Wednesday, May 11, 2011

A Variant View of Charisma

While I am a lover of classic rpgs (and their neo-classical offspring), I tend to not be an ideologue about it. I don't need elaborate justifications or polemics setting my why up against this or that new edition strawman mainly because I feel it comes down to a matter of taste. I enjoy the crisp, tart bubbly taste of a cheap Vinho Verde wine, many don't; so what really in the great cosmic scheme of things.

Attribute scores--especially the subjective, mental ones like INT, WIS, and CHA--are the exceptions. I just plain don't like how they tend to stand-in for player skill in newer games. 

My mind rails against it and its implications, a trend made even worse by each iteration's tendency to up the power scale of each. Bonuses for exceptional scores raise across the board, generation becomes more generous, and abilities can not only be improved but be hiked in relatively short periods of time.

The power arc doesn't just increase with each upping of the ante, the connection between the actual, existing wiles of a player and his alter ego grows wider and wider. To back my dogmatic preference I often zoom back to the oldest editions, the ones with the strictest chargen and flattest power arcs for attributes.

That all said, I am by nature a dude not terribly comfortable with orthodox--I do love me some tinkering. I like innovation and playing around with the concepts and I really love when you can mine the past's experimental bits to play around with the game s themselves.

The second edition of Runequest provides one of them for that most egregrious of skill-substituting attributes, Charisma. On the face of it, RQ is a singularly bad place for me given my prejudice: it was one of the first games to allow players to increase attributes with training after all.

But it had a really interesting and quirky approach to Charisma that jives with my own feelings about how to use it. CHA in that edition wasn't a simple mechanical player carrot to be improved at a player's leisure, but a variable one reflecting the ebbs and flows of a character's reputation, leadership, and visible power. It didn't just go up, it when down when the tide went out for a character.

Let me show you the passage to illustrate my point:
Charisma is a nebulous quality, and increasing or decreasing it is often up to the referee's whimsy. However, the following instances can have effect.
a. Each 25% skill with Oratory learned increases CHA by 1 point...
b. Each 25% increase in use of one's main weapon (after 50%) adds 1 point.
c. Possession of good, showy, magical objects raises CHA by 1 point. Just 1 point is gained here. It does not matter if the character has one or one hundred showy items.
d. Successful leadership of an expedition (i.e. the loss/gain ratio is satisfactory) can add a point...A character may roll his CHA as a percent or less for a gain or the Referee may have some other criterion.
e. Unsuccessful leadership can lose CHA. A really disastrous expedition can cause the leader to have to make his CHA as a percentage or lose 1 to 3 CHA.
Reading over that selection and my mind already schemes ways to introduce these rules into my old school D&D campaigns.

Let's start with the first two. Now obviously we don't have a skill-based game, but class level is a convenient stand in for both concepts. As a character's personal power increases so does his reputation. A fighter who is a meaner mother with that broadsword is a woman who can capture the attention of the people around her more effectively, as does a more powerful spellcaster and a more skilled thief.

D&D tends to have different play stages every four levels, let's say CHA raises 1 point at 4th, 8th, 12th, and so on levels.

Now about magic items, this is a slam-dunk winner for me. I love that it implies a campaign where magic items are not in great abundance and where most people would be in awe of a stick that can produce great balls of fire or a sword that gives off a flashy blue aura. Rule stands as written (perhaps modified about how relatively high or low magic a particular society is: +1 for only a particularly powerful magic item in a high magic one or +2 in a very low one).

The last two are ones I love very much, leadership becomes the two-edged gamble it is in real life. Lead well and your charisma increases, people like to follow the kinds of leaders that bring success and disdain those that fail even more quickly. Again this stands as written though my head wants to throw in heaps of modifiers (I guess that's where the ref's “other criterion” comes into play.)

I like how a conception of Charisma like this essentially becomes a reflection of how well a player navigates the challenges of a game world. As such it creates more of a linkage between the player's skill and his alter ego, rather than decreases it. Even better it solidifies the notion that the characters don't exist in a social vacuum, but that Charisma is the reflection of a welter of social factors that has reality in the game itself (Alexis of Tao of D&D has an insightful series of posts aexploring some of these dimensions here). 


  1. Love it...

    A question: can this concept be refined and expanded to such a degree as to have a simple means of having Charisma influence mass quantities of people?

    I'm thinking that, if done right, you could effectively patch the gap between hirelings, armies/hordes, and an upper level 'late game/end game' with a single system based on a single ability. When a character is so charismatic that he attracts his or her own personal 'tribe', he could become a warlord or the founder of an entire town.

    This could provide a lot of input for a DM in developing towns, input for a player's character ('I have to go on this quest or the people will lose faith'), etc.

  2. Both ideas (ckutalik's and scottsz's) are really groovy, and I am very much enjoying where this looks to be heading.

  3. @Scott
    "A question: can this concept be refined and expanded to such a degree as to have a simple means of having Charisma influence mass quantities of people?"

    I was thinking of expanding it to reflect a few more important factors and to have some connection to domain-level play, but I like how elegantly you pose it here.

    I should have mentioned that older editions of D&D did reflect some connection between growing reputation, personal power, and leadership albeit in a one-time, somewhat-abrupt moment: the automatic attraction of followers when you reached name level and built some kind of physical power center (new temple, castle, hideout, etc).

    It would be interesting to model this more as a feedback loop between charisma and level spread-out over the whole power arc IMO.

  4. I like this. I've always preferred more of a reputation system like GURPS as opposed to a Charisma stat, though I never actually done anything about it. :)

  5. Great post. Instead of raising one score by +1 at 4th/8th/12th etc, my preference is to add 1d6 to any ability at those levels (max 18). The players start out with a 3d6 spread, but end up with a 4d6. After 12th level I allow them to exceed racial maximums (as I see them as demi-gods by then).

    The automatic followers are a bit of a problem in my opinion. Ostensibly modeled after arneson's FFC and the gold a character would have at those levels, it appears (to me) that gygax/arneson decided to kind of "show" what types of followers are possible with their gold. Presumably, these "automatic" followers must still be paid their gp per month as described in the rules (except for the cleric's), so they are "automatic" in the sense that the player doesn't have to spend the 100gp per week recruiting them.

    So, "automatic" followers are really only hand waving the recruiting part, the army and henchmen still need to be purchased just like any other CHAINMAIL/FFC army would.

  6. @Trey
    In a way attributes are like the weather, every one talks about it but no one does anything to change it. Ha.

    @UWS guy
    Interesting and generous approach, likely it would approximate Runequest II in that way. Characters started with 3d6 attributes and could improve all of them except for intelligence and size. Though improvement was costly and slow, characters I would expect were quite formidable after a few years of play.

    I hadn't thought about the follower rules flowing from an arbitrary take on Blackmoor. I'm generally a fan of an approach that opens up domain-level play earlier in a character's career myself, so I definitely think I would line up with rules guidelines that reflect that.

    I like the idea of a longer, more organic process.

  7. I had a yes, but comment that metastasized into a really long post. tl:dr version: I like the attribute but as something completely different from what it is right now. No, I haven't tested my alternative.

  8. Great post!

    I've always liked RQII's take on Charisma.