Playing Really Smart Characters

by Ameron (Derek Myers) on March 20, 2009

So you’re playing a character with a really high Intelligence, a really high Wisdom or both. You, on the other hand, are just an average guy who likes to play D&D. Your real-life Intelligence and Wisdom are probably somewhere between 8 and 11 (I’ll be generous). So how do you make the most of a smart character’s best attribute?

This problem has come up in my games many times over the years. One of the guys I played D&D with in high school loved magic users and played Wizards more than any other class. But, he found it frustrating to play a character with a really high Intelligence when he himself was admittedly of average Intelligence. He would often say “My character has 18 Intelligence, I don’t.”

What do you do if you’re a player and you find yourself in this situation? If you’re the DM, how do you try to fix this situation?

This is a tough one. How do you distinguish between what the player knows and what the character knows? And what happens in a scenario where the character absolutely would know the answer but the person playing that character would not? Should the DM hand that player the answer? Should the DM make him roll? It’s a fine line and one that can have very significant impacts on the game.

When a character with a really high Intelligence or Wisdom faces a challenge that requires use of these attributes, I find it’s good to lead the player a little bit. I don’t want to hand them the solution outright, but at the same time I don’t want them to struggle if their character should have the answer. If I feel there is a strong likelihood of the character having knowledge of a particular field or discipline then I provide very specific and useful hints to the player.

This is where I look to the player for guidance. As the DM, I need to know at any given time the likelihood of his character knowing the solution to a problem, or being able to recall some obscure bit of information. The better my understanding of the character, the more help I can provide to the player.

If the player has provided me with a brief description of his character’s background I can use that to everyone’s advantage. If he spent 10 years studying in the great library I can assume he’s very well read on a wide variety of topics. This character is going to have a clear advantage when a challenge relies on straight-up book smarts. If the character travelled a lot as part of his education, then he will have advantages for challenges involving geography, politics, government and local cultures.

The character’s background becomes the most important guide for the DM when trying to determine when the character’s high Intelligence or Wisdom score will provide a clear advantage. If the player hasn’t thought about his character’s background then I often leave the matter to chance. But, I’m more conservative with a catch-all roll then I would be if I have some framework to guide me.

This is a topic that has been around for a long time and will not be resolved easily. Using the guidelines I’ve mentioned above have helped me, but I know this is not a perfect solution.

Tell us how this situation has played out at your gaming table? What steps have DMs taken to give characters with really high Intelligence and Wisdom scores advantages that these abilities deserve?

For the flip side of this problem, check out Playing Characters With Low Ability Scores.

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1 skallawag March 20, 2009 at 8:48 am

This is my take on it.

If a character has high intelligence or high wisdom, then he has a higher chance of somehow remembering some vital information or finding some unique insight to a situation. He can roll against those skills and the DM would assist or provide background based on the roll.

I find that more often, the other players in the party who have maybe read every single D&D novel, sourcebook or article in Dungeon or Dragon magazine and have memorized every single D&D map out there, end up speaking out of turn and offering suggestions even though their own characters have maybe an 8 or 10 intelligence. The campaign still moves forward because the overall puzzle or situation was “figured out”. IMHO, the correlation between a smart player and a dumb character or a not too bright person and an intelligent character is more of a play group issue than an individual person issue.

2 Ameron March 20, 2009 at 9:40 am

@skallawag
You bring up an interesting point. I’ll certainly keep that in mind when I run into this situation again. Thanks.

3 Helmsman March 20, 2009 at 11:11 am

Here’s the thing, intelligence is a very vague word to describe someone’s overall cognitive ability and wisdom is defined even worse. Wisdom defines someone’s WILL save but logically someone’s WILL would be defined by how stubborn a person is and we all know that stubbornness and conventional wisdom are not sononomous. So the fact is we have two traits that are emulating reality not simulating it, so comparing a player’s cognitive abilities to his player’s just doesn’t work.

Having said that here are a few things you can do to help your players along.
Problem solving involves some basic steps.
1. Identifying the root of the problem. (This can probably be determined by wisdom, the greater the roll the more clear this will be.)
-An Intelligence aspect of identifying root causes of problems will be in specific details that the character might notice or remember.
2. Identifying the optimal solution. (This might be a skill roll, but in many cases the optimal solution depends on what the character is best at. A Barbarian may solve a problem with his fists that a wizard could fix with a cantrip or a thief with bit of fiddling with some delecate tools.)
-Intelligence probably works best for identifying the best solution, but Wisdom might help the character better understand the consequences of that action before he does it. Consequences are often more important than the problem it’s self.

Also a tip, just because a person is extremely intelligence doesn’t mean they’re at all good at life. If the player of your intelligence 18 wizard is yelling at you to give him the answer because his character has Int 18, you can always just say that he’s absolutely certain that the solution is the mathamatical root of the 82nd interger of the prime domerude from the school of Hendrick Somner. Or 42.

4 Tom March 20, 2009 at 11:35 am

Skill checks

5 satyre March 20, 2009 at 1:06 pm

Skill or ability checks is one way, particularly if you’re under stress or feel the players will get in your face about it.

Another is planning to play to your strengths and to diminish weaknesses (low AC monsters using armour in combat (if they can), setting up traps or even getting hired help in (imagine a red dragon guarded by hellhounds for example) to deal with the little inconveniences that come their way. If you’re worried about how to do this, take a look at some smart monsters and see how they’d deal with the problem. Then adapt for your monster.

6 Ameron March 23, 2009 at 8:21 am

@Helmsman
A fellow gamer I know who has made his own RPG system refuses to use a Wisdom attribute for many of the reasons you’ve cited.

You’ve offered some good tips which I will certainly keep in mind when I run into this problem again.

I agree that the role-playing should be the driving force behind problem resolution regardless of how high the PCs intelligence.

@Tom
D&D 3e and 4e have certainly made skill checks a good option for this situation. But I hate to have something like problem solving come down to a roll of the dice. A little role-playing goes a long way. But you’re right; in the end I’ll probably determine success or failure by a die roll.

@satyre
I often forget that many monsters have really high Intelligence or Wisdom scores. I’ve been so focused on how to help the PCs that I often forget to help the monsters. Satyre, I think you just made life-long enemies of my players for bringing this up. Thanks.

7 Helmsman March 23, 2009 at 10:49 am

There’s a relatively new TV show out now that I think should be required watching for all role-players called Burn Notice. It is entertaining but more than that the internal monologues of the main character are an instruction manual for doing sneaky stuff and solving problems.

8 Svafa March 25, 2009 at 1:05 pm

As a DM, I’m generally fairly lenient on meta-gaming. There’s a number of reasons, including our often slapstick play-style, but part of it is due to the problem of intelligence – on both ends.

Sometimes the smart player behind the dumb character has an idea, but he can’t use it because of his outlet. And sometimes the oblivious player behind the incredibly intelligent character misses details or possibilities. Meta-gaming in moderation can help with this, as one player can suggest things to another and they can then act this out with their own characters. And it helps build a bit of comradery, where the adventuring party is more a joint possession of the group, rather than any one character belonging to any one player.

The downside being that you have to be careful not to stray too far with meta-gaming. And occasionally having to remind the brash Warlock that it wasn’t his idea, but the experienced and charming Warlord’s.

9 Ameron March 25, 2009 at 2:28 pm

@Helmsman
I’ve heard a lot of great things about Burn Notice. Unfortunately up here in Canada it’s not available on regular TV.

@Svafa
Thanks for visiting Dungeon’s Master. I’m not opposed to meta-gaming in general, but I don’t think it’s fair for a PC to take a high Strength and a low Intelligence (or vice-versa) and not feel any adverse in-game affects.

I really like your suggestion to have the players talk out of game and then let the in game role-playing progress. It’s so simple it just might work.

10 Helmsman March 25, 2009 at 2:57 pm

@Ameron The first season is available on DVD, or if your personal morality doesn’t object it’s easy as pie to pick up as a torrent.

11 Ameron March 25, 2009 at 4:11 pm

@Helmsman
It’s not my morality that’s stopping me, it’s just that I’m lazy.

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