Determining Ability Scores

There are many steps in creating a character. Today I’d like to take a look at the process of determining the ability scores.

Before I start, I’d like to note that this is written with D&D in mind. Each system has a different process for creating a character and they don’t have the same ability scores with D&D. Now that’s out of the way, let’s begin.

There are quite a few ways to determine the ability scores of a character. I am going to mention three of them, which I believe are the most common.

Rolling dice

Let’s begin with the most chaotic method, which is rolling dice. I call it chaotic for two reasons. Dice add randomness which can be good and bad. Also, there are so many different versions of this method that I can’t cover all of them here. However, it’s usually a fun method and, even if it has many versions, the main idea remains the same.

You get an amount of dice, usually d6s, and you roll them a number of times. Each time you roll them you determine an ability score. That’s the main idea and, as you can see, its explanation is quite abstract. That’s because each version sets the variables that define the method.

An important variable is whether the order in which the scores are generated plays a role. For example, if you roll [18, 12, 15, 4, 8, 9] and the order plays a role, this means the Strength score of your character will be 18, Dexterity will be 12, etc. If it doesn’t, you can arrange them however you want.

I said this variable is important because you pretty much let the dice decide what character you’re going to play. Even if you could play a wizard with the stats above, it probably wouldn’t be that fun. A character that uses Strength as one of its main scores would be a more efficient choice.

You could consider the type of dice to be another variable but, at least in D&D, the d6 is the one that’s used the most.

Another variable is the amount of dice used. There are many variations here. Technically, you only need to roll 3d6 to determine an ability score but using more increases the chances to get better scores.

In D&D 5th Edition, for example, the dice rolling method suggested is to roll 4d6 and drop the lowest die. You then add the other 3 and you have one ability score. Do that five more times and you have six scores. The order here doesn’t play a role and you can arrange them however you wish.

I’m going to mention a few more methods very quickly so you get an idea about how many there are. Most, if not all, of them can be used with or without taking the order of the rolls into consideration.

  • Roll 3d6.
  • Roll 5d6 and drop the two lowest.
  • Roll 4d6. After you have generated six ability scores, replace the lowest one with 18.
  • Roll 2d6+4.
  • Roll 20d6 and drop the two lowest. Arrange the rest of them in groups of three.
  • Roll 3d6 twelve times and keep the best six rolls.
  • Roll 3d6 six times for each ability score and keep the highest rolls.

I could probably keep going for some time but it’s not something I’d like to do and I doubt it’d be something you would enjoy reading. But I’m sure these are enough to show you how many different versions there can be.

You can even invent your own if you want. Let’s make one now. Roll 4d6, drop the lowest. If any score is below 8 then make it an 8. If you roll 4 6s for a score then make it a 20.

Overall, this method is fun because you get to roll dice. However, it is also risky and unfair. It’s risky because you can get some pretty high scores but also some really low ones. That leads to it being unfair. Having an ability score or two below 10 can be interesting because you can incorporate this fact into your character’s story. Having most of them below 10, however, makes the game less fun, at least as I see it. This issue gets bigger if there are players with incredibly low scores and players with really high ones.

This situation has happened to me and I had to intervene and tinker with the scores. I don’t know if that decision was the right one, but my players didn’t complain since they are amazing and understand that everyone should have fun.

Point buy

Point buy is a process that doesn’t require dice. The Dungeon Master gives the players an amount of points and they decide how to distribute them among the ability scores. That’s the base idea but there are many variations. Each score may cost a different amount of points, for example. You can also change the amount of points given and you can also set lowest and highest scores.

In D&D 5th edition you get 27 points, the lowest score is 8 and the highest one is 15. Also, the cost varies depending on the score.

pointbuy.jpg
The ability score point cost table for D&D 5th Edition. Taken from the Basic Rules document.

I consider this method good for two reasons. It’s fair for the players, compared to rolling dice, because everyone gets the same amount of points and they can spend them however they want. The second reason is that the Dungeon Master can partially determine the power level of the campaign by changing the variables of the method. For example, if the DM and the players decide they want a campaign with a power level higher than the average, the DM can increase the amount of points the players will start with, as well as tinker with the lowest and highest scores.

Standard Array

The standard array is a specific set of scores, which in D&D 5th edition is [15, 14, 13, 12, 10, 8]. Now you may ask “Where do these numbers come from?” and that would be a very good question.

First of all, this set of scores can be generated using the point buy method. This makes the standard array a subcategory of point buy. However, there’s a second answer. I mentioned above the dice method to determine ability scores in 5th edition(roll 4d6 and drop the lowest). The standard array is a bit lower than the median of that dice method. That’s because the standard array provides you with playable stats without having the risk of getting really bad ones if you had used the dice method.

Moreover, I’d like to note that it’s one of the methods mentioned in the D&D 5th edition Player’s Handbook. Also, it’s used in the D&D Adventurers League, which is the official organized play for D&D.

Overall, the standard array is fair like the point buy method. It may not provide as much versatility but the scores are not bad and it’s a bit faster than point buy. That’s what I usually use when I want to create a character.

And these three are the methods I consider the most commonly used when it comes to determining your character’s ability scores. Like I said, systems other than D&D may provide different ones. There may also be others, not as commonly used, that I haven’t heard of. If that’s the case then please let me know.

Which is your favorite method and which is the most unusual method you have met?

And until next time, have fun!

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27 thoughts on “Determining Ability Scores

  1. Personally I run 3d6 with unlimited mulligans. Before anyone rolls stats, though, I explain my perspective so my players know what I’m looking for. That being that having weaknesses is often more fun than having strengths, and having one or two bad stats with one or two good stats is perfectly viable. I feel like this takes the best of both worlds, with the randomness of dice and the fairness of point buy. I take it on faith people won’t keep rolling for bonkers stats and so far it’s worked out.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. I prefer everyone rolls – including the GM. Anyone can use anyone else’s array however (possibly with a 1d3 penalty, spread about however they like, to keep things differentiated). You avoid the cookie cutter builds of point buy (eg all paladins have 8 Int), but retain dont have to retain intraparty balance. Low Fantasy Gaming RPG suggests this approach as one option.

    Liked by 1 person

      • We do something similar, they all roll and then they trade stats between themselves until everyone is within +/- 2 of total modifers. That way everybody is more or less on the same power level but everyone gets to roll. And, letting them work out what goes where themselves means that one player gets to keep the 18 he loves or one player can shoot for wide stats or whatever. Never had a problem with this method.

        Liked by 1 person

  3. I’ve been DM’ing for my guys for so long now that when a new player joins in with one of our games they always think I’m either joking or testing them somehow when I say, “pick whatever the hell you want”.
    No dice, no points buying, no standardised arrays… choose six stats, play the class you want. Crack on!
    They look at the wry smiles on the other players’ faces and frown for a moment. Then the character sheet comes back to me, and almost without exception a really nice, well balanced, character sits there. There was one major aberration who just shrugged, maxed everything including HP, and was gone within three sessions when he began to realise why the stats on the sheet weren’t important and no amount of min maxing power gaming was going to give him an edge.

    I recommend trying it at least once… if it works, you will love your players for their restraint, and they will love you for your trust.

    (Stats, charts, tables, dice and a DM’s screen exist only to create, maintain, and reinforce the illusion in the players’ minds that the Dungeon Master isn’t in complete control of EVERYTHING that happens in his or her game.)

    Liked by 1 person

    • That actually sounds very intriguing! I’m definitely going to try this in a one shot I’m planning to run. Thank you for your response and for sharing your insights with us.

      Like

  4. I tried everyone contributes to one array with 4d6 drop lowest and each person can arrange that array how they wish. Good for keeping playing fields even

    Liked by 1 person

  5. I like heroic stats and so go with 4d6, reroll 1s. 2s can be rerolled but the new result on rerolling a two must be kept even if it is a 1 or a 2. So low stats are possible but rare.

    Liked by 1 person

    • That’s generous and fair of you. I don’t mind having characters with high stats but I’d like to see them increasing them a bit during the campaign, instead of having them really high from the beginning

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  6. Base 13 Random Stat Generation
    Players love rolling their stats at character creation, but the traditional method has the downside that it can create wide power differences in a party, giving one PC a big boost and hampering another for an entire campaign from just a few die rolls.

    The following method avoids that issue, by using each rolled die twice — once positive and once negative. Here’s how it works:

    Roll six d6, line them up, and assign a letter to each: A B C D E F.
    Calculate your stats using pairs of adjacent dice as follows:
    13 + A – B
    13 + B – C
    13 + C – D
    13 + D – E
    13 + E – F
    13 + F – A

    The range of possible results is 8 to 18, the same as with standard point buy. The stats always add up to a total 78. This method creates a slightly higher stat total than you would get with the standard 28 point buy, but it offers less room for optimization. And just for comparison, the classic method of 4d6 drop lowest produces an average of 12.24 per roll, for an expected total of 73.44 in 6 rolls.

    I allow my players to use any size of die from d4 to d12, which adjusts the range but not the total result.

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  7. I have read my way on Reddit:
    1.) Every player should roll his stats (3d6 for normal or 1d20 if you really wanna make it hard)
    2.) Every player takes his/her rolled stats to together, and the DM makes pairs so, that always the remaining highest will be the pair of the remaining lowest.
    3.) After every player choose his/her first pair, then 2nd and last 3rd pair.

    With this method there could be some player, who have:
    – some very high stat points and some very low
    – all stat points are nearly equal
    – mixture of the two

    Lets see it in an example:
    We have 3 player (A, B, C).
    A roll the stats: [20, 15, 20, 14, 17, 18]
    B roll the stats: [16, 15, 4, 6, 14, 12]
    C roll the stats: [2, 3, 1, 6, 8, 13]

    +1 step: To make it esier, arrange the numbers from the lowest to the highest:
    1, 2, 3, 4, 6, 6, 8, 12, 13, 14, 14, 15, 15, 16, 17, 18, 20, 20

    Now the DM should arrange them into pairs like this:
    [20, 1], [20, 2], [18, 3], [17, 4], [16, 6], [15, 6], [15, 8], [14, 12], [14, 13]

    After that determine who should choose first, second and third like:
    (A B C A B C A B C) or (A B C B C A C A B) or (A A A B B B C C C) or etc.

    And now A can choose one pair. Lets say, he choose the [20, 2]. Now he/she has a very high stat but he /she SHOULD TAKE a very low too.
    Every player choose their from the REMAINING pairs, until everyone has 3x stat pairs.

    It’s a very good process if you want to have the random dice stats in you game, but you dont want to have a “god” toon with some “minions”.
    BUT ofc its not so fair as the Point buy process.

    /* I hope every1 could that understand. My english is not the best anymore ^^’ */

    Liked by 1 person

  8. Not sure how I’d exactly handle initial stat rules but one with I would do is consider giving ability score improvements as rewards sometimes; where the weaker characters will get them more easily to level the playing field

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    Like

  10. You asked for a different approach to character stats. I had a DM choose to test a fair way of determining stats without having to play hours of training. After many hours of tossing dice he came up with this idea.

    Roll 5 D6 tossing the highest and lowest, do this 8 time and dump the lowest two scores. This can give one some interesting high scores. Yet variety.

    Liked by 1 person

  11. I modelled a few standard recipes on anydice (https://anydice.com/program/1c794)
    – middle of 5d6 gives the lowest average score and the biggest variation – so could work well for a world where RP is more important than min-max combat stats
    – 5d4 reroll 1 is the most OP / broken (good for a heroic campaign)
    – 5d4 gives you a tighter distribution around a score of 12.5
    – PHB (4d6 keep highest 3) gives a very wide distribution around 12.25
    – 4d6 reroll 1s keep highest three gives a tight-ish distribution around 13.5

    So if you want the PC’s to roll but come out relatively close to each other then re-roll 1’s seem to be the way to go.

    I like the idea of saying to PC’s “pick your scores”. Maybe put boundaries around it, e.g. total score cannot be more than 72+2d4 including racial mods, and no score can be higher than 18 after racial mods. 72 is the sum of the standard scores so the 2d4 (or 1d4+2, or any combination you want) gives a bit of randomness in the party distribution. This would work where you are worried about the munchkin min-maxer going for 18’s in all attributes

    Liked by 1 person

    • That’s a really cool tool. You can get some very interesting info with it.
      In the next campaign, I will just let them pick their scores in front of each other. It will be an interesting experiment

      Like

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