Today’s post is actually a supplement to my weekly post over at The Rat Hole. If you check out over there, I talked about a possible house rule to deal with what I consider useless Ability Scores in D&D 5e. Here I’m going to talk about a second way of making ability scores useful again.
As I noted in my other article, I love rolling up ability scores for D&D characters. Those scores are the foundation upon which I build the rest of my character. But in 5e, once you’ve generated those scores they don’t do anything. The bonuses that derive from them do a lot of work, bumping up skill checks and saving throws. But the ability scores themselves are static, with no purpose. That’s why, when I saw them sitting lifeless on the page I knew I needed to restore them to usefulness.
My plan to put ability scores back to work is actually pretty simple, just three steps. First, get rid of saving throws and skills. Second, in their place, switch to a “roll under” method of determining success, using the character’s ability scores. If the character has proficiency in that ability, they add the proficiency bonus to the ability score before rolling, and must roll under that number. Sounds a little crazy? Let me explain.
Let’s look at Grognard the Barbarian, who has to make a Constitution saving throw of DC 13. Grognard has a 16 Constitution score, because barbarian. He’s only first level so he has a proficiency bonus of +2 and an ability bonus of +3, for a +5 to his Constitution saves. That’s pretty good, especially at first level, but there is still a decent chance that Grognard will get knocked flat on his butt; frankly annoying when playing a big, tough character. Using roll under, however, Grognard would need to roll under 18 (Constitution score of 16, plus his proficiency bonus of +2) on a d20. So most of the time, Grognard is going to shrug off any Constitution-based attacks, which for a barbarian is as it should be.
This extends to skill checks as well. You would retain any Skill proficiencies from character creation or other sources, and add that as a bonus to the relevant ability score when making a Skill check that relates to that proficiency. As in the example above, this will allow a character proficient in a particular skill to succeed more often than not. Which, as the hero of your particular story, they should be doing anyway. But it also allows some flexibility in what ability scores to use when making a skill check. Yes, most of the time you’ll use the score commonly associated with that skill, but sometimes your player might make a good case for another ability score to be used. Or you as the DM might switch things up and decide that another ability score better fits the challenge the character is facing.
As a balancing factor, we come to the third step in my “cunning” plan: subtract 10 from the DCs of any skill checks or saving throws, and apply the result as a negative modifier on the character’s ability score for the roll. So in our example above, Grognard may have an effective 18 Constitution because he is a big, tough barbarian. But the poison gas (let’s say) he is trying to resist is a particularly noxious kobold blend, so he takes a -3 penalty (DC 13 – 10 = 3), making his effective Con score a 15. Still a decent chance of success, but enough harder that it will make Grognard think twice about rushing into the cloud if he doesn’t have to.
While the house rule I’m suggesting is for skill checks and saving throws, it could be extended to combat. Simply subtract 10 from the opponent’s AC and apply the result as a negative modifier to the relevant ability check. So an AC of 14 is a -4 modifier, AC 21 is -11, and so on. Positive modifiers would be proficiency bonuses, plus any magical or situational modifiers. So if Grognard is attacking with his mighty 18 Strength, using his new +1 greataxe Helmcleaver, against an opponent with an AC of 15, he’ll roll under 16 in order to hit (18 + 2 + 1 = 21 – 5 = 16). Grognard has a pretty good shot at turning his opponent to mush, but it isn’t guaranteed.
So that’s my suggested house rule in a nutshell. Obviously I would want to play test this before implementing it on a regular basis, because I’m sure there are situations and corner cases where it might need some tweaking. But altogether I think it’s an effective way of making ability scores useful again, and also serves to make the characters a bit more heroic in stature.
But what do you think? Am I crazy? Is it a workable solution, or am I tampering with things nerdkind was not meant to explore? Let me know what you think below. And check out my article over at The Rat Hole for a house rule idea pretty much the opposite of this one.