Thursday, June 10, 2010

Wisdom for the wise: defining the ambiguous attribute

"Wisdom: the faculty of making the best use of knowledge, experience, understanding, etc.; good judgment; sagacity."--Webster’s New Universal Unabridged Dictionary, 2nd Edition

In preparation for a future post on character generation systems from various vintage RPGs, I’ve been pondering ability/attribute scores a lot lately.  Virtually every game I’ve reviewed (~12 of ‘em, all published before 1985) have some sort of corollary to the abilities as first presented in D&D.  Strength, Dexterity, and Constitution, although often under different names, are pretty much universal, and many others have a rating for a character’s smarts and personality, covering the same ground as Intelligence and Charisma.  But Wisdom is an outlier; a term used by very few—if any—other games of the era, or any era since, I suspect.  Even TSR’s own Gamma World—the game that most closely mimics the D&D ability format—keeps all five of the other abilities intact but wisdom is replaced with a new, more concrete sounding name: Mental Strength.

While other games often do include abilities such as intuition, perception, and willpower—much more specific and tangible terms to describe potential game mechanics—they leave good judgment and sagacity out of the picture; these must, I believe, remain the purview of the player, not the character.  So why Wisdom?  What's its significance not just to clerics, but to game mechanics in general?  Which is to say, even if you can justify its usefulness to clerics, why should it be anything but a dump stat for the non-clerically inclined?  I intend to look into the history of the wisdom ability and what it's become.   

Going back to the earliest source, here’s what Gygax had to say about Wisdom in D&D Volume I: Men & Magic:

Wisdom is the prime requisite for Clerics… Wisdom rating will act much as does that for intelligence.

There you have it; no attempt to define the word or justify its singular importance to clerics other than to state that it is so.  Admittedly, he made little effort to define the other abilities either, presumably relying on his audience to be smart enough to figure out what "strength" means.  But unlike the other abilities, one gets the impression that this is exactly what Wisdom meant to the founding fathers: each class needed its own prime ability and wisdom was chosen, for lack of a better term, as the name of that ability for clerics.

Back in 1980-81, Holmes's blue book was my intro to D&D and it is, I think, telling that Eric Holmes, tasked with making the original D&D rules more palatable—or at least edible—to a younger crowd, expanded somewhat on the definitions of the other five abilities but did not lay a finger on wisdom:

Wisdom is the prime requisite for clerics.

This is exactly what wisdom meant to me throughout my playing days.  I never made any attempt to apply any other significance to the term; certainly not from the real world definition.  Not even after reading Gygax’s expanded definition in the AD&D Player’s Handbook

Wisdom is a composite term for the character’s enlightenment, judgement, wile, will power, and (to a certain extent) intuitiveness.

This definition is, in my opinion, too broad and vague to provide any traction for in-game functionality, although it does add willpower into the mix, which provides some potential relevance.  But he's also thrown in a character’s "wile" which would seemingly make wisdom much more important to con men than to clerics.  

The definition of wisdom, no doubt, has been amended further in the post-Gygaxian editions of D&D, but I am not aware of those definitions, so please pardon me for not discussing them here.   But within the old school community, new game re-designers keep pumping out their own versions of TSR’s old properties—God bless them, everyone.  Below is a sampling of wisdom definitions from the OSR movement:


A character’s wisdom score (“Wis”) indicates how “in tune” the character is with his or her surroundings. This translates not only to general awareness, but also to mystical attunement and the ability to understand peoples’ motives. It is, in many ways, a measure of the “sixth sense.” Wisdom is the most important attribute for clerics and druids.

Labyrinth Lords has this to say:

Wisdom (WIS) describes a character’s willpower, common sense, perception, and intuition. While Intelligence represents one’s ability to analyze information, Wisdom represents being in tune with and aware of one’s surroundings. Wisdom is the most important ability for clerics.

And Swords & Wizardry:

Wisdom determines a character’s insight, perception, and good judgment. Wisdom is the Prime Attribute for Clerics.

Perception, be it mystical or mundane, seems to be the common thread here, and I definitely think there's room for a perception ability in Old School style game rules.  I don't think wisdom is the right name for that ability nor do I understand why it would be particularly pertinent to succeeding at clerical actions.  OSRIC's 6th sense definition, I think, comes closest to an answer to the cleric problem, but only if some sort of 6th sense rules are included for non-clerics.

There is another option I’ve just become aware of: James Raggi’s forthcoming Lamentations of the Flame Princess provides the following definition:

Wisdom is the measure of a character’s connection to the greater universe, and the strength of the character’s spirit. Wisdom does not affect the character’s ability to make good decisions or judge situations or characters; it is the player’s own judgment which must be used in these situations. 

He takes a similar tone regarding Intelligence and Charisma, laying down a strong separation of church and state between character supplied abilities and player supplied abilities.  I heartily endorse such an approach.  Still, I'd like to see how this definition applies to game action in a way that would make wisdom anything but a dump stat for non-clerics.

And from the not quite OSR movement, Castles and Crusades has this to say:

Wisdom reflects depth of personal experience, the ability to make well-considered decisions or judgments, [fair enough] and represents a spiritual connection to a deity. [huh?]

This non-sequitur brings to mind The Simpsons episode where the U.S. Senate is debating a bill to save Springfield from an impending meteor strike and someone at the last second adds a rider that will allow taxpayer funding of pornographic art.  Needless to say, Springfield gets no federal aid to avert the cataclysm and the folks at Troll Lord Games, with this total cop-out of a definition, get no credit for clarifying the murky matter that is Wisdom.   On top of that, the way the ability is used in C&C makes sense only if characters start out with fairly low wisdom, making gains as they acquire experience.  
So, what do I propose as a solution?  Well, the definition I've been mulling over in my head lately has wisdom leaning back toward willpower, or, As I think of it, Strength of will.  While I don’t think Oxford or Webster will support me on this distinction, to me willpower is that which makes you refuse the easy, more tempting option—finishing a marathon, say, requires a lot of willpower.  Strength of Will is more like committing yourself to a cause based not on mere stubbornness, ignorance of other options, or a “refuse to lose” mentality, but because you’ve considered the cause and the tenets upon which it is based very carefully and believe it to be worth the trouble to align yourself with it.  A cause, in game terms could be a religion or the beliefs of a specific deity, but also a code of honor, one’s alignment, or even belief in the actions/words of a particular individual.  Which isn’t to say that a high wisdomed character will blindly follow such a leader to the Kool Aid pitcher; should this leader-type betray the tenets upon which the faith was based, the highly wisdomed will most likely choose this time to opt out.

All told, this, too, is a pretty froofy definition and I’ve belabored it long enough.  So what is one to do?  Most likely, one would go on not giving a crap about such a silly semantic distinction and continue with the tried and true "Wisdom = the prime attribute of clerics," and I certainly have no beef with that approach.  But it has struck me as peculiar that, in a community prone to debating things like this, I have seen no debate on the matter of defining Wisdom.  Or maybe I'm just missing something.


Otto P. said...

I use wisdom as a modifier to surprise rolls and find-secret-door checks. I've been thinking about letting it affect character eyesight and weapon range. This does make it pretty much just perception, but as you said, most of the definition of wisdom should be the purview of the player.
While the correlation isn't direct, players who go for high wisdom scores are usually the same ones who take pains to be cautious and meticulous, which fits pretty well with "perception."
On a side not, newer editions have correlated it to perception, "sense motive," and mental saving throws mostly.

Timrod said...

Wow! A real response on the first day I posted it. Thanks Otto, this is a first around here.

I had a hunch--based on the definitions used in the new OSR clones--that wisdom had gone all perceptiony in later versions. Although no one seems to discuss it much, it's fairly obvious that everyone agrees that the gygaxian definitions of the term are not very satisfying.

Now go study for your finals.

anarchist said...

Perhaps the root problem is that the conception of the cleric class is vague.

Van Helsing-like witch hunters would presumably have a high willpower. But vicars are stereotypically weak-willed, and satanic coven members are also weak-willed in a different way.

Will Mistretta said...

Wisdom: If you have to ask, you'll never know. :)

Timrod said...

"Perhaps the root problem is that the conception of the cleric class is vague."

I couldn't agree more.

Moist Oinka said...

I get that, if you assume WIS encompasses Willpower or Sanity, a Cleric would want a high WIS, but how often does that come into play with PLAYER characters? Roleplaying a session where a player is tempted into letting their character do something against their faith is tough...and rare. The Player is further emotionally removed from moment than the character is.

Other than staying true to one's beliefs, I'd think CHA would make a more useful ability more often. I mean one of the main duties of any priest is to get others to join their cause. A charismatic leader certainly would be more successful (level faster, in gaming terms) than a Cleric with a lower CHA. I'd also allow, if you were to do this, to add the CHA bonus to a Cleric's TURN roll as well.

Paradigm shift, I know, but makes more sense to me, and elimates the need for an ability score no one seems to be able to define well, including me.


Timrod said...

You raise good points, Oinka, and I really don't have a decent response. And to make the matter more confusing, the only way I've ever used Wisdom in a game is as a sort of saving throw against being swindled. I don't even know how to justify that so don't ask.

But as for charisma and increasing your following, I see your point, but I've never played religion in D&D that way. Clerics have never been holy recruiters, and indeed, deities have never been particularly interested in promoting their following on earth. As I've run religion in D&D, a bunch of sycophants swearing fealty is of no interest to the divine. Rather, earth (by whatever name) is the game board on which the deities play out their rivalries and so a cleric's mission is to act as an agent in forwarding the goals of the gods.