Back in the Before Times (2022) I talked about taking on a little personal project, to approach D&D 5e as if I were doing a developmental edit on a manuscript. Basically, taking the “just house rule it!” advice we’re barraged with on social media whenever a problem with the game is brought up, and going full out. And given the latest business with the OGL I would be lying if I’m not now approaching this project with a certain amount of glee.
There are a number of places in the rules I could start my revamp. In fact, today I was originally going to revisit two previous articles I wrote about keeping the Stats versus ditching the Stats. But I think a better place to start is with the Stats or Ability Scores themselves, and ask some questions.
From the start Dungeons & Dragons as a game had two big influences: wargaming and bioessentialism. Unsurprising when one of the game’s creators, Gary Gygax, was both a wargamer and a bioessentialist. This isn’t a primer so I will leave it to you to go look up terms which might be unfamiliar. Suffice to say, both of these things contributed to the Ability Scores as we know them today, with all the inherit problems therein. Couple that with multi-edition design choices favoring nostalgia over an honest look at whether these abilities are still useful as they are (spoiler, they aren’t), and right from character creation we are saddled with problems.
Because ability scores are the first thing players generate for their characters in most games, those scores set the tone as far as what type of game can be expected. They signal to players what the game considers important; simply put, if it isn’t important a game doesn’t stat it. By asking you to generate a Strength score, for instance, the game signals that raw strength will be important or useful in the game. So let’s look at what 5e considers important:
- Strength: raw physical prowess
- Dexterity: agility as well as hand-eye coordination
- Constitution: physical endurance, mechanically it also affects hit points (a topic for another article)
- Intelligence: supposed to indicate memory and reasoning ability, but often defaults to a nebulous idea of how “smart” a character is
- Wisdom: they don’t really talk about what Wisdom is in the game, jumping almost immediately to the skills and other things it affects
- Charisma: meant to measure force of personality, but in practice often tied to physical beauty and “sexiness”
Before we look at anything else, we can see that based on solely what D&D does as a game, the first three Ability Scores fit. As the game focuses primarily on combat, for instance, it makes sense you would need to know how hard a character can hit (Strength), whether they can avoid a hit or hit at range (Dexterity), and if they are struck, how well they weather that hit (Constitution).
The remaining three Ability Scores are almost specific to particular character types, as opposed to being generally useful in the same way as the first three. Intelligence is of primary use to wizards and other skill-focused characters, but lies flat on the page for anyone else. Similarly, Wisdom is ill-defined except as the province of the religious folk in the game and otherwise doesn’t come into play except to punish physical-type characters. Charisma could be an Ability of use to everyone, and given how hard folks argue that D&D “does emphasize roleplaying, actually!” you might be forgiven for thinking its presence supports this. But I would argue that, when a particular ability is almost universally considered a “dump stat”, you might need to revisit whether it is working as intended.
So basically we have three Ability Scores which are of vital importance to every character, and three which are situationally important but depending on party build, may not be important to everyone, or even anyone. And yet, every character has to generate these scores, useful or not. Seems like a bit of a time waster, huh? Especially when you consider that, having rolled up these numbers, you never use them again. Oh, you use the bonuses they represent, but the Ability Scores themselves are never rolled against or have any effect on gameplay.
So why have them? And if we’re going to keep them, do we need to keep these ones, or are there better ways to start building a character for the game 5e says it is? What type of game does D&D 5e say it is, anyway?
You have probably heard of the Three Pillars of the D&D game: Exploration, Social Interaction, and Combat. These three pillars are meant to be the focus of gameplay, and there is an expectation good designers and GMs will incorporate all three in a balanced fashion into their designs. In reality, 5e strongly supports the Combat pillar with the bulk of the ruleset dedicated to how that works, allocating only a fraction of its total page count to the other two pillars. When someone is telling you to “just houserule it!” or “make up something that works at your table!”, it’s almost a guarantee it relates to the Exploration or Social Interaction “pillars”.
But what if we took the game at its word, that these Three Pillars are actually equally important? What Ability Scores would we develop to drive home that importance and balance right from character creation?
Come back next week for Part Two, and we’ll look at some options.