The wizard’s stat?

Like Dex, Intelligence can be confusing in its terminology. In D&D cognitive processing ability is covered by both Intelligence and Wisdom. Sometimes it’s said Wisdom is your street smarts and Intelligence is your book smarts. Well, that’s just for wizards isn’t it?

Of the twelve classes in the player’s handbook only one needs a good Int score for their combat rolls; the wizard. Intelligence also gets a minor save that rarely comes up vs spell effects (although Synaptic Static is a killer spell!) It goes further than that though. Some characters can be seen as dependent on a single attribute like a cleric needs Wisdom and a rogue needs Dex. Others are dependent on more than one stat. Monks need both Dex and Wisdom, paladins need Strength/Dex and Charisma and rangers need Strength/Dex and Wisdom. We could say that investigative rogues and college of lore bards can usefully rely in Int as a secondary stat but not in the same way that a pally needs Charisma; it’s not coded into the class abilities. Of course, in a way, every class can benefit from every attribute and players can create some really individual characters but every PHB class except the wizard can dump-stat Intelligence.

Maybe this doesn’t matter. The Artificer class contained in Tasha’s Cauldron of Everything introduces an Intelligence based half-caster which has proved very popular. This is a comment upon the meta of D&D and the prevalence of which stats are prioritised across multiple groups. If your group play a fighter, a cleric, a rogue and a wizard and they’re happy with how the characters are playing then you have nothing to worry about. Besides, wizard is one of the most common classes in my experience. They just fill a wonderful niche in so many fantasy stories.

Skills and Ability Checks

Intelligence gets raft of proficiencies, being the guiding stat for Arcana, History, Nature and Religion. Aside from Investigation these can be considered fairly passive abilities. If John decides that Rastan the barbarian tries to lift a portcullis the Strength Check becomes interesting because it determines the success of what John decided Rastan would actually do. John could have advantaged himself by calling for help, using a block and tackle or anything else he could think of. John and the other players can probably take a decent guess at what the DC for the task is based upon the description of the portcullis and the DM’s previous rulings on lifting things. John can also clearly state what success and failure will look like and how success will advantage the party’s situation. Rastan is going to lift the gate without any aid or tools by just dead-lifting it and if he succeeds the party will be able to get past it. It’s transparent and he’s doing something.

On the other hand, if Paul asks what his wizard, Elmdalf, knows about Barbed Devils he isn’t really doing anything. The act of remembering isn’t quite the same as the state of knowing and neither are very exciting. We might consider that if Elmdalf knew anything about the devil he’d be prompted to mention it so why does Paul have to ask in the first place?

There’s no decision for him to make that could advantage him. There’s little way to guess at what the DC for the check would be. What is success and failure? What information could prove useful? How much will the DM tell him on a score of 15 or 20? It’s vague and I’m not really sure if the character actually counts as doing something. Lifting the portcullis might well require an action if in combat; would remembering/knowing something about Barbed Devils take an action? not at my table. I wonder if there is enough decision involved for the player to feel like they had the credit for a clever course of action. However, the passive nature of the ‘lore’ skills are more suited to the DM calling for rolls regardless of what the players have done. This is less satisfying as it takes the Decision out of Dice & Decisions.

It also requires the DM to be ready with an answer. It can be easy to reveal a detail about a creature from its entry in the Monster Manual but beyond that the DM has to be ready to reveal adventure details accessed by successful Intelligence checks. If the players need information to be able to engage with an adventure then it is the DM’s job to give it to them somehow. Without digressing into issues of agency, if further details about the plot or the challenge ahead are going to be revealed only at a certain juncture in the story/game then accessing it on a single roll could spoil the developments to be had and ruin exciting reveals or challenges. I have to admit in the past to calling for a lore skill check without really knowing what hinges on the outcome and upon a high score giving the poor player lots of added detail and information that doesn’t really assist them.

Since only the Wizard truly needs a high Int score for his combat abilities, other classes can be forgiven for ‘dump-statting’ intelligence. Why not let the wizard figure out the lore and save your proficiency allocations for something fun or useful like Persuasion or Stealth which leaves us with Clerics with low Religion mods and Druids with low Nature mods. This might not be a problem but if it is, it’s because the players aren’t able to perceive of a useful application of Intelligence to the game.

Arcana

This is a very commonly chosen proficiency from wizards, warlocks, sorcerers and bards and seems to cover knowledge of magical things. That can include magical creatures also but I confine this to creatures that have some magical property rather than otherwise mundane beings that were created by magic once upon a time. I often hear players ask if they can detect any sort of mystical aura which seems to me to be trying to get the benefits of a Detect Magic spell without actually casting it. If this skill is confined as not giving the benefits of spells like Detect Magic and Identify how does a player leverage it? Unless a player knows how and when to rely upon their characters strengths and abilities they can seem dead ends on the character sheet. I believe we can serve our players well by making proficiencies in Arcana seem more attractive. I don’t think we as DMs need a system for this. It’s probably enough to have your mind open to useful ways to call for an Arcana Check for the group as a whole and not just throwing the wizard player a bone.

As much as I enjoy it when my players delight in the discovery of the game world for the sheer wonder of it, nothing incentivises players like a tangible, actionable game advantage. Often, this means ways to conserve HP and cause damage. Can they use this information to kick ass?

When a hostile spell is cast you could call for an arcana check from suitable characters to tell the group what it is. This depends of course on how your players respond to this and if they seem engaged by the added knowledge. Do you tell your player’s what a spell is or perhaps its level before they decide whether to cast Counterspell?

Against an enemy humanoid spellcaster an arcana check might reveal what spells it can case. How? I don’t know; it’s magic after all but a real world fighter can soon spot if his opponent is a grappler or a striker, a lawyer can tell if their opponent is likely to rely upon legal authority in a closing speech or if they are an expert of cross-examination. Perhaps a scholar of magic could read from the manner of gestures and tone of incantations what sort of spells their adversary is likely to resort to. I think any way we can equip our players to make informed choices is a good thing.

Perhaps during combat a player could find out how many spell slots a creature has through a suitable check. I know some DMs will balk at this with a cry of ‘that’s meta!’ and fair enough, if that’s your position, it’s certainly valid. My take is that HP and spell slots etc are the language through which the players interface with the game. It is a game after all and I see no use in hiding the pieces. Yes, it’s admirable when the barbarian charges in despite the player controlling her knowing that it’s not the most tactically beneficial move but I want my players to make these roleplay focused decisions for roleplay reasons, not because of a lack of tactically relevant knowledge. I figure that an experienced fighter can see when a humanoid opponent is losing energy and is getting beaten back; the game language for that is its HP. I’m not precise but I do give information to players upon roughly what fraction of HP has been lost. So why not gift similar regarding spell casting ability upon a suitable check? It’s one approach and each DM and group respond differently to different ways of doing things but it might be worth feeling out at the table.

History

The issues with a player being able to leverage Arcana apply perhaps even more so to History. Knowing that the Sarrukh were one of the creator races that wrote the Nether Scrolls sure is nice but do the players even care? Does it help them ‘win’? Wins in D&D can be broadly defined but I don’t think that ‘the joy of knowledge’ is going to be enough to ensure player satisfaction. It’s not like you can surprise an enemy into missing a turn of combat with it.

And what about those big reveals? The ancient runes discovered in the forgotten tomb that make the pieces fall into place regarding the necromancer’s evil ploy is a fun and exciting moment that advances the game. I’m not going to get into issues of player agency and how to open your game up from a linear plot here, as its beyond the scope of this article. But suffice to say, if the players succeed in reaching the source of the knowledge is going to be a flat climax if they can’t deduce its significance due to a failed History Check. Likewise, it could be a poor reveal if a character with a huge History mod rolled well and was told the information without delving into the ancient places of the world.

On the other hand, more than Arcana, History can root a player into their character. History of the dwarven mines might be impossible lore for an elven wizard but the dwarf fighter may have a chance at knowing about the likely ambush point ahead.

Perhaps a character might have seen drawings of the ruins in a library long ago. Only now that they are here did the connection occur to them and they realised they faintly recall some detail of this place, the destination of a caved in corridor or secret door perhaps. This is something players might not think to ask unless you offer this by forcing the History Check from your own initiative which might not be quite the best application but it gives the players the nudge to think of such lines of enquiry themselves.

The folk songs of this place tell of freedom fighters living in the hills, could these be the bandits encountered? It requires you to do some quick thinking but if the party is waylaid by brigands, maybe a character can recall what led them to such a lifestyle. Were they once principled rebels? or farmers forced from their lands by rising taxes and bad harvests. Such and understanding could turn a combat into a haven. If the party leave the bandits with a healing potion or a detail about the ruins in the mountains they won’t easily forget to try relying on their history.

A few of these ideas require a bit of a nudge from the DM so the players understand that you are open to that kind of problem solving and nothing embeds a practice like reward.

If your players are prone to ‘murder-hoboing’; resorting to combat as a first response to problem solving, it might be because combat works. Their characters have numerous abilities tied to combat and it’s predictable and reliable in its mechanic. Lore based checks can feel more woolly and loose. By ensuring these work and provide tangible benefits your players might be more likely to ask if they know the name of local orc chieftains before resorting to a combat plan.

It might be nice to know that the name of the old king who built the mine it and how that tale links into the other setting info you’ve created to build a rounded and believable world but if all the players need is ‘go to mountains, find mine, get sword’ then that might be all they pay attention to.

If, after the bandits, the players reach the abandoned mine and encounter a stone lintel inscribed with ‘speak the name of the true king’ and if they don’t they get bathed in acid they may wish they’d picked up that boon from the bandit/rebels in the hills. It requires a bit of a lead from the DM like any If the setting lore can save their HP or get them cool stuff there is more chance of them paying attention to your carefully constructed setting.

INVESTIGATION

Ah, the old Investigation vs Perception question! Pathfinder 2e takes Perception out of the skill list and puts it in its own special category because it’s just so important. As with Stealth, it’s at the core of what dungeoneering is about. Can you spot them before they spot you? Many of the 5e modules emphasise Perception’s importance by citing Perception checks to notice traps, secret doors and find treasure which leaves me wondering what Investigation is for. To my mind, if someone can notice a secret door without actively looking for it, it’s not really that secret. A trap that can be simply observed feels like less of a purposeful trap and more of a hazard.

As ever, I suppose the most important thing is to be consistent however you apply it. I try to hold to practises that balance the relative utility of these two skills. These are just some ideas rather than advice.

  • Perception is to notice something important. Investigation is to find something hidden.
  • Perception relates to an individual’s senses. Investigation is linked to their conscious thought.
  • Perception is more likely to be used to spot a creature. Investigation is more likely to be used to uncover treasure, traps or secret doors.
  • During ‘loot the bodies’ or sifting through the detritus searches, even if no specific treasure is listed in my notes, I often allow an Investigation check to find a few coins, a minor potion or basic piece of adventuring kit. Depending on the ambience of the game and setting if the score beats a DC 20 I allow a roll on Treasure Table A.

The great thing is none of these approaches requires any shift from the written rules.

On the other hand, whilst Perception and Investigation feel like bedfellows as the ‘find stuff’ skills they can operate very differently. Perception is more likely to be called for by the DM without the players asking what they notice beyond the ‘boxed text’ description. Investigation checks are more likely to be called for in response to a character’s intent or deed which is arguably more satisfying.

Meaningful decision for player + chance for character to be cool = fun

It’s probably the most active of the Intelligence skills by not relying upon a character knowing something and requiring them to interact with the world. However, our players have no eyes and ears in the game world but they do have brains and problem solving skills and just as a dungeon might require the characters to advance cautiously and observantly, a mystery requires the players to enquire, deduce and … well, investigate.

It can be useful for a DM to keep a focus on the separate character and player elements in key investigative moments. It can be used as a double trigger, requiring the player to make a decision as to what detail requires further examination before the character comes into focus with an Investigation check. It can also be a ‘second chance’ mechanic; such as allowing the player to find a secret door with no roll if the correct specific area is searched but allowing an Investigation check to made if the search is expressed to cover a broader area.

NATURE

Another ‘Lore Skill’ like Arcana and History; same horse but a different jockey? Perhaps but unlike those skills there can be a grey area as when to call for a Nature check and when to call for a Survival check. Is the weather in the hills going become dangerous? Nature or Survival at your table?

I don’t think it matters so much which answer you’d give as long as you are able to be consistent and therefore predictable to your players. I think part of the issue here is that Survival feels like the more rugged and adventurous cousin of bookish Nature and I try to balance their utility so a player’s choice to take proficiency in Nature is rewarded as much as that of a player who opted for Survival. Survival feels like one of the commonly resorted to skills. Covering tracking and hunting it’s a very useful area for any adventurer and I don’t want players to feel short changed or to ignore Nature as an option because it’s only used for identifying plants.

Much like the Perception vs Investigation question it can help to have a clear line in your mind for the sake of consistency. My personal take is if the character is doing something I’m more likely to call for a Survival check, if they are asking if they know something I am more likely to call for a Nature check. So in the example above, I’d rely on a Nature check but would resort to Survival to find shelter or navigate through worsening conditions. Another example might be a party trying to move through woodlands filled with toxic plants. Spotting the plants, discerning what effect they have or recognising that they grow near water sources would all be Nature checks at my table but finding a route around them or mitigating the effects of their spores with a damp face cloth or similar defence would be a Survival check.

There are issues with druids not having impressive Nature mods due to their principle statistic being Wisdom rather than Intelligence. There are a number of work arounds to this but it’s a specific issue and this article is already very long. Here I’ll just reference that no skill is tied to any stat and if a druid is in their own familiar environment Wisdom (Nature) checks might be appropriate in certain circumstances.

RELIGION

Another lore skill that has the same passive nature as Arcana, History and Nature. Religion and gods are a fundamental part of most D&D settings but this proficiency can be less useful to players than we might expect. History, Arcana and Nature feel broader in their application. Does it matter which dark god the shrine is dedicated to? I tend to work around low Intelligence clerics by letting them know automatically about any aspects of their own faith. I’m afraid there’s no prize for spotting my agenda to increase the value of Intelligence to players in the way I DM and maybe that’s only because of a failing on my part that doesn’t affect your game. However, where other faiths are concerned I require an Intelligence (Religion) roll. I don’t see that a mid-West pastor or Roman priest would be better placed to know much about Islam or the Norse pantheon than the next person. It’s not exactly the same but it serves as an analogy (Catholic priests don’t believe in Thor but if they did it might be different).

TOOLS

Tool proficiencies are not tied to specific statistics but the use of a poisoner’s kit, alchemists tools or herbalism kit to craft remedies and toxins might often call for an intelligence based check. This is kept deliberately vague in the PHB which doesn’t include a rule set for crafting. Allowing minor potions and toxins to be made by the PCs can be a way to grant a higher Intelligence character something active to do with that juicy Int Mod. This could be as loose or structured as your inclination and your group’s appetite for such added head work. However, it won’t add anything unless you let your players know you are open to this, preferably during character creation.

I also find a lot of DMs use Dexterity based Thieves’ Tools checks for picking locks and disarming traps. This ‘fantasy-bomb disposal’ niche is maybe better reflected with an Int based check. After all, Dex is already well- erviced and you could argue that picking a complicated lock involves as much problem solving as it does deft motor skills. This route can add something if you’re running a city based intrigue or heist game and it can assist to separate the ‘breaking and entering’ role from just being the rogue’s arena. However, you’d need to be up front with your players during character creation so they understand what their character build choices will mean in the game.

SAVES

When do you call for an Intelligence saving throw? Does the wizard ever get to roll his best save? I like to try and spread out the rolls I call for as much as possible but and Int save is never going to be that common. Maybe that’s just the way it is and as I keep saying, the best thing to do in response is probably nothing. However, if a character is about to read a cursed book that will do them harm and Int save might be appropriate.

I’ve called for Int Saves to protect players from their own poor planning. Now I’m not even sure if this is a good idea but I’ve experimented with it a little; please bear with me. I tend not to refer players to their character’s own ‘in adventure’ experience save to account for the player learnt this two weeks ago but to the character it might have be earlier the same day. I want to keep what would reasonably be fresh in their character’s mind, fresh for the players too, otherwise they are stymied from making informed decisions. But if the players just misidentify what is relevant to a problem and get it wrong, well then that’s their agency in action. So it’s with great care that I would choose to interfere (I do interfere, just inadvertently …) but sometimes … sometimes, and I can’t really give a check list as to when, it feels right to call for an Int save in an otherwise ‘dice light’ planning part of the game to avoid the players missing the relevance of a critical detail. Sorting the wheat from the chaff in an open world game can be hard and players end up building in their own red herrings that will get them nowhere towards their chosen objective. I hope I DM to allow them to pursue whatever objective they want but once that’s chosen, I won’t rejig the game world under their feet to fit some bullshit plan that won’t get them where they want to be. So at times I have called for an Int Save as a sort of goalkeeper. I don’t see it operates that differently from having an NPC show up and put them on the right track except that it’s overt, character focused and can still fail. You need to take care not to make the players feel foolish and to ensure that it comes across as a win.

PUZZLES

Some groups like puzzles, some groups hate them. If you use them, how to balance the onus for solving it between the players and their characters is a balancing act for each group and each DM together. If the players face a puzzle or riddle then to what extent should the DM allow the PCs to solve it using the character abilities rather than the players themselves figuring it out. John doesn’t need to perform a feat of strength for Rastan to lift the portcullis so should Paul have to deduce the answer for Elmdalf to solve a riddle or can he just ask the DM if Elmdalf can figure it out and rely upon his Intelligence stat?

As a player, I’m pretty bad at abstract puzzles during game sessions. I’m okay at riddles and puzzles with a mechanic linked to the narrative like a challenging dungeon layout but I suck at pure logic exercises when I’m roleplaying and hanging out with friends. I recently ran a wizard who advanced to Intelligence 20 in a game with plenty of puzzles. Being aware of this from a DM perspective and knowing my limitations, I made my wizard a bit on the bonkers side and that helped me feel he didn’t fail as a concept due to my own poor pattern recognition.

There’s no end to this rabbit-hole. A player running a battle-hardened fighter with military experience might as well say to the DM ‘What is the tactically most astute option that my character would be able see?’ which would totally ruin the sense of the players being the characters. I find the most satisfying way of resolving puzzles is to allow the PCs to make checks to gain hints and Tasha’s Cauldron of Everything has some guidance on how to go about this.

However, puzzles don’t need to be a riddle or constrained scenario like a chess-board problem. We can be presented in a wider fashion so a dungeon itself takes on puzzle elements in its design. This is can help a puzzle feel more rooted in the world and less like a nested mini-game but that’s a subject for another article.

WARLOCK VARIANT

I let warlocks use Intelligence as their spellcasting ability if the player so chooses. It’s a minor shift that brings very little extra head work to the game but adds a nice touch. Wizards can more easily multi-class into the forbidden secrets of warlockery (…not a word). I like balance and there are two Wisdom based full casters (Druid and Cleric) and one half-caster (Ranger). There are two Charisma based full casters (Sorcerer and Bard) and one half-caster (Paladin). It fits nicely for me that there should be two Intelligence based full casters (Wizard and Warlock) and one half-caster (Artificer). I know, I know, the warlock’s pact magic is quite different to the usual spellcasting trait of other classes and artificers aren’t strictly casters but they fit the niche. Neither do I see it as necessary that a warlock has to be a charismatic figure. I like the idea of a failing wizard who in desperation turns to a dark and dangerous text. In game terms it allows me to dangle tempting offers to the wizard with cool demonic offers backed up by strong gameplay options (Wanna d10 cantrip that adds your Int Mod? I got some Eldritch Blast if you’re interested … maybe I can interest you in an infernal familiar?). I like unpleasant and repellent warlocks with strong Arcana mods. I suspect this is a personal thing but it’s an option if you and your players want to increase the standing of Int in your games.

Woof! That was a long one. Thank you for reading and getting this far! I hope it gave you some food for thought. And remember,

WE CAN ALL LEVEL UP.