Being in the Main the Mouth of Olde House Rules

Tuesday, June 26, 2018

Playing Dumb in a Game for Brains...

Gaming is 100% mental.  I mean, we aren't really swinging our swords, and rolling dice or reaching for a drink is probably as physical as it gets.  This means that the best way to participate is either through role play or strategy and tactics.  Now good role play is a must, and I can't emphasize enough the joys of using funny voices and making stunningly bad decisions in deference to a low wisdom (I have stories).

Strategy and problem solving is another.  Gaming is dangerous for the characters, although maybe not so much for the players (I did get a cramp in my dice hand once, and there's always the Onion Dip Incident of which we never speak).  Good strategy is what keeps our characters alive and lets us be a badass Conan style; and while we sometimes have to depend upon the cleverness of others, it's nice to be the hero sometimes. 

Sure, we can get there by rolling a natural 20, but that's mere luck, not heroics, and actual participation demands that we think and act.  And so here's the rub...

How do we contribute solutions when our character has a 3 intelligence?  I mean, this is an accident of birth that unfairly shuts folks out of full participation.  Sure, we can spend the session doing Lennie Small from Of Mice and Men, all the while hoping that the dice manage to make us look good - but that's not enough.  And I'm not sure it could ever be.

Now one reader suggested that we could treat it as acting.  A low intelligence means we withhold ideas even if we have them because our character is slow (OD&D suggests this in the core rulebooks).  And by contrast, having a brilliant character when we're otherwise decidedly average entitles us to a roll, with success delivering just the right strategy on a silver platter. I won't go that far, but my friend was still on to something...

So the best answer is to rethink intelligence.  Someone (I think Gygax in an early issue of Dragon) suggested that INTx10 =IQ, meaning a 3 intelligence is an IQ of 30!  And just to be clear, a 30 IQ is severely mentally disabled and incapable of even basic self care, which makes adventuring out of the question.  And the Monster Manual II says an intelligence of 3-4 counts as semi-intelligent (probably below dogs).  Sorry, no way.

Instead, imagine character (and humanoid) intelligence on a scale as follows:

3-7 (Slow).  The character is dim-witted or maybe just an incurious person.  They're capable of self care and understand how the world works enough to get by, although maybe not without some misadventures.  And while they won't contribute brilliant or complex strategies, they're more than capable of simple, direct solutions, especially when all the required information is right there in front of them.  This is superior to just "playing dumb" because it calls for a fusion of thoughtful role play with due deference to the numbers.

Think of this character as a Forrest Gump.  Maybe not the brightest bulb, but capable of understanding simple things extremely well.  Combined with a low wisdom, the character is impulsive and id-driven or maybe naive and easily taken by scams.  There are plenty of foibles.  But paired with a higher wisdom, they possess a clear, simple insight.    

8-14 (Average).  This is us.  And most characters, really.  Nothing to add.

15-18 (Brilliant).  This character knows a lot.  But maybe they lack common sense (low wisdom) or simply lack the practical experience to make good decisions in a given situation, especially if outside of their experience.  An 18-intelligence magic user should always be outclassed by a 7-intelligence fighter in combat situations.  Really, don't think for one minute that a high intelligence is a golden ticket to all the best strategies.  No, the real value of a higher score is languages and spells known.  And rolling under for knowledge...

Does your character know something about the campaign setting?  Maybe.  If their background allows, and if they roll under their intelligence on a d20 in true B/X style, which makes having a higher score meaningful while (appropriately) penalizing those who lack intellectual prowess.  And it does so by granting clues, which must still be interpreted by the player (no free lunch here, not even for geniuses).  This is quite reasonable. 

So Dorn the Dim (of the 5 intelligence) will never exploit the temporal flow of dimensional energies to disrupt an evil wizard's trap.  But he can think to ignite the oil at their feet, meaning that the challenge of "playing dumb" isn't withholding solutions, but devising simple and effective answers consistent with a simple and direct personality.  And while Bran the Brilliant very well could exploit their knowledge of extra-dimensional physics and maybe think to ignite the oil, they'll still have to think it up themselves.  It's the smart thing to do...


  1. good article. diving into the languages known, etc portion of the rules, I've redefined Intelligence as book-learnin' vs Wisdom as emotional intelligence or perception (also reinforced by later editions). so a "smart" person may not have schooling...

  2. I like where you draw the line on dice for high Intelligence. The player gets a clue, but they have to figure it out. I let other players participate in the problem solving. The less intelligent character might choose to keep watch, but the player gets to help and have fun. And I love the B/X ability check. Simple and fast.