I like D&D, but… Why are Ability Scores so Dumb?

I really like some of the core concepts and simplicity in D&D 5e, which then makes the little problems more annoying. It’s so close!

I’m going to do a series of posts on what I almost like about the system, and what I’d do differently. I’ll also touch on a few concepts and mechanics from other systems, and how I’d like to see them brought in to create one super-awesome-mega-RPG (or you know, 6e). This time, I want to look at the base of D&D characters: the ability scores.

Ability Scores

First, the obvious: why do we still have a score that goes from 6ish to 20ish? The actual score is barely used anywhere (ok, there’s some stuff about minimum Str for certain armours and…jump distance I guess?), and the first thing you do is convert it into a modifier. Let’s just get rid of the score and use modifiers! Yes, ok, some people like rolling for stats, and this means you can roll 3d6. But just, come up with a different system? You could easily come up with a lookup table for the modifier based on a percentile roll. Hey look, I just did:

Ability ScoreModifier3d6 Probability**Percentile Roll
Roll 1d100, determine your ability modifier. IS THIS FUN NOW?
*A percentile dice only has 100 sides, so you can't count from 0-100. Therefore if you roll 00, you then flip a coin to see if it's 0 or 100
**Calculating the probability for '4d6 drop lowest' is left as an exercise for the reader

This is certainly not a big deal, it’s just one of those annoying hangovers from previous editions that doesn’t need to exist anymore. It’s most noticeable when you try to explain the game to a newbie, who doesn’t understand why their 15 Con doesn’t give them any benefit over the 14 someone else has.

Triangle of Stats

I should start by saying I really like the triangle of the physical stats: Strength, Dexterity and Constitution. It makes a lot of sense to have stats for: raw physical power, finesse (or rather the ability to apply what you have), and resistance. You can immediately imagine how a Fighter with high Str and low Dex is different to the Rogue with the opposite; and how a Con save would be applicable to resisting poison or exhaustion.

Moar triangles!

Then you start looking at the mental stats. It starts well enough: Intelligence represents mental power, reasoning and learning ability; while Wisdom represents ‘common sense’ and awareness of your surroundings. And the mental resistance stat is…not there. Charisma is something else entirely (I’ll come to that), and we end up with Wisdom saves as a stand-in for willpower or grit.

And then there’s Charisma. Everyone knows what Charisma is right? You use it to persuade people, to give impressive performances, to turn heads. And to resist ghostly possession? And if you’re a bard, paladin, sorcerer, or warlock, as you’re spellcasting ‘power’. It’s noted in a few places that Charisma isn’t beauty, but then what is? It’s used for all social, roleplay interactions (yes, I know there’s that example about using Strength for intimidate checks), reducing any social skill challenge into a Charisma stat arm-wrestle.

More Triangles!

Is there a better way? I’d say yes! Using the physical triangle as an example, do the same for all the other stats:


I’ve changed a few names (I didn’t like having both Wisdom and Willpower, they felt too close linguistically), but hopefully it’s clear to see what each stat would do. We’ve now got a whole triangle of social stats! The handsome Paladin uses their Presence on the battlefield to inspire allies, while the skeevy Bard uses their Charisma to talk their way out of (in to?) trouble. You can run entirely social encounters, where a character’s social Status helps them resist the absolute roasting they’ve just received.

Also added – maybe unnecessarily you might think – is a magic triangle. Maybe it’s just me, but I don’t like using the other stats for magical ability. It’s makes some stats too important (see Charisma above), and you lose some nuance in how characters interact with their abilities. In this system I can see a Sorcerer having a high Soul, but low Weave (names need work): they can go full Goku and melt people’s faces, but they aren’t so good at controlling their power and doing clever stuff with it (like, say, a Wizard is). Plus, now you’ve got a magical reserves stat, Mana, that determines how much magical juice you get to spray each day.

After inventing all this and feeling very proud of myself, it has been pointed out to me that it looks a lot like the stats from White Wolf’s Storytelling System. It’s not intentional, but I have read the core rulebook for that system, so I guess it’s percolated in at some point. Ah well, there’s no such thing as a 100% original idea right?

I appreciate this doubles the number of stats a character has, but I think it would improve the game and help each class/character feel more unique. Now you can be a socially-awkward Sorcerer, or an illiterate Barbarian who sometimes makes people explode with his mind, or an iron-willed Cleric who’s a terrible judge of character, or…

Pools: Stamina, Sanity, and More

Ok at this point I’ve completely left 5e behind, but just to develop my ideas some more: what if there was more than just hit points? The DM’s Guide suggests adding things like sanity or honour if you like, but why not just have them be part of the game by default?

We’re used to Constitution affecting hit points, so I’d suggest having a ‘pool’ for each of the resistance stats. Willpower leads to Sanity (again, this could be renamed), the character’s mental reserves. Mana leads to Spelljuice (ok, you come up with a name!), which is used to cast spells – I’ll come onto spell levels and slots, and how they annoy me, in a future post. Status leads to Support, a measure of the characters standing or notoriety in society, and which could really easily be re-flavoured as honour if you’re into that.

If you get hit with a sword you lose hit points as normal (which I’m going to call Stamina to keep up the ‘S’ theme I’ve got going on); but if an evil wizard casts brain-melty magic on you, you lose Sanity, and that’s just as bad. In a social conflict, an opponent’s cutting insult might cause a PC to lose Support, and I can also see Support as a spendable resource, used to call in favours or get an audience with a local noble.

These ideas need fleshing out properly, but I think it would give DMs more scope to introduce different game styles than just ‘hit monsters with weapons’. A horror adventure might emphasise the mental stats and loss of Sanity, while one involving intrigue and espionage might use the social stats more.

I’m sure plenty of people disagree with me on all this, but it should at least spark a conversation. Maybe you agree with dropping scores and only using modifiers, but thought the extra stats went too far? Maybe you think Charisma is perfectly well-defined and perfect just as it is? Let me know in the comments!

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