Updated: Jan 30
In the first part of this explanation, I went over the anatomy of a character sheet — what’s included, where it is, and how it applies to gameplay. Now it’s time to get down to the details, and what better place to start than the basis of the game itself?
Your ability scores are the most important thing to know about your character when you start actually rolling. They’ll tell you what you’re likely to be good at, which can influence how the character is played and how they develop through the game.
Here’s what you need to know about ability scores in Dungeons and Dragons Fifth Edition.
Ability Scores and How to Use Them
Ability scores are what we call the six major statistics used to determine the way a character interacts with a Dungeons and Dragons storyline. In not-rules-lawyer-speak, these are the numbers you look at when you’re rolling dice to make decisions.
The scores are, in order of appearance: Strength, Dexterity, Constitution, Intelligence, Wisdom, and Charisma.
Your ability scores, or stats, are expressed as a number 1–20, with the normal limits being a lowest of 8 and a highest of 18 when you first establish them at level one (more on how they’re determined later).
From these stats, we get a set of 18 specialized skills. These skills can be individually prioritized and customized through proficiency, or an added bonus to the modifier (the little plus or minus whatever number), gained through a character’s race, class, or background.
Let’s look at the stats in more detail, shall we?
Strength is…well, physical strength! It’s how well your character slams open a door or carries a heavy pack or punches something in the face.
A character with a Strength score of 10 is average; they can probably open jars on their own but they couldn’t necessarily hold up a collapsing building. A character with an 8 in Strength probably does need some help with jars and a character with a 20? They’re holding up the whole dang town.
Strength is the main characteristic for martial classes like Barbarians and Fighters. You’ve gotta be strong to wield massive swords, you know.
Athletics is the skill that helps you determine whether your character is good at long jumps and climbing and other things that require physical strength but a bit more skill than just push, pull, carry, etc.
Dexterity is the finer-motor-control cousin of Strength; it still depends on your physical abilities, but Dex-y characters are more likely to have some flair with how they perform these feats. They’re great with ranged weapons that require accuracy and for actions that require delicate fingers.
A character with a high Dex score can probably pick a lock with ease, while a character with a low Dex score probably has some trouble not breaking the lock by accident.
Dex is the key score for, you guessed it, Rogues and Rangers.
Acrobatics is similar to Athletics, but basically, you're doing it with style. Think of anything you might see in a gymnastics class.
Sleight of Hand means you’re either being a magician (literally now you see it, now you don’t) or you’re trying to mess with something that normally requires very particular tools and a long instruction book detailing which wires are safe to touch.
Stealth is…well, how good are you at blending into the background and/or hiding behind things without having your foot/butt sticking out for people to see? It’s also all about being absolutely silent with your footsteps.
Constitution is the score that determines your character’s physical fitness. It’s the score that’ll tell you how many Hit Points you have, how well you react to being poisoned, how exhausted you are after a fight and anything else that has to do with how strong your character’s body is.
There are no specialized skills for Constitution mostly because — in my opinion — this stat is so important in so many other mechanics. Also, I’m not entirely sure what skills you’d put under Constitution…holding your breath? Tolerance for spicy things?
Intelligence is your character’s capacity for analytical reasoning. Often confused for Wisdom, this stat’s used more for things that have to do with memory and logical assessment — it’s the “knowing that tomatoes are a fruit” part of the saying.
This stat is a Wizard’s best friend; you’ve got to be able to remember a LOT of spells when your magic is based on books. It’s also a good stat for Clerics, Druids, and Rogues to have some points in, as you’ll see in the skills attributed to it.
Arcana is your knowledge of magic and its various uses. This skill helps you tell demons from devils and religious ceremonies from dangerous summoning rituals.
History is…I mean, it’s history, man. It’s the same thing as in real life — you know when and where things happened, to which people, and why. My DM also uses this skill as the general memory check — it’s how we can see if our characters remember something an NPC told them if we as players didn’t write it down.
Investigation is the ability to put the clues you can see in front of you (or that you pointedly look for) together into a cohesive story. It’s a great skill to use when figuring out how traps work or whether or not that chest in front of you is a mimic (it’s definitely a mimic).
Nature is your general knowledge of the natural world, from animals and monsters to various kinds of plants and environments. Depending on your DM, this skill may even help you identify potions and poisons.
Religion is the skill you’ll use in conjunction with Arcana to find out if what you’re dealing with is divine or dangerous (or both). This skill is based on your general knowledge of and familiarity with the gods and celestial beings of your D&D world.
And now we get to the part of the saying about “knowing that tomatoes don’t belong in a fruit salad.” Wisdom is the stat associated with non-book knowledge; basically, it’s the common sense and street smarts of D&D. Wisdom is also your mental fortitude stat — having a high Wis save can prevent you from being charmed or controlled by hostile magic.
Wisdom is another good one for Clerics and Wizards to have, and I’d say Sorcerers as well. Basically, if you’re going to be casting magic at me, I’d like for you to not only know what you’re doing but also know whether what you’re doing is a good idea or not. It’s also handy for Rogues and Rangers because of its skill attributes.
Animal Handling is exactly what it says on the tin. How well do you interact with animals? This is great for whoever is driving the cart while you're traveling; you don’t want the horses running off!
Insight is the skill you use to understand another person or creature’s intentions and to see whether you can connect the dots as to what happened when you’ve got a bunch of seemingly disparate clues.
Medicine is basically the doctor’s check. It’s the skill you use to assess a person’s condition and restore hit points without using a healing spell. Making this roll well can save a party member in Death Saves (more on that in a later part). Some DMs use Medicine as the poison-identification skill.
Perception is your ability to notice obscure details or the signs of someone watching you. This is one of the most used (and feared) skills in the game; if your DM asks you to roll Perception, you’re probably about to be ambushed or about to step on or into something unfortunate.
Survival is your knowledge of the natural world in a practical sense. Which berries are safe to eat, where the best places to sleep would be, etc. It’s also the skill used to track a person or creature’s trail to catch up to or avoid them.
Charisma is the stat that gets the most flack, so let’s get something straight right off the bat — there is NO SEDUCTION SKILL in D&D 5e!
It’s true, though, that this is the stat you use to interact with people. It’s your natural appeal as a person; do people like and trust you immediately, or do you give off bad vibes? Having high Charisma means you make an excellent party face, which is good when you need to get jobs or get past the bad guys without a fight.
Bards, Paladins, and Sorcerers are the main Charisma lovers. These are the people who rely on the strength of their person and the appeal they have to others to use their skills.
But…yes, Charisma does in fact make it easier to be romantic. Grumble, grumble.
Deception is exactly what it sounds like — it’s your skill in making people believe something that isn’t true.
Intimidation is how well you pull off the “bad cop” bit. You can use this skill to frighten away enemies, pressure people for information, or just let the people around you know that you mean business.
Performance is another self-descriptor. Playing an instrument? Singing? Acting? Trying to do anything artistic? This is the skill you’re going to need a good modifier for.
Persuasion is similar to Deception, but instead of trying to get someone to believe something wholly untrue, you’re trying to get people to agree with your interpretation of something or your plan.
Getting Your Basic Ability Scores
Okay, you know what each score and its associated skills do. Awesome! How do you get there in the first place?
In Dungeons and Dragons Fifth Edition, there are three main ways to get your ability scores: fixed array, rolling, and point buys.
Fixed array, or standard array, determination is pretty straightforward and quick. You get a set of six predetermined numbers — 15, 14, 13, 12, 10, and 8 — which you then assign to each of the six ability scores. Easy!
The benefit of this generation method is that it starts all the players on an even field. While you’re assigning the numbers to different scores, you’re still working with all the same numbers in the end. It prevents any unfair disadvantages from happening before the game even starts.
On the flip side, you do get stuck with a few very low scores — unless you’ve got racial and class bonuses you can take advantage of, you're always going to have a -1 modifier somewhere. It also means you don’t have the chance of getting ridiculously good scores right off the bat. Some players and DMs find this method to be too restrictive, so they opt to roll instead.
Rolling your score is exactly what it sounds like. You roll 4d6 (4 6-sided dice) and add together the highest three numbers. Do that five more times, and you’ve got your scores!
This method can result in some absolutely nuts ability scores. I’ve known people to roll nothing lower than a 16 and end up with a wickedly smart and deadly Barbarian or two. This is super fun if you’re not worried about high scores breaking the game.
Unfortunately, high scores aren’t guaranteed. You could (although it’s unlikely) end up with an 8 in every score. So, roll at your own risk.
This is the method that I’m most familiar with. A point-buy system is slightly more complicated than the other two systems, but also usually gives you the best layout.
To do this, you start with all of your scores set to 8. You have a pool of points — usually 27 — to assign across your scores however you choose. The catch is that the higher the score gets, the more points it costs to raise it. For instance, you can go from an 8 to a 10 with 2 points, but it might take 4 or 5 to go from 16 to 18. Once all of the points are assigned, you have your scores!
Confused? Yeah, same. Fortunately, there are calculators online that can help you do this effectively. My favorite is this one, which lets you customize which race you’re working with and the number of points you’re pulling from.
Up Next — Hit Points!
Now you’ve got a solid base to start with for your character. Understanding their stats will get most of your sheet done — from here, your skills and AC are easy plug-and-play formulas. Mechanically, you’re almost done.
So where do you go from here? Well, now you have to figure out how much your character can take physically, and what to do if it looks like they’re going down. In the next part of this series, we’ll discuss your hit points — everything from how to get them to how to save your own skin when you’re dying.
For now, though, be excited that you’ve got some solid mechanics worked out and you can start building your character’s story based on who they are on paper. Happy adventuring!
This article was originally posted in SUPERJUMP Magazine on 12/20/21.