From Dump Stat to Role-Player’s Dream: The True Story of Charisma

From Dump Stat to Role-Player’s Dream: The True Story of Charisma

Charisma is the most unique of all the attributes found in Dungeons and Dragons. Long considered a “dump stat,” it also the least quantifiable and most changing of the core D&D attributes. It is also the easiest to role-play.

Many gamers, particularly those of the old-school, think of Charisma as a reflection of their looks. Put simply: charisma is how hot you are, which doesn’t help fighting or magic or saving throws; therefore it’s the attribute where you hide your lowest score.

However, from the beginning, that’s not all Charisma was.  Charisma is defined by B/X* thusly.

Charisma (CHA) measures a character’s force of personality, personal magnetism, physical attractiveness, and ability to lead. This ability has an influence on how NPCs or monsters will respond to a character in an encounter. Charisma also determines the number of retainers a character may have and their morale.

At this early point, Charisma mechanically is useful for Reaction Adjustments and Maximum Number of Retainers. This reveals the early assumptions of D&D; you would hire as many expendable followers as you could and descend into dungeons to loot for treasure and experience.

*I don’t have the B/X books at hand and this definition is from Gavin Norman’s B/X Core Rules. It’s possible that this rule is actually from after the one I have following–if you know better, please let me know in the comments.

Advanced D&D

Advanced D&D, published in 1978, defined Charisma in almost exactly the same manner, but it does begin to distinguish between beauty and personal magnetism; i.e., an ugly dude could still have a high Charisma if he was of sufficient personal magnetism (Think Robin Williams or Mick Jagger.)

Charisma is the measure of the character’s combined physical attractiveness, persuasiveness, and personal magnetism. A generally non-beautiful character can have a very high charisma due to strong measures of the other two aspects of charisma. It is important to all characters, as it has an effect on dealings with others, principally non-player characters, mercenary hirelings, prospective retainers, and monsters. It absolutely dictates the total number of henchmen a character is able to retain. It affects loyalty of all hirelings and retainers. It is the key to leadership….

Oriental Adventures

By 1985, the publication of Oriental Adventures (the last book Gary Gygax developed for TSR) showed that for Gygax, Charisma had become something other than personal beauty. It was now pure force of will, the personal magnetism of a Jack Black or the drive-to-dominate of Napoleon Bonaparte. Personal beauty was moved to a new stat: Comeliness. (As far as I know, this is last appearance of Comliness as a stat in D&D books.) Such is the definition of Charisma.

The Charisma score measures a character’s persuasiveness, personal magnetism, and ability to lead. It is not a reflection of physical attractiveness, although the two are closely related. It is important to all characters, as it has an effect on dealings with others, principally non-player characters, mercenary hirelings, retainers, and intelligent monsters. It dictates the total number of henchmen a character can retain and affects the loyalty of henchman, hirelings and retainers.

The point of Charisma is clear. It’s a mechanic for hirelings and retainers, a kind of pre-emptive armor attribute where you can surround yourselves by meatshields or scare enemies away. There are new mechanics for Honor, which in some ways serves as a proxy for the social barometer of the world.

AD&D 2nd Edition

In 1989, the 2nd edition of AD&D, helmed by David “Zeb” Cook, arrived and Charisma was in a nebulous zone, somewhat unattached from personal beauty but still related.

The Charisma (Cha) score measures a character’s persuasiveness, personal magnetism, and ability to lead. It is not a reflection of physical attractiveness, although attractiveness certainly plays a role…. 

Charisma is applied to Maximum Number of Henchmen, Loyalty Base, and Reaction Adjustment, so it’s not doing much of anything different. However, one interesting note in this book is an Optional Racial Adjustment.

If your DM is using this rule, your character’s apparent Charisma may be altered when dealing with beings of different races….

A beautiful Human dancer is an ugly-ass orc, and vice-versa. That bearded maiden that gets the blood pumping for all the dwarves under the mountain would not be considered quite such a beauty in an elven town. This actually gets to close the how relative “charisma” is in real life, how it’s based on cultural factors and assumptions. I’d like to see more of this, though I’m not sure how to develop it further.

AD&D 3rd Edition

By the year 2000, Gygax and TSR were no longer involved, but the 3rd edition of Dungeons and Dragons had a definition of Charisma under Monty Cook and company that had not much changed. The main thing to note is that physical attractiveness had been re-coupled. There also a hint that it’s related to ‘force of will,’ a kind of mental constitution, that is kind of interesting. It’s become the stat for Rasputin or John F. Kennedy.

Charisma measures a character’s force of personality, persuasiveness, personal magnetism, ability to lead, and physical attractiveness. It represents actual personal strength, not merely how one is perceived by others in a social setting. Charisma is most important for paladins, sorcerers, and bards. It is also important for clerics, since it affects their ability to turn undead.

A list of skills affected by Charisma modifier follows. D&D had shifted away from dungeon delving and had become a mini-game of character optimization.

AD&D 5th Edition

I don’t have 4th edition at hand, but by 2014 and the 5th edition of D&D, Charisma is reduced to its most simple definition yet.

Measures: Confidence, eloquence, leadership

Important for: Bard, sorcerer, warlock

Physical attractiveness is taken away, like other factors (height, weight, gender, hair color) that probably shouldn’t be captured by an attribute. Attributes now drive much more than in previous editions. This is why scary things like liches and tieflings get Charisma bonuses. (In this metric, Dame Judy Dench would have a very high charisma, while Megan Fox would be significantly lower.) Keyser Soze or Ghengis Khan or Jim Henson, for various reasons, might have very high charismas.

This seems like a good place for Charisma; the words they chose are evocative and give the sense of an orator, of a leader, of a star. A person whose sheer force of will can change history. When you think about it, that makes it by far the most important attribute.

Roleplaying Charisma

Of course, you don’t have to roleplay your attributes. You can have a low Wisdom and still not play your character as dim. You can likewise have a low Charisma and not make your character repellent to others.  You don’t actually have to dodge arrows to justify your high Dexterity.

But it’s more fun to roleplay them. With that in mind, here are 10 ways to roleplay a High Charisma and 10 ways to roleplay a Low Charisma.

High Charisma

Unless you’re actually the Rock or David Bowie, it’s sort of hard to fake being awesome or having a strong forceful personality. But there are ways to become super-likeable, which is probably close enough to high charisma. The stat is aimed at power dynamics; reaction modifiers and max number of henchman and enhanced skills, but the fun dynamics are in the characterization. This table doesn’t speak to the mechanics of any of the editions, specifically, but wouldn’t be entirely out of place in any edition either.

  1. Insist on paying for everything.
  2. Compliment the other players and NPCs.
  3. Refuse to take any treasure.
  4. Be so confident that you can dissuade enemy attacks.
  5. Talk merchants into giving discounts to other party members.
  6. Be very interested in the other PCs; talk to them about their backstories and their problems. Offer to help them with any concerns.
  7. Be a good leader; charge into battle, take blows meant for others, devise cunning ruses to guarantee success.
  8. Have a funny catchphrase that people love and start using. “Somebody stop me!”
  9. Have a noble goal–you are adventuring to help your parents retire, or to pay for your brother’s operation, or fund an orphanage. The key to this is be low-key, not self-righteous.
  10. Be folksy–great everyone as “neighbor” or “friend” and offer home-spun advice to otherwise one-time use NPCs.

Low Charisma

This one you have to be careful about. You don’t want to actually annoy the other players, just the other characters. Thus off-color jokes, disparaging remarks to real-life things, and other similar low-hanging fruit are best avoided. The stat is aimed at power dynamics; reaction modifiers and max number of henchman and enhanced skills, but the fun dynamics are in the characterization. Like the High Charisma, this table doesn’t speak to the mechanics of any of the editions, specifically, but wouldn’t be entirely out of place in any edition either.

  1. Arrogant. You know you’re better than everyone, and you’re happy to tell them about it.
  2. Excited at everything. “Oh my god, guys, it’s real goblins! I can’t believe it!”
  3. Annoying voice. High-pitched, whiny, mumbly–whatever flavor you want, this is an easy one.
  4. Cheap. Never pay for anything. Also ask to borrow money from other PCs but make it very hard for them to get it back.
  5. Cowardly. Hide in every fight. Bonus points for taking credit or looting the bodies of the slain.
  6. Peaceful. Insist on keeping weapons sheathed at all times, that a peaceful solution is always possible. (This only works with some DMs).
  7. Unsavory habit. You pick your nose and eat it. Or slurp very loudly when eating. Or snore so loud that no one can rest around you.
  8. Militant. Insist every encounter is a battle. Even when there is a peaceful encounter with the local turmeric farmer, bristle and insist “killing him is the only way!” (This is a bluff though. You shouldn’t really murder NPC’s randomly or you’ve gone past Low Charisma into a whole ‘nother realm.
  9. Personal Space. Stand really close to the other party members when you talk to them.
  10. Talk about your ex a lot, even in battle or when sneaking up on enemies. “He was the sexiest dwarf I ever saw, and I usually go for elves. I loved him so much but it turned out he was a narcissist and only ever talked his problems….”




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