In Defense of D&D Stats in Simple Language: The Definition of Charisma

Last post I responded to some of the comments on D&D Stats in Simple Language with “we’re both right”. Things don’t translate perfectly from one edition to another, and the stats simply won’t work if they’re applied to earlier or later editions with different caps on ability scores. There’s no point in fighting about it, and anybody is free to use or not use them as they see fit.

The other sort of disagreement in the comments however, is this: Charisma covers social graces exclusively. And this one I will fight.

Ability scores work on a sliding scale of effectiveness. The definition of a score doesn’t change as you slide up and down this scale; Constitution measures toughness at all levels, not toughness when it’s low and pastry-making skill when it’s high. Look at what a person can do when the following ability scores are 20, 12, 4, and 0, respectively:

(Again, we’re using 3E definitions, because I’m nothing if not consistent [blog updates notwithstanding].)

Strength — 20: lift 400 pounds; 12: lift 130 pounds; 4: lift 40 pounds; 0: lift no pounds, including yourself, so you can’t move.
Dexterity — 20: move quickly enough to walk a 2-inch-wide platform; 12: move quickly enough to sometimes steal from an average person; 4: move slowly enough to often fail at tumbling; 0: move not at all.
Intelligence — 20: smart enough to recognize a magical effect; 12: smart enough to know how to look for something you’ve lost; 4: not smart enough to copy something from a piece of paper; 0: not smart enough to have cognitive thought.
Charisma — 20: people tend to like you; 12: people sometimes like you; 4: people usually don’t like you; 0: you’re in a coma.

That escalated quickly.

So why do we jump so quickly from “burps a lot” to “factually can’t interact with the world”? Because the above definitions are wrong. Charisma is not a measure of likability, it’s a measure of personality. From the SRD:

Charisma measures a character’s force of personality, persuasiveness, personal magnetism, ability to lead, and physical attractiveness. This ability represents actual strength of personality, not merely how one is perceived by others in a social setting.

What’s not in that list is “social graces”. The original, chapter-one, welcome-to-D&D description of Charisma in 3E has nothing to do with politeness. In fact, the definition of Charisma goes out of its way to say it’s not about functioning in society. 4E has a similar definition. 5E mentions that Charisma includes “eloquence” and leaves it at that. Why so many DMs and players have decided to change the definition of Charisma to apply mostly, if not solely, to manners, I don’t know.

Charisma is a measure of confidence, inner strength, and the acknowledgement of others as separate entities. That’s why high Charisma works with skills like Diplomacy, Bluff, Handle Animal, and Perform. A character with good Charisma knows what people want to hear and gives it to them, acts like others expect, and does it with an aura of natural grace rather than a sycophantic or practiced air. This means acting properly when meeting nobles, yes. But it also means adhering to the unspoken rules anywhere on the social spectrum. A low-Charisma nobleman might be perfectly at home at court and even handsome, but doesn’t understand that he should act differently in different situations because he doesn’t think of others as different from him and doesn’t know how to think for himself, so he thinks they should appreciate the same things in the same way he’s been told he should, and anybody who doesn’t is unfathomable, stupid, or less than human.

With this definition the scale suddenly makes sense:

Charisma — 20: people tend to like you because you’re a likable, assured person who’s fun to be around; 12: people sometimes like you because your personality sometimes shines through, even if you’re not always the talk of the town; 4: people usually don’t like you because you’re self-centered, unpleasant, or outright boring; 0: you’re catatonic, because you’re so incapable of interacting with the world you can’t even see objects as different from yourself.

By the way, that last one is very nearly a quote from the Monster Manual, another Core source that talks about the definition of Charisma without saying a word about manners.

I too was originally taught that low Charisma meant bad manners and high Charisma means good manners without being taught why, so when I started reading the books and understanding what Charisma really was it seriously changed parts of the game. Oozes and skeletons don’t have Charisma 1 because they care little for manners or conversation; they have Charisma 1 because they’re barely creatures, only acknowledging other things in the categories of “things to fear”, “things to use”, and “things to eat/fight”. Similarly stupid creatures like vermin can have Charisma 7 or higher and build societies or work in hierarchies. Powerful dragons and outsiders don’t have high Charisma because they’re gorgeous or lie like a rug; their Charisma represents the incredible sense of self they have as one of the most powerful creatures in the universe. Half-orcs aren’t just inherently rude; they have a genetic predisposition to seeing others differently, getting caught in their own heads, and reducing the world to simpler concepts they can understand.

If we had to reduce Charisma to a single word, instead of “interaction” the word we want is “empathy”. Aasimars have a Charisma bonus because they want to listen and understand others (and it helps that the world constantly tells them they’re the good guys, heroes, descended from angels.) Tieflings have a penalty because they don’t care about others (and again, it helps that the world despises, isolates, and hunts them.) Dwarves have a penalty because they don’t care about other races, as they’re too busy with their own ideals and traditions to consider anything that differs from them. In Pathfinders halflings have a bonus because even though they have as many customs and traditions as dwarves they’re willing to understand other people so they can live in harmony. The more you apply this to PC races the more clear it becomes that D&D has kept this in mind even as players have forgotten it, and it makes the bonus/penalty landscape not only more clear but also a little more sad when it applies to races and monsters with penalties.

Classes work the same way. The fighter, the monk, the wizard, and other classes that typically dump Charisma lean toward the “I’m going to do the thing I do, and I don’t understand or don’t want to understand people who don’t do that thing” archetype, while the cleric, paladin, and sorcerer are more often “I’m going to find something in the world, be it suffering, evil, or the well-coded rules of magic, and fix it” characters. There’s a reason party leaders tend toward classes with high Charisma, and it’s not because those classes have Diplomacy as a class skill. It’s because they’re the ones best suited to working with the world because they’re willing and able to understand it.

So no, I have no intention of changing the Charisma descriptions to apply exclusively to relative rudeness levels, because that’s not what Charisma is. While social maneuvering can fall under Charisma, it’s not the sole or primary (or secondary, or tertiary) purpose of the ability score. Defining it like that not only does a disservice to the designers by reinterpreting one of the core tenets of D&D, it hurts any character laboring under that definition by reducing one of the few measurable aspects of their personality to “people who belch a lot are no good at lying, and vice versa.” I encourage all players inflicting this standard on their characters or the characters of others to reevaluate what Charisma means and see where it takes them, and I demand it of my own players.

Though I would love to understand what those players think this blog is about. I like to think of DMing with Charisma as “DMing to have fun, using personality, engagement, and giving players what they want, often extemporaneously”. Using the common definition, the blog instead becomes “DMing by starting with the fork on the outside and moving in, and you never talk about religion or politics”, and that sounds tremendously boring.

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18 Responses to In Defense of D&D Stats in Simple Language: The Definition of Charisma

  1. AJ says:

    I really can’t even comprehend somebody thinking of Charisma as social graces. The six stats are measurements of common physical and mental attributes, not specific learning. Etiquette would make a fine Charisma based skill, but it isn’t an attribute.

    I generally describe Charisma as “Social Intelligence” to my players.

  2. peter says:

    I really appreciate this! I just played a ad&d session where we found a magical well that raised our stats and my characters charisma rose to 22 and my characters brother got a 23 charisma. now i don’t play 3e or any others all that much (have dabbled in pathfinder and 5th) so i don’t know how its different but in 2nd ed the max human score is 18 and it takes crazy magic to raise it and now we can raise a couple of platoons to fight behind us. which brings me to my point. many of our PCs kept mentioning how attractive we are, which undoubtedly we should now be more attractive, but I appreciate how eloquently you expounded on how we have so much more going on for us than our looks.

  3. chickdm says:

    Charisma is a lot about ‘fitting in’. If you are a room full of flatulence and belching orcs, and you pass gas and burp, then your Charisma with them will get buffed. But if you talk to them like a snobbish Paladin (even with a Charisma score of 18) then your Charisma will be penalized.

    My opinion is that, as a character, your Charisma score dictates how well you fit in with the group with whom you interact. If you have an 18 Charisma, you’re going to behave like an Orc when around an Orc, andyou’ll behave like Princess when you arearound royalty, and you’ll behave like a Dwarf when you’re around Dwarves. That’s not always 100% accurate, but most of the time.

    I guess a better way to put it is, you’ll behave how the other will want you to behave, or in a way that is highly impressive to the other.

    I think you described it very well! Thank you!

  4. TB says:

    I ended out reading this entry after the D&D stats in Simple Language article (which was really helpful in determining how ability loss should affect character behavior) because I disagreed with the language used for Charisma. After having read through this, I really like your explanation of Charisma being an understanding of self and your relation to others. But then, you go and use the same language of likeable, boring, etc. which doesn’t quite match your extended explanation.
    For example, a Drow typically has a higher Charisma score than a human but would fit almost exactly your description of a Charisma score of 4 – they are self-centered and unpleasant. But a Drow has a significant amount of empathy, it just translates that into knowing what kinds of pain will elicit a desired response or which questions might probe too deep.
    Obviously it is difficult to describe the complicated nature of a 20 meaning both “immediately likeable because you’re self assured and know how to have fun” and “you manipulate an intimidating presence to illicit desired reactions” but it feels wrong to leave the second one out.

  5. Giltintur says:

    I really like your definition, however, I’d like to ask your opinion on a neutral evil sorcerer/warlock/favoured soul with bloody high charisma. How would you synthesise his massive empathy with his massive lack there of?

    • MssngrDeath says:

      “I know how you feel” doesn’t necessarily lead to “I want to make you feel better.” Sometimes it leads to “I know exactly how to manipulate you” or “I take pleasure from knowing I’m causing you pain” or “I am acutely aware of how different I am from you.” Now that I think about it, I think I could make a really neat campaign villain our of an entropy-based or nihilistic spellcaster whose gimmick is “I can hear the cries of the universe, and I am so sick of it.”

      • Fai says:

        I think the use of the word “empathy” was the one mistake in your article. Psychopaths by definition don’t have empathy, but are often incredibly charismatic because of (as you do say here) their *understanding* of other people. They know what people expect and what they’ll find charming.
        “Empathy” implies the ability to put yourself in another’s shoes to feel what they’re feeling, which is a level beyond understanding. If you have too much empathy it becomes difficult to be manipulative or cruel.
        So, I’m with you regarding charisma being a measure of understanding of other people and groups, but not as a measure of empathy.

  6. Jack says:

    I know I’m a little late to this party, but I, very simply, say this to my new players when they ask for a definition of ‘Charisma’.

    “It basically means willpower. It’s the catch-all for the stuff that doesn’t fit under the other stats. Your ability to affect the world through force of will and personality.”

    • This Guy :D says:

      this guy’s got it^^^
      I consider Charisma a number representation of your willpower, your ability to exact your will through others, and how you deal with people as a whole to elicit the desired outcome. skills for the definitions above would be Persuasion, Intimidation and Deception mainly but you can also create an overwhelming presence in the midst of people with Performance.

  7. Jake says:

    I’m not sure if my definition fits into either of the two sides. Considering our DM allows us to charisma doors into unlocking and people into bashing their own heads against the ground I think I need to have a talk with our DM. I rolled a Nat20 and convinced a block of solid iron to forge itself into a sword.

  8. Jean-Pierre says:

    My definition of Charisma is “force of personality”. This is a measure of how well people like you but it is also a measure of how well you can influence people who may not like you. Obviously there are a lot of factors that need to be considered such as specific situations (context) and traditional (inter-racial) hostilities. The most adorable puppy with the cutest bark (CHA 18) will need to roll high numbers indeed to be well like or effectively influence a mother cat protecting her kittens. Likewise a tiny fluffy kitten with CHA 18 would probably need to roll save-vs-teeth if he tried to make friends with an old guard dog.

    I start assuming that the CHA score represents a quasi-percentage chance at successfully having a good relationship with someone (like the merchant I am trying to buy supplies from) and then I look for what elements might help or hurt that relationship and factor those into the encounter.

    Manners and etiquette really have almost no bearing unless the lack of them seriously offends someone or the presence of them seriously delights someone. If I were a rogue trying to pass myself off as a scholar then a lack of manners might spoil my disguise. Likewise if I was a prince trying to pass myself off as a pirate the presence of manners could work against me. So CHA 18 for the rogue means my manners are very good among scholars, and CHA 18 for the prince means the pirates find my manners rude and disgusting, just like their own.

  9. Someone..trying to research and plan.. says:

    From your definitions (the stat basis page) it stands to reason that social graces/what to say, would fall more under wisdom then charisma.
    Charisma is more a first impression, the “best friend” at the party, while you might not be the best socially.. “hey ted here, he’s got an awesome camera, that should be great for you, right, Jen?” type.
    Where as social graces, if you haven’t been trained or read a book, logically it’d be luck if you do it, +the strength of mind to push yourself to do it. Or..the wisdom from your “perceiving the world” to know what comes next.
    Outward looks are one thing, but innate responses are wisdom, “common sense” and would fall under there wouldn’t they?

    • MssngrDeath says:

      I think it’s a combination. Common sense is Wisdom, but I don’t think the way you interact with the people around you is entirely governed by common sense. A person with high Charisma might think “Ted has a camera, and Jen uses cameras at work, so I should acknowledge their shared experiences by bringing them together.” A person with high Wisdom might note that Jen is a private detective and might not want to talk shop at a crowded party. They’re two parts of a whole.

  10. SimonTVesper says:

    Interesting. Charisma as the ability to empathize with others.

    Makes me rethink my position on ability scores: perhaps an extremely high or low Charisma can represents information flow from the DM to the player in the manner of, “You just don’t understand why this person is so upset,” or “Yeah, you can totally see where she’s coming from.”

  11. Ginger says:

    In 3e we always played it as that “it” “Thing”. Pleasant to view, able to speak smooth and able to conceal any aura of ill intent to most players below “epic” stat/class. It is the unquantifiable thing that gives a positive first impression, makes that person believable/ trustworthy/ attractive before earning these impressions. If you fold in a skill like diplomacy or deception, bluff an intimidate….. and CH bonuses from certain dieties… well.. you have a Pop Idol of fantasy world… ^_^
    Our measure of Charisma… is it also the main stat of a Succubus monster and succubi playable racial.
    It can make a monster seem beautiful/approachable without using a charm spell. It can be reaction to an event surrounding that person (ie a scarred rogue who is feeding an injured fawn, a 1/2 orc cleric that is giving food to some poor street urchins will attract people to speak to them unless they have a charisma of ZERO and blood stained garments lol. A handsome hero with short temper that kicks some servile person away is going to be hated on first sight if he has any stat total lower than 14 even if he is paladin of Sune via action modifiers) It is more than just appearance but more than social. A social is a Human standard and falls short when describing this stat. But GMs with human experience apply it as n appearance or romance stat so it needs to be tighter description and not andro-centric. This stat is greatly enhanced by certain skillsets
    The monster has CH of 26 in 3e and 22(+10) in 4e!!! And it can charm you enough precast (aka at will actions) to stand and accept (will save throws with challenging + DCs of narrow high #) the controlling spells. Charisma makes Barbara Streisand fans (sorry she is a btt ugly woman from youth onward except her eyes). People can be influenced by social status and fame of an entity. These are part of its charisma as well.
    Our group has played since the early 80s. We often retired to NPC class, those characters that had survived enough to become world slayers (levels over 18.. even gods and dragons, lol). We have not played for 6 years as a total group because inter group romance politics *sigh.

  12. Alexander Huntley says:

    Honestly as a DM for 3E and Pathfinder, I feel that you are muddying up the concept of Charisma too much. Will is already clearly defined as tied to Wisdom in D&D from 4e back and in Pathfinder, empathy is also directly tied to wisdom, not charisma, this is why Sense Motive and similar intuitive skills, skills that are literally used to gain a true understanding of someone, are tied to Wisdom specifically.

    Charisma is not specifically your likability, it is not specifically your social graces. Charisma is very simply your confidence and self-worth. Everything else linked to Charisma is connected to it because charisma colors everything you say. You are able to lie better, because you sound so sure in what you say, that people doubt their own suspicion of your words, you are better at negotiating because your words carry the weight of confidence and this makes people listen to you. You are able to scare people because your threats sound more convincing. All of this is linked to confidence, people are attracted to confidence.

    Dwarves have a penalty to Charisma because they are so entrenched in tradition and their ancestors that any sense of worth they have is tied to tradition and family and not their own persons, therefore, if anyone questions these things, they become defensive and lash out. Orcs have a penalty to charisma because of their inherent envy and cultural obsession with materialism and conquest. They are always comparing themselves to others, wanting what others have, and inherently coming from a place of weakness.

    In contrast, gnomes are creative and inventive, always pushing through to something new and unexplored, unshaken by the unknown, they forge ahead with confidence, so they get a bonus. Drow have a bonus to charisma because they know that they are inherently better than everyone else, and this confidence shows.

    For the Aasimar example, at least in pathfinder, Aasimar have a bonus to both Wisdom and Charisma, this is because they are able to understand the world around them and the creatures in it, and are driven by an inherited sense of righteousness that adds force to any choice they make. This self assurance gives them confidence.

    The main reason I bring this up is because to boil a low charisma character as either boring or uninteresting is limiting as a perfectly valid interpretation of charisma is someone who is shy or lacking in confidence, despite their wackiness, eccentricity, or even physical attractiveness. While high charisma can be plain-clothed, unattractive, and yet be so confident that their words hold weight or are naturally convincing.

    • MssngrDeath says:

      And this I think is the biggest problem with Charisma as a stat: all our interpretations of it rely on culture and objectivity.

      Dwarves, all of them, _all of them_ are entrenched in tradition and ancestors. What about a dwarf who wasn’t raised in dwarven culture, who has no knowledge of her race’s history, and who doesn’t know a single one of her ancestors? She still has a Charisma penalty.

      Aasimars, all of them, _all of them_, are driven by an inherited* sense of righteousness. What about an aasimar who isn’t sure he’s doing the right thing, so he can’t necessarily treat everything he does with confidence, or one who’s fallen, so his righteousness isn’t the same as everybody else’s? He still has a Charisma bonus.

      Or, separate from race, consider a confident person. Some people interpret this as confidence, and they like it. Some people interpret this as pride or arrogance, and they don’t like it. But all the people which whom this person interacts, _all of them_, are more likely to listen to this person and do what they say, specifically because of a trait some of them hate?

      D&D cannot conceive of a world where a person’s race is not the number one factor in their personality, or a world where the same ability scores can apply to different sorts of characters. It’s quick and it’s simple and it’s wrong. Even my definitions assume some sort of implicit cultural bias, because Charisma (and all ability scores, but I think Charisma gets the worst of it) isn’t something you can define objectively. To you it makes sense that it’s about confidence and self-worth, and to me it makes sense that it’s about understanding how to interact with people. But we can agree, at least, that it’s not simply about social graces.

      I can also absolutely guarantee you that this blog is not “DMing with Self-Worth”.

      * — I can’t tell if you meant “inherited” or “inherent”, because getting your alignment from your parents is a whole other debacle.

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