As anyone who has had any kind of Dungeons and Dragons conversation with me knows, I’m highly opinionated about the various dimensions of D&D, including mechanics, class design, and how a DM’s adjudication impacts everyone’s enjoyment at the table. In Fifth Edition’s context, the game values that have the greatest impact on the system are the six Ability Scores that quantify the general traits of every creature in the system (and honestly, more objects than you’d think). It’s also one of the most frustrating aspects of the game to teach, because often new players mistake their personal understanding of each score’s label with their mechanical function in Fifth Edition’s game system, and as a result the roleplaying/narrative implications that come about as a result. For today’s Study Hall, we’re going to look at the mechanics of each Ability Score and how your choice in how they’re distributed can broaden your narrative possibilities rather than limit them. So to begin, the first thing we have to acknowledge is that...
Not all Ability Scores are Created Equal
Unless your DM implements a host of homebrew to rebalance Fifth Edition’s system, not all Ability Scores carry an equal amount of mechanical weight. In fact, there’s a clear distinction between which scores are more powerful and which ones are less. In general (unless you’re utilizing a class that prioritizes them), Strength and Intelligence will generally be used less often than Dexterity, Constitution, and Wisdom. It’s always good to have one party member with high Charisma, but even then the prior “Big Three” (as I call them) will be called on more often in all three pillars of play, whereas Charisma really only affects social interaction and combat (if you’re playing a Charisma caster).
As an example, let’s compare the number of instances where Strength and Dexterity will be called for:
Strength can factor into your character’s melee attack rolls, damage rolls, some thrown weapon attacks, Athletics checks (usually called for in Exploration) and the static value, Carrying Capacity.
Dexterity can factor into your character’s Armor Class, Initiative, Dexterity saves (the most common saving throw), Stealth (one of the most common ability checks), Acrobatics, Sleight of Hand, and Attack and Damage rolls with some melee and most ranged weapons.
One last element to consider is that most Strength weapons characters have limited ranged options, while Dexterity weapons characters are equally effective in melee and at range. In fact, these differences are so drastic that one of the first characters I DM’d for, a Sorcerer with a -1 Dex, was almost unplayable because a single missed Dexterity save or an attack roll aimed at him would virtually exclude him from further participating in combat.
Now I’m not saying you can’t have fun with a character that has a -1 to one of these “Big Three” Ability Scores, but I am saying that understanding the statistical weight they carry will positively impact your relationship with 5e. You’ll know what you’re signing up for.
Some Thoughts on the Tomato Analogy
So how do we go about teaching the six Ability Scores? One way many Dungeon Masters do this is through the famous Tomato Analogy. It goes as follows:
Strength is being able to crush a tomato.
Dexterity is being able to dodge a tomato.
Constitution is being able to eat a bad tomato.
Intelligence is knowing a tomato is a fruit.
Wisdom is knowing not to put a tomato in a fruit salad.
Charisma is being able to sell a tomato-based fruit salad.
Seems simple enough, right? However, I tend to actively avoid using this tool when I’m teaching the system. First, I like teaching a mechanics-first approach, meaning that a new player at my table is discouraged from looking at the narrative text in a section without taking the mechanical text into consideration, because ultimately, the narrative can be changed to accommodate what you want while the mechanics generally have to stay the same for the game to function well. In addition, I find that players that only focus on the story text can often misinterpret the text’s intentions, and there tends to be more time spent explaining why the mechanical text carries more weight in the Dungeon Master’s adjudication rather than the story reasoning. The Tomato Analogy is a perfect example of this failing.
While the analogy certainly isn’t inaccurate, it can be misleading. For example, it fails to convey the point I made in the previous section: not all Ability Scores are created equal. Unless you’re running a specific class or build, Dexterity and Constitution have far more functional pay off than Strength or Intelligence, and even with a Strength character, often having a +2 Dex and the highest Con will almost always lean in to your character being more generally effective.
Another issue with this analogy is that it doesn’t encompass the magnitude of how each Ability Score functions in the system. With a cursory glance, one might assume that Strength is an offensive stat, Dexterity and Constitution are defensive, and Charisma is used mostly for buying and selling items. It doesn’t give the impression that Dexterity is an overall more useful offensive and defensive stat than Strength, and that Wisdom saves are used to guard your mind more often than Intelligence saves.
Speaking of Wisdom, while we can argue back and forth on our personal definitions of Wisdom, its game functionality in Fifth Edition is very specific. In Dungeons and Dragons, as it says in 5e’s SRD, “Wisdom reflects how attuned you are to the world around you and represents perceptiveness and intuition”. In game terms, Wisdom is usually used for Perception and Insight checks, which inform players about their environment and clues about the characters occupying it. What I would find more useful as part of this analogy would be that “Wisdom is knowing how your guests feel about the tomatoes in their salad” or “Wisdom is seeing where best to plant tomatoes in your garden”. Wisdom checks usually boil down to sensory input in one form or another. Tangentially, it's why I hate when DMs use Perception checks for general features of an environment and Investigation for finding something specific. Intelligence is a Score that resolves character knowledge and reasoning skills, not sensory input, but I digress. Hey, I told you I was opinionated, right?
So What DO They Mean?
I mean, that’s the title of this piece, right? “What Ability Scores Mean”. And, to give context to this section, we’re really asking how their mechanics can inform our roleplaying. From my perspective, Ability Scores are a way to quantify general traits in relation to an average person. Ability Scores also provide the base modifier to a package of different abilities. To not get too nitty gritty (and to give my version of the Tomato analogy), the way I sum up the six ability scores is as follows:
Strength represents your character’s fitness and power
Dexterity represents your character’s quickness and coordination
Constitution represents your character’s endurance and physical tolerance
Intelligence represents your character’s education and reasoning skills
Wisdom represents your character’s awareness and discipline
Charisma represents your character’s expressiveness and personal magnetism
So even if you have different ways you think about these traits (like you may see overlap in the definitions of Constitution and Strength, for instance), Fifth Edition’s system interprets very narrow definitions of these traits.
For example, wouldn’t a character with a high level of fitness also have high endurance? Maybe, maybe not. For instance, there’s very different training that goes into sprinting versus marathon running, and you can see it in the two runners’ bodies. I’ve also met plenty of individuals with fantastic Strength that have intolerances to certain ingredients (which is where Constitution may be called for instead). While storywise we can argue that the two are related (and Strength characters almost always benefit from a high Constitution), they are not mutually inclusive.
So what does it mean to have a high value in one of these Ability Scores? Well, it means that either due to natural talent, training, or both (or some other reason), your character has a greater likelihood to succeed in challenges related to that trait. This doesn’t mean they should or will automatically succeed, and in fact sometimes a character may choose to fail a certain roll based on the situation. For example, let’s take a look at a high Charisma character, maybe a Bard or Warlock. While that character is more likely to succeed on Charisma checks, the player behind the character may want to play the character as honest-to-a-fault. By the game’s system, they have a natural bonus to Deception checks because of their Ability Score, although the player can voluntarily fail such rolls or choose not to partake in them. In this way, failure can be just as if not more character defining than success.
The opposite can also be true. Just because your character has a low Intelligence score doesn’t mean that they’re an idiot. If you were to distill the meaning or motivation behind all Intelligence checks, they would either be to recall information (usually the character’s education), or a test of their reasoning skills. A -1 modifier doesn’t necessarily mean that character can’t make logical decisions. It might just mean they lacked the educational resources an average person in the world has access to, and as a result won’t be familiar with that information as easily. Now of course this can be explained by a character’s lack of interest in such topics, and I’ve seen plenty of Barbarians take a penalty to Intelligence in a standard array and roleplayed as brutish thugs. I’m just saying that isn’t the only narrative explanation for such a thing.
Now, if you build characters with a standard array like I do, then characters you create will have built in strengths and flaws. For example, my favorite character to bring up for instances like this is my character Solomon, whose two greatest Ability Scores are Dexterity and Wisdom and whose lowest score is Charisma. Solomon was built with story in mind. He’s a genetically engineered monster hunter (I know, very derivative) with dampened emotions, keeping him from emotionally connecting with others but still aware of how they feel. In the game’s system, this is reflected by the penalty that factors into his Charisma checks, while his Expertise in Insight also allows him to read others very effectively. He’s a joy to play because his flaw is as much as what defines him as well as his uncanny awareness and swift decisive fighting style.
When it comes to distributing Ability Scores for your character, I’d start with thinking what Ability Score can they do without. Where are they designed to run into trouble, and where are they going to shine? While the dice may roll as they may, it doesn’t mean you can’t design your character’s story with these specific moments in mind. For me, the moments where Solomon shines are when he gives an in-depth analysis of a creature, or can call out an NPC for lying just by taking a look at them and feeling their heartbeat. His character is also defined by his struggles, such as his inability to persuade others emotionally or deceive others.
Ability Scores are at the heart of this game’s math for a reason. They are quantitative values that beg players to ask bigger questions when the dice are rolled and when results are added up. If my character failed, was this just because of luck or were they designed this way? How does this failure manifest, and what is the reason for their success? What moments do I want my character to be remembered for?
While I can go on with advice on how to build characters, I’d rather you play with this first. Build characters with high and low Wisdom, and ask yourself to play them differently. When they succeed, how do you celebrate that success? When they fail, is that part of their personality and how do they take it? Do they even realize they failed?
And as always, I’d love your perspectives on the matter. After all, collaboration is what makes this game so special in my heart.
Study Hard, Play Hard
Professional Game Master musician, music teacher, game designer, amateur bartender, and aspiring fiction author.
Honestly, I write what I want when I want. Often monster lore, sometimes miniature showcases, and the occasional movie/show review.