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.

This entry was posted in D&D 3.5, D&D 3rd Edition, D&D 4th Edition, D&D 5th Edition, DMing, Game Design, Pathfinder. Bookmark the permalink.

9 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.”

  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.”

  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.

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