Systems Of Attraction: The Interpretation And Roleplay Of Charisma – Part 1

From Mike Bourke

Roleplaying Tips Newsletter #0270

A Brief Word From Johnn

Extended: The Expeditious Retreat Press Monster Tips Contest

Due to last week’s missed issue, I’m extending the contest entry deadline to July 3. I’ve also included actual tips contest entries in the Readers’ Tips section of this issue so you can see a few Monster Tips examples.

Contest Details:

It’s contest time again and Expeditious Retreat Press has kindly agreed to sponsor! Entry is easy; just send in a monster, alien, or critter-related tip: how to build, how to roleplay, tweak tips, combat tips, encounter tips, and so on.

Multiple entries are allowed, and each tip you send in (in a single e-mail or multiple) counts as an entry, so feel free to send in as many tips as you like. Publishable tips will all be posted in this e-zine, so everyone will benefit.

Contest Deadline: Sunday, July 3, 2005

Contest Entry: e-mail your monster tips to me at:

[email protected] (Multiple entries are allowed.)

Sweet Prizes:

Good luck! E-mail me if you have any questions.

Have a game-full week.


Johnn Four,
[email protected]

Systems Of Attraction: The Interpretation And Roleplay Of Charisma – Part 1

Charisma. What is it? What does a charisma of “17” really mean? What personality traits does it imply? Recently, Roleplaying Tips was contacted to request an article on this very subject. It didn’t take much discussion of the question to realize that the answer is much more involved than initially thought. This article examines different ways of interpreting Charisma scores.

In my 20+ years as a player and GM, I have seen many different interpretations for Charisma:

  1. Beauty / Sex Appeal / Seductiveness
  2. Self-Confidence / Self-Assuredness / Poise
  3. Personal Impact
  4. Persuasiveness / Manifest Conviction
  5. Social Acceptability / Acceptance

Let’s start by examining each of these in some detail. (Numbers 4 and 5, plus more Charisma tips, will appear next issue in part 2 of this article.)

Beauty / Sex Appeal / Seductiveness

This is the classic interpretation of charisma. If someone is appealing to the eye, we say they are beautiful. Certainly, no-one could deny that beauty is an essential component of the complex called charisma.

Yet, beauty is in the eye of the beholder. Elves are often described as “beautiful” or “fair”, half-orcs as “foul, grungy, dirty, filthy,” and so on. But does a half-orc consider an elf beautiful? Is he jealous of the elf? Or does he have a different standard against which he judges beauty? Is it necessary to redefine this aspect of charisma to “beauty by human standards?”

Doing so is often an attractive choice for the GM because it lets him have his cake and eat it too. It attaches a very precise significance to the charisma score, while letting him play around with other races and construct racial relationships in terms of emotional biases. I’ve often used this very definition of beauty as an interpretation of charisma.

The problem is that it doesn’t hold water after a little thought with it being based on unstated assumptions that quickly become ludicrous when brought into the light of day. For one thing, it assumes that all humans have the same standards of beauty and it doesn’t take much observation of renaissance art to reach the conclusion that this is a load of bunk.

Human standards of beauty have changed remarkably over the years. From the rounded curves of well-fed women in the middle ages to the wigs of the French aristocracy to the large-breasted narrow-waisted standards made famous in the mid-20th century by Playboy to the more recent, desperate efforts to be thin in the name of beauty. Also, keep in mind that what is considered beautiful by 1960s Western society is very different to what is considered beauty by Moslems of the same era.

Men have it somewhat easier in terms of being defined as beautiful; clean skin, an athletic build, and a square jaw would get you by as “beautiful” through most of human history. Compare modern standards with the statuary of ancient Greece, for example.

Examining these breakdowns in the interpretation of charisma as “beauty” actually gives us some vital clues about how to correct the misinterpretation. There are clearly a number of factors: health, athleticism/build, and comeliness. But health is a function of social environment and CON; and athleticism/build comes from STR. Even the beauty of the elves becomes more apparent when redefined as “grace,” which is an interpretation of DEX, a characteristic in which elves are defined as racially superior to humans.

Suddenly, beauty takes on a whole different context. Much of the significance that we had been attaching to it, and hence to charisma, becomes a question of the _other_ physical stats of the character. This gives us a couple of general principles on which to operate (in D&D terms):

  • Any physical characteristic less than 10 detracts from beauty.
  • Any physical characteristic greater than 15 adds to beauty.
  • STR contributes physical build.
  • DEX contributes graceful movement.
  • CON contributes health and general fitness.
  • Comeliness is whatever aspects of beauty are not accounted for by these contributions.
  • The physical manifestation of health must be viewed in a cultural/social context.

This last point deserves a little amplification. Whatever kills people in the society under consideration must come to be considered unattractive, from an evolutionary and biological standard. If starvation and malnutrition are a leading cause of death, then appearing well-fed makes someone more beautiful. If disease is a leading cause of death, then the scars of having survived disease makes someone less attractive. If violence is the leading cause of death, then scarring detracts from beauty, and so on. At the same time, the more common something is, the more neutral it tends to be. If everyone is battle-scarred, scars become less noteworthy, and their absence more noteworthy.

These detailed considerations become significant in fantasy worlds where healing through clerical means has the potential to significantly influence the leading causes of death, and where druidic magic can greatly influence agriculture. Does Cure Light Wounds leave a scar? Does it correct acne? How about healing potions? How widely- available is access to healing magic? These considerations, important to any campaign, assume unexpected ramifications in the interpretation of beauty, and hence of charisma.

Still, this isn’t quite enough to cover the whole subject. Although it was glossed over lightly, there is still an element of beauty that is not covered by the general principles. The word used was “comeliness,” which is just a synonym for beauty when you get right down to it. Delicacy and proportion of features, a nose that is not pinched, too big, hooked, and so on. Studies show more symmetrical faces are considered more beautiful. It is also worth considering that no-one’s face has perfect symmetry.

Still, if beauty were all there was to charisma, it would be easy enough to deduct the contributions of the other characteristics in order to deduce the value of this one remaining ingredient.

Persuasiveness / Manifest Conviction

It doesn’t take a great deal of examination of the functions of the charisma bonus to determine that charisma is more complicated than this straightforward interpretation. Physical beauty is not enough to explain the leadership aspects of charisma, for example. For those elements, we have to think again.

A charismatic leader can inspire more people to follow them, can persuade those followers to endure hardships that would otherwise break their spirits, lead armies into hopeless battles, and even inspire his forces to a victory against the odds. None of these have anything to do with physical beauty; it’s as though these people are interacting with the followers through an entirely different channel.

These morale/leadership functions are to some extent aspects of reputation and experience. Both of those can be considered representative of the character’s level, or of the expenditure of skill points associated with a rise in character levels. Those aspects can be removed from consideration at this point. Although they influence charisma related actions, they are not part of charisma itself.

That leaves the two aspects identified at the start of the section: Persuasiveness and Manifest Conviction.

Persuasiveness, in charisma terms, can be considered an application of oratory, which is a function of intelligence. That’s a productive line of thought as it casts this aspect of charisma into the same light as the physical characteristics discussed previously. High intelligence can be considered a contributing factor to charisma:

  • There’s more to charisma than Physical Attractiveness.
  • INT contributes Persuasiveness.

With five of the six non-charisma D&D characteristics accounted for, in terms of some contribution to the charisma of a character, the temptation is to look for a similar application for the final characteristic, Wisdom. We also have an aspect of charisma to which no cause has yet been attributed, Manifest Conviction.

There are two ways to persuade someone to do something they might not ordinarily do. One is intellectually, through argument, analysis, evidence, and persuasion; the other is through the sheer force of personal belief, a character’s manifest conviction. This is the element of charisma that entices people to join cults and disregard their common sense. Common sense is usually considered an aspect of wisdom–so far, so good.

Just because wisdom is a reflection of a character’s ability to resist certain aspects of charisma, it does not mean that wisdom also represents that aspect of charisma. In fact, on the face of it, wisdom, if defined as common sense and bears no relation to the concept of manifest conviction. So what of other possible interpretations of wisdom?

Wisdom is primarily used as the measure of ability of clerics and priests of all types. That seems appropriate to the subject. If we consider wisdom to be a measure of the character’s ability to understand and interpret the real world in terms of a theology or philosophy, then wisdom is what con men setting up cults seek to counterfeit.

This would seem to justify considering wisdom to be an indicator of a character’s Manifest Conviction, but it doesn’t quite work, as stated. Con men counterfeit their passionate belief in the theology they espouse, so they do not necessarily have high wisdom scores, just a glib and facile tongue.

But that’s another aspect of intelligence and oratory, and as such has already been covered as persuasiveness. If the head of the faith doesn’t actually believe in his own theology, and seeks only to persuade others, he is effectively using his Intelligence to simulate wisdom. Only if the character in question truly believes is the wisdom score appropriate as a representation of the strength of the character’s convictions.

Now, things are beginning to make a little more sense. What initially seemed to be one attribute of charisma is, in fact, two: one of actual belief, earnestly expressed, and the other of a counterfeit belief, which is (in reality) an aspect already considered. Thus, a further general principal of charisma can be obtained:

  • Wisdom contributes earnestness of faith.

Ultimately, this interpretation of charisma can be considered a continuation of the previous one: “charisma as a measure of attractiveness”.

Self-Confidence / Self-Assuredness / Poise

There are those who have suggested that charisma is only

peripherally related to beauty, and is more concerned with the _suggestion_ of beauty; a character’s self-confidence, their self-assuredness, their poise. This is a whole different interpretation of charisma to what has been considered so far, having more to do with the perceived attributes of the uppermost social classes than with any inherent attractiveness of the character. Under this “Theory of charisma”, ‘My Fair Lady’ is about improving Eliza’s charisma. Supporters of this concept consider the preoccupation with beauty and sex appeal of the previous interpretation to be shallow and superficial.

Again, there are some distinct advantages to this approach. Most cultures are social-class conscious, and these relate perceived social class directly to charisma scores. Moreover, many other aspects of a character’s description can also be related directly to social class; quality of clothing, of arms and armour, nutrition, education in dance, etiquette, high speech, education, and so on. It follows that under this concept, those things should give bonuses to charisma.

Also attendant to social class are expected patterns of behaviour in a pseudo-medieval society. Nobility and honour are expected of the high-born, while the low-born are expected to be scoundrels and thieves much of the time. This gives a context for the behavioural effects of characters with inherently high or low charisma. A man who is naturally trustworthy, honest, and fair would have a higher charisma than his station in society.

A woman who was naturally graceful, sweet of voice, and pleasant company would similarly have a higher charisma than expected from her social status. At the same time, a noble who was renowned for cruelty and arrogance, for ill manners and a general lack of nobility, would have a markedly lower charisma score than expected from one of his birth.

It is useful to note that this interpretation of charisma is only superficially incompatible with that which has already been discussed! The high-born, who are spared arduous sun-up to sun-down labour, who are well-fed and well-educated, who receive the best medical treatment, will naturally have higher beauty scores than a peasant who can bathe once a year (twice if he’s lucky), who has to work 14 hours a day to feed his Lord and pay his taxes, who receives little to no medical attention beyond the rough treatment of his neighbours.

Even his physical condition (his STR) is, once these factors are taken into account, likely to be lower than that of a fit and vigorous noble. Indeed, it’s not going too far to suggest that this offers a framework for comparison of charisma scores, while the first system offered a dissection of the constituents.

At a quick glance, this system seems to call for charisma to increase with character levels, something that does not necessarily take place, and which has been used in the past as an argument against this interpretation. As counter- argument, consider the following: (a) it isn’t necessarily so; and (b) it _does_ happen without anything so forced as an automatic charisma increase.

It Isn’t Necessarily So

Just because a character has become more skilled as a fighter, or mage, or whatever, does not imply a change in personal habits, in wardrobe, in personality. In fact, the opposite is more nearly true; the more successful someone is, the more likely they are to indulge themselves in behaviour that they would not have conscienced previously (but always wanted to do).

Certainly, there will be a short- term period of pampering, of surrounding themselves in the trappings of success, and from there it is only a short step to self indulgence and then to overindulgence. While one source of charisma may improve, another worsens, maintaining an overall balance at the same base score.

It Happens Anyway

That said, not everyone falls victim to these vices. In these cases, spending on better clothes, on better personal hygiene and health-care, _do_ increase charisma, through those modifiers mentioned earlier. In other words, charisma increases are not the direct result of character levels, but what the character does with the fruits of the actions undertaken to achieve those character levels.

(Besides, anything that GMs can do to absorb the ridiculous levels of wealth that can result from regular dungeon crawls is worthwhile. 50-100 sp a week for better food and fashionable clothes may not be much, but it adds up!)

In any case, self-confidence is actually something that has already been discussed because what is earnestness of faith, which was already suggested as being measured by a character’s wisdom score, if it’s not an expression of confidence?

  • Self-confidence is equivalent to earnestness of faith.
  • Better clothing should give a charisma bonus.
  • Better manners should give a charisma bonus.
  • Social Skills (eg. etiquette, oratory) should give a charisma bonus.
  • Social Rank should give a charisma bonus.
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Thanks for the analysis of charisma Mike. Next week, in part 2, we delve into some additional interpretations of charisma and an example re-calculation system for D&D.

— Johnn

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Tips From Roleplaying Tips Game Masters

Have a roleplaying tip you’d like to share? E-mail it to [email protected] – thanks

Monster Tips Contest Entry: Strike From Below

From Kane Salzer

I have always had a soft spot for the most maligned of the draconic species: the humble White Dragon. This thing makes the other arctic predators look pretty lame. Polar bears, remorhazs, you name it, they all pale (pardon the pun) in comparison to the dragon.

I had an idea for an encounter involving a frozen river or lake, a party of adventurers, and a white dragon. Picture this if you will:

“The wind whips the falling snow into an all-encompassing curtain. On the other side of the river, you can barely make out Lord Glacior’s castle. You gingerly test the frozen surface and begin moving across.

Suddenly the ice cracks and breaks as a massive, sinewy neck topped by a brutal, reptilian head explodes out of the black swirling water, latching dagger like fangs into the haunch of your favourite horse.”

I have always assumed that in each geographical location, the dragon would be the apex predator, and in previous campaigns, many of them have been able to move through their chosen terrain with ease. Thus I took this concept further, working with the idea that a white dragon could swim and would do so if prey was available.

Players always look to the skies for dragons (makes sense seeing as they have wings and all) so the added surprise makes for an enjoyable encounter for the players in that they will get a surprise and be forced to think their way out of the predicament and the DM will have a good time springing this encounter, especially if he has an experienced gaming group.

You would probably not want to put a low level group up against this. The combination of a hungry white dragon and freezing water makes for a pretty deadly situation.

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Monster Tips Contest Entry: Relate Size

From Andrew McLaren

Relate the size of the creature to something the players can visualise. Avoid describing a creature as being “large” or “colossal” or “huge”. Although these are useful in terms of D&D game statistics, people can find them difficult to visualise. Instead, describe the creature’s size in relation to things your players know about and relate to.


  1. The basilisk is as large as a school bus, with tusks as long as a baseball bat.
  2. The storm giant swings his axe. The shaft of the axe along is as long as a telephone pole.
  3. The dragon is so big it could swallow your mom’s car whole.
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Monster Tips Contest Entry: Use Mixed Critters

From Kamal Hassan

If the party can be a mixed race group including dwarves and elves, why not the monsters? There might be a gnoll ranger with that band of orcs, a drow magic-user might have picked up a druegar servant, a sahuagin rogue might join the kuo- toa.

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Shadowrun Player Op Planning Tips

From Deformed Rabbit

I GM one group of Shadowrun and play in another. The latter is very gung-ho. It’s rare for us not to walk (crawl) away from a run with serious physical injuries. Meanwhile, the former group is methodical and precise. We play over Saturday and Sunday, and they’ll spend almost the entire Saturday planning and doing set up for the run if given the time. Consequently, combat in that group is often almost entirely avoided.

To give some idea to the atmosphere of the campaign, the bare facts I gave my players at the start were the following: If you take on Joe average on the street, you’re likely to win. A normal security guard is Joe average who’s been taught to use a gun. If you provoke Knight Errant’s primary response team and try to fight them straight up, then you will almost certainly die.

It’s the sense of realistic proportion that I try to maintain – not everyone has a heavy pistol, wired reflexes, or a panic button taped to the inside of their mouth.

Extreme emphasis? Yes – however, myself and two of my four players are still shell-shocked from a campaign that felt exactly like that. The planning structure and the world that has emerged has been created by genuine OOC paranoia that all the effort of the players is wasted because the GM will make things go wrong for his own amusement.

So each Shadowrun becomes a question of control – the team view each run as being a planned operation. However, because the opposition ultimately has more manpower, better equipment, and more resources, each and every Shadowrun has a “control time” -essentially the time after which control of the situation leaves their hands.

When that happens, and it almost always happens, for a variety of reasons, the team needs to be far enough along that they can complete and withdraw intact.

The team tends to work in set stages when given the time:

First is contemplation. They’re given a brief by a Johnson and they take the job. The players easily spend over an hour just discussing the details they’ve been given, what may or may not be reliable from it, what obvious next steps it creates, what outside information they may need from contacts, what specialised gear they may need, etc.

Second step on their minds is reconnaissance. They use drive-bys, cam corders in set positions, live stakeouts, astral flybys, matrix watch through street cameras – anything they can to get the current layout and a sense of the routine of the target. Given time, they’ll leave cam corders on record for over 24 hours, spend a day reviewing the tapes, then take their conclusions and compare them to the tapes that have been made whilst they’re reviewing.

They use Trid Phantasm magic to create a manipulable model replica of the target area and to go over how people in the area behave and where there may be gaps and behaviour patterns they can use.

They look specifically for the places where technology, fences, walls, and doors are undermined by people. The flaw in a security system is usually in the human element, though there are technical aspects to look for as well. They look for holes in patrol patterns, ways to abuse camera views and how people watch through cameras, and ways to abuse the necessities, such as electrical power itself.

Third, when it comes to the run itself, they tend to stagger the team where possible. Preference is for two team members forward, two on overwatch. For example, an assault on a pier involved one team member taking a sniping position opposite the pier on a warehouse, then the mage made the street sam invisible and levitated her into sniping position at the opposite end of the pier, before moving himself and the team close-work expert onto the pier the same way.

The guard patrol was dropped in a brief hail of sniper bullets, coordinated with a combined magical and hand to hand direct assault on the main guard building that was devastating. The guards themselves were slightly cybered and had heavy security armour and assault rifles in the restroom of the guard building, but even the one who was sat right next to them had no chance to reach it before being taken down.

To prepare that, they’d studied the patrol patterns, number of guards, had asked the Johnson for any info he could give them on the place, and received enough details on the guards to do a matrix search. They knew where the guards lived, which ones had kids, which ones were single and lonely, and which one was the dog lover and lived with the security dog, so would stop paying attention to her job when the dog was shot in front of her.

Of course, that was fairly low security, but the same approach will still allow you to keep control of a run up until the last moment possible and more critically will allow you to identify threats before they appear, Uzi III in hand.

On a wider scale, the team also look at nearby installations of the same company (sources for response teams), Lone Star patrol patterns or regularity in the area, Knight Errant response times for the area and likelihood of a high priority rating. Matrix wise, they look for the connection to the main matrix from the location. A quick decker can intercept a panic button call or emergency telephone call.

You can’t control visible signalling from the target, so a sniper who can eliminate anyone attempting to use flares or some other similar signal is a good thing.

You can’t control radio signals unless you have a very powerful jammer, which tends to be obvious if there is a radio in the target that is in use or monitored. The worst radio signals to look out for are Docwagon bracelets. The best reason to use stun rounds you’ll ever find is that when the guard you put down goes out, his Docwagon bracelet doesn’t register him as dying and summon an emergency Docwagon extraction squad. I would envisage that as being a fairly powerful radio signal, and will bring more security fairly fast too.

In my campaign world you also need to consider the gangs, who are prevalent. Knowing which gang’s territory you’re in or next to, or going through to get there, or leaving through (especially if you’ve made a lot of bangs) can be essential.