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.