July 26, 2017

Ability Scores: You're Doing Them Wrong

*An editorial by the Thumb*

Comments from the Thumb: This article expresses my own personal opinion and doesn’t necessarily represent an official explanation of ability scores or the opinions of the other Digits.

Let’s talk about ability scores. We all know them. Strengh, Dexterity, Constitution, Intelligence, Wisdom, and Charisma. The first three are pretty self-explanatory, so we’ll skip those for now. It’s the last three, the so-called mental ability scores, that I see people time and time again getting into a tizzy over. Today we’re gonna talk about what exactly each of these scores means and settle the confusion once and for all. If you’ve been around the block a few times, you may’ve seen other articles, threads, or videos explaining what I’m about to tell you. If not, read on!


We’ll start with Intelligence. This one’s pretty straightforward. Your Intelligence score is a measure of how smart you are. You use Intelligence to think and reason. Creatures need a certain level of intelligence to be sapient (usually at least INT 5) and anything below that denotes a creature with a more primitive mind (such as an animal), all the way down to INT 1, which denotes a creature whose mind is dominated by instinct and little else (oozes are a great example of this).
     You might use Intelligence to recall (or deduce) a piece of information about a particular subject (like history or arcana), or to determine the wisdom (I know, confusing names) of a course of action. You might also use it to provide clues to a riddle or puzzle that you, as a player, can’t figure out. Essentially, everything that involves critical thinking uses Intelligence.
     Intelligence is also the casting ability for spellcasters that rely on magical formulae and practice to learn spells, such as wizards. A wizard has no special skill set aside from being particularly smart and well-read in the area of magic, and when they prepare spells they memorize a certain number from their spellbook. The smarter a wizard is, the more they can memorize. Some casters that use Intelligence, such as the eldritch knight, choose to permanently memorize a smaller list of spells instead of carrying a spellbook.


Next comes Wisdom, an oft-confused ability score. First thing you need to know: Wisdom is a stupid name for this ability score. I’ve often heard people use this simplified (and incorrect) explanation: Intelligence covers higher thinking and Wisdom covers pretty much everything else except social skills, which are covered by Charisma. I think this misconception stems from D&D 3.5’s saving throws. In 3.5, there were only three saving throws, each tied to an ability score. They were Fortitude (tied to Constitution), Reflex (tied to Dexterity), and Will (tied to Wisdom). Will saves were required from almost every mind-affecting spell in the book. The name implies that you make the save with, yes, a force of will. This is (in my own opinion, anyway) blatantly wrong, and I’ll explain why when we get to Charisma.
     Simply put, Wisdom governs your perception. Not just your senses, but your intuition, your instinct, your general awareness of the world as it truly is. You use Wisdom to notice things in your environment like hidden traps or a particular person in a crowd, but you also use it to tell when people are lying or see patterns in seemingly random events, among other things. When a spell calls for a Wisdom saving throw, it’s not asking you to use your pure willpower to overcome the spell. It’s asking whether you notice the spell being cast on you. If you succeed on a wisdom spell against, let’s say, charm person, you aren’t throwing off the shackles of magic. You’re realizing, “Oh, I don’t actually like that guy, I must have been charmed!”
     Wisdom is the casting ability for spellcasters like clerics, druids, and rangers, and the ability monks use to channel ki. They cast with Wisdom because their magic comes from their awareness, their connection with their god or with nature or with whatever makes monks magic. A Wisdom caster’s magic is bestowed upon them by that source. The more in-tune they are with it, the stronger their magic is. This is also why clerics and druids get access to all spells on their list, rather than keeping a spellbook. Preparing spells for them is basically praying for the knowledge of their casting to be bestowed upon them for the day. As far as I can tell, monks literally use the Force, but if you know much Star Wars lore, you’ll recognize that that requires Wisdom as well.


Now onto Charisma, the most misunderstood of the ability scores. Most casual players will tell you that Charisma is the measure of your personality and ability to interact with others. Well, yes and no. While it is true that Charisma governs your people skills, it’s so much more than that. Because hey, 3.5? It’s actually Charisma that governs your willpower. That’s right, Charisma is a measure of how mentally strong you are and how independent and confident your personality is. A more fitting name would be Stubbornness but I can see why Charisma has a better ring to it. Charisma is the single most varied ability score, because it can affect everything from how good you are at entertaining an audience to how good you are at lying to how scary (or friendly) you are. But beyond all that interaction stuff is the way Charisma interacts with magic, which is the primary reason for this entire theory. When a spell calls for a Charisma saving throw, this is where you are using your mental fortitude to throw off some debilitating effect. Unfortunately, there aren’t too many spells or abilities that call for Charisma saves, and many spells that should do this instead call for Wisdom saves for some reason.
     Charisma is the casting ability for spellcasters like bards, paladins, sorcerers, and warlocks. But if you go with the layman’s definition, that makes no sense. How can being likeable or persuasive help you cast spells? Once again, Charisma is incredibly varied in how it works. A bard learns to use their performance skills to influence the weave of magic, literally singing, dancing, or playing their spells to life. A paladin uses their sense of purpose, their conviction in the tenets that they live by, to fuel magic bestowed upon them by some divine power. That’s why if a paladin breaks one of their oaths, they lose their powers. A sorcerer is born with an innate ability to use magic, and can use it by simply willing it to happen. A warlock makes a bargain with a powerful entity from whom they get magic, and similar to a sorcerer, they will the magic to happen.

Wrapping It All Up

Now comes the part where I tell you why you should care. Understanding the nuances of ability scores can strengthen your roleplaying and make you a better player and DM. As a player, being able to play your character true to their stats makes the immersion that much stronger and avoids DM/player disputes. As a DM, you are prepared if a situation involving these ability scores comes up that isn’t covered in the rules. Understanding the intent of the rules that are there goes a long way in allowing you to make a ruling on the issue.
     Of course, that’s the beauty of tabletop games. Ultimately, what the players can and can’t do is the DM’s decision, and your interpretation of the rules is essentially law.

Well, as long as you’re the DM.


  1. This is amazing
    A personal aside tho: I always thought warlocks used CHA because it has to do with diplomacy. The better negotiator you are, the more you squeeze out of your deal with the devil, the more powerful your magic it.

    1. He did make mention of the deal with your patron. The better your negotiation skills (I.e. Charisma) the stronger your spells and effects are as a Warlock. On top of that, the Warlock still has to have the will to pull that power from their patron time and time again without potentially losing themselves to their patron.

    I always thought that way about the scores myself, and always thought charisma should be the save for many mind-control effects, but this article clarified very well why wisdom IS relevant to many of those.

    I'd also like to add one thing: Wisdom comes not only with perception (both senses and intuition), but also empathy and direct connection to the world. That also helps to explain why clerics, druids and rangers use wisdom- their magic is external, while the magic of sorcerers and paladins is internal.

  3. Great work as always. The Charisma part really sheds light on what the PHB kinda left lacking in my opinion as a 5e greenhorn.

    Did I miss the part where Intelligence Saving Throws are explained though? I reckon it has something to do with realizing that a phenomenon is a spell and recalling or thinking of a way to resist or avoid it. Or it could be like innate and involuntary mental defense, whereas willpower is more voluntary or subject to a modicum of control.

    1. Sorry for the delayed response; I was on vacation. I actually neglected to put int saves in, since there are only like 3 Spells that call for them. I'd say an int save would equate to a "mind over matter" response. Phantasmal Fprce, Symbol, and Feeblemind all directly attack a creature's sense of reasoning and logic, and a stronger mind has a better chance of resisting them. So an int save would be realizing a mind-altering effect is illogical and ignoring it.

  4. Actually, I have at least one player who might be able to use a primer on the physical ability scores as well. His minotaur character is currently walking around with 350 pounds of pure, bulging, rippling muscle... and 12 Strength.

    Interesting take on Wisdom saves though, I have to say I've never thought of it that way. I agree with wolfspoors that I'd like to see a little of your opinion on what an Intelligence save represents, as well.

  5. (My take on)
    Intelligence Saves: Have you ever read a complex piece of literature that uses an older style of syntax and cadence (think Shakespeare) and after a while of reading (and possibly re-reading) your head starts to hurt and you take a break to relax.
    Maybe you are working on an advanced mathematics problems or looking at a formula (something like The Standard Model maybe) and your eyes wander over the symbols and glyphs- you know if has meaning but you have NO idea how to achieve that meaning.
    Ever tried to remember that word that means EXACTLY what you want to say right now, but you can't quite figure it out. You KNOW the word, you have even used the word before. It is a good word and right now it would be GREAT. You know the second you stop trying to think about that word it will come to you...

    Except there is no break to stop the pain, you can't leave the Standard Model behind, and you can never stop trying to come up with the word. Your thoughts are lost in a maze of confusion and strain. You can keep trying... A monkey with a type writer has a CHANCE of clicking out Shakespeare after all.

  6. Regarding Int and Wis, I always went by the following:

    Intelligence is knowing that strawberries are not berries and that tomatoes are fruits.
    Wisdom is knowing to not put tomatoes on a Fruit Salad.

  7. why charisma is a spell casting ability: bards tap into their ability to affect minds to cast their magic.
    paladins use their strength of personality to cast their spells.
    sorcerers have innate magic and use their desire to use it on the world to cast.
    warlocks don't make sense. they say they draw magic from esoteric knowledge, meaning intelligence would be more appropriate (at least for great old warlocks)

    1. Warlocks are a really mixed bag compared to other spellcasters.

      4e (I know that mentioning it is heresy, but bear with me) even had Con-based warlock spells.
      The idea behind this being - your patron doesn't care about you, they're cramming as much power through you as you ask for and you have to be able to survive that much arcane power flowing through you.
      Thematically, this was fantastic, mechanically it wasn't so great (spells were just as good as Cha-lock spells, but, as a Con-lock you had more health).

      Realistically, warlocks should have to come to an agreement with the DM about how their pact works and what ability score they should be using for it. This is quite hard to write rules for though.

  8. I've always described CHA to people as Strrngth of personality. Letting you get people to do things you want and channeling your own focus or resisting domination by others.