What Use is Intelligence?

I’ve been taking a closer look at the various abilities listed in the Player’s Handbook, and I’m leaning to the opinion that intelligence is the most under-utilized statistic amongst the Big 6 (well, 7 if you count comeliness).

Looking at the description of the intelligence attribute itself, it seems to have three main uses:

  • Learning additional languages
  • Casting high-level magic-user spells
  • learning listed spells/maximum and minimum number of spells per level

I don’t count class or race minimums as a “use” per se (elves must have an 8, illusionsts must have a 15, etc.).

The languages issue is rather an odd one, as non-human characters generally already start off with a boatload of languages, and only get the chance to learn one or two more if they have an exceedingly high INT score.

Being able to cast spells of 5th (INT 10+), 6th (INT 12+), etc. level is certainly something a magic-user needs to have, and at least gives an incentive for players not to try to get cute and put their highest roll in something that has more immediate applicability (like constitution for hit points or dexterity for armor class).

The last one; the chance to know listed spells, and the minimum/maximum spells per level is simply a non-issue. I’ve never heard of anyone actually using those cockamamie rules. (Basically, each M-U character is expected to roll for each spell listed in the Players Handbook; if they blow their roll, they can’t ever learn the spell in question. Ever. And someone with, say, a 15 INT would only be able to ever learn 11 spells listed in the Players Handbook. Ever. And even then, it’s no guarantee you’ll ever find the 11 spells you are “able to learn.”)

Unfortunately, that useless rule is also the one that gives some heft to the INT statistic. Without it, in terms of day-to-day use, you have languages. Strength gives you all sorts of strengthy things to do like opening doors and melee combat. Dexterity gives you an AC bonus and missile combat bonuses. Constitution gives you permanent HP bonuses. Even charisma, if utilized properly, allows you to get and keep henchmen and hirelings. But intelligence only gives languages.

My question, and I am actively soliciting your opinions on this, is whether you agree with me that intelligence, as currently described in the AD&D rules, is really underpowered (or perhaps “underutilized” is a better word) than the rest of the abilities, and if so, what to do about it?

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Wargamer and RPG'er since the 1970's, author of Adventures Dark and Deep, Castle of the Mad Archmage, and other things, and proprietor of the Greyhawk Grognard blog.

16 thoughts on “What Use is Intelligence?

  1. I can't remember which edition (B/X?) but if your Intelligence is under a certain point you can't read or write common, and if it's below another point you can't speak properly.

  2. When I sat down and started to write up some PCs for my training dungeon, I encountered the know spells rule as presented in the PHB for the first time in 20 years. I struggled to remember if we'd ever used it back in the day and then thought 'To hell with it, I'll house-rule it away'. So I got rid of it and decided that I'd keep the max spells number, but get rid of the min spells. And I'd keep 'know spell' but restrict it to the chance to understand a spell found in a book and wanted for the MU's own collection. And if they failed the roll, they would not be prevented from ever learning it, just not that particular copy of it.

    I had ruminated on the use of Intelligence in one of my posts,
    http://daddygrognard.blogspot.com/2009/11/players-and-intelligence.html, to which some interesting replies were obtained. The issues I raised are still pertinent, however.

  3. We used the INT score for magic users to learn spells back in the old days (before we got the DMG with it's revised rules that started each player out with 3 spells not counting read magic).

    As a 'beginner,' we allowed the spellcaster to select the spell he wanted to 'go for,' then he could roll his percentage chance… and he got as many tries as his maximum number (but if he went all through the list without getting his minimum, he was allowed to keep trying until he did). You had to go all the way through the whole list before you could go back and try any spells again.

    I have no idea if this was the absolutely right way to do it — it was just the way we did it (and I think we started it that way with original D&D).

    In theory, even if you failed to learn 'magic missile' the first time around, if you found a scroll of it, you could try again.

  4. What if a high INT score gave a bonus to all classes to avoid surprise? Or to find/avoid traps?

    Or maybe an attack bonus usable once in a combat based on the idea that high INT allows the PC to discern an enemey's weak spot in tactics or armor?

  5. I like to encourage players to pass ideas on to the player whose character has the highest intelligence. Or when a group comes up with the plan, to roleplay it as if that character came up with most of it.

    Also for puzzles/riddles, I'll give more clues to the player whose character has the highest intelligence, so he can roleplay that.

  6. Intelligence could affect spell memorization time, such that with 14+ your time is cut in half and at 19+ it's cut in half again (quartered).

    That assumes an 8-hour rest period followed by 15 minutes of memorization per spell level. At 14+ it would be 7.5 minutes per spell level, and at 19+ it would be 3.75 per spell level.

    Second, you could consider giving bonus memorization slots like a Cleric gets for high Wisdom. Perhaps fewer slots than he gets.

    Third, Intelligence should modify a Thief's Open Locks, Find/Remove Traps, and Read Languages. Perhaps offer a half and half bonus for Dex and Int for the first two, but RL should be purely INT. Other classes with percentage skills may be affected.

    Fourth, you could say that nonhuman races have those languages as a possible list to choose from at character generation, but you need to spend INT language slots to actually learn them. Don't give a racial language for free – note that a low INT character won't even be able to speak that racial language because he doesn't have a language slot to spend on it.

    Fifth, offer another use for language slots: spending them on secondary skills or proficiencies.

    Sixth, reduce training time by one day per week if you have INT 14+ and by another day per week if you have your prime requisites all 14+. This means basic classes (Ftr, M-U, Clr, Thf) are more likely to have faster training. And M-U in particular will get 2 days off if he gets anything, which is nice. Training price remains the same.

    Seventh, INT should be rolled for the player who forgot something that his character might remember, or to figure out a puzzle if the DM allows. Remember that the player is not expected to be strong enough to slay a dragon; he should not always be expected to be smart enough to solve the riddle.

  7. Interestingly, 2E must have realized this as INT is the most important stat in figuring how many NWP the charactr can have. A lot of players in my campaigns default a high score to INT to take advantage of this.

  8. Agree with your assessment of Int.

    What about using the Int score as a chance of a spell misfiring?

    If you are using a do-overs system (like Bennies in Savage Worlds) or giving out fate points that players could use to avoid unpleasant results, you could give more to the player with the highest Int, one less to the next most intelligent character, and so on until the least intelligent character gets none.

  9. You could also use high intelligence as an experience point bonus boost… then again you could apply that to high Wisdom as well.

    I sometimes use it in tests to "alter reality" to a degree.

    For instance, having an intelligent character form an idea and roll a test against it with 20 as a target number. If successful then that idea becomes a campaign 'reality' of sorts.

    Like a player saying, "Bandits in this region like to keep their coins in bags inside their boots."

    Roll d20 + INT mod. 20+ then that deduction becomes 'real' and you can indeed find their money in their boot. Rolling a 1 might cause a wrong deduction. While everything in between is inconsequential.

    Handy to have players fill in 'flavor' into the campaign where they otherwise couldn't.

    It's fun for me anyway…

  10. It's tough because the things Intelligence governs ARE taken for granted. In my old AD&D campaigns, characters would only play magic-users with an 18 intelligence BECAUSE of the spell limitation (and would be actively pursuing ways to up their Int to the magic 19)…but I don't remember ever pushing the "chance to learn spell."

    This is the only place in AD&D where a character class's NATURAL CLASS ABILITIES are limited. Clerics don't have to roll to see if they learn spells or turning ability, fighters have no chance to "fail" to learn weapon proficiencies, thief skills, druid/assassin/monk abilities…all of them come automatically. In many ways, this seems like an attempt by Gygax to balance the power of high level magic-users.

    And languages…depending on the campaign world, the number of languages spoken could be INCREDIBLY important. But since so many campaigns only deal with low-mid level dungeon delve adventures (with sparse negotiation at best), this too gets left behind.

    So yeah, Intelligence get a bit of the short end compared to other abilities…but to the magic-user, that XP bonus is incredibly important due to their slow rate of advancement (even if everything else gets set aside).

  11. I've been considering making INT affect a character's chance of being surprised. I haven't really finalized anything yet, but my first thoughts are to let characters with high INT use a d8, or even a d10 for surprise (still being surprised on a 1 or 2), while very low INT characters might be stuck with a d4 or even a d3. Massive, god-like intellects might get to roll a d20. Woo-hoo!

    My rationale for this is that the Big Brains will note tiny clues that others, less perceptive, might ignore, and are thus less likely to be surprised.

    I'll be trialling the idea in my campaign over the coming weeks; I'll be interested to see how it works.

  12. Yes, I agree that Int is underutilized compared to the other abilities. I’m actually pretty happy with that, though. I’ve seldom seen a use of an Int stat that I’ve liked in any game. It wouldn’t bother me if it went away.

    Oddly, I can’t ever recall it being heavily abused as a dump-stat.

  13. I've never considered Int a useless stat, perhaps due to the emphasis I've always put on languages in my games (including some house rules on language fluency based on Int). Players in my games might disagree, however: I think Int, Wis, and Cha were in general the "dump stats" of choice for most PCs.

    Until beginning to play with my current crew, however, I also hadn't ever encountered anyone who used the min/max # of spells per level where you roll for _all_ of the spells in a given level at once: I've always used the DMG first 4-5 1st level spells (read magic plus one each from attack, defense, and misc., and perhaps 1 more) for starting MUs. Then, upon gaining a level, the PC would pay training costs, and select the spell they wanted to try to learn during training (I included a new spell of the appropriate level if the number of spells they could cast per day increased by one with the new level): they roll the % to see if they know it, and if they do, great; if not, they can try again if they gain a point of Int or when they gain a new level. New spells can be learned (if successfully rolled) from scrolls, by trading with PCs/NPCs, etc. MUs can still only know the minimum/maximum number of spells per level listed in the PHB, unless they use a wish to lift that restriction, etc. So, once the PC hits their maximum number of spells learned for each level, they can't add any more spells of that level to their spellbooks.

    So, despite the way that the rule is written which suggests going through the entire spell list at once to determine if you can learn any given spell or not, I've only ever allowed PCs to try to learn a spell when they encounter it during the game (in written form—not just when they get attacked by it! 😀 ).

    @ Jonathan: MUs actually fare better than clerics with respect to limitations on their spell casting abilities: if a Cleric has a low Wis score, their spells may outright fail, in addition to a low score limiting the level of spells they can cast (like MUs).


  14. In our Swords & Wizardry game we just started up, we're allowing MUs with INT of 15+ to memorize one additional spell above the amount they can actually cast. eg. first level MU could memorize (prepare) sleep AND charm person, though he would still only be able to cast one of them. I know this smacks of Vancean heresy, but hey, it works to make Int useful in our game.

    I think in a different edition, say C&C, I'd use it similarly; a wizard with an 18 Int (+3 bonus) could memorize 3 additional spells, though I might add the caveat that they had to be from 3 separate spell levels.

  15. @Timrod – my good buddy Old 4 Eyes is running my Training Dungeon with C&C and uses the additional spells for higher intelligence rule as you do – it has certainly upgunned the MUs in the game for sure.

    PS I am now your first follower. Stick the kettle on!

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