Games with character attributes like strength, agility, and the rest usually have Intelligence as one of those attributes. However, Intelligence is different to the other attributes in that it is an attribute of the player that could be directly used in the game.

Here a some examples of how designers can make use of player intelligence directly:

  • Making use of customizable puzzles.
  • Designing rule systems with emergence in mind where applicable. (e.g.:Magic systems, alchemy etc)
  • Making information about the world concrete and readily available.
  • Requiring some level of real world knowledge to accomplish certain tasks.

What are the main game design arguments for ditching Player Intelligence in favor of Character Intelligence during system design?

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    \$\begingroup\$ There are a lot of games, and your "always" isn't true in many of them. \$\endgroup\$ – Miniman Mar 5 '16 at 5:09
  • \$\begingroup\$ My question is more on the "Why" than about the "Which". Regardless if there are RPGs that do this, this is hardly mainstream, and there should be a reason for it that can be explained here. \$\endgroup\$ – Althis Mar 5 '16 at 5:20
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    \$\begingroup\$ Note: in e.g. D&D (one of the most classic examples of this tension), Int is one of not one but three mental attributes, fully half the basic set, that could all quite easily be considered player attributes instead of character attributes. So your question should, I think, at least consider mental vs physical/magical/other rather than Intelligence vs everything else. \$\endgroup\$ – user17995 Mar 5 '16 at 6:00
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    \$\begingroup\$ I've voted to close as unclear; at the very least "Intelligence" is not a coherent concept either across game systems or in real-life sciences. There are also some assumptions about game experience which you seem to be assuming we all understand, but which I, for one, do not. \$\endgroup\$ – BESW Mar 5 '16 at 8:56
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    \$\begingroup\$ @Dronz Yeah, right here: a chat room for this question. Although it's an annoying multi-step process to create a question-specific chat room as a regular user, you can always use a custom flag to ask a mod to create one like that. Enjoy! \$\endgroup\$ – SevenSidedDie Mar 5 '16 at 19:23

Much of the time, when people are playing roleplaying games, they are not interested in testing their intelligence. They might want to immerse in a different character, tell a story, be told a story, immerse in a separate reality, or maybe just spend time with their friends and roll some dice as an excuse.

There are a few exceptions.

Ascertaining how popular different approaches are would require a difficult scientific study.

A certain branch of old school revival play

The following are all features of a certain branch of OSR play (OSR play, as a whole, is as diverse a cultural movement as any other and also has other branches).

  • Creative problem solving: the players are supposed to solve challenges by creative use of their environment, abilities of their characters, and items they have. Redirecting a river to flood a dungeon and thereby slay the orcs is completely valid and celebrated way, as is storing green slime in bottles and using them as biological weapons.
  • Drawing maps and navigating by them is done by the players. Megadungeons contain mapping challenges - sloping passages, teleport rooms or corridors, etc.
  • Dungeons may contain actual puzzles and brain teasers, which are for the players to solve, ignore, or bypass by the aforementioned creative problem solving.
  • Players carefully manage their resources - torches, hit points, food and water, hirelings, and, at domain-level play, even armies.

This kind of play is all about being smart, creative, and having good judgement. Intelligence attribute of characters is typically not used to solve the problems mentioned above. Some games do away with it all together and others rename it as lore or education; Into the Odd, for example, only has will as a mental attribute.

Most OSR games are derivatives of old editions of D&D. Intelligence might influence arcane spellcasting or learning spells (or gaining experience as a magic-user) and languages known. Adventures may also give extra information for characters with high intelligence or use abstractions where, for example, operating arcane machinery is easier for characters of high intelligence. Not everything is a puzzle for players, even if they could be.

Figure chess

Playstyle where tactical combats and moving a figure around carefully and using character powers cleverly is central. You usually do not get to roll intelligence to determine where to move your figure and should you use your fireball spell now or wait for a better opportunity.

Intelligence of a character might affect various numerical characteristics, much as it does in several roleplaying games.

Character optimization

Building mechanically effective characters. This is, again, a test of player intelligence and book-learning. Character intelligence, if present, is one number among many to optimize.


This is a roleplaying game of dungeon exploration, which mechanizes the resource management sides of OSR play (as above), creating an entirely different play experience. Fairly difficult and challenging game, and all about players mastering the rules system and succeeding at risk management.

I recall there is no intelligence attribute.


A specific playstyle related to D&D4. There are at least three scenarios, which contain difficult tactical challenges, problem solving by players, and working under a time limit.

Intelligence is used to derive the mechanical characteristics of a character, much like in other roleplaying games, but it is not used to solve in-game puzzles. It might give better scores at knowledge-based skills, which might help in finding more information about the adventure location.

  • \$\begingroup\$ Very interesting. As a suggestion enhance this answer just a bit, why do you think these "creative play" from OSR haven't become mainstream? \$\endgroup\$ – Althis Mar 5 '16 at 7:15
  • \$\begingroup\$ Could you also further explain what the intelligence attribute is used for in those OSR games, as well? Since that might give some insight into areas where such approach is needed even amidst different design goals? \$\endgroup\$ – Althis Mar 5 '16 at 7:42
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    \$\begingroup\$ @Althis I wrote down some uses of intelligence in various styles of play. I'm not sure I can answer the first question, due to either lack of knowledge, difficulty of the question, or broadness of the question. \$\endgroup\$ – Tommi Mar 5 '16 at 8:08

Let me open with a counterexample: True Dungeon, a LARP-like event played yearly at Gen Con, uses real player skills for most of its actions. Combat is performed by sliding discs at targets; spellcasting is performed by identifying objects. (For example, druid spellcasting requires the player to identify the name of a leaf, given only its silhouette.)

As to why this doesn't happen more often: most of the things you can think of that would test "intelligence" are actually tests of time invested. For example, that druid-spellcasting test is probably easier for people who are more intelligent, but it's mostly based on whether the player was willing to spend an hour of their life sitting down and memorizing leaf silhouettes. If you invent a more intricate ruleset, you increase the amount of work that people have to invest in order to play the game effectively.

For most games, the goal is specifically for people to be able to get into the game without a lot of preparation time. Some games are complex, and accept that players will need some prep time, but this isn't something they specifically seek out. It would be really weird if someone created a game that advertised "this game is really difficult to learn" as one of its selling points.

Maybe yours can be the first, though. :)


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