[RPG] Has any edition of D&D ever described specific ability score values in real-world terms


A defining feature of Dungeons & Dragons is ability scores ranging over the result of 3d6 — that is, 3 through 18 — with possible modifiers going over or under that. Has any edition of D&D ever described what these numbers mean in real-world terms? From this question about feeblemind it's clear that there's not much by way of rules or guidance in 5E, but what about earlier editions?

I see that in 3.5, the PHB section on ability scores says:

The result is a number between 3 (horrible) and 18 (tremendous). The average ability score for the typical commoner is 10 or 11, but your character is not typical. The most common ability scores for player characters (PCs) are
12 and 13. (That’s right, the average player character is above average.)

It also has a section describing what Int, Cha, and Wis might mean for role-playing a character — described as "just guidelines". 5E also gives examples for how one might play characters with low or high abilities, like this for Int:

A character with high Intelligence might be highly inquisitive and studious, while a character with low Intelligence might speak simply or easily forget details.

and in fact expands from just the mental ability scores. For example, this for Dex:

A character with high Dexterity is probably lithe and slim, while a character with low Dexterity might be either gangly and awkward or heavy and thick-fingered.

… but there's no real discussion of what high and low actually mean, or any practical distinction between, say, 16 and 20.

A quick search turned up this (clearly homebrewed) mapping of numbers to "simple language" with lines like:


\begin{array}{r l} 1 (-5) &\text{Animalistic, no longer capable of logic or reason} \\ […] \\ 20-21 (5) &\text{ Highly knowledgeable, probably the smartest person many people know} \\

Has there ever been anything like that in any official D&D source, for any edition? I know the rules for minimums and maximums have changed over time, and obviously the mechanics have changed, but are there significant differences in the basic "story" meaning of, say, Strength 12 or Dexterity 4?

Best Answer

Yes. A tiny bit.

A faulty survey of 0, 2, 3.x, and 5 core materials reveals nothing like you're asking. (But you found it, right there in the 3.5 MM.)

But 1e dangles two tiny tidbits your way:

Strength is a measure of muscle, endurance, and stamina combined. For purposes of relating this ability to some reality, assume that a character with a strength of 3 is able to lift a maximum of 30 pounds weight above his or her head in a military press, while a character with 18 strength will be able to press 180 pounds in the same manner. (AD&D PHB p.9, "Strength," emphasis mine.)

Fairly straightforward, and one can amuse oneself imagining EGG and friends military-pressing boxes of 0e materials in the garage as they developed this description.

Brace yourself for the next one:

[Comeliness score] +1 to +6: As such an individual is simply ugly, the reaction evidenced will tend toward unease and a desire to get away from such brutishness as quickly as possible. ...

+14 to +17: Interest in viewing the individual is evidenced by those in contact, as he or she is good-looking. (AD&D Unearthed Arcana, "Comeliness," p.6.)


So how do you make your own scale?

You look at spells that change stats, you look at statted monsters/NPCs that have descriptive words tied to stats, you read decades-worth of arguments in Dragon magazine's Forum and Sage Advice columns.

Or, my favorite: talk it over with your players. During some downtime come up with a list of descriptors that you'll use, revisit and modify it over time, and come to a better understanding of your shared world. D&D is always best (IMO) when it's a bunch of people playing a game they made, rather than trying to play someone else's game.