Jun 222011

There are hundreds, if not thousands of role-playing games out there – maybe even tens of thousands.  They all look and act differently, but at their core they are all about gamers sitting around a table, taking on the roles of larger-than-life characters.  Dice and character statistics are involved to mitigate actions fairly, while the act of role-playing is largely left ungoverned.  When I say ungoverned, I’m referring to the game system’s rules – individual gaming groups (and GMs in particular) often step in to referee the act of role-playing, based on personal preferences.

In this article, I’m going to suggest a way to role-play your character, based on his inherent abilities, stats, or attributes.  If you refer to the article’s title, it says “The Easy Way.”  Nowhere today will I say what is the best, or the correct way, only what I feel to be the easiest.

I’ve been gaming for two decades, and I’ve run the gamut of play-styles from fast and loose to strict and straight.  In some games, the GM (myself included) has said that players need to play their characters according to their stat ratings, while others have said that it doesn’t matter what the numbers are – just play how you play.

You know what I’m talking about: the character with a low Intelligence or Charisma (perhaps a dump stat), played by a gamer who portrays them with exceptional Intelligence or Charisma.

“That’s a great plan, but according to your sheet, your character is dumber than stupid.”

“That’s a smooth way to convince the duke to help you, but your Charisma stat says otherwise.”

I know you’ve come across this, because I’ve seen it over and over again.  Well, I gotta say that I’ve grown pretty tired of it.  After talking with a buddy the other day, I’ve decided that from now on I’m going to handle “playing by the numbers” the easy way.

There are rules in place to show how well your character swings his sword, scales the wall, or pilots his ship.  You simply roll the dice, add your modifiers, and your numerical result determines your level of success.  Well, what about trying to convince the duke to help your cause?  Roll the dice, add your modifiers, and your numerical result determines your level of success.

Now, since this is a role-paying game, you’re going to need to actually speak (otherwise, you’re not playing a role).  Where it gets muddy is in your oration – how much and how well you actually role-play it out can (in some groups) modify your roll.  Oftentimes, a player is penalized (via house-rule) for not putting much effort into his oration, even if he has built his character to be the grandmaster bard.  Other times, the player gains a bonus to Persuasion or Diplomacy if he spits out some great soliloquy, even if he’s playing the social moronic barbarian.

When your bulky, super-strong warrior bashes through a door, all that is required is a stat roll.  By that token, the same simple process should be required to solve a puzzle, or intimidate a group of NPCs.  But it isn’t.  This is a role-playing game, and most of us want to see at least some effort of role-playing when it comes to our mental stats.  The problem is that everyone has different views on how the role-playing aspect of the game should be played.

Your version of “below average Intelligence” may be different from mine, and you simply may wish to portray that differently than I.  I may not wish to portray that at all.  Intelligence can be described many ways.  I may have sky-high SAT scores, but in actuality, be dumber than a stone.  There are simply too many character characteristics and player opinions to dictate how a stat should be played.

And that is why this part of the game is not covered in the rules.  It simply can’t be governed universally from player to player, group to group.

“So, how do you solve the puzzle so everyone is happy?”

Well, first of all, if this is not causing any kind of problem in your group, and isn’t a puzzle, then it doesn’t need to be solved.  Take the rest of this article as a flavor tool to spice up your character, and that’s it.  If this does need to be addressed in your game, then take the following idea to heart.

Some players like to role-play their stats religiously (to a scale that they feel is appropriate), while others don’t care what the number is – they’re going to play how they’re going to play, and the numbers are simply there to modify die rolls.  Neither way is right or wrong; it’s just preference.

So, here’s a compromise.  Players, pick one or more of the following aspects for your character for any mental stat that you feel is below average.  It’s completely up to you to decide on how many, as well as what stat they fall under.  Instead of playing a not-so-smart character “like an idiot,” or an uncharismatic character “like a social dipstick,” apply one or more of the following:

  1. The character has trouble with memory.  The player never writes down any game notes, so the character is forced to work off of his player’s memory.
  2. The character has trouble with math.
  3. The character has trouble with reading.
  4. The character has a twitch in his eye, one that the player shows at the table, often.
  5. The character simply dresses like he’s definitely not a local, perhaps even from another continent.
  6. The character spits in the face of authority at the slightest provocation.
  7. The character has a weak spot for beautiful women (or men!).
  8. The character is very gullible.
  9. The character sees conflict in only black and white.
  10. The character is too stubborn for his own good.
  11. The character has an irrational fear of something common.
  12. The character simply does not think in terms of strategy.  Simple and direct is the way to go.
  13. The character is rude and crass.  Good manners are beyond him (or it’s simply easier to not care).
  14. The character periodically has conversations with his invisible friend.
  15. The character is a bit snobbish, especially around “common folk.”
  16. The character is well-balanced – he has a chip on both shoulders.

I like using quirks and traits (like those above) because they’re a good compromise in how I role-play my character’s mental stats.  Also, as an added bonus, they add to my character’s character in fun and creative ways.

Wrapping it up…

If a player has the most fun role-playing his stats one way, and another player has the most fun role-playing  his stats the complete opposite way, who am I to say either is right or wrong?  For me, the stat + modifiers + die roll determines the outcome.  Let the player add whatever roleplaying correlation that he’s comfortable with.

If a player character has a low Intelligence, I don’t cry foul when his player comes up with a great idea or solution in-game – if it’s a good idea that should work, then it works.  But, for something that requires a die roll, I simply let the stats and dice figure out the results.  His low Intelligence modifier will affect what it needs to, which is the die roll.  Role-playing can certainly affect any given situation, but it’s the final number that settles any unresolved issues.

I have completely obliterated one part of gaming that has been stressful, because I no longer feel it is my job to police how others play their characters.  Understand that everyone gets enjoyment out of the game in different ways, which is why the rules really never try to govern role-playing.

What other ways can you suggest that gamers might portray their attributes?

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Chris Stevens

In Chris's opinion, the very best vices are dirt bikes, rock music, and gaming, while the very best medicine is fatherhood. If he could just learn to balance them all, he'd live forever. He's much more creative than intelligent, often wakes up belligerent, and ponders many things insignificant. Lastly, in an effort to transform his well-fed body, P90X, Roller Blades, and Food are all laughing at him. And the pain continues.

  5 Responses to “Role-Playing by the Numbers: The Easy Way”

  1. I always try to role-play my characters according to their stat numbers. I feel like I’m “cheating” if I make a character with low mental stats, particularly INT, but don’t role-play accordingly. However, I have a really hard time role-playing a character with below average intelligence. So with my own characters I try to solve the problem by not making a character with low mental stats if I can avoid it. Most of my characters will have at least average intelligence, above average if I can spare the points.

    For example, my current 4E character had the choice of dumping DEX or dumping INT. Keeping dexterity would have been more helpful (for the initiative boost) but my character concept didn’t fit a character that was “slow.” I kept intelligence instead, sacrificing a few points of initiative in order to not feel constrained by my character’s mental stats. Plus, role-playing a clumsy character can be fun, more fun to me than playing a dumb character.

    I’m not as picky about wisdom and charisma as I am about intelligence. I like to keep one or other high, but role-playing a ditzy or unobservant (low WIS) or socially inept (low CHA) character can be fun. I just make sure it fits the character concept.

  2. I once had a pretty stereotypical fighter, with stereotypical stats, so he had an 8 CHA as his dump stat. When the DM asked why he was such a personable person with an 8 CHA, I answered that he had a gigantic red Yosemite Sam moustache that everyone thinks is ridiculous.

  3. I like the double standard. Does anyone ask you why you aren’t playing your character like James bond when you gave him an above average Charisma? No?

  4. Pretty basic stuff here. But, the basics are always the best advice.

    On the topic of intelligence tests, one thing that many people often overlook is that you, as a player, can present a solution to the table that your character didn’t think of. Just hand it off to the guy whose character has a higher INT than the player. Solves both disparities quite neatly.

    For social tests, I tend to go with the school that the role dictates the NPC’s reaction to what you said. Which may or may not have anything to do with the actual content of your speech. If you totally botch the roll, maybe you used a local idiom incorrectly (or unintentionally), or accidentally sounded like you were referencing the NPC’s dark secret, or you remind the NPC of her entirely too smooth ex-boyfriend who used her and dumped her. If you make a roll against all odds, maybe your sincerity showed through your poor speech, and the listener gave you the benefit of the doubt.

    In short, the role-playing dictates what you do, the roll dictates how well you do it.

  5. I’m currently playing a character with a below-average Fellowship in our Warhammer Fantasy game. The problem is that he needs to be able to speak to others at times and get useful results.

    His score of 2 (think 1 to 6) crops up when he flies off the handle unexpectedly (at PCs and NPCs alike). At other times he comports himself as though he had a 4 due to his background as a military leader. It is when he comports himself with a 4, and the DM asks for a roll that the 2 comes into play (he’s a little impatient, gruff and somewhat disjointed in his speech and mannerisms – all subtle, but all there). Thanks to Tourq, Sam and John for giving me the opportunity to play the numbers this way!!

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