Race Ability Modifier Cap

Should all races be the same? Or there should be Cap on their Ability Modifiers?

Sora Miyuki 空 美雪

12/1/20234 min read

Recent weeks have been hectic for me. My work and family are taking the lion's share of my time, and on top of that, I've found myself back in my old addiction: World of Warcraft Classic Hardcore. It's my guilty pleasure that helps me relieve stress. The remaining time I spend trying to start writing my first novel, making writing a blog difficult. But I am here today with a new blog post.

I mentioned recently that I would like to share my thoughts about races, and yes, I will use "races," not "species." Why? That is a good topic for another article, but "race" is a term used since the first D&D incarnation, and the modern trend to make everything offensive is not appealing to me. Therefore, I will be a traditionalist here, as I don't think anyone would be offended by it. That being said, I do not say people who wish to use the term "species" are wrong in doing so. I respect your choice; please respect mine.

So, let's talk races today and the current trend of making every race equal. In earlier editions of D&D, racial modifiers and penalties were often assigned to specific races, influencing attributes such as strength, intelligence, dexterity, etc. These modifiers were reflective of the racial characteristics as perceived in the game world.

In more recent editions, particularly in Dungeons & Dragons 5th Edition (D&D 5E), there has been an effort to move away from inherent racial penalties and instead focus on providing players with more agency to customize their characters. In D&D 5E, racial traits often grant bonuses rather than penalties, and players are encouraged to choose a race based on the character they want to play.

So, which philosophy is better? On one hand, we have Old School D&D with races that have penalties, making some classes perform worse with specific races. On the other hand, we have a Halfling Barbarian with 20 strengths that beats a Goliath in arm wrestling. The answer is neither of them is perfect. In one version, our imagination is limited by penalties; in the second, we have a goofy setting when people make "funny" characters for laughs when most tables want to have an epic adventure.

In my opinion, and I need to stress that out, IN MY OPINION, a fantasy world that is realistic is more compelling than disconnected from sense imagination. There is a reason why rivers don't split, there is a reason why snow falls when it's cold, and there is a reason why lakes have no more than one river coming out from them. A fantasy world should start in reality and should have basic laws of physics that we are familiar with so players are not disconnected from it.

Why am I saying that? I am explaining that due to certain facts that a house cat will never be as strong as a tiger, a cow will never be faster than a leopard, and a chipmunk won't be able to win an arm wrestle with a gorilla. In other words, a gnome will never be as strong as a human, a dwarf will never be as dexterous as an elf. It's not because I don't want them to be, but due to how their body is built. But I don't like penalties in character creation; I would introduce an Ability Score Cap.

The Ability Score Cap is nothing new; we all know that 5E Ability Score Cap is set to 20 for all races. After that, you are unable to move up naturally, and that solution is very good. But each race should have its own, tailored to each race cap. Having such a cap will prevent disconnection between reality and fantasy and will not limit the imagination of players.

Let's have fun exercising and create a few race caps based on lore and biology. But before we do it, let's set some rules:

  • Whenever you take something from the race, you need to give something in return.

  • Additional racial skills are worth 1 ability modifier.

With that, let's establish "the base." As usual, our base is human. Straight away, we set all his ability modifiers on 18.

Human: STR 18 DEX 18 CON 18 INT 18 WIS 18 CHA 18

A gnome is much smaller than humans, so his strength and constitution would suffer. I would say his strength cap would be 16, and his constitution would also be smaller, so I would put it at 17. We took 3 points from gnome; let's see what he can get for it. Gnomes are a long-lived species, so I would suggest giving them a wisdom boost to 20, and I would consider them cute beings, so maybe charisma 19?

Gnome cap would look like this:

Gnome: STR 16 DEX 18 CON 17 INT 18 WIS 20 CHA 19

Now someone will say, "I want to play a barbarian gnome! This is unfair; I can't do it. You said you won't limit the imagination." Yes, you are limited at the beginning of the game, but no one said you cannot reach 18 in strength as a gnome. No one said you cannot have 20 strength as a gnome; it only limits our "natural" growth. But this is a fantasy game, filled with magic. And so we have items like the Manual of Gainful Exercise:

“This book describes fitness exercises, and its words are charged with magic. If you spend 48 hours over a period of 6 days or fewer studying the book's contents and practicing its guidelines, your strength score increases by 2, as does your maximum for that score. The manual then loses its magic, but regains it in a century.”

The Ioun Stone of Strength:

“A stone has AC 24, 10 hit points, and resistance to all damage. It is considered to be an object that is being worn while it orbits your head. Strength. Your strength score increases by 2, to a maximum of 20, while this pale blue rhomboid orbits your head.”

Or the famous Critical Roll Tattoos:

“A Tattoo of Strength: Cost: 2,200gp worth of ruby dust Location: Any part of the body that signifies strength (biceps, abs, thighs, pecs, etc.) This tattoo imbues your body with ruby dust which increases your strength ability score by 1 point.” And finally, a Belt of giant strength that can raise your strength up to 29!!!!

So, yes, you can still have your silly gnome barbarian and still be stronger than a giant. But the base is rooted in reality, and what is most important, the journey of your gnome barbarian will be more amazing than anything you experienced in 5e where everyone is exactly the same.