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Can I, when creating a human variant character, choose a +2 ability improvement instead of a feat? In the end I will have a +2 to one ability and two +1 to two other abilities.

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No, you cannot choose to get a +2 ability improvement instead of a feat

No rule exists allowing a feat to be replaced with an ability score improvement. Instead, the opposite is true:

At certain levels, your class gives you the Ability Score Improvement feature. Using the optional feats rule, you can forgo taking that feature to take a feat of your choice instead.

Page 165 PHB, Feats

Thus, the class feature Ability Score Improvement can be replaced with a feat and feats cannot be traded for ability score improvements. It should also be noted that this rule specifies that the trade can only be done with the specific feature provided by your class only, making ability score improvements from racial traits ineligible for trade.

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  • \$\begingroup\$ You last sentence seems to be irrelevant, since he is discussing a human, and you have already covered the point that the RAW approach only has language that allows X for variant human at level 1. \$\endgroup\$ – KorvinStarmast Dec 6 '16 at 15:50
  • \$\begingroup\$ @KorvinStarmast The last sentence was included as it appears as if the poster was considering a feat equivalent to an ability score improvement when that is not the case. Only the class feature ability score improvement is equivalent to a feat, not vice versa, and not anything provided by racial traits, including the feat provided by the variant human. Thus, a second reason why this is not a valid exchange \$\endgroup\$ – Zer0ah Dec 6 '16 at 20:45
  • \$\begingroup\$ I am sorry, removing RAW blinders would be helpful. It is equivalent at level 4 (and beyond) : either get a feat or a +2 ASI. I think that was the point about trying to apply that principle to the human variant rule. The logic is sound if you go by principle rather than by a blinders-on RAW view. That said, you are absolutely right that the rules don't accommodate applying it at level 1 for that optional rule. The "why" is far better explored in the other answer. You are correct in "what it says on the tin." A better answer includes "ask your DM" (DM is master of rules in 5e). \$\endgroup\$ – KorvinStarmast Dec 6 '16 at 20:55
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Is it legal? No. Is it broken? Probably not.

The rules clearly state that it is possible to choose a feat instead of an ability score increase, when using the optional feat rules. It does not say the opposite is true. Therefore, by a strict reading of the Rules As Written (and by an inferred reading of the Rules As Intended), you cannot exchange a feat for an ability score increase.

That being said, if x=1, then 1=x. The two are clearly meant to be about the same in terms of character advancement, since you are allowed to exchange an ASI for a Feat. Although the rules do not allow for it, it is not likely to seriously unbalance the game if it were to be allowed as a house rule. Discuss it with your DM, if you are a player, or consider it as a possibility if it appeals to you as a DM.

Keep in mind the hard caps to Ability scores that are built into the game. This could allow starting characters to easily start with an 18 in their primary ability, which might not appeal to some tables (though it is certainly possible already when using a rolling system rather than array or point-buy). If this is a concern, but you still like the idea, the ASI-instead-of-Feat rule could be allowed only for abilities which have not already received an adjustment, leading to higher average scores without bumping up the normal maximum.

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    \$\begingroup\$ This would allow one race to start with +3/+1 racial, making for a possible starting 18 (using array), where every other race is limited to starting with highest stat 16 or 17. I don't know if it's broken ('cause I don't know what that is), but it'd concern me, as a GM. \$\endgroup\$ – nitsua60 Dec 3 '16 at 20:51
  • \$\begingroup\$ Yeah, I don't know if an 18 is more distressing to a DM than 16 and a synergistic feat, though. My suspicion is that it is not. That's why I urged caution and stressed several times that it is not within the rules as written. Also, the limitations to a starting stat only apply when taking the array (as you note) or using point-buy. It's entirely possible (though unlikely) to have multiple 18s when using the 4d6 drop lowest method, which is quite commonly done. I have edited the main answer line to emphasize that caution should be considered if adopting this a as house rule. \$\endgroup\$ – keithcurtis Dec 3 '16 at 20:55
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    \$\begingroup\$ All good point--I'm not sure I'd disallow it, but I'd certainly look hard at it first. (I run a lot of AL, so no rolling here!) \$\endgroup\$ – nitsua60 Dec 3 '16 at 20:57
  • \$\begingroup\$ AL? (and yeah, I probably wouldn't use this option either. I'm just noting that if it looks appealing to a DM, they could consider it) \$\endgroup\$ – keithcurtis Dec 3 '16 at 20:58
  • \$\begingroup\$ I have further edited the answer to address some of the concerns in Ability Maxima. \$\endgroup\$ – keithcurtis Dec 3 '16 at 21:11

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