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

TheAlkaizer

Game Designer
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)
Not too fond of that in the contexte of D&D. But if we're moving in a different direction (as I'm proposing in my first post) I would definitely have that also apply to racial traits too. It really sucks to have a racial trait that gives no advantage at all and feels like a waste. It can't always be useful; for example, your savage attack that also applies to spell damage would probably not be super useful to a cleric focused on healing and protection, but at least, it's not very useful because of a player's choice, and can still have minimal usefulness in the few cases where the cleric will deal damage.

every skill is associated with two or three ability scores
That can help mitigate the issue. But I don't think it's enough. Intelligence is linked to quite a few skills in 5E, but it's really not that big a deal to have a bad skill score. So it's an incentive, but not a huge one.

MAD. The main problem with 5e is that there are too many classes that are SAD
Can you define what you mean by MAD and SAD? I don't know what that means.

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
I've discovered a few games that don't have a constitution stat and outright tell you "this is how much HP you have". It often depends on your race/ancestry and class. I really don't mind it. But I think it's important to have a way to increase that if you want to make a sturdy character, whether that's through feats or other means.
is nothing about intelligence there
I like intelligence as a stat. But I think it connotes too much with the common use of the word intelligent, as being smart or dumb. I've always treated the stat more as knowledgeable and having a sharp mind for problem solving. I would keep it but change the word intelligence. But for me, the difference between intelligence and wisdom as concepts is very clear.
 

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TheAlkaizer

Game Designer
So, the prime example I have in mind is really intelligence being useful to fighters. I'm sure something could be done with tactics. Like, if you have some sort of flanking rule, or attacks of opportunity, doing an intelligence saving throw could allow you to not trigger an attack of opportunity, or to get your flanking bonus, etc. I'm just spitballing here.
 

Not too fond of that in the contexte of D&D. But if we're moving in a different direction (as I'm proposing in my first post) I would definitely have that also apply to racial traits too. It really sucks to have a racial trait that gives no advantage at all and feels like a waste. It can't always be useful; for example, your savage attack that also applies to spell damage would probably not be super useful to a cleric focused on healing and protection, but at least, it's not very useful because of a player's choice, and can still have minimal usefulness in the few cases where the cleric will deal damage.


That can help mitigate the issue. But I don't think it's enough. Intelligence is linked to quite a few skills in 5E, but it's really not that big a deal to have a bad skill score. So it's an incentive, but not a huge one.


Can you define what you mean by MAD and SAD? I don't know what that means.
MAD = Multi-ability dependent. A class that wants/needs "good" numbers in more than one ability score. Paladins and monks are the classic examples.
SAD = Single-ability dependent. A class that can get away with a good score in one ability and use that to overcome the other areas. Wizards really only need Int. (I would even argue that with high Int and the right spells you barely need constitution, let alone anything else.) A class with constitution as their casting stat would definitely fall here.

Which classes are in which group and how true this is in any specific case are matters of debate, but the extremes are pretty well agreed upon.
 

Aldarc

Legend
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.
It's a matter of semantics mostly, but I'm a big fan of using Spirit instead of Charisma. For anyone worried about two Attributes using 'S,' it's not difficult to rename Strength to Might either. But this is not the game where such changes are likely, so I would suggest that we both look to either Shadow of the Demon Lord or the upcoming Tales of the Weird Wizard by Robert Schwalb.
 

Amrûnril

Explorer
I definitely agree with the OP’s sentiments here: that making more ability scores useful for each class is a desirable goal and that Pillars of Eternity shows a good example of what this can look like, but that its specific implementation wouldn’t be a good thematic or mechanical fit for D&D.

While it would be possible to construct a new system with a different number/set of abilities, I think that, for a lot of players, moving away from the six traditional ones would make the game stop feeling like for D&D. I also don’t think it’s plausible, or necessarily desirable, to move away from certain classes having an association with certain abilities. I would, however, like to see every class get some benefit out of every ability, while avoiding situations where a character can rely on a single ability for almost every combat statistic. Here are some tentative thoughts on what that could look like in terms of individual ability scores:


Strength could add to the damage of all weapon attacks, even those that use a different ability to hit. If we want to go a bit further, it could also grant armor proficiencies automatically at high enough thresholds.

Dexterity is already pretty universally applicable, but if we want to make it a bit more useful to strength-based characters, it could apply to AC even with heavy armor (perhaps at a discounted rate). Alternatively (though this would be a larger departure from D&D tradition) wisdom could contribute to AC instead of dexterity, and high dexterity could allow some number of extra reactions or bonus actions per rest.

Constitution already does a great job of being useful to everyone, though if other stats become more universally useful in combat, it might be worth giving constitution a few more uses out of combat.

Intelligence could contribute to known options for most class/subclass abilities. A high intelligence bard, for instance, could know more spells, even if the power of those spells depends on charisma. Similarly, a high intelligence battlemaster could have more maneuver options available. Obviously, applying this would require a lot more class/subclass level rewriting/balancing than other suggestions, and scaling things by both intelligence and level could get a bit fiddly. I think it would do a good job, though, of making intelligence good for a character of any class who wants to be good at finding the right tools for specific situations.

Wisdom, as noted above, could contribute to AC, representing insight about where attacks are likely to be aimed.

Charisma seems like the hardest ability to find a universal application for. It could be used for more saves and as the basis for specific abilities (I think a couple battlemaster maneuvers already do this), but I think that would still seem underwhelming, from a combat perspective, for characters who don’t use it for spellcasting.
 

I definitely agree with the OP’s sentiments here: that making more ability scores useful for each class is a desirable goal and that Pillars of Eternity shows a good example of what this can look like, but that its specific implementation wouldn’t be a good thematic or mechanical fit for D&D.

While it would be possible to construct a new system with a different number/set of abilities, I think that, for a lot of players, moving away from the six traditional ones would make the game stop feeling like for D&D. I also don’t think it’s plausible, or necessarily desirable, to move away from certain classes having an association with certain abilities. I would, however, like to see every class get some benefit out of every ability, while avoiding situations where a character can rely on a single ability for almost every combat statistic. Here are some tentative thoughts on what that could look like in terms of individual ability scores:


Strength could add to the damage of all weapon attacks, even those that use a different ability to hit. If we want to go a bit further, it could also grant armor proficiencies automatically at high enough thresholds.

Dexterity is already pretty universally applicable, but if we want to make it a bit more useful to strength-based characters, it could apply to AC even with heavy armor (perhaps at a discounted rate). Alternatively (though this would be a larger departure from D&D tradition) wisdom could contribute to AC instead of dexterity, and high dexterity could allow some number of extra reactions or bonus actions per rest.

Constitution already does a great job of being useful to everyone, though if other stats become more universally useful in combat, it might be worth giving constitution a few more uses out of combat.

Intelligence could contribute to known options for most class/subclass abilities. A high intelligence bard, for instance, could know more spells, even if the power of those spells depends on charisma. Similarly, a high intelligence battlemaster could have more maneuver options available. Obviously, applying this would require a lot more class/subclass level rewriting/balancing than other suggestions, and scaling things by both intelligence and level could get a bit fiddly. I think it would do a good job, though, of making intelligence good for a character of any class who wants to be good at finding the right tools for specific situations.

Wisdom, as noted above, could contribute to AC, representing insight about where attacks are likely to be aimed.

Charisma seems like the hardest ability to find a universal application for. It could be used for more saves and as the basis for specific abilities (I think a couple battlemaster maneuvers already do this), but I think that would still seem underwhelming, from a combat perspective, for characters who don’t use it for spellcasting.
Another way to do this is two-step:

1. Maneuvers for all weapon classes.

2. Some maneuvers and spells key off specific abilities, regardless of class. Enchantments always use charisma, divinations always use Wisdom, abjurations always use constitution, rays use dexterity to hit, and so on. That way having more decent ability scores creates horizontal power (more spells to choose from) without granting vertical power (you best spells are just as good) Some spells (evocations) should be based on your "key ability" set by class so everyone can use them (and some classes might let you pick from multiple key abilities.)

Maneuvers are a bit easier to imagine here: strength for pushing, dexterity for accuracy/reactions, constitution for powering through/resisting damage, intelligence for identifying and tactics (warlord stuff), wisdom for finding openings/weaknesses, charisma for feints and intimidation. So the smart fighter has moves available the dumb fighter doesn't, but the only fighter without moves to use is the one with all low ability scores. And you can always just hit people with no flair.

Half-casters get a bit complicated here: a ranger is going to have some mix of maneuvers and spells (although leaning all one way could be an option), and those are in turn affected by your ability spread - which means rangers with different ability scores might play very differently. I'd also be inclined to let half-casters chose their casting stat for weapon attack (with a minimum physical stat) - a paladin who's armor is faith and who's power is conviction makes total sense to me.

(Details need work, but I think this is a good way forward.)
 

billd91

Hobbit on Quest (he/him)
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.
Pushing the bonuses down to start at 12 doesn't really indicate that the bell curve distribution has been abandoned. If you roll your stats, that curve is still there. It just means that benefits (and penalties) start earlier on the curve instead of being concentrated up into the tails.

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.
A 2e cleric with a 13 Wisdom works fine - for a while. You won't be casting 6th or 7th level spells, though, when you reach a level high enough to do so. So even back in 1e and 2e, there were points in which lack of a high stat would affect your level of success in a class - even if the class itself had low entry requirements like the big 4 (fighter, wizard, cleric, thief).
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.
That's a personal play style issue and, I think we can be certain, you can't stop people from playing that way. As long as there are choices to be made in customizing a character, optimization will happen whether it's via attribute bonuses that add to rolls or other choices that affect the probability of success. I mean, I might agree that PCs don't need to be pushed to the highest bonus to be effective in D&D, particularly in 5e, and so I don't play that way - but I know quite well that there are people who do. And 5e's design means that even if they do, their PCs aren't all that much better than the PCs of players who don't.
 

Yaarel

Mind Mage
It's a matter of semantics mostly, but I'm a big fan of using Spirit instead of Charisma. For anyone worried about two Attributes using 'S,' it's not difficult to rename Strength to Might either. But this is not the game where such changes are likely, so I would suggest that we both look to either Shadow of the Demon Lord or the upcoming Tales of the Weird Wizard by Robert Schwalb.
The D&D term "Charisma" emphasizes all the social skills, including Inspiration, Leadership, Persuasion and Empathy, as well as the the more mysterious aspects of charm. I like the term.

Strength can be called Toughness, but "Strength" works great too.



The D&D-isms continue well. The four abilities really are a consolidation of the D&D tradition, not a replacement.

Strength (passive Fortitude save): Fighter
Dexterity (passive Relex save): Rogue
Intelligence (passive Perception save): Wizard
Charisma (passive Will save): Cleric
 

Aldarc

Legend
The D&D term "Charisma" emphasizes all the social skills, including Inspiration, Leadership, Persuasion and Empathy, as well as the the more mysterious aspects of charm.
So does Spirit.

The D&D-isms continue well. The four abilities really are a consolidation of the D&D tradition, not a replacement.

Strength (passive Fortitude save): Fighter
Dexterity (passive Relex save): Rogue
Intelligence (passive Perception save): Wizard
Charisma (passive Will save): Cleric
You don't have to repeat yourself. We all read it the first time.
 

squibbles

Adventurer
Responding to the Obsidian GDC vid in the OP, I think they really whiffed some things in Pillars of Eternity (admittedly, the designer is upfront about this). What's worst, I think, is that those more heavily abstracted abilities feel disjointed from human characteristics, i.e. Strength in 5e is muscle and athleticism, it makes sense; Might in PoE boosts damage and healing--what does that even mean? What type of person hits harder with a sword, burns hotter with a fireball, and also cures injuries better. It's extremely gamified. (Also, why on earth does Resolve give deflection, PoE's sort-of AC)

Not that the goal is wrong, but it seems undesirable to create a battery of descriptive statistics that don't describe (demi)human(oid) traits.

The designer goes into the game's optimization a little bit but, for reference, there is a ton of stat dumping in PoE. There is more within-class Ability build variety than 5e, but a lot of the evils of min-maxing are still there.

[...] I like intelligence as a stat. But I think it connotes too much with the common use of the word intelligent, as being smart or dumb. I've always treated the stat more as knowledgeable and having a sharp mind for problem solving. I would keep it but change the word intelligence. But for me, the difference between intelligence and wisdom as concepts is very clear.
Agreed, Intelligence is an issue (and not just because of its fraught socio-political associations). It has a clear meaning that could be better represented mechanically for more classes but, at bottom, its a player characteristic not a PC characteristic. It isn't obvious, for example, how to play a PC that is much smarter than you are and it might not be fun to play a PC that is much dumber than you are. I think it would be better off replaced with a term that represents a PC characteristic which is separated from the player, something like Knowledge.

The other mental abilities have similar issues, but Wisdom and Charisma are easier to think of as PC traits, i.e. it just sounds compelling when he says it, or she just has the intuitive understanding to detect the lie.

[...] 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. [...]
Or you 'rolled your scores at home' and played a PC with enough bonuses to be fun for you. :p

The old bell curve was premised on the assumption that there would be lots of PCs, lots of PC deaths, lots of opportunities to roll better abilities if you got bad ones, and the general convention that you--the player--needed to be skilled at the game; a weak, dumb, klutz PC can still check for traps with a 10' pole.

I think maybe the fix is to invert that bell curve design instead. Have bonuses escalate rapidly at lower ability scores but get diminishing returns at higher scores. Something like the following (while keeping the ASIs, the standard array, and point buy the same):
1-3: -4
4-6: -3
7-8: -2
9: -1
10: 0
11: +1
12-13: +2
14-16: +3
17-19: +4
20 and up: +5

This way it'd more costly to dump an ability, less beneficial to specialize in a single ability, and more beneficial to increase secondary and tertiary abilities--regardless of their actual mechanical benefits.

(it'd also make non-variant humans suck less)
 

Helpful NPC Thom

Adventurer
First of all, you can't get rid of the Big Six. I don't care how sensible it is to fold Strength and Constitution together, or how you remove Charisma from the game. It doesn't matter what you want because we're talking D&D here, not your fantasy heartbreaker. If you dump the Big Six, you've lost D&D. Sorry. They are present in the roots of the game. Don't like 'em? Plenty of games have alternatives.

The way those ability scores work nowadays is awful, yes. Dexterity, Wisdom, and Constitution are certainly the most powerful ability scores due to their mechanical interactions. Back in the day, where ability scores influenced XP gain only, they mattered considerably less. Naturally, as people wanted more crunch to the game, they became more important in different ways. Glossing over their functions--opening doors, bonus languages, reaction rolls, etc.--the ability scores have become central to characters, yet they simultaneously don't matter except in a few specific cases. Wizards need high Intelligence, but nobody else cares about it. Sorcerers and warlocks need their Charisma, and that's about it. Unless you want to participate in social encounters, then you'd better have a decent Charisma or you're SOL if the GM calls for a skill test. But if you just want to stab, nuke, pulverize, annihilate, and obliviate things, you can safely dump it.

Better not dump Constitution, though, or you'll wind up dead with your paltry hit points in a system that measures character power by hit point growth and damage. You'll want it for saving throws, too, just like Wisdom and Dexterity, oh, and Dexterity does most of what Strength does, but better because you get Armor Class from it.

You want to fix ability scores? Then force diversification. Originally, I hate 3e's Weapon Finesse feat. Why should I have to take a feat to be decent with a light weapon? Turns out there's an opportunity cost because Dexterity is GOAT. Provide definite trade-offs for the ability scores. Stop making Charisma "the social stat," which is abysmal design. Stop making Intelligence "the wizard stat," because that's also abysmal design. De-emphasize the over-represented ability scores and add value to the weak ability scores.

There is an unbelievable amount of sense in the old game design that has been discarded in favor of streamlining. It's absurd to give Hit Dice with full Constitution bonus at every level for 20 levels...which is why that didn't happen in older editions. It's absurd to make Dexterity affect Armor Class, missile attacks/damage, initiative, and a common saving throw...which is why that didn't happen in older editions.

All the tweaks and fixes won't matter until the actual interaction of ability scores and mechanics is brought to heel.
 

Jmarso

Adventurer
It would be interesting see 5E ability score bonuses go to something like this, with only one point of ASI instead of 2 every 4 levels, and no human/demi-human character ability score able to go above a 19, period:

3 -3
4 -2
5 -2
6 -1
7
8
9
10
11
12
13
14
15 +1
16 +2
17 +2
18 +3

This gives you a large middle scale of 'average', and the ability to build some scores into the bonus ranges over the life of a character but not boost them all to ridiculousness with 2 points of increases every 4 levels.
 

Shadow of the Demon Lorf uses 4 attributes and it works really well.

Strength folds constitution in to it (although the system does not give HP bonuses for this stat).

Agility is pretty much Dex

Intelligence is perception, saving against illusions, convincing people, insight, etc

Will is resisting many mental effects, fear and insanity (which is quite debilitating in this game).

The schools of magic are also divided between intelligence and will.

In addition to the PCs defense, enemies can (an often do) target each of these attributes (by fear, grappling, tripping, taunting, etc).

Every character gets a benefit out of every attribute as each of them cover something that is important to every character.
 

If I was working with the D&D 6 attributes again I would:

Tie all WIS skills into INT, except Insight, which goes to CHA. I would also move initiative to INT. If you want to be skilled, hard to surprise, or quick off the drop, you need to be a quick witted PC.

Move all casting to WIS and make it the spellcasting stat.

CHA becomes a solely social focused ability.

CON mod does not add to HP on level. Instead the PC gets max hp ler level.
 

ph0rk

Friendship is Magic, and Magic is Heresy.
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.
In retrospect its somewhat laughable they didn't do this from the get-go in 5e.
 

TheAlkaizer

Game Designer
If you dump the Big Six, you've lost D&D. Sorry. They are present in the roots of the game. Don't like 'em? Plenty of games have alternatives.
I like the big six. And I would definitely try and work with it. But I really, really disagree in your confident statement that somehow D&D isn't D&D anymore if you had five ability scores instead of six. That's a very limited view of what the game is. And I do play alternatives for what they are; and I have similar thoughts on how they work well or not and how they could be improved.
 

billd91

Hobbit on Quest (he/him)
In retrospect its somewhat laughable they didn't do this from the get-go in 5e.
Personally, I don't think Int works well for initiative. PF2's take is a bit better - it's usually a skill and it depends on what you're doing. For most default times, it's Perception because that measures how well you can perceive a threat.

Alternatively, and I've posted about this on the boards before, if I were redoing the stats for D&D, I'd pair them up like 4e but throw out the idea of players picking one or the other to use for their primary saves/defenses. 4e bunged that up by having some class variations that could use the 3 efficiently while others tried to juggle 4 (with Str and Con usually being the ones in competition). What I'd do is define one as the offensive stat and the other as defensive - the offensive stat is the only one contributing to offensive abilities, the defensive one is the only one contributing to defense making all 6 have some value. My pairings would be Str (offense)/Con (defense), Cha (offense)/Wis (defense), and Int (offense)/Dex (defense). Then I'd define initiative as defensive (since perceiving and reacting is fundamentally about defending yourself) and have it based on Dex.
The only part that I have any conceptual issues with is the Int/Dex pairing - but it kind of works if you redefine Int as something more like Acuity - the keenness of mind and body. It works even better as a pair if we redefine Dex as Agility or somesuch and remove the idea of skilled hands implied by the term dexterity.
 

Jacob Lewis

Ye Olde GM
I recently watched that video in its entirety and found it to be very thought-provoking and informative. I suggest anyone that wants to know more about actual game design for RPGs (digital or otherwise) to watch this and take notes. (The channel also has other videos from different designers and developers on other game-topics like this one; I found this one to be of particular interest as it relates specifically to D&D in general, and the evolution of game system that is derived from it.)

The first thing to note is that the Pillars of Eternity rules is NOT the same as D&D in any edition. Yet we are prone to find equivalencies because there are similarities that are easily recognized. So in order to make this work in D&D terms, we need to get more imaginative with our perceptions and get away from the same old tropes. For example, MIGHT is not the same as STRENGTH in either function or flavor. Strength is most commonly associated with physical prowess, muscle, and brute power. Might, on the other hand, is more of a general measure of a character's strength that is not measured solely on physical muscle, mass, or force. This explains how spell damage can be affected through sheer will or power that has nothing to do with physical attributes.

I plan to rewatch the video at some point. Josh Sawyer made a lot of interesting points and important distinctions between the video game and tabletop rules. It would be nigh-impossible to accomplish what he did with any version of D&D that did not change some of the fundamental elements that many consider to be "sacred cows" of the system, and that is often what holds the game back from evolving into something even better IMO.
 

TheAlkaizer

Game Designer
What's worst, I think, is that those more heavily abstracted abilities feel disjointed from human characteristics
He says that it's part of the price to pay. I think there might be an elegant middle ground somewhere.

I think they really whiffed some things in Pillars of Eternity
I agree. I couldn't get too far in the game, I have other issues with it. But I wholly agree with the challenges he took on as a designer, whether he succeeded or not.

It would be nigh-impossible to accomplish what he did with any version of D&D that did not change some of the fundamental elements that many consider to be "sacred cows" of the system, and that is often what holds the game back from evolving into something even better IMO.
I agree. But I've seen similar issues in other games that don't have the issue of tradition, so I've put this in the D&D section, but it could have well been in the TTRPG general.
 

TwoSix

Unserious gamer
It would be interesting see 5E ability score bonuses go to something like this, with only one point of ASI instead of 2 every 4 levels, and no human/demi-human character ability score able to go above a 19, period:

3 -3
4 -2
5 -2
6 -1
7
8
9
10
11
12
13
14
15 +1
16 +2
17 +2
18 +3

This gives you a large middle scale of 'average', and the ability to build some scores into the bonus ranges over the life of a character but not boost them all to ridiculousness with 2 points of increases every 4 levels.
One of my favorite OSR games, Worlds Without Number, has a similar progression.

3: -2
4-7: -1
8-13: 0
14-17: +1
18: +2

Rolling a character with straight 0s is pretty common (although the rules allow you to set one score of your choice to 14 after rolling 3d6 in order).
 

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