I've just started a pathfinder campaign, and all of the players have taken intelligence as their dump stat. This is causing problems, because usually I depend on knowledge checks to determine what they know about pretty much everything plot relevant - organizations, enemies, magic items, legendary monsters, etc.

Example from our first session:

"The door opens with a slam , and a tall figure in full plate strides into the tavern. Roll knowledge local to identify him."

"I got a 6" - "4" - "minus 1" - "3"

The players are all intelligent, and they want a game that has a good story to it, and an over-arching plot with reasonable complexity. Unfortunately, none of their characters could think their way out of a wet paper bag, and so giving them any sort of in-character puzzles is a lost cause.

Apart from having them comically bumble through it (a la "the man who knew too little"), how can I run an intelligent campaign, with unintelligent characters?

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    \$\begingroup\$ With how few skill points such characters should have, I'm surprised three of them were able to make Knowledge (local) skill checks at all! That said, adding what classes these characters are and how far the characters dumped their Intelligence scores would be useful. (A group of Int 4 fighters is a lot different from a group of Int 8 inquisitors!) \$\endgroup\$ Jun 10, 2015 at 11:46
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    \$\begingroup\$ @HeyICanChan I think we're calculating values differently... -1 = roll of 1, -2 (from ability score of 6), 1-2 = -1 \$\endgroup\$
    – Benubird
    Jun 10, 2015 at 13:30
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    \$\begingroup\$ Consider editing into the question the party's composition and their Intelligence scores. (I was unaware of your house rules. My math (+1 via the on 1d20 +3 class skill +1 rank = +5 bonus) said that for the result to be −1, the character's Int score had to be an impossible −2.) \$\endgroup\$ Jun 10, 2015 at 13:35
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    \$\begingroup\$ @GMJoe All I'd really like to know is party composition and Intelligence scores; I tried to keep the other stuff parenthetical. But, anyway, the DM's house rules about making untrained Knowledge skill checks might've influenced how the players built their characters, the players assuming the DM's generosity let them get away with not needing skills. That's an issue that could be addressed by an answer. \$\endgroup\$ Jun 11, 2015 at 5:32
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    \$\begingroup\$ Related (but in no way a duplicate): How can I play dumb? \$\endgroup\$ Jun 12, 2015 at 11:55

9 Answers 9


Erik's answer is a great general solution to your problem, but there are a couple of specific tactics you can use here as well.

Put Your Eggs in More Baskets

Right now, you're relying on a single skill or small group of skills in order to give your players information about the game world. This is naturally going to lead to situations where nobody has the skill you need, plus it makes story progression hinge on the outcome of a roll, which is very risky.

Instead of making everything a capital-K Knowledge roll, allow your PCs to use the skills they do have as knowledge skills. A fighter should be able to roll Athletics in order to assess someone's physical fitness. A rogue with Sleight of Hand might be familiar with a number of local pickpockets. This emphasizes each character's specialties, and encourages them to gather information creatively using a variety of methods. Skill descriptions are often left open-ended for precisely this reason.

Give Away Information

Like I said before, having the progression of your story hinge on a die roll is risky business. What happens if the die roll fails? Does the plot just stall? If the answer is yes, there probably shouldn't be a die roll. Instead, find a way to justify giving the information to the players based on their competencies and backstories. So, in your example:

The door opens with a slam , and a tall figure in full plate strides into the tavern. Joe, because you spent time on the city watch, I can tell you that this is a watch commander. Greg, you're trained in survival, so you can tell when someone is looking for you, and this guy definitely is.

Giving players "automatic successes" like this not only helps move the story quickly past less dramatic moments, it also rewards characters for having a backstory, and makes them feel more competent and embedded in the world.


Look at non-knowledge skills as representing non-book-learning types of knowledge, and use those skills as hooks for dishing out free adventure hooks.

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    \$\begingroup\$ +1 for using things other than dice rolls to determine knowledge. Using characters' back stories and skills can act as a decent way to give them enough info to continue on, even if they fail Knowledge checks \$\endgroup\$
    – D.Spetz
    Jun 10, 2015 at 20:13
  • \$\begingroup\$ I really like the idea and I will be using a lot more in my coming campaigns \$\endgroup\$
    – Harmelyo
    Jun 11, 2015 at 5:17
  • \$\begingroup\$ I use this a lot. In addition information which is only known to one player I only give to that players and let them decided what to do with it, that way different players get some spotlight time when the reveal information etc. \$\endgroup\$
    – Stefan
    Jun 11, 2015 at 10:46
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    \$\begingroup\$ To also use your example, you can sometimes use NPCs to give away information. When the door opens with a slam, perhaps the normal clamor of the tavern instantly ceases, and hushed whispers take over as the patrons pretend to look at each other while continuously casting furtive glances at the newcomer. Make your party roll a listen check, and see what they overhear. If the guy is someone they don't want the attention of (say, the gaoler) you can be sure they'll be talking about him! \$\endgroup\$
    – Doktor J
    Oct 6, 2016 at 17:10

For your players

Use other solutions

Intelligence is only one of 3 mental stats, and the one that refers mostly to book-learning, puzzling, connection-making and thinking stuff through. However, lacking it doesn't make you a bumbling fool; it makes you someone who solves problems in other ways.

For example, if it's crucial that the characters know who this guy is or where he's from, they could just, you know, ask him nicely (using Charisma) Or, if they have a hunch that he won't appreciate that (using Wisdom) they can always ask someone else.

Find help

They should probably try to make friends with some Sages or Oracles and the local librarian or Wizard's Guild. Whenever critical information is needed; go find someone who knows and let them help you solve the problem. The party doesn't have to do everything on its own, especially when it comes to raw knowledge.

For you as a DM

Learning without intelligence

There's also a lot of information you can learn without knowing the facts. In your example, I might not know who the person in plate is, but I can probably identify:

  • whether he is a capable warrior or wearing plate for show (based on how he wears it)
  • whether he is a local authority, an adventurer, or an invader (based on the reactions of the crowd)
  • whether he is affaliated to some religious entity (based on obvious symbols)
  • whether they are here looking for me (based on how they scan the room and maybe on how suddenly people around me are taking their distance)

and probably a bunch more. I might not know his name, his rank, or his order, but I can probably figure out (some of) his reason for showing up, his capabilities and his standing with the local crowd if I have high Wisdom or Charisma and associated skills.

(While on the other hand someone with very high Intelligence but low Wisdom/Charisma might know his name, family, rank, order, history and still be completely oblivious that he showed up to arrest him until he feels a strong hand on his shoulder.)

Changing descriptions

I don't think a group of characters of low intelligence are neccesarily problematic, even in stories with complex stories and scheming. They just need to change the way they approach the problem and you need to change the way you describe problems.

Things intelligent characters are good at (and thus your player's characters aren't) include having factual knowledge, connecting the dots, and thinking far ahead. We put these things in normal descriptions, but for this campaign you'll probably need to take them out (unless shared by an intelligent NPC).

Instead, only include what can be immediately visualised from the surroundings, with as little prejudice as possible. But increase the description of what can be seen clearly a bit more; the characters will be making up for lack of background knowledge with more direct information. And keep in mind the difference between knowing what something stands for and that is stands for something; include a lot of the latter.

As you will see, both descriptions below give players enough information to handle it and have some pointers that something might be going on, but the former has more and the latter will require the players to get someone involved who can share more information with them. For example; both stress that this is a well organised force of goblins/orcs, but the first gives much more leads than the second.

Example description for regular groups

"Following the warcries, you come upon a battleground. 3 merchant's carts stand in a semi-circle, 1 is on fire. A group of humans in light armor and with spears are holding a defensive line against a combined group of Goblins and Orcs wielding high quality weapons for such creatures and carrying banners and symbols of Gruumsh on their shields. You do not know what is causing these two groups of creatures to fight together, as they are usually on bad terms. The humans seem to be slowly losing the battle, and corpses strewn around the field show that it's being going on for some time. You don't see any non-combatatants with the merchants and they seem to be heavily guarded, especially for a caravan travelling through what was considered 'safe passage' by the locals."

Example description, same encounter, minus the intelligence

"Following the warcries, you come upon a battleground. 3 carts stand in a semi-circle, 1 is on fire. A group of humans in light armor and with spears are holding a strong defensive line against a combined group of well-trained and equipped Goblins and Orcs. They all carry the same profane symbol on their shields. The once strong human force seems to be slowly losing the battle. A number of corpses from both sides lie around the battlefield."


  • Your characters should ask NPCs for help when they need it (and they will)
  • Everyone should try to rely less on facts and connections and instead act more "in the moment"
  • Emphasise the things someone without book-learning and strong reasoning skills can still pick up from his environment; low intelligence does not make you a bumbling idiot, it just makes you someone who doesn't rely on structured, learned knowledge to make decisions.
  • \$\begingroup\$ This is an excellent, excellent answer. The advice on tailoring descriptions in particular works really well from experience. \$\endgroup\$
    – Wibbs
    Jun 10, 2015 at 10:01
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    \$\begingroup\$ This is an excellent answer! (However, I'm surprised that characters can tell that an unfamiliar symbol is profane just by looking at it.) \$\endgroup\$
    – GMJoe
    Jun 11, 2015 at 1:09
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    \$\begingroup\$ Anything painted in blood would probably be considered profane by most humans. Guess you could also describe it like that for a clearer picture. \$\endgroup\$
    – Erik
    Jun 11, 2015 at 4:59
  • \$\begingroup\$ It wouldn't hurt to drop hints to the players that intelligence would be very nice to have at certain instances. "Roll using intelligence to determine if your character notices the chandelier hanging above the bandits." The players would then know what they missed, but the game would proceed normally. Of course if a player does notice, it may require other rolls to say, cut the rope keeping it up using an arrow, but without first making that connection, they can't take advantage of it. The incentive will cause the players to reevaluate the necessity of intelligence. \$\endgroup\$
    – Neil
    Jun 11, 2015 at 8:12

Your instincts of "the man who knew too little" are spot on. Conspire with your players against/with your PCs. Narrate, the deep rich tapestry of the plot and character interactions to shape how your players will ... maneuver their dunces with the expectation that the results of their actions will be much better than a naive reading would produce.

By making a man-who-knew-too-little campaign, you can achieve what that movie did: a bumbler super-spy because the people playing the bumbling super-spy are intelligent, and simply need to reframe their intelligent actions with silly in character reasons for doing them equivalent to the "I sneeze at the poison".


OP said, "This is causing problems, because usually I depend on knowledge checks to determine what they know about pretty much everything plot relevant - organizations, enemies, magic items, legendary monsters, etc."

So...maybe don't do that? Given the usual tropes that gaming isn't a competition 'tween DM and PCs you can just tell them things instead of having them roll and fail. Or have NPCs contribute that info in expository fashion.

Like, ""The door opens with a slam , and a tall figure in full plate strides into the tavern. A orphan in the corner shouts, "IT'S BAD BOB the Anti-Paladin!!!!"

A variety of Deus Ex Machina NPCs like that should patch over failed rolls when needed.

Really though I'd question if you need to run an "intelligent" game via dice rolls anyway. I mean if the PCs are just rolling dice to "know" things just skip the rolls and tell them what they need to know, or have them ask a convenient NPC.

Alternate you could let them check and recheck those dice rolls since a low Int just means they are slow...not that they can't keep working it over in their minds while they walk\ride between encounters\cities\etc.

Maybe the first clue gets past them but after a few hours on horseback with nothing else to do, and a night of vapid conversation around the camp fire they have a eureka moment.

Or maybe a Nero Wolfe type deal, as alluded to by another answer. Give them a boss who sends them on missions and explains things to them if they fail their rolls horribly.

But mostly if your style of gaming is strongly dependent on PCs making smart choices, which actually means, making dice rolls based on stats they don't have...maybe don't make them make those rolls and either just tell them or tell them, "You don't know, but you know who might know...", and have them go talk to an NPC.

Is the important thing here that the plot be "intelligent" or that it be enjoyable? Or if it HAS to be "intelligent" does that mean the PCs have to make rolls they are likely to fail? I'm assuming your intelligent groups of players knew what they were doing when they made a universally stupid bunch of PCs, so why not adjust your play style to not depend so much on straight dice rolls?

Maybe a NPC survives the fight so they can spill the beans on the evil plot. Maybe the Evil Wizard has stupid henchmen too and needs to write down his whole plan in excruciating detail on a scroll which the PCs can recover. Maybe the PCs save the local Oracle and he realizes they are powerful, but dumb, and decides to help them out of both gratitude and because he feels if they directs them properly they can be a powerful force for good.

TL;DR: If you know they PCs are going to fail certain rolls stop being a jerk and making them depend on those rolls to move things forward. Is it really much different if the PCs realize how complex and intelligent your game is because some NPC gives them the info rather then them making a dice roll? The players should enjoy the intelligent complexity even if it's way over the PCs heads I would think. Not like a dice roll actually represents any complexity and intelligence on the part of the players anyway.

  • \$\begingroup\$ Welcome to the site! Please take a moment to check out the tour and the help center. \$\endgroup\$
    – Miniman
    Jun 12, 2015 at 0:00
  • \$\begingroup\$ I voted this up because it hits the nail right on the head. The primary focus of a D and D game is telling a story that you're co-authoring with the players. If the players aren't very bright, then your story is going to suck if you put them in mentally challenging scenarios. \$\endgroup\$ Jun 12, 2015 at 0:15
  • \$\begingroup\$ I like a simulationist hexcrawl kind of game, and so wouldn't do this in my own campaigns, but if you're going for more of a narrativist game this is great advice. +1. \$\endgroup\$
    – GMJoe
    Jun 12, 2015 at 0:22

To help you shape your campaign:

Don't create scenarios that depend on Int checks to solve.

Instead, focus on the stats they do have, like Wisdom. A character may not be smart enough to figure out a clever solution to a problem, but it doesn't mean they haven't seen a similar solution used and know how to apply it. After all, a character with high Int and proficiency in Int related checks could still draw a blank (low roll) where a player with low Int and no proficiency could have a moment of absolute clarity (great roll).

So in your example with the figure in Plate strolling in, the group rolled low, which simply means they had never heard of him. If somebody in the group lived in that town, you could have had them make a Wis roll instead based on hearing the name of this person growing up. Alternately, he/she could have recognized the person immediately in that situation.

Now for the part nobody ever likes:

Your players want a plot that has a decent amount of complexity, and collectively dumped Int. Explain to them why that was a very, very poor decision on their part. Sometimes players can be a pain in that they say they want one thing, but then completely ignore it and leave it up to you to fix. As I see it you have three options:

  1. Discuss it with the players, come to a mutually satisfactory agreement with expectations and demands, and work stats to cover most Int based checks;
  2. Let them hire an observer rogue or bard that can act as an advisor and diplomat. I would make the rogue/bard a pricey character per day and scale him according to the party level. This would also add the annoyance of constantly escorting somebody and protecting them. It's a minor penalty to pay if they get married to their characters, but the alternative is killing some characters off so they reroll one with Int; or
  3. Make them pay for the poor decision of dumping Int and not having a character with any in the party. Put them in a dungeon which requires problem solving and demonstrate why parties are normally balanced.

Anyways, those are just some suggestions to help you shape the campaign accordingly. I find the biggest problem is going to be meeting the demands of complexity with a group that's prone to losing a game of dice to a rock.


Let me come at this from another angle: that of a player.

One of my (and everyone else's!) favourite characters was Bob the Rat Slayer. Bob had INT 3; he was a "special" child, raised by back-woods monks in a remote hermitage. He was tasked with killing the mice in the basement wine cellar at an early age, and as he grew older (and BIGGER...Bob had STR 18, natch) he moved deeper into the cellars after rats...and deeper...

Bob was the prototypical "adventurer slaying giant rats for experience", you see.

So, with that backstory sorted, I played Bob as a naive bumpkin. He WANTED to do good, but inevitably ran into the sort of situations where he was led astray. See, Bob was so dumb that he was travelling with a party of dubious alignment; normally a no-no for a Paladin, but Bob just believed them when they said they were all law-abiding defenders of justice. He was too stupid to make proper judgement calls, so he believed what his new friends told him (mostly).

I used my meta-knowledge of what was going on to make funny/interesting choices for Bob. He was brave, because he wasn't smart enough to see the dangers; he was the perfect Paladin, in many ways, an archtype...except for the whole "occasionally attacking folks he shouldn't" when mislead etc.

Tell your story mostly like normal; let the player's infer some meta-knowledge, but don't state it outright. The player's have the job of roleplaying, so get them to roleplay, and don't make them roll knowledge checks all the time. Think of what the world looks like to their characters and just describe it that way; if you need to prod them, have an NPC drop pointed hints. The great thing about dumb characters is that if they are roleplayed well, they create tons of story all on their own. You just need to adapt a bit and instead of giving them puzzles to wrack their brains, let them stumble on the answers through "dumb luck". By treating them as lucky, it lets them get past all of the brainy stuff that would normally trip them up. Let the players know that great roleplaying will be rewarded with better "dumb luck".

A perfect example of this is how characters with an INT of 2 in Fallout: New Vegas could get past the high-security robot late in the game: when the robot asks for a password, they shout "ICE CREAM!", because they supposedly mistake it for an ice-cream dispenser. Of course, "ice cream" is the password.

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    \$\begingroup\$ While I find this hilarious, the problem a character with 3 Int poses is that they would be on par with an animal mentally. A cat has an Int score of 3. A Bear 2. An ape has 6. So a character with an Int of 3 would only act on instinct, and would have no language or any other skills. For instance, there wouldn't be many situations where a character could be lucky because you wouldn't even be able to give them a quest. I mean, how are you supposed to communicate it to them? At least an ape can learn sign language. Most creatures understand languages starting at Int 7. \$\endgroup\$ Jun 11, 2015 at 11:18
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    \$\begingroup\$ @LinoFrankCiaralli In Pathfinder, animal intelligence doesn't get above 2, and PC intelligence can get as low as 3 without loss of languages; I suspect the scores you're quoting come from a different edition of D&D, which allowed animals a greater range of smarts. (In 2e, for example, dophins had human-level intelligence.) This is a pathfinder question - check the tags. \$\endgroup\$
    – GMJoe
    Jun 12, 2015 at 0:18
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    \$\begingroup\$ I don't know what's up with my tags. This is the 2nd time it's done this. I tag up for 3e and 5e, not Pathfinder, and I keep ending up in pathfinder threads. Sorry, I'll make sure I double check VERY thoroughly next time. \$\endgroup\$ Jun 12, 2015 at 1:55

My feeling is that the GM should not be giving away information or finding other ways to let the characters learn things.

The players made the choice; now they have to live with the consequences.

If no-one in the party has any smarts whatsoever, then there will be things they will just fail at. As the GM, I wouldn't fudge it so they succeed - I would have it fail. Not everything, of course, that would be mean. There is a big difference between "consequences" and "punishment".

There is also a big difference between "not the sharpest tool in the shed" and "mentally handicapped" - an INT 8 character is not Sling Blade.

Additionally, if the players have chosen not to put points in Intelligence then that means they have put those points somewhere else. Make sure you give the players the opportunity to shine in those areas.


Declare them insane- everytime somebody does nonsense - you declare everything so far a halucination in a asylum and reset them.

The others hallicinated that too.


Give experience point bonuses for players who do a good job of playing an authentically dumb character.

Establish a base experience point bonus value (25 xp, for example)

Every time a player can get you to laugh by way of role-playing, give them an experience point bonus.

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    \$\begingroup\$ Can you explain how giving an xp award helps the DM shape the campaign? This doesn't feel like a complete answer. \$\endgroup\$
    – Erik
    Jun 10, 2015 at 14:37
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    \$\begingroup\$ This isn't a roleplay-problem, and the players aren't problem-players. This answer doesn't solve the problem, as the problem doesn't lay with the players. \$\endgroup\$
    – Joninean
    Jun 10, 2015 at 19:01
  • \$\begingroup\$ The idea is to use XP bonuses as an incentive to reward playing characters in a desirable way. \$\endgroup\$
    – ShaneMRoth
    Jun 11, 2015 at 9:17
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    \$\begingroup\$ I don't think you understood the comments. The problem isn't that the players won't play dumb characters, it's that they do - and thus the GM hadn't found a way to get the info to the characters to have them know enough for the plot to continue. \$\endgroup\$
    – Julix
    Jun 12, 2015 at 15:33

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