To Roll, or Not To Roll?

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A character’s ability scores in fifth edition Dungeons & Dragons are arguably the most influential part of who they are. Ability scores determine what your character can and cannot do, and to what degree. They determine what roles your character will tend toward and where their weaknesses lie. In D&D 5E, the standard rule set for calculating ability scores is to roll 4d6 and drop the lowest. However, there’s an alternate rule called “Standard Array,” which grants the character scores of 15, 14, 13, 12, 10, and 8. These are assigned to the six ability scores. Then, there’s also the point-buy system.

With how important ability scores are in this game, I wondered why there are so many options for calculation. Then, I got to wondering if the way one calculates their ability scores would affect gameplay, outside of mechanics. What am I talking about? Culture.

I recently began three (yes, three, and no I’m not crazy) D&D groups, all with teenagers who had only peripherally heard of D&D. I experimented with using Standard Array, versus rolling for Ability Scores, and I found some rather interesting results, as discussed in my RPGtube video, over on my YouTube channel this week.

Disclaimer: While I’ll be discussing Standard Array vs. Rolling, there’s a third option in the Players Handbook called Point-Buy. Because Point-Buy and Standard Array are so similar in concept and benefits/problems, I’ll simply refer to Standard Array, but know that Point-Buy presents most of the same positives and negatives.

Pros of using Standard Array

  • No single player shines more than any other player, mechanically speaking.
  • Dungeon Masters can more easily prepare and balance encounters for the whole party, without outliers of extremely low or high scores.
  • The Standard Array is easy to remember, and it can make coming up with a character on the fly a much smoother and quicker experience.
  • It makes taking a feat, versus an Ability Score Improvement, a lot more meaningful of a choice.
  • It caps player power outside the DM’s influence, ensuring a level playing field for the players.

Cons of using Standard Array

  • It can be confusing to newer players as to why these numbers are chosen.
  • Removing dice from character creation potentially makes it seem as though the game is predominantly paperwork.
  • It simply isn’t realistic; people are diverse in their capabilities, and yes, some people are better at more things than others in real life.
  • Standard Array does not take into account that some classes want more than one or two high Ability Scores.

Pros of rolling for Ability Scores?

  • Rolling dice is fun, and incorporating it into character creation adds engagement for new players.
  • People are diverse. Some people are naturally more talented than others; rolling for Ability Scores simulates this.
  • It’s possible to roll enough higher scores to feasibly play a more difficult campaign, even with a class that relies on having three or more high scores.
  • Some players get a rush from gambling on their character’s Ability Scores and being forced to stick with the results.
  • Rolling extremely low results (even just one or two) can force a player to think about how that affects their roleplaying, and it opens up some very entertaining possibilities.

Cons of rolling for Ability Scores

  • Power gaps can emerge in the group, if one person rolls exceptionally low, while another rolls exceptionally high.
  • There are no guaranteed high numbers, so you could really get shafted as a player.

It’s all a question of chance

D&D 5E ability score D&D dice
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What this ultimately boils down to is chance vs. predictability. I think each DM should decide for themselves if they prefer to leave the characters’ fates up to the dice, or if they like the stability and predictability that comes with using the Standard Array (or Point-Buy, though we didn’t touch that one).

It also depends on the philosophy of the gaming group. Some groups believe every encounter should be balanced. I find these groups usually lean toward using the Standard Array or Point-Buy method.

Conversely, some groups (especially those who’ve played previous editions of D&D) don’t buy into the idea that every encounter should be balanced and “winnable” by the party. These groups often favor realism, and I’ve noticed a trend of preferring to roll for Ability Scores among these folks.

Regardless of your decision, skillful DMing and great player roleplaying can overcome most of the negatives addressed above, and the positives of each will still shine.

What do you think?

Do you prefer Standard Array/Point-Buy, Rolling, or something else entirely to determine Ability Score in D&D 5E? Did I miss any benefits or detriments of one of the systems? Let us know in the comments!

Until next time, may the dice be ever in your favor!

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Steven Partridge is a published fantasy author and staff writer for Nerdarchy. He also shows up Tuesdays at 8:00pm (EST) to play with Nerdarchy Crew, over on the Nerdarchy Live YouTube channel. Steven enjoys all things fantasy, and storytelling is his passion. Whether through novels, TTRPGs, or otherwise, he loves telling compelling tales within various speculative fiction genres. When he's not writing or working on videos for his YouTube channel, Steven can be found lap swimming or playing TTRPGs with his friends. He works in the mental health field and enjoys sharing conversations about diversity, especially as it relates to his own place within the Queer community.

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