Monday, January 7, 2013

Intelligence in AD&D




Intelligence in AD&D

Looking back it appears I first made a post here on Monday January 5, 2009 which means I have been blogging about D&D for a year and half longer than I thought. I suppose I spent the first two years finding my feet as someone who was and remains web-illiterate and largely web-uninterested. In spite of my education my curiosity for computerised fangles is dim. Applied mathematics harnesses computer power as man does any brute power but pure mathematics is an utterly beautiful discipline like no other and mechanical crutches are of no avail; short theorems may be composed through daydreams in the manner of a poet. Pure mathematics is arcane and daunting, strenuously creative and emotionally rewarding. One is completely served with pencil and paper for tools and an imagination for insight. These minimal and sufficient requisites for creativity shaped too the principles of my approach to playing AD&D up to the age of nineteen or so and for a brief campaign in my twenties, however, these principles were tested as I became aware of other gamers, four years ago now, who promoted the rebreathing of others' ideas for freshness and in respect for canon.

So what did I do? The AD&D core was paramount to me, I owned no supplements apart from random purchases like Lankhmar, City of Adventure and WG4 Tharizdun which I had never read. I had absorbed WFRP and had been a player in a teenage MERP & Rolemaster campaign which ended notoriously, in the gameworld in a foot race to catch some forgotten bearer of the One Ring, and in the real world with the accidental shattering of a living room glass door as I chased the DM around his own house. 

Well, four years ago, initially fascinated with the communal praise for material unheard of or hastily despised, I established myself as a genial and jovial rube on forums such as Dragonsfoot and Knights & Knaves primarily to join in encouraging the Cognoscenti of Dungeonses & Dragonses to articulate their reverence and dependence on old published works rather than merely make lists, in order to enlighten my purchases of treasures from the incandescent imaginations of writers unknown to me. In the end, the end being about six months ago, I had spent close to two thousand euro on gaming material, a third of which was devoted to carefully selected miniatures hardly any of which I am disappointed with.

Let me get to the point. I have come full circle.

I have come all the way back to an appreciation of the pencil, the paper and me. I won't say I wasted two grand because I enjoyed the hunting and the reading. Hope is a sustaining emotion and I did hope that I would discover a gaming literature as rich, as compact and rich, as that of fantastical fiction. Much of Barker, Jaquays, Stafford and Gygax is worth buying at any price but everything else is shit. For instance I spent eighty euro on a crisp copy of Arneson's First Fantasy Campaign, a forlorn dog-turd of a work. The accompanying map is the best wilderness map out there but only a lunatic could see merit in his crayonic jottings.

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What the fuck? Im rambling. OK, back to what the post is about …

Intelligence in AD&D

When I was a younger, say mid teens to early twenties, I was an arrogant son of a bitch. Life has a way of convincing you to dial down your contempt, to tone down your high horse humour. Inevitably I ended up with smart friends, and from these some players, because they didn't give me a headache. This is relevant because it explains how my handling of the Mental Stats in AD&D went smoothly, almost unnoticed, in fact it was a largely subconscious development clear to me only in hindsight. Essentially the Mental Stats, particularly Int and Wis, evolved to match those of the player's mentality and even if it was largely a subconscious process, it would have been difficult (awkward) with a more inclusive playing pool of broader personality. 

I interpreted (again this is on reflection) all six rolled Stats as best guesses of the true values for a character. I remember in an early game an assassin's player rolled a critical twenty to hit, which required a further die roll which turned out to be another 20. I added to his excitement by saying, 'The 17 Dexterity must be inaccurate. Your guy is obviously an 18 Dexterity assassin.' This is in a campaign-world where characters occupy a position in a deliberate hierarchy of prestige as much for a 17 Wisdom as being a 6th level Wizard. Players could learn about a non-player character's primary Stats as in the real world through observation, interaction and sifting for truth in rumours of their exploits.

My approach to the Mental Stats was fluid. They were altered in memorable crises, up or down, fairly and appropriate to the player's conduct much in the manner that searching for secret doors and traps and generally being a competent dungeoneer is a matter of the player's ability and not his character's. After some time they became stable, right? Because they came to match my perception of how that player consistently comported himself in character in game.

Wisdom became, in the absence of alignment, the closest thing to a measure of a moral sense within the game. It doesn't have to be interpreted that way but it is what I appear to have done. Wisdom, as will-power, is also the truest measure of Dungeoneering Fortitude but not at the same time. Each Stat is coloured one way or another way by the players but Im not going into that here. So, one player who failed in rolling to become a paladin went on through role-play and an increasing Wisdom to portray convincingly a true and honourable knight, the High Man Syrakarn, and in a sense shared with me the responsibility of defining nobility in the campaign.

The player of Saryak the assassin was a very intense, clever and resourceful fellow. His knack of crossing into the created world through his style of exploration and purposeful and insightful conversations with non-player characters was ingenious and infectious and no-one in the group benefited more than I in having my created world become something objective, an independent place one degree more real. With time Saryak's Intelligence score rose towards its 'true value' and with increasing Metaphysical Acuity at about 7th level he perceived the need to adopt magic as the road to wider power and had the raw talent, Intelligence, to accomplish this.  

Later I noticed something strange. Wisdom had become a crude measure of the Good in many characters irrespective of their Intelligence, however, Intelligence tended, in seeking for understanding of the Metaphysics of the world, towards amorality, a pathological indifference, and with increasing power a self-willed solitariness with isolation imposed from without for good measure. This is because Metaphysical understanding is intensely personal and reality at the limit of comprehension is not something widely to be shared.

This high Intelligence could be stabilised with a comparitvely high Wisdom and therefore some characters existed in mental state of explosive tension. FĂ«anor would be an example of such a character. Since Mental Stats are fluid and can be influenced by how characters behave in crises there is a latent drama in the way these definitions have crystalised in my campaigns. A curse for example stragetically called on someone in a state of such fraught equipoise could result in events which undermine their morale, diminish their Wisdom and expose a brilliance hungering to be loosed from responsibilities to their dependents.

Greg Stafford says the following in Pendragon 5th ed. pg28.: No Intelligence Rating? Note that no attributes are given for intelligence or any form of wisdom, astuteness, or wit. ... Since a player controls every character, it is that player's intelligence that dictates the character's goals and actions, not an arbitrary number on a character sheet. Thus, in a sense, the player is the character's "intelligence score"!

Those of you who get OD&D and AD&D in a deep way have realised that many measures of the character's skill are best left to the player's resourcefulness. I don't know if any of you have realised that the Mental stats should be treated in the same way either following Stafford in eradicating them or as I suggest in slowly and subtly matching them to the mentality that a player manages to bring to the game table.

Why do I keep the Mental Stats? Primarily because I need them for non-player characters. Players' characters need them indirectly as a crucial relative measure of their increasing importance in the world. It doesn't feel right to me that in Pendragon Merlin has no Intelligence score and Arthur and the knights no Wisdom. 

I want to address finally any lingering sense that I am exclusive as a DM or think that that is a good idea. Truly I am not. My players come from my friends, friendships which were formed when I was young and I was exclusive, perhaps being narrow minded. Aren't we all selective of our friends? I don't have the energy to introduce acquaintances to fantasy gaming, just as I stopped long ago recommending my shortlist of great fantasy novels to literary snobs.

Let me say this though. One of the most bravura role-playing performances I have witnessed was from some guy, some Joe, a friend of the player of Saryak, who took the role of a Ninja for a few games. He played with all the innocence of a six foot child. His play was wholly uninhibited, completely sincere and he was fascinated with the process. His Ninja ruses and ploys jolted the Saryak player into upping his game. Yes we were royally pissed when he ditched us for some girl he preferred to go cuddle on the weekends.

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14 comments:

  1. I wrote on this about a year ago: http://retiredadventurer.blogspot.ca/2012/01/intelligence-wisdom-and-charisma-should.html

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    1. What you call 'replacements' I would call 'definitions' and I have assumed most DMs did have to explain how they were interpreting the rather grand umbrella notions of Int & Wis through exemplary npcs and out of game discussion.

      The enduring brilliance of D&D for me is in its abstraction because I keep coming back and reinterpreting the broad concepts, something I would not do if presented with 'acuity' and 'calmness' in print. Im not sure you are addressing the presence of player mentality in his character though. I would still say that 'acuity' and 'calmness' belong to the player and his comportment in the long term of a campaign.

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  2. This is a good post, Kent. Maybe it's because in the last few years I've become used to OD&D, in which ability scores have very little mechanical effect and the most important are Constitution (for system shock rolls) and Charisma (for reactions and number of hirelings), but I can easily see dispensing with ability scores altogether.

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    1. The standard mechanical benefit for Int is languages isn't it? In that case they should have called the stat "Languages" and left Int in the hands of the player. I think much more could be done with language ability in the game anyway for instance it is probably more important in general than charisma when trying to win over foreign races.

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  3. I too think dispensing with ability scores could be an interesting way to play. The only thing is, I do like having some sort of random generation in the character creation process, because I truly believe that random generation is one of the great tools of human creativity.

    Maybe randomly generating a class and some characteristics ("Very ugly", "No sense of humour", "Extremely tall and thin") would compensate for this.

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    1. Players tend to get satisfaction from having at least one impressive Physical stat (me too). Physical and Mental stats could be distinguished also as objective and subjective and really it is the Mental ones that require some additional thought beyond the guidance given in the rulebooks.

      Character creation can be exciting. I really love the details of Pendragon's elaborate process.

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    2. Yes, I agree. In some games, creating a character is in itself a fun mini-game. Pendragon is probably the best, though I also love the Cyberpunk 2020 system, with its random lifepath generator.

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  4. Pendragon might not have an INT characteristic, but then it is a skill system, and it has plenty of knowledge and intuition skills, and emotional and personality 'skills' (traits and passions) too. In D&D, all this kind of stuff is folded into INT, WIS, and CHA.

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    1. That is true, and I have have retained Int, Wis and Cha where Stafford has shifted his conception to match the relevant literature. However the personality traits of Pendragon are as *fluid* as my treatment of the AD&D Mental Stats and this was my central point - make the Mental Stats fluid and let them track the players actual comportment of his character according to definitions you have laid down for those Stats. In my experience players when creating interesting characters with some depth, since they are not professional actors, tend to distill their character's personality from their own. This is a way to achieve subtlety in roleplaying and avoid clownish antics and stereotypes.

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  5. As a youthful 'Storyteller' of that Vampire game (which the swirlings and whirlings of the blogs I've drifted into have informed me I'm not to like), I went through a very similar process to that which you describe. Running games for a group of actors, artists and other inventive flaunters meant that the Social and, to an extent, Mental stats of that game had less and less mechanical value, in the end serving as a choke chain for those players who'd constructed a character who was noticeably less outgoing or observant or witty than themselves. You know the sort of thing - "would Mr. Ravenscroft really conceive of that notion? He has only 2 dots in Intelligence, after all..."

    The only Numbers we ever bothered with were those to abstract out combats and other shenanigans of the sort difficult to replicate in a suburban bedroom on the edge of Cornwall. This meant, on occasion and with a broadening of the player base, that the shy girl in the silk shirt playing the slickest thing since Ventrue invented Presence spent more time rolling Charisma than displaying very much of it.

    Mind you, those early games were very close to diceless. It's only been since I reappraised the system that I've used the Numbers in a more abstract and mechanical way, to generate and resolve the success of supernatural capabilities, that they've really been important at all.


    Incidentally, I want to give Pendragon a look this year, since you mentioned that my having not done so was a grievous failing on my part. I'm looking to run something with an Arthurian slant and it'll either be Pendragon or Ars Magica - hacked to buggery, of course.

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    1. Again I need to point out that I am not advocating doing without the Mental Stats something many gamers achieve through neglect, rather, I let the Mental stats reflect or assimilate the mentality that the players bring to the gametable. The numbers are secondary to the player's comportment and his thoughtful actions and so seem unnecessary but in my game a character's significance is largely measured through Mental Stats relative to those of NPCs many of whom will always be much more powerful than the players.

      So to emphasise, the Mental stats are extremely important in my games. Lowly PCs strive for consonance of mind with the prime movers in the world according to their own personalities and abilities.

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      Pendragon should be read as a great example of how to take a body of literature and abstract a rpg from it.
      That is I would never run Pendragon but if I was going to set an AD&D campaign in the worlds of Eddison or Hodgson, which I intend doing, then I would take a close look at how Stafford went about such a thing.

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    2. Yes, I got that. What I was trying to express is this: as I drift back into the realms of retaining and ascribing importance to the Numbers, I like your approach of linking mechanical value to player disposition and performance. Not saying "you can't play Manipulation 4", more "you're playing this more rhetorically than I'd thought, maybe your Charisma needs a tweak".

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  6. I think the main issues with INT and WIS were back in the days when some DMs would pull out the old "your character couldn't solve this" line (or "your character would do that stupid thing" in the case of WIS).

    Nowadays I tend towards the "your character automatically solves this" line; leaving player with lower scores to work it out, or not, for themselves. It's a subtle shift, but I think it comes closer to allowing the stats to have some effect without the DM getting involved in how the player runs the character.

    Additionally, I tend to regard INT as active problem solving (I've never seen this before but I think it may be related to chi-squares; give me a minute or two), WIS as application of experience (Oh, I've seen this before. The answer is 3.819 squirrels), and CHA as will power (I'm not doing what you command; YOU'RE doing what I command!). If there are mechanical effects connected with items or spells, then I try to run it along these lines.

    Generally, I find that players do slowly drift into playing the stats naturally, if they like the character. If they don't like the character, then it's better to let them start anew rather than tinker, I think.

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    1. I consider Int, for the aspects of memory and knowledge, to incorporate your definition of both Int & Wis. However, I think it is much more important to identify useful gaming qualities of mentality and clearly attribute them to one of the three umbrellas stats than to worry over where the boundaries lie. Another difference between us is that Wis for me governs a moral sense, and self discipline and will power because I think these are related. Cha covers presence (largely sexual) and something like empathy or 'seeming' empathy. Leadership for me is primarily a function of Level influenced by Charisma. There really is significant diffusion across the definition boundaries if we look at both of our sets.

      I would be comfortable playing under your definitions and have no sympathy with gaming groups who can't make sense of the Mental stats.

      >> If they don't like the character, then it's better to let them start anew rather than tinker, I think.

      I don't agree but its probably due a difference on a deep level about the relation between player and his character. The player does his best to fit out a character he can play well from the rolls he has made. I think the fluid approach to stats improves the fit slowly through play rather than have chars running around in ill-fitting suits thinking they are gorgeous.

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