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The Samurai fighter subclass (Xanathar's Guide to Everything, p. 31) has the level 7 feature Elegant Courtier, part of which states:

Whenever you make a Charisma (Persuasion) check, you gain a bonus to the check equal to your Wisdom modifier.

However, my samurai only has 7 Wisdom (a -2 modifier). There is also no "minimum +1" or "unless it's negative" qualifier specified for this ability. Does this mean he actually gets worse at Persuasion checks once he hits level 7?

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    \$\begingroup\$ Do you mean UA Samurai or XGtE Samurai? \$\endgroup\$ – enkryptor Jun 15 '18 at 19:45
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    \$\begingroup\$ @enkryptor XGtE Samurai. Not sure what the UA version does, might look that up and see if it fits his character better. \$\endgroup\$ – Noelle B Jun 15 '18 at 19:46
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    \$\begingroup\$ This might be worth asking Jeremy Crawford as well (specifically about the intent). It seems like the intent might be different from what's written; for instance, the Swashbuckler rogue's Rakish Audacity feature says: "You can give yourself a bonus to your initiative rolls equal to your Charisma modifier." The usage of "can" means it's optional - if you have a negative Cha mod, you can choose not to add it. (Not sure if this is verging on answer territory... I just wanted to make a suggestion that doesn't answer the question, and then explain why I'm suggesting it.) \$\endgroup\$ – V2Blast Jun 15 '18 at 21:01
  • \$\begingroup\$ It might help if you cite the original wording of Elegant Courtier \$\endgroup\$ – Vylix Jun 16 '18 at 3:32
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Negative Results (when a Bonus turns into a Penalty)

This is a great example of an ability score not being helpful based on your build. Unfortunately, you've got all the logic right in your question and without the qualifiers, you add whatever your modifier is (even if it's negative.) In a build optimized for the Samurai, the WIS modifier would be a Bonus. In your case, it's negative modifier, turning that bonus into a penalty.

In your case, I'd probably not try to Persuade people much :)

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    \$\begingroup\$ So much for "Excelling in social situations." Seems odd that 7 wisdom would cancel out my 14 charisma. Oh well, maybe my DM will let me swap it out for a different archetype feature. \$\endgroup\$ – Noelle B Jun 15 '18 at 19:02
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    \$\begingroup\$ @NoelleB Except that in your case, you 'dumped' WIS knowing that this ability was going to come along eventually. You made a decision that ultimately wasn't min-max - and that's okay! \$\endgroup\$ – NautArch Jun 15 '18 at 19:06
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    \$\begingroup\$ @Noelle you could also ask your DM to just handwave the penalty. You'd miss out on a level 7 feature but at least you can keep your Persuasion from Charisma (your just not "activating" that feature when you try to talk to people since it does more harm than good). \$\endgroup\$ – David Coffron Jun 15 '18 at 19:16
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    \$\begingroup\$ @ravery I'd prefer not to waste an ability score increase/feat slot on breaking-even from a dumb penalty :P \$\endgroup\$ – Noelle B Jun 15 '18 at 19:19
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    \$\begingroup\$ @NoelleB being the “face” of a party with a low wisdom score means that your character will have a low perception and low insight, neither of which are especially good if your character is also meant to figure out if they are being lied to. Particularly with a low wisdom you’ll be more likely to “read” someone else as being honest when they are actually lying or deceiving your character. \$\endgroup\$ – illustro Jun 16 '18 at 18:33
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"Bonus" can't be negative

Player's Handbook makes a distinction between "a bonus" and "a penalty":

A class feature, a spell, a particular circumstance, or some other effect might give a bonus or penalty to the check

"Bonus" is a positive modifier:

His attack bonus is his Strength modifier (+3) plus his proficiency bonus (+2), for a total of +5.

"Penalty" is a negative modifier:

The target takes a -4 penalty to all attack rolls

When a modifier is meant to be positive or negative, the PH doesn't say you "gain a bonus", or "add bonus", it just says you "add modifier". Here's an example where always positive modifier is called "bonus", while a potential negative one is called simply "modifier" (emphasis mine):

When you make an attack with a weapon, you roll a d20 and add your proficiency bonus (but only if you are proficient with the weapon) and the appropriate ability modifier.

The Elegant Courtier explicitly says you get a bonus:

you gain a bonus to the check equal to your Wisdom modifier

If your WIS modifier is negative, it can't be a bonus. This complies with the narrative part:

your discipline and attention to detail allow you to excel in social situations

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    \$\begingroup\$ Not sure I agree. On PHB page 15 (and other places as well) they refer to your "attack bonus": "His attack bonus is his Strength modifier (+3) plus his proficiency bonus (+2), for a total of +5." But with a sufficiently low Strength (or whatever your attack Ability is), and a sufficiently low proficiency bonus, your "attack bonus" could definitely be negative. So it seems there are instances of things referred to as "bonuses" which are situationally positive or negative. \$\endgroup\$ – Gandalfmeansme Jun 15 '18 at 20:42
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    \$\begingroup\$ @Gandalfmeansme "attack bonus" is a specific term, I guess; and usually it is positive \$\endgroup\$ – enkryptor Jun 15 '18 at 20:52
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    \$\begingroup\$ Certainly. But it is evidence that something can be called a "bonus", but potentially be negative. \$\endgroup\$ – Gandalfmeansme Jun 15 '18 at 21:23
  • \$\begingroup\$ @Gandalfmeansme can you provide an example where negative modifier is called "bonus"? On page 15 attack bonus is +5, it is positive. All negative modifiers I've found so far are called "penalty". \$\endgroup\$ – enkryptor Jun 16 '18 at 0:09
  • \$\begingroup\$ It's possible they're using that language with the assumption that someone pursuing a samurai would want a high Wis because of the class. Choosing a low Wis also follows the narrative in that this particular Samurai is neither Wise and, because of that, nor are they Elegant. \$\endgroup\$ – NautArch Jun 16 '18 at 0:35
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The other answers take a rules-as-written approach to your question (which is probably what you're looking for), but I think that the following answer is very much in the spirit of 5e, and worth considering:

Ask your DM

As a DM myself, if a player asked, I would allow them to simply ignore the rule (not apply their negative modifier). I really doubt it would create a balance problem. Ask your DM.

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  • \$\begingroup\$ Always being the best isn't necessarily the most fun. It's okay not to have everything maxed. \$\endgroup\$ – NautArch Jun 16 '18 at 18:32
  • \$\begingroup\$ Agreed, but if a player wanted to not apply the penalty, I would allow it. I edited my answer to clarify. \$\endgroup\$ – Harris M Snyder Jun 16 '18 at 20:25

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