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I've seen people criticize the use of intelligence traits in RPGs- for example, in the Gemini RPG there is no intelligence trait because the authors intended a PC to be "as intelligent as you choose to portray him"- their exact words.

That sounds good and all, but in my project I still want PCs to be able to make skill checks on various fields of knowledge concerning things like Advanced Technology, Mythology of Ancient Cultures, Medicine/biology, things like that. If I don't use an intelligence trait, if I go with the approach used in Gemini, what do I do to determine skill for knowledge checks?

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    \$\begingroup\$ Sorry, which Gemini is this? The Swedish dark fantasy RPG from the turn of the millennium, or the Open-D6-derivative Gemini System that's still kind of in open beta? (or, special bonus, a third and more different one because an astrological sign is kind of an easy name to call something?) \$\endgroup\$
    – Glazius
    Commented Jun 13 at 3:10
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    \$\begingroup\$ @Glazius Is that really relevant? This question isn't about either of those systems, it's about an idea expressed in some RPG book that the asker is trying to understand how to apply in their own system. \$\endgroup\$
    – Oblivious Sage
    Commented Jun 13 at 4:10
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    \$\begingroup\$ @ObliviousSage I think it would be useful to talk about solutions in contrast to whatever solution the Gemini these authors wrote had for making character knowledge dramatic, even if that's just saying "questions of character knowledge are never dramatic in this system". If it's the Gemini System it's possible the authors have blogged about this as part of system development even if it's not in the game texts. \$\endgroup\$
    – Glazius
    Commented Jun 13 at 5:15
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    \$\begingroup\$ Is Gemini also a game with a storytelling system that de-emphasizes character statistics in general in favor of storytelling, i.e. your character is also as strong, fast or perceptive as you want them to be? \$\endgroup\$
    – Obie 2.0
    Commented Jun 13 at 9:26
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    \$\begingroup\$ I don't think this can be system-agnostic: "knowledge check" and "intelligence trait" sounds very mechanics-specific to me. What game are we talking about? \$\endgroup\$
    – enkryptor
    Commented Jun 13 at 15:19

5 Answers 5

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Skills don’t need to be tied to other traits - or even rolled

Your question seems to assume that the only way to represent skill or knowledge is as a secondary trait which must be paired with a primary, “inherent” trait. That’s how many RPGs do it, whether it’s constructing a dice pool from Attributes and Abilities in Storytelling System games or rolling Ability (Proficiency) checks in Dungeons & Dragons.

But this doesn’t have to be the case. An area of knowledge especially can be represented entirely separately to “inherent” or “primary” traits.

A prominent example is the Gumshoe system, which just has abilities, which are either pools or ratings. Many of these - especially the Investigative abilities that are the focus of the game - represent knowledge (or the ability to acquire and understand knowledge). Investigative abilities are usually pools of points which are spent to find clues, while general abilities have ratings and involve a roll. There are no attributes like Intelligence in the system.

Spire is another good example; it only has Skills (things you know how to do) and Domains (areas of experience). They don’t have ratings - you either have them, or you don’t. You can combine the two, but neither describes how strong, intelligent or even knowledgeable you are. The roll represents whether you use your skills and experience to get what you want without complication - how you apply what you know.

Like many games, Spire embraces a philosophy that characters know whatever is relevant in an area of expertise they have. The dice rolls only come into play when they act on that knowledge.

Even if using a primary stat, it doesn’t have to be Intelligence

Intelligence is a contentious measure for lots of reasons. Plenty of games don’t use it even when they do have primary stats used for rolls.

One alternative is to directly represent a character’s education with an appropriate trait. Call of Cthulhu has eight Characteristics, and while Intelligence is one of them, it also has Education (as Nobody the Hobgoblin reminded me in the comments). Education represents both the character’s formal education, and also their level of general knowledge - the game uses Intelligence for the character’s ability to use this knowledge (which is a bit opposite to some of the other examples). Education affects how many skill points they have for Occupational skills, while Intelligence affects personal interest skill points. Notably when rolling, a skill’s percentage score is not combined with or modified by a Characteristic - they are used independently of the Characteristic which provided those points.

Other games use alternatives to “Intelligence” which focus less on what a character knows or their ability to process and understand, and more on perception or instinct. Again this is more about what they do with their knowledge: the trait descriptions talk in terms of whether a character notices relevant things, or can connect the dots between what they know and their current situation. This can be expressed in roleplay as traditional “intelligence” or in many other ways.

Monster of the Week has “Sharp”, which is described as “how observant you are”. It’s used for the move “Investigate a mystery”, which is the closest basic move to “do you know something?”, and also for special moves like the Expert’s “I’ve read about this sort of thing” (which lets them use Sharp for the general “Act under pressure” move).

That example is from a game that doesn’t use or need specific knowledge skills, which it sounds like yours will. But you can still use this idea, by combining knowledge ratings with other stats representing how the knowledge is being used.

In Storyteller games, Abilities (also called Skills, Knowledges and/or Talents, depending on which game you’re playing) don’t have to be paired with a specific stat. You might roll Linguistics with Perception to see if you can make out what language is written from faint traces on a pad of paper; or Manipulation + Linguistics to write a poem in a language you know which hits on just the right metaphors to convince someone.

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    \$\begingroup\$ Call of Cthulhu also based the skills mostly on your education trait, with only a smaller contingent of points coming from intelligence, and how high a skills value was is based in how the player distributes the points, not on the stat directly. \$\endgroup\$ Commented Jun 13 at 4:43
  • \$\begingroup\$ @NobodytheHobgoblin that’s a good shout - it’s been a while since I’ve played actual Call of Cthulhu! I think it’s still the same in the current edition, I’ll add it as another example. \$\endgroup\$ Commented Jun 13 at 8:14
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    \$\begingroup\$ Fate is another popular example of a game that uses only skills for its skill rolls, without adding them to any "primary traits." \$\endgroup\$
    – GMJoe
    Commented Jun 13 at 22:25
  • \$\begingroup\$ @GMJoe I thought about Fate too, but it’s focus on action doesn’t often include many knowledge skills except a generic one like Lore, or ones tied to game-specific powers like Science or Arcane. And then some knowledge would be assumed or included as part of a character’s Aspects. So I agree it’s an example, but I thought it might be a bit more involved than some of the others here. \$\endgroup\$ Commented Jun 13 at 22:28
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You want an "Education" trait

Since you're primarily interested in something to base knowledge skills on, we can thankfully avoid digging into all the pros & cons of having something as complex and poorly-defined as "intelligence" as a numerical trait/attribute, and look at a perfectly good alternative: education.

The general level of education a person has is an excellent thing to base knowledge skills on. If your system provides a relatively broad numerical range for such traits/attributes, then it could presumably encompass how much effort they put forth when receiving said education; someone who studied hard and finished high school with all As is going to be more knowledgeable than someone who slacked and barely passed high school, even though both technically have the same level of education (a high school diploma).

Consider the case of someone with a high knowledge skill but a poor education trait. While someone can acquire a high level of knowledge about a particular topic without ever receiving much formal education, said education would give them a big leg up on said research by giving them an expanded vocabulary, an understanding of how to look things up in a library, and so on.

Alternately, consider someone with a high education trait but no investment in knowledge skills. Through simple exposure to basic requirements in literature, sciences, and other topics they'll have picked up a little bit of knowledge about all kinds of things, even if they haven't actually specialized in anything.

Education probably works better than intelligence as a basis for knowledge skills: someone who is a genius but grew up in a third world country with no schools isn't going to know more about chemistry than someone who is merely of average intelligence but has a university degree in biology.

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    \$\begingroup\$ That's pretty much what Call of Cthulhu did. \$\endgroup\$ Commented Jun 13 at 4:45
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To have Knowledge skills which don't depend on an Intelligence attribute, simply pretend everyone has a normal intelligence for purposes of those rolls. For example, in D&D IQ-less Knowledge Skills would get a +0 from IQ, in Vampire:the Masquerade one could roll always 2 dice plus the Knowledge dice, in GURP's Knowledge skills could all start from a base of 10+.

But I feel like Gemini is missing the point. In many RPG's, Intelligence isn't a character's ability to make good choices. It's very specific -- the ability to memorize spells, or starship piloting manuals, reading quickly, or advanced math. A game can easily have an IQ score which has nothing to do with the player's choices.

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Gemini has an "intelligence" stat, it's just not a "general intelligence" stat.

Mental Power (MEN)

Mental power is the attribute that determines your mental toughness; your ability to master the mystical forces called magic, and your chance of withstanding the Darkness' influences. It is also a measure of your learning abilities, and, to some extent, your intellectual prowess.

-- "What is Gemini? Attributes", Gemini p. 20

The reason I call this an "intelligence" stat is that it affects your ability to both do magic and know things from the "Learning" category, which are both things you'd probably expect from a high-INT character in D&D. But the "Learning" category is explicitly things you might learn from books or scholars: geography, history, heraldry, et cetera. Just book-learning; they don't affect your ability to make things (that's Craftsmanship), get what you want from people (that's Communication), get on in the underworld (that's Theft), get information from the world (that's Awareness), or survive in the wild (that's Wilderness). MEN can sometimes figure into some of these or their specialties, but it's not the star the way it is with Learning.

Moreover, neither a low MEN nor a low Learning affect your ability to reason, to remember things that have happened during play, or to talk to your own party mates. Awareness and Communication are enough to make you a quick-witted smooth-talker in the ways the game will test for.

Takeaways from Gemini

What can you learn, then? A couple of factors combined to slip this under your radar.

Pull book-learning away from other ways of knowing. And don't call the thing that measures how good you are at it "intelligence", if you're doing a stat + skill thing. Fate Core, for example, is a purely skill-based system, trying to carve up the things that happen during action movies into roughly equal niches, and it had Lore, but also Crafts, Rapport, Contacts, Notice, and (when appropriate) Survival.

Don't demand a check to do unimportant things. Gemini says as much even about Learning -- "It's assumed that everyone has some knowledge of the area where they were born." Making deductions, remembering things that have happened in-game, communicating with the party -- all of those things Gemini mentions in its section on a missing "general intelligence" stat -- are only very rarely actually important. And the way you can tell is: if someone actually did them, unprompted by you, would you force them to make some kind of stat check, or it didn't happen? Would it not be fair to the other players if you let them do that? Or is it just a little nicety that shouldn't get in the way of the important things the adventure is actually about?

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Define your fields and assign knowledge of them

If you want your characters to "make skill checks on various fields of knowledge concerning things like Advanced Technology, Mythology of Ancient Cultures, Medicine/biology," then you can simply define what fields of knowledge are available, and players will describe (or purchase, or determine) how knowledgeable they are in each of the fields. You might outline all of the fields that you think will be relevant to your campaign at the outset, or you could simply create the structure of a hierarchical categorization of fields (broad topic, specialized topic, esoteric topic, etc.) and allow players to suggest what they know while you assign them ranks in specific areas.

Making checks

Then, if a player wanted to use their knowledge in a certain field, you would compare the difficulty of the skill check against the depth of their background in that field.

While I don't know the Gemini system, it appears to have defined fields of knowledge, such that a character's Knowledge Level in any given field is ranked from 0 to 8, and they may also have specialization or double specialization within a certain field or fields. When a character "performs an action" within a given field, their Knowledge Level of that field is used to determine the result.

In D&D 5e, some of the skills (such as Athletics) represent the ability to do things, while others represent accumulated knowledge in a field such as you are suggesting. The most typically so are Arcana, History, Nature, and Religion, all of which are Intelligence-based skills. Within the 5e d20 mechanic, the DM sets the Difficulty of a skill challenge for one of these fields, and the player rolls a d20, modified by their Intelligence modifier, a proficiency bonus if they are proficient in the field, possibly a specialization bonus, and a circumstantial bonus (advantage). You could do exactly the same thing, but eliminating the Intelligence modifier as a factor, and either include a finer grading of proficiency, or adjusting the DCs accordingly to compensate for the lack of an ability modifier in the check.

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