Straight-forward question. I've seen the terms used a lot, mostly in optimization questions and guides, but they aren't usually explained. From googling, it's easy to find that they are abbreviations for Multiple Ability (score) Dependent and Single Ability (score) Dependent, but I'm not sure what this means. Does MAD mean it isn't viable unless many of their stats get to 20? Is any of them a bad thing? Good thing?


A good answer explains the concepts, if possible its origins, and preferably exemplifies with classes that are clearly MAD or SAD for any specific edition (reason I'm tagging it as D&D, not a specific edition). For clarity, if Ranger was MAD at 3.5e and now it isn't any more, an example using the Ranger from 3.5e is fine. I've seen the term in 3.5, 4 and 5e, as well as Pathfinder, so I don't think the term itself is system-specific, only the examples might be.


It's different from How many Ability Dependencies is too many? (What is MAD?) because that question asks some kind of specific threshold for how many AS dependencies consist in a MAD character in 5e. I'm not interested in something that specific.

up vote 48 down vote accepted

MAD

Multiple Ability (score) Dependent means that a class needs high numbers in multiple different ability scores to function well. The archetypal MAD class (in my mind) is the Monk from Pathfinder.

Pathfinder Monks need:

  • Strength: Pretty much all the do is melee attacks, so Str gives +to hit and +damage
  • Dexterity: Since Monks can't effectively wear armor, their Dex bonus to AC is very important. Additionally, many of their skill proficiencies are Dex based and they have many class features that affect Reflex saves (Dex based).
  • Wisdom: Many of the special attacks that Monks have force saves with DCs set by their Wis. They also get bonus AC from their Wis, and their number of Ki points is based off Wis.
  • Constitution: Since Monks are melee, they will get hit, meaning more HP (driven by Con) is needed.

These are of course in addition to Intelligence to get more skill ranks

Right away we see that Monks need 4 (or 5) out of 6 ability scores to be high. Additionally, 3 of those are physical ability scores, and as such share magic item slots for items that enhance them (Str, Dex, and Con are enhanced by belts). Getting 1 or 2 ability scores high isn't too hard, but 4 is.

SAD

Single Ability (score) Dependent means that a class only needs a single ability score to be high to function well. Several classes fall into this category, including most pure casters, ranged fighters, and rogues (depending on archetype).

Pathfinder Wizards need:

  • Intelligence: This determines the Wizards ability to cast spells, gives them bonus spells, gives +hit and +damage on some spells, increases spell save DC on others, helps them learn new spells, lets them counterspell reliably, and lets them use most of their proficient skills (including crafting).

There is pretty much nothing a Wizard will want to do that isn't benefited by Int, or that is benefited by other ability scores. They don't even need a high Con since they won't be on the front-line and probably won't be hit.

Because they only need 1 ability score to be high, Wizards can devote more resources into pumping that one score until it is as high as can be, and then direct those resources into other useful items without needing to stretch to cover lots of different scores. Additionally, getting a higher Con is easy since Con boosting items use the Belt slot, while Int boosting items use the Head slot, meaning there is no opportunity cost to increasing both.

What does this all mean?

Basically SAD classes are much easier to make and to play effectively. MAD classes need more resources to achieve similar levels of optimization, and may require more real-life time dedicated to finding obscure bonuses and builds to make up for their shortcomings. Additionally MAD classes can find it hard to stay relevant at higher levels as the effective tax on their upgrades takes its toll, especially in a party with SAD classes.

That doesn't mean that SAD classes are inherently better than MAD classes, or that MAD classes can't be effective or fun. Obviously it depends on what system you are playing (Pathfinder is much more punishing than DnD5e, for example), but DnD is a game, and you can have lots of fun with any class. Unless you are playing a high level, optimization heavy, all combat campaign don't feel like you need to shy away from a MAD class, although if you are new to the system it will obviously be easier to go for a SAD class.

  • Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat. – mxyzplk Aug 17 at 1:20
  • Not sure if it’s worth pointing out that MAD classes can sometimes be turned into SAD classes with clever application of feats, archetypes, etc. (May be too tangential to the “what are MAD and SAD?” question, but thought it worth a suggestion.) – alex_d Aug 17 at 12:04

Being MAD is a bad thing. It means your character will be poorly optimized and weaker compared to other classes. You won't be able to qualify for useful feats as easily, or use your key abilities as well, unless you can get exceptional stats.

A famous example of MAD is the monk in D&D 3.5 .They need good strength to punch people, they need good dex since they can't wear armor, and good con to survive blows as they just have a d8 hitpoints per level, good int to be effective at skills since they have lots, and good wisdom for many abilities. They need 5 abilities to be high to effectively use their combat, skill, and monk abilities.

A ranger needs even more in D&D 3.5. They need strength for damage and dex for bows and light armor, con for health since they just have a d8, good int for their many skills, wisdom for spells, and charisma for calm animals. They need six abilities to be high to be competent at all their class related tasks.

Single Ability Dependent is great for you, it means your character is easy to build and will do well even if you roll poorly, so long as you have one high stat.

An example is a wizard in D&D 3.5. They need int, and they're done. They have skills, defensive and offensive capacity from spells, and need no other abilities. Good con and dex can help, but isn't necessary.

The first usage I know of was on rpg.net talking about good and bad classes in D&D 3.5, with more MAD classes being bad, and how you should only play it if you roll really well on stats or have some other source of stats.

Every time I read a thread about D&D, someone mentions how some classes are considered weak or unplayable. Some examples I've heard include the Bard, the Soulknife and sometimes the Fighter.

It's really not true. lots of people have their own opinions reguarding classes like the Bard and Soulknife (and to a much, MUCH lesser extent, fighter) but largely these people are either misunderstanding some aspect of the character, or attempting to get the class to go outside it's focused area of proficiency.

Really, i have to say I've never seen a Base class that is genuinely underpowered. Sure, there are several which are multiple-ability dependent (like how the paladin depends heavily on his Cha, Wis, Str and Con to survive) which can seriously limit their playability in point-buy scenarios, but if you have the stats to back it up (such as rolling a divine assortment of godlike stats...) then by all means play the danged class!

Most characters tend to have two top ability scores. For casters this should always be the casting ability score, and the second is usually AC or Dex related. With this limit of ability scores its MUCH easier to create strong useful characters.

For SAD you have characters who focus only on that one single score. Casters can fall into this, another common one is dex fighters as it improves both the attack but also defense.

For MAD we merely have to look at the base monk from 3.5 or pathfinder, or a fighter/caster who requires str,dex/con and a mental score. These characters can be strong, but ONLY when they have multiple good ability scores. For example the monk has abilities that rely on wisdom, others that rely str/dex, they require con, and so on. More of the ability scores matters to the character and require investment to make the character work.

The terms originated from classes that utilized too many attributes to be at maximum effectiveness. Paladins, Rangers, and some Clerics, who all take hits and cast spells, all have had a stigma of being "MAD" classes over the years.

The term itself generally comes from trying to maximize value from spending Attribute Score Increases. MAD means that their attributes are spread too thin. This can be seen easily when contrasted to the "SAD" Rogue or Barbarian.

Examples of SAD:

Many Barbarians, across most games of DND/Pathfinder will utilize Strength (which allows them more damage/accuracy) and Constitution (for health/defenses), meaning that they only need to invest in two separate attributes to maximize their gain. They are either increasing their health or their damage as quickly as possible. Their to-hit, or defense against being hit, improves in most instances, causing them to scale in power sooner than the enemies they are pitted against.

Similarly to a Rogue, who relies almost always on Dexterity for their skills, damage, and defenses. Due to many of them avoiding hits or using range, they have the benefit of not needing as much investment into Constitution as other classes.

Examples of MAD:

In contrast, there is the Paladin. They will utilize melee weapons (requiring Strength), need to frequently take a hit (Constitution) and will want to cast spells (Charisma). While they can do many things, they cannot improve their defense while still improving their damage output, unlike a rogue (who can invest into Dexterity). If they focus on casting (and Charisma), they cannot hold their own as well as a barbarian can (who could otherwise pick Constitution).

This is especially truer in older editions, where your ability to cast spells was more dependent on the stat in question (Charisma, in this example). As a result, many paladins opted to neglect one part of the archetype for the class, choosing spells that did not scale with the spellcasting attribute, or choosing to sacrifice damage for versatility. On the other hand, a Barbarian or a Rogue has no need to sacrifice anything.

Another way to look at it

is how each attribute point could be worth per character. A Rogue has two standard choices to improve for a standard Ability Score Increase, Dexterity or Constitution. Normally, Dexterity would have priority (around a 70/30 choice), but we'll say it's a 50/50 choice for simplicity. If he makes one choice, he's missing out on 50% of other power increase options.

A Paladin, needing Strength, Constitution, and Charisma, also picks a single viable stat. He is then missing out on 66% of the power he could have chosen.

While this does not sound like a great deal, this is stacked for every ASI that the classes would get, which can be a big enough deal for power scaling at later levels.

Numbers

Let's say you have two characters, with all ability scores being 13. One is a Barbarian, and the other is a Paladin. For the Barbarian to reach 20 in all relevant stats (Constitution, Strength), he would need a total of 14 ability score points.

Now, for a Paladin to reach the same, if he leveled his relevant stats (Strength, Constitution, Charisma) evenly, he would need a total of 21 ability score points, which is 50% more than what the Barbarian would need.

He could opt to not invest into one of them, like Charisma, but that would mean that he would not be advancing wholly as a Paladin; investing into Strength and Constitution is a possibility, but also basically what a Barbarian would do and play as. Considering many features of the Barbarian are designed around advancement into Constitution and Strength as a trend, a Paladin fully invested into Strength and Constitution may have better been leveled as a Barbarian.

The other answers do a decent job of covering the basics, but there's two further important things to consider:

  • MAD is a spectrum. It just means dependent on more than one ability.
  • SAD versus MAD is not always a factor of the class itself, but how you build and play the character.

For example, D&D fighter is at a high-level a MAD class. They benefit from high scores in all three physical attributes (STR, DEX, and CON). Depending on how you build them, that may change. The classic DEX fighter is as the name implies almost entirely dependent on DEX, because it boost both offense and defense for them, and therefore is technically SAD. Tanky fighters may not focus on STR (and might add CHA focus so they can taunt opponents into attacking them more effectively), and reckless mobility focused ones may not focus on CON. Some really unusual play styles also exist for fighters that capitalize on high mental ability scores, often at the expense of physical ability, namely scouts (usually DEX fighters with an added focus on WIS and possibly INT), tacticians (CON and DEX with super high INT), and people who just love to be distractions (high CHA, DEX, and CON).

On the other hand, there are some classes that are solidly one or the other, no matter how you play them. D&D sorcerers and wizards are pretty solidly SAD classes, with secondary high scores usually going into DEX for boosted AC (but no true dependency on that). Similarly, it's pretty hard to play a D&D paladin as anything but a MAD class dependent on at least three abilities (WIS, CHA, and either STR or CON).

Also, everyone focuses on MAD being a bad thing. The fact is, it isn't always, and SAD can be a bad thing too. In particular:

  • MAD means your character is a bit harder to build, but tends to have more general utility outside of their primary role. A rogue or bard from D&D is a classic example of this, they can cover combat, RP, skills, and either stealth or spellcasting respectively. They're also very solidly MAD classes, no matter how you play them. MAD characters tend to be a bit better for experienced players who can properly take advantage of the options they offer, and in smaller parties where one character is likely to need to fill multiple roles.
  • SAD means your character is easier to build, but usually means that they're only really good at one thing. D&D sorcerers are good as spellcasters, and generally little else (they could be decent at RP, but they lack the class skills and skill points for it to be worth it). Same with D&D wizards (except their other possibility is skills not RP). SAD characters tend to be a bit better for new players, and in bigger parties where everyone is likely to have a pretty well defined role.
  • For clarity: this question was originally asked with the intention of being a Q&A (I was going to answer myself). I think this is wrong because Multiple Attribute Dependencies is different from "Benefitting from multiple attributes". A fighter does not depend on multiple attributes - but it benefits from multiple attributes (as you mentioned, STR, DEX and CON). Also I'm thinking some of your insights/inputs are not "norm". E.g. tanking fighters getting Cha to "taunt". – HellSaint Aug 17 at 5:30
  • Also I recommend indicating what version of D&D you are talking about since historically classes have changed a lot. – Rubiksmoose Aug 17 at 14:56

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