Thursday, April 18, 2019

How to play dumb characters well (Advice Post, could be a thing)

I'm more often than not fighting to find topics for the blog these days. It's not that I lack ideas, but lots of energy is going into writing on other projects and the rest is just fatigue, I guess. This was never a blog for just producing noise to keep people entertained, so it might come to a point where there is nothing more to write. That said, there's still some ways to go, so let's get into it.

Disclaimer, because I feel it needs saying: this is talking elf-games, folks, I know there is people out there who have to handle such disadvantages in real life and I surely don't diminish any of that. If anything, I'd encourage others to walk some miles in the shoes of others and get an understanding. Role playing games can do that for you.

EDIT: It was brought to my attention that Olde House Rules over at Pits Perilous had his own take on the subject published only last year. He goes a bit in a different direction, but it's definitely worth checking out. Please do so here.

What are we talking about?

It's with some role playing games that it's either beneficial or unavoidable to end up with characters that either are very inexperienced or have the system-equivalent of a very low intelligence.

The argument I'm attempting doesn't apply to all games or situations. Therefore, it doesn't concern as much games in which all characters are children, for instance, but might if one player ends up with a child in company of older characters. There's furthermore the distinction to be made between "dumb" and "inexperienced" or "immature", as they allow for different approaches and strategies.

However, we are talking here about games that allow for results in character generation so extreme that it might seem as a disadvantage to play such a character even compared to an average result*. In other words, games that don't assume that characters are just individual expressions of the same average (like point buy systems, for instance). Randomness has a say in those games and it can be (somewhat) cruel. Why is that, though?

3D6 in a row will do that to you ...

... but are you willing to do it to yourself? It's with most role playing games, I think, that people are willing to accept an average rating in their intelligence attribute than a really low one. You gotta have some Intelligence!, they'd say., or Never go full retard!! People would rather be ugly than dumb, is the impression I got, and they will go to lengths in avoiding ending up with a dumb character while happily depleting Charisma (or what have you) for some extra points.
It's good advice ... [source]
I mean, I get it. Having a dumb character has a Geschm├Ąckle, as they say in Swabia. It's like people fear it rubs off on them and most people don't like to be associated with a deficit like that. There's a social stigma attached to it that is worse than being ugly.

That said, people will have fun with a dumb or immature character for a short time. The usual shenanigans and jokes will occur in such cases and everyone will be a good sport about it as long as it is understood that the character is the dumb or immature one, not the player. Keeping it that meta isn't entertaining for long, though. I've seen it happen, people just don't see merit in playing a character like that or just see the bad sides of it in the long run.

To be totally fair, a DM will use this against you in a way that really makes the character less playable than characters with other disadvantages. A DM could force a (automatically somewhat difficult) intelligence check on a player with the argument, that the character wouldn't be able to come up with the "complex" idea the player just had. Same if it is assumed that a character couldn't have experienced somthing like that or how that could be problematic in some situations.

That's quite tricky, actually, as it doesn't affect the in-game reactions to a character as much as the player interaction with the game. Player are restricted in applying their own intelligence and experience to the gaming environment. It's a severe disadvantage, for sure, and definitely not as much fun. You'll also never get similar problems with characters of average intelligence, appropriate or not.

I initially wrote that only "bad" DMs did something like that. However, I had to reconsider the approach, because as long as it is reduced to a roll with a fair difficulty, it's actually what we do with all ability checks. And regarding the maturity, it can (should) be a vantage point for potential drama. It's a thin line, though, and should be handled with care on the DM-side of things.

And here's one final sin: I've had players acting dumb (and dying as a consequence) with the argument that their character couldn't know any better. That's the worst, in my opinion. It's also the closest to the solution of this conundrum.

Embrace the dumb, I say

Alright, what can a player do to make it work if the character generation results in something as undesirable as described above. The first thing is: you don't have to be the character. I know there are players out there who enjoy playing it like that and it is still something that can be done. However, as with all characters, no one wants this all the time. It isn't possible to be "in character" all the time, in my opinion, and as true for a dumb character as for a brilliant one, for that matter. You have to step out at one point and no one is able to fully represent extremes. It's what you do the rest of the time that counts.

So the first thing players should think about is how their character compensates for the lack. How can they play around the disadvantage, what can they do to make work what they intent to do. Just like you would with a wizard when the going gets tough and you are out of spells or with any other situation where a character has a comparable disadvantage: you find ways to somehow compensate said disadvantage.

You could call this the Forrest Gump Defense, but there's usually other ability scores that allow workarounds, like Wisdom, for instance. So if the DM argues that your character couldn't come up with a solution like this, you might most of the time be able to argue that your character's Wisdom is not at a severe disadvantage as its Intelligence and the character might very well have seen someone dealing with something like the situation at hand and had a reaction pattern attached to it that the character would be able to copy ("My ma used to say ...").

Which is exactly how people work, by the way. We copy more than we innovate. But that's not what this is about (or at least you shouldn't have to start arguing psychology). What I'm trying to say is that even a dumb character will have workarounds at hand to keep functioning in society. Something caring people gave them, something they can fall back on.

If a player describes her characters actions that way, like, if she preemptively gives answers to the question "how could your character know that?", DMs will be way more likely to decide favorable to begin with. I sure would. It means playing the character skillfully and, yes, with intelligence, while adding the disadvantage  with ease to the narrative. It's a win-win.

But there's more. Most (if not all) role playing games allow for supporting rolls, so if a intelligence check comes up and chances are low, ask another character for help. It's not even far-fetched, to be honest, that a character like that would seek and trust the advice others can offer on a regular basis. Actually, also ask non player characters for advice, like wise men or women or sages or priests ... folks that have been asked for advice regarding problems to abstract to tackle for a poor, single mind for as long as humans exist (true for all kinds of intellects, one might add).

This applies as well for immature or inexperienced characters: make them seek advice. It makes your DM happy that you interact with your environment and always gives you an angle to say the character follows the advice of [insert figure of authority here].

What else? Well, players should realize what a limitation like this means beyond "he'll never be a wizard" and how they could participate in the game without playing their character. Because, if you think about it, how many situations could come up in the game that directly apply to a character's intelligence? Not that many.

Solving riddles, for instance, would be group or even player effort. Everything else can be communicated or solved as described above and if that weakness is targeted directly (which should only, if at all, happen in moderation anyway), it's still not without a chance and, done right, enriching the gaming experience.

It doesn't hurt to talk with your DM up front about what a disadvantage like that would mean in their game, just to be on the same page. And one more solution might be to ask the DM if it is possible to play an additional character (which might add another interesting dynamic, but depends heavily on how crunchy a game is to make it work).

When all is said and done, it comes down to embracing it as a challenge and making it work, an attitude that'll get you far everywhere. That and realizing the chances such a disadvantage might bring.

Too obvious?

As I wrote above, I have experienced this as a DM far too often, as those results can come up in OD&D and the game I'm working on: Lost Songs of the Nibelungs. Especially Lost Songs needs players to embrace disadvantages and make them work because the characters are very young tribes men (or women) going on their first adventures, and they can get severely scarred by their experiences, for instance by losing their Wits (the equivalent of Intelligence in LSotN).

If a game includes design choices that allow extremes, it also needs to offer the room to make it work and even if that is accounted for in the rules, it is also very necessary to communicate all that somewhere. Especially when considering that not all games do this and when a player (or DM) comes with the wrong expectations to a new game, they won't see the potential the game offers if that extreme occurs. Hence, the post.

I hope you find some use for the advice here and if you know of other ways to play such characters effectively, please feel free to share your experience with us. As always, I'd be happy to hear about it.

Had to share, sorry [source]

*Which is, interestingly enough, something modern games seem to avoid more often from the start. Often in an attempt to please buyer demands. Like with computer games, it is a short-sighted compromise to follow up on unreflected customer demands to a degree where the resulting gaming experience is reduced to the equivalent of a short sugar rush, followed by regret and a lack of satisfaction ... Anyway, not what we are talking about. Or are we?


  1. good take on this. low intelligence, doesn't necessarily mean dumb. perhaps just not formally educated.

    1. Thanks! And I agree, it could just be a lack of education. Someone over at MeWe said he interpreted it as overconfidence, which I also liked ... there is some good ways to handle a problem like this.

  2. I don't use late-edition ability checks, myself. When I use a die roll for mental feats at all, it's not a check to see if the character could think that thought, but more of a speed check. A 5+ on 1d6 means the character was mentally quick enough to act immediately. Otherwise, the roll equals the delay in rounds (or turns, or whatever time unit.) If you let the Int 3 guy solve the brainteaser puzzle lock while the other characters hold the door, it might take a couple minutes.

    1. Yeah, time delay is a good way to solve many of the problems associated with having a low level intelligence, I'd think. That's good advice. Thanks for sharing!


Recent developments made it necessary to moderate posts again. Sorry about that, folks.