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D&D 5E Balancing the ability scores and their contribution to different classes

TheAlkaizer

Game Designer
The thread about the Ability Score Increases is still going strong. A bit too strong for my taste, but I do jump in to read samples of it.

In the last few pages, I've seen a few posts circling around the topic of cookie-cutter characters, classes having a critical ability score that needs to be a certain number or higher, etc. For some reason, it connected to a few other thoughts I had recently and with a video I've watched at lunch last week.

So, here are a few example points that highlight one aspect of the ability scores that I'm not fond of:
  • Classes having a specific ability score marked as their key ability score.
  • Classes receiving almost no benefits from many ability scores.
  • Some ability scores are really, from a macro perspective, not as useful as others. (dexterity being really good is a frequent topic of discussion)
  • Players feeling like they have to balance the mechanical aspect of the ability scores with what it suggests narratively and for their characters. In my opinion, it leads to people feeling like they can't fully make their character if their race doesn't give them a bonus in their key ability score.
Anyway, these are just some examples, and they're my opinion. In opposition to these points, I'd like to see things like:
  • Less emphasis on a single key ability score for a class
  • Having most ability scores be of value to most classes
  • Have the gap of how useful certain ability scores feel be reduced
  • Players being able to go from their character concept into mechanical character building without having to worry that their character will be fun.
I don't understand why being Intelligent is not something that would be desirable for a fighter!

One little example of something that I really liked from 4th edition that somewhat goes into that direction were how they did the saving throws. For those that didn't play 4th edition, you had three saving throws: fortitude, reflex and will. However, as opposed to 3rd edition, they were not tied to just one ability score but two. For example, your Reflex saving throw was modified by either your dexterity or intelligence modifier, whichever is highest. Same with fortitude (strength, constitution) and will (wisdom, charisma). This kind of design lessens the emphasis on specific ability scores.

The video I refered to earlier is this one:

For context (it is a 58 minutes video after all): this is Josh Sawyer, Game Director at Obsidian Entertainment, notably on Pillars of Eternity (which is the focus of the video). It's a cool video, if you have the time I think it is worth a watch, he does refer to D&D alot. But for those that don't have the time for it, here's a quick TLDR:
  • Sawyer wanted to close the gap between builds that were viable and those that were optimal. He didn't want people to realize they had made a bad character after a few hours of gameplay and being unable to progress, and he didn't want player to break the game by hyper-focusing characters. But he also wanted to allow players to maximize, or not think too much about building their characters (different people, different fun).
  • Sawyer summarizes the design goals to:
    • Have six attributes
    • Class abilities that are not explicitly associated with attributes
    • Have attributes influence statistics of importance to all classes linearly
    • To have "no bad builds"
    • Discourage people from dumping stats.
Obviously, there's several design decisions that cover all these goals. But I'm mostly interested in the attributes having importance to all classes and reducing the "cool concept, bad character" effect.

The specific part of the video that kind of covers that explains that they kind of broke the verisimilitude between the name of attributes and what people expect from them. For example, there's no strength, but there's might. And might increases your damages. All damages. The damages you deal with your sword, but also with your spells. So both a fighter and a wizard could want to have a high might.

And they made sure that all attributes affected stats that were somewhat desirable to all classes. Here's a chart from that same video:
1629860287175.png


Obviously, some of the things they did would be hard to replicate in a TTRPG, like affecting the area of effect of your spells. But what I like about this approach, is that on paper, all attributes are useful in some ways to all classes. But you can still build your character in a way you wish. A wizard with a ton of intellect will have spells that have a very long duration and high area of effects, for an enchantment focused wizard, that could be great!

There's surely TTRPGs that already attempted and maybe even succeeded at this. I know Symbaroum uses specific attributes for certain actions, but some Talents allow you to use other attributes in their stead.

Anyway, I just wanted to start a discussion about it. See what people think about it, what solutions they came up with, what approaches TTRPGs I don't know about took.
 

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Yaarel

Mind Mage
When the abilities consolidate to four.

Strength (big, tough): Fighter
Dexterity (athletic, mobile): Rogue
Intelligence (perceptive, intuitive): Wizard
Charisma (empathic, willful): Cleric

A Fighter of high Intelligence becomes an excellent choice.
 

LadyElect

Explorer
But I'm mostly interested in the attributes having importance to all classes and reducing the "cool concept, bad character" effect.

The specific part of the video that kind of covers that explains that they kind of broke the verisimilitude between the name of attributes and what people expect from them. For example, there's no strength, but there's might. And might increases your damages. All damages. The damages you deal with your sword, but also with your spells. So both a fighter and a wizard could want to have a high might.
I find this sort of design theorizing really fun. I don’t want to drag too much of the other topic over for you, but with 5e’s structure I’d extend this goal to racial traits as well (ie: something like Savage Attacks applying to all damage types rather than only benefiting melee classes). That’s just the first to come to mind and likely requires more tuning to account for melee range balancing its power as written, but it gets the gist of my point across.
 

DammitVictor

Druid of the Invisible Hand
One thing that I think helps is cribbing a page from the ICE playbook-- every skill is associated with two or three ability scores. Weapons combat is always Strength and Agility, stealth is Agility and Self-Discipline, magic is always some combination of intellect, intuition, and willpower.
 

Lyxen

Great Old One
One thing that I think helps is cribbing a page from the ICE playbook-- every skill is associated with two or three ability scores. Weapons combat is always Strength and Agility, stealth is Agility and Self-Discipline, magic is always some combination of intellect, intuition, and willpower.

I suggested that in the previous thread, and also mentioned that 4e had it better than most editions, as even for one class, you had to be at least a bit MAD. The main problem with 5e is that there are too many classes that are SAD, at least for many powers. 4e also had it right by mixing Dex (the god stat now in 5e) and Int (probably the least valuable in 5e).

But the main problem is that this complexifies the game a lot, and the intent of 5e is to be as streamlined as possible. What is easy to do in a CRPG which does all computations instantly and effortlessly is a large barrier in a TTRPG that just wants to be fast, because the technicality of the game is absolutely second to having fun.

So I'm happy with the 5e choices overall as the drift towards SAD is manageable, but it's also one reason for which I'm against floating ASIs, because it encourages is too much.
 

ReshiIRE

Adventurer
One thing I think would help is removing Constitution, giving classes about either a +2 or +3 modifier worth of HP on level up, making all Constitution saving throws into Strength saving throws, etc.

The problem with Constitution right now in my opinion is that it feels like a 'tax' for builds and discourages putting your stats into another mental score for skills. Everyone needs a good amount of HP, and while you definitely can play more glass cannon (even having a minus modifier for Con), if you even have semi-regular combat you are going to need a lot of healing to help and are going to accept that your character is very, very likely to die or remain unconcious. Plus, if you're a spellcaster (and you will be if you're going glass canon - melee characters really cannot afford to have a low Constitution score), now your Concentration spells are even weaker, as you'll be likely to drop them.

I feel you wouldn't have to change much about ability score rules if you remove Constitution (except maybe stricter multi-classing rules?) and I think it would make class slection that little bit more important.
 

Lyxen

Great Old One
I feel you wouldn't have to change much about ability score rules if you remove Constitution (except maybe stricter multi-classing rules?) and I think it would make class slection that little bit more important.

I actually think the complete opposite, constitution is really important to make the characters less SAD, and if anything its contribution to HP should be increased, maybe by decreasing the HPs from classes (where I would agree would be in making them more varied, it used to be 1d4 to 1d10 - 1d12 after AD&D UA, now the range has decreased to 1d6-1d12), that way people could still choose to be powerful in their class but would really be glass canons.
 

Horwath

Hero
That is why I like fewer abilities for an RPG, more abilities, more opportunity for dump stats.
As @Yaarel mentioned, 4 abilities are enough, but I would change them a little:

Strength:
melee attack and damage,
thrown attack and damage,
Hit points,
Carry capacity,
Armor limit,
Fortitude saves(current str and con saves)
Skills: Athletic

Dexterity:
Ranged attack and damage
Finesse attack and damage
AC bonus
Initiative bonus
Reflex saves(current dex saves)
Skills: Acrobatics, Stealth, Thievery

Willpower:
Spell attack, damage and DCs
Will saves(current, int, wis and cha saves)
Aura effects(I.E. paladin saves aura)

Cunning:
Bonus languages,
Initiative bonus,
Skills: Arcana, History, Nature, Religion, Insight, Medicine, Perception, Survival, Deception, Intimidation, Perform, Persuasion,
 

Lyxen

Great Old One
That is why I like fewer abilities for an RPG, more abilities, more opportunity for dump stats.

Fewer abilities => More opportunity for SAD in a TTRPG where you don't want combination computations

As @Yaarel mentioned, 4 abilities are enough, but I would change them a little:

One of my favourite game, Amber DRPG has only 4 attributes, but with very wide consequences:
  • Psyche ( = Willpower)
  • Strength
  • Endurance (This one is a mandatory stat for characters, I think, Constitution is important and should not be dumped anyway)
  • Warfare (= Overall Combat Skill)
One thing that I like is that there is nothing about intelligence there, as it's something that is really hard to play at a different level from the player's.
 

ReshiIRE

Adventurer
I actually think the complete opposite, constitution is really important to make the characters less SAD, and if anything its contribution to HP should be increased, maybe by decreasing the HPs from classes (where I would agree would be in making them more varied, it used to be 1d4 to 1d10 - 1d12 after AD&D UA, now the range has decreased to 1d6-1d12), that way people could still choose to be powerful in their class but would really be glass canons.
Not really? Unless you change point buy to make it so that you have much less points to distribute, getting a high casting or Strength / Dex score and then getting a high Con score is still going to be fairly optimal. If Con becomes even more important, then build diversity will decrease because getting a high Con to survive will be even more important. You won't want to skip out of it. Without Con, a lot of classes get more flexibility. Dex is still going to be a priority for some classes, but it's likely you can get away with a +2 on that and spend your access points on getting better mental scores and having some extra skills.

Heck, now I'm confused why you mean by SAD because right now a lot of classes depending on the game ran are optimally going to invest in Con, getting it to at-least a +2 or +3. But I would still call those SAD since they're only doing that for HP.

You are also going to make starting a level 1 even more lethal without further large adjustments. A 1d4 for Wizards might be appropriate, but Sorcerers are going to have a little bit too much fun being damn squishy.
 

Lyxen

Great Old One
Not really? Unless you change point buy to make it so that you have much less points to distribute, getting a high casting or Strength / Dex score and then getting a high Con score is still going to be fairly optimal. If Con becomes even more important, then build diversity will decrease because getting a high Con to survive will be even more important. You won't want to skip out of it. Without Con, a lot of classes get more flexibility.

That's assuming that you can get who high scores. But if you already need two in your class core stats (because we want classes to be less SAD), then having Con to worry about will have you make hard choices between survival and efficiency, and that's what I think we want to have different choices matter, right ?

Dex is still going to be a priority for some classes, but it's likely you can get away with a +2 on that and spend your access points on getting better mental scores and having some extra skills.

And if Dex is not as much a god class (honestly, using Int for Initiative would not be stupid, for example), for once, and if Dex is not one of your class core skills, then you will have even harder choices to make.

Heck, now I'm confused why you mean by SAD because right now a lot of classes depending on the game ran are optimally going to invest in Con, getting it to at-least a +2 or +3. But I would still call those SAD since they're only doing that for HP.

That is the PH's perspective, but if you look at guides, they are more moderate about Con impact in general, most prefer to be really efficient with powers than survivability (which I think is a real danger, but at least you have choices).

You are also going to make starting a level 1 even more lethal without further large adjustments. A 1d4 for Wizards might be appropriate, but Sorcerers are going to have a little bit too much fun being damn squishy.
I played wizards in BECMI/AD&D, so I know what it means, but no-one says that you have to start with only one HD. You might have you Con as starting HP, for example, or something like 4e did. There are other solutions to that specific problem.
 

ReshiIRE

Adventurer
That's assuming that you can get who high scores. But if you already need two in your class core stats (because we want classes to be less SAD), then having Con to worry about will have you make hard choices between survival and efficiency, and that's what I think we want to have different choices matter, right ?



And if Dex is not as much a god class (honestly, using Int for Initiative would not be stupid, for example), for once, and if Dex is not one of your class core skills, then you will have even harder choices to make.



That is the PH's perspective, but if you look at guides, they are more moderate about Con impact in general, most prefer to be really efficient with powers than survivability (which I think is a real danger, but at least you have choices).


I played wizards in BECMI/AD&D, so I know what it means, but no-one says that you have to start with only one HD. You might have you Con as starting HP, for example, or something like 4e did. There are other solutions to that specific problem.

Okay, you're suggesting that in combination with other changes. That could work; I was suggesting a smaller minimum change I would make that I feel would have a pretty positive impact (in general, I feel that the next iteration of D&D is likely to be pretty backwards compatible with 5e).

I don't really look at guides (except to affirm the relative effectiveness of some subclasses, as some features I've read over have left me fairly confused honestly) and I'm more so drawing on smaller party experience when I talk about Con; it feels like that healing during combat is fairly inefficent (even with Lay on Hands being very good) and so having a good amount of HP is important to survive a few fights.
 

tetrasodium

Legend
Supporter
I actually think the complete opposite, constitution is really important to make the characters less SAD, and if anything its contribution to HP should be increased, maybe by decreasing the HPs from classes (where I would agree would be in making them more varied, it used to be 1d4 to 1d10 - 1d12 after AD&D UA, now the range has decreased to 1d6-1d12), that way people could still choose to be powerful in their class but would really be glass canons.
If a class is designed in such a way that the one attribute that literally every character needs for hp is what is shifting them from SAD to MAD that should be a pretty clear indicator that the class is too SAD with constitution not being the straw to change thst. It says the class doesn't need to carry things be social find things lmop things sneak about or see things unless one of those linked stats is their one attribute with the group expected to list say cool to rainman*... usually that extreme SAD just greatsword +gwm since even dex builds tend to have some expected need for things beyond stabby stabby.

Warlock/sorcerer charisma ups come close second but they still need some Dex for ac due to lacking heavy armor

*ironically that idiot savant build itself getting a pass to nope out of everything but SWORD causes people to complain that their fighter cant do anything outside of combat after going to lengths in order to ensure that every single choice is made exclusively for maximum power with that sword in combat to hell with anything else. If these builds could start 20 10 10 3 3 3 many would do so and still complain they were useless outside of combat after picking up gwm sentinal & heavy armor master by 8
 

Horwath

Hero
Fewer abilities => More opportunity for SAD in a TTRPG where you don't want combination computations



One of my favourite game, Amber DRPG has only 4 attributes, but with very wide consequences:
  • Psyche ( = Willpower)
  • Strength
  • Endurance (This one is a mandatory stat for characters, I think, Constitution is important and should not be dumped anyway)
  • Warfare (= Overall Combat Skill)
One thing that I like is that there is nothing about intelligence there, as it's something that is really hard to play at a different level from the player's.
That is why cunning is good stat. It just expresses your potential in various things, but your choice and/or number of skills/expertise will determine how "smart" you really are.

If you have proficiency and/or expertise in Arcana, History, Nature and Religion the you are kind of bookish scholar,
and if you have those in Insight, Deception, Intimidation and Persuasion you are more of a people person, smooth talker, con-man maybe,
Medicine, Nature, Survival, Perception would describe some kind of survivalist.
 

Minigiant

Legend
Supporter
6 ability scores is best. SAD classes are quite boring and belong in video games with advanced behind the scenes calculation.

Strength just needs a greater focus on general athleticism and methods to bypass this (acrobatics and magic) should be limited or restricted.

Constitution is fine. Warrior classes should have the option of +1 to hit or 1+1 hp/level to reduce dependency. Also CON based classes, bring them back.

Dexterity is fine.

Intelligence should grant an universal benefit like 3e's bonus skills or 4e's bonus to AC and Initiative.

Charisma should be the defensive score for all mind control and personality manipulation. Charisma should give bonuses to arms, fears, and enrages.
 

Yeah, I've been thinking about this a lot but unfortunately I don't have obvious solutions. I would really like to get rid of laser focus on singe stat. At the same time, I don't think it is necessary or even desirable to have every stat to be equally good for every class; certain capabilities are more relevant for certain jobs. I also really don't like lessening the verisimilitude. If we're going to do that, then just get rid of ability scores altogether, as they no longer serve a purpose for me. This is why I really didn't like 4e approach which was basically heading into 'use whichever, it doesn't really matter' territory.

Also, when discussing this there is a difference between what would work and what can actually happen. Like I fully agree that reducing the number of ability scores, redefining them and perhaps changing their names would help. But that is absolutely never going to happen in official D&D. But if we're just talking about housererules/making our own fantasy heartbreaker then of course it is an option.
 

Lyxen

Great Old One
Okay, you're suggesting that in combination with other changes. That could work; I was suggesting a smaller minimum change I would make that I feel would have a pretty positive impact (in general, I feel that the next iteration of D&D is likely to be pretty backwards compatible with 5e).

Honestly, at this stage, I'm not sure there will be a 6e for a veeery long time. It would cost a huge amount of money and break a serious dynamic, and with the success of 5e I'm not sur how you could invent something different enough to justify a new edition and still compatible both with the past and with the current formula for success with a very flexible game.

But in terms of limited impact, I follow you. :)

I don't really look at guides (except to affirm the relative effectiveness of some subclasses, as some features I've read over have left me fairly confused honestly) and I'm more so drawing on smaller party experience when I talk about Con; it feels like that healing during combat is fairly inefficent (even with Lay on Hands being very good) and so having a good amount of HP is important to survive a few fights.

The reason for me reading guides is that I don't have the opportunity to play all the classes to a significant level. The guides are written by people who love these classes and have a fairly wide knowledge of what they feel like when played. But for example there are some classes that I'm absolutely not interested in like the Monk or the Artificer, I've never read those.

After that, the main problem is that it's really hard to generalise, especially when speaking about power and resilience, simple factors like the way the DM allows resting or the player (ab)use it completely change the values. Does the DM put one really really hard fight and the party rest every time, or do they go through several less punishing encounters before resting ? This completely change the relative value of Con compared to other stats, as well as the power of classes against others...
 

Lyxen

Great Old One
If a class is designed in such a way that the one attribute that literally every character needs for hp is what is shifting them from SAD to MAD that should be a pretty clear indicator that the class is too SAD with constitution not being the straw to change thst. It says the class doesn't need to carry things be social find things lmop things sneak about or see things unless one of those linked stats is their one attribute with the group expected to list say cool to rainman*... usually that extreme SAD just greatsword +gwm since even dex builds tend to have some expected need for things beyond stabby stabby.

Warlock/sorcerer charisma ups come close second but they still need some Dex for ac due to lacking heavy armor

*ironically that idiot savant build itself getting a pass to nope out of everything but SWORD causes people to complain that their fighter cant do anything outside of combat after going to lengths in order to ensure that every single choice is made exclusively for maximum power with that sword in combat to hell with anything else. If these builds could start 20 10 10 3 3 3 many would do so and still complain they were useless outside of combat after picking up gwm sentinal & heavy armor master by 8
That made me laugh, but slightly hysterically because, in my powergaming days, I had a half-ogre called Grahgnouf, regional kobold-throwing champion (it was a thing at that point in time, so I had a specific skill), with 18/00 Str, 18 Con, 10 Dex, and 3 in Int/Wis/Cha. He had a hook welded to the back of his plate so that his comrades could anchor a chain and restrain him when they did not want him to charge, but it rarely worked because they were weaklings anyway. :)
 

Jmarso

Adventurer
Since joining a 2E campaign recently, I've come to realize that a lot of angst in 5E over ability scores is centered around the fact that they give fantastic bonuses, especially within the framework of the 5E rules. (Bounded Accuracy, or whatever it's called.)

The game has gotten away from the 'Bell Curve' distribution of ability scores between 3-18. If you look at early versions of the game, there weren't many bonuses to be had even with very high ability scores, and penalties didn't start until scores were around a 6 or lower. A plain strength of 18 only yields +1 hit, +2 dam. HP bonuses for high CON didn't start until you hit 15 or higher. Same for DEX. It was impossible to raise a score above 18 unless by magical means, and strength scores of 20 and higher were commonly associated only with deities / demigods.

As a consequence, you took those bonuses when you got them, but they weren't character-defining. I'm currently playing a Cleric whose highest ability score in any category is 13 WIS. He's working out fine. I guess my point is that people should try (I know it's hard) to stop worrying about creating superhero characters with high ability scores, and concentrate more on playing (end enjoying) the characters they roll. This is why I'm also in favor of rolling scores rather than point buys and standard spreads- the latter result in 'cookie cutter' templates with certain scores always being applied to certain abilities depending on class. Rolling introduces some luck and randomness to the process, and we all know there are multiple ways to do it so that the player can play the class of character they want.

TLDR version: Quit worrying about ability scores mechanics, roll your character, play him/her/it without turning it into a game of math and statistics.
 

Lyxen

Great Old One
Since joining a 2E campaign recently, I've come to realize that a lot of angst in 5E over ability scores is centered around the fact that they give fantastic bonuses, especially within the framework of the 5E rules. (Bounded Accuracy, or whatever it's called.)

Actually, it's the other way round, bounded accuracy limits the bonuses, compared to 3e and 4e where they were unbounded.

The game has gotten away from the 'Bell Curve' distribution of ability scores between 3-18. If you look at early versions of the game, there weren't many bonuses to be had even with very high ability scores, and penalties didn't start until scores were around a 6 or lower. A plain strength of 18 only yields +1 hit, +2 dam. HP bonuses for high CON didn't start until you hit 15 or higher. Same for DEX. It was impossible to raise a score above 18 unless by magical means, and strength scores of 20 and higher were commonly associated only with deities / demigods.

While I agree about the move, for me it is still a good thing that differences in ability have an effect of the game instead of being globally pointless except for the rare (in AD&D) ability check.

TLDR version: Quit worrying about ability scores mechanics, roll your character, play him/her/it without turning it into a game of math and statistics.

You will find that a lot of people especially on forums, but also at many tables, care more about the mechanistic view of the game than other aspects, another trend that originates with 3e and its attempt to make D&D a complete technical game with clear rules.
 

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