Talent vs. Effort

This comment came in recently on the article In Defense of D&D Stats in Simple Language: The Definition of Charisma:

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.

I don’t think this is true. I think psychopathy generally correlates with a decreased ability to feel empathy, but it’s not the definition of psychopathy because there is no common definition. But I am not an expert in psychiatry, and I could have it all wrong. I know enough about it to know I don’t know enough to meaningfully debate it.

Instead I want to take this in another direction. There’s an assumption here that I’ve seen in several books, sources of online commentary, and even blog comments, an assumption so understood that I think many of the people making it don’t even know they are. The assumption is that a person with high Charisma is good at influencing others because they have high Charisma, or more generally that a character’s ability score is the most important factor in their skill and the ability score is indicative of who the character is more than the character’s actions. This isn’t true in 3E or 4E, it’s only true in certain parts of 5E, and I think it violates one of D&D’s core concepts so subtly we don’t even realize we’re buying into it.

It’s a D&D version of the nature vs. nurture debate. A character’s traits fall into two categories: things into which he has put his time and energy (effort), and things into which he has not (talent). Most of a character’s traits live in the first category, like his weapon, his class, his spells, his feats, or traits that stem from things he chooses, like skill proficiencies and saving throws. The second category includes his race, the ability scores he rolled during character creation, and his background. Obviously we can make a valid argument that some things in the second category could be part of the first; a character could have naturally high Strength, or maybe he was sickly as a child and compensated by working out before he became a fighter. That’s fine. The point is that the vast majority of the numbers on a character sheet are part of the first category, not the second.

Let’s focus specifically on his skills. Our example character is a L1 human fighter with a Wisdom of 15, alarmingly good. He has proficiency in Insight from his class and no racial bonuses to it. His total Wisdom (Insight) modifier is +4: +2 of that is from his Wisdom, which he got from rolling ability scores and adding a racial modifier, and +2 is from his class. If we assume that everything in his Wisdom score is the result of being born wise (talent), and everything in his proficiency is the result of learning how to read people and situations (effort), we can attribute exactly half of his skill in Wisdom (Insight) to a built-in, natural understanding of the world and half to the work he put into it. This is an intentionally simplistic view for the purposes of demonstration; a character’s original ability score probably represents some sort of effort, but this lets us contrast the original character with the changes that come later.

Now he reaches L4. He puts one point into Wisdom, increasing his ability score modifier to +3. I don’t see any reasonable way we can say this is still his natural talent. He’s clearly worked on increasing his Wisdom over his career, and it’s now coming to fruition. With our simplistic view, 60% of his skill in Wisdom (Insight) now comes from effort.

Now he reaches L5. His proficiency bonus increases to +3. This is canonically and unambiguously the result of his experience. It cannot possibly be due to his talent and it must represent the results of his work. With our simplistic view, 67% of his skill in Wisdom (Insight) now comes from effort.

This continues throughout his career. If he never puts another point into Wisdom, he’ll still eventually get a +6 proficiency bonus, and +4 of that is very definitely based on effort. If he increases his Wisdom, that can reach a +5 modifier, most of which is based on effort. The higher a character’s level, the more his abilities become obviously the result of the time and work he put into increasing them and the less his original stats matter.

And this is all in 5E, which very strongly believes that a character’s ability scores matter more than anything. Consider Pathfinder, where a character can put a rank into Sense Motive every level. That modifier overshadows the ability score very quickly. Or consider 4E, where skill training is a set +5 bonus that never increases. Only the most dedicated L1 character has an ability score that can match it, and any future gains to that score come from experience.

In every edition of D&D, putting effort into something eventually gets you a higher skill than being good at it naturally. This is the very concept of experience points. Without it, D&D doesn’t exist. And yet, how many times have you heard a conversation like this:

DM: Somebody roll a check for skill X.
Player 1: I think Player 2 should roll the check, because she has a high ability score Y.
Player 2: But I don’t have ranks/training/proficiency in X.

We know experience matters more than anything. We know characters choose how to get stronger. We know the original ability score, a character’s talent, matters less and less as the character gains more and more levels. And we still assume that a character is good at something based solely on their ability score, especially their original ability score roll.

This is why the D&D stats in simple language are so deliberately broad, because the ability score doesn’t actually mean much to a person who puts effort in. Regardless of a professional athlete’s Dexterity, she’s put years of full-time work into being good at catching and throwing and shooting, and that shows. Regardless of a scholar’s Intelligence, he’s dedicated his life to pursuing a specific field of knowledge, and it shows. And if a psychopath listens to people, if he thinks about what makes them tick, if he tries to understand them and tell them exactly what they need to hear to drive them toward a specific end, he’s going to look like a charismatic individual regardless of his actual Charisma score. We see a person or character and what they do, and we assume they do it because their ability scores support it. The effort is invisible.

I think this is by design. D&D likes ability scores. They’re on-brand. Character sheets are based around them. Rolling 4d6 (drop the lowest) is the first step in creating a character, before even figuring out what the character concept is or what might be fun to play. It shows even in this blog, where a post on ability scores is easily the most-viewed, most-debated thing I’ve ever written*. We like ability scores because they’re simple and straightforward, six numbers that describe a character more succinctly than a half-page backstory and a list of what abilities she gained at every level. It’s not wrong to use ability scores this way. But it’s incomplete, and I feel it does a disservice to the game at large and the characters in it.

But it’s also unfair to ignore ability scores as a metric entirely. If two characters have the same class abilities, the same proficiencies, the same feats, etc. pertaining to a skill, the character with the higher relevant ability score is going to be better at the skill (at least until that ability score reaches 20 and caps). A character with a good Charisma and no training is better at influencing people than a character with a bad Charisma and no training. The ability score makes up for some of the lack of effort. It doesn’t completely mask the lack of effort, but it does explain something about what that character can do in a vacuum separate from her class or items or background. The ability score works in concert with other modifiers, and a character is incomplete without both.

D&D has worked this way as long as I’ve known it. We can’t assume that a character with a high Charisma will be good at applying it or vice versa. The longest-running character I’ve ever played is an inquisitor who dumped Charisma and pumped Strength. Her Intimidate modifier is one of the highest skill modifiers in the party, and she is terrible at Climb. Neither half of her character sheet predicts the other. Focusing only on the results of her rolls, but ignoring how she got them, gives you the wrong impression. You have to understand that ability scores are a base and you build from there.

Some characters do put all their eggs in one basket. By pretty much any measure, somebody who works hard over time is going to beat somebody who starts off with a bonus, and the winner will always be the person who does both. My inquisitor will never have a skill check as good as our arcanist’s Knowledge (arcana) modifier. I’m just saying that we can’t take for granted that a character must have ability score X because we see them do Y with it. Fiction and non-fiction are full of characters who overcame their limitations and circumstances through effort, and that effort usually happens off-camera. If a character has ability score X, they can usually demonstrate this with activity Y, but it’s not an ironclad rule, and assuming the converse is logically invalid.

* — If you search Google for “D&D ability scores” or something similar, the top ten results will likely include either the original post on this blog or one of the pages that quote it. Some results give you the original and two pages based on it, so I’m three of the top ten. Using at least one search term, “D&D stats”, means Google actively suggests this blog. I’m not ashamed to admit I squeed a little when I found out.

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