For many Dungeons and Dragons players, Intelligence is an immediate dump stat.
For a while, Wizards were just about the only class that really relied on Intelligence to use its core mechanics. Artificer has more recently joined the Wizard, of course, but that’s a paltry few.
It’s best practice to save your higher stat rolls, and your eventual stat increases, for those skills that you make the most use out of. And when you’re assigning your middling stats, it’s economical to place them in stats like Dexterity, Strength, or Constitution, which every class uses far more commonly than Intelligence checks. After all, if you’re not one of the Intelligence-based classes, you don’t really use the stat in the same way that *every* class makes use of the others.
But it doesn’t have to be that way.
Why You Should Encourage High Intelligence Characters
There’s nothing wrong with playing a low-intelligence character. They can be a lot of fun both to run and to interact with! But having at least one high intelligence character in the game can make a big difference in combat, available lore, and even basic planning.
Investigations and History checks are the best way to learn new things about the history of your setting, and about the monsters that you’re facing. A character that knows their way around battle tactics can earn the respect and the aid of the local armed forces. And, really, do you want the Barbarian deciding which quest to go on next? I mean, “smash bad guys” is fun and all, but it helps to have your aims a little clearer.
And for DMs, a high intelligence character is easier to guide through planned events and plot points. They’re more likely to notice, or respond well to, political intrigue or scheming. And they’re also more likely to come up with solutions that you don’t have to lie through your teeth about working out (admit it, we’ve all allowed characters to skirt actual problem solving when they’ve gotten too stuck).
Sometimes it's hard to actually feel as smart as your character is supposed to be. Unless you’re some sort of expert of medieval politics, magical warfare, and fantasy ecosystems, there’s going to be a bit of a gap between player and character capability.
As a DM, that can make it hard to let your Intelligence-heavy players feel just as cool and impressive as the character who can do 200 backflips in a row. It just isn’t as visceral to have your character painstakingly research a spell as it is to tear an enemy in half with your bare hands.
I’ve found that it helps to get over the feeling of being ‘out-thought’ as a DM. If your players are coming up with weird strategies that circumvent your intended path, don’t get upset! Don’t come up with reasons that it won’t work – that’ll only discourage your players from trying to use any kind of problem-solving going forward.
Secondly, let, and sometimes make, your players think for themselves. Have them make history checks or investigation checks to find things out, to locate valuable NPCs, and don’t necessarily tell them what they should be looking for. Hints and clues, if you have a fairly astute group of players, should be enough. The DCs don’t have to be high, but letting all of your players feel like their skill set is valuable is important. And the satisfaction of having ‘outsmarted the DM’ is enough to buoy and minor frustration that this method incurs.
If they aren’t catching on to things, then and only then, do you start spelling things out for your players.
“Second Thoughts” Checks
Sometimes, your players try to do stupid things.
This is fine, and it’s mostly fun. But sometimes these stupid things ought to result in some pretty major consequences, and players tend to be less happy about it – especially when they think that their character should have anticipated those results.
This can be frustrating as a DM, especially if you don’t like allowing the ‘undo-ing’ of previously made rolls. If you make the action, live with it!
What I do, instead of telling my players that they can’t take an action (or pulling out the old “Are you sure you want to do this?”, which can be pretty obvious), I have my players make an Intelligence Saving Throw. I set the DC at about 10 or so, depending on how obvious it should be to them that they’re making a bad decision.
On a success, I give them a little hint about what might go wrong (i.e. “Just as you’re casting your fire spell, the heat gathers with the beginnings of the incantation, and you spot slight flashes and sparks in the air around you just from the heat. These don’t normally happen when you cast this spell. Do you continue your spell, or abort and take another action?”, or on a higher roll, “You remember that flour dust is combustible, and casting a fire spell in a mill will probably blow you up. Do you want to choose another action this turn?”). If they fail – let them take those consequences!
Older editions of DnD used skill points instead of the proficiency system that 5e does. Certain classes, like Rogues, Bards, and Rangers, get more points to distribute at every level. But every class gains at least an amount equal to their Intelligence modifier – which makes a good Intelligence an invaluable asset, especially since you had a lot more skills to divide those points between in 3/3.5e.
This holds up in terms of real-world equivalencies. After all, someone with more books smarts (more training, knowledge of how to acquire new skills, and the ability to implement thing not just by practice but by theory) would naturally have a broader skill set, or a stronger one if they specialize.
For 5e, since they use proficiencies instead of points, I like to get a little creative. For every 4 points above 10, I allow my players to take either a new proficiency, or trade 2 proficiencies for a feat.
This means that, at a 16 Intelligence, a player would get an extra proficiency or expertise. At 18, they’d get 2, and at 20 they’d get 3. And, if they choose, they can trade 2 of those for a feat of their choice. This applies to rogues too (which can make their skill checks even more powerful than usual, but I don’t find that impairs the flow of the game).
Not only does this make Intelligence a more valuable resource, it also allows your players to have more customization options for their characters. Even if your players don’t value strength, they usually value that.
How do you use your Intelligence Score? Is it usually a dump stat, if you aren’t playing an INT-based class? Has your DM ever made it more impactful to the game?