What are “abilities” and how are they related to “ability scores” and “ability modifiers”?
The Fifth Edition of Dungeons & Dragons divides a player character’s (PC) physical and mental qualities into six categories. These categories are called abilities. There are three physical abilities and three mental abilities.
The three physical abilities are:
- Muscle power and athletic training — Strength
- Agility and reflexes — Dexterity
- Stamina and health — Constitution
The three mental abilities are:
- Reasoning and memory — Intelligence
- Perception and intuition — Wisdom
- Force of personality and eloquence — Charisma
Each of these six abilities is measured by a corresponding numerical ability score. Ability scores can range from 1 to 30 but 1st level characters typically have ability scores between 8 and 17.
So far this is a nice simple system. Unfortunately, ability scores are almost never used in play.1 Instead, each ability score is used, primarily, to derive a corresponding ability modifier.
An ability modifier can range from -5 to +10 and 1st level characters typically start with ability modifiers between -1 and +3.
Our “nice simple system” is becoming a tad more complicated.
Thankfully, the formula for deriving ability modifiers from ability scores isn’t complicated and, in any case, pages 17 and 173 of the Player’s Handbook (PHB) provide a nice little lookup table for us.
Let be an ability score, then:
Now, unlike ability scores, ability modifiers are used almost every time you roll a die. Whenever a player makes an attack roll, a weapon’s damage roll, an ability check, or a saving throw.2 she adds one of her PC’s ability modifiers to the result.
Thus, unlike ability scores, ability modifiers are constantly being used in play.
(Stop) Using Ability Scores in Play
However, ability scores do, occasionally, come up in play. So, let’s take a look how they are used and see how difficult it would be to remove them from play altogether.
There are four places in the PHB that dictate when ability scores can be used directly in play: class features, armour, in-game physics, and spells. And, these four sections all use ability scores in one of three ways: as limits,3 as conditions,4 or (in one case) as a point of reference.5
We will take each of the four sections one at a time.
The PHB contains exactly one class feature and two subclass features that use ability scores directly in play.
The barbarian class’ Indomitable Might6 feature uses the PC’s Strength score as a lower limit for Strength checks. Basically, the player cannot roll less than the PC’s Strength score on a Strength check.
However, since a PC’s Strength modifier is derived from her Strength score, we could use it as the lower bound instead. We just need to do a little math.
Let be a PC’s Strength modifier, then:
Note that this formula only gives us an approximation of the PC’s Strength score. This is because the final step in deriving ability modifiers from ability scores is to round down. When you round down, the truncated decimals are lost forever; there is no way to recover that information from the resulting ability modifier. Nevertheless, our formula gets us to within 1 point of the PC’s Strength score.
Using this formula, we could re-write the feature as follows:
Indomitable Might BIf your total for a Strength check is less than 10 + twice your Strength modifier, you can use that number in place of the total.
However, if you find the math above a little onerous, I propose the following alternative. As it happens, Indomitable Might is an 18th level feature and, by this point in the game, a barbarian PC is likely to have a Strength score of 20.7 So, we can easily justify re-writing the feature like so:
Indomitable Might CIf your total for a Strength check is less than 20, you can use 20 in place of the total.
Visions of the Past
The knowledge domain’s 17th level feature, Visions of the Past,8 uses the PC’s Wisdom score to limit how long (in minutes) she can meditate and how far into the past (in days) she can see.
Once again, however, we note that ability modifiers are derived from ability scores. So with a little math we can use ability modifiers in place of ability scores.
Let be a PC’s Wisdom modifier, then:
Since this is a 17th level feature, however, the player has very likely already raised her cleric’s Wisdom score to 20. Therefore, we could simply set the maximum length of meditation to 20 minutes and the maximum distance into the past to 20 days.
Know Your Enemy
Among other things, the battle master subclass’ feature, Know Your Enemy,9 allows a 7th level fighter do deduce if an opponent’s Strength, Dexterity, or Constitution score is higher or lower than her own.
Obviously, a player could use her PC’s ability modifiers as points of comparison, rather than her ability scores. In fact, it is trivial to replace these scores with their corresponding modifiers because doing so gives the PC exact the same information. It still answers the question; “Is this person stronger, more agile, or tougher than me?”
There are three broad categories of armour in Fifth Edition: light, medium, and heavy. Light and medium armours all makes extensive use of a PC’s Dexterity modifier while most heavy armours reference a PC’s Strength score.
Three out of four types of heavy armour (chain mail, splint, and plate) reduce a PC’s speed by 10 feet unless her Strength score meets a given threshold.10 For example, a PC’s speed is unaffected by chain mail on the condition that her Strength score is 13 or higher.
It is not difficult to replace this ability score restriction with one referencing an ability modifier. In the case of chain mail, we could require that a PC’s Strength modifier be at least +1.11
Fifth Edition Dungeons & Dragons does not spill much ink when it comes to simulating the physical world. However, the PHB does have a few simple rules limiting how much a PC can carry, lift, push, or pull, and how far she can jump; as well as some optional encumbrance rules. All of which rely on a PC’s Strength score.
Carrying, Pushing, Pulling, Lifting, & Encumbrance
Essentially, a PC’s carrying capacity is a multiple of her Strength score (in pounds) and the rules governing pushing, pulling, or lifting an object as well as encumbrance multiply or divide her carrying capacity.12 Since a PC’s Strength modifier is derived from her Strength score we can insert it into the carrying capacity formula. Unfortunately the resulting formula is a little cumbersome…
Let be a PC’s Strength modifier, then:
Admittedly, this is not the sort of straightforward math I want to be doing in play. But to be honest with you, I’ve never even used the original carrying capacity rules. And, I’m not sure very many groups do. If it were more common, I suspect character sheets would have a box for a PC’s carrying capacity.
Nevertheless, for groups who do enforce a strict carrying capacity, the PHB could include an expanded version of the following lookup table (along with a box on the character sheet for easy reference in play):
|Push, Pull, or Lift||240||300||360||420||480|
Interestingly, Fifth Edition’s high jump rule leverages a PC’s Strength modifier while the rules for long jump rely on her Strength score.13
A PC can jump as far as her Strength score (in feet) if she has a running start and and half as far otherwise. It is a simple rule and very easy to remember. Luckily, using a Strength modifier won’t make this rule any more complicated. And, as an added bonus, our version brings the wording more in line with the existing high jump rule.
Long JumpBYou can jump 5 + your Strength modifier (in feet) and twice this distance if you move at least 10 feet on foot immediately before the jump.
Serendipitously, since D&D is often played on a 5 foot grid (at least when using miniatures), re-writing the rule this way gives a player a quick visual image of how far her PC can jump.
A variety of transmutation spells reference ability scores in passing but there are only seven spells in the PHB that use specific ability scores in play.
Condition: Intelligence Score
Five spells (Awaken,14 Rary’s Telepathic Bond,15 Sending,16 Tasha’s Hideous Laughter,17 and Telepathy18) all use the target’s Intelligence score as a condition. Basically, if the target’s Intelligence score isn’t above a stated threshold, the spell does not work.
It is, I think, self-evident that the target’s Intelligence modifier would make a perfectly acceptable alternative condition.
Condition: Strength Score
Bigby’s Hand19 also uses an ability score as a condition. However, instead of using the target’s Intelligence score to establish if the spell will work, Bigby’s Hand uses the target’s Strength score to determine if “the target can move toward you through the hand’s space.”
As with the previous spells, the target’s Strength modifier would serve just as well is its Strength score.
Limit: Intelligence and Charisma Scores
The Awaken and Feeble Mind20 spells both put new limits on the target’s ability scores, Awaken raises the targets Intelligence score to 10 while Feeble Mind lowers the target’s Intelligence and Charisma scores to 1.
Once again, by removing ability scores, we could skip the middle man and alter the target’s Intelligence and Charisma modifiers directly.
Conclusions About Using Ability Scores In Play
Having gone through the handful of “in play”uses of ability scores in the PHB, I think it is safe to say that it is almost trivial to avoid using them altogether.
I would argue that the carrying capacity rules are the most onerous to erase. Certainly, I would have preferred to use a simple formula, rather than a table, to solve this case. However, I suspect these are among the least used rules in the game.21
Because there is one ability modifier for every two ability scores, I should note that we lose a little granularity when we remove ability scores. For example, by using a +1 Strength modifier as a condition for “speedy” heavy armour we are allowing PCs with 12 and 13 Strength scores to benefit — we have erased the difference between these two scores.
Having said that, I’m not convinced we need that level of detail. In fact, I would argue that the main reason the heavy armour prerequisites are 13 and 15, rather than 12 or 14 (or 16 for that matter) is to give these odd22 ability scores a purpose in the game. Most other ability scores are effectively “dead spots” on the ability score ladder — for example, the game provides no direct benefit to having a Strength score of 9 instead of 8.23
(Stop) Using Ability Scores Outside of Play
Nevertheless, while ability scores aren’t doing any heavy lifting in play, they do have a more significant impact outside of play (i.e. during PC creation and advancement).
With this in mind, let’s take a look how ability scores are used out of play and how we might about removing them from the game altogether.
Ability scores are, as we have seen, closely tied to ability modifiers, but they are also woven into four other parts of the PC creation and advancement process:
race lineage, ASI,24 feats, and multiclassing.
We will take a look at these five areas one at a time.
According to the PHB, generating ability scores is the third step in the PC creation process.25 It gives players the option of using dice to randomly “roll up” ability scores, or to pick them deliberately.
Generating Random Ability Scores
Fifth Edition follows D&D’s traditional method for “rolling up a character.” Arguably, one of the advantages of rolling 4d6 and dropping the lowest result is that you end up with a nearly normal distribution26 of results — skewed slightly in favour of the player. To put it another way, when you are rolling up a character you are gonna roll a lot of 12s and 13s (+1) and very few 3s or 18s (-4 and +4 respectively)!
One way to keep this distribution would be to continue to use 4d6 but plug the results directly into the formula for ability modifiers. (Only the resulting ability modifiers would actually be recorded on the character sheet.)
Let be the ordered set of the results of rolling four d6s, then:
However, while we have managed to remove ability scores from the character sheet, the process is still fairly cumbersome. Luckily, it is not our only option. We can create a very similar probability distribution using 3d4, dropping the lowest result and then subtracting 5.
Let be the ordered set of the results of rolling three d4s, then:
Of course, you may feel this formula is still a little complicated and we could take things a step farther.
If we don’t concern ourselves with maintaining a (semi) normal distribution, we can simplify the process quite dramatically. Simply roll 1d4 and subtract 2 from the result.
Let the result of rolling a single d4, then:
With this method, we have an equal chance of rolling each of the possible results. However, the results themselves sit near the peaks of our two previous distributions (still favouring the player slightly).
Generating Deliberate Ability Scores
As I mentioned early, rolling dice isn’t the only way to generate a PC’s ability scores. In fact, the PHB offers two other methods.
The Standard Array
The first option is the so called standard array which we can simply translate into ability modifiers like so: (+2, +2, +1, +1, +0, -1).
The Point Buy
The second alternative for customizing a PC’s ability modifiers (commonly called the point buy method) is a tad byzantine; but to put it briefly, a player spends a set amount of “points” on her PC’s ability scores with higher scores costing more points.
I would like to suggest a simplified point buy method for ability modifiers:
- Start with +0 for all your ability modifiers.
- Your final ability modifiers must be no higher than +2 and no lower than -1.
- You start with 4 points to spend.
- Lowering an ability to -1 creates an additional point to spend.
This method enables you to create sets of ability modifiers that vary from the almost uniform (+1, +1, +1, +1, +0, +0) to the nearly antipodal (+2, +2, +2, +0, -1, -1).
I should note that this method gives slightly different results than the canonical point buy system. However, I would argue that these minor differences are a small price to pay for a much simpler process!27
Racial Ability Score Increases
Whichever method a player uses to generate ability scores (or ability modifiers), the next step is to add her PC’s so called “racial” ability score increase.28 However, with the release of Tasha’s Cauldron of Everything (TCoE) in 2020, Wizards of the Coast began to move away from racial ability scores. It is my understanding that Mordenkainen Presents: Monsters of the Multiverse (MotM) continues the trend by prescribing “floating” ability score increases.29 It seems very likely that the “next evolution” of D&D’s Player Handbook (scheduled for release in 2024) will enshrine floating ability score increases as part of the default character creation algorithm.
However, the current PHB still associates each playable “lineage” with one or more ability score increases. For example, all dwarves benefit from a higher Constitution score; additionally, hill dwarves get a small bump to their Wisdom scores while mountain dwarves get a healthy increase to their Strength scores.
I see a handful of ways to convert these existing ability score increases into ability modifier increases or,
alternately preferably, to move forward with floating ability modifier increases.
- We could translate these ability score increases directly to ability modifier increases. This would mean that an ability score increase of 2 yields an ability modifier increase of 1. However, an ability score increase of 1 would be rounded down for an ability modifier increase of zero. With this model, each race get a single ability modifier increase with the exception of mountain dwarves (who get two) and humans (who get none).
This method is certainly simple enough, but I can foresee some unhappiness at the loss of that second ability score bump (particularly for human PCs).
- As an alternative, we could allow players to choose which of the official ability score increases to use. For the most part, players still only get one ability modifier increase, but this is mitigated by offering a choice of ability modifiers to increase. The table below shows what that might look like.
|Species||Ability Modifier Increase|
|Dwarf (Hill)||Increase your Constitution or Wisdom modifier by 1.|
|Dwarf (Mountain)||Increase your Strength and Constitution modifiers by 1.|
|Elf (High)||Increase your Dexterity or Intelligence modifier by 1.|
|Elf (Wood)||Increase your Dexterity or Wisdom modifier by 1.|
|Elf (Drow)||Increase your Dexterity or Charisma modifier by 1.|
|Halfling (Lightfoot)||Increase your Dexterity or Charisma modifier by 1.|
|Halfling (Stout)||Increase your Dexterity or Constitution modifier by 1.|
|Human||Increase one ability modifier by 1.|
|Dragonborn||Increase your Strength or Charisma modifier by 1.|
|Gnome (Forest)||Increase your Dexterity or Intelligence modifier by 1.|
|Gnome (Rock)||Increase your Constitution or Intelligence modifier by 1.|
|Half-Elf||Increase your Charisma modifier and one other ability modifier by 1.|
|Half-Orc||Increase your Strength or Constitution modifier by 1.|
|Tiefling||Increase your Intelligence or Charisma modifier by 1.|
- As I mentioned however, floating ability score increases are likely the future of D&D. We can embrace that future by moving forward with an ability modifier version the Custom Lineage30 rules found in TCoE. As an added benefit, floating ability modifiers are very simple to implement:
|Floating Ability Modifier Increase|
|You may increase one ability modifier of your choice by 1.|
- However, if every PC can bump any one ability modifier it begs the question: Why have ability score/modifier increases at all? It does have the benefit of making a PC “really good” at one thing. But essentially, this rule just complicates character creation by tacking on another point to spend on a PC’s ability modifiers.31 We could probably justify eliminating ability score increases (racial or otherwise) altogether — or at least making them explicitly part of the primary ability score/modifier generation rules.
For example, we could modify our point buy method like so:
- Start with +0 for all your ability modifiers.
- One of your final ability modifiers can be as high as +3, the remainder must be no higher than +2 and no lower than -1.
- You start with 5 points to spend.
- Lowering an ability to -1 creates an additional point to spend.
Ability scores are tied to the PC level advancement process in three ways.
Ability Score Improvements
Every class has ability score improvements (ASI) baked into specific levels.32 When a PC reaches a given level, her player is given 2 points to spend on her PC’s ability scores. Transitioning to an ability modifier only model is straightforward: give the player 1 point to spend on an ability modifier of her choice. The player does loose a little flexibility with this change, but I don’t really see a viable alternative.33
The PHB supplies an optional rule that allows players to chose a feat in place of an ASI.34 Many feats don’t impact a PC’s ability scores. However, there are 13 feats that (among other things) offer a single point ability score increase. These 13 feats are sometimes called the half feats.
These half feats are somewhat problematic: Raising an ability modifier is too powerful, but ignoring the increase leaves these feats a little lacklustre. My solution, however, is simple: Ignore the increase but allow players to pick one “full” feat or two half feats.
Many feats also specify a minimum ability score as a prerequisite for taking the feat. For instance, the Defensive Dualist feat requires a PC to have a Dexterity score of at least 13. I don’t think we have to think too hard about this one though and we can safely use the corresponding ability modifier as an alternative prerequisite.35
Fifth Edition uses ability scores as prerequisites for multiclassing.36 If you want your PC to be a bard and a barbarian 37 She needs to be both charismatic and strong. In other words, her Charisma score and her Strength score must be as least 13.
This is the same situation we have with some feats and, since ability modifiers are directly linked to ability scores, we might just as well say that a bard/barbarian’s Charisma and Strength modifiers need to be at least +1.38
Conclusions About Using Ability Scores Out Of Play
At first blush, ability scores (and single point ability score increases) seem integral to the PC creation process. However, as racial ability score increases continue to become more flexible (and perhaps pass out of existence all together), removing ability scores from this whole process will be more and more painless.
On the other hand, ability scores are thoroughly integrated into PC advancement. The challenge is twofold:
- ASI can be split between two ability scores.
- Single point ability score improvements are baked into the “leveling up” process via the half feats.
Consequently, removing ability scores from character advancement is not without its challenges. Condensing an ASI down so that it can only be used on a single ability modifier shrinks a player’s choices — and some players may object to the loss of options. In contrast, some GMs may find offering players two half feats excessive.
Unfortunately, unlike ability scores “in play,” removing ability scores from the PC creation and advancement process cannot be described as trivial.
Why Use Ability Scores?
Obviously, I’m not a big fan of ability scores. To me they feel like D&D’s appendix; a vestigial organ that is just hanging around, waiting to get infected and kill us all. And they are everywhere! Every PCs, every NPC, every “monster and divine being” in the D&D universe has its ability scores plastered front and centre for all the world to see (and ignore).
So why are ability scores cluttering up our character sheets and monster stat blocks?
I have a couple hypotheses…
The D&D Vibe
Because it’s always been done that way.– Imaginary Fifth Edition Designer
I’m not really being flippant here. A degree of continuity between D&D editions is a perfectly reasonable design goal. After all, an often sighted complaint about 4th Edition is that it didn’t “feel” like D&D. From a marketing perspective, D&D (with its various editions) is like the Ship of Theseus — if you change too many things, is it even the same game? And if not, will people buy it?
Rewarding System Mastery
Nevertheless, Fifth Edition certainly has differences from previous editions. Perhaps ability scores are some sort of sacred D&D cow, but if not, maybe Fifth Edition’s designers saw ability scores (particularly the odd numbered ability scores and their complementary single point ability score increases) as an opportunity to reward system mastery39 without disadvantaging new players too much?
I started playing D&D with Fifth Edition and I certainly didn’t find it difficult to pick up and play. And, even though I am grousing about ability scores, I don’t think they are a significant barrier to entry40 — mostly I just resent the space they take up on my character sheets and NPC stat blocks.
Having said that, I can’t deny feeling a certain satisfaction in apportioning my PC’s ability scores so that, several levels (and however many real-time weeks) later, I can split an ASI between two odd ability scores — simultaneously increasing two ability modifiers.
So, after I’ve spilled all this ink, will I keep using ability scores?
Yes and no.
Ability Scores For Players
The first time I rolled up a PC’s stats, I remember thinking that the ability score/modifier redundancy was some kind of numerical Rube Goldberg machine — more effort than effect. Obviously, I haven’t grown any fonder of them with time.
Nevertheless, I suspect they will continue to find their way onto my character sheets; taunting me with their superfluousness every time I reference a PC’s ability modifiers. I might not use them in play, but unfortunately, a house rule that cuts ability scores out of character advancement is probably moving into fantasy heartbreaker41 territory.
One of these days I’ll draw up a character sheet with a spot for ability scores on the back…
Ability Scores For Game Masters
On the other hand, while my PCs might be stuck with ability scores, I absolutely refuse to burden my NPCs with them. When I’m referencing a stat block in the middle of a combat, I don’t need to see this:
I just need the stats I’m actually gonna use!
After all, NPCs don’t use class features, their armour always fits them, and (most importantly) they never level up!42
So, no more ability scores for NPCs, please.
Check out these pages for more on the history of D&D’s ability scores.
How Dungeons & Dragons Got Its Ability Scores — a short article on the history of ability scores, by David Hartlage (DM David).
Ability Checks: From the Worst Mechanic in Role-Playing Game History to a Foundation Of D&D — a slightly longer article on the history of ability checks, by David Hartlage (again).
- Don’t worry, we will take a look at the handful of exceptions found in the Player’s Handbook (PHB), 2014.
- The death save is the exception to this rule.
- For this post, I am defining a limit as an upper or lower bound on a PC’s (or NPC’s) actions.
- For this post, we will define a condition as a prerequisite a PC (or NPC) must have in order to do something.
- For this post, you can think of a point of reference as allowing a PC to evaluate something.
- Indomitable Might is found on page 49 of the PHB.
- Unless otherwise specified, a PC’s maximum Strength score is 20.
- Visions of the Past is found on page 60 of the PHB.
- Know Your Enemy feature is found on page 73 of the PHB.
- The Heavy Armour property is found on page 144 of the PHB.
- Yes, this would allow PCs with ability scores of 12 to qualify for “speedy” chain mail. It is a fair point, but I would argue that there is a degree of arbitrariness in the choice between a Strength score of 12 or 13.
- The rules for carrying, lifting, pushing, pulling, and encumbrance are all found on page 176 of the PHB.
- Jumping is found on page 182 of the PHB.
- Awaken is found on page 216 of the PHB.
- Rary’s Telepathic Bond is found on page 270 of the PHB.
- Sending is found on page 274 of the PHB.
- Tasha’s Hideous Laughter is found on page 280 of the PHB.
- Telepathy is found on page 281 of the PHB.
- Bigby’s Hand is found on page 218 of the PHB.
- Feeble Mind is found on page 239 of the PHB.
- I’m tempted to argue that my table/character sheet solution would make the carrying capacity rules a little easier to use.
- As opposed to even.
- Yes, I know there is an indirect benefit related to ability score improvements — we will get to that in a bit.
- ASI stands for ability score improvement.
- The rules for generating ability scores are found on page 13 of the PHB.
- The graph of a normal distribution tapers off symmetrically from a central peak.
- Remember, this is almost the first thing a new (to D&D) player does!
- I want to stop here to acknowledge that while we are taking about imaginary dwarves and pretend elves, the notion that one fantasy species is inherently stronger, nimbler, tougher, smarter, shrewder, or more personable than any other fantasy species echos the biological determinism of real world racism. Real world “races” are, of course, just as made up as tieflings, but real world racism is not. As a result, racial ability score increases deserve, at the very least, some thoughtful interrogation. (In fact, D&D‘s “lore” is laced with bioessentialist tropes, so if anything, racial ability score increases are fairly low hanging fruit.)
- I cannot speak with authority here, as I have not yet read MotM.
- The Custom Lineage rules are found on page 8 of Tasha’s Cauldron of Everything (TCoE).
- Assuming you are using the point buy method.
- Note the difference between ability score increases and ability score improvements (ASI). The former is applied during character creation, the latter during character advancement. Unfortunately, the official sourcebooks do not always use these terms consistently.
- Spending two points on ability modifiers seems a tad excessive.
- Feats are found on page 165 of the PHB.
- Yes, this allows players with a Dexterity score of 12 to qualify for Defensive Dualist. I dealt with this same “problem” in my “Conclusions About Using Ability Scores In Play.”
- The Multiclassing Prerequisites table is found on page 163 of the PHB.
- Also known as a “bardbarian.”
- You can quibble that this would allow PCs with ability scores of 12 to qualify for multiclassing. But, since my ultimate aim is to remove ability scores from the game completely, I would argue that it’s a bit of a moot point.
- For now, let’s agree to define System mastery as knowing most/all of the game’s rules, particularly with respect to the character creation/advancement process.
- Although simplifying the character creation process could hardly be a bad thing. It is, after all, the first thing a new player does!
- A word which here means “D&D with the serial numbers filed off.”
- Yes, the sidekicks from TCoE are an exception — I don’t care.