On Why You're Not Smart Enough to Play

Player skill does not have anything to do with ability scores. 

I've been playing Dungeons and Dragons for over twenty years. Even today I see the same tired arguments that were in Dragon Magazine.

Let's leave off any sort of post 2000 edition discussion; clearly scores became divorced from actual character representation when the game shifted to a tactical encounter based mode. I doubt anyone is going to resolve any thesis about their Intelligence 28 Wizard.

But what about in older games, where the bell curve distribution is meant to be representative?
Isn't player skill unfair to players who aren't as good at playing the game?
Why rely on skill when you don't rely on their physical statistics?
Why rely on their personal Charisma to resolve problems?
After all, If you don't ask the players with an 18 Strength to lift a sofa, then why would you ask your players with an 18 Charisma to come up with something witty to say?

What an excellent Strawman!

Player skill does not have to do with anything subjective. I don't require my players to be witty or convince me at the table. If they do come up with something witty I'm sure to reward them, but at no point is it ever required for success in play.

Having a low intelligence or a high charisma or a percentile strength has nothing to do at all with the player. Each of these stats has specific in game mechanical effects and the player is under no stipulations to act in any way differently then he chooses to act, no matter what his ability scores.

The problem comes with the conflation of the term 'role-playing'. What is meant by the term is that you take the role of a person in a situation and make decisions as if you were them. Let me say that again.

What is meant by role playing is that you 'take the role' of a person in a situation and make decisions as if you were them.

This is the setup of a 'Player Character' and all the associated character creation verbiage in each edition of Dungeons & Dragons. Somehow this has become confused somewhere along the line with thespian aspirations.

Is their any part of the Character Creation chapters in the Dungeons & Dragons Player's Handbook where it talks about what voice to use to portray your character? In the core books is there a section outlining what behavior you can portray at the table for each level of the stats? Am I just thinking I'm too familiar with the books and I've missed that section in the dozens of editions and retro-clones that I've read?

The ability score statistics already represent themselves in play. Their charisma determines the reaction adjustment and number of henchmen (or spell save DC's for charisma casters - whatever). I no more expect someone to bench press weights then I expect someone to go see how many people they can hire. This is the purpose of the stats.

Now I am aware that the referee is explicitly given the option of limiting player behavior based on statistics, but this has nothing to do with player skill, nor does it or should it limit the behavior of the player in any way. While the player is under no proscription of his ability, the referee is free to describe things poorly to the dumb characters and veto actions.

I want to make it clear, I'm not saying acting like your character isn't fun or that you shouldn't do it. I'm not saying it's bad in any way, or that you can't have a lot of fun with a much higher degree of 'role assumption'. I'm just saying it's not explicit in the rules that you must do so and that doing so has nothing at all to do with player skill.

Player skill is about choices and ideas, not subjective behavior.


  1. Oh, shit. With such a low wisdom I will now be jumping off any steep incline suggested of me, never learn that fire burn/fire bad, and that it is completely possible to scratch and sniff something at the bottom of a pool.

    As a great, and slow, person once said: "now that's just dumb!"

    But yeah, pretty much.

  2. Agreed. Knowing how many languages you know or how hirelings will react to you is fine, but I don't see how foolish players can emulate wise PC's, or why I should demand clever players to make their PC's do stupid things.

  3. I was playing an elven wizard in a game of Warhammer many moons ago. One of my skills was Language: Classical Latin. So, in the course of the game my guy found a book written in Latin. "What does it say?" Asks I. "Can you read Latin?" Says the GM. "Yep, I have Classical Latin." "No," says he, "can YOU speak Latin?"
    Later in the same campaign this idiot was reading the Belgariad. So, I find a book detailing how to use The Will and the Word. "Great!" Exults I. "How long does my guy have to study this book to do it?" "You're reading the series, right?" He asks. "Yes." He replies, "When you get to the point in the series that explains it, your character will understand it."

    I hated that aspect of an otherwise enjoyable campaign. I believe in role playing, but I use it as an adjunct to the randomization of things, not the driving force.

  4. I think that there is another dangerous conflation that you are sliding past here.

    Player skill should determine what your character will try. And, specifically, whether you are trying things that have a reasonable risk/reward ratio and make sense in context.

    Character skill should determine whether your character will succeed.

    The problem comes in describing intended actions in such a way that the success of those actions is assumed. You say, "I run my fingers under the ledge, looking for the switch for the secret door." The DM says, "Well, that's where the adventure says the switch is, so you find it." It is at this point that player skill starts to overwhelm the mechanics.

    The difference becomes even more subtle when it comes to things like knowledge. It is a hard task to avoid making choices based on information your character does not have. It is equally hard to make choices based on information your character has that you don't. Attempting to reconcile the two sets of knowledge without some kind of mechanic to help is tricky.

    There is a similar problem with social skills, but it comes between the "try" and the "do". Making a choice as to what to try is the same as with any other action. But, the line between the description of what you are attempting and the description of what you are actually doing is very, very blurry. When the player says "I swing my sword" and the DM says "You miss", no one is shocked. When the player says "I tell the duchess she is my favorite person ever" and the DM says "She is offended", players get testy.

    Whereas your definition of player skill is excellent in the theoretical, I can tell you that in my experience convincing the DM to accept the action without turning to the dice is a very important player skill of its own. And it is that skill that those of us who advocate rules-heavy play are trying to moderate.

    1. I've written an article that talks about the specific misunderstanding you make in this post about the player 'convincing' the DM.

      Let's just say that I don't encounter any situation in my games there is no case where player skill can 'overwhelm' mechanics.

      After reading many of your comments I've come to the conclusion that we are dealing with two very different things when we talk about gaming. For some insight into what I am talking about, see

      Why skill light games aren't about pixel bitching or DM Fiat

      The Quantum Ogre


      Race as Class

    2. Yeah, as you may have noticed, I'm working my way through your articles.

      If you honestly never have player skill overwhelm mechanics, then you are a far fairer DM than I have ever played with.

      I will be reading your other articles.


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