Let me preface this article by saying: I love rolling up my stats for Dungeons & Dragons. It’s one of my earliest memories of the game. Nothing could quite compare to rolling those four d6s (we used roll four and drop the lowest, naturally) with the heady anticipation of what sort of character was about to take shape. Was I about to roll up a paragon amongst men, or was this character fated to have a horrible “look out for that runaway horse!” moment on the way to the training grounds? Even today, rolling my stats is my favourite part of character creation for D&D, because everything else about the character derives from those six numbers and the narrative combinations are endless.
But lately, I really want to just dump all the stats. Running two campaigns, and playing in one more, I’ve come to the realization that the ability scores in D&D 5e are pretty much dead weight once character creation is finished. They just sit there looking pretty on your character sheet, but no longer serve any purpose in the game.
“Nuh-uh, Brent!”, I hear some of you say, “You use your ability scores to hit, and for skill checks, and for saving throws…they get used all the time! You’re dumb!” First, some of you are just mean. Second, you don’t use your ability score for any of those things. You use the modifiers derived from the ability score for those rolls. Once you’ve noted that modifier on your character sheet, the ability score is superfluous.
So I say, why keep them? I’ve been poking and prodding at this idea for a while as a new house rule, and I’ve almost convinced myself it’s an idea that could work. You’d start character creation as normal, generating the six ability scores using whatever method you and your DM prefer. Once you have them, apply any modifiers to the abilities which might come from your character’s race and other sources. Now, record the modifiers from those ability scores where you’d normally put the ability scores on your character sheet. Carry on with your character.
From this point forward, anytime something in the game proposes to increase or decrease your Ability Score in the game, you apply that to the modifier for that score instead. For example, if previously a +2 bonus to Dexterity changed your score from 14 to 16, now it bumps the modifier from +2 to +4. From that example you might be concerned about characters getting overpowered, especially when it comes to the levels where they can increase their ability scores. And while it is true that it will result in an overall increase in character power, I think this would be mitigated by a few factors.
First, anything that causes ability score penalties is going to bite the characters just as much as bonuses help them. Flip our example around to a -2 penalty to Dex, and that’s a serious blow, which will make such penalties extra frightening to the player. Second, applying these same rules to NPCs and monsters levels the playing field, as they will feel the benefits and penalties just as hard. Third, I’m not suggesting getting rid of any of the restrictions on maximum ability scores already in place. For instance, currently you can only have a maximum score of 20 (or +5) in any ability, before any magical effects or other bonuses. With that still in place, while players can certainly reach that cap sooner, they are still capped. At that point, the player may decide to avail themselves of useful feats (assuming your campaign allows them), or shore up some of their weaker ability modifiers. Which seems perfectly natural; as the character grows through their adventures, their general competency has an opportunity to increase.
So what do you think? Love it, hate it, or something in between? Are ability scores just too much a part of D&D for you to even think of eliminating? Or do you think this is an idea whose time has come? Comment below and let me know what you think.