So in almost every Role Playing Game you have statistics or ability scores. Those numbers that are used to measure how strong, smart, quick, good looking, wise, lucky, educated and so on your Character is. These statistics typically relate to influencing the chance of performing certain actions or skills during a game session. Now the physical stats like (in Dungeons and Dragons) Strength, Dexterity and Constitution, are easy to Role Play. Its not hard to describe how your character with a seventeen Constitution runs at a good pace for twenty miles, or how your character with a high Strength, busts open a door with his shoulder. The challenge comes when we deal with the mental stats like Intelligence, Wisdom and Charisma (yes Charisma is partly a mental stat). This article is going to examine and address an age old problem in Role Playing games, and that is how does a person Role Play a character that is gifted or blessed in the mental department when the player himself is lacking.
Lets start by breaking down exactly what each of the three mental stats are and what they encompass.
Intelligence in Dungeons and Dragons determines how well your character learns and reasons. It represents your characters ability to analyze information and the depth of complexity in which the character thinks.
Wisdom determines your characters common sense, perception and intuition. It also relates to how much willpower your character has.
Charisma is a measure of your personality, personal magnetism, persuasiveness, leadership ability and physical attractiveness.
I will point out here that I personally believe that physical attractiveness should be a separate stat, but for this article that is neither here nor there.
In Dungeons and Dragons the typical range (before modifiers) of these Ability scores is between three and eighteen (the result of rolling three six sided dice). A three Intelligence for example is on par with an IQ of about 57, while an eighteen is about 143. A character with a three wisdom is largely oblivious to the world around him and just drifts through life, where as a character with an eighteen is extremely intuitive. In the case of Charisma, a three represents the social skills of a sponge and looks of that guy from the hills have eyes, while an eighteen represents someone with real personal magnetism, great personality and incredible good looks.
This is where my earlier point comes into play, I know some very good looking people with limited social skills, and some that look like they got hit with the ugly stick who have great personalities.
So where is the issue with this. The issue arises when a player is not particularly smart and he is playing a character that is highly Intelligent, what happens when the player can not see the answer to a solution, but believes his genius Wizard should be able too. Or someone who has limited tact and social skills is playing a Sorceress with very high Charisma, yet just does not have the skill set personally to bring that out in the Character. As the Dungeon Master do you test the Character or the Player? Do you allow the player to fall back on his Ability Scores and simply roll dice, and if so what happens to the Role Playing aspect?
Firstly in some cases the game mechanics do take care of this. For example, if you want to make a knowledge skill check, it pulls a modifier from your Intelligence ability score. Or in the case of Intimidate it will take the modifier from your Charisma ability score. Other times however the mechanics do not have a solution, and this is where the dice stop getting rolled and the Characters start getting Role Played.
Now you can (if you really want a mechanical and personality lacking game) roll for everything. Example. DUNGEON MASTER: “You see a strange looking mosaic on the floor. It appears that many of the tiles are not in the correct place. The door on the other side is firmly shut and has no handle!” PLAYER ONE:”I bet we have to solve the puzzle to open the door. OK Tom, your Wizard has a seventeen Intelligence, you solve the puzzle.” PLAYER TWO: “What Do I need to roll to solve the puzzle?” “The difficulty is a sixteen for this one.”
Of course the fun for all concerned is in the players actually solving the puzzle themselves, but what if they just can not solve it. What if they do not have the IQ that their characters have and make tough work of something that in theory their characters should have been able to solve easily. As a Dungeon Master where do you go at this point? Should you have created a puzzle or a situation on par with what the characters should be able to deal with, or should you have created it on par with what you believe your players could deal with?
Firstly I want to say that peoples opinions on this are going to vary, and there is no finite correct answer to this one. However there are several different options that you can use to deal with these situations, and the goal is to detail some of them and hopefully help you find the solution you feel happiest with.
My personal opinion (and that is all it is, so don’t get your Dungeon Master panties in a wad if you disagree) is we are playing a game, first and foremost. That implies that the PLAYERS are playing the game and not the characters. With this in mind my goal is always to “test” the players. I test their Role Playing skills as well as their mental talents with various situations, encounters and problems. I hate it when a player asks to use an ability roll to solve something that should be resolved through Role Playing and story telling. Sometimes however I over estimate my players and they get stumped. Now there is nothing worse than a game session where players just sit around and struggle to solve a problem. They get frustrated and bored, and often forget that while they detest the idea of toiling over a puzzle for thirty minutes, the situation their characters are in, feels very different to the character and they would be more motivated. Sooner or later this will happen to you and you will be faced with a dilemma. My usual approach to these situations is as follows.
Firstly when I create a puzzle or problem, I always make sure there is an out. It may not be an attractive one, but there always is one. For Example. I created a scenario during the Children of Drakhar campaign I ran on Howreroll. My party had a wealth of magical items at their finger tips, but had to solve a puzzle to get their greedy little hands on them. There was a one way portal out of the chamber, so they could leave at anytime. Now of course they did not want to leave, but they were able too. The key point here is they had an out. If I had made it to where they could not leave without solving the puzzle, I basically presented them with a solve it or die problem. You may be OK with that, but I never like to present players with no win situations. Alternatively you can present those kind of problems as a side room or encounter. Offer a reward if they solve it, but no detriment if they do not. Another option is to set an amount of experience points for the problem, and allow them to burn some of that EXP for hints. The hints get progressively stronger as the EXP goes down. Finally you CAN always allow them to roll against a Statistic, but inform them that there is no Experience point reward for solving it that way.Whichever method you use, you can still test the player first, and allow them to fall back on the characters ability scores as a last resort.
When it comes to social situations and the Role Playing of Charisma, it can be a bit more tricky. Some situations can be resolved by a dice roll such as a Diplomacy or Intimidation skill check, but even then its a ROLE PLAYING GAME PEOPLE so Role Play the situation! In the situations I like to let the Role Play happen first and then based on how well that went I apply my own modifiers. In 3.5 I may give a plus or minus to the skill roll based on how well they Role Played the interaction. In 5e I may give advantage or disadvantage. You still run into the issue of a player with poor social skills failing where his character with high Charisma should not have, but it is still a game so you have to allow the players to play and their performance in the game yields the consequences for their character. Another option, is to consider the characters Charisma ability score during the interaction, and be more lenient to a player who has a character with high Charisma. In other words, if they are talking to a Non Player Character, and what they said could be taken in more than one way, always let him take it the right way instead of the wrong way. Or visa versa if they have a low Charisma Score. This way the player still controls the interaction, but his characters ability scores still come into play.
I will wrap this up by repeating that I know this is a topic for contention, and is it right to test the player or the character? Well I think it is a choice of personal preference. I prefer to test the Player, for the reasons I stated above. This being said, I will not condemn anyone that prefers the other route. What I do know from my decades running games, is that testing the players ALWAYS yields a much better Role Playing experience and a better story……………….