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Roleplaying Attributes

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Roleplaying Attributes (a/k/a Faldred's Essay Time, again)

In D&D, and by extension, Neverwinter Nights, there are six basic attribute types that define the basic "shell" of a character: Strength, Dexterity, Constitution, Intelligence, Wisdom, and Charisma.  These attributes are used for a variety of purposes -- to apply bonuses or penalties to certain tasks, or as qualifications for certain classes, abilities, or feats.

But there really are two different types of abilities represented here: physical abilities (Strength, Dexterity, Constitution) and mental abilities (Intelligence, Wisdom, and Charisma -- yes, I'm classifying Charisma as a mental ability, stick with me here).  From a role-playing perspective, physical abilities are very easy to deal with -- how strong is the character?  How nimble?  How tough?

Mental abilities, on the other hand, are a bit different.  Take Intelligence... how smart is the character?  Well, unlike sheer physical strength or endurance, "smart" is harder to quantify and represent in-character.  Ditto for how wise or how charismatic the character is.  To make matters more difficult, it can be quite easy playing a character with radically different physical abilities than you possess, but in some ways, it can be quite hard playing characters with very different mental abilities, especially if they are higher than your own.


A high intelligence does not necessarily imply having a great deal of knowledge.  That is, a character with an INT of 25+ doesn't simply "know" everything.  In real-life, there are many highly intelligent people who are relatively ignorant because they have not had the opportunity to access information or to learn how to use their natural abilities.  On the flip side, many intelligent people who have had the opportunity know a great deal about certain areas, but still know very little about others.  (E.g., a PhD is often characterized as someone who knows a great deal about a very narrow subject and very little about everything else.)

Intelligence is, rather, a measure of how capable the character is of critically analyzing, synthesizing, and correlating information.  Or more simply, how well he or she is able to learn and to use logic.  In game terms, this is expressed in puzzle-solving, number of languages allowed (not necessarily granted), and as a skill modifier for skills requiring the use of learning, critical analysis, and/or problem-solving.  For example, a high intelligence helps the Search skill because the character can analyze the environment for clues as to where hidden devices may be located, and indications that one actually exists.

Roleplaying intelligence requires acting in accordance with your abilities when faced with a problem that requires thought and analysis.  This is a perfect example of why it is much easier to play "dumber" than it is to play "smarter".  That is to say, if you're playing a half-orc barbarian, you can very well play him as if he couldn't figure out the puzzle you the player saw through in an instant.  On the other hand how do you roleplay your elven wizard's ability to solve the riddle if you personally have no clue?


Wisdom is a dual-purpose ability.  It represents common sense, but more importantly, force of will -- mind over body, if you like.  On the first point, unlike Intelligence, a high Wisdom leads to a more intuitive approach to knowledge or problem solving -- certain things just make sense... well, because.  The character simply knows something to be true (even if it isn't).  Skills like Listen and Spot highlight this type of intuition.

On the second point, Wisdom acts as will power.  How strong is the mind against external attack or distraction?  In mechanics, this shows up as adjustments to Will saves, but in roleplaying, it is about staying focused on-task and avoiding temptations.

While not as difficult to play the extremes with wisdom as it is with intelligence, if you're personally borderline ADD, it might not be easy to play a character who can maintain a tough mental discipline.


Ah yes... Charisma.  A mental ability?  Am I serious?  Absolutely.  Physical attractiveness is not the end-all and be-all of Charisma.  In fact, I would strongly consider dissociating the two a great deal, though not completely altogether.  A "beautiful" person can have the Charisma of a stick, and an "ugly" person can rule an empire by sheer will.  This is, of course, extreme, and human (or demi-human) nature leads us to naturally perceive those with what be believe to be positive physical traits as more charismatic, so it has some place.

But much more so than that, Charisma is the couter-point to Wisdom.  Whereas the latter is about force of will focused inward on one's self, Charisma is about the ability to impose one's will on others, hence its inclusion as a "mental" ability.  Leadership, to be slightly cynical, is about getting people to do what you think they should be doing, or, in other words, manipulating them.  This is not necessarily a bad thing -- the Paladin may believe that she is showing people the True Path and helping them focus their energies.  Of course, the same ability can be used by the dark side to dominate or (mentally) oppress others.  In any case, the abilities come from some combination of physical appearance, force of personality, leadership skill, smooth talking, and apparent moral authority.

In game mechanics, Charisma is expressed in two ways: spell-like abilities and diplomacy.  For "spontaneous" arcane casters (Bards and Sorcerers), it is the ability to manifest one's force of will in physical form as a spell; for Clerics, Paladins, and the like, it has an effect on their power over the undead, and as a "force multiplier" to certain spells and abilities.  Even the Use Magic Device skill works in this first regard -- the Bard or Rogue manages to bend the item to their use by force of will.  Diplomatic skills, specifically, Bluff, Intimidate, Persuade, and Taunt, are impacted by Charisma, in terms of imposing your will on someone else.  

Charisma, from a role-playing standpoint, offers probably a wider set of options than Wisdom or intelligence do.  A middle-of-the-road Charisma could be a slick-talking attractive person who just has no leadership skills or could just as well be an excellent managerial type who faints at the thought of public speaking.

Mixing and Matching

From a character definition standpoint, what makes the three "mental" abilities even more interesting is how they work together to create a personality.  The stereotypical absent-minded professor (or Wizard) can be represented as having a high intelligence and a low wisdom -- with a high Charisma, perhaps he becomes a great mentor, with a low one, a stuttering recluse.

But in short, just bear in mind the traits (or variety of traits) associated with each skill, and mix and match them together to come up with one logical approach for the character.  Above all, just avoid the lazy stereotypes of high-INT = "know it all", high-WIS = "sage who speaks in cryptic riddles", and high-CHA = "Faldred in a tux".

Edit: typo fixes

Nice post, should sticky it with the alignments thread as they both come up often.


Very good post, especially about Charisma. I never agreed with what seems the common view on what it actually entails. Which is just outward looks, which makes no sense to me in the way d&d uses it..

Actually, I think the common view is that it has nothing to do with looks at all, which is going too far on the other side for me. Many people demand a separate 'appearance' attribute because they don't take into account the effect one's appearance has in the ability to exert one's will over others, even if unintentional.

There is a whole giant long repetitive thread lurking around that I would rather eat broccoli than bring up from the dead, but there's a lot about it there. This one summed it up pretty nicely with no demands for strictly one or the other but just acknowledges appearance as a relatively small factor in the whole charisma equation, rather than the main show, or something completely and totally unattached.

Wanted to say thank you on the approach to charisma.  My dwarf has decent intelligence and wisdom but no charisma to speak of.  Yet he has made friends and I always have trouble trying to reconcile his lower charasima with how he ends up being played.  I have tried to rp him not leading groups of people but just being loyal and faithful to those he does travel with.  I also try to make him not the stereotype rude crude dwarf but outspoken and lacking in tact.  He is known to carry salt with him to add to his boots since he often put's his foot in his mouth.  This approach will aid me in how I approach his rp in the future.


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