The awkward role of Wisdom in fantasy role playing

In original Dungeons & Dragons, what did Wisdom represent? Knowledge gained from experience? Not at first level. Good sense or judgment? Perhaps, but those qualities are normally under the full control of the player, so why bother with an ability score?

Wisdom entered the game because Gary Gygax needed a prime requisite for clerics that seemed less sinister than Cunning, the cleric’s original prime requisite. At first, Wisdom seemed to measure spirituality because only clerics benefited from it.

With the release of the Greyhawk supplement in 1975, Gary began linking more game effects to the scores: High strength meant more damage, high Intelligence yielded more spells, and so on. Except for Wisdom, every high ability score delivered benefits to every character. Even Intelligence brought additional languages. Wisdom started to look like an oddity, the lone stat only good for one class.

Many fantasy role-playing games followed D&D. My table of games up to to 1983 features 14 games. All these games adopted ability scores descended from the original six scores in D&D. Sometimes the names change—only the term “Strength” remains constant—but the essential traits remain. Except for Wisdom.

Cover by Erol Otis on any  early printings of the Arduin Grimoire

Cover by Erol Otis on an early printing of The Arduin Grimoire

Aside from D&D, Wisdom only appears in two games: Arduin Grimoire (1977) and Chivalry & Sorcery (1977). Dave Hargrave’s Arduin Grimoire hardly counts as a separate game. It began as a brown-book addition to D&D, an indie successor to Greyhawk and Blackmoor. Only the threat of legal action seemed to drive Dave Hargrave to claim that Arduin was a completely different game. Gary would adopt the same stance for Advanced Dungeons & Dragons, another completely different game that includes Wisdom.

Why does the Wisdom ability score have so few descendants?

Unlike fighters, wizards, and thieves, the cleric lacks a clear fantasy archetype. Instead, the class draws inspiration from bits of Christian priest and crusader, from Friar Tuck and  Van Helsing. While the cleric has a Christian flavor, D&D eschews the sort of Christian worlds that would make the class seem at home. Instead, D&D and other fantasy RPGs draw inspiration from the sort of fantasy polytheism imagined in the Gods, Demi-Gods & Heroes supplement. The gods of Lankhmar, Melniboné, and the Hyborian Age all seem more at home in D&D than a cleric sworn to wield blunt weapons. If not for the cleric’s traditional healing role, the class might rank in a third tier with druids and assassins.

If D&D featured religion similar to historical Christianity, Clerics would make a better fit. For example, Clerics and Wisdom fit easily in Chivalry & Sorcery, because the game recreates the culture of feudal Europe, complete with Christian priests capable of miracles.

Arioch from Dieties & Demigods, first printing

Arioch from Deities & Demigods, first printing

The designers of D&D’s other competitors stuck more closely to the fantasy archetypes set by Tolkien, Leiber, Howard, and Moorcock. So they never imitated D&D’s cleric or adopted an ability score like Wisdom.

Meanwhile these designers saw a need to measure a character’s mental toughness with a sort of mental counterpart to Strength and Constitution. Metamorphosis Alpha (1975) swaps Wisdom for Mental Resistance. Empire of the Petal Throne (1975) replaces Wisdom with Psychic Strength. Arduin adds an Ego ability score as a measure of willpower. In 1978, with the release of Advanced Dungeons & Dragons, Gary expanded Wisdom’s portfolio to include willpower. After that, every fantasy RPG features an ability for willpower.

In AD&D, the recommended technique for generating ability scores allowed players to rearrange scores any way they liked. Wisdom only delivered slight bonuses, so it became the place to dump your lowest score. No one needed wisdom except the poor cleric, who had to favor it over one of the other, broadly useful stats. With no compelling reason to opt for a high wisdom, character creation offers one less interesting choice.

This situation remained until third edition, with the invention of the Will save, and with Wisdom offering bonuses to the most frequent, non-combat checks in the game.

Next: A short history of perception in D&D

This entry was posted in Role-playing game history and tagged , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to The awkward role of Wisdom in fantasy role playing

  1. Don Holt says:

    In C&S, wisdom is a very important trait. It counts as awareness/perception. For example, a wisdom save is needed when the party’s attention is focus on one activity, but another activity is going on, or if a device has been trapped. Now the character may not be able to figure out how the trap works or how to keep the trap going off if his intelligence is low, but noticing that a trap is in place depends on wisdom.

    So yes, a character can notice a trap, and then erroneously believe he has figured out a way around the trap and then set it off anyway. That’s what C&S players mean when they say “keeping it real.” Heroes don’t have that kind of thing happen to them, but humans do.

  2. Chris Holmes says:

    Iv’e been waiting for someone else who was bothered by the Wisdom Stat. to speak up. I always thought it was a poor choice of a word for young inexperienced characters. I suspect Gygax was thinking of something like Faith, but didn’t want to offend us atheist players. The Cleric is an oddball in the game and in a polytheistic world.

Leave a Reply