The Problem Facing Mental Ability Scores

“In the outside world, I am a simple geologist… but in here,
I am Valkorn, Defender of the Alliance!  I have braved the Fargo
Deep Mine, and defeated the Blood Fish at Jarod’s Landing.”

– Randy Marsh, “Make Love, Not Warcraft” South Park

That quote is about World of Warcraft, but it’s message remains the same when talking about D&D.  Because the wonderful thing about Dungeons and Dragons, and really any role-playing game, is the ability to be anyone that you are not in real life.  I can be a devil-man, capable of incredible acrobatic feats and an expert crossbowman who can load and fire a crossbow twice within 6 seconds.  I can be a dragon-man, able to breathe hot flames at my foes and with the strength to leap 20 feet in a single bound, or face a 20-foot giant in single combat.  I can be a young woman who can climb 30-foot trees in an instant, blend into the shadows so perfectly I am nearly invisible, or pick off a target with my bow even while they are behind a barrier.  I can do these things in D&D, because my character is not me, and my character is capable of doing and being things beyond my capabilities (and yes, these are all D&D characters I’ve had).

The system behind D&D makes this easy enough.  All characters have ability scores; Strength, Dexterity, Constitution, Intelligence, Wisdom, and Charisma.  These scores use numerals (from 1 to 20, generally) to qualify various characteristics of an individual; Strength is how strong you are, Dexterity how quick on your feet you can be, etc.  A score of 10 in either ability represents the average; what a normal human might have.  Going beyond that means your character is above average in that ability.  The tiefling I described above has a Dexterity score of 19, while the dragonborn had a Strength score of 20.  They are above average (way above average) in those abilities.   It’s a simple and, generally, good system.

But there can still be problems with this system.  Namely; in how DMs use it.

You might notice; so far I’ve been focusing on what most people call the physical abilities.  Strength, Dexterity, and Constitution all deal with things your body does or the way your body is.  But what about the mental abilities?  Intelligence is as it sounds on paper; your raw Intelligence and ability to learn things and retain information.  Wisdom is sorta your perceptiveness of the world and others around you; it’s common sense, intuition, and general awareness of your surroundings and situation.  Charisma is your force of personality and capability to lead and be persuasive.  It’s not your physical appearance so much as how you project yourself onto others.

In theory, having a character with really high Intelligence, or really high Charisma or Wisdom, should be like having a character with really high scores in their physical abilities; your character has them, not you.  Your wizard is super smart even if you have average grades or struggle with math.  Your druid is really wise even if you have a hard time understanding people.  Your sorcerer is really charismatic even if you have trouble talking to whatever individuals you are sexually attracted to.

That’s how it should be, but I’ve seen many a discussion on the Webernet concerning how many DMs do not play that way.  Tell me, how often have you had a situation like this at the table?

Player: “Alright, I want to try and convince the guard to let us go.”
DM: “Sure.  What do you say to him?
Player: “Uh… I don’t know, really.  Can I just roll a Persuasion check?  My guy has a +10 in it since I’m proficient and have a maxed-out Charisma.”
DM: “You have to roleplay.  I’m not gonna let you roll unless you tell me what you say.”
Player: “Okay… uh, hey man.  Can you just let us go?  We’re not hurting anyone.”
DM: “It’s a pretty weak argument.  You can roll but with disadvantage.”

peter-jackson-the-hobbit-2
“No see, I understand that your character sheet says you speak Elvish, but you need to prove it to me by reading this excerpt from the Silmarillion written entirely in Quenya.”

What about a situation like this?

DM: “Your attempt at the riddle fails, and the door remains stubbornly locked.”
Player: “Ugh, I really don’t get it.  I’ve never been good at riddles.  Hey, can I roll an Intelligence check or even an Investigation or something to help me?  My wizard is really smart and wise; 18 Int and 16 Wis.  And she’s proficient in Investigation and Insight.  She should be able to figure this out.”
DM: “No, you have to figure out the riddle yourself.  That’s the point.”

But is it?  Who is solving the riddle?  Ellie sitting at the table, or Wanda the Wondrous?  Maybe Ellie just doesn’t get riddles very well, but should that stop the character from doing it?

Okay.  And now, how often do you see situations like this?

Player: “I want to smash the door down!”
DM: “Sure give me a Strength check.”
Player: “Not great, only rolled a 12.  But Grugthar has a strength of 24, so that’s still a 19!”
DM: “You smash the door off its hinges.”

All the damn time?  Notice the difference here compared to the earlier situations; the player was never expected to perform the in-game action before the DM allowed the character’s abilities to shine.  There was an understanding that of course the player doesn’t have to actually break down a door.  No DM says things like; “Properly pronounce the arcane words you’re using to cast that spell.”  “You want to leap across the chasm?  Get in the car; there’s a quarry nearby.”  “A critical hit, huh?  Show me how to properly shoot a bow, then.”  Could you imagine if the rest of the game was treated the way mental-focused characters are?

This isn’t so much a problem with ability scores as it is the way DMs look at them.  The physical scores are easy to represent in the game; roll the dice, see how high you rolled, character does the thing.  With mental and social abilities, the line between character and player is a bit more blurred because the player is still speaking as the character.  You want to deceive the king with clever word play?  Sure, but there’s an expectation that you need to literally speak what you’re saying in order to role play that ability properly.  I have seen many DMs claim that their players need to properly roleplay things like Persuasion checks or Deception checks, or else they auto-fail or have a high chance to fail.  I think that’s bullshit.  A player might be really bad at lying, but that shouldn’t mean their rogue, with a Charisma of 20 and expertise in Deception, should be too.

That doesn’t mean that you, as the DM, shouldn’t ask people to role play or explain what they say in order to get across what they want to do.  But you need to remember that what they are saying isn’t necessarily how their character is saying it.  What if that first example went more like this?

Player: “Alright, I want to try and convince the guard to let us go.”
DM: “Sure.  What do you say to him?
Player: “Uh… I don’t know, really.  Can I just roll a Persuasion check?  My guy has a +10 in it since I’m proficient and have a maxed-out Charisma.”
DM: “Sure, but just let me know what you’re kinda trying to say to him.”
Player: “Okay… uh, hey man.  Can you just let us go?  We’re not hurting anyone.” *roll* Oh!  25!”
DM: “You explain to the guard that you and your party are innocent bystanders and manage to persuade him to let you move on.”

Seems less petty to me.  Punishing players for not being as intelligent/wise/charismatic is not a fun way to run the game.  All it does is make players feel like they aren’t allowed to be smart, or clever, or super good at talking to people.  More than likely they know that they tend to be quiet wallflowers at parties; D&D is chance for them to pretend otherwise by playing a character who is good at those things.  And you, as the DM should allow them to be.  I have an ex who once played a villainous femme fatale character in a game of Savage Worlds, and naturally her character had an appropriate Charisma score.  When rolling to seduce another character into giving her a magic item I believe her exact words were “Hey, you there.  Give me that gem, big guy.”  While amusing at the time to imagine someone looking like Jessica Rabbit saying those words, with exactly my ex’s hesitant inflection, the point is that the actual character would not have said that.  Her extremely high roll was enough to convince the individual to hand over the gem, which the DM properly explained.  Even though her actual words may not have quite matched the capabilities of her character, what’s important is that in the context of the game her character would have said something perfectly appropriate.

Even with the example of the player having trouble with the riddle; you don’t need to just give them the answer, but let the character’s abilities speak for themselves.  Let them roll an Investigation check or a straight Intelligence check to figure out part of the riddle or explain something about the trap.  Some DMs might look at this as unfair or cheating; they want their players to figure out the riddle, not the dice.  But I say, if the game requires a player to use their character’s Strength to move a boulder then a player should be able to use their character’s Intelligence to solve a puzzle.  Keep in mind that this is still up to the dice; Grugthar might have a Strength score of 24, but if his player rolls a 1 on his Strength check then that’s still not going to be enough to smash open the door which has a DC of 15.  Similarly, Wanda might have a +7 in her Investigation skill, but her roll of 9 won’t be enough for her character to remember that a perch is also a type of fish. (Now just try to figure out what sort of riddle that could be the answer to!)

(Of course, this leads to another point; DMs should ensure that players still have a way to progress even if they can’t figure out a riddle or puzzle.  Or at least, failing the riddle shouldn’t result in the whole game being unable to continue.  Even one of the puzzles in Legends from Aeramis had an alternative solution; a wrong answer would have initiated combat with a few gargoyles, and once defeated the door the party was trying to open would have unlocked.  Unfortunately, though I let them make knowledge checks to get clues to the puzzle, everyone rolled consistently poorly.  No one’s fault, but if a strong character can fail at Strength checks then smart characters need to be able to fail at Intelligence checks.  That’s the nature of D&D.  Still, that scenario taught me to try and provide more clues in the future.)

The takeaway from all this is that a character’s mental ability scores need to matter, and punishing players because they don’t hold up to their character’s Intelligence or Wisdom or Charisma isn’t fair or appropriate.

One comment

  1. A fascinating point! As someone very interested in roleplaying but not particularly experienced with it, I’ve always wondered if intelligence as a stat simply shouldn’t be a thing, but after reading this I totally get it. People should be able to roleplay as super-geniuses without being geniuses themselves, same as them being able to roleplay as super-athletes without having to be athletes.

    Liked by 1 person

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s