D&D, Ability Scores, and My Sense of Scale

Most GMs and players have a pretty good idea as to how reality works*: If you fall from a height, you break a limb. Water runs down hill. Getting sliced up with a sword means that you will probably die soon. However, when the rules plays with your established sense of scale, it can get pretty ugly.

(*Yes, when a player wanted to burn through gold with acid, I ruled that the element is chemically neutral. I was tired, under a time limit, and a bad geek. I regret it—so please leave it be.)

If I were a princess, ability scores would be my pea. In every edition of D&D, how the mechanics play a score out have changed dramatically.

AD&D & 2nd Edition

In the beginning, the only uniting factor is that you determined your ability scores by rolling 3d6 for each of them. I don’t think that ability scores were supposed to be directly comperable to each other. An ability score between 7 and 14 often got you no modifiers at all to your actions. Yet, while a strength of 16 earned you a +1 to damage (not to hit!) on melee attacks, a Dex of 16 instead gave you a -2 to defense (lower was better then) and a +1 to hit with ranged attacks.

It seemed as if each ability was created to address a specific types of characters. The unique mechanics of each ability score combined to define your character almost as much as your race or class did and, despite the differences in how each ability scores was portrayed, it worked.

Strength, however stood out. For player characters, there were several steps between an 18 and 19, represented as a percentile. It was a pocket of misery that made it very improbable that your fighter would ever see a 19 Strength and it didn’t exist for any other ability score. That gap stood out and rankled me.

In 2nd Edition the Strength score had an easy chart to reference with a ruling on how much weight could be carried. If you could imagine the effort required to press 220 lbs (Str 17) then you might have been able to imagine what a similar effort might have accomplished in running a long distance (Con), creating a complex puzzle (Int), or talking your way past the king’s guard (Cha). But if you wanted to compare the effort of pressing 305 lbs (Str 18/51-75%) to establish your sense of scale for the other abilities, then forget it.

3rd Edition

When 3.0/3.5 Edition came along, ability scores were standardized and the manner in which all checks were made was substantially changed. Now, ability modifiers were predictably uniform. Mechanically, a score of 12-13 produced a +1 bonus to related checks and a score of 8-9 produced a -1 penalty instead, regardless of which ability they represented. 18/x strength scores no longer existed.

At the same time, the notion of what a normal score is changed. In AD&D and 2nd Edition, scores from 8 to 14 almost never gave up a modifier. That range narrowed to 10-11 in 3rd Edition. The result was a shift in the player’s general perception as to what a ‘good’ score was, especially as ability modifers were now used extensively throughout nearly all of the mechanics. Any score with a negative modifier was generally viewed as ‘low’ and was to be avoided. Consequently, I assume that the average ability scores for PCs increased in comparison to earlier editions.

This power creep is also reflected in the strength score (still the only score to be backed up with real world measurements). PCs that used to carry 40 lbs could now carry 100 (Str 10). PCs that could carry 55 lbs could now carry 200 (Str 15). That made quite a difference when hauling loot!

If you haven’t noticed though, 3rd edition provided me with a pretty useful tool for establising a consitent sense of scale across all ability scores. Starting with a score of 10, every every additional +5 to strength doubled the lift/carry capacity. 15 was twice as strong as 10, 16 was twice as strong as 11, and so on. I thought could make that work. Is your character twice as smart? +5 to intelligence. Does the Monster have the strength of 10 men? +17 to strength… shit. Now that breaks something, doesn’t it.

See, the problem for me in 3rd Edition became how quickly your ability modifiers increase. The math becomes ridiculous. When I started modeling super-heroes in d20 Modern, I had to look for other solutions. But in *most* cases, the ‘+5-to-double rule’ was a useful measure.

4th Edition

In 4th Edition, the scale changes again and the role of ability scores in the game changes dramatically once more. Calculating ability modifiers hasn’t changed but their influence has waned and the mechnical differences between one ability score has been cut to the bone.

From the earliest levels in 4th edition, skill training and your overall character level has more influence on checks and attacks than your skill modifier. Most attacks are now made using your dominant ability score, so each character’s chance to hit is roughly the same. Encumberance no longer exists and now PCs are assumed to be nearly super-human from the start (with the higher ability scores to match, compared to AD&D).

I think that the only really useful function of ability scores now is to act as a prerequisite for feats. It’s the only sense in which they provide a meaningful scale of capability to me. The character’s actual ability is no longer measured primarily by his or her ability score, it is imparted through the effects of powers, feats, and by skill training.

The reduced role of ability scores is part of the general smoothing over of the math in 4th edition. It has taken some time for me to wrap my head around it too because it looks like that you could focus on the guiding principles behind the math of 4th Edition and drop the concept of ability scores altogether! Playing a few games of Wrath of Ashardalon suggests that this might be true.


The problems with ability scores and scale seem inherent to many RPG systems but there are some that avoid the issue altogether. I’ld love to give Fate a serious try and Wrath is on the distant horizon–neither use ability scores. There is no mathmatical pretense there, scale is established solely by the narrative.

There were a few things that I meant to work in and never got a chance too. One of them was my d20 Modern rendition of Chuck Norris. A long time ago, when the Chuck Norris meme was in full swing, I looked up a few real facts about him and tried to model him as accurately as possible. That took him to level 23 in a system designed to stop at 20. :p When I statted Chuck, I had balance and a sense of scale on my mind. This was about the same time that I modeled the Fantastic Four in Modern and you can see how that went. Anyway, I cleaned up Chuck’s character sheet and I wanted to make that available.

Download Chuck Norris (d20 Modern)

Also, I recently lost a text file from an article I read waaay back, shortly after 3rd Edition was released. The author argued that math on the new skill system was actually pretty good, up to a point. Einstein could make all his discoveries with the right feats, equipment, and resources at level 5. After that, it breaks down a bit. It’s one of the earliest pieces that I read that had me thinking about scale and balance. Unfortunately, I don’t recall the author’s name or source, but I wanted to make that available as well… but I can’t find it now :/


~ by Hunter Rose on July 15, 2011.

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