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Of the base stats, it seems that some are more generally useful than others. It's a common observation that Dexterity is more useful than Strength, as an example.

However, the thing that's bugging me is just how useless Intelligence is. (I'm talking about for players who aren't INT-casters. Obviously it's not useless for them.)

Intelligence saves are essentially nonexistent (I've been in a campaign for nearly a year and haven't had to make an Intelligence save once). This means that Intelligence is only useful for skills. However, unlike in 3.5, you don't get a humongous skill benefit for pumping INT. The only skills based on Intelligence are Knowledge skills (in particular, Arcana, because History/Religion/Nature are very situational), and Investigation. Sure, Investigation is a useful skill, but it's the kind of skill in general you only need one character to be good at it, so you leave that to the Wizard, Rogue, Bard, or Eldritch Knight.

I like making characters with high intelligence for Roleplay reasons, and it's frustrating to see the in-game mechanics not reward me for choosing to increase Intelligence, rather than something more useful like Wisdom or Charisma.

So is my analysis wrong? Is intelligence really a fairly useless stat? Or am I missing something major here?

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closed as primarily opinion-based by Miniman, user17995, Oblivious Sage, KorvinStarmast, LegendaryDude Jul 24 '16 at 19:30

Many good questions generate some degree of opinion based on expert experience, but answers to this question will tend to be almost entirely based on opinions, rather than facts, references, or specific expertise. If this question can be reworded to fit the rules in the help center, please edit the question.

  • \$\begingroup\$ How is saying you only need one character with high Int not like saying you only need one DPS character who will beat all enemies while the rest of the party just stand aside and watch? \$\endgroup\$ – Superbest Jul 24 '16 at 1:11
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    \$\begingroup\$ @Superbest: Most mysteries don't fight back against your skill checks. \$\endgroup\$ – user17995 Jul 24 '16 at 3:06
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    \$\begingroup\$ Interesting read: theangrygm.com/ask-angry-the-suckiest-ability-scores-ever \$\endgroup\$ – Michael Jul 24 '16 at 6:48
  • \$\begingroup\$ @Superbest Because additional characters with high DPS stack, but if you have multiple characters with high int only the highest matters. \$\endgroup\$ – the dark wanderer Mar 17 '18 at 19:07
  • \$\begingroup\$ @thedarkwanderer That's not true, they can do the help another action, or the DM can do a group check. \$\endgroup\$ – Superbest Mar 21 '18 at 0:38
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That will depend on how you define "useful." The SRD states that in addition to the skills you've mentioned, Intelligence may also be used to

  • Communicate with a creature without using words
  • Estimate the value of a precious item
  • Pull together a disguise to pass as a city guard
  • Forge a document
  • Recall lore about a craft or trade
  • Win a game of skill

Which can all be useful, if those are the kind of things that show up in your game. If your DM doesn't require many Knowledge and Investigation checks, and doesn't build in INT based challenges (which can be very tedious for people that don't like puzzlin'), then yes, INT is probably the best dump stat. Because it no longer governs skill points, it's been reduced in "usefulness," per its uses in the rulebook. That being said, knowing your DM's style will serve you well here. The most recent 5th Edition game I played was pitched as a "Fantasy version of Ocean's 11 / The Italian Job / Your favorite heist movie here," and I knew the DM was a software engineer who likes knowledge and discovery in his games, and he tries very hard to find ways for all the characters to be useful. Having a high Intelligence score in that game was incredibly rewarding.

Onto your second point. You mentioned that you like playing high INT characters "for roleplaying reasons," but that you don't feel that the game provides a rewarding experience for doing so. This depends on your personality and your group members' personalities. If everyone if your group is optimizing all of their choices, then I feel for you (unless you're a Wizard.) But if your group is less concerned with "How do I get the biggest numbers," then I think that the roleplaying is its own reward. Obviously maxing your INT on classes that aren't a Wizard isn't optimal, but once you've increased your stats for your core functionality, you should have a couple points to play around with. A character with a 12 Intelligence score is still smarter than your average citizen. (Personally, I'm a sucker for dumping STR instead of INT, because I also love roleplaying high INT characters.)

Hope this helps!

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    \$\begingroup\$ I think you're slightly seeing up a strawman with the second part. Even very-low-op characters can participate in a game, it's still extremely frustrating for many players to feel that playing the character they want forces them to waste scarce resources on useless options. It feels like being taxed for playing a character different from those the designers like. \$\endgroup\$ – KRyan Jul 24 '16 at 14:00
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    \$\begingroup\$ @KRyan I see your point. It's fairly obvious how much the design team lurves Charisma. And while even low-op characters can participate in a game, it feels bad to have to go low-op to play what they want. However, I'd be hard pressed to call INT a "useless option." It just isn't the best one. \$\endgroup\$ – Reibello Jul 24 '16 at 16:09
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A large part of why Intelligence seems lackluster compared to other abilities is that its usefulness is highly DM-dependent. Knowledge skills can either reveal critical information on enemies or the plot, or it can reveal fluff. Investigation falls victim to this because many checks that should fall under it instead get lumped in with Perception instead. Many tool proficiencies would be best used with Int fall flat because the use of them is dependent on DM approval.

Basically, Int seems useless not because of its possible uses in the book, but because the application of those uses falls so much under DM control. At least Charisma checks hold some guidelines of appropriate CRs in the DMG, while it is very obvious when Charisma checks are appropriate, but it is far less certain when the bonuses to solving from Int should come into play as opposed to leaving it to the players to figure out.

For example, we know that an attempt to persuade an NPC is very likely to require a Persuasion check, while just trying to seize the attention of a crowd through public speaking will be a Charisma check. When a puzzle comes up, something that a high Intelligence PC should be able to solve more easily, it is left up to the players because that was the point of its inclusion by the DM. The most a player could get in that situation would be a hint.

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Intelligence may seem useless for a few reasons:

1. Psionics rules aren't done yet

Although comparatively few spells require an Intelligence saving throw, psionic attacks will. Mike Mearls tweeted this intention back in 2014 — citing it as an example of something that makes Intelligence useful.

Last year (2015) experimental rules for the psionically-powered Awakened Mystic class were released in Unearthed Arcana. The mystic has several “save versus” powers — all target Intelligence.

2. Not all campaigns include monsters that target Intelligence

Intelligence saves are “clumpy” — in a battle, you’re likely to make several, or none at all.

  • Mind Flayers and their Intellect Devourers pets have attacks

  • Some illusion spells, like Phantasmal Force target Intelligence.

  • At high levels, a bonus versus Feeblemind is very handy

You might do a lot of adventuring before running into Mind Flayers or illusionists. Have you considered an expedition into the Underdark?

3. Maybe the campaign you're in isn't suited to smart characters

Intelligence is most useful in campaigns where (1) making the wrong choice can be a serious or deadly mistake, and (2) the DM provides useful info for successful Intelligence checks.

Intelligence is the hardest skill for a DM to mix into the game properly. It's easy to call for a Strength check to knock down a door. But a DM doesn't want to tell you the answer to the cool mystery they devised just because you rolled 20 on your Arcana check (nor should they).

To let the players figure out a mystery, a DM will give hints, often after successful knowledge checks. But if those hints are too cryptic or don’t provide any practical information, it might not feel worthwhile to have that Intelligence bonus.

4. Most likely, you simply make a good point

In a battle, Intelligence can come in handy discerning an enemy’s powers, including vulnerabilities, resistances, or immunities.

That's great, but other skills are more consistently useful: armor class, hit points, and attack and damage bonuses come in handy practically every round.

A high intelligence score shouldn't make you feel dumb

An Intelligence bonus for someone who doesn't use Intelligence for spells is not the minmaxer's choice. But it should come in handy at least some of the time.

It's fine to bring up this concern to your DM out of game. Most likely, they don't even realize this is happening. A good DM will try to include more opportunities to leverage your Intelligence, to enrich the game.

You might point out the Awakened Mystic to your DM. The class is certainly defined enough for an NPC villain.

Character Race

One parting thought: you mentioned Intelligence only seemed useful for certain character classes, but character race also comes into play.

Consider playing a high elf or a forest gnome. Their (Intelligence-based) cantrips can come in useful frequently, and are always available. If you choose a High Elf, choose a cantrip with an attack or save versus effect.

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Intelligence is the stat used for many of the checks for using tools to craft items, so can have good use for a non-combat character.

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In the context of min-maxing the ability of your character to kill lots of monsters, it is indeed useless unless you are a caster. Although previous versions had various supplements that allowed you to use Int for combat, I have no doubt that similar things will soon materialize for 5e if the system proves popular and profitable.

However there is more to roleplaying games than just combat. Analysis from a char-op perspective glosses over these aspects because they are less straightforward to optimize, but in practice I've found them to be a very big part of the game. In fact, combat is cumbersome due to the many die rolls and complicated rules, and especially new players easily get confused - I've seen non-combat elements take a central role in DnD games as often as not.

The most obvious point is roleplaying. If you want to play a brilliant professor, knowledgeable sage, genius inventor or some other kind of witty know it all, it would be very awkward to do it with an Int score barely higher than the village idiot. If your goal is to kill lots of things good, the charop conclusion from this is that you should not play a "smart" character because it's suboptimal. But if your goal is to experience an interesting narrative, you might find that a high Int character makes sense despite the drawbacks.

The second use is non-combat challenges. Again, if your DM runs games that resemble multiplayer Nethack, with monster after monster thrown at you in never-ending dungeons, yes Int is not very useful. But if I am DM'ing a party that has high Int characters, I will try to provide puzzles and similar challenges (mechanical contraptions, deciphering ancient scripts, references to legendary or historical things that provide clues on how to navigate the dungeon or find important items) which basically require the high intelligence to overcome.

Also, in almost all games I've played, during the "preparation" or "intermission" phases (when you're in town preparing for the next adventure) high-Int characters have always had a chance to shine. For instance examining official records to find corruption or locate criminals (especially when that is the stated goal of a quest), researching through libraries the weak spot of a boss monster, finding shortcuts to a quest goal, all become much easier if you can pass a few Int checks reliably.

In parties with less than perfect mutual trust, the high Int character is able to perceive critical quest-related information, and then use this as a bargaining chip against other characters. As you say, many uses of Int can be dealt with by just having a single high-Int character do everything for the benefit of others... But think realistically: If I happen to be one of the handful people alive who know how to activate the powerful artifact we are looking for, would I tell you? Maybe I don't like you too much, and I'll refuse to share my knowledge unless you treat me in a way that appeals to my ego. Or maybe I'm scared that once you know what it looks like, you won't need me anymore, so you'll abandon me and split my share of the proceeds, so I'll refuse to tell you as insurance against your disloyalty.

In reality, intelligent people are respected for various reasons. Many DnD players will tend to naturally transfer this respect into the game. Even if their character does not personally respect an intelligent character, they will at least be aware that they should. This gives a lot of leverage in social situations. Both due to pragmatic reasons, as the above paragraph, but also just the fact of being intelligent can be used to persuade other players (through persuading their characters) that you should be the leader of the group and decide important matters.

In fact, the advantage of high Int is amplified in the game vs. reality, because players are often very unfamiliar with the game world, much more so than even an ignorant and stupid inhabitant of the world. To be able to even function, they need exposition, which can happen through the DM just flat out giving the information out of character, or the high Int character happening to know this or that bit of insightful trivia that explains why things happen the way they do. The players then become dependent on this character to make sense of their unfamiliar (to players, though not to the characters) environment.

People don't seem to like optimizing non-combat abilities, presumably because they depend so much on what sort of campaign the DM decides to run. Granted, for combat it also matters a lot what sorts of enemies you will actually fight, so I think it's more that people can fool themselves into thinking they know what they'll encounter by pretending the monster manuals are representative, rather than a genuine predictability of combat. In any case, if you did try to do it, the result would probably be a character who is intelligent, wise, charismatic, educated, upper class (ideally aristocrat or royalty), famous and cherished throughout the game world. The difficulty of combat is moot to such a character, he can have hordes of his fans protect him, he can talk kings into giving him elite regiments as escort, not only does his status afford tremendous power, but much actual adventuring can be delegated to various lackeys and sycophants. In such a game, combat optimized characters will be the ones scrambling to maintain their relevance. For such "non-combat" optimization, intelligence is a vital attribute, both because it can make you pass many useful checks, but also because it is a pretty good way of justifying your high social status (two obvious examples are the respected scholar and talented merchant).

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It's not necessarily that you're missing something so much as possibly coming from it from the wrong direction. From an individual's perspective unless INT is your casting stat (Wizards, Arcane Tricksters, Eldritch Knights,) boosts skills you depend on (Bards, Clerics, Rangers,) or is useful for a racial ability (Forest Gnomes, High Elves,) it's probably not at all important for your character.

The nice thing about INT, though, is that you don't need it on every character, you just need it in every party, and the best way for the rules to encourage that is to make the attribute very valuable to some characters but not very valuable at all to everyone else, and this is exactly what we see present in the rules.

5e had a stated design principle from the beginning of "play what you want," and in all fairness it does a much better job of getting close to that than any other version of D&D, but it's still in a group's best effort to try to cover as many different roles as possible. In general, a group should strive for a mix of magical, physical, ranged, and melee damage as well as having a high-CHA "face," a high-INT "bookworm,"* a stealth-specialist "scout," and know the answer to the question "what are we going to do for healing?" By making different attributes more or less valued differently by different classes, the rules go a long way to encouraging that mix without forcing as hard as previous editions.

*That is the term my group uses for it because for two of us it was a term of endearment growing up and hearing it makes us happy. Not everyone has a positive association with said term so I wouldn't use it unless I knew for sure that it wouldn't bother anyone.

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So is my analysis wrong?

Yes. The numbers don't exist in a vacuum. This edition significantly emphasizes the role of the DM in the game. Put another way, the numbers only tell part of the story.

Is intelligence really a fairly useless stat?

No, but I will caveat that reply with "it depends heavily upon the kinds of challenges and skill checks your DM requires." As the other answers have pointed out, a great many adventuring skill checks call on Intelligence for an adventure that is something other than a combat heavy dungeon crawl. How that is applied varies from DM to DM, from campaign to campaign.

Or am I missing something major here?

Yes.

I think you are missing something major here, and that is genre. The standard trope set for Swords and Sorcery, which genre D&D fits into, skews towards action adventure. That in turn tends to emphasize Str/Dex/Con and charisma. Beyond the physical feats involved in the genre, character personality / personality quirks are a major theme/trope of this genre in books and films.

Wisdom and Intelligence capture the mental and sensory elements of this genre. The cleric or mage is a characters in stories of this genre (mages moreso than clerics), but the emulation problem for both stats is that they are qualities of the mind. The mind is tougher to model than the physical.

About genre and this edition of the game. The game is an exercise of the player's imagination. I can be a weak or clumsy person IRL, but can play a strong barbarian or dextrous thief.

If I am not very smart, IRL, it is very difficult to role play someone very intelligent. A simple +1 or +4 numerical value isn't enough to overcome me not being very intelligent. If I have a good brain but little common sense (the rank of those types of people IRL is legion) I will have a hard time playing a wise character with good intuition/common sense.

The designers had an easier job in folding Wisdom / sense into various saving throws and "awareness" and "intuition" checks and features. With the chosen skills that Int boosts, the designers have chosen to rely on the DM to put forth the problem solving challenges Intelligence is meant to handle. (Personally, I'd rather they had done as in 1e and link a boost in Int help with additional languages, but I didn't get a vote).

There is a rich heritage of clever and smart characters in Swords and Sorcery stories outsmarting their opponents, but those stories don't use die rolls nor stats. They use plot devices.

The DM is your source of plot devices and choices where you have to apply the Int based skills to advance, or succeed in, the adventure.

There is more to the game than the numerical piece. Your dismissing of Int based skills as "situational" does not account for how situations arise. The DM is the key factor in situations your party are presented with.

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    \$\begingroup\$ You say his analysis is wrong, but I don't see the part that addresses his ' it's frustrating to see the in-game mechanics not reward me for choosing to increase Intelligence, rather than something more useful like Wisdom or Charisma.' in your answer. What mechanical rewards that Int has over Wis or Cha make his analysis wrong? \$\endgroup\$ – Mala Jul 23 '16 at 19:25
  • \$\begingroup\$ You could show the mechanical rewards that Int has over Wis/Cha to prove that his analysis is really wrong. If you don't show any mechanical rewards for Int over Wis/Cha, the statement that his analysis is wrong is not really backed up by anything and should maybe be removed... \$\endgroup\$ – Mala Jul 24 '16 at 6:26
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    \$\begingroup\$ "You are not entitled to be rewarded for any of your choices. the Presumption that in an S&S game there is some perfect balance and all things are perfectly equal is by itself a flawed presumption" Actually, assuming a game as well-balanced as 5e is in most cases should be balanced isn't a flawed assumption. \$\endgroup\$ – Leo Izen Jul 24 '16 at 6:33
  • \$\begingroup\$ @LeoIzen Citing his comment does not improve the answer. If that phrase is really what answers the question, it should not be a comment. \$\endgroup\$ – Mala Jul 24 '16 at 9:20
  • \$\begingroup\$ @KorvinStarmast His question directly and explicitly asks for mechanical rewards - I quoted the relevant text in my first comment. It seems to me you answer a different question. Which is why I made my first comment, to help you improve your question. If you think your answer is perfect and don't want to improve because he accepted a different one, well, your choice - I still think this answer could become useful if it just focused on the question. \$\endgroup\$ – Mala Jul 24 '16 at 13:53

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