Roleplaying Mental Attributes

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We’ve taken a few days off this week to enjoy the summer weather, though rest assured we have some updates planned for next week. In the meanwhile, I wanted to take a look and explore a part of the character sheet that is sometimes overlooked as nothing more than numbers that underpin the magic system: the mental attributes.

Mental attributes, whether Intelligence and Wisdom in Pathfinder and D&D, Wits and Intelligence (and Perception) in World of Darkness or IQ in GURPS have a place in most game systems as part of the basic stats of a character and are there to model the characters mental capacity as much as the characters physical capacity is represented by stats such as Strength or Dexterity.

Mental Attributes in the Game

Unlike physical capacity though, a lot of mental challenges are not actually handled by rolling dice. And no wonder: while outside of LARPs no physical activity is generally required during roleplay, I doubt many players would enjoy a game where every mental action of their character needs to be handled by a dice roll.

It is totally fair for the storyteller to require a player roll to know the detailed vulnerabilities and offensive abilities of a Basilisk, but most players would balk at having to roll intelligence to see if they are smart enough to think of flanking an opponent in combat. Likewise, riddles, puzzles and other non-combat challenges would become rather boring if they are done away with by means of an Intelligence check only.

Thus, at least part of representing mental attributes is in roleplaying them, not just accurately, but in a way that is enjoyable for the player of the character, the rest of the party and the storyteller.

This can be harder then it may seem at first though. In particular, most players I’ve played with struggle when their characters mental attributes differ from their own. And not through any lack of effort or skill on the players part.

I don’t have to explain how it can be difficult to roleplay a character much smarter than yourself — a wizard with 300 years experience and the brain of a demi-god can probably come up with far more brilliant ideas in a far shorter time span than the player behind that character. However, it is equally frustrating for a very smart player to roleplay a dumb character, as their brilliant idea is thwarted by the fact that their INT 6 half-orc Barbarian probably wouldn’t be able to come up with it.

I will be covering roleplaying different archetypes in terms of mental attributes in future blog posts, but before we can get into that, lets get a basic look at the nature of mental attributes, what they entail and what form they take in roleplaying games.

Types of Mental Attributes

In its most basic form, systems often implement the basic concept of Intelligence as a numerical value, with higher values representing smarter people. Looking at scientific research into intelligence, this is actually a reasonably accurate representation of IQ, that is, the ability to solve problems. Though there are different forms of intelligence, and one person may be better at one type of task then another, in general these types do not vary independently (at least not as independently as they do in Pathfinder and D&D where someone may have Intelligence 20 and Wisdom 3)

Even so, most of the more complicated systems recognize that not everyone is smart in the same way. Daniel Kahneman, a Nobel prize winning psychologist and economist, distinguishes between System 1 and System 2, where the first represents quick thinking, things you do and know inherently, while the second represents slow thinking by which you reason your way from problem to solution.

World of Darkness mirrors this distinction, splitting deliberate Intelligence from quick thinking Wits. Pathfinder and D&D mirror this with Wisdom and Intelligence, and though Wisdom also incorporates a level of insight, this actually matches up pretty well with the details of System 2.

Derived Abilities

Two important aspects here that often feature in roleplaying games are Knowledge and Perception. Knowledge here represents a way for the storyteller to convey information a players character would know (even if the player does not) or at least explains why a player character knows information from the Monster Manual.

Within the character’s stats, be it as a skill or other form, this often involves the recall of information, sometimes combined with a bit of skill related to the area a character is knowledgeable in. Interestingly, Knowledge skills in Pathfinder are based on intelligence, which clashes with the System 1 and System 2 division a bit — most knowledge is not something that is deliberately retrieved as part of a plan, but rather on swift recall, making it a better fit for System 1 or Wisdom. Still, that would clash with the way the Wizard class is set up, so it is understandable why Intelligence was chosen here instead.

Perception in turn represents the ability to notice details — such as enemies sneaking up or treasure hidden within. World of Darkness adds this as a literal attribute, while it is designated as a Skill in Pathfinder and a set of skills in 3.0 and 3.5 D&D.

Interestingly, older 3.0 and 3.5 D&D split this as Search, Listen and Spot, where Listen and Spot represent auditory and visual observation and are based on Wisdom, and Search represents a systematic scan, based on intelligence, which nicely echo’s back to the System 1 and System 2 model.


Naturally, there are far more forms of intelligence and no game system would cover all of them, let alone in a uniform model. But understanding this basic division and the primary game-related derivatives, is useful to understand from a game design perspective, and we’ll refer back to this in future blog post regarding the roleplaying of characters at different places on the intellectual spectrum.

As mentioned, we had a few days holiday this week so the changelog is empty, but we’d love to hear any ideas or suggestions you may have in the community forum as always!