Ability Scores: The benefits of rolling dice, point buy and the standard array

You’re rolling up new characters.

But how do you determine ability scores?

Ability scores are the foundation of your character. They allow for the greatest acts of heroism you’ll face in the adventure and even the low scores will make for some really great roleplaying, if you use them right.

The Dungeons & Dragons Player’s Handbook spells it all out on page 13: Generate ability scores randomly by rolling dice, by taking a standard set of numbers or by using a point system to “buy” your numbers.

As per the rules, they’re all fine choices, but there are benefits to each.

Most people, it would seem, roll dice for their ability scores. In a not-at-all-scientific poll we conducted on Twitter, a full 74 percent of respondents said they roll dice for stats. That actually surprised me.

(In the poll, 10 percent said they use the standard array and 14 percent said they use the point buy method.)

Rolling Dice

This is the way 5th edition assumes you’re creating your character. Though many see this as an “optional” way to do it, it’s actually the preferred method, according to the PHB.

If you’re not aware, you take 4d6 and roll them. Take the highest three numbers, and that’s your score. Do it five more times for a total of six numbers.

A few variants I’ve heard of:

  • Roll three dice instead of four. This will, on average, bring your scores down, but it’s pretty exciting.
  • Roll seven scores, not six. Drop the lowest. Gives you a higher average score.
  • Everyone in the party does their rolls, and the whole party gets to pick one set. Again, this gives everyone a higher score.

However you do it, dice determine ability scores randomly, which is exciting. The major benefit I see: Nobody knows what they’re going to get. It feels as random as the game of D&D often does. Min/maxing crazies can’t exactly fine-tune their characters when they don’t know how scores will turn out.

I think this is the most true-to-game method, so long as it’s done honestly.

Yes, I’m talking about fudging dice rolls.

There’s no worse place for it to happen than on ability score rolls.

There’s room for nonsense if you’re not paying close attention. The last campaign I started, I made every player roll his scores under my watchful eye. If they weren’t able to attend, they had to send me a video of it.

But I realized later, nothing prevented them from videoing multiple rolls and sending me the best one. I don’t think my friends are cheaters, but if I do dice rolls next time, I will make them all do it in person or in a Roll20 chat window. I need that evidence!

The other problem: The randomness could make one character in the party super strong or super weak, leaving them on one end of the spectrum from the rest of the party. Put it this way: No one’s having fun when their attacks/rolls/checks don’t work and someone else’s never seem to miss.

For those reasons, I’m strongly tempted to do a standard array for everyone next time just so they’re on an even playing field. My other option: Make them all use the same set of rolled scores. (Maybe I’ll even make the rolls myself.)

Standard Array

If rolling dice is like entering a lottery where you’ll win a Cadillac or a 1987 Ford Fiero, the standard array is like forgoing the lottery completely and just giving everyone a Honda Civic.

It’s nice. It’s not amazing, but it gets you where you need to go. The mileage is good! You won’t complain. It’s not fancy, but it sure runs better than that Fiero. It’ll run forever, and you’ll always be pretty pleased. Be grateful you got the Civic.

The standard numbers are 15, 14, 13, 12, 10 and 8. It’s solid down the line, and (after racial bonuses), you’ll end up with a good modifiers.

Though it may seem boring, the standard array is also easy. No, you might not start with an 18 Strength score or be casting nigh-unbeatable spells by third level, but you also aren’t at risk of having a 7 dump stat. (Don’t laugh. I’ve seen it. A lot.) Your character will be solid. It’ll take some management to determine exactly how to play him or her, but you’ll have a solid base. It also takes some time out of the character creation process (no need to roll, the numbers are just there.)

The cons: There aren’t many, honestly. You lose the excitement that rolling dice always brings, but that can carry its own disappointments. (What if you roll three 8s?)

Point Buy

Continuing my car analogy, point buy would be like taking the trusty Honda Civic and customizing it. Sacrifice the shiny paint job for a slightly faster engine. Put a spoiler on the back, but you’ll have to take it in a color you don’t like as much. Get a two-door and worse gas mileage in exchange for a car that’ll never break down.

Point buy gives you 27 points and lets you “buy” scores with those points. But the higher score you buy, the more points it costs. Buying a 15 costs 9 points. You’ll only have 18 points to buy your other stats.

The process is weighted, so if you pick more higher scores, you do so at the expense of more lower scores. As the PHB points out, you could get yourself a 15, 15, 15, 8, 8, 8  as well as an array of 13, 13, 13, 12, 12,  12. Both are valid.

Point buy is a trade-off. It’s also great when you want the reliable balance of the standard array but with a little bit of customization. It lets the more min/maxy customizers at your table a little more freedom.

How I do it…

In the past, I always used these ability score/character creation rules:

  • Pick one: Roll dice or point buy.
  • Once you’ve determined your scores, you can’t change.

Why a choice? The player gets what he or she wants, but there’s also no rolling poorly and then saying, “Uh, I’d rather have better scores, please.” Nope. Pick one and live with it.

But over time, I’ve changed. Point buy is my jam now.

Next time, we’re doing point buy. I don’t care what the players say.

And here’s why: It’s fair.

It puts the characters on an even footing. It still allows for customization. As their DM, I’ll also be able to plan for encounters better when I know they’re equal to each other.

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