I know, I know… A blog all about roleplaying but my first article is going to be all about numbers. But bear with me…
The reason I’m beginning with a piece on statistics, or in the 5e parlance Ability Scores, is because even in the most story-driven game, with the most creative DM and players, these numbers are going to be your bread and butter of success and failure for the next 5, 15, 50 sessions of play. They’re the building blocks of the game and there’s no escaping that, so what I want to do here is talk about how these numbers can be just as important for finding out who your character is as they are for determining what they can do. By the end of this piece, you’ll know that an 18 in Strength doesn’t just mean you’re real good at hitting things.
So let’s talk numbers. To begin, a brief word about what those numbers mean, though this will be familiar to anyone who’s played 5e (or, to be perfectly honest, has any sort of experience with RPG systems). Before Racial bonuses, your stats are going to fall between 3 and 18, with numbers above 11 giving you a positive modifier and below 10 giving you a negative one. So far, so simple, but we’ll come back to this in more detail in a moment.
Moving on for now though, once you’ve got your stats, you’re going to distribute them among your Abilities and at first glance, this is dead simple; each class has obvious primary and secondary Abilities that are essential for it to do its job effectively, and you’re going to want to prioritise those. I’m no minmaxer, but even I tend to do this as second nature, because ultimately it’s no fun to play a character who can’t do their job.
However, it’s past these two core Abilities that things can get a little more interesting. Often, I’ve noticed a tendency to somewhat ignore the remaining 4 Abilities after filling out their main pair, maybe putting their lowest roll into a ‘dump stat’ that they can easily mitigate or ignore. Wizards have little call for Strength mechanically, after all. But while those other numbers might not be important mechanically for your chosen class or playstyle, I’d like to argue that they can be just as important for how your character comes to be a well-rounded, fully-formed entity and steps off their character sheet and into the game.
This brings me on to the point of this article: the statistics you assign when you create your character are a goldmine for fleshing out your character’s history, personality and outlook.
Here, we can return to the ideas above about highest, lowest and average scores, as these provide a solid basis for broad-brush character creation. Very high and very low stats are the most important here, as these are the things that, try as they might to conceal them, will be noticed about your character. If you’ve got a Strength of 18, your character is very likely going to be large, well-muscled, imposing and have a great physical presence. If you’ve got an Intelligence of 4, they’re going to be regarded as something of an idiot by most.
These in turn have an impact on how your character can exist in the world and interact with those around them as part of their backstory. Someone with very high Charisma is likely to be popular and well-liked, giving you the chance to create a cadre of background characters around them for the DM to potentially use later on. Someone with very low Strength, meanwhile, might struggle to find work as a labourer and be forced into other, less physically taxing careers. Someone with a selection of somewhat high stats might have a reputation as a Jack-of-all-trades.
Of course, there’s nothing saying you can’t be a bit more deliberate type when placing your stats and working out what that means for the character, especially when it comes to high and low stats in contrast to create a very specific personality.
Wisdom and Intelligence, for example, are often taken together as a measure of mental acumen, but what if one is your highest stat and one is your lowest? Maybe you’re a street urchin who’s adept at navigating the criminal underworld of the city, (high Wisdom, and thus Perception, Insight and Survival) but never had much of a formal education (low Intelligence), so is at a disadvantage when it comes to the History, Religion or Nature skills.
Or perhaps you are a high-born noble who’s lived a life of luxury. Over the years, you’ve had the very best education (high Intelligence), and learned to handle finely made weapons as a duellist (high Dexterity). On the other hand, limited social interaction beyond your own class means many in the world find you abrasive or pompous (low Charisma), and you’ve never had to develop the street-smarts essentially to those less fortunate than yourself (low Wisdom).
In short, the stats are a gift to you when it comes to working out how your character fits into the world, and what path has led them to becoming an adventurer. If you’re new to storytelling in RPGs, or just not confident writing a backstory, the numbers you generate to define your character give you a foundation to work from. If you’re more experienced, you can work both your strong and weak stats into your character’s backstory, placing them in such a way that they reflect the history you’ve already settled on.
Regardless of which way round you approach it, I hope this article has shown you the true value of those 6 essential scores for determining not only what your character can do, but who they are and where they’ve come from.
In the next Crafting A Character article, I’ll be putting this theory into practice, creating a pair of characters using the approaches described above. One will be drawn entirely from randomly generated stats, while the other will show how you can make the best use of your stats to reflect a backstory and personality you’re already set on.
In the mean time, I hope this piece has given you something to think about. Feel free to leave any questions or comments below, and until next time, happy adventuring!