Last Updated on January 22, 2023
Whether you’re slaying goblins, trying to escape being devoured by a gelatinous cube, or smooth-talking your way past a guard, your character’s chances of success or failure in Dungeons & Dragons 5e are governed by the roll of the dice and their ability scores.
Pretty much every time you roll the dice in D&D 5e, you add (or subtract) a number to (or from) the result. These numbers are called modifiers and are defined by your characters’ ability scores.
There are six ability scores in D&D 5e – Strength, Dexterity, Constitution, Intelligence, Wisdom, and Charisma – that express characters’ physical mental assets and weaknesses. Every creature in D&D has a score in each ability between 1 and 30 (although most player characters can’t go higher than 20).
Mechanically, characters with higher ability scores add bigger numbers to their rolls when making ability checks, attack rolls, and saving throws.
Narratively, ability scores speak to the way your character thinks and acts as well as what they can or can’t do.
Characters with high Strength scores are brawny and physically tough, high-Dexterity characters are nimble and coordinated, characters with good Constitution scores can endure greater amounts of punishment, high-Intelligence characters are better at recalling useful information or solving challenging puzzles, characters with high Wisdom scores are more perceptive and insightful, and high Charisma characters are better at using the force of their personality to bend others to their will.
In this guide, we’re going to be giving you a full breakdown of ability scores in D&D 5e and what they’re used for, as well as how they apply to skills, modifiers, and spellcasting.
Whether you’re a new player looking for the lowdown on one of the core mechanics of the game or a veteran looking to brush up on the basics, you can jump to any of the sections using the table of contents below, or just jump right in.
What Is an Ability Score?
Each character in D&D 5e is defined by several things, from their class to their race, background, feats, equipment, and six ability scores.
Each of a creature’s abilities – Strength, Dexterity, Constitution, Intelligence, Wisdom, and Charisma – has a score attached to it, a number that defines the magnitude of that ability.
An ability score is not just a measure of a creature’s innate proficiency; it also expresses experience, training, and acquired competence when doing things related to that ability.
A score of 10 or 11 in an ability is the “normal human” average.
However, most adventurers and many monsters exceed the capabilities of normal humans.
A score of 18 is the highest that a person usually reaches. Adventurers can have scores as high as 20, and monsters and divine beings can have scores as high as 30.
The six scores conspire to make up the things that your character is good, average, or bad at. Is your character physically powerful? Insightful? Light-fingered? A gifted liar?
How about a character who’s clumsy? Or sickly? Or incapable of telling a joke? Ability scores help define these qualities and more for a character – both the good and the bad.
Every creature is defined by the following six ability scores, which give a snapshot of what they’re good, bad, or just average at.
- Strength, which measures physical power
- Dexterity, which measures agility and coordination
- Constitution, which measures endurance and toughness
- Intelligence, which measures logic, reasoning and memory
- Wisdom, which measures perception and insightfulness
- Charisma, which measures the force of a creature’s personality
Generating your ability scores (whether you use a point buy, standard array, or rolled method) is a key part of character creation, along with choosing your race, class, background, and starting gear.
As your character goes on adventures and gets into danger, the three most common rolls that make up the majority of someone’s experience playing D&D 5e — the ability check, the saving throw, and the attack roll — rely on the six ability scores.
Certain ability scores also determine other things about characters, from their prowess when casting spells to their hit points and their ability to carry greater amounts of weight
We’ll get into more detail about which ability scores factor into different situations as well as how they relate to skills, hit points, and other elements of a character later on. For now, let’s take a look at modifiers.
How Do Modifiers Work?
When you want to do just about anything in D&D 5e, roll a d20, add an ability modifier derived from one of the six ability scores, and compare the total to a target number.
Your character’s ability modifiers (maybe aside from their Armor Class and Hit Points) are the numbers you’ll be paying attention to most frequently throughout their adventuring career.
Each ability also has a modifier, derived from the score. These range from -5 (for an ability score of 1) to +10 (for a score of 30), although those are extreme examples.
Most adventurers will have an ability score modifier of between -1 and +4 in each ability.
If you need to calculate a creature’s ability score modifier without consulting this table, the Player’s Handbook suggests you subtract 10 from the ability score and then divide the total by 2 (round down).
What Do I Use Ability Scores and Modifiers For?
Pretty much every time you pick up a 20-sided die in D&D, you’re going to be applying some sort of bonus or penalty to the result as you try to hit the target number for the roll you’re making.
This is where ability-score modifiers come in, as they’re the numbers that you’re going to be regularly applying to your Ability Checks, Attack Rolls, and Saving Throws.
Need to make an ability check that requires your character to use their body to overpower an enemy guard? Or lift something heavy? Or bend steel bars with their bare hands (or bear hands if you’re playing a druid)?
At its simplest, that process is probably going to involve rolling a d20 and adding your character’s Strength modifier to the result. If you match or exceed the target number for the check, you succeed.
If you are proficient in a particular skill (like athletics for feats of strength, for example), that applies to the ability check you are making, and then you get to add your proficiency bonus to the roll as well.
Different skills apply to different types of ability check.
The same goes for attack rolls to hit enemies with weapons, unarmed attacks, or spells that require you to make an attack using your spellcasting modifier and for saving throws to avoid all sorts of nasty effects, from dodging falling rocks to fending off an arcane enchantment.
The astute among you will probably have noticed by now that there isn’t actually very much you do with your ability scores other than use it to figure out your ability modifier.
In 5e, it’s your modifier that you apply to everything, from attack rolls to figuring out your character’s spell save DC, so why do ability scores even exist at all?
They’re actually a holdover from earlier editions of D&D when ability checks were made by trying to roll under your ability score, and even then you mostly used your Intelligence score to determine how many languages you spoke, and your Charisma determined how many retainers you could hire.
Figuring out which ability-score modifier to apply to a particular saving throw as well as the other stuff – from skills to hit points and encumbrance – that particular ability scores determine is an important part of creating and playing your character, so let’s take a closer look at each one in turn.
A character’s Strength measures their physical power, athletic training, and the extent to which you can exert raw force on their environment with their body.
Someone with a high Strength score might be able to kick down doors, scale a vertiginous cliff face, swing a two-handed sword with deadly force, and wrestle a bear to the ground.
Your Strength score applies to the following situations…
A Strength check can model any attempt to lift, push, pull, or break something; to force your body through a space; or to otherwise apply brute force to a situation using raw physical power.
The Athletics skill also reflects how good you are at certain kinds of Strength checks, like those made when climbing, jumping, or swimming.
You’d make an Athletics check to attempt to climb a sheer or slippery cliff; to avoid hazards while scaling a wall; to cling to a surface while something is trying to knock you off; to try to jump an unusually long distance or pull off a stunt midjump; to struggle to swim or stay afloat in treacherous currents, storm-tossed waves, or areas of thick seaweed; or when another creature tries to push or pull you underwater or otherwise interfere with your swimming.
Other examples of Strength checks include:
- Forcing open a stuck, locked, or barred door.
- Breaking free of rope, chains, or manacles.
- Forcing your way through a space that is too small.
- Hanging on to a wagon while being dragged behind it.
- Toppling a statue.
- Keeping a boulder from rolling away.
Attack Rolls and Damage
Attack and damage rolls made using thrown and melee weapons (without the finesse property) and unarmed strikes all use Strength.
Lifting and Carrying
Your Strength also determines how much weight you can lift, carry, and drag.
Your carrying capacity is your Strength score multiplied by 15. This is the weight (in pounds) that you can carry, which is high enough that most characters don’t usually have to worry about it.
Push, Drag, or Lift
You can push, drag, or lift a weight in pounds up to twice your carrying capacity (or 30 times your Strength score). While pushing or dragging weight in excess of your carrying capacity, your speed drops to 5 feet.
Size and Strength
Larger creatures can bear more weight, whereas Tiny creatures can carry less. For each size category above Medium, double the creature’s carrying capacity and the amount it can push, drag, or lift. For a Tiny creature, halve these weights.
A character’s Dexterity is a measurement of their coordination, speed, and grace. Dextrous characters have faster reflexes, more nimble movements, and better balance than other people.
Your Dexterity score applies in the following situations…
In situations where your character needs to move nimbly, quickly, or quietly or to keep from falling on tricky footing, the DM may call on you to make a Dexterity check.
There are three skills that fall within the realm of Dexterity, and each one expresses a different kind of dexterousness.
When you attempt to maneuver or stay on your feet in an unstable situation. Run across a sheet of ice, balance on a tightrope, or stay upright on a rocking ship’s deck
Sleight of Hand
When you use coordination, subtlety, and misdirection to pull off an act of manual trickery legerdemain. Conceal an object about your person, plant evidence, or pick someone’s pocket.
When you attempt to go unnoticed by your enemies. Slink past guards, slip away without being noticed, or sneak up on someone without being seen or heard.
Other situations where the DM might call on you to make a Dexterity check include:
- Safely steering a heavily laden cart on a steep descent.
- Picking a lock.
- Disabling a trap.
- Securely restraining a prisoner with rope.
- Wriggling free of restraints.
- Playing a stringed instrument.
- Crafting a small or detailed object.
- Forging a signature with a steady hand.
Attack Rolls and Damage
You add your Dexterity modifier to your attack and damage roll when attacking with either a ranged weapon or a melee weapon that has the finesse property, like a dagger.
Some classes, like the Monk, also have the ability to substitute their Dexterity modifier for their Strength modifier when making unarmed attacks.
Depending on the armor you wear, you might add some or all of your Dexterity modifier to your Armor Class. Characters wearing light armor or no armor at all, for example, add their Dexterity modifiers to their base AC.
At the beginning of each combat, all participants “roll initiative” by making a Dexterity check. This determines the order in which the combatants act.
A character’s Constitution is a measurement of how hardy they are, how much punishment they can take, how far they can walk across difficult terrain, how they swim through freezing cold water, or how they maintain their concentration in the heat of battle.
Your Constitution score applies in the following situations…
Ability checks using Constitution are the least common to be required to make, and there’s no skill attached to Constitution.
However, making a Constitution check can be a way to model whether or not your character can push themselves beyond their normal limits.
Situations where the DM might call on you to make a Constitution check include:
- Holding your breath for minutes at a time.
- Walking, climbing, or labor without rest.
- Going without sleep and resisting the effects of Exhaustion.
- Surviving without food or water.
- Quaffing an entire stein of ale in one go.
- Fighting through the effects of poison or hallucinogenic drugs.
When you take damage while maintaining the effects of a Concentration spell, your Constitution determines the modifier you apply when making the save.
Most importantly, your Constitution modifier contributes to your hit points – increasingly your pool of health as an extension of your physical toughness.
Typically, you add your Constitution modifier to each Hit Die you roll for your hit points when you level up, take a short rest, or benefit from another effect like the Fighter’s Second Wind ability.
When you create a character, at 1st level their hit points equal the maximum value of their Hit Die plus their Constitution modifier.
A character’s Intelligence measures their mental acuity, accuracy of recall, and the ability to reason.
Characters with high Intelligence scores are more likely to be able to read strange arcane writings, remember obscure passages of historical and religious texts, and understand the workings of the natural world.
Your Intelligence score applies in the following situations…
You make an Intelligence check when you need to draw on your reserves of logic, education, memory, or capacity for deductive reasoning.
The Arcana, History, Investigation, Nature, and Religion skills all fall within the umbrella of Intelligence.
When you attempt to recall lore about spells, magic items, eldritch symbols, magical traditions, the planes of existence, and the inhabitants of those planes.
When you try to recall lore about historical events, legendary people, ancient kingdoms, past disputes, recent wars, and lost civilizations.
When you look around for clues and make deductions based on those clues, whether you’re examining the scene of a murder or cross referencing texts from an ancient library.
When you recall lore about terrain, plants and animals, the weather, and natural cycles.
When you recall lore about deities, rites and prayers, religious hierarchies, holy symbols, and the practices of secret cults.
Other ability checks that fall under the mantle of Intelligence might include the following:
- Figuring out how to communicate with a creature without using words.
- Estimating the value of a precious item or guessing how a magic item works.
- Assembling a disguise to pass as a city guard.
- Forging an official document.
- Recalling details about a particular craft, trade, or organization.
- Winning a game of skill and strategy, like chess.
The wizard and artificer classes (as well as subclasses that draw from the wizard spell list, like the Arcane Trickster and the Eldritch Knight) use Intelligence as their spellcasting ability modifier, which determines their spell attack bonus (how easy it is to hit other people with spells) and spell save DC (how hard it is for creatures targeted by their spells to resist their effects).
A character’s Wisdom ability score speaks to how attuned they are to their surroundings and the feelings or intentions of others.
Wisdom measures perceptiveness, intuition, and the other less-cerebral sides of intellect to intelligence.
Your Wisdom score applies in the following situations…
When your character attempts to take in information about the world around them and intuit meaning from it (rather than Intelligence, which is more analytical), they might be required to make an ability check using Wisdom.
You could use Wisdom to read someone’s body language, understand someone’s feelings, notice things about the environment, calm a nervous animal, or care for an injured person.
Wisdom is tied to the Animal Handling, Insight, Medicine, Perception, and Survival skills.
When you try to calm or control a domesticated animal, predict an animal’s intentions, intuit its needs, or try to accomplish a risky maneuver using your mount.
When you try to determine the true intentions of a creature by reading its body language, speech habits, and changes in mannerisms. Draw out a lie or someone’s true intentions.
When you try to stabilize a dying companion or diagnose an illness.
Your ability to spot, hear, or otherwise detect the presence of something in your surroundings. The Perception skill is used to determine how aware a creature is of its surroundings. Overhear a conversation through a closed door, eavesdrop under an open window, or hear monsters moving stealthily in the forest.
When you follow tracks, hunt wild game, guide your allies through dangerous expanses of wilderness, identify signs that monsters have made camp nearby, predict the weather, or avoid natural hazards like landslides and quicksand.
Wisdom has an extensive array of skills which cover most of this skill’s applications. However, Wisdom checks that fall outside the realm of a Wisdom-based skill might include:
- Get a gut feeling about what course of action to follow.
- Discern whether a seemingly dead or living creature is undead.
The druid, cleric, and ranger classes use Wisdom as their spellcasting ability modifier, which determines their spell attack bonus (how easy it is to hit other people with spells) and spell save DC (how hard it is for creatures targeted by their spells to resist their effects).
From their charm and eloquence to raw, imposing, animal magnetism, Charisma encompasses all the different ways that a character can be effective at interacting with others.
Your Charisma score applies in the following situations…
Whenever you try to interact socially with another creature, the DM may call on you to make a Charisma check, whether you’re trying to weave a web of lies, leave someone with a lasting impression, influence someone’s decisions, or just entertain a crowd.
Charisma is the ability score that underpins the Deception, Intimidation, Performance, and Persuasion skills.
When you try to convincingly hide the truth, either verbally or through your actions. Deception encompasses all manner of lying, whether through omission, outright falsehoods, or half-truths.
This deception can encompass everything from misleading others through ambiguity to telling outright lies.
Charm your way past a guard, con a merchant, earn money through gambling, pass yourself off in a disguise, spread rumors throughout town, dull someone’s suspicions with false assurances, or maintain a straight face while telling a blatant lie.
When you try to influence someone through outright threats, hostile actions, and the promise of physical violence.
Interrogate a prisoner, force a gang of ruffians to back down from a bar brawl, and hold your blade against a merchant’s throat until they agree to open their safe.
How well you can delight an audience with music, dance, acting, storytelling, or some other form of entertainment.
When you use tact, social graces, reasoned arguments or good nature to influence someone’s decisions.
Other examples of situations when a DM might call for a Charisma check that aren’t covered by the skills above include:
- Find the best person to talk to for news, rumors, and gossip.
- Blend into a crowd to get the sense of key topics of conversation.
Bards, paladins, sorcerers, and warlocks all use Charisma as their spellcasting modifier, which helps determine their spell attack bonus (how easy it is to hit other people with spells) and spell save DC (how hard it is for creatures targeted by their spells to resist their effects).
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I played my first tabletop RPG (Pathfinder 1e, specifically) in college. I rocked up late to the first session with an unread rulebook and a human bard called Nick Jugger. It was a rocky start but I had a blast and now, the better part of a decade later, I play, write, and write about tabletop RPGs (mostly 5e, but also PBtA, Forged in the Dark and OSR) games for a living, which is wild.