The most famous and well understood archetype of the smart fool is no doubt the absentminded professor, so engrossed in higher thinking that he loses track of regular everyday affairs such as bringing his keys along or remembering to put his car in park. This kind of academic character has a lot of knowledge, much of which is not applicable in the real world. Such characters, it could be said, are fantastic in theory, but not that capable in practice.
As a result of this limitation, these characters often isolate themselves to some degree within a controlled environment, both to cover up their foolish moments and to limit the damage that it can do. The nightguard at the University will know to let you in after a few times forgetting your key, but most dungeons are not very forgiving if you forgot to bring your healing potions. Having a party you can rely on to cover your behind thus becomes very important if you venture out into the dangerous and uncomfortable real world.
This lack of practical applicability can also be an OOC hindrance for some players, since you are likely to be outshone in the action by more practically minded characters — especially as you have likely invested most of your various points in things like knowledge skills instead of combat abilities. While there are usually points for ‘smart’ character to shine with knowledge to defeat villains, it is difficult to consistently come up with better plans then the other players at the table.
However, this also makes the archetype ideal for players who are more experienced at the game then their peers, or who are more intimately familiar with the source material. If you are a Star Wars and roleplay buff in an Old Republic campaign with three players new to the game and only vague familiar with the setting, the archetype allows you to shower them with knowledge and insight about the world without hogging the spotlight — you provide the intel and they make the heroics happen.
If that does not appeal to you, a closely related archetype of the smart fool is the traditional ‘nerd’ — highly intelligent, but socially awkward. While often having some of the traits of the smart fool, the main weakness shared by these characters is social. They actual have practically applicable skills in fields such as chemistry, magic or hacking computer systems.
From a game perspective though, this is actually a bigger handicap as it is quite difficult to balance the social needs of an adventuring party, both ICly and OOCly, with the conceptual limits of such a character. If your character is acting ‘unaware’, after all, it would naturally annoy other party members, and it is important that this enhances rather than detracts from the fun and the story.
To help alleviate some of the issues, in character social gaffes and accidental insults should usually be aimed away from party members. Also make sure you aren’t annoying players OOCly — while there is some responsibility on them to differentiate between IC and OOC, it is also on you as a player to make sure everyone at the table has fun and to make sure you do not cross the line between ‘roleplaying a nuisance’ and ‘being a nuisance’.
It is best in this case to choose a good alignment over an evil one, or at the least ensure the character cares for their party members. While your PC may not naturally read the emotions of other PCs and thus make occasional inappropriate comments or insensitive observations, once they are made aware, they should at least be smart enough to adjust their behaviour and generous enough to take measures to correct their mistake. By showing their gentler side and doing something for another at their own expense, it becomes easier to see the gaffe for the lack of social awareness it is, instead of the actual lack of care for the other that it might masquerade as from an outsiders perspective.
Downplayed for Realism
While both archetypes and their various variations have their share of examples in literature, different aspects of intelligence do not actually vary independently in the real world — at least not as much as they can in traditional D&D or Pathfinder. Extreme ‘Inteligence: 18, Wisdom: 3’ case are unlikely in the real world. This ironically means that to make your smart fool character feel more realistic, you should downplay their weakness somewhat.
This downplay is easily justified though — someone as smart as this should be able to realize his limits, even if just from the feedback of others. And they should also be smart enough to implement measures and behaviours to grow beyond those limits. Things such as keeping checklists and agenda’s to prevent forgetting key steps and learning how to deal with people they have known for a while is a natural progression and demonstrates the characters limits while making sure their antics do not grow old.
Have you ever played a smart fool character? How did you play them, what were they like, and what shenanigans did they get in to as a result of that? We’d love to hear from you on our community forum. While there, be sure to check out the modest changelog as well!