If a Mind Flayer Fed on D&D Characters’ Brains, It Would Go Hungry. Should PC Intelligence Matter?

In modern Dungeons & Dragons games, intelligence vies with strength as the most common stat where players dump their characters’ lowest ability score. Of classes in the Player’s Handbook , only wizard requires intelligence, a prime requisite that rarely figures in saving throws. And unlike in earlier editions, high intelligence no longer brings more skills or even languages. Am I the only dungeon master who spots a mind flayer in an adventure, realizes that only a wizard can make an intelligence save against a psionic blast, and feels a shameful excitement? We DMs rarely get a chance to stir panic by exploiting a weakness the players chose for themselves.

In original D&D, intelligence brought even fewer benefits than in the modern game. The rules lacked intelligence saves and checks.  Magic users needed the stat, but otherwise smart characters only gained languages. Still, at some tables, low-intelligence characters came with a steep penalty.

The Elusive Shift by Jon Peterson chronicles how after the release of D&D in 1974, discussion brought roleplaying from a single, revolutionary game to a mature hobby. The discourse started in fanzines like Alarums & Excursions and spread to magazines like Different Worlds, which treated roleplaying as a new art. The book shows how many seemingly modern controversies about styles of play actually date back to 1975 or so. For instance, gamers have argued about whether game masters should favor storytelling over impartiality almost since the first mention of D&D in a mimeographed zine.

One debate described in The Elusive Shift  seldom reappears now. It stems from the original D&D rules and this line: “Intelligence will also affect referees’ decisions as to whether or not certain actions would be taken.” In other words, dungeon masters could bar low-intelligence characters from taking clever actions dreamed up by a smart player.

The implications of intelligence go two ways. In 1975, Lee Gold wrote that when a player proposed an action too rash for a wise character or too dumb for a smart character, “a dungeon master should legitimately overrule a person’s call for his character.”

Especially in the days of roleplaying, when everyone generated characters randomly, many gamers saw playing low intelligence or low wisdom as both a penalty and as a demonstration of roleplaying skill.

In Alarums & Excursions issue 13 (1976), Nicolai Shapero wrote, “If I have a character with an intelligence of 6, and a wisdom of 8, I refuse to run him the same as an 18 intelligence 18 wisdom character. This has cost me characters…it hurts, every now and then.” However, he insisted that “it is a far more honest way of playing.”

Some gamers wondered if the players who ignored their character’s intelligence even counted as roleplayers. Did such gamers just play a game of puzzle-solving and battle tactics? Meanwhile, the gamers who favored tests of skill preferred games where players needed all their own wits to survive.

Nowadays, some players enjoy playing a low-wisdom character as someone who ignores signs of trouble and takes risks. Such recklessness leads to a more exciting game. But few players enjoy stifling their own ingenuity to play a lower intelligence. To be fair, the intelligence of a modern D&D character typically bottoms out at 8, just below average, but I suspect most D&D players are far more clever.

How do you roleplay intelligence and wisdom?

11 thoughts on “If a Mind Flayer Fed on D&D Characters’ Brains, It Would Go Hungry. Should PC Intelligence Matter?

  1. Eric

    Not sure where I first heard of this approach: if you be smart, but your PC be dumb, just have your dumb PC do dumb things that happen to be the right answer.

    When all the other PCs are flexing their not-below-average intelligence in trying to find the hidden door, have Grugnar the Barbarian sigh, stretch, yawn, and lie down on the floor rug, pulling it over like a blanket. And thus revealing the trapdoor.

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  2. prabe

    I have at least one player in my campaigns who refuses to dump Int, because he’s smart and refuses to play dumb. I can respect that. I have another player who dumped Int for his cleric, and he plays her as being kinda a goldfish (the plastic castle is a surprise every time). I can respect that, too, though he’s intelligent enough that it occasionally gives me cognitive dissonance.

    I do think that part of the reason Int feels so undervalued in 5E is that it was arguably pretty overvalued in 3.x. I think there’s plausibly a middle ground, but getting there in 5E would take some houseruling,and you’d kinda be fighting the system.

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  3. Eric

    Another thing I do with my game is that for low stats of any kind, not just INT or WIS, I let the player select flaws relevant to that stat, one for each point below 10. This is on the principle that it is a more interesting narrative technique to have an specific exaggerated thing, vs having a generic graduated scale.

    For example, if the PC had only a 9 STR, they can choose 2 from this list:

    – Puny: You are treated as though you are one size category smaller than your racial norm with regards to weapon proficiencies.
    – Weak Grip: Any time you miss with a melee attack your opponent has the opportunity to make an attempt to disarm you.
    – Bad Swimmer: You cannot be proficient in the Swimming skill, and must make a Swimming check to even dog paddle in the best of conditions.
    – Bad Climber: You cannot be proficient in the Mountaineering skill and must make checks to even climb ladders.
    – Insufficient Block: You cannot use a shield.
    – Lightweight: any prevailing wind greater than a light breeze will knock you prone.

    In return for selecting a flaw or two, which they can they RP the heck out of, the DM promises to not penalise them for other cases where STR matters. So, Puny and Weak Grip are selected, but the DM won’t say “uh, you only have a 7 STR, so no you can’t climb that tree”

    For low INT they can pick from

    – Bad with names
    – Bad with faces
    – Bad eye for value
    – Cunning Plans (just like Baldrick!)
    – Fumble-tongued
    – Forgetful (would forget their head if wasn’t attached)
    – Blind to the Mind (no theory of mind .. just like toddlers)
    – Blind in the Mind’s Eye (aphantasia – “ya gonna need to draw me a picture!”)

    And for low WIS:

    – Easily Tempted
    – Overly Honorable (transparently honest to a fault)
    – City Slicker
    – Day Dreamer
    – Spendthrift
    – Gullible
    – Speaks without thinking
    – Easily goaded
    – Can’t take a hint
    – Out sight, out of mind
    – Thinks out loud
    – Literally Serious (totally fails to recognise humour)

    (not my homebrew, I did the raccoon thing)

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  4. gutsdozier

    If my character concept calls for someone who is clever, I usually try to give them at least a 12 Intelligence, even if I’m not playing an Int. caster.

    If I’m playing a character with an 8 Intelligence, I am conscious that the character is less intelligent than me, but I try not to overplay it. After all, everyone has a bright idea now and again.

    As a DM, I let the player decide how to roleplay their character. I would never over-rule a player’s decision (unless it ran afoul of our safe table guidelines.)

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  5. Ilbranteloth

    Ooo. This is a good one, although it will be a long answer.

    Coming from that era, when the primary things abilities did was inform your roleplaying of the character, which evolved as things like nonweapon proficiencies, Dragon articles, third party and other game concepts, house rules, etc., two primary things arose in our game.

    First, specifically regarding separating the intelligence/knowledge of the player vs the character, was the recognition of a “group mind.” That is, when playing a game that’s entirely within your heads, it can be helpful to have multiple people thinking about things. In the early days the was obvious very quickly with puzzles, but as we evolved into the Ed Greenwood style of play with lots of layered (and not always related) sub-plots and schemes, there arose a distinct thinking portion of the game. Our game evolved to recognize and leverage this so that even folks not involved in that moment are free to participate. So if the party is split up, a character is unconscious or even dead, the player can still be an active part of our table. Obviously, their roles in the discussion change when they aren’t one of the active characters in play at that moment, since the game progresses through the PCs, but they are still very much part of the group mind and collective story-telling that we prefer.

    The second aspect is that Intelligence and Wisdom work together, and for that I lead by example. The players have always expected that the “dumb” monsters and animals act appropriately, so as a DM my job was to take that on. But that meant that we also expected the PCs to follow suit.

    So we dug into abilities more than most, and the relationship between Intelligence and Wisdom was a big one. Intelligence was the easier of the two to work through.

    A creature with animalistic intelligence acts primarily from instinct. They don’t act dumb, or stupid, but they tend to have fewer actions they choose from. Fight or flight, typically, and to be wary of unknown things, and flee anything that is too unknown and potentially dangerous. The 2e book Skills & Powers nailed it in our opinion. Intelligence is composed primarily of knowledge and reason. Both help overcome instinctive behavior, but it’s reason that does the heavy lifting. A more intelligent creature can make decisions that go against instinctive behavior. They can eventually follow abstract concepts and logic, etc. This started as my explorations on how to better identify reactions and morale for NPCs/monsters. Which led to looking at how animals behaved.

    When we considered Wisdom in conjunction it became even more clear. Somebody with a high Wisdom is more intuitive. They don’t reason through a problem, they *feel* their way through it. Spock was one of our go-to examples of high Intelligence but low Wisdom. Detectives sometimes have high Wisdom (they have good hunches), some Intelligence (Holmes).

    This also evolved into us considering the emotional nature of a character. While Wisdom doesn’t equal being more or less emotional per se, we do see emotion as something that can override reason, so is like a more evolved type of instinct. A PC with a very high intelligence and low wisdom is probably not a very emotional person, reason being the primary way they interact with the world and others (don’t confuse reason with reasonable…). But they may have some things they get overly emotional about, still. Low intelligence creatures, however, tend to be more emotional. That is, they let their emotions/instinct override reason. In many cases this is simply because they don’t have the intelligence to see the situation from a different perspective, although even explaining it doesn’t necessarily mean they override their emotion/intution. This is the sort of behavior we see in children, where their knowledge and understanding of the world is skewed. As semi-intelligent creatures, they construct their own logic and it’s often very difficult to override that.

    We ended up addressing emotionality of characters in a non-mechanical way, but the abilities help inform it.

    We have generally rolled abilities in order, occasionally allowing swapping one or two, or raising/lowering a la Holmes basic. We eventually set a floor of 8, that is, anything that is rolled less than 8 becomes an 8.

    Our style of play remains strongly focused on narrative and role-playing (although none of us are good at the acting style of roleplaying). So our interest leans heavily on relating how abilities and combinations of abilities inform the character’s personality in addition to game stats and we look for examples in movies, shows, and books. Perhaps because we aren’t acting-type roleplayers, our focus has been on the core of what role playing is – making decisions and choosing actions as if we were *that* person. And the best way to do that is to understand that character, and intelligence and wisdom are the two stats that inform that more than anything.

    It’s also because of this view that when 5e came out, we instantly saw Investigation (I wish it were named observation) and Perception as two sides of the same coin, and largely interchangeable. Intelligence is the Holmes (or Rain Main) style super-intelligent person that instantly sees things others don’t and knows how they fit together, and Wisdom is the grizzled beat cop that always has the right hunch. He can’t explain why something is what it is, just that it is. You can further differentiate the two when you consider Wisdom is what is most useful to clerics, where faith is a different type of intuition, that dichotomy between science (intelligence/reason) and religion (wisdom/faith).

    By combining this with the group mind style of play, there was no downside to playing a PCs intelligence (or wisdom) “properly.” This didn’t take long to figure out, by the way, when published adventures routinely had puzzles, and the only person capable of solving them had the Fighter with an 8 Intelligence and 10 Wisdom. WE needed the players’ skills, and separating that from the PCs skills at the table eliminated any problem with PCs playing too smart, or players playing too dumb.

    One last thing – as skill checks evolved, we incorporated those into our approach. Players have always been free to speak up when a PC acts on information they don’t have available, and acting out of character (too smart) has also been part of this. This is done collaboratively, like everything we do, so it’s almost never taken the wrong way.

    But once skill checks came around, we found we could incorporate those into the process. I think it really started as the players declaring, “I’m not sure what I would do, I’ll make an Intelligence (or Wisdom) check).’ This is helpful because it adds a random aspect to something that is often unpredictable in real life. We don’t have a table with fixed results, it’s just another input to inform the player. We consider not only success or failure, but by how much (usually 5 over/under, 10 over/under, plus natural 1 or 20).

    In the end, we welcome anything that will help us play more interesting *characters* as real people living in a real world, not just a “character” as a bunch of stats, special abilities, and die rolls in a game.

    As you might expect, we relished the idea of traits and flaws, Oh, and in regards to, “We DMs rarely get a chance to stir panic by exploiting a weakness the players chose for themselves.”

    As the game has consistently stripped out disadvantages and penalties over the years, it’s gotten much harder to do that. One of the major flaws in my opinion of the current game design. We view the “game” part of the game as a series of obstacles to overcome on the way to a goal. Overcoming a character’s own weaknesses is a very narrative approach to the game, and very enjoyable. Working around the party’s strengths and weaknesses encourages teamwork and creative solutions. Now the creative solutions often seem to be focused on mechanics, optimization, and exploiting rules.

    You know what instills panic in my players in our campaign?
    Death (because resurrection is near impossible)
    Reaching 0 hit points (because of long-term – days or weeks – consequences, or death.
    Heights. Because long falls can cause long-term consequences, or death.
    Fire. Because it’s exponentially more deadly than as written (Long term consequences or death).
    Undead. Because necrotic damage can only be healed by level 5 or higher magic (and we’re usually playing 4th level characters),
    Poison. Again, much more deadly (although a little more nuanced than the old saver or die).

    We aren’t afraid to cause significant long-term consequences, or actual death, to the PCs. The players have the final say as to what they are willing to accept, so that eliminates any potential bad feelings. And believe me, the players are usually far more ruthless to their PCs than I would be.

    We wanted characters to be scared of the same things that terrify normal people, and even some of the greatest heroes. And the best way to scare the PCs is to scare the players. If you don’t know whether these particular skeletons or zombies will cause your arm to wither and become useless, you tend to avoid taking reckless chances.

    YMMV.

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  6. Frederick Coen

    This kinda came up last night in my game. the PCs, by virtue of being nobles, were looked to for leadership in the defense a town about to come under siege. One of the *players* is an avid wargamer, but his PC was an INT 10 Warlock; the INT 14 bard, on the other hand, really doesn’t like this genre. The other wargamer was playing an INT 8 fighter/rogue. What to do?

    My ruling was this: we can’t (necessarily) have ideas and insights like “actual” INT 18 or WIS 18 PCs might; we compensate by allowing everyone to brainstorm, and just call it “Brainy Smurf’s” [insert INT 18 character name here] idea. On the flip side, Grugh the “rocks are smarter” Barbarian’s player might be a fricking genius… that player doesn’t generally have to be be dumb for the group dynamic, as long as Grugh acts dumb.

    So the wargamers proposed strategies, which the researcher said he had read about, and the bard said he knew ballads about.

    When off by themselves, I do make characters play to their stats and flaws. A character died last night because — well, because of questionable decisions on the player’s part. The point, though, is that the rogue was nearby, and could have killed the BBEG that got the other PC – but she roleplayed her faults and ideals, and snuck off to join the group *PER THEIR PLAN*. And the wizard, who did NOT follow the plan found himself alone and outgunned.

    I’m playing (another game) an INT 8, WIS 14 rogue, Outlander background. I’m not playing him dumb so much as “uneducated” – country bumpkin in the big city. He knows when people are trying to con him or lie.. but he doesn’t necessarily catch the *context* of the lie – and sometimes confidently misunderstands and does the wrong thing because of it. [He’s a sucker for reverse psychology and technobabble.]

    [Also, Eric, consider everything you posted as “yoink’d!”!! 🙂 ]

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  7. Jean-Francois

    I used to ask my players to roleplay their stats and keep in roleplay around the table. That was in AD&D. Fast foward to 4e and 5e editions and i keep my game table stats roleplay more like Frederick, my players can brainstorm out of character to come up with a plan that the brainy characters could have tought of and they (the brainy characters) have to tell the plan to the other characters and make sure the other characters know their parts. Because once the ooc is done, the dumb character might not remember the plan.

    We had some great roleplaying session because of that.

    This is why i love this blog! The post had a great subject and made for a great article. Then the comments just skyrocketed the value of the post!

    Thanks guys!

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  8. Ian

    I have a player in my current campaign running a low intelligence fighter. Every time the player has a good idea or thought he rolls an intelligence check. If he fails the check, he keeps his mouth shut and doesn’t share what he is thinking or act on it (it was the player’s idea to do it this way, not mine).

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  9. Beoric

    Using intelligence as a measure of ability at many different tasks in controversial in real life, I see no reason why you should assume that a character with a low intelligence score can’t be good at some activities while being poor at other (game related) activities.

    Certainly I disagree with players or DMs who presume that a low score means that the PC must make stupid decisions in combat; it is more than possible to be low in “book smarts” and still able to make decent decisions in a fight. Unless you think the DM should run a wolf pack, with animal intelligence, like they are tactically incompetent. And it is not limited to combat, plenty of average or sub-average IQ people can be perfectly competent or clever at any number of practical things, particularly in areas that they were trained in. And presumably adventurers were trained in adventuring.

    Certainly in systems where there are mechanical advantages to high intelligence scores, like improved spellcasting ability, XP bonuses, entry requirements to spellcasting classes, or knowledge skills, I see no need to penalize players for using their native intelligence in situations that don’t engage the mechanics of the game. I know that was a suggestion in OD&D, but I think it was gone by Holmes Basic, and certainly it wasn’t any part of Gygax’ vision for AD&D, with its focus on smart play.

    I also don’t know how good people are at roleplaying characters who are **slightly** less intelligent; people seem to be only capable of improvising characters of normal intelligence, or blithering idiots. So I am skeptical that it promotes good roleplaying.

    If you absolutely must penalize characters with lower intelligence, I suggest you don’t do it by asking the player to roleplay a cognitive impairment. I think it would be better if you as a DM just gave less information to that player. The player doesn’t get a detailed map, or gets only vague answers to his questions, or is less likely to know rumors, or isn’t told background information, or isn’t given reminders about information obtained in previous sessions.

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  10. Tyler Hanson

    I make Int matter by doing a LOT of group checks for knowledge. Making them group checks is important, because then all the low dump stat numbers affect the outcome. A single high Int character doesn’t carry the group. Some might argue it’s not realistic, but I urge you to try it out anyway.

    Make sure to give good / useful / actionable information when the group succeeds.

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  11. Catherine

    I once did some delving on the Intelligence front to decide what was the lowest score I would allow. This was after seeing how some people played low Intelligence characters – with obviously no idea how low intelligence people act [and yes, I have real-world experience with that]. With 3 at the bottom – “require supervision, best to live in supervised setting”, the spread came out with 10-11-12 as average, with 9 as low average [able to learn hands-on trade and perform tasks involving decisions] and 6 & 7 as “limited trainability”. 8 fell out as “able to perform explicit routine tasks without supervision IF the tasks have no elements of choice”. Since nobody in their right mind should be teaching killing skills to people who cannot be relied on to make reasonable decisions in difficult situations, I decided that the lowest Intelligence I would allow for a player character was 9.
    Others will have different opinions. But keep in mind that in a medieval setting, a manual laborer or uneducated person often was constrained by the opportunities available, not by inherent abilities.
    Also, my pet peeve – barbarians played as making stupid decisions and/or using in fake simplistic, butchered grammar. You don’t survive long outside the protection of civilization if you consistently make stupid decisions.

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