Addressing Your Weaknesses (Part 1)

by Ameron (Derek Myers) on January 5, 2010

When we make characters we often focus on their best ability score. We do whatever we can to get our key ability as high as possible right out of the gate. When we hit level 4 and level 8 we use that opportunity to push our best score even higher. But what about the scores on the other end of the scale? If you started with a 20 Strength it probably means that you’ve got an 8 in something else. How does that 8 affect your PC?

In previous editions of D&D the starting attributes were determined by dice and that meant the possibility for really low scores. Even less random methods of character creation like point-buy weren’t foolproof. Racial penalties to starting attributes still meant a chance of having a couple of really low starting ability scores. The revised point-buy system in 4e and the elimination of racial penalties means that you’re less likely to have any abilities lower than an 8, but even 8 is still just on the low side of average.

So what impact does a starting ability score of 8 have on your PC and how you play him? That may depend on how you explain your lowest score.

We’ve put together some notes on how a low ability score in your physical attributes (Strength, Constitution and Dexterity) may affect your PC. We’ve offered some suggestions to explain why you’ve only got an 8 as well as some possible role-playing quirks that may accompany this low ability score. In some cases low scores can be overcome with the right equipment, feat selection or common sense.

At least in 4e D&D attack scores are tied more closely to the key abilities of your class and not just Strength and Dexterity as they once were in previous editions.


  • A low Strength means that your character is physically weak. He’s going to have difficulties performing tasks that require lifting, jumping or climbing.
  • Perhaps your PC is a little bit past his prime and that’s why he’s got a slightly diminished Strength.
  • How does a weak PC view physically demanding tasks? Is he a complainer or does he try even though he knows he’s not likely to succeed? Maybe he’s always coming up with excuses for why he can’t do something, or maybe he just feels that grunt work is beneath him.
  • Since a low Strength likely means poor basic melee attack numbers, your PC should try to avoid close combat at all costs.
  • PCs with low Strength should try to focus on classes that rely on ranged weapon attacks or magic.
  • If you’ve got a low Strength you should try to assign a few points into Constitution to make sure your Fortitude defense isn’t a complete disaster.


  • A low Constitution means that you’re not as physically tough or healthy as the average adventurer.
  • This can be easily explained if your PC is overweight or underweight. As with Strength above, age may be a good explanation for your low Constitution. Or perhaps you were a war veteran who was repeatedly injured over the years and never given the appropriate time to heal afterwards.
  • Since you’ve got a low Constitution you’re likely to get tired faster and sick more often.
  • How does a PC with a low Constitution address his fragility? Does your pride cause you to push yourself too hard too often and then collapse from exhaustion? Are you taking some kind of “medicine” for your ailment, and if so are you keeping this remedy hidden from your companions? Or do you try to hide your lack of stamina by constantly making excuses to rest?
  • A low Constitution also means fewer hit points, fewer healing surges and hitting your bloodied value that much faster. If you also have a low Strength then you likely have a poor Fortitude defense.
  • With your lower than average hit points you should invest in some decent armor, or better yet try not to put yourself in situations where you’ll take damage. Think about taking a feat like toughness to help off-set this penalty.
  • By knowing which monsters use poison or generally attack Fortitude, you can better avoid them. But for those times when your Fortitude is attacked, it’s probably useful to have training in Heal or Endurance so that you can fight off poison or other debilitating aftereffects.


  • A low Dexterity means that you’re slow, clumsy and uncoordinated. Your ranged weapon attacks are probably laughable and you rarely act in the top half of initiative.
  • If you’ve got a low Dexterity then you’d better have a decent Intelligence or else your AC and your Reflex defense will suffer. And if that’s the case you’d better have lots of hit points.
  • How does your PC cope with his awkwardness? Does he make excuses like being clumsy or not seeing objects in his way?
  • There are physical conditions that may explain your poor Dexterity. A missing eye eliminates your depth perception. Extreme damage to your hearing may affect your balance. After loosing a limb, it takes time to adjust. Or maybe you’re just nervous, jumpy or paranoid.
  • Do you avoid tasks because you’re worried about dropping things, tripping and falling, or even injuring your friends? Are you overly apologetic or do you blame your short-falls on others?
  • When selecting ranged weapons you need to find those with the heavy thrown property since they rely on Strength and not Dexterity. If you don’t like acting last, take feats like Improved Initiative or Quick Draw.
  • If you’ve got a terrible Dexterity then you might as well don the heaviest armor you can. Don’t worry about the armor check penalty to your skills. The ones that will suffer the most are already based on your Dexterity so you weren’t going to succeed at those very often anyway.

Next week we’ll follow-up with Addressing Your Weaknesses (Part 2) when we’ll look at how to explain and overcome your PC’s low Intelligence, Wisdom and Charisma.

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1 Philo Pharynx January 5, 2010 at 12:04 pm

Hmmm… I haven’t seen very many characters with under 10 scores in Con. And even many non-combat characters have a 12 or more.

2 Toldain January 5, 2010 at 1:40 pm

One of my favorite characters ever was a female human Illusionist in AD&D. She started with a Constitution score of 6. (The other stats were quite good.) I decided that she had been very sick as a child, with something like TB, and bedridden. All her hair fell out. She spent the time studying magic, and leaned toward Illusion because she dreamed of being glamorous. I rolled very well for her hit points, but still, at level 5 she had maybe 13 hp.

This is a character that once she got a little money, bought a wagon and two tents to go adventuring. And lots of clothes. LOTS. One of the tents was to store the wardrobe in, the other for her.

I bought half a dozen identical figures and painted them all differently to portray her constantly changing wardrobe.

She died once. The party decided it didn’t like the Raise Dead odds, so elected a Druid Reincarnation instead. There was much merriment, as I confronted the possibility that she might come back as a bugbear. But the DM rolled “elf”, which she felt was quite befitting her elegance and grace.

For all the mockery of her vanity, I’ve come to realize how courageous a person she was. Adventuring with a CON score of (now) 5 takes a lot of guts.
.-= Toldain´s last blog ..I Came Here to be Podkilled – Overkill Edition =-.

3 Arcade January 5, 2010 at 2:04 pm

Except for CON, almost any stat can be a dump stat now. Especially with two stats available for every defense, it’s not even a hard decision anymore about what should be a dump stat. It’s why I like to add some dice rolling into my character creation so everything isn’t so uniform.

The article is nice because every so often we need a reminder to go and look at our stats, decide what it really means and add some “character” to our characters. I’ll only disagree with 2 statements. First, low dex doesn’t always mean go for heavy armor as a good Int score will take care of your defenses. (warlord, artificer, swordmage, etc.) Second, I usually dislike using injuries or sickness as an excuse unless you make it magic immune. Otherwise, some magic healer who can cure diseases or regenerate limbs can fix you right up. Though if you roleplayed this out and used it as a reason for one of your stat bumps, than that’s great!

4 Philo Pharynx January 5, 2010 at 5:10 pm

@Toldain – I should have clarifies my statement with “since point buy systems became the standard.” But I didn’t see many people playing low-Con characters before point buy.

@Arcade – with the new system, many characters I’ve seen have three high starts and three at 8-10. For a few, it’s only two high stats (like the primal classes that can use Con for AC).

@Arcade – It depends on the world – I often don’t see healing magic as being common enough that everybody has access to it. A commoner might not have a powerful enough cleric nearby, or the local cleric is of a different faith and they would require a donation the family can’t afford.

5 Ameron January 6, 2010 at 10:53 am

@Philo Pharynx
I’ve actually played a few characters with a Con score of 8 and even more with 10. I guess it’s all a matter of personal preference. But I agree, most players choose not to have Con be their lowest stating ability score.

This is exactly the kind of extra role-playing details I’m trying to encourage with this article. Come up with a creative explanation for why you have a low score. We tend not to see these extreme lows any more with 4e D&D, but when we do it’s good to know that it’s seen as a role-playing opportunity rather than a blemish on your character sheet.

I agree that since Fort, Ref and Will are no longer dependent upon just one ability it’s not as detrimental to have 1 low score. You’re right that a low Dex doesn’t always mean you should take heavy armor, but in some circumstances it may be a good call. Most notably if your Int is also on the low end. I agree that having an illness or disability define your PCs shortcomings in a world with magical healing does seem unlikely. We’ve often overcome this by interpreting magic healing as more of a immediate solution. If you’re sick or loose a limb and can’t get magical healing immediately then you’re out of luck. But the quest to find the lost ritual that will cure the king or allow the world’s greatest swordsman to re-grow his missing sword arm can be a great adventuring hook.

@Philo Pharynx
Thanks for jumping in and adding your 2 cents. I agree that I see a lot of PCs with three high scores and then 10, 10, 8 in the other three. I refuse to use this build. Although it can make for a really tough combat character they tend to fall short (big time) in the skills department. All PCs need some versatility and this build really lacks that requirement.

6 Enchelion January 6, 2010 at 7:50 pm

This post is awesome! It really inspired me to try and use the ability scores of a character (in this case an NPC) to reinforce a deeper background. The idea of a character who has a disability or impediment to overcome, especially in the world of RPG’s where often the players meet paragons of their kind, is very cool.

My inspiration from this post took the form of one suffering from extensive permanent injury.
.-= Enchelion´s last blog ..
Gheron the Veteran =-.

7 Richard January 12, 2010 at 3:53 pm

I really like this post a lot, and I think it’s a smart idea to balance your skills a bit more like this. The group I play with though, tends to min/max a bit, but they always create a party where every skill is covered by one of the players. We have a larger group though too, 5 or 6 players.

8 Ameron January 14, 2010 at 9:41 am

Thanks for the kind words. I’m glad I could serve as your muse. Excellent follow-up article, by the way.

It really comes down to knowing your group. If they’re a combat-heavy, min/max group then this kind of character development won’t appeal to them at all. But if they’re a group that enjoys more role-playing then this kind of in-game explanation for low scores may be right up their alley.

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