C Series • #9
What does the ‘R’ in RPG stand for? At times it focuses on ‘roll’ playing, meaning that the dice rolls are what the game is about. The rules we have previously discussed on combat tend towards this type of ‘R’PG. Actions are stated based on abilities and statistics of the characters, determined by the dice rolls and then on to the next declared action. That is certainly a part of the game and random results for attempted actions are what make the game challenging and fun.
So why is the ‘R’ really for ‘role’ playing? The aspect of the game where the player becomes an actor, taking on the role of the character in story, is far harder to do both as a player and as a Game Master. We suddenly find ourselves having to contend with questions like “how could my character have missed that clue with an 18 Intelligence?”
Character ability versus player abilities is one of the aspects that I try to take into consideration. I’ll use the d20 stat generation for the examples presented in this blog entry. For role playing our characters, the main stats that we have to rely on are Intelligence (reasoning and knowledge), Wisdom (willpower and intuition), and Charisma (personality and charm). Our characters are not who we are as people. One of the aspects of RPGs that most of us enjoy is that we get to play the role of someone we are not but how do we translate that into the rules? How does the player, Rich-the-socially-inept, convert to Aldevar-the-charming? The Game Master is going to have to fill in some gaps between what the player may say and do and what actions the character would take given their ability.
A rule of thumb conversion of Intelligence is that you take the ability score and multiply it by 10 to get the IQ of the character. So the player’s Wizard with an Intelligence of 16 should have an IQ of roughly 160, which is genius level. At the risk of being insulting, most of us do not possess an IQ of 160 so playing such a character means that the Wizard character is for more intelligent than me the player. This is the purpose of ability checks — to see if the character is able to figure out something that the player may not know. But the flip side is also true. That fighter who minimized his Intelligence with a score of 8 (IQ of 80 or below average) is going to be played by someone with a higher IQ. The player may be able to figure out puzzles or mysteries that the character would not. How do we handle this situation?
My default take as the GM is that the combined brain trust of the player group is represented by the smartest character in the party. (Hopefully, at least one character has a good Intelligence score with this assumption). So let the player of the Fighter who took one too many mace strikes to his under-padded helm voice the answer to the puzzle door guarding the treasure. In game, we’ll just assume that it was our Wizard who came up with the solution. The player can still be involved in the game and doesn’t have to worry about meta-gaming a scenario by playing smarter than his character would be. The player’s suggestion is making up for the fact that none of us sitting at the table (the GM included) possess genius-level intellect.
Charisma in social interactions is the other situation that can be tricky to balance between the rolls with the role of the character. Think about the high-charisma character in books, films, and television that are able to inspire or gain the confidence of other characters of the story. Authors and writers have the advantage of controlling the heroes, the NPCs and the situations they find themselves in. Obviously, the situations works out to the benefit of the hero (when needed), but in a spontaneous game, the player may be caught off guard or not completely understand the situation. Even when playing a charismatic character, the tongue tied player is not going to be able to effectively represent the character’s ability to be a charmer. Reversing the situation, you may well have a player who is well-spoken and charming but is playing a character with a low Charisma. In trying to GM this situation, think about those people you know (and we all know some) who can do someone a favor and still manage to be irritating. That is our character in spite of the player’s intentions. In either case, the character’s ability in Charisma should drive the result more than the actions of the player. I prefer not to modify rolls too heavily based on the character’s action but instead let the ability score or skill determine the result.
Take the following situation as an example of play. A character is in a shop when, because of low Dexterity, they accidently knock a crystalline vase off of a shelf and shatter the delicate and pricy item. The character offers to pay the shopkeeper the full value of the vase and apologizes for their clumsiness in knocking the vase from the shelf. For a high-charisma character, this could result in the shopkeeper appreciating the gesture, graciously accepting the offer and allowing the character to continue shopping this store. The keeper will spread word of the character’s honesty and integrity throughout the town thereby increasing the reputation of the character. For a low-charisma character, played exactly the same, the best result they may hope for is the shopkeeper taking their offered coin and running them out of the store with warnings to keep their oafish manners away from the shop and causing others in town to laugh at the character (either to their face or behind their back depending upon how dangerous they are). The end results may well depend on the roll of the dice, but I caution against putting too many modifiers on the result based on the actions of the character. If you have a low Charisma score, there are consequences to that choice just as much as there are to having a low Constitution.
Wisdom is another score that can be difficult to properly role play in a game. It is supposed to represent the willpower of their character and their intuition in understanding other people or creatures or in noticing their environment. As GMs, we want our players to play their characters without taking on too much control over what they do but this can get murky with characters with low scores in Wisdom. A low score indicates a character that is easily distracted and/or influenced by the environment around them. A high Charisma character (or NPC) should be able to manipulate the low Wisdom character into an action or perception. Low Wisdom characters are ones that would succumb more easily to peer pressure and would tend to lose focus on their immediate and long term goals.
This can be manifested in the game in a number of ways. One of the easiest ones is to encourage players with below-average Wisdom scores to come up with an addiction or vice for their character that they will want to do in spite of the potential consequences. The addiction can be something minor that causes a nuisance or humorous situation for the group. It alternatively could be something more destruction like a gambling addiction that causes the character to lose their hard won funds or an alcohol addiction that can put the character into difficult situations at just the wrong time. This makes the low score more than just a weakness when a Charm spell is cast on the character but becomes a role playing tool in the character’s persona that the player (and the rest of the group) will have to deal with.
Where combat rules often come down to a test of skills and character build (“roll” playing), dealing with rules that are focused on the character as an acted personality (“role” playing) can be much more challenging to pull off as the GM. Newer players to the hobby form are often much more heavily focused on the combat and stat build of the characters. Over time, however, acting out the character as a developed personality can become just as rewarding, if not more so, in the games. Learning how to make that experience rewarding for the players, while holding them to their choices in character generation and development, is a big challenge for any Game Master.