Have you ever heard the following said at a gaming convention, game shop, or at the game table?

“The average RPG player is smarter than most people.”

Maybe you have never heard that exact phrase, but phrases that imply the same thing count for the purpose of this article.

RPGs are full of wonderful mental exercises.  You must read and usually apply basic math skills in order to play an RPG.  RPGs are full of puzzles and logical riddles that require concentration and focus in order to solve them.  Role playing even outside the context of a game is a great activity to help one understand the positions of others.

You know what else will help develop your mental abilities?  Daily exercise.  Spend thirty minutes a day exercising and you increase blood flow to your brain.  Add the benefits of a healthy diet into the mix and you are keeping your brain healthy so that it can do what it does best: think.

Is the average gamer exercising daily and eating healthy?  All of those jokes about obese guys sitting around a table for hours drinking Mountain Dew and eating pizza did not come from mere myth.  The long term effects of a sedentary lifestyle and an unhealthy diet might diminish your intelligence as your brain functions diminish due to reduced blood flow that is the result of a weaker heart and blockages in the cardiovascular system.  Daily exercise on the other hand will probably keep you mentally sharp as you age.

In other words, if RPGs are coupled with bad habits they can make you dumber.

Hey Benson, you got a point here?

Yes, yes I do.  I hesitate to say it for I know it will lure trolls faster than billy goats on a bridge.  But here it goes:

We gamers are smart, but not that smart.

All of the benefits that RPGs have in the development of intelligence are also present in other hobbies.  Model railroading requires dedication to detail, research, development of techniques, and a great deal of math when recreating structures to scale.  Civil War re-enactors role play, devour whole tomes of history, and often learn the skills needed to create replicas true to the fabrication techniques of the original items.  My wife easily read enough pages to equal the latest Dungeon Master’s Guide during her last cake decorating class, and she was constantly adjusting recipes to serve more or less people with.  Reading, simple math, creativity — most hobbies have them in some form or another.

Other hobbies require the same dedication to learning and the development of knowledge that RPGs do.  People of high intelligence enjoy many different types of hobbies.  Gen Con does not correlate its schedule with an annual “Convention of Nuclear Physicists, Rocket Scientists, and Neural Surgeons Think Tank” because the people who attend one happen to be in town for the other.  There is no evidence (at least no credible evidence that I could find) that RPGs lead to higher intelligence of a vastly greater degree than other hobbies that require the same types of skills and practices.

So why do I hear the “Gamers are smarter!” mantra so often at the table, conventions, and anywhere else where a copy of Tomb of Horrors is located?  I hear it because of a particular type of player, and this player is a problem player that cloaks himself in pseudo-logic and self delusion that you my fellow GMs might need to deal with at some point.

Problem player, I name thee “brainiac!”

Many fans of comics know that Brainiac is one of the greatest villains of Superman who derives all of his abilities from his superior intelligence.  At the table the brainiac problem player tries to use his “superior” intelligence and arguments regarding the verisimilitude of the game world to influence the game unfairly in his favor.  This player is not bringing up the occasional good point, nor is he trying to justify a creative approach.  The brainiac is excessively using a meta game in order to takeover the real game.

Keep in mind that there is a difference between an expert and a brainiac.  Experts earned their expertise through actual practice, and are recognized by their peers in their field as having accomplished something relevant to the field.  Brainiacs merely claim to have the knowledge of an expert.  Brainiacs use statements like:

  • “Everybody knows that (insert an obscure “fact” here).  That is why my character has (insert ridiculous benefit here).”
  • “That is not possible, because in the real world you would need (something irrelevant to the game mentioned so as to negate something relevant to the game).”
  • “I once (read a book, took a class, spoke to a person, etc.) and that is why (justification for you to change something within the game).”

The problem with such statements is that they sound so logical, and if you as the GM ignore them then you are just railroading the players and not allowing their creativity to have an impact upon the game.  Plus these statements are slight variations on what a true expert would say.  The Brainiac problem player is like the bull snake, because just like a bull snake imitates a rattlesnake the brainiac acts like an expert and tries to intimidate others at the table so that they do not challenge his statements.

Make a decision even if it is the wrong one.

When an expert corrects you it is just that — a correction.  The expert will often point out when something is wrong even if that correction negatively impacts the expert’s situation.  A contractor friend of mine who has a degree in Engineering once pointed out as a player that toppling over a dilapidated building in one of our games would still be very difficult for the current party to do even though this obliterated a plan we had for stopping an enemy invasion in game.  He was not trying to influence the game in order to favor his character, but instead he was hoping to improve the game experience for all of us by forcing us to think of a better solution.

Brainiacs do not correct you, but instead they try to control the game through statements that you cannot easily disprove unless you stop the game in order to research the validity of the statement.  A brainiac is relying on that in order to bully you into reversing a decision or to exploit the setting.  The possibility of you being wrong is used to discredit you, while the possibility of the brainiac being wrong is overlooked because you as the GM did not have to listen to the brainiac.

I am here to tell you that it is alright to make the wrong decision.  Go ahead and tell the brainiac “I will verify that later, and if you are correct I will find a way to either fix my mistake or to make it up to you and the rest of the group.”  If the brainiac insists on you dealing with the situation right then and there offer to do a quick search of some sort to verify the statement if possible, but tell the group that if it cannot be verified quickly you are going to move on regardless.

Yes you will get burned occasionally by doing this, but you will also make it clear to the brainiac that you are willing to call a bluff when you suspect that they are wrong.  This effectively turns the brainiac’s own threat against him.  Now the brainiac has to really be sure that his claim is sound.  Given time they might even abandon the bad habits of a brainiac completely.

Why is this technique okay to use?  Because…

Everyone’s knowledge is incomplete.

Being ignorant of a subject is nothing to be ashamed of.  Sometimes we just do not know the answer.  Sometimes even the experts are wrong and we do not know it until new knowledge emerges!  It is unfair to expect anyone to know everything.

Yet the brainiac is betting that a social pressure to avoid an admission of ignorance is going to make you comply with whatever he says you should do.  If being incorrect endangers someone in the real world you should do your best to research and make the best decision possible, but within the fiction of an RPG you can afford to make serious mistakes on occasion. This is not an excuse for you to be sloppy when running your games, but it is realistic.

Which brings me back to the beginning of this article.  We gamers are smart, but not that smart.  Do not let geek pride, social pressure, or the fear of being wrong be used as a way to take over your game.  That brainiac at your table is probably just as ignorant of how things work as you are, but he is not willing to admit it.

As the GM you lead the game, and every leader makes mistakes from time to time.  Go toe-to-toe with those brainiacs not because you want to be right, but because you want to run the best game possible for the whole group and you are willing to expose your own flaws and limitations in order to do so.

And if you want to know what an expert would say about leadership and dealing with brainiacs read this presentation on the leadership techniques of General Colin Powell.  After all, unlike myself he is an expert on the subject.

What do you think?  Have you encountered a brainiac during your game?  How did you deal with it?  When is the player an expert, offering legitimate input, or just abusing the situation?  Share your comments with the rest of us and let us see if we can all walk away from this a little less ignorant then we were before.