The Ability Of Scores


February 2, 2012 by deadorcs

Strength, Dexterity, Constitution, Intelligence, Wisdom, & Charisma.

Ability scores. If there is a more fundamental part of Dungeons & Dragons, I don’t know what it is. Those six numbers at the top of the character sheet are important, and every Dungeons & Dragons player becomes intimately familiar with them. It’s one of the genius ideas of Dungeons & Dragons, that six numbers are able to define the very attributes that make up a person.  However, the subtle power of the ability score system is that not only can it be used to define a mechanic in the game, it can also help inform the player as to how that character might be role-played.

In the old days (remember kids, I go back over 30 years on this one), your ability score roster helped determine what kind of character you were going to play. Ability scores were rolled in a random fashion, using either 3d6 or 4d6 and dropping the lowest number. Arranging your scores carefully, you did the best you could to play the kind of character you really wanted. However, if certain scores weren’t high enough, you simply couldn’t play a certain type of character.  Everyone that ever wanted to play a Paladin, knows this all too well (that 17 for Charisma could be hard to sacrifice).

As the game progressed, there was a greater emphasis on making sure the player could play the kind of character he or she wanted, without real regard to the character’s ability scores. While the ability scores were still important, they served only as a means to determine bonuses (or occasionally penalties) to other character attributes. Eventually, it was determined that certain scores were actually pretty important to keep high, in order to get the best mechanical performance out of the character. Point buy and standard array systems superseded the need or even want of a random ability score system. Instead of ability scores describing what kind of character you were running, the ability scores were “bonus generators” for your character’s powers. If the right scores aren’t in the right places…well, your character was underpowered and less effective.

Note: I’m aware that many Dungeons & Dragons players are not optimizing power gamers. We can save that discussion for another time.

While listening to the DDXP seminars this last weekend, it’s clear that the designers want to get back to using ability scores as a meaningful part of the game. While I’ve not done any play testing yet, and I don’t know what that will mean for DnDNext, it might be fun to make some guesses. Here’s how I could see ability scores being handed in the next edition.

  • The core rules will return to players rolling up their scores via some random method. My money is on 4d6 (drop lowest), arrange as needed; but it could be some variant. I would fully expect that point buy and array systems will be optional but available.
  • Your ability scores will determine a baseline for the kinds of actions you can perform all the time. In a sense, this might work as a “passive” type check, though not exactly. Take stuck doors for example. It could be that all stuck doors require a 9 Strength to open (without tools, etc.). Any character with a Strength of 9 or more simply opens the door. There’s no roll required or DC. Heavier doors might simply have a higher Strength requirement.  Heavy bronze doors might require a Strength of 17 to open.
  • Ability scores will not advance all that much. I expect a much slower progression for adding to ability scores. Maybe once or twice a tier to any one score (that’s assuming the tier system remains, of course). This mimics the fact that characters (while gaining more powers) do not necessarily change their body shape.  Aging might affect your ability scores, but leveling will not really be a factor.
  • Mundane items will assist you in being able to pass obstacles requiring a certain level of ability. For example, a crowbar might give you a +1 to your effective Strength when opening a door. These bonuses would be situational. Simply carrying around a crowbar does not give you a +1 to Strength.
  • Certain magic items might return that enable you to increase your ability score. Items like, The Manual of Bodily Health could be used one time to enable you to increase your Constitution by 1 point. I would expect such items to be really rare.

Essentially, what I see with all of this, is a very fundamental way to get back to some core elements of the game. Ability scores are a powerful mechanic, and one that can be used in a myriad of ways. Of course, it’s hard for me to jump all over this, but if you’ll indulge my designer side a moment, I want to give you some additional examples of how such a system might be used.

Strength – Physical/muscular power. Objects like doors, gates, & stone blocks are assigned a Strength value. A Gate – S:15 would require an effective Strength of 15 to open. Swimming might be a Strength related attribute as well. A Stream – S:10 might require a 10 Strength to make progress upstream.

Dexterity – Physical/agility/speed/hand-eye coordination. Actions such as tumbling past a scything blade, or walking along a narrow ledge might have a Dexterity value. A D:10 Narrow Ledge might require a Dexterity of 10 to negotiate. Otherwise, some other effect (like falling) might result. Of course, until the character attempts the act, the likelihood of success is unknown.

Constitution – Physical/endurance/health.  Poisons are an obvious thing for Constitutions to overcome. A monster or object might have a C:13 Poison. Characters with Constitutions lower than 13 would be effected by the poison. An adventure might even have a situational element dependent on this ability score. You might have a C:16 Blizzard. Characters might have to have a Constitution of 16 or higher to avoid taking damage from the storm. Winter gear might give such characters a higher effective Constitution.

Intelligence – Mental/knowledge/analysis/memory. Using mental ability scores should work in exactly the same way as the physical ones. Perhaps a series of strange sigils on the wall require a I:15 for clear understanding. You could even use this to determine the properties of certain magic items (although in many campaigns that might fall under the list of things only a magic user can do), the more complicated an item, the higher your ability score needs to be.

Wisdom – Mental/knowledge application/critical thinking/common sense. Wisdom can be useful in those situations you’re trying to read an opponent. It can be easily applied to gauge how well a character can use incoming knowledge, and apply it to something else. For example, the DM might set a crowded bookshelf with a W:12 in order to find a hidden catch.

Charisma – Mental/personality/social acumen.  Charisma is the best ability score to relate to social challenges within the game. Need to sweet talk a bartender or bribe a guard? Charisma is the go to skill for those. I can easily see a DM assign a guard a Ch:14 Bribe rating. If your Charisma is lower, maybe the guard takes your bribe and turns you in anyway.


These are just a few examples of how ability scores can be directly related to game activities. In fact, I’d venture to say that a skill system would hardly be needed as long as there were good references between certain activities and certain ability scores. While certain skill areas (such as seafaring or survival) might be more specializing, a character’s background theme might grant an effective ability score higher when tasks related to those things are being attempted.

Once again, I want to remind everyone that these examples are simply that – examples. I don’t necessarily endorse what I’ve mentioned above being used for hard & fast rules. I know it’ll be interesting to see what the designers at WotC come up with relating to ability scores. Until then, we’ll all have to wait and see.


My name is Randall Walker and This Is My Game


11 thoughts on “The Ability Of Scores

  1. Norcross says:

    I’d like to see something in the spirit of old-school D&D, like if trained in a skill you roll a d20 and if it is less than or equal to the primary attribute (+/- modifiers) you succeed.

    Example: if trained in swimming, crossing a river requires rolling under Strength. A fast-moving river might be Strength -5, or a calm lake might require Constitution instead. If not trained in swimming, too bad.

    • Patrick Ley says:

      I think the argument against having roll under skills and roll high attacks is pretty strong. Why use totally different ways of reading the d20?

      But mathematically it’s the same as d20+Score>=21 and put the mods on which ever side you like better.

      That’s actually the same system as roll under (modified) stat on a d20, just flipped to make it work the same way as an attack roll.

    • Lugh says:

      Interestingly enough, that’s pretty much functionally the same as the way 4e handles skills. You reverse the math so that it’s d20 + skill under DC, but that’s just moving the numbers around. The big difference is that 4e adds half your level into the formula (well, and various character options to add other bonuses).

      • Patrick Ley says:

        The reason 4e adds the half level is the idea that characters become dramatically more able over time. A level 1 Fighter will use Athletics to move a big rock, but a 21st level fighter wil move a giant solid Mithril statue.

        You can argue for or against that model depending on what you want the game to look like. Where it was an improvement over 3e though is that in general the 4e Math when it wants to differentiate between characters prefers differences that stay the same as you level rather than ones that grow bigger.

        So trained is a huge bonus +5, but unless you spend more stuff on it, you stay that way. Why is this good? So that A check where the trained guy might fail, but probably won’t is one where the untrained guy might succeed, but probably won’t. This is actually even more important with Defenses.

  2. Ryan says:

    I would much rather see the “3d6” calculation scrapped. It creates an extra, unnecessary step for players to go through. It used to provide a portal through which one would measure a whole raft of other abilities and whatnot, but it’s become vestigial. It makes more sense to have the

    We collectively need to let our romantic memories of our prior experiences go and think a little bit about streamlining play.

    Having a strength of “1” would mean you use that strength as your bonus. If you have a strength of “-1” then your strength checks would have a “-1”.

    Given that they are looking at a modular system, these seems to make a ton of sense as you could plug any measurements in on the front end.

    I know that a lot of people would freak the hell out. Much like the percentile on strength and a lot of other arcane stuff, this is just one that doesn’t make sense to hold on to.

  3. Lugh says:

    @Stephen Ah. Your explanation makes more sense. If you are fighting off a Con 13 poison and have a Con of 13, you automatically make it. If you have a Con of 12, you have to roll.

    That still feels odd to me. I’d want to see it in action before passing judgment. But, yes, I could see it working.

  4. Patrick Ley says:

    I made a pretty long form respsonse to this on my site.

  5. @Lugh Depends on your playing style. It doesn’t sound much different that allowing an automatic success on trained skills (when appropriate). Rather than preventing an action, the threshold draws a line between characters who should routinely pass the check and when the DM may require a roll because the odds are against the PC. Fewer rolls can mean a faster game.

    This seems opposite from using ability scores is pre-reqs for feats in every sense.

  6. Matthew AC says:

    Good examples; I really liked what I heard in the seminar, too.

  7. Lugh says:

    I’m not sure I like the idea of static thresholds for using abilities. An ability check makes sense. But a straight-up “you have no chance, go to the back of the line” barrier doesn’t feel right to me.

    As an ancillary concern, I’d worry that we’d see the resurgence of the “+2 to stat” magic items that sucked all the whimsy out of the 3.x list. They became “necessary” to keep your party on par with level-appropriate encounters. I really don’t want to see more of that. (Of course, I’m also hoping that they will find ways to add more flexibility to the notion of “level-appropriate” so that players don’t feel like they’re in an arms race.)

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