Which ability scores are the most popular? Which are most likely to be dump stats?
You probably have some gut answers about this, based on what you’ve seen first-hand. I know I did.
But, to see whether my instincts were right, I recently analyzed the ability scores of 31 pregenerated characters gathered from the official D&D site (including the D&D Starter Set), as well as the winning pregen characters for D&D Adventurers League’s Elemental Evil scenario, and the winning pregens for the League’s Rage of Demons excursions.
The official pregenerated characters and the “cream of the crop” winning League pregenerated characters strike me as fairly representative of the larger pregenerated population — of what people choose to emphasize (or dump) when allocating a predetermined set of points. If you have doubts about that assumption, then you might not be persuaded by the rest of this piece. That’s fine.
Why Did I Do This?
I wanted to test some assumptions I’d made back in 2014, when I created a system to estimate how many NPC adventurers of each class might live in a city.
When I created that “population engine,” I challenged several common assumptions. For instance, most previous models make a serious error when it comes to character levels. The number of 2nd-level fighters in a population should be higher than the number of 1st-level fighters. That pattern applies across every other class. (My 2014 article explains why.)
I also argued that the number of folks who could cut it as adventurers in a D&D setting would be naturally restricted by the low likelihood that they would end up with the right combinations of high scores. (This argument was inspired in part by Wallace Cleaves’ own observations on ability score distributions.) In one key sentence, I wrote that regardless of character class,
NPCs are unlikely to be adventurers if Dexterity, Constitution, or Wisdom are below 10. Otherwise, they’re likely to walk blindly into danger, fail to avoid it, and die from whatever hits them.
That may not sound like much of a limit, but think about it: Half of any population will have a Dexterity below 10. Half of the folks with high Dexterity will have Constitution below 10 (and many of those with high Constitution will have low Dexterity).
Once you start with the Venn Diagrams, in other words, the pool shrinks rapidly. Throw Wisdom into the mix, and you end up ruling out the vast majority of people in any demographic.
So I was wondering how often pregenerated characters had Dexterity, Constitution, or Wisdom scores of 8 or 9. Did the pregens match up with my assumptions? If a lot of pregens used Wisdom as a dump stat, I’d have to rethink parts of my population engine. Ditto for the other two abilities.
The descriptive statistics appear to support my assumptions, but they also highlight some fascinating details.
- Not a single pregenerated character had a Constitution or Wisdom score below 10.
- Dexterity, Constitution, and Wisdom were the three highest ability scores on average (i.e., mean scores).
- Of these, Constitution had the highest average (a mean of 13.8).
- Constitution also had, by far, the smallest standard deviation–which is just a statistician’s way of saying that Constitution scores tended to be clustered around a very tight range. Two-thirds of Constitution scores landed between 12.1 and 15.4.
- Wisdom had the second-smallest standard deviation.
- The value most frequently assigned to Dexterity was 16. (Stats junkies: I’m referring here to Dexterity’s mode.) Dexterity’s average (mean) was lower than the average for Constitution entirely because Dexterity had a much higher standard deviation — when Dexterity wasn’t 16, it could range as far south as 8, which Constitution didn’t.
- Dexterity only ever dipped below 10 when Strength was 14 or higher. Presumably, the designers planned to have those characters wear heavy armor, making the low Dexterity irrelevant to AC.
- Dexterity was the only ability score to have a score above 16 (two 17s). (You can find the raw data here.)
- By pretty much every metric, Strength was the most common dump stat. (This is an odd turn, compared to distributions in previous editions.) It had the lowest average (11.4), the lowest mode (8), and the lowest median (10).
What struck me as most interesting, however, was that Strength fared worse than Intelligence did. Given that Strength is a key ability for three classes (Barbarian, Fighter, and Paladin), I had expected muscles to do a bit better than Intelligence, which is the key ability only for the Wizard. Even if you factor in the specializations, figuring that eldritch knight and arcane trickster would want a high Intelligence, you then have to factor in cleric domains that grant proficiency with heavy armor and martial weapons.
Moreover, four of the PC races published by Wizards of the Coast offer a +2 bonus to Strength*, while only gnomes get a +2 to Intelligence. One could quite rationally expect a pool with a diverse range of races to favor Strength for that reason, too. But nope. Even with three Strength-oriented characters in the pool I analyzed (a goliath, a dragonborn, and a half-orc) and only one gnome, it didn’t work out that way. (* Mountain dwarves, dragonborn, half-orcs, and goliaths.)
Here’s what I suspect is happening. Dexterity and Strength compete with each other (over attack bonuses, over Athletics/Acrobatics, and over AC). But Dexterity has the tie-breaking feature of being a common saving throw. It also is the better option for the many classes that cannot wear heavy armor. So Dexterity kills Strength and eats its lunch: character-designers make their characters either Strength-builds or Dexterity-builds. Whichever one isn’t supporting the build gets to be the dump stat. That means Intelligence can be the next-score up from “dump,” which is a 10.
And, as it happens, the most common value for Intelligence was … 10.
On that note, meet Biff.
Biff represents the archetypal adventuring character, as determined by the values most often assigned for each ability score (i.e., according to their modes). The score most often assigned to Strength, for instance, was an 8, so Biff has an 8 Strength. Biff is a composite of all of the pregen characters.
What This Implies for Adventurer Demographics
Although a more robust investigation might yield different findings, what the analysis so far suggests is that adventurers are even more unusual than you already think they are.
See, across a population of NPCs who aren’t optimizing themselves, ability scores will be randomly distributed.
For them, it’s all just one big genetic lottery. Most NPCs will have a low score in at least one of the “big three” stats, Dexterity, Constitution, and Wisdom. Moreover, many of those who have low Dexterity won’t have the high Strength necessary to wear heavy armor. Many of those who do will be, by lottery of birth, too poor to buy heavy armor.
Now, don’t get me wrong: As I noted in the earlier article, PCs might very well go adventuring anyway because selling shoes is boring. But I’m thinking about the adventuring demographics of the overall NPC population. And NPCs don’t have the benefit of a GM who kindly matches each encounter to their party level. Weaknesses in critical areas are likely to drive them away from adventuring or into the grave, depending on their life choices. The decisions of careful and competitive character designers suggest that Dexterity, Constitution, and Wisdom cannot be dumped without consequences. Low stats in those areas may well affect NPCs in ways that they wouldn’t hamper a PC, particularly one buoyed by other PCs and a GM who follows encounter guidance.
Gus, for instance, might have a high Intelligence. But with low Dexterity and Wisdom, he’s not likely to be an adventuring Wizard. More likely, he’ll be a clerk or moneychanger. Ursula might have a high Charisma. But with a Constitution of 6, she’s more likely to end up bartering over supplies for her shop than slaying dragons.
When Gus and Ursula look up from their daily business to see your party of PCs, then, they’re looking at individuals who were lucky long before they ever succeeded at a saving throw. It isn’t just that they have high ability scores (like 16s). And it isn’t just that they have no scores below 8 (the floor for all pregens, point-buy, and standard array characters). And it isn’t just that the adventurers (hopefully!) have a GM who takes their levels into consideration when setting up encounters.
No, adventurers are disproportionately likely to have ended up with their high scores in all the right places.
They have won the Dexterity-Constitution-Wisdom lottery. ‡