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Bag o' Nifties: Tricks for GMs

Instinct, Insight, & Intuition- Running Characters Smarter Than You

by Dan Pond
December 7, 2001  

The Problem

One long-standing issue in game design is how to represent character intelligence. It's relatively easy to role-play a character dumber than you: just don't act on all the information you have as a player. Playing a character who's smarter than you, who gets things faster and understands more than you do, is pretty much impossible. Most rules methods of solving this problem amount to massive hint-dropping, where the GM reveals information out-of-character and/or suggests appropriate courses of action after a successful "Intelligence" check.

This isn't the most satisfying of arrangements, especially in mystery-driven games. In a mystery, the GM must take on the mantle of Keeper of Great Secrets, and dolling those secrets out to the players subverts that role. The solution is to turn the tables and make the players the source of the information that make them appear ever so smart. You see, the trick to making people think you're smart is to always be right. That's why at least one of the game mechanics provided for each of the solutions below involves allowing players to add their own material to the game's backstory and/or plot.

Solution One: Instinct

The pursuit of knowledge for its own sake is all well and good, but most people seek knowledge in order to solve a problem. They don't just want to know something, they want to know what to do about it. Instinct is a "gut feeling" that kicks in when a decision has to be made, urging the character towards a specific course of action. It makes them appear faster than they are, since they can react to events a split second before they happen. It makes them almost impossible to surprise and immune to indecision. It can also inspire them to improvise novel solutions to tricky problems. Try to imagine an Instinctual character as a cross between TV's MacGyver and Planescape's Ciphers.

However, Instinct does not impart any knowledge of why an action is appropriate. That information is safely locked away in the preconscious mind. The key to sharp instincts is opening one's mind to the vast amount of sensory input that never makes it into conscious awareness. When something coalesces out of that chaos, it must convert itself into action immediately, without the intervention of analysis or reflection. The task of dragging that knowledge out into the conscious mind falls to Insight (see below).

The First Rule - The easiest way to add Instinct to a character is as a reflex/defense bonus of some kind. Make it subtle, but significant.

The Second Rule - Instinct can also be used as a "Jack of all Trades" skill, but only so long as the application is concrete and immediate. For example, a character could use Instinct to make a splint for a comrade's broken arm, but she couldn't use it to write instructions on how to make a splint later on. (In other words, you can use your Instinct skill for any action involving a hands-on task that needs to be done right now.) This is no substitute for actual training, though, so complex actions that would usually require a professional (surgery, architecture, legal advice, etc.) are all out of reach.

The Third Rule - Running a character with razor-sharp instincts means taking (rash) actions at the drop of a hat! Any time a player declares a bold action without good explanation, they can make an Instinct skill check. If it succeeds, the GM has to work a justification into the story (even if it's not immediately apparent to the players). For example, if Jane decides to run up and kiss an NPC full on the lips (and makes an Instinct check), the GM might decide that the NPC was on the run from the police all along and a squad car was driving past at that precise moment... the kiss shielding his face from view.

However, if the check fails, the player's character falls flat on his face; their action was without cause and potentially embarrassing... or worse. In our example, Jane has to deal with the consequences of playing tonsil hockey with a stranger on a public street. But that's what would happen to any fool, with or without Instinct. If you want this trick to have a downside, always make the consequences of a failed Instinct check particularly painful. (Jane may now find herself with an unwanted stalker!) But hey, no guts, no glory.

Solution Two: Insight

Sentient beings are masters of pattern-matching; they can see trends and causal connections anywhere! (Especially where they don't actually exist.) Insight is the ability to infer the causes of things, be they events, conditions, or behaviors. It takes known, concrete facts and fills in the blanks between them. It provides extremely keen deductive reasoning skills and an encyclopedic knowledge of the sciences. If you know anything about Sherlock Holmes (and who doesn't?), then you know what Insight is all about.

What Insight cannot do is extrapolate away from the known into the realm of the merely possible. It cannot derive information without explanation, and it cannot predict the future (that's what Intuition is for). Nor can it advise a character on how to deal with a problem or create a desired effect (that's what Instinct is for). Insight is all about careful observation and detailed analysis. Other concerns only detract from its essential focus.

Game Mechanic #1 - Okay, if you have to do some hint dropping, here's your chance. On a successful Insight skill check, bombs away!

Game Mechanic #2 - Since science is the study of the natural world, and the natural world is built upon the law of causality, Insight can be used as a "Jack of all Sciences" kind of skill. Basically, a player can make an Insight check to access any reasonably basic information from the any of the hard or soft sciences: physics, chemistry, psychology, biology, history, geology, etc. Depending on the tone of your game/setting, occult lore may or mat not be fair game. Things like mythology, art, and literature are out of bounds. Finally, Insight can't help you do anything with this knowledge.

Game Mechanic #3 - This one injects some serious (melo)drama into a game. Any time a player thinks they've figured something out, they can launch into a monologue explaining their conclusions and the trail of clues that lead them there. (Again, anyone who's read Sherlock Holmes, or watched Scooby Doo, knows what this should sound like ;) At the end, the player makes an Insight skill check, with the GM assigning bonuses or penalties depending on how clever, sound, or entertaining their performance was. If they succeed, the player is right and the GM has to work the new "reality" into the story. If the check fails, the player has just exposed their ignorance and put himself on the wrong path. (You could also make the Insight check secretly and force the player to assume they're right until proven otherwise. Hilarity ensues.)

Solution Three: Intuition

Even more than guiding action, the true goal of most knowledge-seekers is to be able to predict the future. For simple things, like the cutting power of a sword or the carrying capacity of a wagon, simply understanding the causal factors is enough to allow prediction. Most things of importance, like weather patterns and human behavior, are not so simple. Understanding alone is usually enough to deal with the sheer complexity of these systems. Instead, one needs the ability to assimilate large amounts of information and extrapolate the future in a way the waking mind cannot. This is the essence of Intuition.

Like Instinct, Intuition does not impart understanding. The amount of information involved in most predictions is far too large to process consciously. (This is also why Insight is limited to known, concrete facts. See above). Intuition is not prophesy, however. It is not a vision of what will be, but an expectation of what may be. Since it is not a psychic ability, it is limited to events within the sage's personal experience. This ain't clairvoyance.

The Easy Way - You can create a reasonable version of this effect using the rules for Precognition given in an earlier article. Since Intuition is less accurate than psychic prediction, the GM should make it a point to change the way events unfold the second time they are role-played. (Yeah, GMs are free to do that with the Precognition system, but I said "make it a point" this time, dangnabit!)

The Fun Way - Taking a queue from the Insight rules, you can allow players with Intuition to make predictions about future game events during play. Then, the player makes an Intuition skill check, with the GM assigning modifiers based on the creativeness, appropriateness, and impassioned delivery of the prediction. If the check succeeds, the GM has to make sure the prediction comes true. If it fails, the GM ignores the prediction and moves ahead. (Again, you can make the check in secret and force the player to always assume they're right. Mwahaha!)

A Note on the Illuminated Order of Sagi

Unlike previous article in the Bag 'o Nifties, this material is not a reprint. When it does go up on the All Worldz website, it will be packaged with an organization of soothsayers and scholars called the Sagi. The Instinctive, Insightful, and Intuitive Minds form the basis of their organization and describe three different philosophies on the nature of knowledge. These aren't just mundane skills like computing, medicine, and martial arts. They are ways of looking at the world. By introducing them to a game as the heart of an important organization, you can give them the flavor and impact they deserve.

On the other hand, you could just use them to inject some amusing improve into your game. Either way.

Next Time: Running "coincidental" magic that's actually coincidental!

All Worldz: A Game of Interdimensional Civilization by ImEG Games

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Bag o' Nifties by Dan Pond