Saturday, February 9, 2019

How Do You Play A Character That's Smarter Than You Are?

Our characters are often different from us in a lot of ways. But while a lot of players have no trouble with characters who are stronger, tougher, or quicker than they are in real life, it's those more ephemeral attributes that can sometimes cause a problem. How do you portray a character with an 18 in Intelligence if you don't have a degree in higher sciences? Can you believably act out an 18 Wisdom while knowing all those bad decisions you'd make in this situation? And what the hell does someone with an 18 Charisma even do?

Relax. Take a deep breath. You've got this. You just need to look at it from a different angle.

There are many sides to any endeavor, remember.

Being Smart Has No Set Appearance

Brief personal story, here. When I was in college, I had a professor whose classes I adored. She was short, broad-shouldered, black, and had a rather thick Louisiana drawl. She favored well-worn, comfortable clothes, and she had a no-bullshit attitude along with a plain way of speaking. The first day in any class she taught the first thing she did was introduce herself, tell us that she was well aware of how she sounded when she talked, but she was the one with the doctorate and two masters degrees, so we had better listen up when she had some shit to say.

Verbatim quote, there.

You also got full credit if you quoted her use of profanity on tests.
The point of that story is that just because someone is very smart, that doesn't mean they have to be dropping five-dollar words every time they open their mouth. We see that all the time in movies about child geniuses, and in TV shows about brainy folks who don't fit into the real world, but you could just as easily have a sharp and incisive mind inside someone who uses common, everyday speech. The sort of person who only pulls out the technical terms when discussing something complicated enough to require them, but who even then might try to keep things simple so everyone in the party can follow what they're saying.

The erudite scholar from the Academie Magique and the well-connected thug with tattoos on his knuckles both have a 17 Intelligence. They both speak several languages, and they both have an array of unique skills. While the wizard speaks dead languages, or tongues of power, though, the rogue focused on trading languages, and mastering the subtle double-speak of the street. While the wizard's skills lie in spellcraft and arcane knowledge, the rogue has learned to school their face to make lies seem truthful, and to get under someone's skin to make them afraid. Both of them have learned the ins and outs of magical devices, though, which gives them at least one area of expertise they can put their minds together on.

You have the same kind of wiggle room when it comes to your wisdom, or your charisma scores. For example, it is perfectly acceptable to go for the air of the calm-hearted priest who sees to the core of an issue, or the wisdom of monks who have long contemplated the inner workings of the mind and heart. On the other hand, the dogged private eye who's seen it all and done it twice could just as easily have as high a Wisdom score. And while lots of us think of characters with high Charisma as beauty queens or handsome princes, the rakish rabble rouser heading up the biker gang, or the hollow-eyed sorcerer with that strange, compelling air about him could just as easily fit those high numbers.

Remember to Separate Attribute From Training

Something that can help in this process is to remember that, while a raw attribute might make you better at certain tasks, the ones you've been trained in are the ones you're good at. And that training might make someone with a lower attribute better than you at a given task.

Stick with me, I promise we're getting there.
Take someone with that raw Charisma score of 18. That gives them a +4 bonus on an attempt to Intimidate someone. That's not bad. Now take their party cohort, who only has a 12 Charisma, but who is trained in the skill. That gives them a +5 to their checks because they've studied how to do this. They may lack the raw force of personality, but they know which words to use, how to invade someone's personal space, and even what facial expressions to wear when delivering a threat. Everything from tone of voice to whether or not to have a weapon in-hand is something they've learned how to do.

This can also help some players, who get too focused on the raw attribute instead of how the character has been trained to use it. Because while one person might be very intelligent, they won't have the depth of knowledge regarding religion of someone who was schooled by priests and teachers of a given faith if that other person has the skill maxed-out. Someone might be naturally athletic, but that raw talent won't allow them to get higher results than someone trained in how to climb, swim, tumble, etc. for many levels. And while someone might have a great force of personality, they simply won't be able to haggle for better prices the way someone who studied the art of deal-making can.

So, in addition to asking how your character's Intelligence, Wisdom, or Charisma manifests itself, you should also ask how they wield that attribute. Because while your sorcerer might rely on their Charisma to shape magic, do they use diplomacy in the same way? Are they subtle, leaving the person thinking they got the best of the bargain? Or are they overbearing, attempting to wear down resistance until they get what they want? If your paladin intimidates a foe, do they deliver booming threats, or do they simply draw their steel, and allow their absolute lack of fear make their foes think twice? The cleric and the monk may both be very wise, and they might both be trained in sensing someone's motives, but do they do it in the same way? Does the cleric notice the changes in voice and where the person looks, catching a lie? Does the monk have a way of saying or doing things that unsettle the other person, making them slip up?

It's important to remember that there are dozens of ways you can depict these mental stats. So if one way just isn't working for you, or you want to try something different, don't be afraid to stretch outside the box. And just because you've got a lot of raw ability in one area, it's important to remember that training and investment beats talent every, single time.

That's all for this week's Fluff installment! Hopefully some folks out there found it useful, and if there are any tips you've found to help with the gap between PC and player abilities, feel free to leave them in the comments below!

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  1. Don’t confuse credentials with smarts. Plenty of goddamned ninnies out there with doctorates.

    The most important thing I think about playing a high-INT or high-WIS character is asking a lot of questions. The kinds of insights you can ask for vary by attribute.

    Consider stat checks on d20 to gain insight or leverage in specific situations.

  2. The character that uses everyday words is all the more intelligent, in my experience. Charlatans try to confuse people to appear more intelligent. Truly intelligent people communicate instead of talking at people, and can even express complex concepts in simple language. There's an Arab saying about simple, clear prose ,"No skill to understand it, mastery to write it."

  3. As a DM, I always help players like that. Of course, that's arrogantly assuming that I am intelligent enough ;)
    But as a DM, I know all, and as a Maths teacher, my IQ is pretty high.
    It's the wisdom side of things where it goes wrong at times..