How to Play the Smartest Person in the Room (When It’s Debatable in Real Life)

One of the greatest selling points of RPGs is that you can play as anyone or anything. Want to be Frodo on an epic quest? D&D can do that! Want to be Captain America? Lots of superhero games have the stats for you. How about Luke Skywalker? Yep, we’ve got that covered too.

But what if you want to play Tony Stark? Data or Spock? Hermione Granger?

A lot of characteristics can be abstracted by stats. Put all of your points in strength and most of the time when you want something pummeled, it’s going to be smashed. But playing a smart character, especially one that’s smarter than the player is, takes a lot more than just stats.

In our Longshot Numenera game, Miral’s original logline was “the absent-minded professor as a teenage girl.” Theoretically she’s the smartest person in the party; her intellect pool is certainly larger than average. While I’m a smart person, I’m far from a genius. So, what’s the solution?

Look back at the list of pop culture geniuses above. And even Miral. All of them have at least one glaring flaw. Tony Stark is a genius with an alcohol problem and PTSD. Data craves the human experience of emotion, while Spock denies those same emotions. And while Hermione should have been the protagonist of Harry Potter, her Muggle outsider-ness held her back. Translate all of these into game terms, and you have the perfect drawbacks you can fall back on when your character is in deeper than your mortal mind can comprehend.

Miral is absent-minded. Mechanically, this shows up in her inability at detecting danger. But it wouldn’t be much of a character trait if it only showed up occasionally on a perception check. So Miral is easily distracted. Animals. Plants. Philosophy. Shiny armor. Any time I need extra time to figure out how to sound smart, or am just completely lost, I can fall back on Miral’s character flaw.

And of course I play it up lots of times just to have fun (and hopefully entertain all of you!).

All great characters have flaws, of course. Our hapless group of adventurers in the Longshot is filled with great drawbacks! But while in any RPG the flaws open up some of the best opportunities for driving a character’s story, I find it’s especially important as a way to give the player an “out” when they need a break from being the group’s resident genius.


Do you have any strategies for playing a character smarter than you are? Are there any other archetypes you find are more difficult to role play than others?

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About the Author
A city girl with midwestern roots, Angela has been on the internet for far too long. A geek of many stripes, when Angela isn't pretending to be a different person every weekend she can be found reading, writing (that novel will come out some day!), or preparing for her eventual life as a crazy cat woman. Angela also blogs about gaming at the blog Gaming as Women http:///

3 comments on “How to Play the Smartest Person in the Room (When It’s Debatable in Real Life)

  1. CZGrey says:

    I find that there are two or three tricks you can sometimes employ for playing someone smarter than yourself . One is to focus on one subject you can reliably babble on about , find and read up any books magazines or Internet articles on that subject you can. It doesn’t matter if they’re accurate or up to date, you’ll want the words and names more than anything. Then when you need to be a smarty -or smart-ass – pull out a few “According to Haussenfeffer’s latest”, or “Dr Hasselhoffs research into, blah blah blah “.
    The second is to play as Intelligent , but Book Stupid. Maybe you do know the inner workings of Life, The Cosmos, and Everythin -are a genius in robotics and chemistry- but it’s all self taught and you sure as hell don’t know the words to describe how you know what you know. The thing-a-mabob connects it’s diddly do to the whatsit’s diddly don’t and there ya go

    Personally though I find it harder to play the charming persuasive face type character

  2. MDMann says:

    I usually play either the smart guy or the face. Because one plays to my strengths and the other my flaws. Most of my geniuses are socially inept (they tend to be ok in formal or high society settings, but suck big style st office politics). They can also be smart but lazy or a bit of an obsessive fantasist.

  3. Steve says:

    I’m having a bit of trouble on how to approach this topic. I feel like the important place to start is with the concept of a power fantasy and why it does or does not work in roleplaying. The stereotypical example of a power fantasy in a rpg is physical power with which you can carve your way through the opposition. In large part, this can be achieved through mechanical superiority. You play the strongest character you can and are rewarded with all the slaughter you can roll for. That’s the key though, your success is predicated upon being able to roll dice fulfill your power fantasy.

    The problem with playing someone who is smart or suave is that dice are often only a small part of the equation (if they are a part of it at all). Many systems allow players to get away with rolling dice in a kind of miniatures game to resolve battles but expect roleplaying to resolve other challenges. I belive this is true because we enjoy the theater of the game. The game is more fun when people are getting into their roles and thinking through their problems. We are okay with rolling to resolve certain aspects of play, but not others.

    Let’s look at the Casanova as a type of power fantasy. It’s a pretty common one for guys, they want to be a ladies man that can pick up barwenches wherever they go. The player builds their character to be a genius of seduction. They then walk up to the first bar wench they meet and say, “Wanna fuck?” Now, I don’t know about you, but I’m not inclined to even allow a roll on that, let alone let them succeed due to whatever massive bonus they have built mechanically. Unlike your typical D&D game where you can simply declare you attack and roll to hit, you actually have to roleplay before you can rollplay (at least at my table, I’m not terribly interested in just rolling dice for hours on end).

    That’s the crux of the issue: Must you do an action or can you simply declare one instead? Declared actions allow you to bypass roleplaying skill and achieve a fantasy based on mechanics alone. I prefer games that move away from all types of declared actions (so no, “I attack”). So what do you do when your chops aren’t up to snuff? Well, I’d start by suggesting you not throw yourself in the deep end. There is no way to escape that roleplaying is in some ways a performance art. Prepare for your role.

    Playing smart can be accomplished by cutting out filler words and speaking more slowly. Use jargon to sound like you know what you are talking about. It’s really a similar formula to playing a knight (never abbreviate your words and learn to talk in a manner that sounds more like old english. “Come Winston, we must away!”). Immerse yourself in suitable fiction for your genre. Burn Notice is great grist for shadowrun, for example. Perhaps give Sherlock (the BBC show) a watch if you are preparing to play a super genius.

    You are trying to prepare for a performance, so study up. Your efforts will eventually pay dividends.

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