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Let's say someone is playing a character that has really low intelligence, but then the player comes up with a clever idea for a way for his dumb character to overcome some obstacle. Should I make him roll an INT check to determine if his character could really come up with such a clever idea given his low intelligence?

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Do you have a particular game system in mind, or are you deliberately leaving that out to get "systemless" answers? – SevenSidedDie Dec 19 '13 at 19:35
@TimLymington We get a lot of questions from people who don't realise that they need to mention the game they're playing. Universally these have turned out to be about D&D 3e, 4e, or Pathfinder. The phrase "Int check" is typical of those games/cultures too. Take those together, and I'm 99% sure this is about a D&D variety (if I include D&Ds named "Pathfinder"). I think the D&D tag is a very safe bet as an interim / if the OP never returns, but I'd definitely prefer them to clarify. – SevenSidedDie Dec 20 '13 at 0:18
@SevenSidedDie IMHO this question is not system specific, as you could have the same situation in the great majority of games. The terminology INT check or Intelligence roll seems irrelevant, as I think it is the actual game he is playing. So, a system agnostic tag and system agnostic answers should be more useful. But that's my opinion. – Flamma Dec 20 '13 at 0:22
@Flamma Other games might have int checks, but the philosophy of how one should use them could be completely different between systems. It's that philosophy difference which makes this something that must be kept system specific. – doppelgreener Dec 20 '13 at 0:41
@Flamma Answers to system-specific questions can often quite well apply to other systems. That does not, however, mean this should be asked in terms that cover the entire RPG landscape. – doppelgreener Dec 20 '13 at 1:50

10 Answers 10

up vote 33 down vote accepted

Could you? Yes. Should you?

That really, really depends. There is no "should", only things you want this houserule to encourage and discourage.

Do you want to discourage players investing in thinking about the challenges in your game? Do you want to encourage players to not use Intelligence as a "dump stat"? Do you want to encourage character-based skill and discourage player-based skill?

All of those are possible side effects of implementing a roll to see if low-Int character can implement clever player ideas. If you like those side-effects, go for it. If you don't, don't.

Then there are the social-level effects. Will your players find this annoying, or pleasing? Will this slow the game down, or speed it up? These are questions only you can answer, based on your knowledge of your own group, but they're no less important to consider.

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I would actually say "no," not to punish the player for having a good idea. There are many story ideas to justify such a thing. A flash of insight for a non-intelligent character is a staple of most fictions, so that's one method. Maybe another character could give him the idea, if any are available to serve as a mouthpiece. It's rarely a good idea to discourage players from innovations.

I'll allow players to roll their Intelligence (or whatever score fits the game) if they need to come up with something, but preventing a player idea from entering the game just seems a bit wrong.

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+1, saying "no" to player ideas tends discourage them. Try not to use mechanics to tell players that they cannot do something fun. – Jonah Dec 19 '13 at 17:42
+1 for having another character come up with the good idea, Parties often contain both characters dumber and Varstly smarter than your average player and the smarter one's need all the help they can get. – Oxinabox Dec 20 '13 at 2:44
Also, I'm sure I've heard That's so stupid it just might work! in tv/movies before. – Izkata Dec 20 '13 at 16:04

No. Instead, assume the daft character had an uncharacteristic "moment of clarity" or better yet, teach him/her to drop hints so the "intelligent" character(s) can figure it out. In the end, FUN matters. And it is fun to solve puzzles or come up with clever ways to overcome obstacles.

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The danger in doing this is that unless you also give out a lot of hints (which a lot of players don't like), you run the risk of reducing clever play or, what may actually be worse, pigeonholing your cleverer players into having to play high-INT characters.

Think about it via this grid:

  • If an unclever player plays an unclever character, no harm, no foul.
  • If a clever player plays a clever character, also no harm, no foul.
  • If an unclever player plays a clever character, his stat sheet doesn't make him suddenly able to make those quick connections that separate the clever from the unclever.
  • If a clever player plays an unclever character, they will come up with things that the character might not have.

Do you see what I'm getting at? At the very least, you should probably try and find an outlet for the clever guy in your group to be able to play a dumb fighter or whatever and still have a way to disseminate his cool ideas to the group. Perhaps (depending on how you run your game) the player could suggest these ideas to the guys playing the smarter characters. This isn't without its consequences either - a lot of players don't like other people telling them how to play their characters, even if the ideas behind them are good ones - but it's a start, at least.

Perhaps the larger issue is getting guys to play "in character"? In that case, I think that you as the GM have to be mindful of what the stats actually mean as well as what the player's actual concept for his character is. Unless he's actually playing someone who is developmentally disabled or the player himself is some kind of Stephen Hawking level genius, the fact is that the difference in "intelligence" between most of us has more to do with what we've decided to spend our time doing rather than any actual innate ability. A guy like Michael Jordan, for instance, is undoubtedly very smart, but instead of spending thousands of hours reading RPG books or going to physics class, he spend thousands of hours on the basketball court perfecting his jump shot, getting a deep, muscle-level understanding of what his body is and is not capable of, understanding how to read the body language of defenders, and so on. That doesn't make him "stupid", although in an RPG system where INT means "book-smart", he might well have a low score.

Similarly, a pure fighter who does little else but hang out at the barracks/arena/battlefield might be a genius when it comes to combat. To require that character to make an INT roll to "get" a combat related flash of inspiration that the player thought up is not just harmful on that gestalt economics-of-the-gaming-table level that I opened with, it's harmful on the the-GM-isn't-letting-the-players-play level, which in my opinion is the level that breaks games.

So to make a long story short this is how I'd handle it:

  1. If it's a one-off kind of thing, just let it ride. People come up with occasional flashes of inspiration.
  2. If one guy's doing it enough to be annoying, consider whether or not it's in character for him to do so. Talk with the player about this. Maybe figure out ways to be able to include these bits of cleverness in the game.
  3. If it's a real issue, for instance if the player is an engineer, his player is a combat-heavy fighter, and he's constantly coming up with ideas regarding intricate trap designs to foil the enemy, either suggest another character to him or find a willing partner at the table to co-opt this guy's ideas into his PC. Note that the key words here are "suggest" and "willing".
  4. If you're playing an old school "PCs vs GM" type game where you're actively trying to kill them all the time and the players have an "anything goes" style to combat this... well, I would submit that that's a larger issue than allowing or disallowing a clever play or two.
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First consideration: do they have a decent or good Wisdom? Wisdom covers common sense things, and a lot of "clever" ideas are really just a lot of common sense things put together well.

Second: is it ridiculously low? Like, 5 or lower? Does the edition of D&D you're playing start putting them at the level of animal intelligence? (that said, some animals, like crows, or octopi, are pretty damn clever...)

Finally: is it just a rare thing, or is the player always playing the character as really smart? If this is always happening, you should start talking to the player about their character and what they want - maybe they want someone smarter- swap two of their stats or something to better reflect it.

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Who says the system has Wisdom as an attribute? The question don't specify if they are or not playing D&D, so I think we can assume we are talking about the appropriate attribute, be it Intelligence, Wisdom, Logic, Intuition, Wits, Brains or whatever. – Flamma Dec 19 '13 at 20:16
@Flamma I am 99% sure they're talking about D&D 3e, 4e, or Pathfinder, since "an Int check" is a phrase common to those games and less common to others with "Int" stats, and because we very often see 3/4e/PF questions from people who don't really realise there are any other games and they need to actually say what game they're talking about. – SevenSidedDie Dec 20 '13 at 0:15

An additional consideration - to be equitable, if you require an Int roll for your players, you will need an analogous roll for NPCs you create.

Fairly and consistently applied, it could be an interesting check / balance system.

It provides a sense of realism to the player to know that the skeletons they are fighting are simply incapable of moving the battle into a poison cloud which would hurt the players but not the skeletons - thanks to the enemies' low / non-existent intelligence.

It could also be used as a tool to help the players overcome tough puzzles. (Often the answer is obvious to the game master, but the players have no idea what to do next). They may ask to roll Int checks to see if one of their characters is spontaneously brilliant.

If, after realizing that such a check would apply equally to NPCs and might break certain puzzles, you still feel this would be fun, propose the idea to your players and see what they think. They may love the idea that INT has a larger affect on the game world.

In short though - be VERY careful about making rules which would affect only the players, but not the rest of the world. Such rules unbalance the game, and are often seen as "unfair" by your players; sometimes even when the players are the beneficiaries of such an imbalance!

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Lot's of good answers here. (Oh, and to avoid confusion, I'm going to assume D&D-esque stats in my answer. The extrapolation to other systems is left as an exercise for the reader.)

One possible way to approach this that I didn't see above is to use an INT check, but don't use it to determine whether the character can actually have the idea or not. Rather, use it to mitigate the success in the same way you might with a failed DEX or STR roll when a character tries something difficult. In these cases, I borrow a little from more story-based system mechanics, and do a "Yes, but...". If it's a really clever idea, and clearly a good solution, then let it work. But have them make the roll and if they fail, tack on something to represent the fact that, while their basic idea was inspired, their general lack of cognitive talents caused them to miss some relevant detail that got them into some follow-on trouble, or stuck them with a temporary disadvantage, or set them up for a future situation that might actually be even worse. (And once in a while, when they fail the roll say, "Oh, that's too bad.", then never do anything about it. They'll be looking over their shoulders for the rest of the session waiting for the hammer to drop...)

In this way, you don't stifle player creativity, and you also don't ignore the character's attributes. Remember, as a GM you control the world, not the players. You have more than enough tools at your disposal to manipulate them without pulling any "hand of god" moves on them. It'll require some clever thinking on your part, or a nice stable of cool ideas to pull from, the kinds of ideas you get from experience (and of course from reading blogs and question/answer sites). It puts a bit more stress on you, but IMHO it's one of the skills that makes a great GM.

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It depends.
I know that it's a bit of a cop out but I think there are times when a check should be done and times when it shouldn't.

I am currently playing a 3.E character myself with an Int of 5 (and Wis 7) and it can get very frustrating to sit at a table when you are certain you have a solution to the circumstances and everyone else is scratching their head. But I also make it clear to the other players (both pre-game and through roleplaying) that my character is an idiot so I will only have a 'flash of inspiration' when things are dire (everyone is bored).

Firstly as a DM I would sit down with the player and discuss with them the limits (as you see them) of playing with such a low Intelligence, what assistance should they need to do things? Can they make tactical decisions in combat? Once you have established these things both of you will have a better idea of what sort of clever ideas are possible. You can also come up with ways to justify ideas, a book of solved puzzles, deific intervention, a blow to the head. Then you can either accept their rare clever ideas without a roll or modify it appropriately.

There is one circumstance where I would be inclined to disregard the int check entirely, if you have a heap of roll players and the only player actively engaging in the storyline has the low int character then in the interests of getting as many players doing something aside from dice stacking then skip the check for the clever idea and move forward. But remember, the low int character is probably going to shine elsewhere that night/game too so be thinking of how the other characters can meaningfully contribute later on.

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There are many factors involved. Even genre can be an issue (In "Call of Cthulhu" or "Paranoia", for instance, increasing the players' chance of failing and forcing them to play their impediments enhances the sardonic nature of the game). In games where stats are assigned from a point pool, some players purposely spend very little on int because they figure they can exploit this very situation. So it depends on the game, and on the gameworld.

But here's the most important point: When you do decide on the answer for this gameworld (which may be different than your answer for another gameworld), you should stick to it. The same rule should be applied in all instances, throughout that gameworld. Otherwise it may appear that you are ruling inconsistently or favoring one player over another.

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First, find out if the player would enjoy it. It can be fun playing with restrictions and artificial hurdles. I've definitely had players who had PCs with low INT and voluntarily rolled INT checks before doing the "smart thing". The rest of the party might get sick of this quick.

Alternatively remind the player that their character probably wouldn't have come up with that brilliant idea, but work with them to re-frame the idea so that the PC actually had a dumb idea which accidentally aligns with circumstances to work out the desired way. Then it's just luck!

RPing should be fun, and there are plenty of instances of characters in movies and books not being so bright but succeeding by trying the right bad idea at the right time.

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