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.