Friday, August 21, 2020

Comeliness Doesn't Work as a Separate Trait from Charisma

Cover, Unearthed Arcana, ©1981 TSR
I've had Comeliness come up in conversations a few times lately, and I wanted to give a take on it that not a lot of folks in the D&D community will.

For those of you who missed Comeliness (COM), it was a seventh ability score added to AD&D in Unearthed Arcana, and then republished in Oriental Adventures shortly thereafter. It was a stat meant to evaluate the physical beauty and attractiveness of a character. In the OA version, evil creatures that loathed all things divine and beautiful often had negative COM, and responded to good creatures as if their COM was inverted.

COM disappeared after the initial experiment with it. It never made a showing in BD&D and was left entirely out of AD&D2e (excepting a few odd showings in Polyhedron). It made a brief appearance in the infamous 3rd party D&D3e sourcebook The Valar Project: Book of Erotic Fantasy, but was pretty roundly rejected by the D&D community of the time.

There were two lines of reasoning for this division:

1. In many mythologies, beauty and divinity are interlinked. Creating a stat where we could play with the idwa of monsters repelled by beauty and that revel in the hideous, filthy, and unclean had an appeal.

2. The ideological belief that "beauty is only skin deep, and it is what's inside that counts" that was a driving part of the 1980s zeitgeist encouraged the devs at TSR at the time to divide the two in Dungeons and Dragons at the time. COM and CHA as divided stats allowed AD&D to make Charisma exclusively about influence, leadership, and presence.

I am going to leave the first point alone; it was a mechanical nightmare to execute, and tying whether a creature used regular or inverted Comeliness based on the two-axis alignment misses a lot of nuance about the mythologies that inspired it.

The second point is far more interesting to unpack. 

80s Zeitgeist: Misfits and Beauty

Jem and the Holograms was a popular 1980s cyberpunk
Cartoon for children about a frumpy social worker who
 used a supercomputer and high tech illusions to create
a rockstar alter ego. It was constantly exploring ideas of
beauty as illusion. It has seen a recent resurgence in film
 and comics. (My roomate In 2000 was the head of a major
fan society for it.)
In a way, pulling physical attractiveness out of Charisma smacks of what players at the time wanted to hear.

Dungeons and Dragons, at the time, was a fringe hobby when the pressure to conform was high. Being interested in "weird" games like D&D could brand you as a social outcast, especially if you didn't balance it with interests popular with your peers. Which often was hard for generally cetebral D&D players of the time. Dungeons and Dragons was a game that both attracted and branded misfits. It was hard to be widely popular and play D&D at the same time. And Gen-X kids and Baby Boomer authority figures in particular could be pretty harsh with misfits.

A younger D&D playing nerd could feel absolutely embattled at school, work, church, and possibly among family.  Bullying, snide remarks, a push to engage in "normal" activities, concerned talks from your family pastor all were a part of the experience. The absolute rejection of the value of "fitting in" was a pretty common response.

Thanks to the messaging in media, academia,  and culture at the time, certain assumptions could easily be picked up by social misfits:

  • The people rejecting me are stupid.
  • I am being rejected more because I don't look and dress like Them, than because I don't act like Them.
  • I have inner beauty that comes from my intelligence and creativity. 
  • They are therefore shallow and obsessed with fashion and beauty to the point of being blind to my better qualities. 
  • A smart person would see past my non-conformity and like who I am.
  • I don't want to- and shouldn't have to- play into Their "popularity contest" to be appreciated.
  • Beauty and fashion are therefore clearly shallow pursuits of an inferior mind; I therefore reject them.
  • The world would be a better place if we focused on Inner Beauty.

This was borne out constantly by a certain subset of our cultural messaging at the time. I certainly knew dozens of young men who thought, to some degree or another, in this manner. The problem is that these ideas are largely wrong, destructive, and self-defeating.

It feels very pat to say that likability, influence, poise, and charm are totally separate from beauty, fitness, and poise. Unfortunately, it isn't true.

Let me share with you, as a professional who has taught people how to impress, attract, and persuade for a decade, what the reality of beauty and what it is.

First Impressions Are Critical 

Infographic courtesy of The Art of Manliness
Whether you are doing business, meeting socially, or finding yourself in opposition to a person,  first impressions are critical. And they often happen long before you open your mouth. Human beings read thousands of nonverbal cues in posture, clothing, facial expression, health markers, indicators of fertility, etc., in about five seconds. And from that they will decide whether to treat you with respect, deference, kindness or contempt.

That's it. Five seconds.

Once you have made that first impression it will colour your interactions with the other person not just for the first few minutes, but unless you do something remarkable,  that impression will determine how that person treats you for the rest of your interactions. If you made a good first impression in those five seconds, every interaction you have will be easier. If you make a bad impression, you will be swimming upstream against it for the entire time you deal with that person.

This means that a huge amount of what Charisma is supposed to be doing happens in that first five seconds, and much of it happens non-verbally.

Beauty is Barometric

No person's objective beauty is completely fixed. There are certain traits that are more attractive than others for objective reasons, and others we have control over.

On the objective side:

  • Large, light-coloured eyes make it easier for others to read our attention and emotions, so we are more attracted to them.
  • Skin tones that make blushing more apparent both make a person seem more open and easy to read. They can also make a person seem more young and vital.
  • Full lips make facial expressions more communicative, enhance the visibility of blushing, and offer some of the few signals women give of ovulation. 
  • Symmetry is an indicator of good genetic health.
  • In men, broad shoulders are an indicator of greater potential for upper body strength, which makes them better protectors.
  • There are a range of breast-to-hip-to-waist ratios in women that are an indicator of high fertility and a high likelihood of surviving childbirth.
  • High cheekbones, high foreheads, and strong jaws all make for more easily read and communicative faces.
  • Some combinations of hair and skin tone create better contrast for reading facial expressions. 
  • V shaped body geometry from shoulders to groin on men is a indicator of fitness.
  • Rounded buttocks on women are an indicator of fertility.
  • The appearance of youth is critical to a woman's sexual attractivenes. The closer she looks to prime marriageable (see below) age, the better.

These are all things that it is human nature to find appealing, and that we have zero control over. And they are part of the things we look for in that five second scan that shapes our first impression, which sets the tone for an entire relationship.

It is worth noting as well that many of these beauty markers are about making a person easy to read, and making blushing more apparent. The rest is reproductive.

However, these traits can be muted or enhanced with other factors that we can control:

  • Clear, luminous skin makes blushing and facial expressions more apparent and shows good health. In women it can also indicate fertility.
  • Well-groomed facial hair can enhance a man's jawline and make him appear more masculine, that is, we subconsciously associate facial hair with strength, protection and provision.
  • Being within about 15lbs of your ideal body weight (with some variances, see below) signal good health a good sef-care.
  • Hairstyles can emphasize the best facial features we have and give us a more open and attractive appearance.
  • Straight, healthy white teeth make smiles and other toothy facial expressions more readable, and indicate goof health.

The Breakfast Club established several film
tropes about presentation and female beauty
 that elegantly illustrated how beauty is
as much technique as natural gift.
Amplifying our natural assets is a matter of learning and making choices or developing habits. This is not just a "you've got it or you don't" situation,  it is a mental faculty. Our beauty is, in effect barometric: we are born with a range of potential beauty, but getting the most out of it requires effort and the use of our mental faculties.

If first impressions are critical to setting the tone of relationships, and beauty plays a part in creating that first impression, and using one's faculties can affect beauty, it is reasonable to state that care of one's beauty is a part of the overall faculty of building relationships,  and therefore influence and persuasion. (i.e.: "Charisma" as formulated in Dungeons and Dragons.)

Some parts of beauty are also informed by cultural values and norms. For example:

  • During times of scarcity, men prefer (and art produced at the time favours) women who are fuller bodied, within around 15lbs over what our current medical ideals would call "ideal body weight.
  • Conversely, during times of great affluence, men (and art) favour women around 10lbs. underweight.
  • The amount of body hair acceptable on both men and women varies widely by culture.
  • The importance of breasts to a woman's sex appeal is often inversely related to how much casual toplessness occurs in that culture: in places where women go topless on a day-to-day basis, they are less important to a woman's attractiveness. 
  • Open displays of body hair on men are considered attractive or repulsive in wide variance by culture.
  • There has been a radical shift in Western culture in just two generations about how body art and piercings look on the human body: they have moved from repellent to generally tolerated, to mildly fetishised.
  • What is considered the prime age for sexual attractiveness in a girl varies radically across cultures between 15 in relatively poverty-stricken developing nations to 21 in wealthy, egalitarian, Western ones.
  • For men, physical attractiveness is bound up in showing wealth and status as much as physical fitness. A man who looks, dresses, and carries himself as high status will be rated as more physically attractive by most women. What constitutes the markers high status is wildly variable and can include features such as bodyweight and the greying of hair as much as clothing and carriage.

Literacy in the milieu of a culture in order to best be considered beautiful is a use of a cognitive faculty, not a function of physical geometry. 

Appearance is Communication 

It is also worth noting that your apprearance is a communication tool. The way you dress, groom, wear your facial expression, stand, etc. is a means of conveying messages to others. While much of this is about building rapport or sending culture-bound messages through the language of clothing, other parts of how we communicate through appearance are also about using our beauty or refusing to do so.

Our choice of facial expression can enhance or negate the attractive features of our face. More importantly,  it has a bearing on our position within our barometric range of beauty. An authentic smile, for example, makes us seem as open and approachable as our face will let us. The wrong sort of scowl or a squint undoes the sense of openness and can negate any advantage that your attractiveness can offer.

Two radically diffetent impressions can be made with the same features,
 depending on how they are maintained.

Hair is a major tool of communication via appearance. How you wear or cover it has both universal and cultural meanings. Take, as an easy example, the "pixie cut." This is a short, low-maintenance haircut preferred by both rebellious young women and older mid-level career women. In both cases, it sends a similar message: "I am not interested in wasting time on frivolous beauty routines." It sends a message about being serious, task-oriented, and, to a degree, unavailable. It changes how we read the rest of the signals given by appearance.

Flirtatious body language is another good example. When we flirt, we use posture, stance, and gesture to accentuate physically attractive traits. Women touch hair, purse lips, use their shoulders and arms to push up their chest. Men make broad gestures and leaning postures to show off arms, shoulder, and abdomen. We are using deliberate communication skills to enhance and draw attention to beauty.

This is not an exhaustive list, of course. I can cover dozens of ways we utilize or cover our physical features in the process of paralinguistic communication, but I run the risk of boring others with topics of interest to me and few others.

The point of the examples above is that physical beauty, and the use thereof, is part of both intuitive and savvy communications. You may choose, or you may intuit, but in either case, beauty is used as an active tool in the process of influence, it is not a passive quality.

The Unfairness of the Genetic Lottery

Attractive people have it a bit easier. Every human being is, by nature, a "lookist." We tend to pay more attention to what an attractive person is saying as opposed to a plain one. We are faster to agree with them, and work harder for their praise and attention. We let them take the lead, often as far as they will choose to take it. 

This is unfair, and it is frustrating. It is also the way it is. Beauty matters for men and women.

Equally frustrating is that human beings are always going to look at a woman's physical beauty and give it far greater weight and judge it on a far more rigid scale than we will men's. We will likewise judge a man on his ability to command other men, kill fast, be killed slowly, and bring home resources in service of a woman and her children . The hard-wired parts of our mind that make that judgement in the critical first five seconds will always see women as sex objects and men as disposable resources. The gender of the person doing the judging is irrelevant, even: we all use the same rubric.

Those who know how to actively and judiciously leverage their beauty will have an easier time influencing and persuading others.

"Homunculus" from the D&D 3e
Monster Manual; ©2000, 
Wizards of the Coast 

It takes a long time, hundreds of hours of contact, for people to replace that first impression with a fair assessment of your character, and adjust their treatment of you accordingly. 

Even then they form a homunculus: a snapshot of who they think you are based as much on their own assumptions and biases as a legitimate picture. It takes hundreds, if not thousands of hours of contact to replace one homunculus with another. That is why our parents seem to get stuck treating us as if we were thirteen half our lives.

To save time, people respond to their picture of you in their heads. Which they form as needed and lock in.

This is not to say that an unattractive person can't make an awesome first impression, by the way. There is definitely room for flare, fashion, good humour, and savoir-faire in those first five seconds. But looks are an unmistakable part of that. And a winning smile and confident stance can make a small amout of beauty stretch a very long way.

Isn't This Supposed to Relate to D&D?

Separating our appearance from other measures of our charm, leadership ability, or magnetism is misguided on two levels. First, because our first impressions, which are heavily influenced by our appearance determine the parameters of a relationship.  Second, because our appearance itself is not fixed, but is partially a function of our own social literacy. If Charisma is a measure of the power to influence and persuade in Dungeons and Dragons, then separating it from Comeliness is a failure to understand how we persuade and influence unless both statistics influence the majority of social interaction rolls together. At which point having separate stats is of dubious value.

This is especially true for how Charisma is most frequently used in both modern and older editions of D&D. In modern D&D (starting around AD&D2e and strongly codified in 3rd edition) Charisma-based checks were used to influence NPCs by adjusting their reaction level from a DM-determined baseline. 

Persuasion tables from D&D 3e's OGL SRD

B/X Monster Reaction Table, NPCs counted
as "Monsters," too.
In older editions of Dungeons and Dragons, Charisma was used as an occasional modifier to NPC and Monster reaction rolls. It was also used to determine how many henchmen and hirelings your PC could hire, and how loyal they would be.

Much of the latter function was bundled into an optional "Leadership" Feat in 3rd edition, which also accounted fpr alignment, level, and several other factors.  It was a fairly rarely used mechanic; by 3rd edition Dungeons and Dragons had essentially removed the hirelings and henchmen as major components of gameplay.

In both older and newer editions of Dungeons and Dragons, Charisma tests can also be used to determine whether a request is respected, a threat is intimidating, a lie is believed when the DM is undecided by the logic of the situation. In 5th edition, making the roll is expected, and is often used in lieu of in-character acting. In older editions it was a tiebreaker for the DM, when there is not enough data from the expected in-character acting or narration.

In practice, Charisma tests are used relatively seldom on recurring or long-term NPCs. The DM has more to go on and can use logic and DM fiat more effectively.  Dice are less necessary.

Almost all of these mechanics are meant to either apply to first impressions, allow you to immediately push the relationship to the highest scope the first impression allows (the 3rd ed. Chart does this beautifully w/ the DCs to change to higher attitudes... the poorer the starting impression, the harder it is to get cooperation.) Or they deal with persuading short-term, new, or random PCs that are likely running on first impressions. Or they deal with hiring people or leading large groups in impersonal relationships, which is a mix of impressions, reputation, and then long-term quality leadership. Charisma, as it is used mechanically, is often the power to make a good impression in those first five seconds - including beauty is a part thereof, and then maintain a positive relationship in the short term afterwards. 

What About "Inner Beauty?"

I won't deny that there is such a thing as "Inner Beauty" that reveals itself when we look past first impressions.  There are plenty of people in my life who inspire far more love and loyalty once you get to know them that far exceeds their initial attractiveness. But for people to be able to see it, it takes time. For that, a person must be first attracted ito our social circle, and then kept in it through adroit social interactions.

Inner Beauty does inspire loyalty. It persuades those who have seen it to do more for its possessor. But here is the trick: Inner Beauty has little to do with social savoir-faire. It has everything to do with the deeds we have seen a person do in our presence. It is the shows of character, the deeds of virtue, the wise counsel, andvthe acts of kindness. Inner Beauty is the sum of virtuous actions and good decisions, not an intrinsic quality.

Inner Beauty arises from action.

It takes a truly scintillating personality, mixed with time to make a lasting relationship that is not biased by appearance. Our likely partially fictionalized accounts of Æsop, for example, always focus on how his legendary ugliness and deformity forced him to use wit, patience, and compassion to win people over, and allowed him to become a trusted advisor to kings and tutor to royal children. However exaggrated, the Æsop Romance and its themes are a study in beauty, ugliness, and the gradual power of character to supplant them.

By contrast, many of the people I met in the 80s and 90s who decried the people around them as shallow for not seeing their Inner Beauty, had none. They were bitter, isolated, and did nothing to either appeal to people or be helpful to them. Wishing people could see their "Inner Beauty would have amountef nothing because they did nothing to cultivate it and display it.

Inner Beauty in Dungeons and Dragons doesn't appear on the character sheet. It is not a function of Charisma. It appears at the table in the narratives of loyalty, friendship, virtue, and heroism that the characters engage in, and is reflected in how the DM handles important NPCs as characters progress as a reflection of character choice.

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