Wednesday, July 6, 2011

Rethinking Charisma and Wisdom

This is the time of year that the Orthodox Church is reading St. Paul's Letter to the Romans. I mention this, because I've been pouring over the original Greek and ran into this word: χάρισμα. Those of us who have spent any time in the hobby will immediately recognize its English progeny: charisma. What we won't recognize, however, is its meaning. Whereas we see charisma being related to attractiveness, charm and leadership qualities, χάρισμα means a gift freely given.

This got me thinking about characteristics and what they mean. In OD&D there is a kind of nice symmetry with the six characteristics. Three are prime requisites corresponding to the three base classes and which affect XP acquisition. The other three have a mechanic related (directly or indirectly) to combat. Constitution affects Hit Points, Dexterity affects missile combat and Charisma affects the number of henchmen one can bring to bear and how loyal they are.

The introduction of the Thief class disrupts this symmetry. If there is one thing about the Holmes edition that really irks me, it is that the prime requisite for Thieves has two mechanical bonuses (XP and missile fire) while every other class only gets one (XP).

As I see it, there are two ways to fix this:

  1. Do what was done in later editions of the game — give more mechanical bonuses to the other three prime requisites. There are two consequences to this approach (neither of which I am fond of). Intelligence gets short shrift in combat. Outside of extra languages, more spells, and/or skill bonuses Intelligence never really gets to shine once swords are drawn. Charisma becomes a dump stat. As characters gain more and more mechanical benefits for high ability scores, they become more and more robust. Therefore, the need to have henchmen in order to survive (especially at lower levels) disappears.
  2. The other option is to use χάρισμα as a jumping off point to redefine the ability scores in order to maintain the prime requisite's primary function as XP modifier.

The root word of χάρισμα is χάρις (charis) which is often translated as grace. In Paul, it is most often encountered is its plural form χαρίσματα (charismata) or gifts. The implication is that God freely pours out His grace upon us, and this manifests itself as gifts — preaching, teaching, etc. Given that the source of the Cleric's abilities —spells and turning — are granted by a divine power (God), it seems to me that Charisma is a better fit for a prime requisite than Wisdom for the Cleric.

Though Wisdom literally means the quality of being wise, that is not how it is used mechanically in later editions of the game. Rather, it is used to grant bonuses to saves vs. spells and to awareness-type skills. This mechanical expression more closely resembles an Orthodox Christian theological notion called the nous.

The word nous is difficult to translate. The best way I have found is the idea of receptive intelligence. When we have "aha!" moments, or instantaneous sparks of inspiration that is the nous in action. In other words, it is that part of us that is spiritually and physically aware of our surroundings. It receives information and processes it in a way that our reason cannot. Given that one of the primary functions of the Thief us to be aware of their surroundings, Wisdom (ironically) can become the prime requisite of Thieves, if it is understood to be the nous. In order to avoid the mental dissonance of criminal activity and being wise, I might be tempted to rename the ability Awareness.

Therefore, we now have four prime requisites: Strength, Intelligence, Charisma and Awareness. They all have the primary mechanical function of affecting XP; however, in order to do this Charisma must be stripped of the henchman mechanics. Either that, or the mechanic can be spread across all of the prime requisites.

I come to this from the perspective that when we think of great leaders, we will most often find people who have great skill in their chosen field. Alexander the Great was a great military mind. Pope John Paul II was a great theological mind. Bill Belichick, while not being very charismatic, certainly has a great football mind. Thus, when it comes to attracting and keeping hirelings, having a high prime requisite can represent that great mind found in the likes of Alexander the Great, Pope John Paul II and Bill Belichek.

One could go further and say that each prime requisite affects the loyalty of its given class. Thus, a magic user with a high Intelligence would have better loyalty from magic user hirelings than fighting-men. The reverse would be true of a fighting-man with high strength.

Therefore, the highest prime requisite score would determine the max number of hirelings total that can be hired. Strength would determine the highest number of fighting-men and their loyalty. Intelligence would would determine the highest number of magic users and their loyalty. Charisma would determine the highest number of clerics and their loyalty. Awareness would determine the highest number of Thieves and their loyalty.

The end result of this retooling of characteristics is a return to the symmetry of OD&D, where all prime requisites grant the same bonus to every class and where Dexterity and Constitution grant the same combat bonuses to every class.


  1. As always excellent thoughts here. I rather like this approach and would be curious to hear how it works in play.

  2. Yeah, like James I'd love to hear how it works in play. for many years I have been slightly disatisfied with Wisdom as a stat. Perception is one if the first extra stats I tend to add when I hack systems.

    This was a very nice rethink!

    I'm a big fan of letting different stats be used depending on circumstance, and have been talking and wondering a bit about saves based on different saves in a more organized fashion. Having followers and henchmen work like you suggest is along those lines, only better!

    Good post.

  3. @James & Andreas
    I'd love to hear how it works in play
    I'm working on it...

  4. Great Dave, looking forward to hearing more about it!

  5. But aren't you attributing the same problem of "double-dipping" to the Prime Requisite that many OD&D players cry "foul" about concerning what B/X and later editions do with Ability Scores?

    You're setting the PR to give both an XP Adjustment as well as a bonus to Henchmen and their Morale.

    Let me say that I think it's a genius-level new take on old ideas, and I certainly went the same way you did about Clerics and Charisma, only for slightly different reasons.

    I'm firmly in the B/X camp of preferences and personally don't mind an Ability Score giving multiple Adjustments, I was just curious what the OD&D crowd thought of this twist.

  6. @Moist Oinka
    My goal here wasn't to eliminate "double dipping," but rather to find a way to get back to the elegance of the OD&D characteristic bonuses while accounting for classes beyond the original three. I happen to be a big fan of B/X and don't necessarily mind abilities scores having multiple bonuses — I just have found that Intelligence and Charisma don't matter as much as I think they should.

  7. Not only do I like where you went with this, I like where you started too--titles and words are really important when it comes to communicating how the paper informs the play.

  8. when we think of great leaders, we will most often find people who have great skill in their chosen field

    I suspect confirmation bias here: you're thinking of great leaders who were also "historically successful:" their success might be attributed to qualities other than their leadership abilities. Jim Jones was unquestionably a great leader - he convinced a bunch of people to do things that confuse the rest of us. I don't know if he showed any other great skills. And he's not a one-off, but because of the way history is written we tend to know less about these kinds of cult leaders than we do about Caesars and Napoleons and the like.

    I do like the nous-based thief: the dex thief has always seemed a bit literal to me... but then I'd like nous-based fighters, too.

    Have you read Mauss? I would think that would be a useful context for thinking about "gifts freely given" - although you might find that the theological literature sufficient, in which case Mauss would probably be irrelevant.

    Finally, and if Mauss is of any interest, I'd be really curious to know your thoughts about some decidedly non-Christian noodling I've been doing around Charisma. I'd certainly understand if it just said nothing to you, mind: I can see that we come from very different philosophical standpoints.

  9. @richard

    Jim Jones was very skilled — as a con man. I do not think him a counter-example to the Napoleans of the world.

    I read Mauss a very long time ago...and it made enough of an impression on me that I can only vaguely remember it.

    I don't have much of a problem with your noodling — other than it does not differentiate between divine (Christian) "magic" and arcane magic. Your system represents the latter extremely well — particularly from the stand point that arcane magic, at its core, tries to replace God with the self — POW. It does not, however, do a very good job of simulating the relationship the Christian has with God — the radical other.

    I would also put forth some anecdotal evidence that your premise is somewhat flawed. I award bonus Cleric spells for high WIS in my current campaign; however, they are determined randomly. Therefore, the players are always looking for ways to creatively use utility spells like Purify Food and Drink in order to use it and therefore make room for "better" spells. This creative spell casting has led to a lot of "can I try this?" discussions and some really cool interaction with the game world.