Ability Scores: All Shook Up

Posted on May 20, 2009


This post has been a while in coming, but since I have some time while I’m waiting for Game Fu 5 to begin, I thought now would be a good time to dig into it. The subject of this post is ability scores in D&D 3.5e, specifically the misapplication of Wisdom and Charisma.

I will begin with my conclusion, since that’s the hook, then lay out my reasoning. My conclusion is this: Sorcerers should use Wisdom, not Charisma, as their ability score for casting.

I was put off by the Sorcerer’s dependence on Charisma the moment I cracked open the 3e PHB in August of 2000. The “fluff” text for Sorcerers states clearly that their magic is “intuitive”. Intuition is a keyword listed in the description for Wisdom:

Wisdom describes a character’s willpower, common sense, perception, and intuition. While Intelligence represents one’s ability to analyze information, Wisdom represents being in tune with and aware of one’s surroundings.

This is a pretty clear link to me. Willpower is important for resisting mental effects, and so Wisdom is also important to Will saves. All of this makes perfect sense. However, Sorcerers are keyed to Charisma, which says nothing about willpower or intuition:

Charisma measures a character’s force of personality, persuasiveness, personal magnetism, ability to lead, and physical attractiveness. This ability represents actual strength of personality, not merely how one is perceived by others in a social setting.

The problem here is that a lot of folks mistake force of personality as meaning the same thing as force of will. Look them up. “Personality” and “will” are not the same thing. Yes, people with forceful personalities often have strong will as well, but people with strong muscles are usually better able to resist injury and Strength doesn’t add to HP; Constitution does.

I’ve been given an interesting counterargument multiple times, one which I felt was worth examination. Random House offer this as the definition of “charisma”:

1. Theology. a divinely conferred gift or power.

2. a spiritual power or personal quality that gives an individual influence or authority over large numbers of people.

3. the special virtue of an office, function, position, etc., that confers or is thought to confer on the person holding it an unusual ability for leadership, worthiness of veneration, or the like.

Based on the first case, many people argue that Charisma in the d20 sense is supposed to mean “charisma” in the theological sense. This argument raises questions, however. If the magic of Sorcerers (and Bards, no less) is a divinely-conferred gift or power, why is it arcane and not divine? Why do Clerics and Paladins use Wisdom as their casting stat when their magic is divinely-conferred? And so on.

Charisma, in the d20 sense, is purely social. It is not a measure of willpower. Bards skirt the line by being able to shape magic with their ability to perform, but Sorcerers are clearly not bards. Their magic is, as has been mentioned, told to us to be “intuitive”, coming from the subconscious. Sorcerers do not bluff, intimidate or coerce the forces of magic to obey them with song or word.

Another counterargument that has been offered is that “Wisdom is already the divine magic stat, so no arcane caster can have it.” Divine classes relied on Wisdom by tradition from earlier editions, without any thought being paid to whether it made sense in 3e/3.5e given the definitions of the ability scores. Also, just because divine casters use Wisdom (which some of them shouldn’t; Druids and Rangers yes, Clerics no) does not mean someone else can’t use it for a different power source. 3e Psions actually had to utilize all six ability scores at different times, based on the disciplines of the powers they wished to manifest.

On the tails of the “Wisdom is divine” argument is often offered the argument that “Charisma needs more to do”. My response: beef up the social rules and bring in classes that actually use social ability for their powers. Just because they wanted more Charisma casters is no reason to misapply it.

The final counterargument I receive often is that if Sorcerers used Wisdom, they’d be unbalanced, ostensibly by having the same ability score for both their magic and their Will saves. Sorcerers already suffer a complete lack of class “goodies” except arcane magic, scribe scroll and summon familiar. They receive no bonus feats, and 3.5 added the ability to swap a single spell known every four levels. All this is in exchange for the ability to cast spontaneously, an ability which long experience in-play has been shown to me to be not nearly as powerful as Wizards claim, relying heavily on Prestige Classes instead of native ability. Sorcerers are already unbalanced in not being as powerful as other core classes, no matter what damage-dealing arguments might claim. Having the same ability score for magic and Will saves could hardly throw that “balance” too far the other way.

In every D&D 3e and 3.5e game I have run, Sorcerers have been keyed to Wisdom with no deleterious effects. I’ve actually further modified them, Wizards and Clerics, by making Clerics use Charisma and removing their access to heavy armor, making Item Creation feats Wizard-only and making Metamagic feats Sorcerer-only to further flavor both classes, requiring Wizards to have a personal material object to “hang” their prepared spells on and removing Sorcerer familiars due to their internal focus. No game-breaking imbalance has appeared. The players have always told me they enjoyed the modifications.

So, there you have it. That’s my reasoning for why I think Sorcerers (and Clerics) run on the wrong ability score. When I’ve presented these views before I’ve been told rather loudly that I’m wrong, so I’m not expecting to change anyone’s mind. But the next time you play d20 D&D, think about it for a moment, and perhaps you’ll see the same things I do.

Posted in: d&d 3.5