This article was first broadcast in Episode One Hundred Fifty Seven on 17 March 2021.
Ryu: Oh dear. Did someone fall off their mount in the market again?
Lennon: What? No, I was giving a speech down in the village. It…wasn’t well received.
Ryu: Well, I mean, your Charisma score is only what now, 15? You aren’t going to be able to work miracles with that.
Ostron: Actually, with a crowd of bystanders that should have been more than fine.
Ryu: How? A 15 is middle of the road; it’s what you have in a stat that you might use later and you want to just be okay with now.
Ostron: That’s for adventurers. If you’re comparing them with common folk, he is way beyond them.
Ryu: Okay, I’m confused.
Lennon: Well, I’ll use my new charisma score to explain it to you.
Most players and even DMs who play D&D tend to consider ability scores in the context of adventuring parties and adventures. If you’ve got anything below a 14 in a given ability, you’re essentially a failure at it and should not be relied on to accomplish tasks. Those scoring from 14 to 17 are good in a pinch or in early levels but are really going to be the backups unless they’re the only option. Your reliable, competent people are sporting 18s, 19s, and 20s.
The thing is, that outlook ignores the realities of how adventurers fit in with the rest of the world, and what increases in ability scores actually mean. Adventurers are unique, and they’re legendarily so. They are 4 to 6 of the most powerful and accomplished people in an entire world. Even if the world in question isn’t quite as populated as the real one, you’re still looking at what Ostron would call “statistical anomalies.”
To get a sense of the problem, it helps to have a baseline, which is also where the problems probably start. Most people look to the Commoner as a baseline, which makes sense as they have 10s across the board. The problem is one of modern perspective. A lot of people when thinking of commoner equate it to someone in the real world who probably has an hourly job, maybe works out a couple of times a week, isn’t a bad pick for dodgeball, stays healthy, finished primary education but never went to college, can walk down the street without getting hit by a car or falling into a sinkhole, and is friendly enough that they have a social group and a significant other.
The problem is we’re talking about a quazi-medieval society. There were no office jobs, at least not for most commoners. Your average person was lugging 20 – 50 pounds of hay, manure, meat, or logs every day. Reading was a luxury, if people could do it, but they knew everything possible about whatever their job was. Walking in the woods was dangerous unless you kept a keen eye out, and finding food you didn’t grow relied on tracking. Finally, you lived with and around the same 100 or so people for your whole life and had to haggle with most of them for all your basic necessities. So the baselines are not what most people think they are, although how they skew can differ.
Let’s start with strength, because it’s the only statistic that has a real, easy translation to the real world, thanks to the often reviled encumbrance rules. 5e gives two different measures for encumbrance and both are a bit extreme, so we’re going to briefly dip back into 3.5. Someone with a strength of 10 was capable of walking around doing normal activities and suffering no ill-effects while carrying up to 35 pounds or about 16 kilograms of weight. To put that in perspective, go find eight 2-liter bottles. Fill them up with water. Put them in a backpack with a support frame. Now walk around doing all your normal activities with that on, all day. If you can do that without tiring out or really having it bother you, congratulations, you have a strength of 10.
Now I regularly work out with weights in real life. I can comfortably do reps lifting 140, or about 64 kilos, but I can’t walk around with that all day. I max out at being able to lift about 200 or 91 kilos for any one lift. With all of that training I have a whopping 15 for a strength score. The world record for a clean and jerk, that’s the one where you bring your bar from the floor to your shoulders and then hoist it over your head, stands at 263 kilograms, or about 575 pounds. By the 3.5 measure, that gentleman has a strength score of 25 and is capable of lifting a grizzly bear. All the characters running around with 20s? They can comfortably lift a full-grown tiger, even though they can’t run around with it.
Moving on from there, you can make some guesses about how dexterity translates because it relates to ranged weaponry and acrobatics.
Olympic archery ranges are 70 meters, or about 230 feet. For those of you with the weapons table out, that means everyone’s shooting at disadvantage. Archery competitions are scored on simple points, with 10 points for a bullseye and less as you drift farther and farther from the target. Archery targets are 122cm in diameter, or about the size of your average halfling, so we’ll assume an AC of 10. The record holder for the Olympics firing 12 arrows scored a 115. I’ll assume that was a mix of scoring 9s and 10s rather than scoring 11 bullseyes and then getting an arrow diverted by a passing bird or something.
With disadvantage, a character has to have at least a +9 bonus to hit in order to ensure they’ll hit an AC 10 on every attack. That means most Olympic archers are going to have Dex scores in 18-20 range at least, plus proficiency (it could be argued that Olympic bows are magic weapons, because most of them look like they were made by crazy gnomes, but either way…). The comparison sort of breaks down here because D&D insists on randomization and archery competitions are almost all skill based, but suffice it to say, someone with an 18 or 20 dexterity score *might* be in the Olympics. Remember, that score only guarantees they can hit the target, not the bullseye.
From there, it’s easy enough to equate the acrobatics to gymnastics, also part of the Olympics. So yeah, people with 20s in their Dexterity score are at least in contention to be in the olympics. To guarantee it, they probably need scores in excess of 20.
From here on the scores get harder to quantify but the examples for Strength and Dexterity should give you an idea of the order of magnitude we’re talking about when compared with the baseline commoner. Constitution is another one where modern equivalency isn’t a good measure. Medieval commoners had to survive diseases and weather without the benefit of modern heating, medicine, or anything like that. Your average “healthy” villager is going to be a lot hardier than anyone who’s grown up in urban or suburban locations in the modern world, but that’s more to point out that modern people would on average have Con scores in the 8 or 9 range. Adventurers with Constitution scores of 16 could go on the reality show Survivor or Naked and Afraid and not have any problem making it through all of the physical hardships. Someone with a 20 is like Jan Sigurd Baalsrud [YAHN SEE-gurd BHAALS-rood], who carried out a military operation in WW2, swam all night in arctic waters in March, then survived in the wilderness of Norway for 2 months, having to do such things as amputate his own toes and deal with frostbite and snow blindness. After that, he got a medal, remained in the military, and lived to age 71.
Intelligence is one score where the medieval paradigm works in favor of the modern world. As mentioned, your average person in the middle ages wouldn’t know how to read or do math or anything like that, although they would have a lot of trades knowledge. So arguably someone who finished primary school up through high school (or whatever your local equivalent is before entering a university) would easily have an intelligence score of 10. Getting up to 12, however, wouldn’t just be college; you’re probably talking a master’s or even a PhD. A 20 intelligence score is going to be someone like Tony Stark; not only do they possess a lot of knowledge, if they apply themselves to any given topic they’ll be a functional expert in a very short period of time.
Wisdom and Charisma are even harder to quantify at the level of specific numbers but by now the other examples should be giving you an idea of what we’re talking about. People with high Wisdom scores are like more modern interpretations of Sherlock Holmes; they can look at someone and discern their personality and history just by watching how they move and speak, and they pick out details everyone else misses. People with 20s are going to be more like Daredevil from Marvel comics; not only can they do all that, they can do it even if they don’t have access to all their senses.
Charisma is probably the one everyone already had a sense of, but it’s worth pointing out that higher charisma doesn’t determine what kind of reaction someone gets, it determines if there *is* a reaction. Someone with a low Charisma score isn’t going to be disliked by everyone, they’re going to be ignored and dismissed. People with higher charisma aren’t automatically liked by everyone, but they do generate a response of some kind. As much as it pains me to say this, Kim Kardashian is a good example of someone with a stratospheric Charisma score. She basically used the force of her personality and appearance to make it so, regardless of your opinion of her, you do actually *have* an opinion of her despite probably never being within 100 miles of her.
So all that is well and good but how does it matter to the game? Well to start with, it can help inform how your stats might affect your roleplaying or, conversely, what your stats should probably be to reflect the kind of character you want to portray. If you want a stereotypical unintelligent barbarian? Don’t give them a 10 in Intelligence. That’s going to put them on par with most people in the world. If you want them to be noticeably challenged mentally, drop that down to 8, or even 7. Remember, creatures without sapience, like wolves? All have intelligence 3 or lower. Put less tactfully, there’s a lot of room for stupid.
On the other side of the screen, those definitions can help when you’re having to make up skill check DCs on the fly. Do the characters need to look something up that’s equivalent to what a college graduate might be able to figure out? Remember, college grad is only Int 12. Add in the proficiency for whatever specific topic you’re dealing with and the DC’s probably only 13 or 14. That may seem low when the Wizard has an Arcana bonus of +9, but remember, that’s how it’s supposed to work; the wizard’s an expert in this, it should not be difficult. And remember, they’re a wizard; there’s a nice slippery cliff in their future that’ll even everything out for you.
Anyway, the point is that everyone should remember adventuring heroes are truly extraordinary. Mundane tasks should not be challenging for them if it’s in their wheelhouse, and truly difficult tasks should be impossible for other people. Also, with strength and dexterity at least, having an idea of what the real life limits are should help you in determining what characters with certain scores would reasonably be capable of.
Ryu: All right, so you convinced me, but then why *did* the village give you a vegetable ovation instead of the standing one.
Ostron: Remember what he said about everyone having an opinion, good or bad?
Lennon: I still say the rock triangle currency is going to be big. I just can’t get anyone to go along with it.
Ryu: Oh! I still have tremors from the hammering. And my room is covered in rock dust! Hang on, I need to give you an object example of what a 20 in dexterity can do. Do we have any melons? Ohhh or a pineapple!
Lennon: Scrying pool time!
Ostron: Do we have a lot of letters?
Lennon: Don’t care; the room has a closeable door.