Playing Characters With Low Ability Scores

by Ameron (Derek Myers) on March 12, 2009

I’ve met a lot of gamers who love to min/max, especially during character creation. They’re willing to sacrifice abilities, powers and skills that they don’t think they’ll ever use in order to make the ones they expect to use all the time that much better. The most common trade off is low mental scores (Intelligence, Wisdom and Charisma) for high physical scores (Strength, Constitution and Dexterity). If you’re objective is to play the big, dumb Fighter then this is the way to go. But how do the low scores in your bottom three abilities affect your ability to role play the character?

Most of us have real-life Intelligence, Wisdom and Charisma scores between 8 and 11. This is the average range for humans as defined in the character creation section of every edition of the PHB. So if my real Intelligence is 10 and my character’s Intelligence is 6, how should I play the character? Am I not allowed to come up with good ideas? Or should I intentionally make mistakes that I know are wrong in order to stay in character? I say yes, you should.

If you were playing a character with a 6 Strength and you wanted to lift a heavy object the mechanics of the game clearly rule that you can’t do it. This is the case even if you’re a real-life body builder who can bench press hundreds of pounds. So why should the non-physical scores be any different?

What often happens is characters are built with high physical scores and low mental scores and then never feel any adverse in-game effects for having a low Intelligence, Wisdom or Charisma. This is wrong and it’s not fair to players who roll up balanced characters. It’s also not fair to anyone playing a class that may require a balanced distribution of many ability scores.

In 4e D&D 12 of the 17 skills rely on the bottom three abilities. So characters with low mental scores see and feel the down side of number crunching during skill challenges. But this shouldn’t be the only penalty for min/maxing. Especially since many DMs don’t use skill challenges or don’t give skill challenges as much importance as combat encounters.

My feeling is that the DM needs to ensure that players with low ability scores play the character they’ve rolled up.

  • PCs with low Charisma should make social blunders and make poor first impressions.
  • PCs with low Wisdom should be naive and gullible and easily convinced of facts that are obviously wrong.
  • PCs with low Intelligence should not be well educated and should not be put in charge of making party decisions (unless perhaps they have a really high Charisma score).

It’s the DMs responsibility to encourage players to stay in character. If a PC with a low Intelligence is always coming up with the plan, solving riddles and puzzles or left to do research in the library then the DM needs to step in.

I’ve come up with two possible options to help DMs ensure that PCs with low mental attributes are played the way they are created.

Option 1

If a player with low scores continually acts in ways that are out of character then the DM needs to force the player to raise his character’s low abilities. It’s an extreme move but it will send a powerful message. You can’t have it both ways. If you want a really high Constitution at the cost of Wisdom then you have to play it that way. Otherwise the low scores need to be raised to the level at which you’re playing them.

Option 2

If a player does not conform to his character’s low abilities when he’s forced to use them, make the rolls harder. If he’s got a low Charisma then make sure he faces the appropriate obstacles for someone with his deficiencies. The easiest way to do this is to make the DC more difficult if a PC is acting out of character. The players will quickly realize that they probably shouldn’t expect success as easily as someone with higher scores or formal training.

I’ll admit that the options I’ve presented above are quite extreme. The flip side is to do nothing. Although I loathe this option, it is the easiest way to deal with the situation, especially if none of the players are complaining. It may not be fair to reward what comes down to cheating, but it avoids potentially awkward conversations among the players at your gaming table.

What do you think? Should a player be forced to play to his character’s attributes? What if he refuses to do so (intentionally or otherwise)? Do you agree with my suggestions for handling this situation? Let me know if you’ve experienced this kind of abuse and how it’s been handled at your gaming table.

For the flip side of this problem, check out Playing Really Smart Characters.

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{ 12 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Suddry March 12, 2009 at 6:30 am

I think the issue really comes down to whether you are playing to just “win” or playing to “play a character”. While both options presented in your article could be construed as forcing the role-play factor, I’d lean to Option #2 if I had to choose. It would be a pain in the arse as a DM but it could work.

That said, I’m really hoping neither option would have to be taken. The first step should be talking about it. I’d like to think that most people could have an intelligent conversation if it was an issue at the game table. (Assuming INT isn’t the low score! ha!)

Interesting write-up.

2 Ameron March 12, 2009 at 7:50 am

@Suddry
I think you’ve hit the nail on the head. I absolutely agree that the very first step should be a discussion with your players. But if that doesn’t work and the problem gets worse, then it may be time to consider some extreme options (like those I’ve presented).

3 Swordgleam March 12, 2009 at 4:48 pm

I’ve seen the opposite problem more often. A player wants to play a cleric, so they have 18 wis, but they think it would be hilarious to charge head-on at the kobold horde. A player wants to be a caster, so they have 18 cha, but they think it’s funny to insult the duke’s daughter. I’ve seen suggestions to the effect of, “Make it so that was a good plan after all,” which could be fun, but sounds tiresome.

I would go with out of game reminders as an option 0, myself. “You have a low int, remember? Hey everyone, that plan sounds like the stupidest thing you’ve ever heard.”

4 Ameron March 13, 2009 at 7:17 am

@Swordgleam
Thanks for stopping by Dungeon’s Master.
Next week we’ll be posting a follow-up to this article called “Playing Really Smart Characters.” It addresses the issue you’ve mentioned in your comment about role-playing a character with an 18 Intelligence or an 18 Wisdom. Please come back next week and check it out.

5 Dungeon April 2, 2009 at 8:43 am

I don’t mind playing characters with low ability scores. many people in history became great heroes despite their flaws. it is fun to play a character with a great flaw, it gives you a sense of “they must never know, fore if they did, all would be ruined.”
some DMs just like high ability scores and look at low ability scores and say: “hey, do you want to reroll that score?”
I mean, come on, who doesn’t want to play a character with at least one low ability?
:)

6 Ameron April 2, 2009 at 9:12 am

@Dungeon
I too like playing flawed characters. They’re often much more interesting then a PC who has it completely together. Just remember that if you’re playing a character with a low score that there will be limits to what he can and cannot do. I like the idea of trying to hide the PCs inadequacies. That should make for some good role-playing.

7 Dungeon April 3, 2009 at 9:22 am

@Ameron
yeah! like To hide the fact that the Fighter can’t actually fight. i did that once. or the Rogue who was clumsy (his dexterity was 7) and tried to impress the thieve’s guild by stealing the King’s jewels. Or i remember a time when i played a wizard who actually couldn’t cast spells because his intelligence was too low, (10 or lower) he had to “fake it,” it was great! The only other example i can think of was when i played a Ranger that was allergic to trees.

8 ducttapebandit September 3, 2009 at 2:20 pm

Whenever my brother comes up with a plan, he has taken to using percentile dice to see if his character can come up with the same plan and present it well. It’s a bit extreme, especially since he has decent int, but as a DM I might use it on occasion if I were in the situation described above.

9 Elizabeth Barrette September 23, 2009 at 3:28 am

As a game master, I like to reward players for playing in-character, even if that means mayhem will result from the character’s actions. If the character is well chosen, the player will *enjoy* flubbing certain things. That works better if the game master and other players go along with it. So I’ve rarely had a problem getting players to follow their character sheet. The exceptions are times when people didn’t realize exactly how the character would play out, and he’s a bit different than they thought — it’s not rare to need a little tweaking after two or three sessions.

As a player, I enjoy having a character with a wide range of scores. I like to push one or two high and another low. Last time it was a centaur character who strong and fast, with a high Wisdom too — but low on intelligence. I played Bayfeather as an intuitive rather than intellectual person. So when he cooked, for instance, he didn’t use recipes. He had great instincts, but wasn’t much for book-learning, math, or complicated explanations. And he had a tendency to solve problems in a very direct fashion. I loved playing him.
.-= Elizabeth Barrette´s last blog ..The Age of Stupid =-.

10 rubburtrogdor October 1, 2009 at 12:12 am

I have always played to my character’s ability scores. I always try to make sure that my Int is at least an 11. Other than that, I Will play on a Cha score of less than 12, it’s fun. Most of the time, though, I’ll only have 1 low ability score and sometimes, I’ll make it a physical ability. It make an interesting game when your Minotaur barbarian can not travel at as steady a pace with the rest of the group, or something along those lines.

I do have a friend who always plays in character, most definatly the ability scores of his character(s). He also, usually plays races that tend to have a general living construct-type or races that are naive to the happenings of the world. He does it quite well, too. Kind of makes me think what his Int score is at…

11 moocow October 29, 2011 at 6:35 am

well in the skill article here, you tell people to raise their lowest skills, but here your penalizing people for having the stats associated with those skills fail more if the ability is low.

How would you treat a character with 4 charisma but a high bluff trying to lie?

12 ryan October 1, 2013 at 8:25 am

I think the best way is to use the standard array. No one has a score below ten and means everyone has average everything and good at others. This allows all players to interact normally

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