How can I play dumb? – Role-playing Games Stack Exchange

I have a half-ogre character at my local larp group, and one of the roleplay-enforced restrictions for half-ogres is that they have low intelligence. I often find myself biting my tongue not to say ‘smart’ witty things, or reason with others to work out the plot. Most of the time I just come across as quiet.
How can I play dumb and still enjoy myself?
How can I play dumb and enhance others’ enjoyment of the game?
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Ask yourself, what would say? – Wesley Obenshain Jan 10 ’12 at 19:39
@WesleyObenshain Erm… no. That usually leads to characters who embody your worst prejudices about people, which aren’t fun to play and make the game worse for other people. –  Jadasc Jan 10 ’12 at 21:38
My favorite inspiration for “dumb” play is Winnie the Pooh. –  GMNoob Jan 11 ’12 at 11:45
Hey all – great answers. I was afraid coming to this Q I would find it full of a) confusing chaotic with dumb and/or b) answers not based on real play (Good Subjective, Bad Subjective) but this is high quality. Good work! –  mxyzplk Jan 12 ’12 at 14:49

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14 Answers

The successful dumb characters I’ve seen aren’t just dumb. Develop the character as much as you would a character that’s not supposed to be dumb.
I find that characters who use one syllable words or weirdly bad grammar but seem otherwise unimpaired get boring pretty fast. Your character can often follow his friend’s lead most of the time, but when he is are left on his own, he makes mistakes. Or does the obvious in combat. If his friends told him to do something and the situation changed, have him continue to do what they told him to do because he doesn’t understand why he’s doing it in the first place.
Also, don’t overdo it. You probably rely on others for figuring certain things out, but you can remember how people have treated you. If people are condescending to you, you can tell unless they are subtle about it. When it becomes obvious you’ve done something stupid, you get ashamed, or angry, or are embarrassed and don’t want anyone to mention it. You don’t use complex sentence structure, but you usually speak normally enough that it isn’t immediately obvious that you are dumb.
This can be fun for the table because it’s kind of a problem solving exercise to give your character instructions that cover enough possibilities but aren’t too complicated to understand. Some problem solving and strategy things are kind of out for you, but you can spend that time figuring out what your character’s understanding of the situation is. To a point – you might want to ask everyone’s help in not having the plot be a series of riddles or puzzles, unless they specifically give you something to do (e.g. your character is in a riddling contest matched up against a talking chicken “What am a sitting on?” “An egg”. “What do I like for breakfast?” “An egg.” “Where do chickens come from?” “An egg”. “What came first before a chicken?”…).
For a really dumb character role playing them realistically would probably not be fun, since they mostly have no idea what is going on – it would be like trying to role play a dog. If it’s a comic campaign where you are as dumb as would be funniest at that moment it might work O.K., but it probably gets old within a few sessions at most. Or not, if you are having fun don’t let me stop you – I’m just thinking about other people’s characters that have worked out for my taste.
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+1; it’s a great point that dumb characters are still going to be people, with a history and feelings on how they’re treated. Giving them some emotional (if not intellectual) depth seems like a good way to make them satisfying to play. –  RSid Jan 11 ’12 at 22:56
Lots of great advice in this thread, but this one firmly address how to make dumb work with the group. Plus I feel like I learnt the most form it. –  Pureferret Jan 13 ’12 at 0:02
+1 for problem-solving exercise instruction the dumdum! –  LitheOhm Oct 30 ’13 at 19:51

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Everyone in my gaming group has gone through this gaming evolution at some point. Finding the joy in playing a dumb character is all about getting into your character’s mindspace (or lack there-of) and not taking yourself too seriously.
Make sure you are willing to make mistakes. Part of not being very bright is that your character can be confused, taken advantage of and otherwise misused by friends and enemies alike.
Rather than looking for intelligent witty things to say, look for hilarious misunderstandings. Take things too literally. Never understand the difference between a metaphor and truth. Look at the world in black and whites and cling to them stubbornly in the face of reality.
Every once in a while you can be what my group refers to as “dumb-telligent”. A dumb-telligent moment is that moment when a simple minded character can bring the rest of the party down to earth by stating something very simply. When I was playing a dumb character I never did this more than once a session. It was like Hero Point or Action Point where once I spent it, it was gone.
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It can be an awful lot of fun. You just have to couple it with a certain … lack of responsibility. – C. Ross Jan 10 ’12 at 19:48
There are 7 individual awesome ideas here. My standard editing style is to find good answers, break them down, and highlight the main ideas. This is so well written that I think that would have made the answer worse. –  user1637 Jan 10 ’12 at 20:46
I like the one dumb-teligent moment per session quota. It gives you a chance to contribute a bit while enhancing your character, and without feeling like cheating. All the ideas are good. –  psr Jan 13 ’12 at 0:44
I like the dumb-telligent but not its quota. If “clever” characters often go out of their way with too complex explanation for stuff, it is perfectly normal for the dumb character to bring them down to Earth every time this happens. –  Lohoris Jan 17 ’12 at 15:15
+1 love this answer. Played an unintelligent (7) dwarf in PF and had him make up words, misunderstand others, misuse others and generally embarrass the party and himself (especially himself) whenever possible. Overall a nice guy, real great with swords, just dumber than a box of rocks with a book on quantum physics lol –  LitheOhm Nov 22 ’12 at 5:50

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What I’ve found works realistically is not to always misinterpret things but to simply fail to put things together. When the rest of the party comes up with a four part plan, the stupid character won’t see how the parts fit together to accomplish anything.
This method is less amusing than always being wrong, but it lets you play a dumb character who isn’t comic relief. If you’re the bumbling idiot who always gets things exactly and precisely wrong, the party ends up laughing at and ignoring you.
The other factor of this technique is figuring out how your character reacts to being dumb. I’ve played three successful stupid characters and they all took their stupidity in different ways.
  • My half orc got angry about it. When he didn’t understand something he’d frustrate quickly. But when he did get something (or think he did) he’d get extremely smug and nobody wanted to tell him he was wrong.
  • My stoner didn’t even know he was dumb. He had a different enough niche than the rest of the party that he could plan out his own shenanigans without getting in anyone’s way.
  • My half ogre was blissfully ignorant. He did whatever he wanted when he wanted. The silly talky folk had to come up with plans to accomplish everything, but Tibor just did things. In his mind this made him superior to the rest of the party.
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I like all of these characters already. –  SevenSidedDie Nov 22 ’12 at 5:14
I think a great example of the “stoner” character above is Dolph Lundgren’s character Gunner inExpendables 2. –  Greenstone Walker Oct 31 ’13 at 1:26

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Ask questions that give other people a chance to show off how smart they are.
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Count to 5 before speaking.
Feel free to be as eloquent as you want, but have pauses in your conversation like you’re practicing what you’re going to say. While normally pauses in oration show deliberation, unusual pauses and strategic misplaced words could produce a feeling of someone “trying too hard” to be smart: a good way to appear uneducated.
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Damn, that’s amazingly similar to my advice for playing a character with high wisdom. –  Philip Jan 10 ’12 at 22:36
This sketch is a great example of how effective pauses can be when playing stupid. –  hammar Jan 11 ’12 at 4:35
You need an educate and non-chaotic group to do that, otherwise at the first pause someone will just talk over you. –  Lohoris Jan 17 ’12 at 15:19
@Lohoris “HEY! I HADN’T FINISHED YET”, if said with a menacing look and coming from an half-ogre sure looks menacing and might convince someone to let him think for a while. –  Zachiel Nov 16 ’12 at 15:13

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One of my favorite characters I have played was a goliath barbarian (who was adventuring with his brother, who was a warden). Neither were very intelligent, which is the first trick:
  1. Stupid birds of a feather flock together. Try convincing one of your fellow players to also join the Dumb Side and play off of each other like a pair of Stooges or Beavis and Butthead or the dudes from Dumb and Dumber…which brings me to:
  2. Watch some stupid movies/tv shows. Pay close attention to how stupid people communicate. Notice when the stupid characters advance the story/solve the puzzles…they rarely do such things on purpose. However, they still get things done.
  3. When you are tempted to do something smart, do the opposite. If you play it right, you can still do the thing you wanted to do, but again, it plays out as more of an accidental outcome or unintended consequence of your actions.
  4. Talk with your DM outside of the group to see if they can help these kinds of things happen. Let them know what you intend and make them aware of how you would like things to run regarding your character. I have yet to meet a DM that doesn’t appreciate someone who is willing to actually role-play their characters, and most will be more than happy to help facilitate that kind of participation.
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I don’t necessarily recommend using every tip described below. Some of them can easily result in comical characters. If you are only trying to lower your intelligence by a little bit, you may only need to follow one or two of these steps. Also, note that Half Ogres and Half Orcs do not necessarily have to be bad at puzzles, games, or reading “bad guys,” but complex plots, plans, or speeches may typically overwhelm them.
Limit Your Vocabulary
Choose a set of words (perhaps 200-500, depending on how dumb you want to be, down from the normal 2,000) to which you will limit yourself.
Limit yourself to simple words – one and two syllable words for the most part, though I would recommend “happiness” over “bliss.” If you need to say anything more complicated, combine two words – tree killer instead of woodcutter, for example.
Limit Tense Usage
I recommend using at most two or three tenses, and using them in an overly consistent manner.
  • Present Tense
    Limit yourself to simple present tense phrases. For example, say “I fight” instead of “I am fighting.”
  • Past Tense
    With past tense it is important to be consistent about how you conjugate verbs. Don’t say “We fought the dragon.” Instead, say “We fighted the dragon” or even “We fighted da big scaly.” If that feels too dumb, use “did,” and say “We did fight the dragon.”
  • Future Tense
    Future tense is easy. You can be consistent, and always preface future tense with “will” or “gonna.” I recommend choosing the helper verb ahead of time, though, and sticking with it.
  • Other Tenses
    • Conditional – “We maybe gonna fight the dragon” instead of “We might fight the dragon.” “We maybe did fight the dragon” or “We maybe fighted the dragon” instead of “We might have fought the dragon.”
    • Infinitive – Use the present tense form of the word, or always prefix it with “to,” even if this is inappropriate. “We prepare to fight the dragon.” In general, I recommend against using complex phrases that entail using Infinitive forms of the verb, though.
    • Perfect and Progressive Tenses – Avoid them.
  • Subject-Verb Agreement
    Don’t worry about it. Mix and mingle these, if you want; always speak as though you’re using singular third person (or some other tense), or always get it wrong. It’s an honest mistake!
Abuse First Person
Avoid the word “I.” You can say “Me go to market” or “Trorg buy a big sandwich.” Alternatively, use the word “I” but use verbs as though it were third person. “I goes to market. I buys a big sandwich.” Or do both.
Ignore Proper Sentence Structure
Instead of saying “To whom does this sword belong?” say “Whose this sword?” (or “Who dis sword?”)
Be Impatient
Role-play getting bored when other people talk too much. Interrupt people, assuming you have understood what they’re intent is. Jump to assumptions. Wander off while they’re talking.
Be Crude
Political correctness is for the elves.
Mispronounce words
Certain words make sense to be slurred when playing one of the dumber races. “This” is typically pronounced as “Dis.” Other words – or names – are just too complicated for you to understand. Instead of calling the elven lady “Aeraelastia,” call her “Arlasta.”
Make Decisions Differently
The rules of logic were created by a philosopher, and you are anything but. A Half-Orc or Half-Ogre shouldn’t be swayed by logical arguments, but rather should utilize your own sort of decision making criteria. For example, attack a farmer who’s yelling at his wife because “he yelled so he must be bad!”
Find something interesting that motivates your character
This can add depth to any character, but it can make stupid characters particularly memorable. I had a character who enjoyed making sculptures out of mud. Alternatively, just get excited about simple things (likely with some theme, still).
Be Immature
It’s possible the character you’re playing is immature rather than (or in addition to being) stupid. If so, display some of the following signs of immaturity:
  • Volatile emotions – be impatient, anger easily, etc
  • Dependence or COMPLETE independence – Asking someone else to always do something for you, or more likely, refusing to let anyone else do anything for you, even if they are clearly better qualified. “Nope, Trorg talk to diplormat himself!”
  • Require instant gratification
  • Be selfish
Forget Subtletly
It’s pretty difficult to be subtle. If someone tries to say something indirectly, one of the following behaviors may be appropriate:
  • Be incapable of understanding
  • Require multiple hints before you understand
  • Require to have been told ahead of time that “I’m tired” means “Attack the people we’re talking to!”
  • Always assume that the cue means the same thing, even coming from other people
  • Interpret other social cues incorrectly
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Leyroooy Jeeeenkiiiins! –  F. Randall Farmer Jan 11 ’12 at 18:52

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Have you ever read simple wikipedia?
When I play my half-orc barbarian I limit his vocabulary to a small subset of common words that he gets a lot of mileage out of. I also throw out most grammar and talk in the third person a lot. It makes my character come off as sounding stupid, and with the effort it takes to parse what I want to say through stupid-speech, its usually pretty authentic.
Trog no like puny mage-man.
Trog get krunked now.
Talky gnome lie to Trog
If army has key’o’doom (plot-line mcguffin)… and Torg as no key… den army has mo boomboom den Trog. Dat nevva good. Hmmmm, Trog need be sneaky uppy army. Trog take key wif no boomboom. Now Trog has mo boomboom den army.
Trog sorry. Trog have communicational difficulty wif what you say. In momma tounge, “Subtly assassinate” turn to “boomboom wif no boomboom”. (guys, my character votes against poisoning the king).
It differentiates between table-talk and what I say in-character. I’m completely absolved of having to memorize the NPC’s names. Plus it’s hilarious when I roll decently with a bluff or diplomacy, and whip into the King’s English.
I say, good sir, you DO know that your master is a veritable scoundrel practicing in the dark arts of necromancy, don’t you? I would be aghast, A GHAST, to think of the dire consequences of continuing in your line of work. dons monocle
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+1 for 1st person as proper noun. –  aramis Jan 11 ’12 at 7:42
+1 for directing me to simple wikipedia 😀 –  Pureferret Jan 11 ’12 at 18:11
+1 realized why this struck a chord with me: it sounds like the Gungans from Star Wars Episode 1. – Zimul8r Oct 30 ’13 at 21:12

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I think the key is to be dumb about certain things. Most people are smart about some things and not so smart about other things. Even really smart people have their weak spots, just as some dumb folks have strong points.
For example, one of the players in our group did a stellar job playing a (surprise) barbarian. He had phenomenal combat sense. He reacted instinctively to danger and was always a step ahead of the other players in terms of one on one tactics. But he couldn’t even conceive of the concept, much less practice, of small unit tactics. When told to fight as part of a group he’d react with a sort of dumb pity. “Huh. You and your ‘tactics’ are girlish and weak.”
The player lined up a few areas in which the player was mentally inadequate, either because of cultural conditioning or lack of cognitive abilities. He was utterly dense with regard to women and nonhumans, which is why he tried to court an elven maiden with a haunch of meat. He had no social graces, not because he was arrogant, but because he couldn’t detect any of the subtle clues of body language and behavior. In general, if he couldn’t touch it or see it directly, it didn’t exist for him.
This player was able to get into that head space, which I think was the key to his success. Rather than using a formula, he had a few simple rules that governed the character’s thinking, and applied them. The results were sometimes humorous, sometimes very bad for the PC group, and always interesting.
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Some of the best ‘dumb’ roleplaying I’ve seen is where they deliberately misunderstood things, often in extremely amusing ways. Eventually they would get there, but it would take some time…
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This reminds me of when I played a half-ogre. Party mage was running away and the rest of the PCs told me to bring him back. He cast Suggestion or Domination (DnD 3.5) at me when I was dragging him back and said “Put me down”. I did it. “Hit this wall with you head” he said, so I grabbed him again and proceeded to attack the wall with my bald spot (it survived). I guess not being able to remember too many things can sometimes help your character. –  Maurycy Zarzycki Jan 11 ’12 at 7:40

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Fatal flaws like stupidity can be the best part of role playing.
We have a character who is illiterate but refuses to admit it (Even to himself).
If there is anything with writing on it he will jump in and try to deal with it–for instance if there is a mechanism like a panel of buttons he will jump in, read the text thoughtfully then roll a die to see which one is OBVIOUSLY the one that opens the next door and not the one that incinerates the treasure.
If challenged about it, he gets quite upset.
If you stubbornly keep up with stunts like this you will find that even if it initially annoys some of your party they will most likely find it the one thing they remember a year later.
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Use “first order thinking” -make the first,most obvious connections but then avoid taking the next step. Make simple inferences. Possibly be very superstitious.
Or alternately, arrive at normal conclusions … Just get there very slowly.
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One of the things I do to help me decide actions for characters that have average or less than average intelligence or wisdom, is that I let the dice decide for me. For example, if I’m faced with a situation where my character’s actions could be affected by their knowledge or experience, I decide in my mind a couple of options based on two questions. What would be an intelligent way to handle this? and What would be the “dumbest” way to handle this?
Once I have a couple of options in my mind across the spectrum, I roll an appropriate dice check. For example, in Pathfinder or DnD I would roll a D20 and make a straight up Wisdom check for myself. I may apply a modifier based on context, such as a penalty if my companions are arguing or have no idea and a bonus if my companions are in general agreement. Then, based on how much I make it or fail it by, I try to scale my character’s response and actions along the scale between my ideas of the best and dumbest ways to handle the situation.
Obviously if you’re pressed for time, taking the time to think through options and rolling a ‘check’ isn’t really appropriate, but I have found it works find in combat or in situations where we have a moment to decide things. And it often ends up being quite a bit of fun letting the dice influence what my character does.
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I am glad this question exists, because now I get to talk about the first successful RPG character I ever created…
Gesan came from a faraway land (not Asia) where he was taught to hone his physical strengths and the virtues of mediation and devotion to his country and cause.
He was also, despite frequently participating in meditation, as dumb as a sack of bricks. And to this day he is one of my favorite characters I have ever played.
Here is how he uniquely contributed to the party, and to the enjoyment of the rest of the group.
Gesan was a monk, but he was also a big, strong guy who could take a ton of hits, due to several good hitpoint rolls and a high constitution modifier. As such, he would often throw himself in front of other people to protect them out of his devotion to the group.
Usually this meant Gesan needed a lot of healing afterwards because he had done so before considering that the person he was saving wore heavy armor and had even better capacity for tanking damage than himself.
But he did it anyway. He had an idealized vision of himself, and this was stronger and more pertinent to him than the actual person that he was. “Dumb” individuals act like this all of the time, because they don’t so much think of themselves by the qualities that they have, but the qualities they aspire to have. It works for them (Or it hopefully does if you’re playing a character this way) because by aspiring towards those qualities, they obtain them to some degree.
But they still act towards them, even when they don’t fully measure up to those qualities in reality. This is why Gesan throws himself in front of a heavily-armored Paladin, and has to be re-directed constantly by the other members of the group towards better goals. You will know when you are doing this right when everyone in the group shouts your character’s name at once.
Let them redirect you though, because while playing a bumbling overconfident character IS fun, it’s only fun until it causes problems for the group. Unless your character is also very obstinant, you should let them give you a bit of direction first, THEN throw yourself at it with wreckless abandon.
This is perhaps my favorite moment in Gesan’s history. While travelling through a dungeon, our group came upon a locked door. After exploring a side-room, we found a key being guarded by a skeleton. Gesan picked up the key, and when we walked back to the room, Gesan was given instructions to open the door.
He proceeded to break it down with his fists. And we held onto that key for a good five session.
Obvious solutions, like opening a door with a key you just found, don’t always come to a character who is ‘dumb’. Think about a situation where you’ve tried to accomplish a task that was fairly simple, but because you didn’t know how to do it, you wound up doing a lot more work than you had to, or wound up brute-forcing your way through it. This more difficult solution is a “simpler” solution, and is often the logic on which a ‘dumb’ character will act.
You can justify it in a few ways. Perhaps the character wants to show off a bit by doing things the ‘hard’ way, even though it’s a very bad idea. Or perhaps they haven’t connected the dots and they simply think they’re being told to do the impossible.
Again, you should try to do this when it is less likely to cause a problem, and let the other players’ characters talk you out of it if it WOULD cause a problem. You are playing a dumb character, but that does not mean you need to be dumb with your character.
The last room in this dungeon had a very complex riddle, one that Gesan was certain he could solve given enough time to think about it. He sat down and thought about it, for quite. Some. Time. While the other characters solved the riddle easily.
And just as they were solving it, Gesan burst into the room, smiling brightly because he had finally figured out the answer! Which wasn’t terribly good since the casters of the party were now fighting a released Chimera through two chokepoints. Gesan backed out very quickly.
There’s a myth about playing ‘dumb’ characters that says they should never be allowed to solve complex or cerebral problems, because they’re ‘dumb’. While they certainly aren’t the heavy-thinkers of the group, it can happen, either by luck, coincidence, or sheer determined effort. And it adds a level of depth to a character when you show that off. That they aren’t ‘just’ the dumb character, but that they can occasionally think of things on their own, even if it’s not always useful, not always on-time, or not always applicable.
More importantly, a dumb character will try. They will try as hard as they can to help with problems that they aren’t necessarily good at, if tasked with it, or if they have to do it. And you can really make their personality shine by showing just how they deal with this adversity.
In Gesan’s case, it was through sheer determination and a refusal to give up on the task at hand – the same way he deals with all of his problems. And the way your character deals with their own problems should reflect not just on their ‘dumbness’, but on the real personality behind it.
“What he mean when he say Gesan is not smart, is Gesan is slow, but sharp like plow. Gesan takes time to learn new things, and Gesan think carefully on things, but Gesan get job done, and Gesan always try, even if Gesan not always do it right. Gesan try as hard as he can.”
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