Thursday, November 10, 2011


Let me ask if you have never made an error in judgment. Obviously, you have. We all have. We date people we really should not date, and we ignore the warnings of our friends and trusted family members in order to date those people. We even get married when we shouldn't. We take jobs we know are going to be bad news, and we quit jobs in the heat of the moment, only afterwards to realize what a stupid thing that is to do. We skip completing assignments or procrastinate about them, only to find ourselves in the worst sort of place when these things become due and we're pulled up on the carpet to answer for what a crappy job we've done.

Why do we act this way? We know it is not in our best interest. Yes, its true that we want sex, or we need the money, or that the game is on or the crew is going to the bar tonight and working on a task means missing all that. But we also know that we should listen to our friends. We know we should do our jobs. We know that without money, we're fucked. So why can't we simply have the wisdom to tell the difference between what is important, and what is REALLY important?

I don't pretend to answer that. I do want to point out, however, that we are NOT always aware of what is best for us, and we do NOT always do things in our own best interests. We are at the mercies of our hormones, our comprehension of how boring the responsible action will be, or what we perceive we might be missing by acting smartly. We are not perfect. We are human beings.

But if you want to get a real fight going at a D&D table, propose that a player can't do something because their wisdom says their character is not capable of thinking the way they themselves are.

Players - and power players especially - are used to treating D&D as a strategy game like chess. No one would ever suggest you couldn't move your king's pawn to king 4 because the king's pawn has a wisdom of 9 and isn't feeling up to that right now. You don't have to roll against intelligence to find out if the king's horse can jump a pawn and leap to king's bishop 3. These things are simply not part of the game. It is a strategy game, not a wishy-washy bunch of crap about 'feelings' or interpersonal limitations ... so let's not have any of that crap in D&D.

Arguably, it might have been a mistake to incorporate wisdom, intelligence, or even charisma into a game that was bound to be played almost universally by strategists. If I am going to give credit to Gygax for any given thing, it is going to be the genius of incorporating a limitation into the game that would well and truly fuck strategists FOR EVER. Not that the strategists pay any attention, of course. They simply ignore the stats (unless something strategic is derived from them), and players with a 10 wisdom character play precisely the way that players with an 18 wisdom character do. Want to argue with the king? No problem. Don't want to sleep with the girl? Of course you don't have to. Get up and fight although you only have one hit point and you can't win - don't think about it. OF COURSE your 8 wisdom character wouldn't refuse. This is a strategy game, after all.

Except that it isn't, obviously. But still after forty years the word has not come down. People have no trouble not being able to do something because they're not strong enough.  The limitations of our bodies are not OUR limitations.  Or so we fool ourselves into believing.

A player in my online campaign recently said, regarding failing a wisdom check, "I'm just not used to not having control of my character for non-magical reasons." But of course he is. We all are. We make rolls all the time to determine if we can do something, and when we can't, we're used to not having that control. We would have preferred the die went our way, but ... oh well.

The point here is that we're not used to not having control of our character's thought processes ... because this is pure anathema to our sensibilities. We can take failing at a task. It is murderously hard to take failing at a task because we're not smart enough.

That is why we associate so many of the things at the start of this post with shame and guilt, and things we'd rather never talk about again. Moreover, RPGs are a way of living a life without shame, or guilt. We kill without guilt. We steal without guilt. We conquer the world without guilt. We're unashamed, loud, self-important bastards, bellowing at the bartenders and barmaids of the world without worry or concern for anyone's feelings, in particular our own.

And who the hell wants any of that emotional baggage in a D&D game?

Well, frankly, I do. Because it's real. It's the substance and source of what makes us who we are. Even the difficult bits where we fail at what we wish we were able to do. Our failings are a thousand times more interesting than our successes, and they make our successes wonderful. I'm not going to sacrifice that whole potential aspect of the game, which is what makes this game better and more important than chess.

My players are not chesspieces. They're alive.


Carl said...

"And who the hell wants any of that emotional baggage in a D&D game?"

Not too many role playing gamers that I know of want that in their games. They play to escape that kind of shit and feel like something more than the sum of their faults for a few hours. Assuming an entirely new set of hinderances and shames and guilts is pretty damn far from fun for most people.

When I started playing D&D, it was to escape. I wanted to escape the awfulness that was being a teenage nerd. D&D gave me that. It gave me a pure escape from the drudgery and guilt and shame that was my reality. I could be a powerful sorcerer, or a brutal warrior, or a slick thief -- things I was not capable of doing in real life.

I think that most people who play D&D do it for the same reasons. They're trying to exercise some small semblance of control over their lives. They want to be powerful and guiltless, and having the guy running the game tell you that your character wouldn't do something because he/she isn't bright enough is anathema to that.

Good topic today, Alexis.


Anonymous said...

My players are not chesspieces. They're alive.


personally i always attempt to roleplay any flaws my characters might have because of low stats (often with interesting results).

trying to make a character tangible is a huge part of player skill as i understand it.

Bogus Gasman said...

DM or Player, I get a kick out of min-maxers being hoisted by their own petard.

'Wisdom Is A Dump Stat'
Act 1 Scene IV
Fred the Barbarian: "What do you mean I blew all my gold on a time share in Fart Swamp?!?"
DM: "The salesman's pitch was most persuasive"
Fred the Barbarian: "I'd never be that foolish or impulsive"
DM:"You the player, maybe not, but Fred has a wisdom of 6. He's the classic example of a gullible rube."

Giordanisti said...

I think part of the issue here is not that there are limits in place, but that those limits are not fully disclosed. Any player can understand that their 7 intelligence character is not the brightest fellow, but there are no set rules about exactly what he is and isn't capable of.

If, from day 1, the DM says that no one with a wisdom under 8 will be able to see through any lie, players will take that sort of thing into account generally, and I think that you would see little conflict. The problem comes when whether or not a character can perform a mental action is up to the DM's spur of the moment discretion. It's easy to imagine a DM's decision about character capabilities being dependent on his or her mood, or how much of a dick the player has been, or any number of other factors.

The real hatred of being controlled comes from the creeping suspicion that the control is coming from outside the game. If there are hard and fast rules that tell me what I can't do, then bring it on. But if you're just making this shit up, then fists are going to fly.

Alexis said...


I believe it comes down to the DM having some degree of choice when something challenges a player's intelligence or wisdom (or charisma, for that matter). A crisis of will (wisdom) or comprehension (intelligence) that the player may reasonably be expected to not necessarily succeed at.

For example, if the attempt is to remember not to pick one's nose with a dagger, its reasonable to presume that every level of intelligence (even those down in the 3 to 4 level) have presumedly tried this before and know not to do it. On the other hand, if the attempt it to remember the name of the Trader we spoke with yesterday, a d20 rolled against the player's intelligence, with success being equal to or lower than that intelligence, the scale of success automatically tips to the mages of the party. Often times, for things like this, everyone gets a go, so the mage might not remember while the 11-intelligence thief does. Or even that crystal moment when the 3 intelligence fighter does, grunting out the name and everyone recognizing something amazing has just happened.

The decision for when, and when not to make a check of this kind is the balance the DM brings to the game, in that its important occasionally for a character to have a chance at failing, but only in moments of dire challenge. Doing it all the time is wastefully dull.

Kenwolf said...

i have never seen a player ever complain that their character should be able to do something after they fail an ability score check. everyone has always respected the outcome.

i always took it that everyone would know right from the start, if i ask for an ability score check and if they fail, their character doesn't know something or isn't capable of performing a task.

Alexis said...

When you get into the realm of mind control, ESP and other similar magics it isn't always clear why you fail, Kenwolf. Or what exactly failure means. I wrote the post because a very realistic misconception did occur on my online campaign, and I thought it would be good to address the problem generally.

I don't often have the problem either, Ken.

Let me say, though, that players are, in my opinion, justified in appealing any decision I make. A DM is honor-bound to explain.

Butch said...

I agree that a low INT, WIS or CHA character should be played that way. I try to play my character as a brutish, impulsive thug -- it's a lot of fun.

But how do you handle the 18 INT character? Do you put the same restrictions on that player -- "Theodorus is far too smart to propose that frontal assault, Steve. He would instead point out that the party can sneak around to the side door (mentioned in the description but apparently ignored by the players) for a surprise attack."

Oddbit said...

Isn't the whole game about limitations and overcoming them? I guess that was my first real thought on the matter. I mean I guess if the players want to tell a story there's that, but what story doesn't have obstacles to overcome?

As the character advances in power, they work around or break through these limitations do they not?

Alexis said...

Butch, if I can think of a possible option that hasn't occurred to the character, I will often have the highest intelligence character roll an check ... and if successful, will suggest the alternative. But I won't make a character take that. Smart is as smart chooses to do.

Dave R. said...

I've seen players willing to play up a low intelligence or wisdom, but to me it's usually seemed overblown. I figure, by analogy to the real world, you can be on the left end of the bell curve and still be functional. But functional yet a little slow or gullible is harder to bring out than just doing stupid, wacky shit.

Which doesn't actually directly address your point, I guess that's just my personal stumbling block on the topic. Bogus' example struck me as pretty heavy-handed, for instance, a DM equivalence to the stupid-wacky approach I've seen. Like Giordanisti, I'd want some kind of notice and rules on that kind of thing, such as tying swampland investments to lifestyle upkeep and getting a save. Or plug it into carousing if you're using that.

Castles and Crusades makes a stab at getting rid of dump stats by giving every stat a linked save. I suppose you could combine that with, say, a social combat system and you'd have a start. That still doesn't touch combat and tactics though, so it's not everything you're after.

Butch said...

But you're saying a player who is smarter/wiser than his character (and blows his roll) gets no choice. What if the character is smarter than the player?

Why does the player get a choice to do the wrong thing, but not a choice to do the right thing?

Alexis said...

I'd like to point out, Butch, that the ability check is used only in extenuating circumstances. I don't randomly stop players from doing things on account of their wisdom; I'm not a policeman.

If the character is smarter than the player, I return to what I said above. I do my best to increase their knowledge with my own contribution to it. But let's be serious: if the character is smarter than both you and the DM, its really impossible to provide the full effect of that, isn't it?

I don't understand your last question, Butch. A choice is a choice. If you have all the substantial information on the table, whether the choice is right or wrong is really dependent on you, the player. This is still a game, and sometimes you still guess wrong. You always have a choice to do the right thing ... within the reasonable expectations of any human being.

Butch said...

OK, here's an example.

Goofus enters a room. There's an ornate box on a table, and a pile of bones in front of it. Goofus's player says, "no way I'm touching that." DM rolls a die, notes Goofus failed a Wisdom check. "You feel irresistably compelled to possess what's inside the box." The player argues, "I see the bones; why would I even touch that box?" The DM points out that the player attempted to resist, but failed.

Now take the opposite point of view. Gallant enters, sees the box, sees the bones. Passes his Wisdom check. But Gallant's player is inexperienced, impulsive, and maybe not the smartest guy at the table. He says he opens the box -- something a character with an 18 INT would never do.

I'm assuming you would say: "Are you sure you want to do that? Remember there are bones on the floor."

He says, "Yes, I want to see what's in the box."

Do you roll again and see if he "fails" his INT check in order to allow him to that?

If not, why not?

Alexis said...

Right there, the first half of your example Butch, is where a lot of DMs would go but I wouldn't. For a couple of reasons.

1) I wouldn't insist on a roll anytime any character was being careful. The dumbest people know how to be careful, and if you are a character who is a leveled class, you obviously have learned to be careful.

2) I never, ever, ever, have shit sitting on a table that is dangerous unless you have very, very good reason to believe it might be ... such as you are in a Big Bad's treasure vault. I'm not James Raggi. A dangerous box is never just sitting on a table. So it wouldn't matter anyway.

Your second question - this is still a game. And yes, I would say, "Are you sure" ... and I probably would be more inclined to do that if the player had a higher intelligence. But I would never make a roll to limit a character deliberately on the basis of some stat they had. That is not my right as a DM. The player, no matter how intelligent, is always free to make mistakes.

I don't make checks to force players to make 'mistakes' or not make 'mistakes.' I roll checks to gauge a player's success at accomplishing a thing, or not accomplishing a thing. Can you open the box? Of course. Can you mentally resist what's inside the box? That's a check. Can you put the box down again once you've opened it? That's a check. Is the box harming you? That's a saving throw, and not a check at all.

Listen, I might SAY a character shouldn't do something on account of their intelligence, but if they want to be willful and insistent, they're always free to act stupidly.

Kenwolf said...

@butch poor goofus :( when the dm tells a player his character is doing something even tho the player said he isn't, their has to be some reason other then just having a low intelligence score to make the dm take over the character in that instance.

as for the player saying the character with an 18 int is gonna open the box even tho their is bones in front of it just means the character made a bad choice. no matter how smart someone is they can still make a bad judgment call and do something stupid.

Brian said...

First, I agree that "emotional baggage" might be the point of D&D. (Sorry for the hyperbole especially while attributing it to you.)

BUT, at the same time, I think we have to accept that it's mechanically easier to give effect to the physical stats than to the mental stats. And that trying too hard to balance it is bad. If a player takes the time to concoct a rational and amusing reason why they shouldn't have to pay the drawbridge tax, I'd prefer to encourage it rather than say, "No, your character's too stupid and obnoxious to come up with something like that."
Again, sorry to be putting words into your mouth. Maybe I should be asking a question. Practiclly speaking, what can/should a DM do to encourage or force a player to play a character according to stats?