I’ve always been fascinated by the relationship between intelligence and instinct as expressed by different game systems.

Most systems have an INT or IQ score of some kind, but the handling of the other side of the equation varies considerably. D&D and Pathfinder have a WISdom score, the Hero System has an EGO score, my homebrew system has a WILL score, and some have an out-and-out intuition score – usually also abbreviated INT and hence abbreviating intelligence to IQ.

Despite this, they all seem to cover similar ground in their definitions. One handles reactions and responses that occur without thinking, while the other handles the character’s ability to learn and reason.

D&D 3.5

“Intelligence defines how well your character learns and reasons. This ability is important for wizards because it affects how many spells they can cast, how hard their spells are to resist, and how powerful their spells can be. It’s also important for any other character who wants to have a wide assortment of skills.”

Skill acquisition and improvement and initial number of languages are both directly impacted by an INT score. Appraise, Craft, Decipher Script, Disable Device, Forgery, Knowledge skills, Search, and Spellcraft are all based on the INT stat.

“Wisdom describes a character’s willpower, common sense, perception, and intuition. While Intelligence represents one’s ability to analyze information, Wisdom represents being in tune with and aware of one’s surroundings. An “Absentminded professor” has low Wisdom and high Intelligence. A simpleton (low Intelligence) might still have great insight (high Wisdom). Wisdom is the most important ability for clerics and druids, and is also important for paladins and rangers. If you want your character to have acute senses, put a high score in Wisdom. Every creature has a Wisdom score.”

Will saving throws, Heal, Listen, Profession, Sense Motive, Spot and Survival checks, are all based directly off a character’s Wisdom score.


It’s not particularly surprising that Pathfinder’s description of INT and WIS are virtually identical to the D&D 3.5 definitions. The sequence of some of the sentences is different, but they still say almost exactly the same thing. In fact, the biggest difference is that Pathfinder refers to “Awareness” instead of “Perception” in Wisdom.


That’s a subtle but important distinction – Perception generally implies conscious awareness, while ‘Awareness’ generally encompasses both that and a gestalt impression of things not consciously noted. The latter, I have always thought, forms the basis of much Intuitive action – the character who feels he is being watched even though he can’t see anyone, the character who reacts to the body language of the armed thug even though he didn’t see the weapon drawn, the character who throws himself flat without realizing why he has done so just as the crossbow bolt passes through the space his body was occupying a moment earlier. In D&D, the latter is considered a reflex action, which is based on DEX – or, more accurately, a reflex REaction.

Since characters who are surprised in D&D do not get the benefit of their DEX while they are “flatfooted”, this implies that surprise relates to INT in D&D and to WIS in Pathfinder – that in D&D it’s more about consciously being aware of something going on, while in Pathfinder it is more about instinct. A quick check on the pathfinder rules on Surprise backs up this impression, by defining the condition as “if you are not aware of your opponents and they are aware of you”.

Surprise can also be described as coming to terms with an unexpected development, and that would appear to fit with the D&D definition. D&D specifically talks about Spot and Listen checks to determine surprise, though, and those are Wisdom based.

Reconciling this apparent discrepancy comes down to a definition of Perception – it is not the ability to recognize or understand what you are looking at, but rather the recognition that something is there. This is important to note, because many GMs – myself included – call for a Spot check and then describe what the character sees, or a Listen check, and then describe what the character hears, when there are occasions when we should ask for the check without linking it to the description of surroundings. Instead, we should offer an incomplete description and then ask for the check to determine if anyone can add to the description – or even offer them the chance to react without knowing what they are reacting to.

Hero System (5e)

I’m using the 5e definitions because I don’t have a copy of the 6e rulebook at hand.

“Intelligence represents a character’s ability to take in and process information quickly. It does not necessarily reflect knowledge or lack thereof (a character could be ignorant or a genius, but still have an INT of 10). INT has more to do with processing and reacting to information than with raw learning. INT serves as the basis for Perception Rolls and many important skills.

“Use INT Rolls when a character tries to employ knowledge not specifically represented by a Skill, or when he attempts to remember something or figure something out)…”

Right away, there’s a major difference – INT in the Hero System isn’t about what knowledge a character has, but his ability to use what he has learned. It represents the application of expertise, not having that expertise in the first place. But it also incorporates a character’s conscious awareness of his surroundings – what he knows is there; this is based on an INT roll.

“EGO represents a character’s mental strength and strength of will. EGO helps a character when he undergoes a test of willpower, becomes wounded, resists interrogation or Mental Powers, or tries to overcome his Psychological Limitations.”

‘Ego’ always struck me as an odd name for this statistic. After all, there are two definitions of the term:

  • The strength of a character’s opinion of themselves
  • A sense of identity or individuality

…and neither of them seem to fit especially well. Instead, the definition offered for the stat describes a character’s determination, how easily deflected they are (or, more precisely, how strongly they resist attempts by others to deflect them from their desired course of action). “Ego”, as a term, has implications for self-confidence and sense of self-worth – both ingredients that contribute to the character’s Charisma score.

My homebrew superhero rules

INT: The character’s ability to comprehend the physical and metaphysical world around them, combined with his deductive ability, scholastic ability, and his ability to remember what he has learned or deduced.

WILL: A measure of the character’s determination and stubbornness, and his ability to concentrate and ignore distractions.

My homebrew rules bear roughly the same relationship to Champions 4th Ed as Pathfinder does to D&D 3.5. So there is no surprise that the characteristic definitions seem to mean the same thing, but use different language.

In an appendix related to unusual societies & races, INT is broken up into five sub-abilities:

  • The Ability to think
  • Reasoning Ability
  • The capacity for education
  • The ability to learn
  • Memory

You may be thinking that the first and second mean the same thing, but it’s not so. The first relates to the priority given to logical thought over emotional desires and other modes of analyzing a situation, and the value placed on any mode of thought by the character’s society. A society that highly values people who think clearly will equip their citizens with the means to do so, while a society that has other priorities will not. Earth societies in general score in the lower-middle range – we place value on a whole host of different criteria and tend to look down on extreme logic with no ‘humanity’ as being a flawed personality. At best, we’re an indirect meritocracy. ‘Reasoning ability’ describes how well the individual lives up to the social standard defined.

You may also be under the impression that the third and fourth items refer to the same thing, but again you would be mistaken. ‘The Capacity For Education’ refers to how MUCH the character can learn, while ‘The Ability to learn’ describes how Quickly and Effectively the character can learn that knowledge. And Memory, of course, relates to how much if it the character gets to keep.

The major difference between these definitions and those of the other game systems is that there is no mention of any form of intuition or instinct.

Intuition and instinct work differently in any hero-based system and my variant rules are not unusual in this respect. First, you have to make allowance for extra sensory abilities such as Danger Sense; second, you have to taking into account Berserks and Enraged’s; third, you have to take into account psychological limitations; and fourth, you have to take into account the effects of Luck or Unluck. Only once all those have been factored into a situation can you start considering “instinctive” or “intuitive” responses.


Every system has some system for dealing with the rational mind and one for dealing with the intuitive reactions. These can look superficially similar, but when you dig into the fine print, they can be very different. Those differences all relate to where intuition connects with the system – it can be through the intellect, through a wisdom/willpower attribute, or a standalone system.

Each of these three alternatives confers a subtly different flavor to Intuition. Is it a response to noticed but not understood stimuli? Does it connect with Intelligence, with the rational understanding of the world? Or is it related to a more primal awareness of the universe?

The answers to those questions dictate the nuances of how you referee circumstances in which something is taking place of which the PCs are currently unaware. Do you inform them of what they can see? Do you take momentary control of the PC? Do you drop hints, or simply tell the player that there is something wrong without specifying what? Do you deliberately mislead the player by describing what the character thinks he sees – and not mentioning what he doesn’t?

This is a situation that comes up more often than we sometimes realize. Putting some thought into how to approach it in the general case can pay dividends over and over again when considering a specific case, but to do that you need to understand the relationship within your game system of Intelligence, Perception, Wisdom/Ego/Will, and Intuition.

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