Intelligence, the forgotten ability

How to spice up your Intelligence game

D&D has from its inception relied on six ability scores: Strength, Dexterity, Constitution for the physical abilities, and then Wisdom, Intelligence and Charisma for the mental abilities. Many feel Intelligence is the forgotten score when it comes to power and use, and I shall explain why. But first, let’s take a look at some interesting house rules that might help make Intelligence feel less dull.

Bonus languages and skills

A house rule I run in my game.

At the end of your character creation, you learn an additional number of languages equal to your Intelligence modifier minus one. E.g., if you have a modifier of +3, you learn 3-1=2 bonus languages.

I found it an easy way to reward Intelligence, as my game use language somewhat heavily, both in social interactions, and in dungeon to curtail some knowledge. You might remove the minus one to make it more potent. Some run a similar house rule with skills, however skills are more powerful and useful than languages, so I would be wary of the scaling to use. Perhaps one more skill at +2, and another one at +4.

Flexible Spellcasting Ability modifier

Warlocks can/must use Intelligence as their spellcasting ability modifiers.

The flavor matches the Great Old One perfectly, and in general it fits the researcher side of the Warlock. The class was first presented that way in 5e play-test, but a majority of play-testers voted to keep Charisma.

Quicker Learning

This is also a semi-popular house rule that became an official variant mentioned in Xanathar’s Guide to Everything.

Characters with high Intelligence score learn twice as fast as others.

What “high intelligence score” means is left to the DM’s discretion. However, learning is rarely a part of a standard d&d game, most games end before 7th level according to WoTC data, hence this house rule would be very table-dependent.

Use intelligence for Initiative

You can use your Intelligence score instead of your Dexterity score for Initiative.

I have seen this one pop up a few times. The flavor makes sense as the DM can justify it with tactics, and predictions — just like Wisdom (Initiative) could be intuition and insight. It certainly is a buff to Intelligence.

Intelligence, forgotten and neglected

In 5e, all abilities have something interesting going on. All are key to a certain mechanic aspect of the system. All, but Intelligence.

  • Strength is the stat of choice for heavy armor and highest martial damage, as well as Athletics and Strength check. Strength also determine a character carrying, pushing, dragging and lifting capacity, and plays a central role in grappling. Some say that Strength is too weak this edition. But if you run Athletics and Strength checks in the spirit of the rules, or use the variant encumbrance rule (PH176), then your party might reconsider that decision. And truthfully, it speaks more to 5e versatility builds and how good Dexterity is than a true weakness of Strength.
  • Dexterity is sometimes called the god stat, and a simple look at the list of what it does explain why. It is important for Armor Class, can be used with weapons through finesse, great for Initiative, used for Stealth and Acrobatics. It is also a strong save that helps you avoid area of effect spells and other effects.
  • Constitution is core for every character through hit points, and for spell casters through Concentration checks. It is also a strong save and helps you resist most condition effects, especially poison.
  • Wisdom is a very strong save as it allows you to resist many magical effects. Five skills use Wisdom, in particular Perception, one of the most used by the system. It is also an important ability score for Cleric, Druid and Monk.
  • Charisma is a weak save; few effects use a Charisma save, but those who do are quite potent. Social skills use Charisma by default, something that both the system and the players value highly. It is not uncommon to hear at character creation time “Who is the face of the party?”. Moreover, Charisma is the spellcasting ability of Bard, Paladin, Sorcerer and Warlock. All of this means it is highly likely at least one of the party member is charismatic.

As you can see, all those abilities score interact with a key component of the game, which Intelligence does not.

Indeed, Intelligence is only used by one class as its main spell casting ability, the wizard (and two subclasses, the Arcane Trickster and the ill-named Eldricht Knight). Few effects use an Intelligence save, but those who do can be devastating. And last, five skills are tied with it: Arcana, History, Investigation, Nature and Religion. Of course, you don’t have to use Intelligence with those as explained in this article, but often we do. Four knowledge skills, and Investigation.

Investigation is certainly a good one. Whether it can allow you to detect secret doors and drawers or see the key detail in a scene that makes everything fit together, Investigation is a handy skill to have, at all time. However official modules and many DMs often use Perception instead, somewhat diminishing Investigation value. There is nothing wrong with that, but remember, we are looking at the intricacies and balance of the system, not how each table are run.

Now why is it that the four remaining knowledge skills are not enough to increase Intelligence value across the tables? At first glance, it would seem that knowledge would be a huge boon to a party. E.g., a fortuitous Arcana or Religion roll that helped determining Igor sipping tomato juice was really Igor the Vampire. They certainly have been part of awesome game scenes across many tables. But in general they have less effect on the game than, for instance, social skills. Social and combat encounters are at the core of running and playing a d&d game, while knowledge is something more secondary. While no d&d game is played without either social or combat encounters, you could perfectly do away with knowledge skills and run a normal d&d game.

Knowledge Skills

Let us illustrate with a somewhat typical situation.

“As you cross the large double gates made of stone, you notice standing in the hall a 60-foot tall headless statue. Its head lies shattered at its feet.

— Can I guess what deity the statue was depicting by looking the architecture style and other details?

— Roll Religion.

— Dang, a 6.”

Now let’s see how it goes.

Case I : Dice Fart.

“Dang, a 6. I guess I know nothing.”

Everyone moves on.

This is the most boring case and the one that makes everyone feels bad. The DM wanted to share some information, the players wanted to learn something, but today’s fortune decided otherwise. A possible way to deal with dice farts is to use passive checks, leaving nothing to chance. See my article on passive checks.

Case II : Never happened.

“Dang, a 6.

— Well you believe (the actual facts)

This is the DM compensating for dice farts, and just ignoring a bad roll that gets in the way of the game. Nothing wrong with that! The DM wants to communicate information to the players, whether because they wrote it with love, or simply for fun. The players want to immerse themselves in the game. In other words, every one want the check to succeed. We are back to one of the core principles of running the game: do not roll if there is no chance of failure or no chance of success. In other words, the DM should have communicated the information they wished on the temple to the player, then possibly add some bonus information behind a roll.

Case III : Failure is fun.

“Dang, a 6.

— Well you believe the statue belongs to the goddess Almar-Sheh, she has the head of a cow and absolutely requires her followers to walk barefooted in her temple.”

Proceed to walk on spikes, glass shards and hot tiles a bit later “Ouch! Is this really the temple of Almar-Sheh?”

Many DMs think that both successes and failures must make the game more interesting. Dice farts are the bane of fun and should be avoided at all costs. However, on its own, it does not really incentive picking Intelligence. Quite the contrary, as fun things happen with a low score. I know this is not a rare mindset among players (“I’m fine with doing dumb things as long as fun things happen”), but we are addressing the broader issues here, covering all kind of play-styles.

How I try to run knowledge skills

I must confess, I need to apply Failure is fun a bit more. However, I’ve been running a two-years long game where for 90% of the time, the party had dumped their Intelligence, and because they involves themselves with their characters and roleplay to a high degree, play it as such — some of them are still afraid of ghosts after a trip on a ghost ship, despite gaining 8 levels since then. The kind of characters that don’t always use simple logic to make sense of things. The thing is, I love writing, and I want to show what I have written to my players. At the same time, I want to match the fate thrown their way by their choices of ability scores, and the rolls that follow.

The first part of my solution is to curtain some information in slabs, diaries, behind secret walls, and rare languages (which the party can decipher thanks to Comprehend Languages and possibly my language house rule). It makes the search for information quite literal. However, this does not incentive bumping Intelligence, it is just my fun and practical solution to the situation described before.

The second part is to punish the party for their ignorance. If you feel this sentence is too harsh, just replace it with Actions have Consequences. This is kind of delayed Failure is Fun, where the party lack of knowledge start to build up and eventually backfire. Hence, if the party knows that their lack of knowledge is the reason for those events, then they know that dumping Intelligence has consequences. A simple example. The party arrived in a city to hunt a vampire. In the course of their investigations, they encountered a cult that called itself “The Holy Wind of Sif”, in truth a cult of Orcus. They failed a Religion check which would have informed them that Sif worshipers would never use such a name. This led them into a situation where they were ambushed by the cult, but due to the cult’s inexperience, they survived.

They are of course free to continue failing at knowledge, the game is still quite fun. And they could of course compensate for those weaknesses by going to a library (which they sometimes do!). But they know dumping Intelligence is punishing — you do not get the instant reward of Failure is Fun, instead you get delayed complications. Conversely, building Intelligence up is rewarding in my games, as it provides you with actionable knowledge, one synonym with power. In the end however, this is only a solution to make the knowledge subsystem both rewarding and punishing, not to Intelligence in 5e. In my opinion, increasing the number of skills, languages and facilitating learning would be a sufficient boon for Intelligence to put it up there with the other five, and not down there at the bottom, all alone. For you need obvious mechanical rewards for an ability to be valued.

By the way, I am now keeping to a strict weekly schedule and will post some homebrew every Tuesday and an article every Thursday.

Invade the Material Plane

3 thoughts on “Intelligence, the forgotten ability

  1. I love this. Very well written. Almost each new game I play there is always the discussion surrounding intelligence and how it is used. Many players want to be “smart” so they don’t want to put their lowest ability rolls into Intelligence, but they also don’t see how it will help them in-game so they don’t allocate higher rolls either. It becomes the 10-11 skill that never gets a modifier.

    Your house rules are good examples of what to do to get people more interested in their intelligence ability.

  2. The main problem with intelligence is that we’ve lost the Knowledge (Stuff) skills from 3.5. They’ve been replaced with Nature, Arcana, Religion, and History, but I feel like they don’t get the same mileage they had in previous editions. The other problem is the glossing over of Investigation (as stated in the article).

    I work it out like so: Perception is your ability to find things that are out in the open, without having to move or interact with objects (like scrapes on the floor, or a tripwire). Investigation is your ability to ferret out hidden things false bottomed drawers, interesting pages in journals, and (most importantly) traps. This makes perception a passive search, and investigation an active search.

    The other part of my ‘fixes’ are giving combat uses to the replacement knowledge skills. I allow players to use (Intelligence) with any skill relevant skill in order to ferret out stats from monsters. An example would be using (Intelligence) Medicine to see how much health a human has, or Arcana to see what spells a mage has access to.

    Seems to be working pretty well so far for my group.

  3. I have to say that @derp has a good idea. I also think that int should also have some bearing on social situations. It doesn’t matter how charming someone is if they don’t know certain things, or it would at least have a negative impact. Eg: dealing with clergy might warrant a religion check, same goes with scholars / arcana, nature with rangers, druids and woodland creatures, and history with NPCs who put a lot of stock in the past, be it “The good old days” or holding a grudge.

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