“All This and Brains Too” Part Two

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…


12 responses

  1. My tried and true solution to playing high mental stat PCs or NPCs is very simple: Metagame/Cheat

    Now before I get set on fire, hear me out. When playing a highly intelligent PC, you often need to make decisions in fractions of a second. What spell to cast, who to trust, what wire stops the bomb, etc. As a player, you have time to think about it, to talk it over with the other PCs, to remember its secret weakness from when you were reading the monster manual last week, and generally metagame your way to brilliance.

    Normally, metagaming is bad, but it’s a very simple way to simulate brilliance. With it, your character can make astounding leaps of logic, as befits super intellect.

    As for super smart NPC villains, just cheat. Make sure you learn the system well (critically important for genius NPCs) and then make things happen to show how smart the NPC is.

    The players decide to use the spell of ultimate power that can only be countered by Create Water? Guess what the NPC “had prepared.”

    The PCs have created an alliance of all the northern tribes to stop the armies of darkness, and you never dreamed they could do it? The warchief of the largest tribe just might have to be secretly possessed by a demon serving the NPC.

    The point is, you can just make things up to make the NPC seem to think of everything. It takes some finesse, and you shouldn’t do it just to ruin the PCs’ day, but it works well and is much easier than devoting weeks to planning and counter planning.

    As for playing stupid PCs, I’ve never really experienced that problem. I’m an ork, dumb comes naturally. 😉 And if you listen to me talk, my players usually have the opposite problem. 🙂

  2. It took me about a minute *after* the exchange with Te’Corian to realize what you were doing. I won’t spoil it for anyone else whom you may wish to try it on. It might be a worthy exercise to try it again.

    Thing is… A lot of TV writers make super-genius plots. And often they have to write their scripts on the fly because they have to accommodate actors contracts expiring, set changes, producer whims, etc. And yet, they have to make it all seem cohesive and even appear to be like it was planned from the start. I think the only way to really GM super-genius plots is to back fill the story so that it appears to make sense as you go along – much like how you did prophecy with Amber.

    But as far as intelligence is concerned… I agree that raw intelligence or strokes of genius are hard to roleplay without making it into a mechanic of “pulling things out of thin air.”

  3. Unfortunately, this situation with the “trap” Te’Corian laid for you guys was a kinda, “unique to that NPC” kinda thing. I’ve never found a way to have another NPC in a position where they deserved the kind of freedom I gave to him, in terms of just outright manipulating the PCs… You should try it, let me know how it turns out for you…

  4. I think something that has been interesting [annoying] to me is that in many systems, a character’s magic ability will either be based on his Int stat, or be derived from it.

    On one hand, for the standard D&D stats, I cannot think of a better stat to base it on (as wisdom is usually taken by Divine powers); on the other hand, that means you cannot build a ‘good’ wizard who is not particularly bright. Sure, I could play him dim, but his skill checks would not reflect that fact.

    It’s probably a nit-picky thing to notice – I understand that multiple abilities need to be based on a single stat for simplicities sake (otherwise, we would have dozens of stats to keep track of, not just 6-10). I guess I just prefer systems where Int and magic are separate.

    [Note: my comment is mainly from a D&D 4e view point as that is what I have the most experience in. This might not be as common as it seems to me 🙂 ]

  5. The funny thing is, go back to the mid-eighties and you’ll find games that attempted to have a “stat for everything.” I’m thinking of Palladium games, or the original TSR Marvel superhero game. Of course, then you look at GURPS or BESM which have 3-4 stats and you wonder how they manage to cover everything well enough…

    Of course, in regards to magic linking to intelligence. I think this comes from the tradition of “scholarly wizard learning magic from books and scrolls.” Wizards are often perceived as highly educated, and so it naturally matters that your wizard’s intellect will have a direct bearing on their powers.

  6. Curse you, Michael, for stealing my reply! :shakes fist:

    In all seriousness, though, if you want a wizard who can be dumb as a box of rocks without sacrificing magical potential two options spring to mind.

    1) Play a sorceror. In 3rd ed. (and 3.5) they pulled from the same spell list and the only thing differentiating the two was the arguable increase in flexibility granted the sorceror vs the adaptability granted the wizard. (Wizards could know all the spells ever, but had to select which ones to prepare on a given day, sorcerors didn’t have to prepare spells, but didn’t know nearly as many.) I’m not really sure what the difference is in 4th ed. now that they’ve moved completely away from prepared spells, but there you go.

    2) Play Mage. Any version of the game will work for this, but magic is a completely separate statistic that isn’t derived from anything. Now, I don’t think you can play anything lower than average human intelligence, but you also don’t have to be Dr. Doom if you want to cast a fireball. The down-side to this is that while your character doesn’t need an advanced degree to do what they do, it will occasionally feel as if you the player do.

    As to BESM, it doesn’t. It’s really easy to make a character that’s completely overpowered just by maxing out at few things. Hell, when Scott ran a mech-themed game, we had people with weapons that could completely destroy planets in one swing of a sword teamed up with people who could talk to the fuzzy wuzzy aminals and make them stop biting us. For the same point cost.

    1. Even with Int as the prime attribute for Wizards – I feel it is quite possible to play the kind of bumbling college professor – forgetful, perhaps accident prone and definitely not worldly. That is leaning on one aspect of int, to the detriment of others.

      It is also quite possible in the D&D 4e world to play a sorcerer that is quite a good controller with judicious selection of powers, feats and class features. My wife has just such a Kenku sorcerer. At the moment, with so many books and Dragon magazines out there – there is a plethora of material that is quite interesting and varied for most classes and often allows for shifting the role of the class.

      I must confess however that I myself have a hard time playing down to the Int of my characters sometimes. When I play an Int 8 Orc Ranger, and the rest of the party cannot solve a puzzle which I (the player) can, it is impossible for me not to step in with my answers. In a home game I can do it, but in organized (rpga) play, I find there is too much at stake for the whole party not to “solve” the problem correctly. Even writing about it now, I do not know what it is about that dynamic that makes it harder.

      1. It is a good point that, as a roleplayer, you can focus on the aspects of intelligence which you want to, such as being brilliant but absent-minded. The issue really comes down to how much do you want your game of choice to be ‘simulation’ versus ‘story-driven?” I say this because, no matter how you play the character, the mechanics of a game such as D&D4e, don’t care. The game assumes your PC is equally good at all parts of the INT stat.

        And I sympathize with playing down in INT, but I think you answered your own question about why it is so hard… when the stakes are high, and you are invested in the outcome, numbers on a character sheet are less important to you than the story. I respect this, but it is “out of character” for your 8 INT orc, right?

        Hence the reason I am doing away with INT in my system and replacing it with a broader option. To allow you to focus more on the parts that matter to you, and to the story.

        Thanks for the comment, keep ’em coming.

      2. I wouldn’t say that D&D 4e insists that the stat covers all aspects of intelligence – in spite of it saying so! I would prefer to consider it an average over the aspects of the stat. I don’t see that as incompatible with the RAW. The rules go on to deal with the case of Cha not being simply comeliness – so separating the various aspects for this particular attribute.

        Having said that – I do like the idea of the magical power source being distinct from Int – or even any normal descriptive attribute. But then I would like for all character classes to have their key abilities not necessarily linked to their normal descriptive attributes. I suspect that raw strength as the driving force for sword-play is somewhat overrated, as is pure dexterity for archery. Perhaps characters can have a martial power source as well as an arcane or magical font that does not derive directly from the physical or descriptive attributes.

        When it comes down to it – Wisdom is probably a single use case for clerics too. The bible (for want of another common reference point) is full of unwise (and unpopular) prophets, saints and apostles). So one might also want a divine power source.

        In “my” theoretical RPG, everyone would have the same access to power of the type desired, and be able to create attributes (at least somewhat) independently of their power-levels chosen. Then power levels (for each “source”) could be balanced independently of attributes.

  7. Yeah, 4th ed. uses charisma for the sorcerer. It’s definitely a solution; however, maybe not the best solution for someone who wants to play a controller and not a striker [I don’t like sounding so negative, but I’ve started to sour on how specific classes are in 4th ed….well, I’ve soured on 4th ed in general]

    The two systems I’m interested in right now, Warhammer Fantasy and Dragon Age, both have separate Int/Magic stats (Actually, I cannot remember if Dragon Age has a generic Int stat – I think it does specific knowledge skills).

    I guess for the Magic vs. Int, the main difference is whether the game wants magic to be able to be learned and researched by anyone (and therefore, needs a high Int) or if it is something that a character has to be born with (which could cause RP issues for a player). It’s interesting to see the different design philosophies.

    Anyways, I did not mean to hijack the conversation with this tangent; but I’m still working on role-playing characters that are equal to my intellect. For a semi-novice player, I’m trying to keep it simple 🙂

  8. Don’t worry about hijacking the conversation, we are exploring topics here, so feel free to go where they lead. I think the magic and intelligence discussion is an important one, for the reason you mentioned. The linking of magic to intellect/learning requires not only mechanics, but changes the portrayal of magic/mages in the game world.

    Looking at Shadowrun, magic is inherent to characters, you either have it or you don’t, but spell learning, enchanting and other skills are linked to the intellect attribute. So, you don’t have to be “smart” to be a wizard, but it sure helps.

  9. I didn’t mention Warhammer Fantasy because wizards, while not “requiring” a high intelligence, receive lots of raises to intelligence and get lots of intelligence based skills. Thus, not really what you were looking for in my mind.

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