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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:

Intelligence

\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} \\ \end{array}

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?

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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.)

(Ugh.)

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.

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    \$\begingroup\$ Huh. I thought somewhere 1e mentioned the ol' Intelligence score ×10 = IQ equation, or am I thinking of a different game? \$\endgroup\$ – Hey I Can Chan Oct 21 '17 at 17:51
  • \$\begingroup\$ It's not in the PHB, DMG, or UA, at least. You do get from the PHB "intelligence is quite similar to what is currently known as intelligence quotient, but it also includes mnemonic ability, reasoning, and learning ability outside those measured by the written word." But I don't remember seeing an INT*10=IQ rule of thumb anywhere. It's not a crazy one, though. Might even discourage some of the ubiquity of int-as-dump-stat I'm seeing in 5e =) \$\endgroup\$ – nitsua60 Oct 21 '17 at 19:40
  • \$\begingroup\$ I'm surprised you didn't mention 3.X's carrying-capacity-by-strength-score-and-size-and-number-of-legs rules. \$\endgroup\$ – GMJoe Oct 21 '17 at 23:34
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    \$\begingroup\$ @GMJoe that's a really good point. I'm so conditioned by 5e to think of encumbrance as optional that I didn't think of carrying capacity even though I love encumbrance so much. AFB for the night, but I'll come back to round out what's going to now be a "strength through the ages" section! \$\endgroup\$ – nitsua60 Oct 21 '17 at 23:43
  • \$\begingroup\$ 1e ALSO mentioned Charisma is real world terms. Discussing how it isn't attractiveness, it cites a certain montrously evil person in history as having had an 18 charisma. Don't have the books anymore to cite, but IIRC it was in the DMG near the beginning. \$\endgroup\$ – Longspeak Oct 21 '17 at 23:58
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It wasn't where I was thinking to look, but there's something for the mental ability scores in the 3.5E Monster Manual. It doesn't have a chart, but in the "Making Monsters" chapter, there's a section on ability scores. It says that physical abilities are largely a function of a creature's size and type, and doesn't give much more than that for those. But, there's a breakdown for mental abilities (along with further explanation of what these represent) on page 298. Rendered into a chart form and summarized, that comes to:

Intelligence

\begin{array}{r l} \text{1–2} &\text{No smarter than a typical animal} \\ 3 &\text{Unable to speak a language} \\ \text{4–7} &\text{“A limited ability to reason and a certain low cunning”} \\ \text{8–9} &\text{Approaches typical human range} \\ \text{10–11} &\text{Human norm} \\ \text{12–19} &\text{Above-average to genius-level} \\ \text{20+} &\text{Superhuman intellect} \\ \end{array}

Wisdom

\begin{array}{r l} \text{1–3} &\text{Barely sentient} \\ \text{4–6} &\text{Unusually foolhardy or unperceptive human} \\ \text{7–15} &? \\ \text{16–18} &\text{“Acute senses and unusual guile”} \\ 19 &? \\ \text{20+} &\text{Superhuman perceptiveness} \\ \end{array}

Charisma

\begin{array}{r l} \text{1–3} & \text{Barely sentient (again!)} \\ \text{4–6} & \text{Strikingly sullen, crass, or retiring human} \\ \text{7–15} &? \\ \text{16–18} & \text{Unusually strong presence and force of personality} \\ 19 &? \\ \text{20+} & \text{Superhuman Charisma (whatever that is)} \\ \end{array}

Strength

The 3.5E PHB (p162) and SRD (here) have a chart mapping Str scores directly to carrying capacity (p162), and from there to maximum lift. It's a non-linear scale, unlike the 10× given in AD&D as found by @nitsua60. There's no plain-language description, but one could easily be extrapolated from that.

Dexterity and Constitution

3.5 doesn't seem to have anything for these.

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  • \$\begingroup\$ So now this puts us in a strange position: it's really the concatenation of our two answers that is the "correctest" one. But I'm not too motivated to do anything about it, so let the hive mind sort it all out =) \$\endgroup\$ – nitsua60 Oct 21 '17 at 22:51
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    \$\begingroup\$ Historical note: The rule that animal intelligence cannot exceed 2 was introduced in 3.0rd edition. For example, in Advanced Dungeons and Dragons second edition's Monstrous Manual, dolphins were listed as having human-level intelligence. \$\endgroup\$ – GMJoe Oct 21 '17 at 23:39
  • \$\begingroup\$ For whatever it's worth, the animal intelligence limitation is gone in 5E — for example, dolphins have an intelligence of 6. \$\endgroup\$ – mattdm Oct 22 '17 at 15:23
  • \$\begingroup\$ @nitsua60 If you want, we can edit this one into yours or into a shiny new Community Wiki answer.... \$\endgroup\$ – mattdm Oct 23 '17 at 17:46
  • \$\begingroup\$ I'd suggest going the other way--if you want to grab my useful bits feel free to edit them into yours and I'll delete mine. Since you're the original querent, I feel like you've got the best grasp on what makes a good answer to your question =) \$\endgroup\$ – nitsua60 Oct 23 '17 at 23:55
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YES! to a degree. in fact, this was the style in 1st edition. The descriptions mentioned the following in the 1st edition AD&D Player's Handbook and DMG:

Strength ... assume that a character with a strength of 3 is able to life 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. (PHB p. 9)

Of course this completely broke down with the addition of the percentile strength scores -- 18/01 - 18/00 -- and then continuing to 19, which, in those days, was deemed 'godlike'.

The Intelligence rating roughly corresponds to our modern "IQ" scores. However, it assumes mnemonic, reasoning, an learning ability skills in additional areas outside the written word. (DMG p. 15)

There was no mention of direct real-world equivalents for the other 4 abilities.

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  • \$\begingroup\$ @Smartybartfast I added precise PBH and DMG citations. By the way, the DMG provides an illustration of an 18 Constitution: Rasputin. \$\endgroup\$ – KorvinStarmast Oct 22 '17 at 20:55
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    \$\begingroup\$ @KorvinStarmast The citation for PHB9 is fine. However, you have prematurely obliterated the original answerer's claims that "10*INT = IQ" is found in PHB 1e. It's possible, however unlikely since I don't recall ever reading such a statement, you didn't support it, and my original comment showed how this didn't mesh with other values from 1e and real world IQ tests, that it's true. The original answerer needs to be the one to rescind the claim just in case he got the book name wrong and there's some secret source we don't know. \$\endgroup\$ – Smartybartfast Oct 22 '17 at 23:26
  • \$\begingroup\$ @Smartybartfast It's a matter of where in the 1e material the the relationship to IQ is made. (I dug through the PHB and didn't find the 10* though I think there was a dragon mag article discussing that once ... but it's been a while). (Not in UA either, I checked). \$\endgroup\$ – KorvinStarmast Oct 23 '17 at 11:02
  • \$\begingroup\$ @Smartybartfast FWIW, 20sider may be mixing memory between 1e and 3.Xe, since there was apparently a Sage Advice to the effect of IQ = 10 times int score, referenced here at PF boards. Certainly not 1e. \$\endgroup\$ – KorvinStarmast Oct 23 '17 at 14:22
  • \$\begingroup\$ The relationship between int and IQ for 1e in the MM on page 6. The IQ to Int comparison is in the 1e MM on page 6 INTELLIGENCE indicates the basic equivalent of human "IQ" with a table to follow that was similar to that in matt's answer for 3.5 \$\endgroup\$ – KorvinStarmast Jan 5 '18 at 16:24
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There's a rather roundabout way to correlate Ability Scores to actual quantifiable ability, but it requires one specific assumption - that all ability scores are equal - ie that a 10 in one is equivalent to a 10 in the other and so on. Carrying Capacity. We have specific charts in d&d (see the d20srd for a 3.5 specific chart) for carrying capacity. Now, since the standard generation of ability scores of non-adventuring characters in D&D is 3d6, it follows a normal distribution. Then, take intelligence, correlate it with median IQ scores, and you can find out which IQ(approximately) the specific intelligence rating correlates to. Constitution can be correlated with marathon performance(to see what each ranking means), Dexterity can be correlated with reflexes(some of which are quantifiable) and Wisdom with visual acuity (See 20/20 vision, etc). I cannot find anything to correlate charisma to.

Of course, this whole approach goes out of the window if you assume that one ability scores progression is exponential and another's is not. But due to point buy being equal in all ability scores, I see no reason to assume that.

It should be noted that, at least in 3.5, almost no person alive in the normal world could be over 5th level (Due to insane physical feats they'd be able to accomplish - Olympian+). I am saying this because, due to the nature of ability scores in that edition, you'd have a maximum mental score of 22 = 18(Max Initial) +3(Aging Bonus for Venerable) +1(From Level), a maximum physical score of 19 = 18(Max Initial) +1(From Level), and a minimum physical score of 0 (-2 = 3(Min Initial) - 5(Aging Penalties) but ability scores don't go negative) with a caveat that minimum Constitution would be 1 due to killing you when it's 0. So, if you ever want to sit down and do this, take these into account.

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The AD&D 2nd Edition Player's Handbook describes Strength in real world terms and provides Maximum Press entries for scores 1-25, including exceptional Strength 18/*.

Maximum Press is the heaviest weight a character can pick up and lift over his head. A character cannot walk more than a few steps this way. No human or humanoid creature without exceptional Strength can lift more than twice his body weight over his head. In 1987, the world record for lifting a weight overhead in a single move was 465 pounds. A heroic fighter with Strength 18/00 (see Table 1) can lift up to 480 pounds the same way and he can hold it overhead for a longer time!

  Ability   Max.
    Score  Press
        1      3 
        2      5 
        3     10 
      4–5     25 
      6-7     55 
      8-9     90 
    10–11    115 
    12–13    140 
    14–15    170 
       16    195 
       17    220 
       18    255 
 18/01–50    280 
 18/51–75    305 
 18/76–90    330 
 18/91–99    380 
    18/00    480 
       19    640 
       20    700 
       21    810 
       22    970 
       23  1,130 
       24  1,440 
       25  1,750 
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  • \$\begingroup\$ The LaTeX/MathJax table looks awful. I reverted the answer back to a preformatted text table. \$\endgroup\$ – okeefe Nov 5 '17 at 23:02

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