Thursday, 29 September 2016

'How am I supposed to play this character?': Intelligence and Wisdom revisited

Earlier this week, a new player joined my group,  and in the manner of our people she rolled up a new character: 3d6, in order, just like it's meant to be. Her stats were as follows: Str 14, Dex 15, Con 14, Int 4, Wis 18, Cha 8.

She looked up from her character sheet and asked: 'How am I meant to play this?'

The tricky bit was the Int and Wis combination, of course. High Int and high Wis just means that you're really clever; low Int and low Wis just means that you're really stupid. High Int and low Wis is pretty easy; everyone knows people who are academically gifted but have no common sense whatsoever. Low-ish Int and high Wis isn't too bad: it's easy to imagine someone being really wise despite not having any kind of 'book learning' or aptitude for abstract reasoning. (For some reason, people usually seem to play them as folksy rural types.) But Wisdom 18 and Intelligence 4? How can you be both super-wise and super-stupid?

In the event, she decided to play her PC as a kind of weird, witchy, primal character: totally illiterate, largely innumerate, shockingly ignorant... and yet with a kind of instant, empathic, intuitive understanding of the world, which allowed her to instantly understand situations in bursts of wordless insight. (Rather fittingly, she promptly bashed some guy's brains out with a skillet and became a priestess of Tsathogga.) She didn't really come across as a stupid person in play, though; rather, she came across as an extremely intelligent person whose mind just didn't quite work in the same way as other people's. As a character it was great, but I'm not sure how well it reflected what was written on her character sheet.

Since the session, I've given it a bit more thought, and I reckon that you could simultaneously portray both very high wisdom and very low intelligence either by playing as a kind of 'holy fool', or as a near-feral character who runs almost entirely off instinct. Those both seem kinda narrow, though. 'Wolf girl or idiot mystic' is a pretty slim range of choices for a character you've just rolled up.

Anyone else have any ideas? How have you played very high Wis, very low Int characters in your campaigns?

15 comments:

  1. I usually run Wisdom as more akin to "Willpower", i.e. mental toughness, a mental constitution if you will.

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    1. So Int 4, Wis 18 would be... what? Stupid and bull-headed? Low intelligence plus high willpower sounds *worse* than low intelligence and low willpower, because it means no-one will be able to dissuade you from your stupid plans...

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  2. "Intelligence = character's capacity for book learning in the game" "Wisdom = intuitive sense attunement in the game" and "problem solving ability comes from the player" pretty much sums it up for me. A smart player with low INT and WIS is THE toughest challenge but the above definition set allows you to pull it off.

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  3. Ok, Let's go with the definition from the previous comment.
    book learning: the character is brain damaged, lesions on the brain, illiterate and can NEVER learn to read, is physically incapable of learning to read. And maybe also has Korsakov's. Short term memory is erased at random intervals.
    Problem solving: the character is also Sherlock Holmes. intuitive problem solver. picks up on micro-expressions, body language, personal relationships.
    That's my two copper pieces.

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    1. Hm. That sounds fascinating, but also super-difficult to actually play from minute to minute!

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  4. A character with high WIS and low INT is very wise, indeed, and intuitively knows the solution to most problems presented to her. However, the character doesn't know they know the solution and is usually distracted by throwing stones and singing loudly- her party members must give very specific prompts to get any useful input from her.
    "Joanie, do you know how to open this door?"
    "Uhhh, pull the handle :)"
    as opposed to
    "Joanie, do you know how to bypass the arrow trap on this door?"
    "OH! That rock over there has to get pushed in before you open it. See how it's scuffed up? I tried to eat it but it's stuck in the ground :("

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    1. That one sounds like a lot of fun! The player would need to be able to trust the other PCs to remember to ask her about things, though, rather than just rushing ahead with their own ideas as PCs are wont to do...

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  5. One possible interpretation would be a holy savant type - wandering wide-eyed through the world making gnomic utterances that turn out to contain deep underlying truths, and occasionally stepping out in front of buses because in the great scheme of things it is all one.

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    1. Could certainly work, and somewhat similar to what the player is actually doing. Runs the risk of just being high Int in disguise, though.

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  6. Long time lurker, I've been wondering about this issue for a while. This is a bit long, sorry for that.

    The way I see it,

    - intelligence is active, analytical, and long-term: the attribute is used when an individual deliberately and methodically sets to observe, analyze and understand a process, situation or mechanism. It is about unraveling unseen things by the use of logic, focused observation and instrumental reason. Once a mechanism is understood, it can be ‘explained’, the information can be shared and made to profit others. Activities based on intelligence can be taught through a written medium: wizard schools and so on.

    - wisdom is passive, intuitive, and immediate: the attribute is used unknowingly by the subject, reflecting his passive capabilities of perception (with respect to the natural world) and empathy or emotional attunement (with respect to the world of relations between individuals). It is also a measure of the subject’s mental/spiritual resilience. It is intuitive in that the individual does not need to follow a specific method to perceive, though she may focus her attention on something specific (‘make a spot check…’). But above all, wisdom grants an immediate effect to the person – you perceive something or you don’t, you resist a compulsion or you don’t – without any conscious, deliberate effort. This makes the advantages bestowed by wisdom impossible to transmit, communicate or explain. It is eminently personal. Skills and traits based on wisdom cannot be taught through reading, but ‘through living’: the priest, the monk, may improve their attunement to nature or to the spiritual world through effort and teaching, but each individual’s learning path is her own.

    - charisma is active, expressive/symbolic, and short-term: the attribute requires intention and focus in order to produce effects, and it is only meaningful in the relation of the subject with other sentient beings. This implies some kind of symbolic medium or shared language: a charismatic individual alone produces no effects, and if unable to express herself, will not produce effects on others. It has nothing to do with beauty. Its effects are short-lived and operate mostly through emotions, rather than through one’s rational understanding. You may be moved by a performance and be utterly unable to explain why, or share the feelings you lived through. It therefore, cannot be communicated through writing: you do not teach someone how to perform well by writing or talking about it, but by helping the learner practice his form of expression, and rehearse, and refine it. In other words a written text can move and persuade, but a text cannot really teach one to write persuasive and moving texts...

    How does this apply to this high wisdom low intelligence character? Well, I’d imagine that the character has very little interest in or capacity for explaining causal processes, or mechanisms. She’ll be able to discern quite a lot about her environment or about the attitudes and feelings of people around her, but will be incapable of explaining what she discerns. She wouldn’t be easily depressed, or manipulated into excessive anger or joy, or into doing what she is told. She’d be very bad at predictions, strategy and second-order reasoning. She’d probably have poor memory, or a rather unstructured way of recalling and recounting the past, even her own past. This has fascinating implications in terms of her survival strategy: who to trust? how to discern between dangerous and harmless things and people? Illiteracy and innumeracy seem to be unavoidable, and given her low charisma, one can surmise she has a hard time communicating and expressing her feelings and concerns, or swaying people’s opinions.

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    1. 'Able to understand the situation, but not able to articulate or communicate it' is a good way of thinking about it. I might suggest that to the player!

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  7. I am surprised no one mentioned Dragon 284. It has an article on very low scores and how to play them.

    And then there is the class requirements in first edition AD&D- just check out the charts for each score to see what class a character must take for having a score below 6.

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    1. Low scores isn't the problem. It's this specific combination of high and low which is a bit puzzling!

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  8. Many of my players are teens and many of them are new to D&D too, so building *player* knowledge and problem-solving is job #1 (otherwise we just end up generating new characters every session following TPKs).

    Never wanting my players to have to hamstring themselves, I've taken to treating Intelligence as something more akin to knowledge and acquired learning and Wisdom as sensory perception.

    A low Int, high Wis character then would simply lack training in literacy, numeracy, and language while having very keen eyesight, hearing, and ability to notice incongruities in their environment.

    While my definition of "intelligence" is way off of course, it actually fits the way it is used in Basic D&D pretty well--for example, high Int yields additional languages known.

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  9. I have heard it said that, as a player, you should just try to play your character in the best way possible. Any changes due to the character's stats are taken care of by the game rules.

    You don't expect a player with a high or low strength to act stronger or weaker at the table. You don't expect players with a high dex to act more dextrously. They are both taken care of by positive and negative modifiers in combat. Likewise, charisma is taken care of in reaction roles and when hiring retainers.

    Intelligence is generally reflected in a bonus or restriction in the number of languages and skills. Wisdom generally provides a bonus or penalty to saving throws versus magic.

    The player just has to work around these restrictions. That is where the play skill come in.

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