D&D: The SADdening

D&D players use the terms SAD and MAD to categorize character archetypes based on how many good Ability Scores they need to be relevant. SAD is an acronym that stands for Single Ability-Score Dependent; MAD stands for Multiple Ability-Score Dependent.

For example, a MAD character like a Monk will require Dexterity for attack and defense, Constitution for health, Wisdom to set the DC of its features, and perhaps even Strength to make grapples or perform Athletic skills. Whereas a SAD character like a Druid can invest purely in Wisdom and rely on Wild Shape to round out their physical ability scores in necessary conditions.

Drawing these lines is a subjective matter of opinion. No character is truly SAD. Constitution is great for every character because more Hit Points (HP) is good. But, no character is built exclusively around Constitution. Arguably, casters care even more about it than martials because they need to maintain concentration on spells, and their lower Armor Class (AC) means that they get less mileage out of their HP. Regardless of where this line is drawn, more extreme examples serve to illustrate the concept.

Over time, 5th Edition design has trended away from Ability Scores, narrowing the scope of bonuses they need to be effective, scaling off proficiency bonus instead, and giving floating Ability Score Improvements (ASIs) for feats and races.

Alternate Attack Stats

Certain game elements permit a character to attack by using their spellcasting modifier, instead of the standard Strength (STR) or Dexterity (DEX).

Shillelagh

Truthfully, the first instance of this comes in the Basic Rules. The spell Shillelagh allows Druids to use their Wisdom (WIS) modifier to attack with a stick they target with this cantrip.

Firstly, it’s a Druid-only spell. As noted earlier, Druid is already arguably the most SAD class. This cantrip seems tailored to round out their combat competence when they’re out of Wild Shapes, or if they need to hit something with magic damage.

Beyond that, the spell is very limited. You can’t hook up your friends, because the spell ends if you drop the weapon or try to cast it more than once. You’re not going to dip this from some big bad martial class because it nerfs the weapon damage to a d8.

It also doesn’t scale, as a pure damage cantrip might. And it can’t benefit from the bonuses of magical weapons. Both of these factors limit Shillelagh’s usage to low tier.

Hexblade

Hexblade really took it to the next level. When it was released in Xanathar’s Guide to Everything, the Hexblade enabled Warlocks to use their Charisma (CHA) modifier for attacks and damage. Since this works with your bonded weapon, it scales when you find a magic weapon that has a +1/2/3.

This was such a potent game design mechanic that it became the basis for the famous “Hexblade dip”. With one level of Warlock, a Paladin can soften their STR investment (beyond armor prerequisites) while strengthening their DCs, preparing more spells, getting more feature uses, and buffing their aura.

Proficiency Bonus Scaling

The most prominent change is Proficiency Bonus scaling. Most class features are now built to scale off a character’s proficiency bonus, instead of an ability score modifier.

Bladesinger

In late 2020, with the release of Tasha’s Cauldron of Everything, Wizards revised the Bladesinger. The Bladesinger is a Wizard class that originally appeared in Sword Coast Adventurer’s Guide, a book developed by Green Ronin Publishing in partnership with Wizards of the Coast.

One of the tweaks to this class was the number of uses you get for Bladesong, the subclass’s eponymous feature. Originally printed to permit two uses per (short) rest, the feature has received errata to scale off proficiency bonus.

While this feature was a move towards proficiency bonus scaling, it was not a move away from ability score scaling. However, it may be worth noting that it was never errata’d in the interim to conform to WotC’s standard ability score scaling from the “X per rest” in Green Ronin’s original design.

Feat Design

Feat design has become more flexible. Not only have half-feats become more prevalent, but the ASIs more frequently allow you to choose allowing players to choose among a choice of ASIs instead of locking to a single Ability Score.

While floating ASIs are not new feat design, they compose a much larger percentage of the feats published in recent material.

  • Player’s Handbook: 42 feats, 13 half-feats (7 floating ASI)
  • Xanathar’s Guide: 20 feats, 11 half-feats (9 floating ASI)
  • Tasha’s Cauldron: 15 feats, 10 half-feats (9 floating ASI)

While half-feats were less than one-third of the original feat options, they were two-thirds of the options in the last big character options book. The only half-feat without a floating ASI in Tasha’s was Gunner, while half of the original half-feats were ASI locked.

Floating Racial ASIs

The floating racial Ability Score Increases (ASIs) in Tasha’s Cauldron of Everything, which set the standard for D&D’s new race design, permit greater latitude in character creation. While this is a good move away from bioessentialist design (for which D&D’s use of the term “race” does it no favors), it also de-emphasizes ability score variances on the mechanical side.

So What?

You might be asking, “is this good or bad?”

As with many things in game design, it’s a tradeoff.

The move away from ability score scaling and towards floating ASIs permits greater flexibility in character design. Players can freely make choices about where to assign their ASIs, without worrying about hampering their character’s competence.

The flip side of this proposition is that there’s less differentiation between characters. While players can more freely assign their ASIs, giving different choices less mechanical bite can make characters feel samey. When two characters of the same subclass may have previously traded off physical power vs. increased DCs or feature uses, the absence of those differences can erode their identity.

Ultimately, it’s a balance to be tended. Certain game elements need to be updated regardless of how they affect this balance. Others benefit from the added design flexibility. Overall, maintaining ties between ability scores and other game design elements helps differentiate characters, and keeps ability scores from being reduced to a small fractional variance.

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3 thoughts on “D&D: The SADdening

  1. Ah, you counted each multi-race racial feat as its own individual feat! Very sneaky. I’m the person who attempted to recreate your graphs on twitter.

    Good article! I understand what sort of design philosophy (and regular philosophy) WotC has been going for with the more free-choice ability scores, but the ancestral ability score changes always stuck me as a move that makes the game a little more bland and homogenous. Like you said, it makes characters more samey. In my mind the best move would have been to make the Tasha’s “reassigning racial ASI” rule more in-focus, putting a lot of emphasis on it, and simply stating “oh, the average hero of [ancestry] is typically [stronger, smarter, more aware, quicker]. than you average human, which can be represented by choosing +2 to [stat] and +1 to [other stat].”

    That’s what they’ve done with alignment, and I think that change was really good!

    Like

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