Play D&D09/19/2006

Ability Scores
New Player Tutorial


The following terms are useful to know in reading this article:

So you want to play Dungeons & Dragons? The D&D Basic Game is an excellent start, but much of the game’s magic comes from creating your own unique character (and, as a Dungeon Master, creating your own adventures). In some ways, this is both a blessing and a curse. You have options, lots of options, tons of options, and maybe too many options! It can be overwhelming for a new player just picking up the core rulebooks (the Player’s Handbook, Dungeon Master’s Guide, and Monster Manual), especially the Player’s Handbook, for the first time. What do you do with all these choices?

If you are a veteran D&D player, this column is not for you. This column is to serve as a step-by-step tutorial for players new to the game. In it, we’ll look at many aspects of the game, but we will begin at the beginning: making your character.

When writing down everything about your character, you can use anything you like, from a piece of notebook paper to a database on your laptop. For this tutorial, though, we’re going to use the sample character sheet in the back of the Player’s Handbook (or available for download here) as a guide, a way to organize how we will look at the basics of character-building.

Ability Scores: What Are They?

Strength. Intelligence. Wisdom. Dexterity. Constitution. Charisma.

These are the basic building blocks of your character. Some roleplaying games are abstract—you just describe what you want to do and you do it. D&D is a little more rules-heavy than that, and some of the elementary ways to describe your character are in terms of their ability scores. How strong are they? How smart? How quick? These are represented in the game by your ability scores. If your Strength is high, you will have a much easier time breaking down doors and bashing monsters in the head than if your Strength is low—you can still attempt anything you like, but your ability scores will have a lot to say about how successful you are at the attempt.

Ability scores are located in the upper left corner of the basic character sheet, and they are fully explained on pgs. 7-10 in the Player’s Handbook. Each ability score is described, along with notes about which skills are affected by it. An average ability score is 10 or 11. If your ability score is higher than this, you will get a bonus to die rolls related to that ability (for example, weapon damage for Strength, Knowledge skill checks for Intelligence). If it is lower, you will suffer a penalty to die rolls related to that ability. The basic range of abilities for humans is 3 to 18, though other kinds of creatures (or humans using magic or with other bonuses) can go above and beyond this; see the lists of example creatures for each ability score for some comparable creatures at each range of ability. So, a human with an 18 Strength is as strong as a minotaur, and one with a 6 Intelligence is as dumb as an ogre.

Determining Scores

Hints: The one ability score that is always important, no matter what class you are, is Constitution. It affects how many hit points you have—how hard your character is to kill. It also helps you resist special attacks that might kill you. Finally, while it only affects one skill, that skill, Concentration, is one of the most important in the game, because it helps characters that use magic to use their powers in the middle of combat or other stressful and dangerous situations.

Intelligence is also important for all classes, because it determines how many skills you know (and how good you are at many of them). The way D&D works, you ‘buy’ skills by spending skill points. The number of skill points you have to spend is partially determined by your Intelligence, even if the skills you want don’t have much to do with book-learning, like Climb or Jump or Ride. Just like Constitution, Intelligence has benefits that cut across all character classes.

So how do you figure out your character’s ability scores? The classic method for determining ability scores is to roll four six-sided dice (4d6), dropping the lowest; so, if you roll a 5, 5, 4, and 2, you would drop the 2 and add the rest together, giving you a 14. You do this six times and then arrange the numbers however you like among the six ability scores. There are also alternative methods for generating your ability scores, some described on pgs. 169-170 of the Dungeon Master’s Guide, or your Dungeon Master may have his own custom method.

Once you have generated six ability scores, using whichever method your DM prefers, you need to decide which ability score goes where. All ability scores are important, and having a bad score in any ability can challenge you, but unless you are the luckiest roller in the world you’re not going to have all good scores. And besides, this is a roleplaying game; it can be just as enjoyable to roleplay a character that has a severe handicap, than one that has good to average abilities all around. What you need to decide is which ability scores are most important to you in making the kind of character you want and making your character successful at what they do.

Do you want a character who is a burly brawler who likes to turn monsters into hamburger up close and personal? Then Strength is the score for you. A nimble swashbuckler who can dodge and tumble out of trouble, or a sniper with deadly accuracy? Go for Dexterity. A tough customer who can keep on coming no matter how rough the road? Constitution is your bag. A brilliant scholar with a wealth of knowledge or the intellect to figure out mysteries and puzzles and ancient runes? Intelligence. An indomitable willpower with natural instincts and intuition? Wisdom. A charming and winning personality, leadership, and beauty? Charisma.

Your Character

To the first step in determining what kind of a fantasy hero you’ll play is to visualize the character in your mind. What ability scores are going to be important? How can you arrange them to model your hero idea in D&D rules terms?

Example: Sarah is making up her first character, ‘Ashwatha.’ She wants to play a character that is both clever and strong, but also quick and with great instincts. Maybe a loner and with few friends, though. She begins rolling up her ability scores. Using four six-sided dice (4d6), she rolls 6, 6, 6, and 4; dropping the lowest this becomes an 18, the best score possible when you’re just starting out! She then repeats the process five more times, getting ability scores of 15, 16, 9, 13, and 5 (ouch!), in addition to her 18. Those are pretty good, four ability scores that give her a bonus and two that give her a penalty.

Since she wants Ashwatha to be strong, she will put the 18 into Strength. Knowing that Constitution is important, especially for a strong character that will probably end up getting into a lot of close-up combat, she puts the 16 into Constitution. Looking at her other goals, she wanted her character to be clever, and quick, and with great instincts, but she has only two more good ability scores left. Hmmm… D&D is a game of trade-offs, and in the end she decides that the character is more about a soldier who has some brains rather than a brainiac who happens to be strong and tough, so a score of 13 in Intelligence and a 15 in Dexterity. That means only a 9 in Wisdom, so maybe Ashwatha has spent time learning but maybe is not so good at reading the situation and always intuiting the right way to go. Since she’s already decided Ashwatha is going to be a loner, lacking in people skills, she will put the 5 in Charisma.

Using her ability scores alone, we can form a good, basic picture of what Ashwatha is going to look like: a smart, tough combatant, able to anticipate her enemy’s moves, and quick enough to respond and counter them. But maybe she’s a little jittery and easily spooked around others. She may have a temper, or maybe she’s just not careful and naively or incautiously blunders into things, breaking stuff or committing social gaffes. Either way, people tend to avoid her, while those who have a quick tongue may be able to take advantage of her trusting nature with their schemes; of course, this only furthers her mistrust and sense of isolation from others when those tricks come to a bad end. Ashwatha takes up adventuring because it is only here, in the contest of life-or-death situations, that she finds true honesty, security, and comfort, especially with her fellow adventurers—the few people that Ashwatha knows well, and those she can learn to trust; they will protect her from outsiders who would take advantage of her.

Just like that, we have a basic character concept and a motivation for why she has taken up adventuring that fits in with how we have arranged her ability scores. Next we have to start thinking about character class.

Further Information

If you understand the basics of ability scores and character creation, check out these columns on the official D&D website:

About the Author

Jason Nelson-Brown lives in Seattle with his wife Kelle, daughters Meshia and Indigo, and son Allen. He is an active and committed born-again Christian who began playing D&D in 1981 and currently runs one weekly campaign while playing intermittently in two others.

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