Charisma delenda est

Posted on January 28, 2021 by mario

Bad game rules typically fall into one of the following two categories:

  • They’re at odds with other parts of the game or are unfitting.
  • The ratio of fun to work is too low.

The Charisma stat violates the first one: it’s at odds with the essence of role-playing games. How is this the case?

The essential element to a role-playing game is that the players freely direct the actions of the characters in a fictional world. The Charisma stat decreases player autonomy by artificially hampering their attempts to role-play. If your character has a low Charisma score, they will (for an arbitrary and permanent reason), be less capable of interacting with other characters in the game. And you can’t do anything about it. The player can try their absolute best to be suave or clever, but if their character has a low Charisma score, it doesn’t matter, or it doesn’t matter as much. I guess they should focus on some other part of the game, like…rolling dice or something.

To give a rough analogy, the Charisma stat is to role-playing games what an accuracy stat is to a shooting game. You don’t play a shooting game to miss 90% of the time for no good reason other than being unlucky while your friend hits 90% of the time for no good reason other than being lucky; you play a shooting game to use your skill as a player to try to shoot things quickly or accurately within the bounds of the game, and winning the game or doing well should be determined on how skilled you are or become over the course of playing the game; eventually you’ll be pretty good at shooting things in the game, and you’ll feel accomplished because of that fact. But that would never happen if the game had an accuracy stat, or if it did, it wouldn’t feel nearly as good.

But, we’re enlightened! We in the OSR would never abide by such an interpretation of the Charisma stat. Clever play always wins, the rules or statistics be damned! Maybe the character’s just ugly? Or poor? Or maybe they’re uncharismatic, but somehow Kramerize things in just the right way that the other characters in the game become capable of seeing the true genius of their plan or the attractiveness of their offer?

Those are all reasonable ways of making good rulings around a bad rule. But at that point, why not just have a Beautiful/Ugly statistic or a Noble/Peon statistic instead? What are you losing exactly? You weren’t going to constrain the player’s character to what their Charisma stat said to begin with, so what’s it doing other than taking up mental space in your (and your player’s) head and physical space in the book and on the character sheet?

Good rules constrain player freedom in interesting (or at the very least, necessary) ways. Charisma doesn’t do that. The same can be said for the myriad information-esque or social-esque skills you see in more modern games, like the History skill or the Deception skill. Rolling dice to see if your lie goes undetected or not is incredibly boring. Here’s a more interesting idea: discuss the odds of the character believing the lie up front with the players, and encourage them to give you reasons as to why the character would believe it or not believe it; whoever “wins” (as far as the players that gave reasons for belief and those that gave reasons against belief) gets better odds the next time they try pulling the wool over someone’s eyes.

Charisma sucks. Do your players and their ability to role-play a favor and scrap it.