You’re Dumb, but That’s Okay – How It’s Stupid to be Smart in Roleplaying Games

I’ve recently taken notice of a popular meme in my city that takes the form of a bumper sticker. It makes a statement about how someone or something associated with the driver of the car is better than your child who is an honor student. Examples include “My kid can beat up your honor student,” “my dog can eat your honor student” – basically, if your child is an honor student, they suck and you should hate them. If I’m being honest, these bumper stickers make me angry. Being smart is good, right? Is it not better to have a deeper understanding of the world around you?

If roleplaying games are any indication, the answer is no. I’ve been playing tabletops for many years now and the experience has taught me one thing – playing a smart character is a mechanically sub-par decision. The game design of many popular RPGs rewards a play style which emphasizes strong, fast characters over those who have intelligence. The intelligence stat in many tabletops is only valuable to one or two specialized classes which depend specifically on intelligence to use their special abilities. While stats like strength, dexterity, and even wisdom can be valuable to any character regardless of specialization, there’s no point in wasting your energy on being smart unless you have a unique ability which demands it.

I want to take a look at two particular roleplaying games that I have played which I believe fail to utilize intelligence effectively, and to talk about how the mechanisms give you no incentive to invest in a character whose intellect is their main quality. After that, we’ll touch on why I think this issue is so prevalent in RPGs before finally diving into an example of a game that manages to successfully implement intelligence in a way that makes it valuable to every character.To start our journey, I’m going to talk some trash about my favorite tabletop roleplaying game: Dungeon World.

Dungeon World

Dungeon World is a great starting point for this discussion because it uses the most well-recognized stat system in tabletop gaming: the one from Dungeons and Dragons. Characters have six statistics which are Strength, Dexterity, Constitution, Intelligence, Wisdom, and Charisma. Each of the six statistics in Dungeon World is associated with one of the game’s basic moves. You use strength to attack in melee, dexterity to attack at a range, constitution to stand in defense of something, intelligence to share knowledge, wisdom to examine your surroundings, and charisma to strike deals with non-player characters. All six stats also have applications when defying danger, and some influence special moves such as traveling through the wilderness. Finally, certain classes rely more on particular stats than others: the thief uses dexterity for all of their special abilities, while the bard weaves their arcane art using charisma.

Of the game’s eight base classes, only one has any value in the intelligence stat: the wizard. None of the game’s other classes uses INT for their starting moves – heck, none of them even use INT for an optional advanced move after leveling up! INT also isn’t tied to any special moves, either. This means that unless your character is a wizard (or uses multiclassing to learn wizard magic), intelligence can only be used for two moves in the entire game. To add insult to injury, while Spout Lore can be a useful move, it is one of the least mechanically valuable moves in the game. On a 10+ you learn something both interesting and useful; on a 7-9, you lose useful and only learn something interesting. Compare this to wisdom’s Discern Realities: you get anywhere from 1-3 specific questions about the situation you are in, and when using that information to your advantage you take a +1 to your roll. When given the option between drawing on your accumulated knowledge or just taking in the current circumstances, the game gives you an incentive to do the latter because you get a mechanical benefit for your action.

During character creation, Dungeon World assigns you six numerical scores to give to your various statistics: 16, 15, 13, 12, 9, and 8. Whatever stat has the 8 is the one stat on your sheet with a negative penalty. For any class that isn’t the wizard, you can safely shove that 8 into INT with no concern about how your character will perform. Your abilities will never rely on it, you can never gain a valuable bonus from it, and if there is a wizard on your team, the group can simply rely on that guy to do all of the lore-spouting for the entire campaign. There is no value in having more than one smart person in your party, and doing without one entirely is less likely to cripple you during play than having no one with good dexterity or no one with good charisma.

Mutants and Masterminds

Now let’s take a detour from fantasy roleplaying to explore the world of superheroes. Mutants and Masterminds is the first tabletop I ever played, and it taught me pretty quickly than a perceptive min-maxer can write off the intelligence stat completely. M&M has eight core statistics for its characters: Strength, Stamina, Agility, Dexterity, Fighting, Intellect, Awareness, and Presence. Strength represents physical power, stamina represents endurance, agility represents quickness and acrobatics, dexterity represents hand-eye coordination, fighting represents melee combat potential, intellect represents mental acuity, awareness represents spiritual power, and presence is effectively charisma. Each of these abilities is tied to other stats in the game; some influence your accuracy and evasion, others your defenses and your damage, and still others your various skills.

While stats like dexterity and fighting influence multiple important abilities for your character, intellect is tied exclusively to one other thing in the game: skills. There are four skills in M&M which draw on intellect. Those skills are technology, investigation, treatment, and expertise. Expertise is a skill that can have multiple specializations – expertise in tactics is different from expertise in biology, for example. The way the game’s mechanisms work, every point in intellect translates directly to a point in these skills. However, the costs for them are very different – every single rank of intellect costs 2 of your character creation points (called Power Points), while 2 ranks in a skill only costs 1 point. Because intelligence isn’t tied to any other statistic except for skills, this means that it only makes economic sense to take intellect if you’re buying four or more intellect-based skills. Otherwise, you’re losing points:

  • Treatment and Investigation rank 10 cost = 10 points
  • Intellect rank 10 cost = 20 points
  • Treatment, Investigation, Technology, Expertise Biology, Expertise Art, Expertise Philosophy rank 10 cost = 30 points

“But Ian,” you might say, “what if my character is a psychic? Intelligence is an important part of who they are!” Sure, I get that. Wanting your psychic or magical character to be smart makes a lot of sense. But the game’s mechanisms don’t support it. Psychic or magical powers are a different game mechanic that is totally unrelated to your character stats. You can make a zero-intellect character that still has incredible potential for mental attacks or creative spells. In fact, if you don’t spend points to make your character smart, you’ll actually have more points to invest in doing those abilities even better. Quite literally, making your character smart is a dumb move; it is a poor investment of the limited number of points you have available to you.

I'm With Stupid

So what is it that leads to this problem? Why in the world are there multiple RPGs out in the universe which mechanically punish you for wanting your character to be smarter than a box of rocks? I think part of it can be attributed to the fact that roleplaying games as we currently understand them find their origins in war games. Combat is an essential mechanism in a large number of tabletops. The lengthiest, most detailed rules in games like Dungeons and Dragons are those focused on how to enact violence against other people. On the battlefield someone strong and quick is perhaps more valuable than someone whose only quality is a sharp mind. In a game that’s 75% fighting and 25% anything else, it’s hard to justify having more than one character whose specialty is the 25%.

This is why it is perhaps easier to find games that handle intelligence as a statistic better when you look at games where combat has less significance, or none at all. Take, for example, The Burning Wheel. You can play Burning Wheel with swords and knights with a great focus on combat scenarios, but that’s only one viable setting for the game. Dueling philosophers trading barbs in heated debates, scheming nobles trying to socially manipulate their way into positions of political power – these types of games are equally possible in Burning Wheel, and they reward characters who value intelligence over physical ability. In such a game, the character investing points in strength or agility is the one making mechanically-inferior decisions.

That being said, it is possible to create a tabletop game which encourages players to make intelligent characters while still making combat part of the experience. The best tabletop games have systems where every skill is valuable – making the choice of which one to be bad at all the more difficult. By having every stat tied to the core mechanisms of the game, characters of all types can excel and struggle in a variety of interesting ways. To end off our discussion, I want to look at a game which I think does a good job of making intelligence something that even the burliest warrior will care about: Ryuutama.

Ryuutama Cover

Ryuutama is a Japanese roleplaying game that tells the story of a group of people on a journey together. The mechanisms of the game are focused deeply on travel, with combat as a secondary concern – however, the combat rules are detailed and are directly integrated into the reward mechanisms of the game, meaning that most sessions of Ryuutama will still see combat even if it isn’t a major focus. The neat thing about the game’s design is that each of its stats is built into the game thoroughly enough that choosing a single one to neglect is a difficult proposition – and intelligence is no exception.

As with the other games we’ve discussed, let’s talk first about how the stats in Ryuutama work. There are only four stats in the game: strength, dexterity, intelligence, and spirit. Strength represents physical power and endurance, dexterity represents agility and hand-eye coordination, intelligence represents learning and critical thinking, and spirit represents courage and conviction. To succeed at actions in the game, you roll two stats together and sum up the results. Some types of actions use the same stat twice, making that stat essential to succeeding at that type of roll.

Let’s look at the travel rules first. There are four key checks on any journey: condition, travel, direction, and camping. Condition sets the tone for your day – good condition will help you out at all of your other actions, while bad condition will hinder you in many ways. Travel describes how easy or difficult of a time you have on the road. Direction verifies that you are going where you intend to go. And proper camping is essential for recovering from a hard day of travel. The camping check relies on intelligence along with dexterity – if you don’t know how to properly set up camp, then the whole party will suffer by not recovering from a hard day on the road. The direction check uses intelligence twice, meaning it’s very easy to get lost without an intelligent person guiding the group. Now both of these skills are only conducted by one person, so when it comes to travel, it seems like you can get away with only having one intelligent character in the party. However, there are other mechanisms which demand intellect in order to be successful.

Of the game’s seven classes, six of them specifically have a skill which demands the use of intelligence. This means that most characters in the game will have at least one essential ability which, without intelligence, they will not be able to succeed at. This becomes doubly true if the player also decides to make their character a magic type. There are three types in the game: attack, technical, and magic. Magic type characters can cast useful spells with a variety of effects, and having a low intelligence reduces the chances of succeeding at those spells. While the only real requirement for spellcasting is to avoid rolling snake-eyes, the lowest possible intelligence score gives you a 25% chance of getting one of the two 1’s you need in order to fail your spell. Additionally, some spells use intelligence a second time to determine the damage or healing factor of the spell.

Ryuutama Magic

That brings us at last to combat. I posited earlier than perhaps there is logic in the idea that intelligence has little value on the battlefield, so it could be an explanation for why many RPGs don’t seem to care about it. However, there are a couple of ways in which Ryuutama gives value to intelligence even in a combat scenario. There are two important weapons which rely on intelligence to some degree: the light blade and the bow and arrow. The light blade is the most accurate weapon in Ryuutama – it is the one you will wish to rely on when facing a particularly evasive enemy on the battlefield. Not only is the light blade’s high accuracy somewhat dependent on the intelligence stat, but the light blade’s damage is based on intelligence as well. A character with no knowledge of where to strike with such a weapon won’t be able to use it to any effect. The bow and arrow is the only ranged weapon in the game, but because of its range the accuracy suffers quite a bit. Having a high intelligence helps to negate this penalty so that the bow can be used reliably.

Finally, intelligence contributes to combat in one final significant way, one which affects every character regardless of what weapons they wield or what character type they might be. Intelligence is one of the two stats used to make the initiative roll during combat, and initiative is more than just an arbitrary number to decide turn order. Your initiative value is also how difficult it is to hit you – high initiative means an enhanced likelihood of avoiding damage, while low initiative means you are essentially a sitting duck. Even if you use the crimson dragon artifact which causes initiative to only represent turn order and adds a dodge roll into the game, that dodge roll still depends on the same stats as initiative. This means that no matter what kind of Ryuutama game you are playing, intelligence is a key part of avoiding damage during combat scenarios.

By making intelligence an important stat when traveling, in combat, and linking it to the key skills of nearly every class in the game, Ryuutama breaks the mold by encourages characters to consider intelligence as an important stat no matter what kind of character they might be playing. Where other games make intelligence a pointless stat for most of the character classes, this RPG integrates the stat into all of the mechanisms so that smart characters are just as viable as strong or fast ones.

What are your thoughts on the matter, adventurers? Do you focus on intelligence with all of your characters in roleplaying games, or only for those whose special abilities rely exclusively on intellect? Have you played any games I didn’t mention which handle intelligence well? I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments below!

2 thoughts on “You’re Dumb, but That’s Okay – How It’s Stupid to be Smart in Roleplaying Games

Add yours

  1. I still tend to flail around when building a character, but yes, I usually wind up putting points into intelligence and other mental characteristics (persuasion, wisdom, etc.) because I believe education and intelligence can only be beneficial. I have learned that’s not the case all the time in RPGs, but I just can’t bring myself to build some dum-dum who is just good at waving a sword around. Not that there is anything wrong with being a physically strong person, but… (pushes glasses further up nose)

    …Perhaps I’m not RPG-ing correctly, but it sure is fun 😛

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Ha, I still like to make my characters at least somewhat intelligent as well. I don’t think I’ve ever played a character that didn’t at least have points in Wisdom if they didn’t have Intelligence – in most RPGs I have played, wisdom is very useful even if your specific character class doesn’t rely on it for special abilities.

      Liked by 1 person

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