November 7, 2019

Ability Check

People keep having conversations about ability scores in D&D, and why they don’t get nuked in favor of just using ability modifiers, and I keep struggling to come up with a quick precis of why I like ability scores, even as I acknowledge their limited purpose these days.

And then it hit me that the following might work: Ability scores are to ability modifiers as a character’s height and weight are to their size.

Which is to say, size and ability modifiers are game things. They have mechanical import and meaning. Height, weight, and ability scores are the more nebulous “statistics” from which the mechanical game things are defined.

The mechanical things are of primary importance in the game. Your ability modifiers define what your character can do; your size defines when you need to squeeze, and whether you can be swallowed by a giant frog. But on rare occasion, the more nebulous statistics underlying the mechanical thing come into play. Your Strength score determines what heavy armor you can wear. Likewise, if a magical effect enlarges you while you’re climbing up a rope, your weight might determine whether the rope breaks.

Certainly, it would be easy to remove height and weight from the game, saying that size can cover any of the times it’s needed. Likewise, heavy armor could have a Strength modifier prerequisite. But height, weight, and ability scores all seem like useful ways to help define a character beyond their modifiers and mechanical statistics. They might not be important as far as the rules go, but for me at least, they’re an important part of how a character feels.

(Archive post from the personal blog.)