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Roleplaying Intelligent Creatures in D&D 5e, P1: Low & Moderate INT13 min read

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Otherworldly Incantations Monster Intelligence

Monstrous Mindscapes. Have you ever struggled to roleplay creatures in Dungeons & Dragons, or to fully understand their thought processes and strategies? After working on my D&D 5e Resource Compendium the last couple weeks, this week I decided to kick off a D&D 5e series tackling guidelines for running intelligent creatures, starting with low and moderate intelligence then working our way up. I’ve developed an Intelligence Index detailing various aspects of intelligence and articulating how behavioral traits emerge as INT scores progress. And I’ve started an Intellect Archetypes system as well, beginning to envision monstrous mindsets in more detail. Let’s take a look!

INTELLIGENCE IN D&D 5E? A QUICK RECAP

To start off, we have to distinguish Intelligence from Wisdom in Dungeons & Dragons, a perennial topic for debate. In the Fifth Edition Player’s Handbook (PHB), Intelligence refers to “reasoning and memory”, or “logic, education, memory, or deductive reasoning”. Versus Wisdom, referring to “attunement”, “perceptiveness and intuition”.

You may remember Intelligence from Skill Checks like Arcana, History, Investigation, Nature, or Religion. You may also know it as the Spellcasting Ability for Wizards and Arcane Tricksters, Artificers and Arcane Archers and Inquisitives. Oh my. Except, I think no one has ever really played an Inquisitive.

Now the PHB also mentions in an off-label uses for INT section stuff like: wordless communication, appraising items, disguises, forgery, craft lore, and games of skill, which fits suspiciously well with Wizards of the Coast having removed several earlier edition skills like Appraisal, Disguise, and Forgery.

And INT Saves. Who could forget a Saving Throw against Phantasmal Force, Symbol, or Feeblemind? Oh, Feeblemind. Let’s talk about that one in particular in a bit.

In 5e, between the PHB, Volo’s Guide to Monsters, Unearthed Arcana, Mordenkainen’s Tome of Foes, and the Sword Coast Adventurer’s Guide, nine races or sub-races get INT bonuses. 5e monster INT scores so far span from 1 for the lowly Lemure, awakened armors or animated shrubbery, and many oozes and vermin and beasts, all the way up to some of the more formidable foes, mostly in Mordenkainen’s: 23 for Graz’zt, Hutikin, and Nagpa, 24 for Titivilus, 25 for Sibriex and Solar, and a whopping 26 for Fraz-Urb’luu and Zariel. Part Two in this series will cover hyper-intelligence specifically, whereas this one will discuss the lower end, INT Scores of 1-13.

NEURODIVERSITY

Moving on, for my D&D 5e Intelligence framework, I accept a Neurodiversity Model which views mental characteristics like Autism, Dyslexia, and Attention Deficit or Obsessive-Compulsive traits as no more or less intelligent overall. Basically, Left-Handed or Right-Handed. Now, if you really want to stretch it for gameplay, PCs and NPCs of a given INT could vary up and down in a vertical column in my index by up to two tiers away for certain traits. Like, a 12 INT character with a neurodivergent trait could have an INT behavior for its mental Working Memory from the 8 INT-16 INT tiers, while keeping the rest of its neurotypical horizontal row traits. This simplification, using basically a slider, works alright for a fictional roleplaying and worldbuilding capacity. We’ll have to make a few simplifications, but we can also unpack INT more.

THE IQ TEST? IT CAME BACK NEGATIVE

One caveat in all this. Many D&D players have tried to simplify INT in D&D by comparing it to IQ. You know, just multiplying a given INT score by 10 to produce an IQ score. Really, that oversimplifies things too much, and I don’t think IQ correlates well into a fictional, D&D universe. No, let’s unpack Intelligence with more complexity, presenting varying aspects, as well as emergent properties, within it. Approaching the topic, you know, intelligently.

Drawing upon various theories of intelligence however, I’ve developed my 5e Intelligence Index, which includes aspects for six categories: Language, Logic & Calculation, Imagination & Conceptualization, Memory & Knowledge, Processing & Learning, and Working Memory. We’ll also fold all this into archetypes for our roleplaying and worldbuilding toolkit later on. For now, let’s look at the defining behavioral features of each tier of gameplay Intelligence, using a metric with Human as the baseline, as D&D does. Biased, I know. You can use these features as tips and guidelines to help you roleplay a creature or character of a given intellect.

INTELLIGENCE INDEX: EMERGENT BEHAVIORS BY TIER

Intelligence Score 1: Borderline-Object
Example D&D 5e Creatures: Animated Armor, Ankheg, Frog, Lemure, Violet Fungus.

At this tier, creatures cannot meaningfully communicate for the most part, they behave programmatically, and function essentially in a non-cognitive manner. Yet they may have procedural memory, like for unconscious motor skills, and — if living and subject to evolution — they might have adaptive memory as a consequence of species selection. Processing and learning come incredibly slowly, mostly skating by on random mutation. They also lack any sort of notable working memory. Imagine the Animated Armor though, with no evolved traits, just arcane instruction: maybe its intelligence works mainly through the very most basic level of computational filtering of “on” versus “off”.

Intelligence Score 2-3: Non-Sapient
Example D&D 5e Creatures: Cockatrice, Flail Snail, Gibbering Mouther, Hawk, Iron Golem, Nupperibo, Ochre Jelly.

At this tier, creatures have very limited communication, and operate primarily based on instinct. They have basic cognition, but largely survive through physiological trauma-adaptations, whether within a lifetime, or across generations. Minimally-susceptible to training, mostly based on pleasure and pain, they have singular thoughts only, if at all. But they have begun to develop the most rudimentary form of thoughts, based on attraction and aversion. Yes, perhaps a Cockatrice or Ochre Jelly have “favorites” and “pet peeves”.

Intelligence Score 4-5: Pre-Sapient
Example D&D 5e Creatures
: Baboon, Guard Drake, Hezrou, Hill Giant, Monodrone, Ogre, Twig Blight.

At this tier, creatures largely use pantomiming to communicate, and have a foundational intuition around things like ratios of predators-to-prey within view. They have begun to grasp advantage and disadvantage more meaningfully. They possess basic visualization, such as through backtracking very recent experiences, with functioning short-term memory. They can learn through rote learning, as in memorization through repetition. And in terms of their working memory capacity, they have begun to alert and orient themselves away from immediate survival concerns when possible. So maybe an Ogre can have a simple sense of yearning, or nostalgia.

Intelligence Score 6-7: Sapient
Example D&D 5e Creatures: Corpse Flower, Dolphin, Flesh Golem, Fire Elemental, Goristro, Minotaur, Skeleton, Troll.

At this tier, creatures bear full capacity for simple symbolic communication, though they may still misunderstand or misuse more complex words often. They have basic inductive reasoning, a better grasp of probabilities, though will tend to overgeneralize. They can have more abstract thoughts, as well as more meaningful flashbacks or daydreams. They bear episodic memory, remembering “what”, “when”, and “where” events, as well as semantic memory, beginning to remember some ideas as facts and principles. They may have an identifiable learning style, though constrained by a volatile train of thought which can become derailed easily. What flashbacks and daydreams might a Skeleton have? What facts of the world might a Minotaur believe in? Maybe a Fire Elemental considers the combustion odds of everything it touches.

Intelligence Score 8-9: Sub-Common
Example D&D 5e Creatures: Adult White Dragon, Bearded Devil, Cyclops, Giant Eagle, Kobold, Myconid Sprout, Star Spawn Grue, Tridrone, Yeti.

At this tier, creatures may seem dull and take things literally, but nevertheless have more complex visualization, through forecasting and anticipation. They may misremember often, but have developed a method for compensating for a minimal deficit of theirs, using a strength to cover a weakness. And they have a more solid train of thought too, though they may overstretch that by trying to multitask. At this level, these creature may attempt to cultivate an Intellect Archetype. A Yeti or a Kobold will have a basic contingency plan, a Cyclops will know that it probably can’t rely on its perceptiveness and has to account for that through brawn somehow.

Intelligence Score 10-11: Common
Example D&D 5e Creatures: Awakened Shrub, Doppelganger, Green Slaad, Nightmare, Pixie, Pseudodragon, Scarecrow, Slithering Tracker, Stone Giant, Wight.

At this tier, creatures become fluent in complex communication, and skilled at deduction via many related details. Capable of complex ideation and symbolism, they will sometimes get flashes of insight depicting novel techniques. They may show mild forgetfulness, but have developed a system of compensating for a moderate deficit. What’s more, they can demonstrate inefficient active multitasking through sequentially focusing on several tasks within a short window of time. In their Intellect Archetype, these creatures may reach topical proficiency through natural intelligence alone. A bit hard to imagine, but a Pixie, a Scarecrow, even an Awakened Shrub will have moments of inspiration, tactically or perhaps aesthetically. The Wight knows full well the threat of sunlight, and accounts for this decently. Maybe the Stone Giant undertakes a bit of lighter stone-carving while following a scent over the hill.

Intelligence Score 12-13: Smart
Example D&D 5e Creatures: Azer, Cloud Giant, Drider, Intellect Devourer, Kuo-Toa Archpriest, Rakshasa, Satyr, Treant, Wraith, Wyrmling Blue Dragon.

At this tier, creatures may present themselves in more individual ways, such as with wit and sarcasm. And they may have ratiocination routines, where they evaluate the consistency of their thinking. With moderate ability to mentally simulate complex phenomena across multiple senses, they sometimes have flashes of insight on novel processes rather than just techniques. Likewise, with strong prospective memory, they can demonstrate higher levels of planning and intentionality. At this point they can compensate for a more major deficit, and are sometimes known for ruminating on more abstract or philosophical matters. In their Intellect Archetype, they may reach topical mastery in a subject from their raw mental acuity. Imagine a Wraith examining its logic, ensuring it’s sufficiently cold and calculating. Imagine a Drider devising a new process for ambushing and devouring prey. Imagine a Treant Philosopher, a Rakshasa Historian, a Satyr Naturalist.

D&D 5E INT TIERS & TRAITS SUMMARY INDEX P1

INTELLIGENCE SCORELANGUAGELOGIC & CALCULATIONIMAGINATION & CONCEPTUALIZATIONMEMORY & KNOWLEDGEPROCESSING & LEARNINGWORKING MEMORY
1: Borderline ObjectNon-CommunicativeProgrammaticNon-CognitiveProcedural Memory; Adaptive Memory (If Living)Random Mutation / Programming OnlyLacking
2-3: Non-SapientLimited CommunicationInstinct OnlyBasic CognitionMorphogenetic & Epigenetic MemoryTraining Via Pleasure & PainSingular Thoughts Only
4-5: Pre-SapientPantomimingRudimentary IntuitionBasic Visualization - BacktrackingShort-Term MemoryRote LearningMinimal Alertness & Orientation Beyond Survival Concerns
6-7: SapientMisunderstands & Misuses Words OftenBasic Inductive ReasoningAbstract Thought; Flashbacks or DaydreamsEpisodic Memory, Semantic MemoryIdentifiable Learning StyleVolatile Train of Thought
8-9: Sub-CommonDullLiteralismComplex Visualization - ForecastingMisremembers OftenMinimal Deficit CompensationSolid Train of Thought; False Multitasking
10-11: CommonFluentDeduction Via Many Related DetailsComplex Ideation; Flashes of Insight - TechniquesMildly ForgetfulModerate Deficit CompensationInefficient Active Sequential Multitasking
12-13: SmartWitty or SarcasticRatiocination RoutinesModerate Simulation; Flashes of Insight - ProcessesStrong Prospective MemoryMajor Deficit CompensationRumination

Now real quick let’s revisit that Feeblemind spell from earlier. When you fail that save, your INT becomes 1. Now that we’ve seen the various Intelligence properties at each tier, when that happens, you can make this spell much more meaningful in terms of storytelling. You can have a character undergo a snapshot of all of those properties rapidly diminishing toward oblivion, one at a time, peeling away layers of mental ability. Brutal.

INTELLECT ARCHETYPES

Ok but what about those Intellect Archetypes? I only mentioned a few so far. Remember how I said earlier we’d mostly ignore real-world intelligence theories? Well, we can actually still draw on some more real world inspiration.

First, Gardner’s “Theory of Multiple Intelligences”. Among them, for D&D 5e, I would argue that Intelligence as written includes Linguistic, Logic-Mathematic, Spatial, and some Naturalistic elements.

Second, Guilford’s “Theory of Convergent and Divergent Thinking”. Whereas Convergent Thinking finds the “correct” answer to standard questions, like a multiple-choice test, Divergent Thinking reflects “creativity”, such as brainstorming as many useful combinations of certain components as possible in a short time.

Third, with De Bono’s “Lateral Thinking”, another creativity category that emphasizes “thinking outside the box” strategies.

From the five base D&D 5e INT skills I will add archetypes for Sage, Historian, Investigator, Naturalist, and Philosopher. Next, from Gardner, I will add Linguist, Logician, and Mathematician. Then from Guilford I will add Architect, Artist, and Visionary. After those, from de Bono I will add Inventor, and Strategist. And from the PHB off-label uses for INT, disguise and forgery, I will add a Tradecrafter archetype, referring to “tradecraft”, the general espionage skills linking spies, informants, and guerrillas alike.

This produces 14 Intellect Archetypes: Architect, Artist, Historian, Inventor, Investigator, Linguist, Logician, Naturalist, Mathematician, Philosopher, Sage, Strategist, Tradecrafter, and Visionary. Where can we go with those? Well, I mentioned some of it already, but you’ll have to wait til December 18th for Part 2: Hyper-Intelligence, to find out the rest!

Final Thoughts

I hope you found this first treatise on Roleplaying Intelligence in D&D 5e Better a bit thought-provoking. Share it if you liked it, and let me know in the comments what you thought. I publish new posts each Tuesday. And in the meantime, I post original D&D memes and writing updates daily over on my site’s Facebook Page. Also, if you want to keep up-to-date on all my posts, check the bottom sign-up widget to receive email notifications when I release new posts. A big thanks as always to my Patrons on Patreon, helping keep this project going: Anthony, Geoff, Kelly, Micah, and Rudy. Thanks for your support!

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Tril

D&D 5e blogger.

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