Intelligence seems like an easy stat to understand. We all know people of average or below average intelligence and we all like to think we know how to play a high Intelligence.
But Wisdom - in my experience that is just a bit tougher. Now, we can talk all day about what Wisdom is in real life (I prefer Aristotle's view in the Nicomachean Ethics as expanded upon by St. Thomas Aquinas in the Summa Theologica, but that is a different discussion) but let's focus on what it means as a game mechanic. Some people seem to think it is willpower, others insight or intuition, and, well, it seems to confuse plenty of people.
I am going to throw my own hat into the ring and say that, in terms of game mechanics, Wisdom represents the ability of a character to both remain true to their own ethics, morals, and goals and to discern the motives of others.
'But Rick,' I hear you ask, 'Why do you think that and what does it mean?'.
Well, first of all it echoes a lot of the concepts of Wisdom I mentioned above (although of course, to Aristotle and Aquinas an evil man is inherently unwise). It also explains both the 'bonus to saves vs. charm, etc.' and the 'more spells for clerics with a high Wisdom' things. The resistance is largely a good sense of self and the ability to discern the real motives of the charmer - 'Wait, I don't want to leave the room! And why is this 'friend' of mine so smug?'. The bonus spells are from both more focused prayers and a reward for devotion.
So a low Wisdom character will be easily distracted, have poor impulse control, and dither. A high Wisdom character will be focused, have good impulse control, and be decisive.
But what does this look like during play? Well, it can be little things; when the character enters a shop to buy a week of iron rations they come out with 2 weeks of iron rations, flask of brandy, a bottle of wine, and a new hat. Why? The brandy can be used for medicinal reasons, the wine is a good year, it rained down his neck on the last trip, and the shop keeper gave him a great bulk deal for buying 2 weeks instead of one - he really saved money!
It can also manifest as, bluntly, social awkwardness. A low Wisdom character can't 'read' others very well. They drone on with stories that are (too everyone else) obviously boring; the speak too loudly for the circumstances; they think the best of bad people and believe slander about good people.
Lastly, it can be shown as inattention, impatience, and as being easily distracted. They stop listening to instructions before the end; they daydream instead of focusing on the task at hand; they interrupt a lich's soliloquy because they are bored.
This could be moved around, too. A skilled thief with a low Wisdom might be good at reading other's motives and be patient in his job but have no impulse control. A magic-user with a low Wisdom might just be very socially awkward. The variations can be a lot of fun.
Here is an example from the Real World to give you ideas.
In one of the largest robberies in American history a team of professional criminals succeeded in stealing untraceable cash and jewelry worth more than $20 million in current value. None of the few victims saw a face and they seemed to get away free and clear. One of the gang members had two jobs - drive the getaway vehicle and then dispose of the getaway vehicle. He did the first part very well, but the second part? Instead, he decided to visit his girlfriend. He went to her apartment, celebrated too hard and fell asleep - after parking the van in a no parking zone. The vehicle (covered in his fingerprints - he had taken off his gloves since he was going to destroy the vehicle) was easily identified both by description and the empty bags from the scene of the robbery still in the back.
The driver had the courage to help stage the heist but showed a rather low Wisdom score in being easily distracted!
How can you reflect this as a GM? Sit down with the player of a low Wisdom (below a score of 8) character and work out with them how it will manifest itself. Then if you feel the player is not reflecting the low Wisdom in play you could do some of the following:
- An easily-distracted character is on guard duty - they have to roll equal to or below their Wisdom score on d20 or be more easily surprised.
- A socially-awkward character could have a -2 (or more!) on their reaction rolls with an important NPC.
- A character with poor impulse control might have to roll equal to or under their Wisdom score on a d20 to avoid buying more gear/armor/etc. than they need.
- A dithering character might have to make a Wisdom check, as above, in order to make a decision in a high-stress situation; if they fail they keep dithering until they make the roll ( a new roll every segment) or a member of the party with a positive reaction adjustment from Charisma gives them an order.
- If you are using the Maintenance & Upkeep rules from my supplement Far Realms a low Wisdom character might spend 10% more each month to reflect poor impulse control and falling prey to the occasional con man in the streets.
This can also add to your NPCs, too. An evil magic-user might have a 17 Intelligence but his 7 Wisdom could be his downfall!
As for high Wisdom scores (above 14), just remind the player that her character isn't rash, indecisive, etc. Perhaps in an extreme case, such as a cleric with an 18 Wisdom, the GM might occasionally (no more than once per overall arc) slip the player a note being explicit about an NPCs motivations. An NPC with a high Wisdom will be focused and dedicated, good at reading people, and almost impossible to con. This should be even scarier than a brilliant foe!
Have fun at the table!