How do we decide or interpret ability scores?
It’s not like this is a new conversation or one without an obvious answer. Indeed, in this case, the simplest explanation is probably the best. But as I considered how to put it into words, it occurred to me that, while I have very clear rules for physical attributes, I’m not quite as straight forward where it comes to mental.
For example, Strength tells us how much a character can lift and carry, and how hard he can hit (with a modifier to attack and damage rolls). Dexterity tells us how difficult it is to harm a character (with a modifier to armor class and some saving throws). Constitution tells us how much punishment a character can take (with a modifier to hit points and other saving throws).
Similarly, Intelligence/Wisdom/Charisma tell us things about a character in strictly game terms, but the difference is that it’s somehow easier for us to conceptualize the physical attributes. We can get a picture in our heads of what a high or low Strength looks like; the same with Dexterity and Constitution. But what does a low Intelligence look like? More to the point, what does it look like with someone who has low Intelligence but high Charisma? Or high Intelligence and low Wisdom?
Again, not a new conversation. There are clear answers and guidelines out there for DMs who want to improve their game. I’m not going to retread old ground with this: instead, I want to offer a slightly different perspective.
The DM is the eyes and ears of for the player. It’s her job to describe the world, to set the scene, to effectively communicate whatever the hell is going on ~ and to do so in a manner that the players are able to take meaningful action.
What happens when the DM fails at this task? Now, this is not the point of this post. It’s the thought that leads me to my point:
What if we can represent high or low mental attributes by controlling the flow of information to the player?
Wisdom is a composite of a character’s judgment, enlightenment, guile, willpower, intuition and common sense. Characters with low Wisdom scores aren’t less likely to notice something in their world, but they are less likely to recognize something as significant or out of place. They’ll notice a thief sneaking up on them, same as any other character (especially as they go up in level, experience having an impact on these things); but they might not recognize an assassin in disguise until the moment she slips a blade between their ribs. Low Wisdom means I won’t make a connection for the player; it means not correcting a poor or false assumption on the player’s part.
Intelligence represents a character’s memory, reasoning and learning ability. This is difficult to address because the player has full freedom to play his character however he chooses. If the player is sharp, rational, critical or otherwise “intelligent,” he may play his character that same way. Where I would address a character’s low Intelligence is by not correcting misunderstandings or misinterpretations on the player’s part. The player may think he knows all about dragons or trolls or giants; and when he’s wrong with his analysis, I wouldn’t tell him otherwise. (I might even go so far as to encourage flawed thinking.)
Charisma measures a character’s persuasiveness, personal magnetism and ability to lead. It is more active than passive; it applies when the player says, “I do this thing,” and that thing involves influencing the behavior of others. As such, I don’t see it working to deny information for the player; rather, a low Charisma results in NPCs seeing the PC in a bad light. No matter what the player does, his character is off-putting in some way. This will lead to less information as NPCs actively avoid the character ~ so a by-product of a poor Charisma is less information about the world.
All of this assumes that the player doesn’t have access to a skill or class ability that helps overcome the penalty. It also assumes that the character has a truly abysmal score, like five or less. Ability scores of six or better, while low and rather annoying, are only a few points removed from the average. Care must be taken when handling those traits. I would probably follow the same guidelines but make it a point to note when I’m doing it too often, back of for a bit (maybe a session or two), and bring it up again at a later time.
Likewise, at the opposite end of the spectrum, characters with exceptionally high abilities should be given the benefit of the doubt when interacting with their world. I would find opportunity to correct flawed thinking on the player’s behalf. I would assume the character hasn’t overlooked some obvious detail and remind the player about it. I would have NPCs treat the character in the best possible light.
Of course, all of this is theoretical and only a guideline. While I favor hard and fast rules, ability scores and how they apply to the game have always been a bit loose and open to interpretation. And I think they should stay that way, so long as the DM takes care not to unnecessarily or unfairly target (or reward) one player over another.