The FAST & THE FURIOUS?

It’s worth covering these two stats together as no other two stats compete with each other in the same way during a player’s character creation choices. I don’t think many players ‘ummm and aaah’ about whether to run a strong or dexy character based on these considerations. Most run the character they want to run and think no more about it. But I think it’s the job of the DM to give them the chance to shine which requires an appreciation of these factors.

There’s something intuitive about strength being important. A lot of movie action heroes are strong and the bigger a person is the more likely they are to be useful in a fight; there are weight divisions in boxing for good reason. But strength can feel somewhat lacking in D&D especially when compared to its sheet neighbour and competitor Dexterity. Dexterity is a bit of a misnomer for what the stat does but it’s an appropriate legacy to previous editions of the game. Dex covers not just skill with your hands but overall bodily co-ordination and agility. Strength and Dex are competitors for a character’s choices because they are the stats that can govern attack rolls and damage rolls (excluding spells) and also are used in determining armour class. Some classes are trammelled towards one or the other (like barbarians, monks and rogues) but for a lot of classes there is a real choice as to whether be strength based or dex based.

I’ll say from the start I think a high dex is more useful than a high strength as it’s likely to be relied upon more often. But before I launch into explaining why and what a DM might do about it, I want to stress, the best thing to do is probably nothing at all.

Even if there is an imbalance between the stats, is it really causing an issue in your game? All that matters is that the players feel that their characters are how they mean them to be. The players probably don’t care about even the actual adventure half as much as DMs would like to think. They care about their characters. As long as their character works in the way they want it to work and isn’t being overshadowed by another player’s character abilities, everything is probably fine.

If a player is running the only ‘strong one’ in a group then his/her role is special regardless of the merits of strength vs dex. Messing about with the rule set of D&D is something to do with great caution. Yes, the DM has the power to do it but that doesn’t mean it’s a good idea. This is just stuff to be aware of in case you notice a player is feeling undermined in his/her character creation choices

 

Attacks

Strength opens the widest range of melee weapons for those classes who are proficient with all martial weapons. Only weapons with the finesse property can be wielded using a character’s dexterity and these weapons roll a d8 damage dice as a maximum. I have had players ask me about custom weapons that they would like me to allow and I stick to Dex based weapons capping at d8 damage. It doesn’t matter much to me as a DM if a dexy fighter has a d10 weapon but I think that could take away something special from the strength based characters.

The weapons that use d10, d12 and 2d6 can only be used with a strength-based attack and damage roll and these weapons can include additional properties like longer reach. However, in reality this isn’t much of a boon for the strength-based character or a limitation for the dex based character. Like finesse weapons, one-handed strength based weapons also cap at a d8 damage dice, and if a fighter, ranger or paladin wants to dual wield with a second weapon or carry a shield then they suffer no real detriment by being dex based over being strength based. Important to note that for unarmed strikes, only strength can be used unless the character is a monk.

Ranged attacks

In terms of ranged attacks, Dexterity governs the use of fired weapons, like bows, whilst strength can only be used with thrown weapons, such as javelins. The normal range of a javelin caps at 30’ and anything over this is made at disadvantage but even short bows have a normal range of 80’. Facing enemies a distance away, the dex based character has a true tactical choice between holding position whilst firing a ranged weapon or advancing into melee. The strength-based character has a less balanced choice as (specific situations aside) at a range over 30’ their thrown attack will be at disadvantage. Under 30’ and they could likely move into melee range. This can leave a player feeling their javelins aren’t really that useful. All in all, dex is the better combat stat unless a two-handed weapon is chosen and even then possibly edges into the front for sake of versatility.

Saves

 

Strength doesn’t have one of the three big saves attached to it which already puts it on second pegging. Spell effects usually require a save against dexterity, constitution or wisdom with spell saves vs strength, intelligence and charisma being quite rare. This isn’t a bad thing per se but having a major save connected to it is a big boost to the importance of a stat in pure game mechanics. However, out of the ‘minor saves’, strength is probably the most likely to crop up. Resisting a grapple, shove or avoiding being swept downstream when wading a torrential river are obvious uses that are fairly common. Dex saves are of course far more common due to their use vs spells, being strong doesn’t help you take cover from a fireball! They also are quite common saves vs traps, like dodging projectiles and jumping back from pit traps or simple physical effects like rolling aside from a landslide or avoiding falls from unstable surfaces like storm swept ships and the like. 

 

However, a worthy benefit of a strong Strength save is the ability to break free from a restrained condition. Many creatures in the monster manual can automatically inflict ‘restrained’ and this immobilises a character, effectively removing the player’s ability to do anything or make any choices which is what playing D&D is. A good strength save modifier is more than a tactical benefit, it can keep you playing D&D instead of sitting out a round or two.

Armour Class

 

Strength and Dex go head to head again in being used to determine a character’s armour class. Heavier armours require a higher strength score to be able to be worn but rely less upon a character’s dex mod.

At level 1 the distinction is stark. A fighter (I’ll use male pronouns) with a sufficient strength score can start in chainmail for a solid AC 16 and his dex is irrelevant to that number. The same class, (so let’s use female pronouns for a distinction) assuming she has pumped her dex up as far as standard array or point buy systems allow can start with a dex mod of +3 and leather armour which affords AC 14.

By the time they reach level 4 and the Additional Stat Increase, the strength-based fighter would do well to boost his strength gaining +1 to his attack and damage rolls but gaining no change to his AC. He might have found the 200gp to upgrade to splint armour though to reach AC 17. The Dex based fighter is similarly going to carefully consider boosting her dex at the level 4 stat increase which will get her the same +1 benefit to attack and damage rolls as a strength perk did for her burly companion but also increases her AC to 15. It also much easier for her to afford the 45gp for studded leather armour which would take her to AC 16. In fact, she was probably able to buy that by level 2 if there was any on sale.

Beyond that the strength-based PC might look to buy a suit of plate armour to reach AC 18. That needs 1,500gp as listed in the PHB and a supplier of plate armour is unlikely to be found in your average farming town. By level 8 the agile swordswoman could cap out at dex 20 and reach AC 17 herself. Heavy armour also puts a character a disadvantage on all stealth checks and that’s a major detriment. Having +1 or -1 AC is unlikely to affect the choices a player makes in game situations but being at disadvantage on Stealth certainly will.

 

Ability Checks

So onto ability checks and the specific skill sets in which a player can assign proficiency for their character. Dex governs the skills of Acrobatics, Sleight of Hand and Stealth whilst Strength governs Athletics only.

 

Acrobatics

In my experience Acrobatics rolls represent some very fun moments for the group and especially the player making them as they can be very cool, slick moves. A player can decide to rely upon a solid acrobatics mod in how they play individually, without needing the rest of the group to be on board with their plan. They can wall-spring, somersault and leap about in combat which the DM can easily reflect with suitable bonuses and penalties but most importantly of all, the character appears cool and the whole table is given an impression of the character and the picture of him/her in their imagination grows. It can be a very ‘fun’ proficiency to have that doesn’t require any particular circumstance for you to be able to leverage it.

Sleight of Hand

Sleight of Hand is most commonly associated with rogues; for pick-pocketing and lock picking (which also has its own tool proficiency) and whilst those things do come up often enough they are situational. You can’t lockpick an owlbear to death in the same way you can try to leap over its head. I’ve called for Sleight of Hand rolls to catch thrown potions or untie complicated knots which might be a tenuous usage but I try to bring it into game a bit more than just having the rogue roll it occasionally as the rest of the team safely ignore its application to their characters

Stealth

Stealth is one of the most called for checks in my games. Given the surprise rules and the advantage a party can gain from being in best position, Stealth has a multitude of applications. After all what is ‘dungeoneering’ if not covertly infiltrating an enemy position? In the average dungeon the party will seek to make progress carefully, avoiding traps and detection and eliminating hostile creatures in smaller groups, one at a time. Fewer situations in my games benefit from the party storming in heedless of being noticed (although that doesn’t stop them from trying). There is an element of stealth in an awful lot of what they do. A player can run a character in a full and engaged way without ever or rarely needing to make a Sleight of Hand check, an Arcana check or Performance check but, unless I’m running my games differently to most people, I find everyone needs to make Stealth check now and again. The Player’s Handbook seems to recognise this by including group Stealth Checks where if the majority pass, they all pass and vice versa. Whatever the reasoning, disadvantage on Stealth checks can be a punishing hit to take for wearing certain armours. Even if your character’s main role isn’t as the scout, thief or assassin, it will often be useful to have proficiency in Stealth.

 

Athletics

Athletics is another very oft used skill and I have to admit I can find it tempting to rely on it when really it should be a simple Strength check. Bending bars, breaking bonds, kicking down a door or lifting a portcullis are simple Strength checks and Athletics is limited to use in climbing, running and swimming by the letter of the rules. In a party where each character has their own role I can see the big fighter player getting a tad frustrated that the rogue can roll Stealth and add his proficiency (or even expertise) but his character doesn’t get to do the same when stepping up to do his job.

Picking the lock? There’s a specific proficiency for that. Kicking the door down? No. When the party do have to climb a dangerous rock face the strength character can again be denied his chance to properly shine. To avoid the situation where the sneaky cat-burglar rogue really can’t climb very well, Thief rogues have a second story work feature to make up for such failings.

 

The person playing the ‘strong one’ has to watch as the dexy character aces things they could never attempt, with nice, fat mods to the rolls whilst they are told their actions don’t attract their proficiency bonus and also then see the rogue’s own short-coming in strength made up for. As long as you have a big lug hanging around with you, you might not need a decent strength score. After all, once the door is kicked in or the bars are bent they tend to stay that way.

 

When it comes to actions beyond ‘attack’ Dex is easier to leverage than strength and you are more likely to feel you are running an agile and skilled character by prioritising dex than you are to feel you are running a powerful and muscular character by prioritising strength.

Encumbrance?

Encumbrance and carrying capacity are worth a mention as these are things where dex will not help you but being strong will. In my experience most people don’t use encumbrance because players don’t like it. It adds book-keeping and an attention to detail that a lot of people don’t find fun in their games of D&D. Without it, a character’s carrying capacity of fifteen times their strength score isn’t likely to be an issue very often.

Meaningful choices for player + Opportunity to shine for character = Fun game

Like I said at the start, this imbalance probably isn’t going to cause an issue. If it does that is likely to be due to the specific character class combinations and player personalities at your game but it’s those people we want to have fun.

 

It’s also likely entirely the intention of the game’s designers that some characters have a far less complicated rule sets to run. Some new players might struggle to run a bard or cleric and would have a better time with a barbarian or fighter. Getting lost in the rules isn’t a fun way to play and running a big strong fighter or barbarian allows a player to have clear role in the party and not have to worry about spell slots or being under the spot-light in social interaction scenes. Of course, some experienced players might want to run a beefy melee class and they might benefit from the DM creating some more options for them.

 

I again stress that messing with the rules is probably not the way to go, they have been rigorously play-tested and your players know them. Asking them to re-learn new rules isn’t fun and only to be done if there is an appetite for it and really solid reason for your group and play style. I find I get better results if I try to tailor my DMing decisions behind the screen to create the right game feel – which is what I guess it’s all about

Here are some suggestions IF you feel you need them:

 
Use a few monsters that have a grapple ability.

Lots of creatures in the Monster Manual impose a grappled and/or restrained condition on PCs. Some of them allow a save which is often Dex or Strength but some automatically apply the condition upon a hit. Even if the PC can dexy-dodge it to begin with, once the PC is restrained, it’s usually a Strength check to bust out. I try to use this sparingly as a low strength character can find themselves taken out of the fight for a couple of rounds and that’s not a fun way to be challenged.

 

Introduce a few tavern brawls where a punch up is part of the life of rough hostelry but drawing steel isn’t.

The barbarian will love it. To avoid such fights being unending, with PCs and NPCs punching each other for endless rounds of combat you can easily create a combat substructure. After losing ¼ of the their HP a brawler is knocked out or has taken enough that he’s out of the fight. This way even a Strength 10 rogue can knock out a commoner in one punch and the barbarian can go toe-to-toe with a Veteran or Thug stat line without it taking all session. I’m not claiming this is a rigorously designed application to the general combat rules but allows for a quick pub fight without too much explaining or rules tinkering.

Add some bias to the magic weapons in your world

Now I realise this is a controversial view but please don’t think I take it too far. A magic sword can be any type of sword usually but I tend to think what it would be. If it wasn’t made by elves then I tend to think it’s likely to be longsword or a great sword. If you were a magical blacksmith making your finest work for a great knight or king would it likely be a short sword or a rapier? The king would ask you what happened to the other foot of the blade. I’ve told my players I do this (I don’t think they paid any attention) but in my game worlds there are more magic long swords than there are other types of magic swords. I wouldn’t want to cheat a player out of having a magic weapon but the strength-based PC is likely to have a magic weapon first and he’s likely to have a slightly better one as the game progresses. Named, +2 swords with bonus abilities tend to be kingly, knightly weapons in my view. Again, do this with caution, one of my ranger players has bad-ass matching short swords +2 with bonus abilities and I created a mini-quest so a monk could get a magical three-section-staff. I don’t want to short change the dex based player or anything; that’s the opposite of the intention.

ADD THE ‘HEAVE’ SKILL TO YOUR GAME

Rather than be tempted to allow an Athletics check when lifting things you can incorporate an additional skill; Heave. If you can have a specific aptitude in fitness tasks with Athletics why not in maximal muscular output? I suppose it has to be best practise to make this available to appropriate classes at character creation but if you just gifted it to the barbarian mid-campaign I think most people find it intuitively fair and won’t imbalance your game.

 

Include some rusty locks that can’t be picked

That door needs to come off the hinges! This again should be used with caution. If the PC can’t kick the door down (and I don’t allow repeated attempts unless something has changed) and they can’t pick it then they can’t get in there. For a mid-level party this usually isn’t a problem as they always have a spell or something as a way of getting around it. If the worst that happens is they have to burn a slot, sobeit. I just try to avoid obstacles that can only be overcome in one manner.

Don’t impose disadvantage on Stealth checks for wearing armour

I know, this is an actual rule change, but it won’t break the game and it’s a simple variance that can free up party options. More options; more fun. You could still refuse to allow a player to add a Stealth proficiency mod if they’re in a heavier armour (most heavy armour wearers won’t have it anyway) nobody wants ninjas in full-plate.

Be candid about mighty daring leaps

Allow players to attempt to leap further than the standard ‘strength score in feet’ on passing an Athletics check. This is something to be open with your players about as unless they know the option is there then it really isn’t there. Also, I’d advise keeping a note of how much extra distance you will allow and what DC would required. If someone could fall down a ravine, you need to be extra certain that you’re consistent! You’d also perhaps need to be careful not to imbalance your game but as you create encounter environments (arguably more important that the opponents for an exciting fight) you’ll be able to build this in – those goblin archers are on a ledge just outside the reach of a regular leap; is it worth the risk? Once again an advantage of this exists in adding a clear risk vs benefit choice to the players for them to weigh in the balance of the moment.

Have humanoid monsters use creative strength-based actions in combat

If an orc tries to throw the halfling rogue out of position, it will give the players the ‘permission’ to try to think of such things themselves. Besides, an ogre hitting the barbarian with the wizard is awesome. Not everything needs to be tactical to be worthwhile or fun!

Use ‘off-set’ skill checks

The PHB gives the example of the Strength (Intimidation) check but this can go so much further. You could use Strength (Performance) checks at a flex off, Strength (Religion) checks at a vigil; the list is limited only by your imagination. However, these things might not come up unless the DM pro-actively presents the opportunity to the group. As it requires some creativity in how the DM applies the rules the players could be forgiven in not creating these situations for themselves.

 

Conclusion

Action heroes in film are often big and muscular but in D&D perhaps the opportunity to show that side of adventuring can be overshadowed by the skills of the ‘I’m dexy and I know it’ characters. I’m keen to stress that this really is a tool of analysis not something to be used as a guide to adventure or encounter design during your prep. I’m not advocating any house rules or anything. If anything it’s more useful as something just to keep in mind for the meta of your table in terms of how often you call for checks against Dex based attributes in relation to Strength based ones. You probably don’t need to change what you’re doing but by being aware of this you might be able to keep your players happy before anyone feels side lined.  

Thanks for reading and remember, we can all level up!

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