Classes Should Get the Initial Ability Score Increase

The +2 and +1 ability score increase (ASI) your character gains when choosing their race is extremely important. It is the largest natural ASI your character will gain in the entire game. It’s important, so much so that it can pigeon-hole you into selecting a race that works well with your class.

There’s been a lot of talk on social media as of late about changing the initial ability score bonus from being a part of your racial features to being a base level 1 feature for the class you select. Mechanically it would work the same way as saving throws do.

At first I thought it was interesting and a great idea, but not something I’d pay much attention to. Race has dictated your base stats for quite some time in most RPGs that I’ve played. It would feel weird to stray from that.

I had recently promised myself that I would play something other than a variant human for my new Forge Domain Cleric. At first, I had decided on playing an eladrin because I love their flavor and overall feel. Everything was great.

Then I actually went and created a character using point buy and realized that a +2 Dexterity and +1 Charisma bonus made me objectively worse than my friends who played a race more synergistic with their class. I could still play it, but I basically wasted 1.5 ASI for playing something more flavorful.

So, I rolled half-orc. I don’t mind it, but it wasn’t the initial idea I had for my character. I’m now firmly in the camp of “class should determine the initial ASI” rather than having it tied to race. My players are as well when I brought the idea up to them.

The Argument for Class Gaining the Level 1 ASIs

I have only one argument for giving the level 1 ASI to classes. My argument is that it will give players the freedom to be able to create a character they’d prefer to play instead of one they feel they have to play.

It’s true that you get a lot from choosing a class at level 1 already. That being said, I don’t think adding a +2 and +1 choice to your level 1 class features will cause much more confusion. You’re already doing it when you choose your race.

Your character has trained for quite some time to be level 1 in their class. They’ve spent time studying arcane texts or trained long hours to wield their weapons. In this training, they’ve grown in their abilities that would be used in their class.

A cleric training to become a cleric becomes wiser through their training. A fighter becomes stronger the more time they spend swinging their practice sword. Thematically this makes sense.

Races should be a flavor decision. They should give you unique abilities, languages, and other proficiencies. Your race shouldn’t dictate what classes are most optimal to be played and your class shouldn’t affect your decision of race.

D&D 5e races ability score increase
Races come in all different shapes and sizes. They have different flavors and cultures. Art by Wizards of the Coast.

The Arguments for Race Gaining the Level 1 ASIs

It’s always been that way!

The most common argument I’ve run into for keeping the ASI attached to race is “because it’s always been that way”. I mean, that was my initial take on the subject as well. After thinking about this take for a bit, I don’t find this to be a reasonable argument at all.

There’s a lot in D&D 5e that turned “it’s the way it’s always been” on its head, and for the better. I don’t find this to be a reasonable argument against change.

Don’t Change What Isn’t Broken

Another argument I’ve run into is “don’t change what isn’t broken”. This is honestly fairer. There’s a lot one has to take into consideration when choosing their class. They have to pick skill proficiencies, equipment, add their saving throws, any level 1 features, and spells.

Adding stat bonuses to that is adding more fuel to the flame. Having the ASI attached to race allows players to digest their class bonuses and pick something more aligned with their role than giving them an infinite amount of flavor choices.

Having 3-4 more viable races to choose from for a newer player is a lot easier to deal with than the plethora of choices we have between official sources, homebrew, and Unearthed Arcana. It’s a lot to handle.

At face value, this seems like a weak argument, but I can see where they’re coming from. Making character creation more complicated and adding bloat to games can turn away newcomers.

Mike Mearls’ Design Reasoning

Mike Mearls discussed this topic on Twitter recently and he had some interesting things to say about it.

I think that this is a good argument for new players creating a character. They’ll go through the Player’s Handbook in order and will choose their race first. They’ll then read through the classes and decide on one that works well with their class.

From a game design perspective, I understand the intent for both writing the book the way it’s written and attaching the level 1 ASI to races to aid with character creation for newcomers. In a way, it has some of the same concerns as the “don’t change what isn’t broken” argument.

In practice though that’s not how it has worked in my experience. I mentioned this in my D&D 5e class overview, but typically when creating a character I find that people imagine what role they’d like to play.

New players will then ask me or a more experienced member of the group what kind of character that fits. Class has a larger impact on gameplay. Race determines more of the flavor of the character and should be an afterthought in my opinion.

Initial Class ASI Table

Here’s what I’ve come up with for what ASI each class will be able to take. Some classes have multiple options because, quite frankly, this whole “campaign” is about giving people more options.

For example, a fighter could be a Dexterity-based fighter rather than a Strength one. They could also be an Eldritch Knight and desire the extra Intelligence rather than Constitution. They should have options for both.

Level 1 Class Ability Score Increase

Class+2 Ability Score+1 Ability Score
BarbarianStrengthConstitution
BardCharismaDexterity or Constitution
ClericWisdomConstitution or Strength
DruidWisdomConstitution
FighterStrength or DexterityConstitution or Intelligence
MonkDexterityWisdom
PaladinStrength or DexterityCharisma
RangerDexterity or StrengthWisdom
RogueDexterityIntelligence or Charisma
SorcererCharismaConstitution or Dexterity
WarlockCharismaConstitution or Dexterity
WizardIntelligenceDexterity or Constitution or Charisma

This table only includes the base 12 classes from the Player’s Handbook for now. I’ll probably update it as more official classes get a final release in supplementary books. However, if you have any good ideas for additional classes be sure to let me know.

Feel free to use this at a homebrew rule and bring it up at your table’s session 0 for your next game!

Conclusions

I originally saw this idea either on Twitter or Reddit, but I didn’t remember to save the source. If anyone knows said source please tell me so I can give them credit because this idea is fantastic.

I believe that by changing the level 1 ability score bonus from race to class we’ll see more unique race and class combinations. I believe this is one more step in the direction of not having to choose between an optimized character and a more flavorful character.

My players and I have talked about trying this out in our future games. I’ve yet to gain any sort of push-back from them which makes me think this is definitely a step in the right direction for my games.

I think the only real downside to using this as a homebrew rule at your table is that you may have to retool some of the racial bonuses. Any races like kobolds that give some sort of negative ASI would need to be retooled to some degree. Although, you could just keep the negative ability score penalty in there and call it a day.

Also, variant human and humans would definitely need some retooling. Ideally, you’d merge the two and give them extra proficiencies and/or a unique trait or ability.

This idea is worth trying out. I wouldn’t be surprised to see D&D 6e go this route rather than keep the level 1 ability score bonuses attached to races.

If you enjoyed what you read be sure to check out my ongoing review for all of the official D&D 5e books!

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4 Comments

  1. It is an old article now but it certainly plays to my thinking as I contemplate a homebrew campaign. For me the 1st ASI is odd. Id want my players to choose what they want to play at level 1 not what that character will look like at level 10+. This is where the race comes in for that flavour. Im leaning towards a variation on the above. Removing ASI as a race feature, and offering 2 or 3 feats targeted at racial stereotypes (nothing crazy like PAM), and a 1 or 2 * +1 ASI. If you are still tracking this article, what do you think of that?

    • Exactly, I totally agree!

      I think that’s a great option as well. It’s a bit more work on your end, but I’m sure the payoff for the players would be worth it!

      Just FYI there are a bunch of racial feats in Xanathar’s Guide to Everything if you hadn’t seen those before. Could always use them as an inspiration for ones you create if you don’t outright use them.

  2. Interesting. On the one hand, I understand where you’re coming from — from your point of view, I suppose it looks like you’re getting punished for your choice of race with sub-optimal builds, which is indeed kind of weird. On the other hand, I’m personally fine with playing a sub-optimal build if I like the character concept and usually find that it makes for a more interesting game overall. Guess that comes down to a difference in play style, though.

    • I totally get your point and I absolutely agree with this being a difference in playstyle.

      I’d argue that by having more a more synergistic level 1 ASI would open you up to using the ASIs you gain from leveling to be used to take feats instead. While they’re not always the mathematically “correct” choice to take, feats tend to add a lot more flavor and playstyle changes to a character than say +2 to one ability score. Plus, by removing the ASI from races you’ll be able to take whatever race sounds like they the most fun or interesting traits and abilities for your character.

      I’d say this opens up more interesting character concepts if anything.

      But, as you said, this comes down to your group’s playstyle preferences. I think this works best as a variant rule. Those who want it can use it, and those who don’t can play as normal.

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