Ability Scores: Not Created Equal?

Posted on April 3, 2009


I mentioned before that though 3.5 is my favorite edition of D&D, I do have some quibbles. Today I’m going to examine one of those quibbles: the inconsistent notion that some ability scores are worth more than others, regarding race balancing and level adjustment.

Page 173 of the 3.5 DMG says:

“…Not all the ability scores are equal. For example, the half-orc has a penalty to both Intelligence and Charisma but a bonus only to Strength. That’s because neither a penalty to Intelligence nor a penalty to Charisma by itself is equivalent in significance to a bonus to Strength.”

The DMG goes on to establish that a bonus to a physical ability score — Strength, Dexterity or Constitution — is equivalent to a penalty to two mental/social ability scores — Intelligence, Wisdom or Charisma. This means physical ability scores are “worth” twice as much. There’s even a table to remind the reader of this.

The logic behind this is apparently that physical ability scores apply to combat, which is a major portion of the game. If characters were all warriors and rogues, that would make sense, however…

Long-established common wisdom is that a +2 bonus to Intelligence, Wisdom or Charisma is immediate cause for a +1 Level Adjustment. Why? “Because it makes them better casters.” +2 to a casting stat means more bonus spells and higher save DCs. Making a race better than others at a class means things should be balanced with a penalty of some kind, right?

That no one sees the contradiction here is incredible. How can it be true that physical ability scores are more valuable than mental/social ones, when a bonus to the less valuable ability scores incurs LA? Bonuses to physical abilities make better warriors and rogues. If making someone a better caster is worth a Level Adjustment, surely making someone a better fighter is worth one too.

I first noticed this nonsense when I picked up the 3e DMG. I could almost see the point about the physical ability scores, but then I saw the repeated insistance that mental/social bonuses needed LA penalties and realized it was complete bunk. Swords don’t run out of charges. Yes, mages can lob big boomy death and do a bunch of neat things, but they run out. Weapons don’t stop working, and Damage Resistance is a lot less annoying than Spell Resistance. The truth is, a +2 to a “casting stat” is worth one bonus spell and +1 to save DCs to wizards. +2 Strength is worth +1 to hit in melee and +1 damage. +2 Dexterity is worth +1 to hit at range and +1 AC. It all balances out. The abilities are not unequal.

Next up: why sorcerers should run on Wisdom, not Charisma.

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Posted in: d&d 3.5