Playing Smart

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Last week, we discussed Genius Characters and how their intellect affects their world view. This week, I wanted to offer some thoughts on roleplaying characters that by their very nature are able to solve problems much more brilliantly then we as players may be capable of. Even the smartest player will have difficulty matching the intelligence of a character who is as smart as Albert Einstein, Steven Hawking and Nicola Tesla put together, after all. And that is not even taking into account that your character has likely devoted years of study to whatever field they specialize in. So how can we accurately display such insight and brilliance at the table?

Speed intelligence

The easiest and most obvious way to appear smarter is so called “speed intelligence”, which is essentially speeding up the thinking process. You come up with the same idea’s, just faster, or think more deeply about the problem in the same amount of time. This is essentially overclocking the processor and putting the extra calculation capacity to good use.

While we cannot overclock our brains to run faster, the nature of the game allows us to do some timey-wimey trickery: we can take more time out of the game compared to the in game time. This effectively accomplishes the same thing. Essentially, by thinking about a problem for longer to consider alternatives and possible challenges, we can come up with a smarter solution that your character, in game, came up with almost instantaneously.

Some storytellers may balk at giving extra time to players during time sensitive encounters, but there is clear precedence in most games: in almost every game system I know, combat does not happen in real time. This gives fighter characters more time to think up combat strategies as other players take their turns. It is only fair that less physically oriented players can do the same where appropriate.

Network intelligence

If the storyteller allows it, network intelligence is a second way to appear smarter, based on the idea that two know more than one. It is quite easy to adapt at the table too: simply ask your fellow players for help. Most players don’t mind offering their ideas and suggestions, especially if they have an idea they aren’t expressing because their character wouldn’t be able to come up with it.

Sharing the credit is key here to ensure not just that it is given where it is due, but also to encourage future cooperation. One way to handle this is to have another character share a partial idea which your genius character then completes in a Eureka moment caused by something the other PC just said — possibly with the trope of “Repeat what you just said”.

Quality intelligence

Finally there is ‘Quality Intelligence’, where someone smarter is just able to come up with solutions that are out of reach of someone with less mental acuity, no matter how many of them there are, or how long they take. A hundred birds thinking a hundred years won’t ever figure out nuclear physics. Naturally this type of smart is the hardest to emulate at the table. Yet despite of that, authors manage it for their characters in books all the time for one simple reason: they know the actual answer, allowing them to jump to the solution much more easily.

Clearly you won’t know the answer to the mystery at the table, but a storyteller may be willing to drop a hint to a smart character, for example if they succeed at a high difficulty intelligence check. If they are especially generous, they may even give you a hint in secret ahead of time, not unlike how oracular characters may be able to gain insights from the future. And in some cases, you as a player knowing the storyteller or having some level of genre savvyness may also be able to help. Regardless, this remains the hardest to emulate.

Whatever method (or combination) you use to help emulate the intelligence of your character, always keep in mind that the game is about having fun — not about showing off how much smarter your character is then everyone else. Even if your character knows the answer, it may be wise to let other players figure something out on their own. A truly brilliant character knows, after all, the joy of solving something on your own rather than having the answer handed to you.

Have you ever played a brilliantly smart PC? What were they like, and what was their best deduction? Let us know in the Community Forum, and while there, be sure to check out this week’s changelog!