Everything that you need to know about Ability Score Improvement in DnD 5e

  • by
Ability Score Improvement 5e

In this article, we go through how does Ability Score Improvement work in DnD 5e and how to get the most out of it!

What are ability scores?

There are lots of statistics in games such as DnD and these numbers are generally used to turn real-world concepts into games mechanics, such as a characters chance to land a blow on an opponent, determine the damage done if they do so, the potency of a vial of poison or the chance that a character has of surviving a magical attack, and so on.

Ability scores, generally the first series of numbers that you will be faced with when you first start playing DnD, are what defines the character that you are going to represent in the game. Via numbers generated more or less randomly to your abilities, namely Strength, Dexterity, Constitution, Intelligence, Wisdom and Charisma, the character starts to take shape. There are a few modifications to be made, depending on factors such as race, Elves are generally more dexterous, Dwarves less charismatic etc. which are applied to the initial random 3D6 rolls but this is essentially the shape of the character that you start with.

Average scores

The generation process for a character in DnD 5e is based on a human, presumably because the real-world player can relate to this race immediately. A roll of 3D6 tend to generate average ability scores of around 10 or 11 and other races will have modifiers that bend these numbers more towards a different racial average.

And once generated, that character is ready to learn a profession, find an employer and head out into the big wide world in search of fame and fortune.

Improving ability scores beyond their initial score

DnD is a game where characters progress through various levels relating to their profession and the associated skills that are associated with it. For example, a Fighter will get better with the use of weapons as they rise through the levels, a Thief will get better at hiding and climbing, a Cleric will become more attuned to their god, a magic user more proficient at casting spells.

But it seems reasonable to expect that as the character moves up through the levels, not only do they become more skillful at their profession, also known as their character class but that all of those years of adventuring will affect them physically and mentally. Time spent scaling labyrinth walls and fighting denizens would be expected to make a character stronger, just as hours spent looking for tricks and traps would perhaps leave you with a keener eye and more logical, and therefore intelligent, thought process.

To represent this DnD 5e has an inbuilt system of Ability Score Improvement or ASI, which works as follows.

A player can increase their characters scores irrespective of which class they are at levels 4, 8, 12, 16, and 19. Fighters gain additional ASIs at the 6th and 14th levels and Rogues gain one additional ASI at the 10th level.

Applying Ability Improvement Scores

When a character qualifies for an Ability Score Improvement there are three different options that the player can take:

  • Single Ability Score Improvement – The player can improve any ability score by two – i.e choose a single ability score, such as charisma, and increase it by 2 points. Increasing a score by 2 points guarantees an improvement of the modifier but it is recommended that you chose an even ability score as most bonuses happen on even thresholds.
  • Double Ability Score Improvement – The player can improve any two ability scores by one – i.e. you can choose two ability scores, such as charisma and constitution and increase them by one. It is recommended to do this if you have odd ability scores as bringing them up to the next even number will increase the modifier.
  • Choose a Feat– Rather than improving ability scores, a player can opt to give the character a feat that grants you some extra abilities. It is important to talk to your DM about this though as they may have restrictions on what feat you can choose. Some feats will also give you a +1 to a certain ability score, allowing you to increase your stats whilst gaining new abilities. These are commonly known as ‘half feats.’

More information about using Feats

Taking an Ability Score Improvement is straightforward. Essentially the years of pushing the mind and body in the name of adventuring have paid off and you have become stronger, quicker, quicker-thinking and so, upon reaching the required threshold, you get to apply your chosen bonus.

Feats are a slightly different concept but they can make your character, not to mention your campaign increasingly more unique. They just require a bit more thought before applying them. The logic runs like this. Whilst adventuring can and indeed will make you physically stronger and mentally more acute, you might also pick up all manner of other skills. Perhaps all of those years using your crossbow has halved your loading time? Maybe, although you are fighter, all that time watching the Rogues go about their nefarious tasks has meant that you have picked up some basic climbing or concealment skills? Perhaps your god has looked favourably upon your clerical status and decided that you are allowed to use a weapon normally unavailable to you?

This is something that you will need to discuss with your DM to ensure that the feat is balanced and logical but it can certainly add some new and unexpected dimensions to your campaign. It will also ensure that your characters evolve beyond the stereotypical nature of their early years into fully-rounded and unpredictable people.

Feats vs Ability Score Improvement

So which is best? Both? neither? It’s up to you. 

If you take a Feat, you will add another interesting layer to your character which will add fun and flavour to your campaign. If you take only ASI’s then your character will advance at the fastest possible rate. So it really does depend on what is important to your character, the player and the world they live in… the uniqueness of a character and unexpected skills or the advantage and edge that comes with high ability scores. The answer is probably to go for a balance between both. 

Multiclassing and Ability Score Improvements

Applying Ability Score Improvements to multiclass characters might seem to add a more complex dimension but if you just remember that ASI’s are left to the level thresholds of each class, then it becomes easy to work out. The threshold rules are applied to each class that a character is proficient in as you would a single-class character.

One tip would be to make your level increases in blocks of 4 levels to ensure that your ASI or Feat increases happen logically and perhaps remain in line with the single class characters around you.

Getting the most out of Ability Score Improvements

Whilst DnD campaigns are based around having fun and variety, for those who like to do the maths and embrace every advantage possible then some of the routes through the ASI system are better than others.

Most DnD campaigns stop at Level 20. The rules only accommodate this threshold because it is assumed that there is little to challenge the character once they reach such lofty heights. The fighter will become a general in the army or lord of leisure, the magic-user will take up the chair at a magical university, the cleric will oversee a cathedral etc.

With only 20 levels to move through, obviously, fighters get more ASI opportunities than rogues and rogues more than clerics or magic-users.

Also if you opt to multi-class, then the character might only hit two or three ASI thresholds because their level thresholds working in parallel to each other rather than in the linear way that a single class character does. 

But, this really shouldn’t bother the player too much. The game is about imagination and adventure, flights of fantasy and exploring brave new worlds, so if you are beholden to the mathematics of the game mechanics, you are probably not embracing the game in the way it was designed in the first place.

Final thoughts

There is no right or wrong way to progress through the ASI system. It doesn’t matter if you are a single class character cashing in the maximum bonuses or a multi-class player hitting only a few. Similarly, it doesn’t matter if you are taking mainly feats that might make you more interesting but hold you back statistically or maxing out on the ability bonuses. 

All that matters is that you have fun and that is only done through enjoying the character that you inhabit in the game world.