Tobold's Blog
Sunday, May 31, 2020
Death and Intelligence in Dungeons & Dragons

The rules for 5th edition Dungeons & Dragons make it relatively unlikely that a character dies in regular combat, as long as there is some healing power in the group. My group in the Dungeon of the Mad Mage has two Aasimar, a race that comes with a once-per-day healing hands ability. Minor healing, but enough to revive a fallen comrade. One of them is also a paladin, with lay on hands and potential access to healing spells. And there is a druid as well, who likes to play the healbot of the group (I gave him a staff of healing, so that he doesn't use all his spell slots for healing only). Theoretically I could make death in combat more likely by having my monsters coup de grace fallen players, but I always considered that a bit mean and unfair. As a result there have been several fights in which several characters went down, and were revived again. That suits my playstyle just fine, it enforces the idea that combat is dangerous, without actually having somebody losing his character.

Actual death in this Dungeon of the Mad Mage campaign happened only once yet. On level 1 there is this evil magical heart magic item. If you attune to it, you die. I have no compunction about letting a character die like this, if he was aware that the heart was evil, radiates necromantic magic, and the player insists on trying to attune without casting identify. That *is* kind of asking for it. And I let the temple of Lathander in Waterdeep cast Raise Dead on credit, they only had to pay half of the 1,250 gold fee in advance, so the player didn't have to roll a new character.

Now I am debating with myself about using one common feature on the first few levels of the Dungeon of the Mad Mage: Intellect Devourers. Xanathar is using those frequently to control members of his thieves guild. So the group might come across a group of members of Xanathar's Guild, and a few of them carry an intellect devourer in their head. They can't be detected, and when the host creature dies, the intellect devourer teleports out, hiding somewhere using stealth. The intellect devourer then can mentally attack a player, which incapacitates that player. And the next round the intellect devourer can consume that characters brain, teleport into his head, and take over. That is pretty deadly. The rarely used spell Protection from Evil and Good protects somebody, but not knowing that the spell is unlikely to be used. And the eaten brain can only be restored by a wish.

Apart from the general question of how frequent I want character death to be in my campaign, this specific case touches on another issue: Intelligence, as a character stat, not a player characteristic. Not all stats are equally useful in Dungeons & Dragons, and Intelligence is probably the least useful one. Nobody minds if I tell them that the chance of them walking on a tightrope depends on their Dexterity stat; but they would complain if the player had a bright idea and I judged that their character was too stupid to have that idea. Thus player intelligence "overwrites" character Intelligence. The stat is only used for a knowledge skill checks and saving throws, and there are only a few Intelligence saving throws in the game. This makes it a typical dump stat. None of my player characters has an Intelligence above 10. And I kind of dislike that. I tried already to make knowledge checks more useful, but of course with their low Intelligence stat, the players didn't bite.

So in a way the Intellect Devourer, whose ability to kill a character depends very much on that characters Intelligence stat, would suit my purposes. At the very least it would make the players realize that having an Intelligence of 8 isn't anodyne. And if character death ensues, there are a bunch of good options on how to continue: The player could make a new character of the same level and xp, or I could offer them a cut-rate Reincarnation spell, which would most probably change the character's race. They could even continue playing their character with the Intellect Devourer controlling them, which would only kick in when they deal with Xanathar's Guild. There is a lesson I learned from playing Wildermyth: Messing with a character in unexpected ways is good for role-playing, even if it isn't initially welcome.


" Nobody minds if I tell them that the chance of them walking on a tightrope depends on their Dexterity stat; but they would complain if the player had a bright idea and I judged that their character was too stupid to have that idea."

Why do DMs allow it, though? If you had an olympic medal-winning weightlifter in your group, playing a gnome wizard with very low strength, you wouldn't let the character pick up an anvil and hurl it through an oak door because the player could actually do that, would you? So why should a low-intelligence/low wisdom character be able to demonstrate complex, analytical thought processes while planning strategy just because the player has a PhD?

And it cuts both ways. Back when I played, which was long ago, we actually had a couple of people in the group to whom the DM regularly had to make quite unsubtle suggestions because their characters were brighter than they were. If I was playing now, I think I'd prefer the focus be kept on the character rather than the player.

IMO, DMs allow it because the alternative is unfun. The problem is that in the end, your character is as smart as your player, no more and no less. Most people don't really play to see 'What would this character do', it's to see 'What would I do if I were there but also a dwarf warrior'. They want to insert themselves, relate themselves to the character and story.

I might help if intelligence was renamed to Knowledge, and Wisdom should be Perception. (and things like Medicine moved around). But they're sacred cows at this point.

I thought this was a really great post so I added it to my BEST READS OF THE WEEK series! You can check it out here if you would like!
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