A Message from the Writer/Publisher:
As I write, a hostage situation continues to unfold in Sydney, as it has for almost 15 hours, capturing world attention for all the worst reasons. For those who may be concerned, I am completely fine. But I must share my contempt for those who have attempted to politicize events even as they continued to unfold.
I have said before, and reiterate now, my belief that every time our behavior is changed as a result of such events, every time our freedom is eroded because of fear, every time xenophobia is given fresh impetus by such events, the terrorists win.
Every time the ill-informed speculate without hard facts, making it that much harder for those facts to be heard and acted upon correctly, they give the groups they name/accuse free publicity and support. As I first drafted this insert, the siege had just entered its fifth hour, and all that was known was that there was one gunman, with one confirmed weapon, one bag, and a widely-available flag with a verse from the Quran that is considered fundamental to all Islamic beliefs.
When something like this happens – and it will happen again – don’t speculate, don’t spread rumors, don’t accept unreasonable erosions of freedoms and surveillance of ordinary citizens in the aftermath, and don’t give terrorists or criminals what they want. The more we let ourselves change as a result of events of this type, the more the perpetrators win.
What I fear most is a knee-jerk reaction on the part of elements of the public. That, too, is a victory for those who would spread fear and terror. Every time an incident such as this excites xenophobia, causing intolerance and fear within the community, we marginalize citizens of our nations who would otherwise be good citizens, driving the vulnerable into the arms of the recruiters. Over-reactions play into their hands.
We’ve seen it so many times before; to what extent the threat of Islamic State is the result of the xenophobic reaction by the world following 9/11 is unknown, may never be known, but I remain convinced that it made it much easier for that group to gather its forces. 99.999% of those of the Muslim faith are just as horrified by these events as anyone else, if not more so, because by using the Quran to justify their actions, they commit what most regard as an act of blasphemy.
We are rightly horrified in modern times by the excesses of political correctness run amok during the McCarthy era. Yet, the 9/11 response of paranoia toward anyone of Islamic descent was almost a mirror image of that excess; only the target had changed. The phone-tapping, the surveillance, the acts of illegality that have recently come to light but that were always suspected, they exactly parallel the techniques in vogue in the 1950s, and will eventually be seen in exactly the same light, I’m sure.
The price we pay for freedom is the risk that someone will abuse it, or seek to take it away from us. Yet we accept a worse risk every time we cross the streets or get in a car – check the statistics!
We are also, and again quite rightly, horrified by the acts of violence by extremists in the Middle East and elsewhere. But I won’t, and you shouldn’t, let that, or these latest events, drive me into an overreaction, and neither should anyone else.
The message I want to send out to our readers is that it is Business As Usual here at Campaign Mastery, and in Australia. And that means that it’s time to get on with today’s article.
This article was originally intended for Roleplaying Tips, so it’s not quite in my usual style. Whether that makes it better or worse, I can’t really judge – but it was a lot harder to write than that usual style, so expect it to remain an aberration. To make matters worse, it has had to be extensively reformatted to work on a web page.
The backstory is this: I wrote an article for RPT on Charisma called Systems Of Attraction, (Part 1, Part 2) and was encouraged by Johnn to tackle the other D&D stats. I started on this article and one on Strength immediately; the Strength article is several times the length of this and also still unfinished. In fact, it is so large that in 2007 I split it into three parts (Let me know if you want me to finish it).
Getting back to this article, I started writing it way back in 2004 or 2005, long before there was a Campaign Mastery; it’s hung around my “unfinished articles” folder, 90% complete, for nine or ten years! I finally dusted it off and got it finished.
One of the more difficult aspects of roleplaying, both as a player and a referee, is handling characters of different intelligence levels to that of the person playing. Over the years, everyone works out methods of dealing with these situations, but they often don’t think to pass them on to others. So, for whatever they’re worth, here are my tips for playing characters of differing intelligence, for both players and referees.
Part One: Referees:
Simply by virtue of the fact that they have to play the parts of “everyone else”, Referees have to cope with characters of extremely different intelligence to their own more frequently. For that reason, this article will largely concentrate on techniques the referee can use to handle the problem.
Playing Low Intelligence NPCs
The way to play low intelligence NPCs is to simplify the situation and to slow their thinking down. Many referees make low-intelligence characters just plain dumb, and there are times when that’s appropriate – when an NPC has an INT of 3 or 4 on the D&D / Pathfinder Scale, for example. But most lower-intelligence characters aren’t really all that stupid, they’re just a bit slower than most. Here are some techniques to “Think simple” without “playing dumb”:
- Halfway through speaking a sentence in character, stop and count silently to yourself, 1-2-3, before resuming.
- Simplify the language. Low intelligence characters – INT 5-7 on the D&D Scale – generally understand anything said in 2 syllables or less, provided they are given time to digest each statement before the speaker moves on to the next. When they aren’t given that time, they will “lose” the end of the first statement and the start of the second; producing either gibberish (“I don’t understand” or just looking lost) or a complete misunderstanding.
- They often misunderstand and mispronounce words of 3 syllables if the reference is a common one – an uncommon reference they simply won’t get.
- Personality traits of such characters tend to be emphasized, even emphatic, and they don’t really follow the concept of exceptions to the rule – everything gets put into a given “shoe-box” of personal experience, and they can’t shift anything until they can re-address it to a different box.
- They will often use slang and poor grammar.
- They tend to stay fixed on one line of thought regardless of what is said.
For example, consider the following dialogue between an NPC whose dominant personality trait is “suspicion of foreigners” and a typical PC who needs to discuss the accidental contamination of the farmland:
“You ain’t from around these parts. Never trust a furriner…. (1-2-3)…. that’s what my ma used to tell me.”
“But you can trust me, I’m from the government.”
“And my Da, he told me that too.”
“Do you understand? I’m your friend! I’m here to talk about your land.”
“Told my brother, too. But he died.”
“I have to talk to you about your land!”
“Land’s mine all right. Been in my family since my grandpa was a kid.”
“Yes, I’m sure. Look, there was an accident, right, and something was spilt on your land,” (PC is trying to dumb himself down to talk to the character)
“Grows good corn. You tried our corn? Best in the county!”
“I’m sure it is. Now the government’s going to clean it up, but we want you to sign this first.”
“Came second at the state fair three years back with my corn.”
“Just please sign here, all it says is that we’re going to fix everything and you agree not to sue the government.”
“First prize went to one of them furriners from Black Ridge County, (1-2-3), over them hills a piece.”
“Mr Farmer. please just sign here,”
“Never trust a furriner, Mister…. (1-2-3) who did you say you were again?”
Of course, not all NPCs are going to be obstructions, as this one was; they simply use their base concepts as recurring themes, to which they keep returning, over and over. A generous person might offer to help – reacting to the same government rep by offering to cook the kind government men some (contaminated) corn for lunch. After the government man patiently explains that the corn is not safe, “So you don’t want any corn. Maybe for the workers?”.
GMing Very Low Intelligence NPCs
Characters with less than 50% of average INT scores (under 5 on the D&D Scale) are even more easily stereotyped and easily become less than realistic as a result. I learned how to simulate such people from 2 different sources almost simultaneously: “Benny” on LA Law, and “Camo” in Anne McCafferey’s “Dragonsinger”, part of the Pern series. The former is probably not something that’s easily tracked down, but the latter should not be hard to find. Another good reference is “Simon” from the movie “Mercury Rising”.
- People at this extreme don’t understand complications, setbacks, difficulties, or obstacles. For them, deciding that they want something, or want to do something, is pretty much enough.
- They usually aren’t unreasonably stubborn – that’s a cliché – they are just slow to change their minds. A good reason to do so will eventually get through to them – unless they are continually distracted by being told new things they have to figure out.
- They have a normal emotional range of reactions, but view the world with an immediacy that can sometimes provoke seemingly out-of-place reactions. When they hear about a tragedy that took place 50 years ago, they react as though it had only just happened.
- At the same time, they have no real sense of perspective or scale; last year was “a long time ago”. Numerically, they can often only count “1,2,3,4…. …10, many” – at best.
- They don’t simplify what they don’t understand, they just ignore it. They oversimplify everything else.
- They rarely differentiate between wants and needs.
- Personality traits of such characters tend to be buried to a large extent, surfacing only Indirectly through behavior that is performed as rote – a generous person of this intellect will give a coin to anyone who helps them, or who they think helps them, or who needs it, or who they think needs it. A miserly person will not give anything to anyone. A warm-hearted person won’t ask if visitors want a cup of tea, they’ll just make it.
- They don’t understand nuances and shades of gray – things are either good or bad. And they often think that they have been “bad” if they make a mistake, largely due to the way they have been treated by others of greater intellect. They are usually very, if not completely, trusting, though they can be very shy.
- The latter point is the key to a society where everyone is on the slow side – Ogres, for example, as they are often portrayed in role-playing games. Because they DON’T get mistreated because of their intellect, they SHOULDN’T automatically consider themselves bad for making mistakes – they just shrug it off and ignore it. Mistakes are expected and even a source of humor – and the butt of the joked usually joins in the laughter.
- They will often play simple games at seemingly inappropriate times – games that are sometimes made violent because of their strength, not because they want to hurt people.
GMing Extremely High Intelligence (EHI) NPCs
Some referees consider these bogeymen, impossible to play properly, and requiring lots of work. This is a reputation the character type does not deserve – these are frequently the EASIEST characters to play, provided that you acknowledge that they would be smarter than you are! (This entire article actually started out being about how to play these characters, but grew somewhat).
- EHI Characters ALWAYS have an objective.
- EHI Characters ALWAYS have a plan with multiple contingencies and fall-backs and bailout options.
- EHI Characters usually only fail in the long term because of (1) changing objectives, or (2) loss of resources, or (3) opposition of equal caliber, or (4) personality flaws that limit the application of their intellect in, or to, one particular area, ie they have Blind Spots. In the short term, bad luck or lateral thinking can cause reversals, but overall these are little more than inconvenient bumps in the road.
Realizing all of the above, and that you don’t have to do it all in advance, these characters can become extremely easy to play:
- If the EHI character is the instigator of the current game situation, they have had time to plan in advance. The referee should, in advance, determine how events would proceed in an ideal world from the EHI character’s point of view. Assume that he knows, or can deduce, everything he could possibly know or deduce.
- It follows that if events deviate from their expectations, they are being actively opposed, and both the plan and themselves are potentially at risk. They will immediately begin to prepare a fall-back plan, and a bailout/escape option, while at the same time performing whatever they can to counter the interference AND prevent further interference. I go into detail about how to determine these responses in a separate section below.
EHI NPCs seizing an advantage from someone else’s plot/circumstances
- If the EHI NPC is simply stumbling in to complicate the plot, determine the maximum advantage that he can gain from the situation; that defines his objective within the scenario. In this case, he is going to be acting more off-the-cuff; simply treat events as though he has just suffered a setback at the hands of the PCs and is picking up the pieces, as described below.
- Let the players do what they want, as usual. As soon as they realize the characteristics of who they are tangling with, they will start throwing out all sorts of ideas you can use, simply by discussing what the EHI character might do and what the PCs can do to stop it.
- What’s more, you will think of your own variations as you listen.
When the PCs (or another NPC) do something to interfere with the plans of an EHI character
- Work out what the EHI NPC needs to have done in to be in a position to counter or undo or interfere with the PCs actions. Assume that any necessary preparations have been made in advance. Check that the requirements do not exceed the resources they have available, that the PCs would not have discovered the preparations already, and that the PCs actions don’t fall within one of the blind spots of the NPC; if any of these apply, the PCs actions then become a Major Reversal of the NPCs fortunes (see below). But, if there’s no reason for them NOT to have done whatever it is, assume that they have everything all set up and ready to go, and describe events accordingly. These actions then become a contingency plan that the NPC has had “all along”.
- If you can’t think of something on the spot to counter the PCs actions, try to think of what the EHI character could have set up to take advantage of the PCs actions, in order to further some other goal. Run the idea through the same list of possible personality / preparation infringements given above; if it’s “clean,” assume that this was the EHI character’s REAL objective all along, that he has everything in place ready to go, and describe the action accordingly.
- If you can’t think of anything that falls into that category, either, then the PCs have once again dealt the NPCs plans a Major Setback, and the NPC will react accordingly, as described below.
- There should be limits to the planning ability of the NPC, based on their intelligence. In general, a good rule of thumb is to have 1 additional fall-back or contingency plans for every multiple of average human intelligence. If 10 is the average human intelligence score, and the EHI has an INT of 40, then that’s four fall-backs or contingencies. If they have an INT of 100, that’s ten.
EHI NPCs encountering a Major Setback
Every EHI character sooner or later encounters a Major Setback. When that’s the case, it’s time to think of (a) their personal liberty & survival, and (b) their long-term plans.
- Survival first. With that as the defined objective, determine what the character needs to have done in order to achieve it. If those things are within their means, they will have done so. Most REALLY smart types will have at least 1/3 of their contingency plans reserved for this sort of bailout. Better a temporary incarceration than a permanent death.
- Liberty second. Better even than a temporary incarceration is a clean getaway. Fall guys, secret exits, temporally-suspended spells – whatever it took, an EHI character will have prepared it accordingly. Some may even have gone to the trouble of falsifying blind spots and flaws so that some escape routes believed to be closed to them are actually in readiness – but save that for Masterminds who expect to be opposed.
EHI Characters recovering from a Major Setback
Once they are free and clear, they – and the referee – can spend a bit of time working out how the situation has now changed, in terms of their long-term plans.
- If possible, they will turn everything that happened to their long-term advantage! If not, they will simply pick up the pieces and start again.
- In general, I like to allow 1 real-time week for every multiple of average intelligence they have, to equate to a game-time week. So the character with INT 100 should get 10 weeks real-time for me (as Referee) to work out what they would have done in the game week following the Setback.
- In many cases, that time frame just won’t work in a practical sense. Time gets compressed and expanded dramatically during ongoing play, and there can be anything from seconds to years of game time between one game session and the next. To get around this handicap, take advantage of the GM’s power to rewrite the past, so as to have things happen that the PCs didn’t notice, or pay any attention to, at the time.
The Language and Dialogue of EHI NPCs
Another key point is the language of the NPC. In general, characters have to make an effort to make themselves understood by people with less than 75% of their INT score, and there is a real art to speaking in character as a person of exceptional intelligence.
The best method is to invest in a little effort in advance – select a number of useful phrases and write some “high-brow” equivalents, taking into account the personality of the speaker if at all possible. The very best role model for this aspect of intelligence comes from a pair of British comedy TV series, “Yes, Minister” and “Yes, Prime Minister”. In addition to being hilarious, they are a perfect example of the art of speaking over someone’s head, intellectually. If you can’t get your hands on the DVDs, get the books – you won’t regret it.
In the meantime, here are some practical guidelines on how to go about it. The primary solution is to rewrite the phrasing, then the words, then the phrasing, then the words, and so on, as many times as necessary. Each subsequent rewrite is the equivalent of another multiple of average intelligence, but after a while you reach your personal limitations. The following example should give you a clearer notion of the process:
- Start with the simplest, clearest, phrase possible. That then becomes the entry under which you “index” your stock phrases:
“You can’t win, [NAME].”
- Rewrite the phrasing to express the thought without contractions. Embellish it with one or two supplementary phrases:
“You cannot win, [NAME]. I have prepared for anything you can possibly do.” (Int = Twice Average)
- Rewrite the words – never use one word when three will do, never use one syllable when 3 will mean the same thing:
“Your efforts are in vain, [NAME]! Any possible maneuver you might attempt has been anticipated and preparations put in place not merely to counter them, but even to use them to further MY ends and plans!” (Int = up to triple average).
- Re-rewrite the phrasing to pad what’s said even further. Try to turn each phrase into a sentence in it’s own right:
“Any effort you may make is futile, [NAME]. Any possible maneuver, any theoretical strategy, any hypothetical scenario you can conjure, all have been anticipated! Preparations not merely to counter any such, but to shape the consequences to ends of MY choosing, have been established and set in motion long ago. My ultimate victory is inevitable, your greatest efforts are mere thrashing within the nets and coils of my plans!” (Int = up to four times average).
- Re-rewrite the words, adding adjectives, and look for alternatives in a Thesaurus if necessary. In particular, look for possible uses of alliteration, sub-phrases that repeat the same sounds:
“Any endeavor you may undertake in opposition to the circumstances I have set before you is both futile and pitiful, [NAME]. Any possible maneuver, theoretical stratagem, or hypothetical scenario, no matter how improbable, has not merely been anticipated and countered prior to the first whispers of subconscious inspiration within your pathetic little minds; mechanisms set in motion by my hand will dynamically remap the confluence of consequences toward destinies that will ultimately further goals and ends of MY devising. My ultimate victory is inevitably proclaimed through the operation of the scientific applications of chaos mechanics and probability remapping, advances of unparalleled delicacy which only I have mastered. Your many-fold tomorrows are to me an open book, your potential destinies mere clay that will be reshaped and molded in whatever manner I see fit. Your most heroic enterprises are rendered mere thrashing within the indestructible coils of my net, in comparison to the intellect and resources applied to the achievement of goals that your barbaric understandings are incapable of appreciating!” (Int = up to five times average).
- At this point, it’s all getting a little long-winded, so on the next rewrite, I would look for ways to compress the statement into a more concise form. There’s no easy way to do this, and I think an example might do more harm than good because it won’t be the only way to approach the problem, so this is where I will end the demonstration. You can get a few tips from my series, The Secrets Of Stylish Narrative even though that didn’t target dialogue.
Note that, when you boil it back down, all the above speech REALLY says is the original statement: “You can’t win, [NAME]!”
A technique that helps achieve these ends is to take advantage of the computer’s ability to cut and past and over-type text. Instead of starting fresh each time, simply make a copy of your last version and type over the top of it.
EHI NPCs Final Advice
Of course, that’s not all there is to it, but that’s 99% of the task of running super-smart NPCs as being super-smart. Using these guidelines, the referee can cope with just about any degree of extra intelligence just by dialing up or down the advantage that they confer to the NPC.
I should also refer you to my tips on the Mastermind at this point, as many of those will be relevant (and vice versa).
Players with PCs of Unusual Intelligence
Players face slightly different challenges than referees. In some ways, they face a more difficult task than the referee and in others, they have life a little easier.
Playing & GMing Low Intelligence PCs
All of the techniques described earlier for use by the referee work equally well when applied to a PC. However, there are some extra challenges involved for all concerned.
- It can be difficult for the player to constantly change gears back and forth, mentally, between speaking as the player and the character.
- The player can fall into the trap of only being “slow” when there is no penalty to the character. GMs should watch for this, and mandate an INT check when necessary.
- The referee can mistake player statements for character statements, leading to unjustified accusations of poor roleplaying. So think twice before demanding an INT check as described above.
- Synopses of past adventures generally describe what really happened and not what the character thought was happening, increasing the workload of the player, who has to keep track of the character’s mental processes and understanding – and misunderstandings – from session to session.
These problems all have cures in common.
- Stay in character in group discussions and planning – it’s important to remember that the group doing the planning ARE the characters and not the players. The group supposedly doing the planning have certain mental resources and personality traits, and these should be roleplayed faithfully at such times. By enforcing this policy, the referee can help the player adopt the role he’s chosen.
- That does not mean keeping quiet! The character has ideas and opinions and these should be expressed at such times, within the bounds of the personality. It’s when everyone else is metagaming that good roleplaying can be most noticeable. If there is an important point being missed, that the character would not understand, a quick note from the player of the Low-INT PC to the player of the most intelligent PC brings the point out for discussion without breaking character, helping both players stay in character.
- The other players can quickly fall into the trap of disregarding the character’s contributions at such times, which can be a source of acute frustration for the player. Instead of getting worked up and indignant at such times, use it to your advantage – when they miss something important, jot it down, and bring it up only when everyone else thinks the discussion is over, or even a day or two later, completely out of context. Remember – SLOW, not STUPID. And when your character is proved right, work off all that frustration by crowing for days (in character!)
- Get the referee on-side. Remind him occasionally that people often confuse Slow with Stupid, and so should the NPCs! They should occasionally let things slip that no-one else notices. For example, if the characters are being tricked into doing some dirty work by someone they think is a friend, the referee can quietly tip off the player during a break in play or between game sessions. The delay HELPS you roleplay. (This should not happen all the time, but should happen every now and then. Prod the referee about it whenever the other players start making the same mistake!)
- It’s even more important than usual, at such times, to distinguish between player knowledge and character knowledge. This is because, in addition to these two distinct aspects of roleplaying, there is also player understanding and character understanding. Make sure that you distinguish between the two, and that the other players note that you are playing within the limitations of your character. It is common for players to use “I” as shorthand for “My character” – “I do this”, “I think”, “I want to” – DON’T DO IT when roleplaying a character of lower intelligence. Instead, be careful to always announce your character’s perspective as being just that.
- KNOW THE SYSTEM. Take notes between game sessions, as necessary, to remind you how to do key things like saving throws, skill checks, and so on. It really spoils the momentum of roleplay that you build up using these techniques if you have to break character to ask “How do I…. ?” Also, learn the geography of your character sheet, for the same reason. Sure, this is good advice anytime, but it’s absolutely (and, perhaps, surprisingly) CRITICAL when playing a low-intelligence character.
- Try putting a drawn-out “Aaah” or “Umm” or “Urrr”at the start every time your character starts to talk. In time, everyone will come to recognize this as shorthand for “I’m speaking in character”.
- Obviously, even if you follow the advice above when participating in group discussions, you will have less to do as a player than the rest. This is when you get the opportunity to take notes on what’s going on, As Your Character Understands It, and anything that the character does NOT understand about what’s going on. These notes are your “translation” of the synopsis of events, enabling you to be consistent in your play from session to session.
- And finally, get the referee on-side – again! Arrange with him that he will “pull his punch” when the character does something stupid in combat despite the player knowing better – but do it in advance! Point out that you are reducing your character’s effectiveness in order to better roleplay.
The following are two examples – these are versions of the same scene, differing only in that the low-INT character, Bone, has initiative in one and not in the other:
Referee: “Into the firelight bounds a Sabretooth Tiger wearing a diamond-studded collar and a skullcap embroidered with the sygil of the Shape-changer’s Guild.”
Bone: “Awwww, Nice Kitty. I am going to hug you and pet you and stroke you and…”
Other Players: Draw weapons amidst calls for Bone to get back, get out of the way, etc.
Referee: “As you approach the cat and start stroking it’s fur, it growls and takes a swipe at you, slashing your arm.” (Rolls To Hit) “You were not expecting it to attack, so it’s blow hits.” (Rolls Damage) “You take 32 points of damage, but because you weren’t tensed up,” (Note the very flimsy excuse) “…you are able to avoid the worst of it. I’m going to rule that you take 6 points of real damage and 24 points of shock damage from your surprise at its attack. Next round.”
Bone: “Awww, You’re not a nice kitty at all! I will hurt you bad with my sword!” and makes gestures suggestive of drawing the weapon.
Referee: “Into the firelight bounds a Sabretooth Tiger wearing a diamond-studded collar and a skullcap embroidered with the sygil of the Shape-changer’s Guild.” (exactly the same intro)
Other Players: “Draw weapons!” – “Backs to the fire!” – “It’s a Were!” – “I grab some loose earth off the ground and try to fling it into it’s eyes!” – “Where’s my wand?”
Bone: Draws Sword and says, “Awww, Don’t Hurt The nice Kitty!”…..
Playing & GMing Very Low Intelligence PCs
In terms of techniques, the suggestions outlined previously for use by referees are all that are needed to play these characters and play them well. However, very low intelligence PCs also face some extra challenges. Most of these were discussed above under the heading of “Low Intelligence NPCs”, as were the solutions.
It’s worth noting that some of the problems are actually diminished with a further reduction in character intelligence. It generally becomes easier for all concerned to tell when the player is roleplaying, for example.
With decreasing intelligence, the understanding of abstract concepts will also decrease. The player should discuss in advance with the referee how a given skill score or ability will be interpreted for the character. It’s fair to pick some aspect of each skill that the character cannot master, and to come up with ways to compensate.
Take, for example, the skill of picking locks. A clever character might master the art of using bent bits of wire, nails, etc etc. The thicker-witted character might learn to use a small hammer to “shock” a lock open with a precisely-judged rap after wrapping the lock in a cloth to muffle the noise.
Another example is the skill of tracking. I once played a scout with zero sense of direction. One of the players tried to explain north to him by pointing toward a mountain that was, at the time, to the north; from that moment on, to the character, north was in the direction of that mountain (even after we had climbed over it). The abstract concept was beyond the character’s understanding (the fools then trusted him to draw the map). But he could find tracks where no-one else could see them – he could follow anyone anywhere. He once tracked a magic carpet by following the line of dust dropped from it – it was a slightly different color to the local soil. A speck on this leaf, another on that flower…. the referee had agreed to accept an artificial limitation on the character’s abilities in exchange for brilliance in the remaining areas. The system was not D&D but the same thing could be achieved by a -10 skill modifier for abstract concepts and +10 on practical applications, with the referee deciding when the penalty applied (by raising or lowering the difficulty numbers). This means that, to the other players, the process is invisible – all they can tell is that the character is appalling at some things and brilliant at others.
Playing & GMing Extremely High Intelligence (EHI) PCs
I have met players who hold the opinion that these are the easiest characters of all to play; they frequently have skill levels so high that nothing is impossible, they have IQs so high that they can think of every possible contingency, can learn skills by merely glancing at a textbook, and they can never be tricked – or so those players like to think. Such thinking is incredibly sloppy and overconfident, and referees should take full advantage of it to educate the player in question.
More realistic players will realize that logic develops conclusions from assumptions and from known facts. If the assumptions are flawed, or the facts are deceptions or incomplete, the conclusions may also be incorrect. Furthermore, no matter how smart someone is, they are still capable of self-deception. They will still face challenges and difficulties that will have to be overcome.
Most of the tools needed are similar, if not identical, to those presented for referees earlier in this article, but they have one additional requirement that could be taken for granted for NPCs – the willing cooperation of the referee.
- Players like to surprise GMs. If you are playing an EHI PC, DON’T DO IT. Tell the GM what your plans are, what your character’s immediate objectives are, and how you expect to go about achieving it. You aren’t (in theory) in competition with the GM, and getting him onside to assist with your planning both enables you to play your character as though he were more intelligent and permits the GM to take some of the burden from your shoulders. He can have the enemy do something that surprises everyone (including you) but then hands you a note telling you exactly how you have already prepared a counter-move, or what the counter-move should be, or he can simply have your character implement that countermove as though you had told him in advance that this was a contingency plan for this event.
- Make sure that you and the GM have worked out in advance what your “blind spots” are. Occasions when these are applicable are when you want to be given no special advantages over the other PCs. Work out a signal between you and the GM that can be used to warn the other, “Blind Spot Engaged” – then trust each other. These are your opportunities to shine in terms of roleplay, make the most of them.
- Give the GM a list of the resources you have built up. Let both of you add to this master list from time to time. Let the GM use these as Plot Devices, both to get your character into trouble and to get your character (and the group) out of trouble.
- Work out ways of simulating appropriate pastimes with the GM. These let you challenge a PC (or an NPC) to a game of four-dimensional chess or whatever and actually play something rather than having it sound all contrived.
- The GM should, in advance, determine how events would proceed in an ideal world from the EHI character’s point of view, taking into account his Blind Spots. Assume that he knows, or can deduce, everything he could possibly know or deduce. You can either then get a briefing from the GM in advance (it only takes a few minutes to hit the highlights) or can get tips of what is about to happen by way of notes, or some combination of the two. The GM may even e-mail you a carefully-censored excerpt of his adventure outline in advance of play, or give one to you during play on a flash drive – enabling it to be broken up as necessary.
- The GM should look at his planned adventures to see if there’s an opportunity for the character to gain a resource or advantage, then communicate that fact to the player at the appropriate time – and what needs to be done by the player to achieve that advantage.
- From time to time, the GM should craft adventures that are nothing but opportunities for the character to gain an advantage or resource, turning your PC into a plot instigator. You should co-operate with the GM when that happens, even if it does mean a little railroading to get everyone into the plot. Define things that your PC will NOT do in order to gain these advantages in advance so that the GM doesn’t have your character do anything too objectionable.
- An alternative approach is for the GM and player to have a brief one-on-one roleplaying session – over the phone, over social media, whatever – when he is developing the plot. The GM walks the character through the possible advantage that he can gain, and makes it seem simple – then stops play at the moment that another PC would become aware that something was happening, and THEN writes the rest of the adventure.
- Apply the advice given to GMs on how to roleplay EHI NPCs as though you were the GM. Prepare stock phrases. Practice delivering them between game sessions.
- From time to time, the GM may need to “dumb your character down” in order to get the plot happening. Don’t kick up a fuss when that happens – when the GM decides for example that you failed a skill roll that you would not expect to fail – assume that the GM will make it up to your character later in the adventure.
- When the GM exploits one of your character’s Blind Spots – and he will – concentrate on roleplay and let the other players take the lead in coming up with a way out of whatever mess “you’ve” just gotten “yourself” into.
- Come up with a personal habit that the character can exhibit when he gets out of his depth (due to a blind spot) as a kickoff to that roleplay. Does he throw himself into an easy chair and close his eyes in deep concentration? Does he become (briefly) acutely depressed? Does he attempt to do something abnormally social in an attempt to curry favor with the other players? Or something obnoxiously anti-social in an attempt to be left alone? Does he reach for his violin, or play the 1812 overture on a beat-up old gramophone? Be consistent about it and the other players will learn the signal and start to pick up on the cue.
- Look for ways, and relationships, that can humanize the character. If you are supposed to be the coldly logical type, or the geek, you can underplay these. Look at Spock in the original Star Trek, and in particular his relationships with McCoy, Kirk, and Uhura.
- Master the art of the understated compliment. “Mr Scott is a competent engineer” speaks to both the high standards of the character speaking and delivers a major compliment – when it comes from someone like Spock – whereas it is very neutral, damning with faint praise, when it comes from just about anyone else.
- Finally, and most importantly. Look for ways to have FUN with the character – and I don’t mean the vicarious thrill of hardly ever failing a skill-check. Most especially, look for ways for the CHARACTER to have fun – and how he will display it when he does.
Degrees Of Intelligence
You can reasonably assume that most PCs will fall into the “normal” range of intelligence – close enough that skill rolls etc will cover any differences, assuming average intelligence on the part of the Player. Anything from 8 to say, 17, 18, or 19 (on the D&D scale) fall into that range. Above or below that, characters are exceptional, and need to be treated in an exceptional manner by both Player and GM. The same is true of most game systems.
GMs are more likely to encounter the extremes, from Hill Giants and Ogres to The Lich In The Manor, in the form of NPCs. Playing these as average intelligence creatures who do stupid things (in the case of the lower INT races), or as average-INT creatures with high skill rolls, is doing your game, your players, and yourself a disservice – to say nothing of the creatures themselves.