In Defense of D&D Stats in Simple Language: What Measure is an 18?

One of the neat bits about having a blog is that I post things that generate discussion. It’s one thing to say something in a group of similarly-minded DMs and have a talk before a session starts, but it’s quite another to put something out there and hear from people you’ve never met or even heard of. I love receiving comments, and since I’m not at a point where I have to worry about arguments or incivility the only ones I have to block are obvious bots (I could do a post just on the funnier ones; as great as it is to not have to deal with so many spam comments, recent filter updates have probably deprived me of some quality comedy.)

I also love data, particularly taking it apart and putting it back together in meaningful ways. When I noticed that one of my posts had an order of magnitude more spam than any other, I got to compare it to other posts to figure out why. I think it’s because I linked to Photobucket, and it’s why I don’t do that now. Another post received the most legitimate comments, mostly due to a heavy discussion between two DMs I know, and that showed me just how deep the conversation around the role of monsters in the world is. So it’s something I’ve come back to now and again.

But the post that has the most comments from unique users is D&D Stats in Simple Language, an attempt to put real-world descriptions on the numbers for the six ability scores. It’s also the post with the most comments disagreeing with the post itself. I’ve certainly had comments that amounted to “that’s great, but not how I play it”, and the fact that we can disagree on how to play D&D it one of the things that makes it such a worthwhile system. There’s not just one way to play it. But given the amount of comments the post received (and, to be honest, the lack of much else to discuss while I’m waiting to play in 5E), I think it’s reasonable to respond to some of them.

Most of the disagreements fall into two categories. I’ll discuss one here and one in my next post, and I’ll start with the easier one: The power level of high stats is too low. For example, the description for Strength 24 is “Pinnacle of brawn, able to out-lift several people”. A fair number of commenters think this is actually the description for Strength 18, because that’s the most a human can get. Anything beyond that is superhuman, limited to magical creatures or heroes far beyond the reach of low-to-mid-level play.

That makes sense depending on context, but the context of the post is 3rd Edition. When I first wrote these stats 4E hadn’t been released (it may not even have been announced), and I didn’t even get into gaming until after 3E had taken over. It was the only edition I’d played, and at the time it may have been the only system I’d played at all. I did say the stats aren’t intended for 4E but I didn’t explicitly exclude any other edition because I didn’t think I needed to, though there is only one game I know where character stats range from 1 to 25 based on the rules in a Player’s Handbook (and it has the 3E and Pathfinder tags but no tags for any other edition, but even I forgot about that until somebody pointed it out to me).

In 3E, Strength scores are very clearly defined. A medium-sized bipedal character (a human) with Strength 10 can lift 100 pounds over their head, heft 200 pounds, and push up to 500 pounds. These values quadruple for every additional ten points of Strength, with no limit on scores. 4E made things a bit cleaner by narrowing the range, as 4E is wont to do. A character multiplies their Strength score by ten to get their carrying load in pounds. Again, a Strength 10 human can lift 100 pounds, but at Strength 20 she can only lift 200. And in 5E, carrying capacity is Strength times fifteen but that’s distinct from lift load, which is twice as high.

(I would include examples from earlier editions, but again, I’ve never played them or seen them played. I don’t have the books to reference.)

To understand how this plays out in practice, let’s look at somebody with whom I’m sure all my readers are familiar, Hossein Rezazadeh. He has lifted, from the ground and over his head, 467 pounds. Assuming nobody used magic on him that means his Strength as a 3E character is about 21. But as a 4E character it’s 47, much higher than any character could ever have and even higher than Tiamat and other gargantuan deities. If you assume 4E’s carrying capacity rules are closer to 5E’s and define the snatch as actually heft load rather than overhead load, his Strength is 24. In 5E his Strength is only 16. We have three, perhaps four, Strength scores for the same person, and all we changed is the edition.

I’m picking on Strength because it’s the only ability score with a clear definition, but this applies across the board. Dexterity 16 means a somewhat quick rogue in 3E (because they’re faster than an average person, but pretty sluggish for a thief), an average low-to-mid-level monster in 4E (because ability scores scale with level, so higher values are common at high levels even for oozes), and an Olympic athlete in 5E (because the absolute forever maximum of human capacity is 20). Every stat varies by the expectations of the world and the players within it.

So I stand by my descriptions in a 3E frame of reference, but they can’t be applied the same way to other editions. They’re not intended for 4E or 1E or AD&D in the same way they’re not intended for Savage Worlds or Apocalypse World. It’s not a question of correct or incorrect as much as it’s a question of which version of the stats you prefer. If you’re using an earlier edition, feel free to kick out a few of the middle values (for example, removing “Visibly toned, throws small objects for long distances” and lowering everything above it by one) until the maximum is where you want.

Or, eschew them completely. Stats, high and low, can mean different things to different people. I’m a fan of interpreting low Dexterity not as “clumsy enough that he bungles into attacks rather than dodging them”, but “resigned to the idea that he’s going to take a bunch of hits, so he doesn’t try to dodge as much as he could.” Low Wisdom can mean you’re scatterbrained or you jump to conclusions or you interpret the world incorrectly or something else. It’s like compressing an image (for the younger readers) or albums of digitally remastered music (for the older readers): part of the problem with boiling the world down to something you can easily use is that you’re going to lose some of the intricacies you liked. The simple language stats are a starting points for players who don’t know what 14 Constitution means, not a canonical list. As long as it makes sense within the context of the game, go nuts.

But do make sure you have the context right. As I’ll discuss next post, when you interpret an ability score in a way for which it was never intended, things collapse.

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3 Responses to In Defense of D&D Stats in Simple Language: What Measure is an 18?

  1. Ray M. says:

    Out of curiosity, I wonder what your opinion of the ability score themselves is. I haven’t had an opportunity to explore the versions before 3e either, but lately I’ve been considering how the ability scores are implemented. Allow they allow for some interaction in the game (ability score damage, partial upgrades), but since almost everything depends on the modifier coudn’t they scores themselves be removed entirely?

  2. Silverwolf says:

    “Dexterity 16 means a somewhat quick rogue in 3E (because they’re faster than an average person, but pretty sluggish for a thief)”

    I actually have a big problem with this way of thinking amoung players and DMs for 3rd edition variants. By what standard are they sluggish? Because I always- ALWAYS- consider things from a level 1 character’s point of view and they max out at 18. Sure, by the time you are level 20 with triple digit hit points (depending on how your DM hands those out but many give you max) a rogue that started with a 16, the third highest number they could without racial modifiers, would have a 21 (not counting magic items likely boosting it). But how many people are ‘level 20’. This is like saying 16 is subpar for a warrior class like fighter or barbarian. A strength of 18 is literally the strength score given to a horse- they can lift more, sure, and there are humans that have lifted more weight than a medium humanoid D&D character with 18 strength can, but I am sure you understand the point I am trying to illustrate.

    This brings into consideration levels themselves. I’ll be generous and say half of all people will even HAVE a character class. That really is pushing it too. But if it is high fantasy it could be believable though in low fantasy most people would have day jobs preventing them from learning the intricacies of sword play and studying dusty old tomes to shoot fireballs from their hands. In medieval fantasy most of them would be serfs. And even then, the Dungeon Master’s guide gives you special classes for NPCs to make them a little less special than PCs. Warrior replaces fighter, for instance, and is notably not as good.

    Out of this- again very generous- half how many of them will ever get past level 3 or 5? How many demi-god level 20 (or higher) characters are running around obliterating entire armies by themselves? This is vidya game logic, World of Warcraft with its legions of max level players. Not even Comic Books or Japanese Shonen has as many people capable of nuking cities. If that is what you want to go for, fine. But I think it is important to look at levels and what they mean.

    1-5 = Gritty low fantasy. Still within human limitations, but honestly still pushing the envelope in many cases. You are still very human and even Kobolds or Goblins can pose a serious threat in the right circumstances or with the right numbers. Conan the Barbarian, Game of Thrones, actual human history, that sort of thing falls here.

    6-10 = Epic Heroes. The sort that can take on armies when grouped together. Seriously, characters like these would be devastating opponents to go up against. Most of the Lord of the Rings cast comes to mind here, and legendary heroes from yore like Achilles, Jason, Saint George, etc. fall in line with what I’d expect. Solitary individuals like Link of Legend of Zelda fame or Gutz from Berserk probably also fit the bill.

    11-15 = Wuxia. People that can solo armies by themselves. If those last two I mentioned don’t fit epic heroes they fit here. A character in this level range is the sort of character that if you dropped them in the real world Middle Ages they could probably do a better job conquering the world than Genghis Khan did and wouldn’t even need an army to do so.

    16-20 = Demi-gods. I don’t think I need to explain this. See Wuxia level conquering the medieval world and consider that these could probably do the same to a post industrial world. Titans have a CR rating of 20, don’t they?

    21+ = Super Heroes to ACTUAL Gods. These sort of characters are world enders, if they really wanted to be. They are the sort of characters that can fodderize giants, high ranking demons and adult dragons. Fighters are walking juggernauts, walls of HP, who hit harder than artillery barrages. Mages literally can cause city leveling explosions and bend reality to their whims. I only mention them because you ranked up to 25. Without magical assistance or being a half-orc they’d HAVE to be Epic level to get that. And frankly, as far as I am concerned, we passed epic ten levels ago.

    Wow that got away from me. I digress. At level 1, especially if you roll your attributes, 16 is pretty good for your primary stat. You shouldn’t consider it sluggish at all.

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