RPG-a-Day 12: Think

A day late, but you’re still getting prompt number 12 for RPG-a-Day, which is ‘Think’.

Nobody expects a player to act out all of their combat moves in a game — the character you’re playing is a trained professional (at least in most games), and most players are not. Combat is pretty abstracted: you roll your dice, add or subtract some numbers, and that determines whether you hit or not. But what about intelligence? Playing a character that’s not as smart as yourself is maybe not that difficult, but what about playing characters that are smarter?
Intelligence usually covers things like recall (do you remember something you learned?) and the ability to make deductions (can you deduce who is the culprit from all the clues you have?). (As an aside, I think Rolemaster is the only game that separated those two into two separate stats, Memory and Reasoning. Still, most knowledge skills used both of those stats.)
Recall is easy to abstract away. Your character knows much more about the world they live in that the player, because they have actual lived experience, while the player can only experience the world through the words of the GM — and many minutiae that are obvious to an inhabitant are unknown to the player. So you roll you dice, add your bonus and if you beat the target number (which expresses how obscure that piece of knowledge is in general), your character recalls the information.
Deduction is much harder to abstract away. Well, you could do the same as with recall, but is that really satisfying? Suppose there’s a murder mystery, and you collect clues. You roll the dice, and then your character solves the case. Is that fun?

One ‘solution’ would be to just not have a stat for intelligence, and stating in the rules that players can apply their full intelligence to any situation the characters are in. You can’t play characters that are smarter than yourself, but is that a really big loss?

5 thoughts on “RPG-a-Day 12: Think

  1. I think it’d be a disservice to the player if, essentially, you’re treating intelligence as a test for the player and not the character. To my mind, every single part of a character in an RPG is different from me to begin with. Often, characters are heroes, making them stronger, braver, and healthier than I am.

    When a player rolls a Medicine skill check, I also wouldn’t ask them what actions their character takes and penalize or reward them based on the description. The player most likely wants to experience the feeling of being able to help somebody on the spot rather than a simulation of providing first aid.

    Personally, I also wouldn’t particularly mind if a skill roll provides me with some conclusions. It would be fun to play a Sherlock Holmes-style character, but Sherlock Holmes is superhumanly intelligent. Much like I don’t mind passing an athletics check with a die roll rather than being asked to do 50 push-ups to demonstrate I could, I also wouldn’t mind making a deduction with a die roll.

    I could imagine two alternatives on how to facilitate characters that are smarter than players, though. One would be somewhat improv: if a player rolls a succesful deduction check, then whatever they’re deducing is right. They’re still doing things on their own terms, and it may change the story somewhat, but it recognises the individual player.

    A second option I could imagine is something akin to what we do in education all the time: filter and preprocess things for those who struggle. You don’t have to make one roll and give the conclusion, but perhaps the more intelligent characters could get more information for lower DCs or can get other information through leaps of logic that their character would be able to make. To give an example, I recall there was a Sherlock Holmes story where they found footprints on a dusty surface, and the toes were unusually far apart from each other. If this was an RPG, perhaps the DM left that clue that they thought was quite obvious, but nobody could get. A player could roll an intelligence check for their more intelligent character, and the DM could then say “Your character realizes the obvious thing that all their dimwitted fellows couldn’t see: the murderer has clearly never worn shoes! Indubitably, they must be from the circus that just came into town”.

    That way, the DM could preprocess some of the deductions into more bite-sized clues that would be easier for the players to deal with.

  2. In the Gumshoe system, the scenarios are set up as a trail of clues that lead to other scenes. Because the PCs are trained investigators, they just get all the clues that lead to the main plot scenes, but by spending points and/or making skill checks they can actually get more clues. You get the clues, but you still can piece them together — the system is set up so that you can always reach the conclusion (pretty railroady in that sense), and so there is no vital information gated behind skill checks you might fail.

    Another fun way to do it is to have the player roll, and just tell them: “Yeah, Thomas is the murderer!” without telling them how he did it — you could have the player improvise what really happened when they confront Thomas, like in those concluding “one of you is the murderer!”-scene in TV detective stories!

  3. I like that last idea too! Sure, you know the outcome, but without the argument you don’t have a case either way. Funnily enough, I think that might model actual police work as well.

    1. I’m sure you know the Judge Dee detective novels (and if not, consider yourself tipped because I think you’d enjoy ’em), and I played in a campaign with a guy who had studied Sanskrit and Chinese, and he was a Judge Dee connoisseur too. He once ran a game for us, in which we played Judge Dee’s henchmen, helping him with his investigations. So we played several scenes in different compositions to find out stuff, and at the end, Judge Dee (who was an NPC) announced that he knew who was the culprit and ordered us to arrest him. So then I asked: “Ok, but how did you know?” and the GM literally beamed. “Glad you asked, because that always happens in the books too!” And then we got an explanation, which fit with all the evidence we had collected, but also relied on some of Judge Dee’s private observations which we were not a part of.
      It was a fun way to run a detective game, and I thought it could be fun to have the character get the solution and let the player think of what had happened.

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