The Ability Of Scores

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 Point buy and standard array systems superseded the need or even want of a random ability score system.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

Part idiot. Part old man. All geek. R.M. Walker, who can be found in numerous places on the internet as “DeadOrcs”, is a long time gamer with some 30 years experience playing RPGs. Despite occasional forays into the bizarre, Randall has always come back to Dungeons & Dragons.

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About DeadOrcs

R.M. Walker, who can be found in numerous places on the internet as “DeadOrcs”, is a long time gamer with some 30 years experience playing RPGs. Despite occasional forays into the bizarre, Randall has always come back to Dungeons & Dragons.
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