Wednesday, 29 December 2010

An ability score of 3 is unplayable (Argument 1)

Controversial, especially to all those who believe in the divine holiness of 3d6.
Now I am not a power gamer; or not any more. I think there are many opportunities for excellent role-playing with below normal ability scores. I just think that an ability score of 3 is far more restrictive to the characters physical and mental health than is given enough credit.

Ability scores of 3 are in the rules so I accept the onus is on me to convince anyone that an ability score of 3 is unplayable. I’ve got three arguments to make to support my position: a review of intelligence as it relates to the rules and real life; statistics – bell curves and ordinal data; famous characters with low ability scores and why you may think you are role-playing a score of 3 but you are probably role-playing 6-8. I guess it will take a number of posts – I hope you stay with me.

Let’s start with my favourite blogging ability score - Intelligence.
Let’s take the rules as given.

Non-intelligent or not ratable

Animal intelligence

3 Trouble speaking

4-5 Cannot Read and Write
Low intelligence

6-8 Write simple
Average (human) intelligence

9-12 Read and Write Common & Alignment
Very intelligent
Highly intelligent

13-15  +1 language
Exceptionally intelligent

16-17  +2 language

18   +3 languages

Godlike intelligence

Let us be quite clear what semi-intelligent means – this is one step up on animal intelligence 1. Perhaps a trainable animal is intelligence 2 (dog, dolphin, monkey). Intelligence 3 means you are one step more intelligent than a dog.
Trouble speaking, intelligence 3 – this is not dumbness in the inability to speak variety – this is that your intelligence is such that language is mostly beyond you, as should comprehension beyond the most simplest commands. Cannot read or write, intelligence 4-5, this is not saying something about your fantasy worlds education system. If it is anything like medieval Europe, most of the population can’t read or write. No, a 4-5 intelligence ability score means that even with teaching and instruction you will never get it.
Intelligence is the only ability score that is related in the rules to a real life comparator. The old claim is made, a correct claim I believe, that EGG believed that IQ score / 10 roughly = intelligence ability score.
This is supported by PH page 10 “Intelligence is quite similar to what is currently known as intelligence quotient.” And, PH page 34 “Even the rather slow (80 I.Q.) can learn one additional language. However, his vocabulary, useage, and ability to translate must, perforce, be limited.”
You guessed it no bonus languages until Intelligence score of 8 is reached.

Daniel Collins has a well-constructed article giving further examples and summarizing the arguments comparing intelligence score to IQ.

So at it’s simplest an intelligence of 3 = IQ 30.

I’ll directly quote the below weblink to demonstrate what an IQ of 30 really means:

“Mental deficiency used to be more finely classified using the following technical terms that later began to be abused by the rest of society:
IQ Range
Borderline deficiency
below 20

These are now largely obsolete and mental deficiency is now generally called mental retardation.  The following is the currently used classification of retardation in the USA:
IQ Range
below 20

Moreover, "educable mentally retarded" is roughly equivalent to mild mental retardation, and "trainable" mentally retarded is roughly equivalent to moderate"

So, an intelligence of 3 ability score means you are an imbecile, or in more modern parlance severely retarded. So severely retarded that you are probably not trainable.
Another website has this to say:
Mild mental retardation: Approximately 85% of the mentally retarded population is in the mildly retarded category. Their IQ score ranges from 50–70, and they can often acquire academic skills up to about the sixth-grade level. They can become fairly self-sufficient and in some cases live independently, with community and social support.
Moderate mental retardation: About 10% of the mentally retarded population is considered moderately retarded. Moderately retarded persons have IQ scores ranging from 35–55. They can carry out work and self-care tasks with moderate supervision. They typically acquire communication skills in childhood and are able to live and function successfully within the community in such supervised environments as group homes.
Severe mental retardation: About 3–4% of the mentally retarded population is severely retarded. Severely retarded persons have IQ scores of 20–40. They may master very basic self-care skills and some communication skills. Many severely retarded individuals are able to live in a group home.
Profound mental retardation: Only 1–2% of the mentally retarded population is classified as profoundly retarded. Profoundly retarded individuals have IQ scores under 20–25. They may be able to develop basic self-care and communication skills with appropriate support and training. Their retardation is often caused by an accompanying neurological disorder. Profoundly retarded people need a high level of structure and supervision.
I am not an expert in mental retardation, nor am I claiming the writers of the web sites I link to are experts either. And please I sincerely do not wish to offend anyone. I am merely trying to put our game, as given by the rules and also as related to real life, into context. In this context, severe retardation is close to non-functional. Most Down Syndrome individuals are usually in the moderate to mild IQ range ie in my opinion even playable as characters if desired.

But intelligence of 3, semi-intelligent, trouble speaking, IQ 30, severe retardation? 
Why would an intelligence 3 character be adventuring?
Why would anyone adventure with you? You are a liability.

No really you are a liability. No one would adventure with you.
In more harsh societies you would have been exposed at birth. (And no I am not advocating that just stating history).

We are trying to play a game – it’s about adventure, combat and social interaction. Intelligence 3 should preclude playing D&D as written.

It should be no fun to play an intelligence of 3. If you were method acting the DM might put you in a separate room and every ten or so minutes come in and give you one word to describe the situation. "Yellow" How much fun would that be?

Reroll, readd, redo - for an ability score of 3 is unplayable


  1. Very insightful, thanks! Looking forward to more posts on this topic!

  2. As for being a liability, maybe the Int 3 adventurer has a Charisma of 18, and he's so damn charming that everyone wants him along? Maybe the party lives in a group home? Maybe the party MEETS in a group home run by an evil social worker/magic-user and their first adventure is to escape from it! Now there's a scenario.

  3. The idea of escaping from a group home made me think immediately of Maggie Simpson's escape from Springfield daycare center or Grandpa Simpson and the Springfield Retirement Castle.

    To clarify I do not doubt there are ability score 3 NPCs in a campaign world. My belief is that were they to be role-played appropriately as per the detrimental effect of that ability score - it would be no fun as a player and not allow adventuring as the game rules are intended. For this reason an ability score of 3, and in my opinion also of 4&5, are not legitimate choices for PCs; they exist only for NPCs or temporary magical effects for PCs. I hope to post again in the coming days with Argument 2. Thanks Carter Soles and Spawn of Endra for commenting.