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Given that every class gets a minimum of 5 ability score improvements each at levels 4, 8, 12, 16, and 19 (Rogue and Fighter get more at other levels), do these ability score improvements occur by character level or by class level?

For example, is it possible to create a character who never once gains a single ability score improvement by reaching level 3 in a class and then switching to a different class repeatedly?

I had originally thought the 5 that every class gets would occur by character level, so for example a sorcerer1/bard3 would earn an ability score improvement for reaching character level 4. But there are others who have expressed the opinion that this is wrong.

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Ability score improvements are a class feature, and are only gained when the class level grants it. Different classes gain these advances at different levels (the Fighter is the clearest example of this), and there is no unified table of advancement by character level.

It's possible to never gain an advancement by always multiclassing into a new class before reaching 4th level in a class. One effect of this is that "dipping" a class for a single level or two is less obviously useful; considering the extra limits on what is acquired from a new class's first level when multiclassing, this is likely a significant reason for the design, apart from being able to give classes different advancement rates.

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  • \$\begingroup\$ May I ask for a canonical source? \$\endgroup\$ – K7AAY Aug 11 '18 at 22:24
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    \$\begingroup\$ @K7AAY The PHB class tables are the best canonical source. The answer already points out that there’s no ASIs given out by anything else and no universal character-level table for advancement. \$\endgroup\$ – SevenSidedDie Aug 11 '18 at 22:29
  • \$\begingroup\$ isn't proficiency also on those tables, yet it goes up with your total level instead of the class levels? \$\endgroup\$ – Nuloen The Seeker May 22 at 14:49
  • \$\begingroup\$ @NuloenTheSeeker Proficiency is the one exception. It has its own table on p. 15. It’s also on the class tables for convenience, since without using optional multiclass rules, class level = character level. (It certainly doesn’t affect how ASIs are gained for multiclass characters.) \$\endgroup\$ – SevenSidedDie May 22 at 16:33
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By RAW, the improvements are for class levels. However, the noted ability score improvements look suspiciously similar to the proficiency bonus progression, which also say that they are tied to class level in the leveling charts, but which errata has made clear is tied to total character level. However, every source I could find with a quick look around seems to agree that losing ability score gains is a deliberate feature intended to increase the cost of multiclassing. You can work around it by taking second classes in 4-level blocks, but that's usually inconvenient for other build reasons.

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    \$\begingroup\$ Welcome to rpg.se! Take the tour and visit the help center to learn how things work around here. It's not entirely clear what you are trying to say here. Are you trying to say that they should be tied to character level due to errata but you can't find a source? Thanks for participating and happy gaming. \$\endgroup\$ – linksassin Apr 2 at 5:31
  • \$\begingroup\$ I don't have my first printing book to see how this has changed, but in the current version of the multiclassing rules on D&D Beyond, it's clearly spelled out that proficiency bonus and cantrip scaling are based on character level. If anything, these notes are specific exceptions which prove the general rule. \$\endgroup\$ – mattdm Apr 2 at 7:12
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I'd like to clearly note that this is a custom rule of mine, not official D&D 5e out of the book.

When I DM, I allow my players to drop the ability score improvements (ASIs) as class features for 4, 8, 12, etc. and add them as level features, so that a 3 bard/1 fighter would get the improvements. HOWEVER, if they level up to 4 bard/1 fighter they would not get the class ASI from bard (because they already got it as a level ASI the level before).

ALSO, if a class gets more ASIs (rogue, fighter) they have to actually have those levels in that class to get it. So a 5 fighter/1 bard would not get the level 6 fighter improvement, but a 6 fighter/1 bard would have.

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  • \$\begingroup\$ Welcome to RPG stackexchange! Since this question is tagged rules-as-written the asker is only interested in answers about the rules as written in the books. Custom rules (also known as house rules) aren't appropriate. \$\endgroup\$ – Ceribia Apr 29 '17 at 20:46
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    \$\begingroup\$ @Ceribia Tags aren't for signalling how to answer (only for categorising the question subject), so [rules-as-written] is no longer used that way. (However, this answer still has the problem that it doesn't answer the question anyway.) \$\endgroup\$ – SevenSidedDie Apr 29 '17 at 22:10
  • \$\begingroup\$ Just saying, many DM's do this. So, instead of following the rules as written, you should ask your DM. \$\endgroup\$ – bob Jun 28 '18 at 21:55

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