Intelligence Scores and Roleplaying Game Combat

21:35 Mon 19 Jul 2010
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The intelligence characteristic in roleplaying games is problematic. The advantages it confers are often mechanical—more spells, more languages—and it’s hard to have it work for players in ways that the physical characteristics do. A player checking against their strength score to break something is fine, but a player checking against their intelligence score to solve a puzzle—or a plot point, something my players have contemplated trying—just isn’t. Even less fine is a player requesting combat action suggestions on the basis that their character’s high intelligence would mean that they’d come up with something clever.

While that’s clearly not a viable approach, there’s something to be said for such an argument. The problem is that in roleplaying game combat, the intelligence score becomes irrelevant, and the sense of cold, frightening, and vicious intelligence is either absent or confined to the occasional villain. In keeping with the opportunistic and cunning world of my current game, I’d like to make intelligence more relevant.

Iron Heroes has some feats which allow people to do that, but they’re based fairly solidly in the game mechanics, and that’s less interesting. Being able to use Intelligence to gain bonuses to rolls in combat is fine, but also somewhat dull.

Instead, I’m going to experiment with establishing a different connection between a character’s INT and their actions in combat, one based on time.

Game time and real time are quite different, as D&D combat rounds are six seconds long, but players often spend forever agonizing over their actions. What I’m going to experiment with is linking the amount of time a player has to make decisions to their character’s INT. This will also probably make combat more frustrating and stressful for the players—but I think of that as a feature, not a bug…

I’ll probably tweak this, but my initial idea is for the basic allotment to be two minutes per round. This would be increased by fifteen seconds for each INT point over ten, and decreased by ten seconds for each INT point below ten. A character with eighteen INT would have four minutes per round, while a character with eight INT would have one minute and forty seconds.

These numbers may need a lot of tweaking. This approach would require more organization and better scene-setting on my part, also, as well as keeping track of the time. Further, this applies only to decisions that the player makes—die rolling would not be taken out of that time.

This would not apply to non-player characters. I already try to play them with some regard to their intelligence, and have NPCs make suboptimal decisions under stress, in combat or at other times.

This would require all involved to have a better grasp of the rules, myself included. If a player wants to use an ability, they have to know how it works; also, I as GM had really better know how it works.

This approach would also underscore the importance of good planning, something that isn’t respected enough in most roleplaying combat systems. In reality, while plans are fragile, the side with the better plan has a very large advantage, particularly if their opponents have no plan at all.

I suspect that, first time out, the players will hate it, it’ll be unwieldy, feel unfair and arbitrary, and be interrupted often by rules questions, rules arguments, and decision retractions based on rules arbitration. However, I intend to try it for a while, tweaking as I go, because it seems like once players are adjusted, it would add a lot to the game.

One Response to “Intelligence Scores and Roleplaying Game Combat”

  1. Barak Says:

    If you wanted to complexity it further, it occurred to me that there’s a minus to being high-INT: under direct fire, it’s harder to think. For tanks, likewise, being away from combat should allow you a moment to think.

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