Sunday 5 February 2012

Wisdom: For the Ultimate Priest or the Ultimate Scout?

D&D's Wisdom stat seems to be the most easily dispensed when people write house rules and variants. If you don't like clerics, you won't like wisdom, for starters. Even with clerics left in, something seems to compel people to re-envision this unwanted stat ... as sanity, luck, piety, will. Check out this D&D tutorial video and the way Wisdom has to be handwaved around. Do "common sense" and "sense of self" really go together with "religious involvement"? Why, in 2nd edition on, does Wisdom give bonuses for skills like perception, outdoor survival and healing?

A wise guy, huh?
The prevailing view of wisdom in psychology is that it's the long-term knowledge of how best to achieve a meaningful life. Fine, but try translating that into a die roll bonus. Robert Sternberg, one of the predominant researchers in intelligence, argues that beyond IQ (reasoning ability, equivalent to D&D's Intelligence stat), success in life is also predicted by creativity, and by a third "street smarts" factor which he sometimes calls "practical intelligence" and sometimes "wisdom." The problem with this third factor as a game stat is that it's about making the right decisions. Feeding players the right decisions or forcing them to make the wrong ones because of their Wisdom would be a recipe for frustration.

This is why Wisdom constantly has to be reinterpreted as a character, not player, attribute. One approach (let's call it "Piety") is to just say it's whatever it takes to be a cleric/priest/paladin and tie it exclusively to divine magic. This is similar to what I do with Intelligence, renaming it Intellect, and treating it as "head for book learning." The problem here is that really no other character class has any reason to have a high Wisdom.

There are two other very different things Wisdom's asked to do, especially in 3rd edition D&D, with its design pressure to make all game elements meaningful. One is "Will" or ability to resist mental influence: 3rd edition has Wisdom modifying Will saves. The other is "Perception" or awareness of one's surroundings: 3rd edition also has Wisdom modifying a variety of skills like Spot, Listen, Sense Motive and Survival.

Well... Will and Piety perhaps go together, if you make the long assumption that contact with divine forces is the only way to resist influences on your mind. But Will and Piety are definitely at odds with Wisdom as Perception. The static, supportive role of cleric in the original game is right opposite the scouting, mobile role of the thief. It doesn't seem right that both classes draw on the same stat, when AD&D explicitly stated that their roles were opposite, and each one's prime requisite was the ability score the other could ignore completely.

How to resolve this mess? I recently had the insight that if Wisdom = Awareness it could mean different things for divine and profane classes. Simply put, have priest-types (or prophets) not get the Wisdom bonuses for earthly things like listening. Their awareness is attuned to a different sphere.

To sum up, in my game going forward, high Wisdom has the following benefits for a prophet:
  • Qualifies for the class
  • Stronger miracles, healing and abjuring evil.
  • Stronger Mind saves (similar to 3rd edition's Will)
And for a non-prophet:
  • 13+ Wisdom gives +1 on d6 perception skills; 8- Wisdom gives -1..
  • Bonuses in Wisdom gives 10/15/20% bonus to experience, but no penalty for low Wisdom - the logic here being similar to awareness, that a prophet's Wisdom is too tied up in higher things to help learn pragmatically from experience.
  • Stronger Mind saves.
Yes, this means that Wisdom is still a melange of Piety, Perception, Will and even the kind of life-learning that shows up in the psychology definition. I'm happy to live with that conflation, just as I'm happy for Dexterity to cover both fine and gross motor skills. The important thing in a character system is to give a variety of choices that make global sense, not create the ultimate human resources instrument.

Another thing to think about - if and when I introduce a Druid class to the game, their nature-bound spirituality would let them get both divine and mundane benefits of Wisdom.


  1. Seems like a good idea to me. :)

  2. Hmm... We've been using Traveller's mental stats recently, where you have Intelligence / Intuition and Education. Education's for mental stuff that you learned by studying (engineering, science, medicine, wizardry), and Int is for everything else (persuasion, observation, willpower, &c). There's been some resistance from the D&D crowd because they're used to Int being for book learning, but I really should bring the issues with Wisdom to their attention.

  3. First, yes. On all counts.
    I was going to mention CoC's EDU, which I'm now planning to adopt in place of INT. I like your thinking here, esp on prophets, but ever since someone said they wished DnD had been a Journey to the West game from the start I've been looking for ways to Monkey with it... and I think you've found it, or opened the way. So in this version WIS models your enlightenment and possibly harmony with the Tao, and characters have 2 goals in every adventure: increasing level or increasing WIS. High WIS gives benefits that are unknown at the start (???) but are generally in line with Sages' abilities and it's needed for interplanar Ascent. But increasing your WIS usually leads to goals directly at odds with increasing level.

    There are no clerics in this game, but maybe many kinds of spellcasters.

  4. What I do is, I just make the basic skills stats in and of themselves. I replaced Wisdom with 3 scores (i know; bear with me):
    - Fieldcraft
    - Thievery
    - Piety
    "Fieldcraft" is your stat when you're doing scout-y type stuff - lighting fires, sneaking around in the woods, tracking, etc, just like Strength is your stat when you're trying to break down a door.
    "Thievery" is your stat when you're sneaking around in dungeons or towns, picking pockets, or finding underworld connections.
    "Piety" is not actually something I use, but if you wanted to have a "Cleric-y-ness" stat that measures your Religosity then you could use that.
    I use a sliding scale of Favor with each God for each character that the characters don't get to see. Doing stuff your God likes = more Favor. The only advantage of choosing Cleric as your starting class rather than Fighter is you start with a whole bunch of Favor with a God of your choice.

    the thought process is that each stat is basically just a stat for a class anyway - Strength is "Fighterliness", Dexterity is "Thiefiness/Elfiness", Wisdom is "Clericosity" and Intelligence is "Wizardiness". And then Constitution just helps everybody get hit points. So why not just call a spade a spade?

  5. @DSmash - Interesting! I guess that is equivalent to saying "Wisdom does different thing for these three different classes" but lets the other classes shade into those skill bases.

  6. Sorry about the thread necromancy; I came here by way of your recent post on Clerics, and wanted to say...

    I actually think the problem with Wisdom is a misunderstanding of what it actually means to represent. I did a post on it myself last year, but it basically boils down to this:

    -Wisdom is defined as willpower, common sense, intuition, and awareness.

    -Charisma is defined as strength of personality, animal magnetism, assertiveness, etc.

    -Clearly, "willpower" should be dropped from Wisdom and moved to Charisma. Wisdom is now 100% awareness and perception, and Charisma covers sense-of-self, assertiveness, etc.

    -Adjust Saves accordingly, re-key Clerics to care about Charisma instead of Wisdom. Bonus, now Clerics are best able to attract followers, stir a crowd, mediate arguments, etc.

    -Druids should stay keyed to Wisdom, because they're much more about awareness, intuition, etc.

    -If desired, rename Wisdom to be Awareness, since that's really what it's been all along anyways.

    1. That is a very neat and sensible scheme ... Check my post tomorrow for another take on will vs. sensitivity.