Last Updated: September 26, 2021
Your ability scores are the mathematical foundation of your character. While your race and class define what your character can do, your ability scores in many ways define how well your character can do those things, and choosing your ability scores is an important part of building your character.
The Player’s Handbook lists choosing your ability score as the first step in creating a character, but I think that’s an awful idea. How can one possibly choose their ability scores before knowing what class they’re playing? Imagine blindly filling in 15 Strength before picking your race and class, then falling in love with the idea of playing a rogue. You would be sent right back to choosing your ability scores, and at that point why did you bother doing it before picking your class?
Ramblings aside, picking your ability scores is a crucial part of your character. We’ve covered how each of the abilities work, what they do, and the skills tied to them. We’ll briefly discuss what each class needs in terms of ability scores, then you’ll know everything you need to know in order to choose your ability scores.
How High Should My Ability Scores be?
The two most commonly used ability score generation methods impose a cap of 15 on each ability score before applying ability score increases from your race. Racial ability score increases never exceed +2, which means that the highest score you can get at 1st level is 17. 16 and 17 both give you a +3 modifier, so 16 is usually enough unless you plan to split an ability increase between two ability scores, or if you plan to take a feat that gives you +1 in an ability score.
For ability scores which you don’t intend to increase, but still rely upon, try to end up with an even number after applying racial ability score increases. Remember: ability modifiers increase at even numbers. However, it’s likely that you’ll end up with one or more odd-numbered ability scores depending on how you determine your ability scores.
Each class has unique ability score needs. This section will make specific recommendations for how to arrange you ability scores. Keep in mind that the numbers below include racial ability score increases. You’ve already selected both your race and your class, so you can account for your racial traits when thinking about the final numbers you want.
You’ll notice that I recommend 14 for a lot of ability scores below. This is because it’s a good option for the popular Point-Buy method of determining ability scores.
- Barbarian: Start with a 16 or 17 in Strength, and as much Constituion as you can manage. Some Dexterity will increase your AC, but you don’t need more than 14 unless you plan to fight unarmored. You might consider an odd-numbered value in Strength/Constitution so that you can increase both at 4th level to raise the modifier on both, but only do so if it’s convenient; you don’t need to ruin your other ability scores to make it happen.
- Bard: Start with 16 or 17 in Charisma. If you plan to take College of Valor, start with as much Dexterity and Constitution as you can, ideally at 14 or more in each.
- Cleric: Start with 16 or 17 in Charisma, then focus on Constitution. If your choice of Divine Domain doesn’t grant proficiency in heavy armor, try to get up to 14 Dexterity to increase your AC. If you plan to use weapons extensively, increase your Strength instead of your Dexterity.
- Druid: Start with 16 or 17 in Wisdom, then focus on Constitution and Dexterity.
- Fighter: Start with 16 or 17 in either Strength or Dexterity depending on what sort of weapons you want to use, then focus on Constitution. If you’re planning to take the Eldritch Knight subclass, try to start with 14 Intelligence.
- Monk: Start with 16 or 17 in Dexterity, then split your focus between Constitution and Wisdom. Dexterity is the Monk’s primary offensive ability score, but your need Wisdom for your AC and you need Constitution for hit points.
- Paladin: Start with 16 or 17 in Strength or Dexterity (Strength is more common), at least 14 in Constitution, then focus on Charisma. Charisma won’t pay off immediately, but as you gain levels your Charisma will become more important.
- Ranger: Start with 16 or 17 in Dexterity, then split your focus between Constitution and Wisdom. You won’t need more than 14 Wisdom, and I wouldn’t go below 14 Constitution if you’re planning to fight in melee.
- Rogue: Start with 16 or 17 in Dexterity. If you’re planning to take the Arcane Trickster subclass, try to get 14 Intelligence. Otherwise, set you ability scores to complement your skills. Don’t take less than 12 Constitution, and consider 14 if you’re planning to fight in melee.
- Sorcerer: Start with 16 or 17 in Charisma, then split your focus between Dexterity and Constitution. You don’t especially need either, but with no armor and 1d6 hit points you’ll want to make yourself as durable as you can.
- Warlock: Start with 16 or 17 in Charisma. If you plan to fight in melee, split your focus between your Dexterity and Constitution; 14 in each is a good idea. If you don’t, do the same but don’t worry if you can’t manage 14s because it won’t matter as much when fighting at range.
- Wizard: Start with 16 or 17 in Intelligence, then put some focus into Constitution and Dexterity to keep yourself alive.
Methods for Determining Ability Scores
Several methods for determining ability scores are presented in the published rules. The two most common are the “Standard Array” and “Customizing Ability Scores”, more commonly known as “Point-Buy”. I’ll explain both below.
Other methods also exist, and some variants are presented in the Dungeon Master’s Guide. However, these methods nearly always involve determining your ability scores with dice rolls. While this can be fun and exciting, it also invariably leads to some characters being considerably more powerful than other characters, and it can lead to characters who are simply too weak to be effective. As such, I recommend that new players stick to the Standard array or Point-Buy.
The simplest method, the Standard Array presents players with 6 predetermined numbers: 15, 14, 13, 12, 10, 8. Players are then free to assign each of these numbers to whichever ability score they choose.
This is a fast and simple way to choose your ability scores, but it does have some problems. Classes like Monk and Barbarian which need abnormally high scores in multiple ability scores are at a disadvantage, while classes that need just one high ability score like sorcerers and wizard are at an advantage.
Beloved by experienced players for allowing total control of your character’s starting stats, and for its fairness, the Point-Buy method allots players 27 points which are then used to purchase ability scores from a table. The cost to increase an ability score by 1 increases every few points, so purchasing high ability scores quickly becomes expensive and you need to weigh the cost of a higher ability score against potentially putting several points into lower ability scores.
If your group choosed to use Point-Buy but you feel comfortable with the Standard Array, that’s perfectly fine. You can spend your 27 points to get the exact numbers provided by the Standard Array.
Unfortunately, the table for purchasing ability scores isn’t included in the SRD so I’m not allowed to duplicate it here. If you’d like to use the Point-Buy method, see page 13 of the Player’s Handbook under “Variant: Customizing Ability Scores”.