Distributing Abilities in 4e

Ability scores in Dungeons & Dragons are one of the game’s many mechanical systems that float atop a liquid surface of questionable justifications. They’re a perfectly serviceable set of dials to use to define a character, they do a job and they create a lot of thematic hooks you can use, but also, under the hood, they are not sensible at all, and part of where they get unsensible is where you try to treat them as strictly representational depictions of a coherent measurable reality.

Which is a problem.

See, strength is a measurable thing, kinda. The way that D&D handles ability scores means that more strength means you can lift more; sure, you do more damage and you hit more often, but those are things that can be treated as abstracted in some ways. Some forms of strength do more than other forms of strength. What’s more, feats of strength aren’t treated as consistent; a character who can burst open chains by flexing still has a chance to not do that.

There’s a whole conversation about what the roll represents cosmically – is it the chance to advance the outcome you want, or is it a representation of how well your character was able to execute on what they did? These are questions the rules don’t consistently express and what that means is that while strength is quantifiable (kinda) in one axis (kinda), the other stats are much more nebulous and only ever referenced in mostly internal ways; a character with a 22 dexterity has more dexterity than a character with 21 but it’s not really clear what that means beyond the modifiers: They have more of dexterity. A lot more than someone with 12, but the gap between 21 and 22 is only meaningful in terms of the numbers the game systems then check.

4th edition’s general loose attitude towards how you express and flavour the mechanics you have plays into this as well, which is very helpful for avoiding some pitfalls, as is the absence of cultural disadvantage scores. It’s funny but when you present half-orcs as having a -2 intelligence and -2 charisma, as they had in 3rd edition D&D, the focus is overwhelmingly on any player character of that heritage and how they reflect those negative stats, even if they reflect them by railing against those limits.

In 4e, character heritages didn’t have ability score modifiers that went negative; they were only ever positives, and thanks to the way builds were shaped, while you were absolutely incentivised to pick a heritage that improved one of your key ability scores, for the right other reasons (in particular flavour) there were a bunch of times you might wind up with your other heritage stat buff falling into an unimportant spot for you. Such is life, after all. That meant that yes, you would get a lot of (say) Devas taking up Swordmage life and Half-elves taking up bard life but they’d rarely define themselves by explaining how they handled their strength penalty.

Your low intelligence score is kinda expressed by you; the game doesn’t actually give you any way to present that in the diegesis and it doesn’t even let it limit you – it just makes you worse at hitting/getting an impact out of intelligence based stuff, and maybe it can present a barrier to picking up new, intelligence-based careers but it doesn’t ever say things like ‘you can’t learn any more languages’ or ‘you can’t read and write’ based on an intelligence score. And of course, since all the mental scores are, of course, absolute horse-apples, and when you reach down into that mucky surface of swamp water you find oh look, eugenics, so don’t try to definte them statisically.

They are a vibe: an explanation from the game that your character has three different ways of being, mentally, and it’s up to you to determine how good or bad they are at them but only you get to choose how they look to other players. Got a high charisma, low wisdom, low intelligence? That could be a highly forceful personality, someone who’s commanding and directed or someone who’s really friendly, or someone like a pro wrestler who’s capable of projecting an intense aura into their social space that people react to. Low wisdom, good in the other areas? The classic way to represent that is being book smart but having poor judgment, but the charisma suggests you can judge interactions with people. A low wisdom could be a bad sense of timing, or being too focused on yourself, or being used to ‘solving’ conversations so you don’t necessarily notice what others are doing.

Inside you are three wolves, and they each present different ways to be an idiot.

Couple this system with the way 4e wanted the characters to exist on a reasonably comparable power level, the mechanics for building a character didn’t start with rolling three dice and complaining. It instead used a point-by system, which if you’re really attentive, you’ll notice has only so many limited possible applications; a 15, 14, 14, 13, 12, 10 is, topographically, the same as a 15, 13, 14, 14, 12, 10.

In the Player’s Handbook there’s this table, right at the start that just shows a bunch of arrays. It’s a reasonable system – rather than ask you to do a point buy system, it presents you instead with a roughly equal grouping of all the possible number arrays you could have (though not all of them), and you can just pick one of them to build from. These arrays, in 4th edition’s general style, let you build a character who is excellent in one stat (an 18) and kinda bumbles along with the rest, or has maybe even two 16s and a bunch of ‘fine.’ And the funny thing is, yes, this is an elaborate system of data storage made to make a complex system of number division work more fluidly.

It’s something that works quite well in 4e but it only exists in the system because it evolved around it, and removing it and replacing it would result in something much worse for purpose; there’s just so much work tied into how ability scores advance and are improved in the game experience.

Still really funny to see how, like a voicebox artery, the game’s system has to make this nice, streamlined set of tools to alter player behaviour around something that probably shouldn’t matter all that much if this is how the game goes about it.

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