it were all Survival-based. If your ranger has to go to a formal ball, they would see fancy clothing a "a tool necessary for exploring a ball". They might see good and bad people as "edible or poisonous". They might treat a city like a jungle, and the people within it like animals, with "territories" and "hunting grounds".

Of course, you can use your skills with your DM to determine what your character actually gleans from a situation (remember those passive skills!). But when it comes to explaining how a rough-and-tumble Ranger has an intuitive grasp of dealing with people (via Insight checks), you can use the their proficient skills to provide the proper context.

The other way you can make sure your character is seen as having high Wisdom is by constantly asking the DM: "Do I think this plan is a good idea?" A high-Wisdom character will use their intuition whenever possible, and you as a player don't have as much in-world information as your character does. Don't be afraid to let the DM tell you if something is a good or bad idea.

You can help your DM by framing the question within the context of your proficient skills. For our ranger: "I've gone on hundreds of hunts. I know how prey acts when its frightened. Do I think intimidating this noble is a good idea?" This allows the DM to treat the situation like they are filling in missing knowledge your character would have, rather than simply giving you the answer straight away.

Of course, some DMs will feel like if they tell you something is a good idea, they are basically giving you the answer. In that case, try using Insight or Perception and asking, "Is there anything in this plan that we're missing?" Again, this gives the DM the opportunity to add to the world, instead of feeling like they are giving you the answer.

If you are constantly questioning the values of the world around you, you'll eventually get a sense of what sort of story your DM is trying to tell. This can be the best way to pretend to have high Wisdom: use the tropes of the story to predict what should be done. After all, you don't need an intuitive sense of the entire game world. Just of your DM.

To play a low-Wisdom character is much trickier. Again, you'll want to use the list above to add character traits to your role play. A PC with Wisdom of 7 should disregard options and ignore common sense when making decisions.

Rookie mistake
Here's where it will become hard to act against your own self-interests. You want to consider the best action before you do it, because otherwise your character dies, right? And people don't want to die. Unless you're a Dwarf Barbarian looking for an honorable death, that sort of thing. If that's the case, then just role play your way to your glorious fate.

But if you do actually want your character to stay alive, you can do two different things. First off, you can use your other stats, much like we did for Intelligence. A low-Wisdom high-Intelligence character might not taste-test a plant before gobbling it down, but they definitely might remember it from a book and realize it's poisonous. A low-Wisdom high-Charisma character wouldn't be able to tell if someone was upset, but certainly would have the good graces to try to avoid that situation in the first place.

But the best way you could play a low-Wisdom character is by asking your allies for advice and taking it no matter what. Like I said, people have a self-preservation instinct. If you can't figure out what to do in a given situation, you ask someone else. So, ask the high-Wisdom characters in the party what you should do. This will likely make you come across as gullible, easily-persuaded, or quick to convert to a new set of beliefs. Perfect.

For added points, do this with NPCs too. Especially those who may not be acting in your best interests. But don't do it with hostile creatures, or your fellow players may kill you in real life.

Don't Be Yourself: Charisma

At last, we come to Charisma. Instead of gathering or analyzing, Charisma is the ability to convey information, both in speech and appearance. High Charisma doesn't necessarily mean your are handsome or beautiful, but it certainly means you hold yourself well or convey a certain air by the way you act and stand.

Here are the benchmarks of Charisma: 
  • 1 (–5): Barely conscious, possibly autistic
  • 2-3 (–4): Minimal independent thought, relies heavily on others to think instead
  • 4-5 (–3): Has trouble thinking of others as people
  • 6-7 (–2): Terribly reticent, uninteresting, or rude
  • 8-9 (–1): Something of a bore or makes people mildly uncomfortable
  • 10-11 (0): Capable of polite conversation
  • 12-13 (1): Mildly interesting, knows what to say to the right people
  • 14-15 (2): Interesting, knows what to say to most people
  • 16-17 (3): Popular, receives greetings and conversations on the street
  • 18-19 (4): Immediately likeable by many people, subject of favorable talk
  • 20-21 (5): Life of the party, able to keep people entertained for hours
  • 22-23 (6): Immediately likeable by almost everybody
  • 24-25 (7): Renowned for wit, personality, and/or looks

A lot of media jokes that since people who play D&D are nerds, they aren't likely to have much Charisma. But I actually think playing D&D itself requires a level of Charisma. At the very least, if you are rude and make people uncomfortable, you probably won't be playing D&D for long. This is a social activity, after all.

However, Charisma is a fairly common magic stat and dump stat, so the likelihood of playing a character with higher or lower charisma than yourself is pretty high. How do you do so?

Just be cool, dude
Let's start with high Charisma. Being able to clearly communicate information will go in two directions: towards NPCs, and towards PCs. With NPCs, you can rely on the dice and your passive stats. However, remember that your character will see the world in terms of people first, so don't be afraid to try to convince the bandits to leave you alone. Or at least work out a deal with them.

With PCs, it's a bit trickier, since there's a person playing them. When you interact with them, try to play towards the character's likes and dislikes. In your notes, you should keep track of what every other character's interests are, then use those interests when you interact with them. For example, if the barbarian enjoys meat, foster good relations by offering to give them your portion at a meal, or bringing meat with you when you have something important to talk about.

This will help you establish your character in-game, but when it comes time to actually be charismatic, do not try to voice act what your character says. Instead, describe what they are saying and how they are saying it. The DM will have you roll, and your fellow players will hopefully be open to your description. If another player says they don't think your character is able to convince them, don't argue, simply move on. Even the most Charismatic people can't win over everyone.

For playing low Charisma, again, treat the list above as a set of character traits. A low Charisma character will be rude or uninteresting. However, if your character has any Wisdom, they will know when to shut up. And if your character has high Intelligence, they would probably wait to speak until they had all the information they needed. So don't use your low stat as a punishment to the high-Charisma characters who are trying to persuade the nobility to get on your side. That's acting against your own self interests again.

Probably the best way to play a low Charisma character is to simply talk less. Shyness is certainly a sign of low Charisma. Plus, if you are particularly high in Wisdom or Intelligence, it will give you more time to take notes on the DM's descriptions or the values of the story. 

Overall, playing a character with stats higher or lower than your own is a role playing challenge, but it isn't impossible. Generally, aside from spellcasting stats, I don't like to put my mental stats too high or low, so I have less to think about in-game. But I do enjoy my low-intelligence Druid...

Thanks for reading!

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