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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?

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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!

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Tod, what if there's no GM?

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

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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.

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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”.

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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.

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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.

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