So, I’m sorry this one is a little late getting posted. It’s been a long Monday. So, without further ado…
Last time, I looked at some thoughts on judging the physical appearance of characters in games. I spent a lot of that time just talking about perception of beauty and relating it to concrete examples. This time the focus is Brains, and how games handle that brainpower.
In looking at the stats I wanted to create for my game I began to think about the typical stats that players are familiar with, including Intelligence. I have always had problems with Intelligence, or IQ, or Intellect, or whatever a game likes to call it.
First, look at it from a player’s point of view. If your character has a really high intelligence score but you are not as smart as your character, it’s very difficult to play above your intellect. In fact, I would say this is harder than almost anything players try to imagine in the fantasy worlds they are playing in. I’m not just talking about typical intelligence here either – look at a superhero game as an example. I’m a reasonably smart guy – I test well, I’ve done okay on IQ tests, and I’m fairly well read. I would never, ever make a super-genius character like Reed Richards because I know I just couldn’t do it. But let’s also look at it from the other end. Let’s say you’re really smart, and you are playing a character who is not, um, well, let’s say, as bright as you. Now you’re in even more trouble. Now, instead of having to rev up the brain cells and try really hard to think above your level, you have to think below your level. You have to intentionally be stupid. I don’t know many gamers who are good at that. (No, that was not sarcasm…) To use myself as an example again… in D&D terms, I probably have an intelligence in the 14-15 category. Reed Richards probably tips the scales at about the 24-25 category. So, even if I attempt to play this level of brilliance, what does the stat itself actually show?
Okay, connect that last idea to this next one. I’m running a hypothetical mystery story, and the players are just not getting it. For whatever reason, they just don’t connect the dots, or even see most of the dots, or, really, even care at this point cause the clues they do have don’t seem to indicate anything at all (to them). Just one of those nights, right? Let’s suppose one of the characters has a 20 Intelligence though (on the scale of 3-18). This character is smarter than anyone else involved in the mystery – so you give them an INT roll and give them a hint. This action means two things: One, you’ve just led the group, taking some of the mystery out of the mystery and two, you’ve just established a precedent for that group of players for how Intelligence may be used. Instead of a roleplaying guide… “You are this smart”, it has become, “You are able to roll under this to…”
Consider further the concept of skills. Many games base the majority of the things a character knows, their mental skills, on Intelligence. This means that your intelligence trait is directly linked to not only how much you know about nuclear physics and the occult, but also to how well you play the violin or pick locks (GURPS). I understand this is not a problem that all systems have, but it is out there, and it’s more common than not. I’ve discussed the stat vs. skill issue with a lot of gamers, with a lot of different opinions, but I don’t want to rehash all that here, I’m just gonna make the point and move on. Maybe that’s fodder for another post…
Look at the problem from the Gamemaster point of view for another problem. How comfortable do you feel with game-mastering a villain with an intellect like Dr. Doom? This is a man so much smarter than us that the writers spend months working out his plots (or, well, they should…), which you can do as well, but as the situation develops, what then? Once you engage the PC’s you have to think on your feet as fast as they do. Now you know the whole picture and they don’t, so you can use that knowledge to cover your butt a long way, but still, your super-genius villain is only as smart as you are.
Now, does this mean that I am saying that no one should ever play above themselves and that there should be no super-genius evil villains? No, just pointing out that the numbers attached to that intellect don’t really serve a purpose except to intimidate. Again, if you are the GM, then your villain is as smart as you need them to be, and how often is it important if your super-genius villain actually made all the rolls in the rulebook to build their diabolical whatsit “off-camera?”
Let’s look at another example. I ran Amber for three years with mostly the same players, and I got ahead of them a few times. Mostly I did this through knowing the whole picture and doing a lot of revisionist editing to the storyline to make things fit after the facts. Though, if you could, I’d tell you to ask anyone in that group about an NPC named Te’Corian and the most dastardly piece of GM trickery I ever pulled off.
But Amber doesn’t even quantify intelligence in the game system (or even use dice… *gasp!*), so why even mention it in this discussion? Precisely because there are no game mechanics for Intelligence… and all the NPC’s are immortal super-geniuses.
Now, interestingly enough, Star Wars D6 uses two traits to cover all the normal intelligence type stuff on a character sheet. West End Games called them, “Knowledge” and “Technical”. These two stats cover the lion’s share of mental skills in the game, but they are both related more to what you know, and learning, than raw intellect. I always really liked the idea of a Knowledge stat. But overall, I don’t know that I want one in my system.
What am I saying? Well, to sum up. A lot of systems use a stat that covers raw intelligence. Many players are really bad at actually living up to, or (especially) down to, the expectation this creates. The character is basically, as intelligent as the player, and even the best roleplayers I know suffer from this problem. It’s just hard to be “less smart”. I don’t think I’m going to include ‘Intelligence’ in my system. I don’t really need it. Games don’t really need it. A player can still define the character as intelligent through skills and the player may choose to have the character act as intelligently or not as they wish, but much like beauty, intelligence comes down to perception, sometimes, and there are different kinds of intelligence. So, I’m going without it. (This might be sarcasm).
But, you say… I want to play Egon from Ghostbusters. Look at him, he’s like, ubersmart, right? Well, what makes you define him that way? Think about the characteristics of his “intelligence” and you can build the character that way. The possibility for that type of character building is what Ryllia will be all about. Again, more on that later.
Anyway, now that these two are done, I want to get back to some ideas I’ve been thinking about concerning making characters “care,” a review of the Dragon Age pen and paper RPG and some more about Rylla… I might have to double up with a few posts…