New Possibilities Abound with 5E D&D Alternate Ability Scores
Fifth edition Dungeons & Dragons has taken the world by storm and it makes a lot of sense. The creation of the Open Game License (lovingly referred to as the OGL) opened the floodgates for creators to use a core set of rules for developing everything from supplementary materials for the tabletop to video games. This popularized many core aspects of the system and created genre staples and today I want to challenge one of those 5E D&D staples and offer my own take.
A new option for 5E D&D ability scores
Ability scores are a core mechanic of nearly every roleplaying game whether tabletop or otherwise. Most regular players of D&D can cite the classic six with ease (Strength, Dexterity, Constitution, Intelligence, Wisdom, and Charisma). I’ve often wondered why these are the core six and if there might be a better set of ability scores. I’m by no means the first person to consider this. Many tabletop roleplaying games and video games offer their own spins on ability scores. Things like Magic, Speed and others regularly find themselves substituting one or more of D&D’s classic six.
That being said I propose my own array for consideration within your 5E D&D games. Sticking to the classic number I’ve devised my own notion of six playable ability scores I believe could streamline many aspects of Fifth Edition for a more well rounded experience. These six scores are Prowess, Fortitude, Determination, Perception, Initiative and Wit. Consequently I would also propose only three saving throws, which I’ll touch on in a later post.
For now, let’s break down these six alternate options for ability scores and discuss why I think they make for a much more streamlined 5E experience.
The Super Scores
Before delving into why my alternate scores are better I’d like to address an elephant that has rather skillfully hidden in the room for ages. I mean the discrepancies in usefulness and universality among the current ability score array.
When it comes to 5E D&D certain ability scores inherently shine a bit more than others, in my opinion. Dexterity has so many uses from initiative rolls to Armor Class, certain weapon damages, a plethora of saving throws and more. It’s easily one of what I call Super Scores.
Alongside Dexterity there’s Wisdom, a necessity for often used skills like Perception and Insight. I can’t even count how many times I’ve been at a table where multiple people shout “Insight check!” or “Perception!” in unison. That ignores the more niche (yet equally vital) roles regarding magic and skill checks Wisdom fills. And of course you’ve also got tool proficiencies, which could be argued to rely on Wisdom quite often.
As for Charisma it’s the last of the Super Scores and no less showy than the other two — in more ways than one. Not only does it contribute to the majority of spellcasters but it’s also integral for social skill checks such as Persuasion and Deception. Charisma opens doors of potential for social solutions to problems, something more lacking in video games and a big selling point of TTRPGs on the whole.
These three — Dexterity, Wisdom and Charisma — make up the Super Scores. Conversely Strength, Constitution and Intelligence frequently fall by the wayside.
The Sad Scores
Strength, Constitution and Intelligence aren’t necessarily sad per se but they’re certainly less useful than the others unless you’re playing in a very specific type of game.
Intelligence suffers arguably the least of these three as it is still useful for a variety of skill rolls related to knowledge. Tasha’s Cauldron of Everything offered some more potential use for Intelligence by adding psionics to the game but if you’re wanting a smart character who’s not a wizard or a psion you’re likely to feel weaker and less universally useful than allies who focus on one or more of the Super Scores.
Strength is weapon damage. Well, sometimes. The trouble with Strength as an ability score is more often than not there’s a strong case for why one could substitute Dexterity for Strength. Much of this comes from the real world fact that feats of Strength are less about brute force and more about understanding of how to use Strength effectively. Weight lifters especially will understand this as technique is critical for effective competition. It’s sad to say but Dexterity outshines Strength in nearly every occasion.
Constitution is health, and that’s about it. Good night, folks! Joking aside Constitution is necessary. I get it — nobody wants fewer hit points and that’s almost enough to save it from being lumped with the others but should that really be the case? I have my own thoughts about why Constitution should be used more than it is but that’s for another time. Suffice it to say 5E D&D mechanics really don’t show Constitution much love beyond hit points and concentration checks and this really hurts it.
I’ve covered the Super Scores and the Sad Scores. Let’s get into the alternate scores I propose and how they can make your games smoother.
First on our list is Prowess. Prowess is a character’s physical ability. It represents strength and athleticism as well as a character’s understanding of how to use them effectively. Characters with a high Prowess score find it easier to overcome physical challenges such as breaking down doors or moving heavy objects. Prowess also represents a character’s skill with weapons they can use. The higher a character’s Prowess score the more damage they deal with weapons. This is all weapons.
Greatswords? Yep. Longbows? You bet. What about when you pick up the enemy kobold and swing them around like a flail? Sure.
Prowess combines Strength and Dexterity into a single streamlined physical score for all athletic and acrobatic needs! It represents both raw power and a character’s understanding and coordination to use this power effectively and efficiently. Using Prowess as a character’s single weapon skill allows for greater versatility of weapon uses. No more keeping track of a separate bonus for one weapon versus another. Swordplay and archery both use this versatile attribute!
Prowess also contributes to Armor Class. This makes it the quintessential physical fighting skill.
Further clearing things up is tool proficiencies. As it stands tools are a nebulous thing and a character might use any number of ability scores while employing tools. Because Prowess can also be interpreted as a cerebral thing it works as a handy go to for any and all tool proficiencies. Whether disarming traps, picking locks, painting or cooking up a favorite meal Prowess covers it all.
I get it. Fortitude isn’t much different from Constitution. Why replace it? It’s a matter of perspective. As it stands I’d suggest Fortitude be used for measuring endurance. This would require a single technical change more than I’ve already talked about but I would also propose bringing back the fourth edition D&D skill Endurance as a means of making Fortitude more useful. The reason I like this is because there really isn’t a mechanic at present for manifesting when a skill challenge or something else goes on for an extended period of time. It would also allow for differentiation between things like sprinting (Athletics) and running a marathon (Endurance).
Determination represents a character’s willpower and self discipline. Characters with a high Determination score are more capable of Persuasion and Intimidation. The higher a character’s Determination score the more damage they deal with magic.
You heard right — Determination is the quintessential spellcasting ability score. Druid? Determination. Wizard? It represents discipline. Sorcerer and Bard? Determination is willpower and panache.
This new ability score would make multiclassing for spellcasters relatively seamless and allow for more varied development of spellcasting classes on the whole. What’s more those wanting to play in a setting much like Dragon Age or the Witcher would find this conducive to flavoring all spellcasters in a setting as more general mages.
Determination is half Charisma and half Wisdom and a touch of Intelligence for good measure. I understand breaking up the mental ability scores in this way might come off as odd. However, the mind is complex — much more so than tabletop RPGs capture at present. Part of the reason for defining the ability scores as I do here allows for each score to have a mental element. Being simply intelligent or wise barely scratches the surface of nuance I think is much easier to capture in a TTRPG than I’ve seen evidenced for so long.
If you read my article on the Perception skill from our Skills 101 series then you know I advocate for Perception being its own ability score with the Perception skill being broken up into different senses. Perception would cover insight as well as sight, smell, sound, taste and touch. If you wanted you could even add in a sort of sixth sense for people, places or objects exuding intense magical power. Not only would this new breakdown facilitate a more nuanced manifestation of Perception but it would also clarify some theme and flavor problems I’ve always struggled with when it comes to lighting, blindness and characters with sensory problems or disabilities.
With Initiative being its own ability score you would need to rework certain skills to allow for this new attribute. For my taste I would add a skill called Readiness. This skill would cover things like the current 5E D&D initiative checks but it would also modify preparation times. The Readiness skill is all about capability and efficiency. It’s not about what a character does but how they do it. Initiative also modifies the number of reactions a character can perform between times they act. This is situationally quite powerful though I feel the limited use Initiative provides is a fair tradeoff much as additional hit points balances Fortitude (and Constitution as it currently stands).
The last alternative ability score is Wit and represents a character’s logic, knowledge and cunning. Characters with a high Wit score are better at acts of Performance, subterfuge (including both Deception and Stealth) as well as knowledge rolls like History, Arcana and the like. Defining Wit in this way simultaneously curbs the universal use of Charisma and elevates this Intelligence replacement. This evens the mental playing field among the ability scores — something currently lacking in 5E D&D. With Wit as a catchall intellect score it becomes more universally useful instead of relegating its primary functions to casters and psions.
New possibilities abound
There you have my six alternate Ability Scores for 5E D&D. What do you think about this new array? What about the other variant options I suggested? Let us know in the comments and connect with us on our Facebook page!
In this short series I’ll continue exploring this and some other alternative mechanics, rules and options for 5E D&D along with how these new things affect existing material. Next time I’ll get into the three saving throws I mentioned and how I would alter saving throws on the whole. Stay nerdy!
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