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Oh Great, My Character Is Smarter Than Me!

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Oh Great, My Character Is Smarter Than Me!

How do you play a character who is smarter than yourself?
I know how I see this done in something like a book, but how do you do this in something like a role-playing game?

So in a story they use big words and seem to have a bit more control over the plot, or at the very least, an understanding of the plot. A bit of foresight.
How do ya handle this in a role-playing game?

In a trad game with a GM

In a trad game with a GM (there's that word again!), this can be pretty easily handled by using dice rolls vs INT or whatever stat makes sense. The GM knows (or decides) the answer to the question, or the thing that might be observed or not depending on smarts, and the dice roll determines whether or not the character knows it. As for roleplaying it... well, Remember It's Not You. Same goes for perception, fast-talking, manipulation, all stats and skills, really. This is something your character does, not something you have to literally know how to do. Just like how having a character with a high Math skill does not require you to solve quadratic equations. Remember that. Remind anyone who needs reminding. Don't drive yourself nuts over not actually possessing your character's skills!

Tod, what if there's no GM?

Tod, what if there's no GM? or Everyone's a Little Bit GM?

One must never assume that I

One must never assume that I'm the ultimate authority here on any topic, nor even that my answers will always be equally useful in all imaginable circumstances! Your question said "role-playing game." My answer covered the case-scenario "in a trad game with a GM." I also tried to include a little bit of general counsel, but YMMV of course. There are others here who have more experience with GM-less games than I. Hopefully some of them will chime in to give their advice on your question.

Take inspiration from the book or story

There is always a danger that “roll dice, and someone else tells you the answer” leaves the character looking smart but the player feeling totally useless.

Instead, take inspiration from those books or stories you’re thinking of, and build roleplaying interactions that create the same effect. Give the player an active role in the process.

For example:

“In stories I like, the smart character is always prepared for the surprise.”

There are two elements there: the preparation and the surprise. Ok, the two most obvious solutions:

Method 1

There is a surprise in play. Oh no! We’re caught off guard! What do we do? We ask the player of the smart character: how did you foresee this? What have you got with you, that shows you prepared for this? The player answers.

Method 2

The player tells us how their character is preparing for upcoming events. Then, the GM or the rest of us conspire to create a surprise that is solvable using that preparation.

Get more clever with those designs and they’ll be less “on the nose”.

I can't use more cunning than

I can't use more cunning than I actually have but I'll do things I never could in real life like "I spend a single night analysing all of their financial records" or "I take on their champion in a game of chess". Basically feats of intellectual strength that are difficult to do but easy to comprehend for someone of lesser gifts.

I like to consider a story

I like to consider a story like Star Trek. If I were to play an engineer in Star Trek, that person is infinitely more intelligent than me when it comes to warp drives. I generally know what warp drives do, and I've looked at the made up descriptions of them but if it was real and I was in front of it, I wouldn't really know anything.

I can translate things I do know into playing that character. Even if I didn't know what a Jeffries Tube is, I could open up panels and crawl through ducts.

I think my point is, that a smart person doesn't need to describe what they know, they're just more likely to know information. You don't have to sound smart, just act as if you had knowledge.

I'm not a very charismatic person, but I generally know what it looks like when someone is. I can describe what I would like to do and how a charismatic person looks when they do that kind of thing.

If you have no way of

If you have no way of declaring facts (as in PbtA or some such), though, RP alone will just convey stereotypes. Which could be fun : jargon and pushing your glasses back into place

Harry Potter Magic Latin


My preferred solution is a sidestep

Interpret "intelligence" as "education" or "book knowledge" etc. and then play the character as dumbly or cleverly as I want to.

"My character is smarter than

"My character is smarter than I."
[Implied verb "am" is dropped; and you wouldn't say "than me am".]

Sorry... had to do it! :D

Are you sure?

In a third person form, there is not necessarily an implied “am”, or, at least, that’s not how people talk these days.

You don’t say, “my character is smarter than he”, do you? (Even though the form should be “...smarter than he is.”)

I mean, you could argue that’s technically correct, but I don’t think that describes how people use the English language these days.

So, are we dealing with prescriptive grammar or descriptive grammar?


It's a valid description of

It's a valid description of "smarter than I". I would have mixed feelings toward an Occam's razor equivalent saying we should prefer more generally applicable descriptions over more local ones. But maybe we should stay on topic ?

She likes him more than me. <

She likes him more than me. <> She likes him more than I [do].

I was not meaning to derail; I just thought it somewhat ironic that the subject line is bad grammar and sort of validates itself. ;-)
On topic: My game 'unasks the question' by basically not using such a stat or any other stats that are Roll instead of Role playing. True, it's a LARP system, and so players mostly DO what they want to have their characters do (or cannot themselves DO some things, and so don't play characters that could).

In regular old tabletop, there are TONS of mechanics to make your character do something you could never do (at least, not safely). That's largely the point, in fact, in fantasy/fantastic genres. So, to PLAY a character smarter than you, have it do things in terms of goals, not actions. For instance, I have no idea how to apply forensic techniques to determine time and cause of death, but I can say my character Does The Needful and roll and, voila, determine time and cause of death as in-game facts. That is basically parallel to the fact that I have no idea the gestures and incantations to cast a fireball spell, so I tell the GM "I cast fireball" instead of saying, "I florg my hands and scream, 'Bondarg the eskaton!'", expecting a fireball to become an in-game fact. :-)

As far as 'figuring things out' as a player, expecting your character's stats to carry you... I dunno. Maybe ask you GM to fall back on an old technique whereby, for a given game situation, certain stat rankings provide more/different/better details to the encountering characters' players. The high INT player jut gets an improved description, much like how a high Perception character would notice/hear more info than the blind and deaf. Puts a bit of pressure on the GM to be aware of 'statistical excellence' in the party of characters, but that's not a huge ask if he or she is already balancing difficulty and making sure to hit keys or what-not. It could also lead to a lot of note passing and such, in games where players do not instantly inform each other of in-game facts that they discover/know.

Why should this be a problem?

Why should this be a problem? There are many things my characters do that I can't: fly in the air, create fire balls, shapeshift into a wolf...

The problem happens because,

The problem happens because, in almost all roleplaying, the player is expected to make choices for/as the character, and those choices reflect the intelligence of the character. The player's intelligence affects the choices they make.

In particular, if the game has any measure of challenge orientation and character identification (most roleplaying games do have some measure of both), the player making clever or non-clever choices means the character making clever or non-clever choices.

This leaves a few possibilities:

1. Remove all challenge orientation from the game.
2. Remove all character identification from the game.
3. Remove the ability of the player to make clever or non-clever choices.
4. Remove measures of character intelligence.

Interesting reductio, Thanuir

Interesting reductio, Thanuir.
What about:
5. Give the player one or more chances to change non-clever choices (# of 'retries' based on relative intelligence of character).

(Your #4 was my 'unask the question'.)


Another option is one I use frequently when running DayTrippers:
6. Use an intelligence roll to gain an insight/idea/hint from the GM (obviously this only applies to games with a GM).

6 1/2. Ask the GM a question.

6 1/2. Ask the GM a question.
7. Apologetics, the player may not seem to have a smart solution but it's direct/efficient/unorthodox and surprisingly will actually work. (The GM makes it work)

Personally I would interpret

Personally I would interpret those as instances of removing the ability of the player to make (non-)smart choices. Choosing to take a crowbar along is not very significant if you can simply flashback it into existence, transform it into a lockpick, or have the GM make the crowbar relevant anyways.

Consulting the GM/other players/adventure text for hints about what to choose also takes away the opportunity to make choices that might or might not be smart.


The categories are not a result of any deep analysis, so please use whichever variant is useful for your own play and design. That quadrotomy makes sense from an OSR perspective, at least. One to three take away something that is valued in OSR tradition, while four is a simple enough re-interpretation or re-naming of stats.

I always think of Champions

The big bad in a Champions campaign has a high INT score. By each increment of "normal intelligence value" (whatever) he has anticipated one action from the team of supers. This was so clever that I thought it should have been in the base rulebook. That made very clear what the option was in Hero system : attributes, skills, etc. are wildcards for the players limited only by the plausibility of their effects.
This is a very mechanical-numerical option.

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