Tuesday, November 8, 2011

Rethinking Intelligence

For a bit I'd like to write a bit about the intelligence of various humanoid races, without getting bogged down in the particulars of this race or that, but rather to concentrate upon the difference between what is a "low" intelligence and what is a "high" intelligence ... to get a handle on the various intelligence levels and what they might mean.

I don't suppose for a moment that Gygax and crew had any more idea of the differences between 'very intelligent' and 'extraordinarily intelligent' than do the people playing the game right now.  They were convenient labels, they sounded like they were stacked in a logical order, and it was obviously presupposed that people would just esoterically accept the labels without any need for them to be defined.  And indeed, they are not defined.  What, for example, can a very intelligent creature NOT do that a highly intelligent creature can?  Is it even a question of ability?  Is it the speed at which a creature can think?  And if so, how does that affect the game in any way?

There aren't any rules for it, so we know Gygax was pulling the whole framework out of his ass, or phoning it in if you prefer, dumping it into the book and then moving onto things that were scaled and made sense.  I know a lot of players out there don't think its important, or don't care, but like any scientist I want those things scaled and measured and clearly understood as to what a 13 intelligence means as opposed to a 12 intelligence.  I'm not satisfied with rolling the difference out, since intelligence is in fact not random.  People with higher intelligence DO understand things intuitively that people with lower intelligence do not ... to the eternal chagrin of persons with lower intelligence.

Measuring understanding is, however, a very difficult science, and hasn't been understood yet with regards to actual intelligence ... and therefore it would be difficult to hang game rules on any study of the subject.  Alas, we are limited in creating game rules to things that can be established in black and white terms: a 6 on a d6 is not a 5, cannot be mistaken for a five, and never will be a 5.  This is the sort of game rule we need for intelligence.  Not because a very intelligent creature isn't occasionally stupid, or because a stupid creature can't have moments of genius, but because in the wider sense, we are talking of cultural entities comprised of stupid creatures and genius creatures, and therefore there's something to be argued for statistical generalities.

For example:  how is a Naga culture profoundly different from a Goblin culture.  We know the nagas are smart and the goblins not so much, but what exactly does 'different' mean?  How do we resolve what ought to be present in a naga culture?  Or in any culture for that matter.

There is, of course, the pulling it out of the DM's ass technique, the tried and true method, forever defended and requiring absolutely no continuity or logic whatsoever.  The lovely thing about this method is that it needs no defense, as illogic is in itself a kind of proof.  If you are the sort that ballyhoos this method, and do so loudly and proudly, you really shouldn't be reading this post, or this blog for that matter.  I'm not your sort of beer buddy.  I'm sure your time could be better spent right now buying lottery tickets.  Go get one and the rest of us will continue.

Since I can't measure comprehension in any way that is as absolutist as I want for the game, I'm pretty much in the realm of ability vs. non-ability, or knowledge vs. non-knowledge.  It's really the realm of wisdom and not intelligence, but we generally suppose from fiction that a really smart culture possesses all sorts of cool and interesting technologies that a really backward culture doesn't have.  Note, please, that we don't call them "dumb cultures."  There is the presumption, always present, that a backward culture will one day be a forward culture, on the same track that we ourselves followed.  In fact, we can thank Star Trek and other sources for hammering into our minds that every primitive culture is filled with people who are just as smart as we are, they just haven't sat in classrooms and been taught jet propulsion and gross anatomy.

There's a physiological precendent for this, of course - that being that we are substantially unchanged from the same biological construct, Cro-magnon man, who roamed the planet 150,000 years ago.  We have the same brain, the same structure, the same built-in probable comprehension of languages and so on.  We understand from our studies that if we could teleport a Cro-magnon baby from the distant past into our present, it would probably be fully capable of learning language and growing up just as any modern child.  There are a lot of reasons to think this is true, but I'm not going to go into them; feel free to do some of your own reading.

So we are not really any 'smarter' than our distant ancestors, which argues that our civilization is just the happenstance of hitting upon technologies which have changed our outlook this way and that.  Those technologies came very slowly for the first 140,000 years, but they piled upon each other and eventually led to processes in our culture that taught us how to seek technologies, no longer relying upon discovering them by accident.

An accidental technology would be something like the acquisition of fire.  I don't say discovery, of course, because fire was around long before we were ... but at some point we know that the domestication of fire - the power to make fire at will, and not depend on gathering it from a random source - was probably hit upon by witnessing some particular event and reproducing that event.  Unlike modern technologies, where we conceive of the technology and then actively bring it about without ever having any prior proof that it was possible to bring it about.

I digress into this because I'd like to step into the realm of humanoid species that were not cro-magnon man ... since we are, after all, talking about goblins and bugbears as opposed to humans.  Our one obvious example is Neanderthal man, which had been in existence for some 400,000 years prior to the arrival of Cro-magnon.  We have a long cultural history of perceiving that the Neanderthal was dumber than we were.  It was supposed for several hundred years that we wiped them out because we were smarter, but it is understood now that we probably intermarried with them and that all of us today possess a fair quantity of Neanderthal genes - arguably, some more than others.

It is not as though Neanderthals were without technologies of their own.  Prior to the Cro-magnons appearing, they developed tools, weapons, techniques and cultures all their own.  There's no doubt from the evidence that Cro-magnons were superior in these things, but since we already perceive that technology is a result of circumstance and development, and not necessarily intelligence, there is a little proposal to make here.

First, however, let's point out that the speed at which technologies were witnessed and reproduced was certainly much faster with the Cro-magnon species.  The Neanderthals had 400,000 years to accomplish what they accomplished, and we managed what we have in only 150,000.  So we were obviously more observant and quicker at picking up nature's ball than were the Neanderthals.

But suppose there had never been any Cro-magnons.  Suppose that the Neanderthals had another million years or so to pick up the ball, so to speak.  It's not an unreasonable proposition.  Can we really argue that Neanderthals wouldn't have eventually learned how to be rocket scientists? 

Perhaps it would have taken much, much longer.  Perhaps Neanderthal universities would require ten or twenty years of steady training to bring Neanderthal children up to scale ... and perhaps Neanderthal doctors would only practice for ten or fifteen years before having to retire.  We can presume their lifespans were longer, like ours became longer, but perhaps all the training it took would shorten the professional years of practice.

From this perspective, aren't we saying that a goblin can do as much as a naga, given its time of existence?  Perhaps goblins are just 'dumb' because they were only created a few millenia ago, whereas naga have been around for 25,000 years.  And perhaps humans aren't quite as smart as a naga, but they've had 125,000 years longer to learn how to do stuff.  And as we know, it's those last five hundred years that really make the difference.

Consider that every humanoid race smarter than your average dog is generally considered to have mastered the power of fire.  You don't picture a bunch of bugbears sitting around a camp without a fire going, do you?  Have you ever described a camp of 'intelligent' creatures at night without a fire?  But of course there were such camps, for hundreds of thousands of years, in our own actual history.

This makes the argument that either A) every creature is smart enough to create fire, even if it means they were shown how to do so last week; and B) every creature has had the same amount of time to develop as a race that we have had.  Either way, we're looking at a system of homogenous intelligence, where once the technology is created by one culture, it immediately becomes available to all the other cultures because we as DMs don't - or can't - perceive any difference.  Goblins may be a little less organized in your combats, but they still use all the same weapons, have the same armor, gather food the same way and sit around the same fires that your much smarter elves sit around.  There doesn't seem to be any problem in a goblin or a bugbear being able to manipulate technology once its put into their hands.

What I'm saying is that this is substantially wrong.  Using a sword, for instance, is not just a matter of picking it up and swinging it.  An ape can do that.  Doesn't make the ape a swordsman.  Swordplay is a complex intellectual pursuit that requires gauging a lot of factors besides your ability to swing.  In other words, you might be able to put a sword in a bugbear's hand, but you shouldn't expect the bugbear to be able to parry with it, or set up combinations, or know about the intricacies of footwork and so on.  It is a low intelligence creature.  Even if you could teach it over ten years how to do those things, it would NEVER be smart enough to react to something in swordplay it had never seen before.  It simply wouldn't have the intelligence to interpret what it was seeing and concoct a logical strategy against it.  By the time a low intelligence creature could do all that, it would be dead.  Remember, Cro-magnons are three times faster than Neanderthals.

The same ought to be true with creatures in the game who are smarter than us.  They ought to be able to fight with swords at a skill level much higher than an ordinary person - or indeed do anything with a much higher ability.  Their comprehension should be lightning-quick, the intricacies of their language much harder to grasp, their tools requiring a tasking multiplicity our brain-pans can't perform at the same rate.  Oh, sure, you might eventually learn how to play their variety of chess ... but you'll never win if you're playing 'speed-chess' with them.  You don't think that fast.

The thrust of all this writing comes down to this:

1)  Virtually every technology in the game is equally spread among all races regardless of intelligence, and probably no one wants to change that.
2)  Intelligence is speed of comprehension, and not the possession of technologies.

For that matter, intelligence is the possession of certain moralities, but that's another essay.

A smarter creature therefore ought to be able to use all the same existing technologies better ... and that is the scale that ought to be put into place.  It shouldn't be that a naga or a bugbear has a better to hit table because it has more hit dice.  Both should fight on to hit tables that are commensurate with their intelligence.  And the same ought to be true with most die rolls.  A smarter fighter should be able to do better with a grapple.  He or she should be able to leap from a high place with less likelihood of dying.  He or she should be able to take down a bigger, stronger opponent even if that other opponent is a higher 'level' ... which might be a case of a better to hit table for the lower level, smarter fighter and a lot of hit points for the higher level, dumber fighter.  And that might be a very interesting - and quite socially common - contest.

Intelligence, not strength or dexterity, ought to be the MASTER stat.

But nobody bothered to make rules for it.


  1. Interesting post Alexis. I am reminded of the character Roy's recent victory on Rich Burlew's Order of the Stick. However, I think that Wizards of the Coast already beat you to it in 4th Edition D&D.

    When calculating AC, characters wearing light armor can apply either their Dexterity modifier or their Intelligence modifier to their AC.

    I realize it's not the same as using Intelligence to gain a tactical advantage, (although some classes like Swordmages do get bonuses to hit using their Intelligence score), but it does reflect two ways you can avoid getting hit.

    A rogue with a high Dexterity can dodge and weave around an opponent's blade. A wizard knows how to block that same blade using only a large stick.

  2. I realize I'm not that familiar with 4e. The one time I ripped the books my eyes watered so much from laughing it was hard to perceive the pertinent details.

    I think a modifier is a cop-out, Satchmo. My point is that a humanoid of the same physique and level as someone three intelligence levels higher wouldn't have a hope in hell of winning a combat, period. Like the chances of you winning an epee contest with an olympic competitor (unless you are one, of course). It isn't 'chance,' which the modifier denotes.

    Unless you want to make the modifier such that your chance to hit is 27 times greater.

  3. Well, Gygax didn't, anyway. As it happens, later games have (and I'mma toot the Hackmaster horn again here, apologies) made intelligence and so on more valuable. But, it's been established you aren't much for looking at other systems.

    AD&D's weakness, to me, lies in the "dump stat" mentality, which went a long way towards the push for specialization and powergaming that's become a staple of later editions. *cough* It's true, I read it on the internet.

    It wouldn't, and doesn't, take much effort to fiddle with the stat tables/bonuses enough to encourage less "dumping" and more well-rounded individuals who just so happen to be excellent at a particular task.

    Whether that effect is something desired or not is, naturally, up to the individual user.

  4. The problem with any solution stemming from another game system, Arduin, is that it is like hiring a maid to live-in, then having to put up with her drunken unhygienic husband.

  5. I think the problem has to do with the a mindset firmly rooted in the idea that all intelligences are equivalent, and that judging how intelligent (or not) something is is a simple matter of assigning a value to a scale devised by humans, and comparing how a solution is arrived at versus how 'we' would arrive at the solution.

    Using bugbears as an example, perhaps their penchant for sneaky-sneaky comes as a result of a mind that is tuned to consider the optimal stealthy path of doing virtually anything. Their culture, such as it is, continues to reinforce and improve upon the stealthy path, and an alternative to such a thing would be inconceivable for the average sort.

    In certain circles of archeology, it is believed that the current crop of h. sapiens, reduced nearly to extinction by climate changes and such, somehow changed to become master exploiters of the environment. While poor h.heidelbergensis were specialized hunters in specialized climates, our ancestors were successful at a variety of food-gathering methods, across many types of ecospheres. The conclusion within this circle isn't that h.sapiens were smarter than h.heidelbergensis, but that they outcompeted them on every front at a time when resources were very scarce in the areas that were occupied.

    I think it can be said that, generally speaking, the game's designers and many GMs are lazy thinkers. It's close enough that (as one blogger puts it) demi-humans are portrayed simply as "humans with funny hats." Humanity's drives are their drives, humanity's skills are their skills, and humanity's solutions are their solutions.

    Might as well make all the monsters humans in the first place, if one can't be bothered.

  6. Intelligence and technology may or may not go hand in hand. Look at the curious history of invention and technological use by homosapiens and our predecessors.

    2.5 million years ago, simple stone tools.
    1.5 million years ago, fire use
    170k years ago, sewn clothing
    100k years ago, better stone tools
    27k years ago, ceramics
    15k years ago, domestic dogs
    10-12k years ago, agriculture
    6k years ago, the wheel.
    5-6k years ago, writing
    3k years ago, the sundial
    2k years ago, the stirrup
    300-350 years ago, the modern pocket
    66 years ago, the atomic bomb
    about 40 years ago, the personal computer
    18 years ago, the mosaic web browser

    We sewed clothes for most of 170,000 years before people figured out they could regularly put pockets, inside clothing how bright could we really be?

    Is all progress made by geniuses or those able to explain genius?

    The technology of the traditional D&D setting would have to be very old or the separation between the different types of races pretty recent for the consistent use and level of technology in the average D&D setting.

    Smarter doesn't always mean better, while I can kick the heck out of a Tiger with a high power rifle I don't stand a chance if I fall off a jeep with no weapons on hand.

    There is a strong history in D&D of revealed secrets being an advantage. The cutting-edge is kept back form the bulk of peoples and is represented by the magical item.

    In the end of the day Naga are lousy blacksmiths.

  7. Bang! That is right on the damn money, Frotz.

    That blogger refers to the Planet of Hats trope.

  8. I am rethinking Satchmo's point at the beginning. Not the part about 4e, but the reality that to keep the game playable, you really can't make an extraordinary intelligence three times more likely to hit than a high intelligence combatant. We all know this.

    Only thing is, if you are going to rewrite the to hit tables from the DMG (which I have been thinking about all day, and which I swore once I'd never need to do), the one thing I'd want to retain is that the fighters do not fight on the same table as the magic users.

    At 7th level, a fighter is 25% more likely to hit AC 5 than a equal level magic user. It seems to me that if you were to add a 5% bonus per point of intelligence above 11 (no namby pamby +3 bonus here, let's have a real effect!), then the mage table is going to have to start at a much more reduced level than the fighter's than a mere 5% (both classes at 1st level). Any such bonus, however, is going to really kick major ass if a fighter gets a hold of it ... better to put the 18 under intelligence than strength.

    It all sounds very interesting. I'm certainly not certain its doable.

  9. It's not only not doable, it's flat-out incorrect. I do sports, and in the past, I have done martial arts. I have been in quite a few physical contests, fights and spars, and I'll tell you flat out that intelligence is less of a factor in winning a fight than muscle memory, speed of reflexes, physical conditioning and general viciousness and pain resistance.

    In fact, intelligence can be a real drawback in a fight - single-minded meanness and focus will take down even a smart fighter.

    All else being equal, or close to equal, then intelligence comes into play. Time to plan, then intelligence comes into play. When the knives are out, though... not so much.

  10. I sense real anger there, Wicked, and I really can't blame you.

    Still, you don't 'learn' anything without intelligence, do you? This muscle memory and physical conditioning you speak of is practiced in a very precise way which is gathered by your brain and implemented through your muscles by means of very exacting training.

    You cannot go into a field, move your body around randomly and develop 'muscle memory.' The memory is not in the muscles, it is in the autonomic brain, the human brain, that reacts and builds the pathway that cause the muscles to respond reflexively.

    Can you swear up and down that a goblin, with a goblin's brain, can learn tae kwon do? If you can, you don't understand what's being said here at all.

  11. I thank you for the attention given to my post, Alexis, but I have a further question:

    Will the restructuring of the to-hit tables resolve the Linear Warriors Quadratic Wizards cliche? Or is that the entire point of playing a wizard?

  12. Lord, Satchmo, how would I start to do that?

    My wizards are a bit limited in that it takes multiple rounds to throw a spell, which tends to slow down the god-equality motif. They may have the power of the gods, but they need something between them and the fighter to unleash it.

    Because of arguments Wicked makes, and my returning to a bit of my own sanity, I don't intend to restructure the to hit tables. That was just noodling around in my head.

  13. @wickedmurph

    I think that your example brings in a lot more variables than just intelligence vs. strength or intelligence vs. dexterity.

    Folks who are tougher (which I abstract to mean more hit points) or meaner (which I abstract to mean more damage when hitting) can certainly overcome someone whose intelligence tends toward philosophical exploits.

    But there are different types of intelligence, which can include the intelligence of people who study the habits and tactics of their opponents (like a lot of boxers and martial artists and sports folks do) and then go out and train specifically to take advantage of their weaknesses with overall plans (strategy) and in-combat adjustments (tactics). And then there are the intuitive geniuses who can improvise moves on the fly -- isn't that a kind of intelligence as well?

    And the pioneers of the various styles of martial arts (western and eastern) surely can be considered smart -- some book smart, some not, but certainly possessing enough intelligence to condense various moves and maneuvers into a family of techniques that are considered a "fighting style" or a "martial art".

  14. I submit that the type of intelligence that makes one better at swordfighting is called Dexterity.

    Less pithily, a mind can be good at different things to different degrees. Short term memory, long term memory, comprehending languages, following symbolic logic, observing patterns in information, coordinating body movements, rapidly assessing situations, recognizing emotions, modeling another's mental state - all of these are abilities that minds can, more or less independently, be good or bad at. A fly is, by the standards of a human being, a moron - but it has fully 12 times the perceptual speed that a human has, which is why we have such a damnably hard time swatting them. A civilization of flies would never, ever harness fire, but they'd beat us in a swordfight every time.

    The kind of intelligence used for science, engineering, and reasoning is really good to have, not because it lets us win swordfights with dumb tigers, but because it lets us invent guns.

  15. AD&D Dexterity obviously includes speed of thought. And I could make a damn good case for Wisdom being as important in melee as Intelligence.

    If you're going this far Alexis, I don't see how you can avoid going all the way and redesigning the whole kit and caboodle.

    There are plenty of people out there, with low I.Q's, who are wizards in their chosen fields of endeavor.

    As it stands, the AD&D Ability Scores, are similar to AD&D Combat. If you take them beyond the abstract, they break down.

  16. When I ran some games I said that Intelligence is in fact education. It sounds like you're saying that non-human creatures' intelligence is implicitly treated the same way.

  17. Intelligence most certainly plays a role in man-to-man combat.
    I'm going to share an embarrassing personal story:

    My brother and I fought like cats and dogs or more correctly Kato and Clouseau for years. Our last fistfight happened when we were 19-21. It was a pointless sibling squabble, I have no idea what the fight was about now. I was a physically lazy applied maths student and he was a delivery truck driver at the time.
    At one point in the fight he punched me hard..really hard...as physics sent my head and body spinning away I couldn't help but note how hard he punched me and was clever enough to note to myself "better end this now or it's really going to hurt later" so I crumpled onto the floor and pretended he hurt me far worse. He forgot his rage for a moment and I sprung up punched him hard enough to knock him off his feet and onto his back and pointed out he might be stronger now but I was always going to be smarter and meaner. That was our last fight. Intelligence (and ruthlessness) won the day and about 18 years of fistfights came to an end.

    If you don't know your limitations and aren't able to adapt to the observed and know limits of your opponent and act within those parameters you are probably going to lose the fight. I knew all the established limitations in that sibling squabble and immediately recalculated the situation when I realized how much stronger my brother had become (and how flabby I'd gotten) and I won and set the situation for my brother and I to treat each other like adults.

    The ability to observe and catalog the limitations and capabilities of oneself and opponents is intelligence.

  18. It seems to me that the way to implement this would be that everyone gets a (big) XP modifier for intelligence.

    Wicked makes the - very correct - point that being smart really doesn't matter one whit in a fight.

    You make the - very correct - point that learning how to do things is easier if you're smart.

    Seems to me that a smart guy who's accrued 1000XP (baseline) should be awarded, say, an adjusted 1500XP. The dumb guy, maybe 500XP.

    The same would go for goblins and whatnot. You wouldn't see goblins getting to 5th level much, as it would take a normal goblin twice as much experience to get there as a normal human.

    But, ecologically speaking, goblins could make up for that in other ways. Maybe they need less food, are more tolerant of harsh climates, reproduce very, very quickly, or whatever - and therefore are able to compete with humans despite their intellectual disability, and commensurate lack of levels (and therefore ability).


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