Metagaming intelligence

[Due to a cutty pasty error, this post made no sense whatsoever the first time I posted it. Hopefully it makes at least a modicum of sense now, but if not at least you know that’s how I intended it.]

My question for today is, should one attempt to roleplay the intelligence of one’s character? It has been often remarked that when playing a character with a low intelligence score (or whatever the stat is in your system au choix), one finds oneself encountering situations where you, the player, can see a clue/solve a puzzle/make a plan, but (perhaps) the character would not be able to. Some folks say that in this situation you should play dumb.

I’m not so sure. First, it’s relatively unusual for a game to contain a “problem solving” stat. The intellectual stats often include something around memory, academic ability etc. They do sometimes mention “reasoning”. But there are many ways to make an ommelete. Ok, bad analogy, there aren’t that many ways to make an ommelete. Forget the analogy. The point stands though: a character could come up with a brilliant plan because (a) they reasoned it out; (b) they made use of animal cunning/intuition/etc to come up with the plan; (c) they didn’t really know what they were saying and sort of stumbled across the plan; (d) they have some specialist skill which made it appropriate for them to come up with the plan; (e) they were having a moment of uncharacteristic genius… and so on.

Image by ~d-lindzee

Ok, fine. But say your character is in a game where there are stats for animal cunning, intuition and so forth, you don’t have a relevant specialist skill, and you’ve had so many great ideas recently that you’re pushing your “moment of uncharacteristic genius” quota for the year. What then? Well, I still think there’s nothing inherently wrong with saying, out of character, “it would be a really great idea if we did X… my character would never come up with that plan of course”. The other players are then free to decide on the basis of their character’s wonderful stats that they came up with the idea instead. Or if none of you can come up with an excuse to have such a plan in character, then you can all enjoy the delightful piquancy of the moment as you stumble into disaster yet again. Heh.

Some people will say that this is meta-gaming, or that it means you’re a bad roleplayer. Whatever. Unless you’re playing some super-immersive game, we’re all here to have fun, and it’s reasonable to look for excuses to come up with an awesome plan rather than find reasons not to. Don’t get me wrong, I don’t like it when people break character at inappropriate moments, moments of tension or high drama, but the rest of the time, screw it.

Of course, the trouble is, while the above makes perfect sense, I’m playing this hardcore immersive roleplayer, so I just have to keep quiet. Sigh.

Josh Fox

Rabalias grew up wanting to be a pirate. But a band of evil bureaucrats kidnapped him and forced him to work for The Man. Even so, Rabalias was patient and cunning. He escaped by gnawing his way through the walls of his prison and concealing the hole behind a picture of cthulhu. He fled to the coast, and stowed away on the Black Armada, where he worked his way up to the rank of Admiral.

9 thoughts to “Metagaming intelligence”

  1. > when playing a character with a low intelligence score (or whatever the stat is in your system au choix)

    There is no intelligence or similar score in my systems au choix, for exactly this reason 🙂

  2. Do you also have no social stats, because a charismatic player might find themselves in an analogous situation? Or indeed, any stats related to mental prowess at all? If so, I’m intrigued to know what your system au choix is! 🙂

  3. Interestingly, they do tend to have social stats. I guess this is at least partly because I think dealing with negotiations / interpersonal stuff is more interesting than dealing with “do you know X” / “do you spot Y” etc.

    So I guess it’s not for exactly the reason you outline after all. That said, I don’t think the situations are exactly analogous. They’re similar, for sure, but with knowledge you either have it or you don’t, whereas with charisma it’s easy to just say the NPC wasn’t impressed by the *character*, even if the *player* was quite impressive. It doesn’t force an OOC / IC discrepancy (and therefore encourage meta-gaming) in quite the same way. (Not sure I’ve explained that very well, though…)

  4. See, I’d say that all-or-none refers to knowledge, as opposed to intelligence. Intelligence is for making clever plans or completing complex chains of reasoning, and these processes are exactly where the IC/OOC divide becomes hard to judge. Whereas my knowledge about brain anatomy is easily compartmentalised, my lay understanding of human psychology is not.

  5. I guess so. Well then, perhaps the question is whether you want your game to challenge the _players’_ intelligence (“making clever plans or completing complex chains of reasoning”, etc.) or not. If you do, then best leave it off your characters and defer to the players’ ability. If not, perhaps it’s worth including on your characters.

  6. This:

    “I don’t like it when people break character at inappropriate moments, moments of tension or high drama, but the rest of the time, screw it.”

    I don’t have a problem with metagaming either. As for the rest of your comment, it’s always tricky when
    – a player is playing a leader, and lacks any leadership skills
    – a player is playing an authority on social science yet lacks those real-world qualifications
    – a player is playing an empath, and IRL is a sociopath. Hmm, who am I thinking of.

    Etc. Intelligence as a stat is bullshit because it’s so broad and subjective. I guess with stat+skill it’s OK because you’re assuming a base level of mental acuity and tuning it with talent/skill – but as an abstract “I am smart so solve puzzles well” – well I’m smart, and I’m crap at puzzles.

  7. I always think with puzzles there’s a knack to it. If you’re smart then once you get the knack you can do them. If you’re not smart then it may be that no matter how hard you try you won’t be able to. So maybe intelligence is just learning ability.

    I dunno, intelligence is something psychologists are pretty clear exists, but maybe it’s just not that useful for games. Having said that a hell of a lot of games use it, and it never seems to be redundant. Maybe it’s bullshit, maybe it isn’t, but if it’s performing a function in the game it’s worth having.

  8. I just got a copy of Terra Primate yesterday (basically Planet of the Apes) and it makes a distinction between human and animal intelligence – basically animals can have the same intelligence stat, but an Animal Intelligence drawback (applies to normal apes but not to intelligent bipedal apes) that massively limits their reasoning ability.

    That means Intelligence can be applied equally to humans an animals for learning (and possibly psionics) but differently for reasoning and social interaction.

    I think abstract intelligence stats frequently are redundant, though. They only have value when they can be unambiguously applied to a dice roll (and another stat can’t). Any other time, you get exactly the situation you describe.

  9. This reminds me that I’ve been meaning to recommend Apocalypse World to you. ISTR you wrote a post enthusing about your experience with Dogs in the Vineyard, and AW is by the same guy. One of the interesting things about it is that the stats don’t have any “general” use, only specific mechanical uses. The closest thing to Intelligence in it is “sharp” which is exclusively used for assessing tactical situations and reading people’s intentions.

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