Last Updated on January 22, 2023
There are three main elements that make up a character in Dungeons & Dragons Fifth Edition (5e):
Race: This is totally up to the player to pick from, so long as your DM approves of your choices.
Class: Your class is often dictated by your ability scores, but it’s still players choice.
Ability Scores: Standard Array, Point Buy or Rolling Dice. The first two are chosen, the dice roll adds some randomness. We’ll cover them all here for you.
All three of these pillars conspire to not only determine who your character is, but also what they can (and can’t) do.
Your class (and sometimes race) gives you access to spells and special abilities, a mixture of skills, and other interesting features that make your character feel unique, but it’s your ability scores that have the most direct impact on what happens when you pick up a d20 and roll.
Your stats are a vital component of your character, so let’s talk about generating them.
Usually, the dungeon master (DM) is the one who decides which stat generation method is used when a campaign gets started, but some DMs don’t care, or prefer to leave it up to their players.
So, if you’re a DM looking to start a new campaign, or a player whose DM lets their players handle ability score allocation themselves, we’re going to take a look at various methods of stat generation to help you decide which one is right for you.
The official D&D 5e rules offer three methods of generating your ability scores:
- Standard Array
- Point Buy
- Rolling the Dice
We’ll start by going and comparing the merits of each one, and then take a look at some slightly more unconventional methods, which is where things get a little weird.
Primer: Ability Scores in D&D 5e
Fifth edition D&D uses the same six attributes as in the very first edition of the game back in 1974.
Strength: a measure of physical power. Smash down a door, swim against the current of a raging river, and plunge your sword through a dragon’s hide.
Dexterity: a measure of agility. Leap clear of a spike pit, sneak past a palace guard, and shoot down a manticore with your longbow.
Constitution: a measure of endurance and stamina. Shrug off the effects of poison, trek for days across dangerous terrain without rest, and carry armfuls of treasure home from the dungeon.
Constitution, unlike the other five attributes, doesn’t correlate to any skills, but it does affect your hit points (HP).
Intelligence: a measure of reasoning and memory. Decode ancient scrolls in dead languages, solve complex riddles, and investigate tantalizing mysteries.
Wisdom: a measure of Perception and Insight. Perception in particular is a very valuable skill because it allows you to gain access to hidden information in the world, and see enemies coming before they see you.
Scan the horizon for signs of your quarry, survive in the wilderness, and read the intentions of others.
Charisma: a measure of the force of your Personality. Charisma doesn’t have to mean charm and beauty – although it often does.
Anything about your character that lets you intimidate, persuade, or deceive other people is determined by your Charisma.
Ability Scores and Ability Modifiers
This brings us to the two numbers that actually correspond to each ability score.
- Ability Score: This is the big number that can range between 3 and 18, but usually ranges between 8 and 18 – that’s your Ability Score.
- Ability Modifier: Anywhere from -2 through +5. This gets directly applied to your d20 rolls.
You won’t really ever use the Ability Score number to do anything except calculate the other, smaller number.
Why does it exist, you ask?
Well, D&D is a game with almost 50 years of history. Ability scores are a relic of the olden days when having a score of, say, 14 versus 15 had an impact on things like your 1-in-6 chance of being able to bend steel bars, or how badly things went when a spell misfired.
All cool stuff but very much absent from the fifth edition.
Today, your ability score is used to calculate the other, smaller, more important number.
That small number is your Ability Modifier.
Modifiers tend to range between -2 and +5 and are the number that you add (along with things like your Proficiency Bonus, Skill Bonus, and the effects from magical items) to the result of any d20s that you roll.
To figure out your bonuses, you need your ability score and the table below.
The higher the score, the higher the bonus.
Now, let’s take a look at the three main ways of generating your stats.
Standard Array – Best for Beginners
There’s nothing fun about sitting down to play D&D for the first time and ending up with a character who can’t swing a sword, cast a spell, or otherwise, make themself useful.
If you opt to roll dice for your stats, that’s always a possibility.
Standard Array ability score generation takes that potential issue out of the equation.
When you choose Standard Array, you get the following ability scores: 15, 14, 13, 12, 10, and 8.
You can then distribute them as you see fit among your six stats. You end up with two good stats, three pretty average ones, and a single “dump” stat where you actually get a penalty to your roll.
A lot of DMs running the game for newer players prefer to use this method, as it not only makes character generation easier, but ensures that no player ends up with a character that is dramatically worse (or better – which can be a bummer for everyone else) than the rest of the party.
If you’re a player for whom character creation feels a little too much like LARPing as an accountant, using Standard Array is the quickest, easiest method to move through the process and get right on to the “good stuff”… like inventory management.
Point Buy – The Middle Ground
Using Standard Array means that you end up with a party full of characters who might be pretty good at a couple of things and a little lousy at one thing, but largely average.
As well as making people’s stat arrays feel a little flavorless, using Standard Array can also dilute the impression that your character is really good at the things they’re best at.
This is where Point Buy comes in.
Point Buy doesn’t introduce any randomness, and the maximum value you can have in a single stat (before adding your racial bonuses) is still 15, but the system lets players mess around a little bit with the Standard Array.
This means you’re able to create characters that are especially good at two or even three things, but kind of garbage at everything else.
Of course, it doesn’t have to be that drastic.
The Point Buy method gives you 27 points to spend on your abilities.
Different ability scores cost different amounts of points, as shown on the table below.
This method is good for DMs who want to give their players more flexibility when creating their characters.
Maybe the party’s habitual Wizard player really doesn’t want to die again in this campaign and wants to sacrifice some Charisma and Wisdom for a bump to their Constitution.
Point Buy lets your players have this extra degree of agency while still ensuring that everyone’s aggregate competence remains the same.
Rolling the Dice – Let the D&D Gods Decide
Rolling dice to determine ability scores has been a part of D&D since its first edition.
Over the years, the process has gone through some wild, overly complex, and downright cruel iterations (didn’t I say we’d get to the really fun stuff later?).
We will go through the following:
- Official Method
- Discover as you Go
- Dark Sun – Crazy Power
- Hardcore Method
Official Method – 4d6 Drop One
In 5e, the process (the 4d6, drop one method) has, I think, found a good middle ground.
The official suggested method for rolling your ability scores is as follows: Roll four six-sided dice (4d6) and discard the lowest number (drop one).
Example: You roll four 6 sided dice and get: 5, 4, 4, and 2. You would drop the 2 for a total of 13.
You’ve just generated a stat.
Old school D&D used to roll 3d6 and let the consequences be damned. That’s how you end up with characters who are too stupid to speak or understand human language (like I said: fun stuff).
By rolling an extra d6, you bump the average score of 10.5 up to around 12.5 for a more heroic experience.
Repeat the process five more times until you have your six numbers.
You can then assign your scores to your attributes, just like with Point Buy and Standard Array.
While it can work for new groups, there’s still a danger of “broken” or very weak characters, and I’d recommend maybe starting out with Point Buy or Standard Array if you’re running the game for first-time players.
If you’re concerned about one or more of your players being underpowered, you can try this optional rule: If the stats you roll for a character don’t contain two results of 15 or higher, the character is not legal.
This can result in players rerolling character stats multiple times so, unless this is a process your players enjoy, the added balance isn’t necessarily worth the extra time messing about at the beginning of the session.
Standard Array, Point Buy, and the Roll 4d6, Drop One methods are the three official ways of making a character, and all of them are supported in the D&D Beyond Character Creator.
However, there’s more than one way to skin a chimera.
From the earliest days of the hobby, to inventive modern takes, let’s take a look at some of the other interesting ways players have generated their abilities over the years.
4d6 Drop One in Order – Discover Your Character as You Go
This one comes to you courtesy of my DM guru Matt Coville – a player and dungeon master who brings a lot of the things that made older editions of D&D good to the 5e party.
Colville’s preferred method still uses the approved 5e roll 4d6, drop one approach, but makes two important changes.
First, it requires you to reverse the order in which the D&D official rules say you should make your character.
The rules suggest that you pick your race, then your class, then generate your stats.
Colville suggests that, not only do you generate your stats before picking your race and class, but you also roll them in order from Strength through to Charisma.
The numbers you come up with help you to “discover” your character.
Roll high Strength? Maybe you’re playing a fighter.
Roll low Intelligence? A Wizard probably isn’t for you.
This method probably works best with more experienced players, both in terms of knowing how to play a wide range of classes, and how to handle a few curveballs with regard to roleplay.
Dark Sun – Crazy Power
Dark Sun was a truly weird, Terry Gilliam-esque setting released for D&D’s 2nd Edition in 1991.
Set in a bizarre, post-apocalyptic world of strange creatures and dangerous magic, the setting even used its own method for stat generation that led to characters being dramatically more powerful than regular folk right from first level.
To generate a character a la Dark Sun, roll four four-sided dice (4d4) and add 4 to the result.
This gives you an ability score range between 8 and 20 (the highest legal ability score in D&D at any edition) and skews the average to around 14.
If you’re a DM who truly hates to see a player character die, or wants to run a more epic campaign even at first level, this method can really help cut down on how much players fail their rolls, therefore making them a lot less likely to beef it in the first session.
3d6 in Order: The Hardcore Approach
Lastly, let’s look at an old-school-inspired approach favored by the Old School Renaissance (OSR) style of play.
The OSR scene tends to prefer high-risk high-reward gameplay with a decent amount of lethality, and player (rather than character) based problem-solving.
To generate your stats, roll 3d6 in order from Strength to Charisma, for a potential range of 3 to 18 and an average score of around 10 to 11.
OSR games like Maze Rats, Old School Essentials, and the Black Hack (in which, if you roll higher than a 15, the next stat you roll is generated by rolling 2d6 +2) use this method, although it can easily work in an old school-inspired 5e campaign.
Hopefully, this guide has left you feeling less intimidated by the process of rolling stats in D&D 5e.
There are many, many (so, so many) more ways to generate ability scores, and I urge you to go explore the one that feels right for you.
DMs, feel free to talk to your players ahead of starting your game about the style of campaign you’re interested in running and see which method supports that type of game, as well as what your players get excited about.
If you’re running the game for a new group, Standard Array or Point Buy is probably the way to go.
If you’re running with a more experienced crew of adventurers, or your new players are just genuinely excited by the idea of throwing shiny math rocks around, then 4d6 drop one (maybe in order), or something even weirder could be the way to go.
As with all things D&D, as long as people are having fun, everybody is winning.
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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.