Hipsters & Dragons

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Strength vs Dexterity: It’s Time to Punish Weaklings!

I read a fair few Dungeons & Dragons blogs and stumble upon umpteen D&D discussions a week, in various corners of the web, and one comment I notice pretty often is someone bemoaning how powerful Dexterity is in 5th edition compared to Strength.

It’s hard not to agree with those grumppots. After all, the Dexterity-based character gets the same bonus to attack and damage rolls that a Strength-based character gets (assuming they have equal scores), plus they get a very significant bonus to their AC and to their initiative rolls. Not only that but your Dexterity score is tied to three types of skill check, vs. only one for Strength, plus Dexterity saving throws are far more common than Strength ones.

“I came here to drink ale and crush weaklings. And I just finished my ale…”

As a 140 lb weakling (about 120 lbs before quarantine!), I’m totally into the fantasy that the nimble, fast guy/gal is just as badass, if not more, than the brutish thug… but as a realist, that’s simply not the case. You can be as fast and agile as you like, but if you want to plunge a shortsword or shoot an arrow through leather, scales, chain or plate, you want to be as strong as possible… or at the very least you don’t want to be weak.

This, it seems, is not reflected through 5e’s Dexterity-tinted glasses.

If you want to even the scores, so to speak, then here is a Hipster House Rule for that gritty campaign you’re planning…

Punish the Weak

When you make a ranged weapon attack with a dart, sling or bow, or a melee attack which uses your Dexterity modifier, you must include any negative Strength modifier you have to your attack and damage rolls.

I think this is a simple and realistic way of preventing weaklings running around the battlefield like Conan (the frontline fighter with their Strength as a dump stat is rather infuriating IMHO!), while also making the crossbow a more attractive option for the athletically challenged.

If your players start crying at this proposal you could a) point them in the direction of this Youtube video of Bruce Lee doing two fingered push ups and tell them to get ripped or get out or b) try this watered down version instead:

Variant: (Slightly) Punish the Weak

When you make a ranged weapon attack with a dart, sling or bow, or a melee attack which uses your Dexterity modifier, you must include any negative Strength modifier you have to your damage rolls.

Remember Encumbrance!

UPDATE: A friend of mine just commented that the optional encumbrance rules in the Player’s Handbook are another great way of preventing Dex-based characters as using Strength as some kind of dump stat! They are quite prohibitive actually, and might also stop your PCs becoming tedious hoarders of monsters’ body parts.

Give Strength A Boost

Alternatively, you could approach the problem from a different angle, and give a boon to Strength-based fighters. It could be something simple like they get to double their damage modifier on critical hits, whereas Dex-based characters don’t. It won’t come up too often, but it’s a way of showing your appreciation for all the hours their PC put in at the gym.

Right, I just had this thought today so thought I’d get to publishing… I’ve been pretty quiet of late because I’m at the intense end stage of a year-long project that I will publishing soon(ish) on the DMs Guild. It involves gladiators.

Subscribe, follow, etc. to stay informed!

(And as soon as it does go live I’m gonna blast out the thirty or so new post ideas I have backed up on the blog! So plenty of reading material for regular readers to digest during another winter of Covid-induced discontent… I will do my best to keep our spirits raised dear friends!).

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15 Comments

  1. Dennis

    Strength minimums (like for heavy armour) for bows and thrown weapons would be realistic way to make strength more important. Drawing a powerful warbow requires strength, sure anybody can draw a light target bow, but perhaps that only does d4 damage.

    Crossbows get around this until you get rid of the Crossbow Master feat. Heavy medieval crossbows required winch like devices to draw them, and only the strongest people could draw anything approaching a combat effective crossbow without mechanical assistance. It makes no sense that one can be fired, reloaded, and fired again in a few seconds. Perhaps (high) minimum strength scores could be set for rapidly reloading light and hand crossbows.

    Also make heavy armour readily available as it goes a long way toward evening the field between high and low Dexterity characters.

    • duncan

      I don’t think Strength minimums make sense for thrown weapons… anyone can attempt to throw a dagger for example, I just think that a weaker person has a disadvantage. And they shouldn’t be able to hide that disadvantage via their Dexterity.

      As you say crossbows just aren’t realistic in a game based around 6 second turns, so it’s hard to know what to do there, but some min. strength requirement would add some realism, even more so with bows. But I don’t think it would be low enough to make a major difference. A Str 8 character isn’t actually a weakling (despite the title of my post), they are just less strong than average. That’s why it makes more sense just to force them to use their negative modifier.

  2. Rick Coen

    I like the “STR penalties apply to damage rolls” rule. They (those pesky DEX specialists) still get their exceptional accuracy. They still get their DEX bonus to damage, even if it might be slightly (-1 due to 8 STR) mitigated by poor STR.

    The only problem is: while I like keeping track of these kinds of modifiers, my players don’t. And 5e is about simplifying things — why have a rule that imposes only a -1 (can’t have less than 8 in a stat with point-buy) sometimes?

    I also like STR mins on more armors… but the DEXters aren’t wearing those armors anyway. Encumbrance now… I have started using this. Not in any official circumstance, but just when the PCs start grabbing heavy stuff. (Like last session, a warehouse full of 20-pound ingots of various metals; or the 10-pound mysterious glass sphere.)

    I use STR/Athletics checks for movement around the battlefield. Here’s the key, though — I do allow STR/Acrobatics if the DEXster can explain how they can acrobat up the tree, or across the crevasse. So they can use their Proficiency for being skilled in Acrobatics, but it is still a STR check!

  3. Dexterity is definitely a bit OP in D&D, but I have kind of accepted it as a fact of life.

    At least there are builds that encourage Strength, namely:

    -Barbarians have to use Strength in order to gain access to all the bonuses from their class, namely the rage damage bonus and reckless attack require you to use Strength for the attack rolls

    -Using Full Plate requires a 15 Strength if you don’t want to be really slow. Plate does give a +1AC bonus over other forms of AC

    And yeah, it’s nice to have at least one burly character to carry all the stuff.

    With that said, your first house rule seems fine, though really what it does is encourage people to put 2 points into Strength to bring it up to 10 rather than put those points into, say, Wisdom or Charisma. So it’s still barely a step above a dump stat for most classes in that scenario. I could also see the second working fine too as a minor but fun bonus.

    • Rick Coen

      This parallels my comment. Your wording triggered a thought, though, that meshes with something in the article — rather than gimping DEXsters, enhance the STRongmen (and women, no flames please). He suggested doubling up STR bonus on a crit as an example. My campaign – and many others – have “Composite Bows” or similar weapons, where you can apply your STR bonus to a missile weapon; my campaign also has crossbows with STR mins (some allow you to fire faster instead of cranking, the really big ones require STR just to use the crank!).

      Other options might be minor enhancements that reverse-reflect (if I can invent a concept) encumbrance: rather than track encumberance on the weak characters, maybe give “not bothered by weight” perks to the strong ones. Like “If your STR exceeds the min on the armor by a certain amount, ignore some penalty / get some bonus” (and then put “STR min 8” on Leather, for example). The DEXsters can still wear the armor, but the STRsters can wear it like clothes, brute forcing through any restrictiveness. Could do similar with Light weapons – bonus damage from STR when using these weapons, or even bonus accuracy (to reflect penetration).

      In my ideal system, wearing armor blocks/reduces damage, STR does damage, DEX gets you the hit. Both are needed!

      • duncan

        Hi Rick

        I like the idea of stronger characters being able to ignore armour penalties, but the only armour penalties in RAW are a top limit on your Dex modifier (if we removed that we’d be making Dex even more powerful!), and disadvantage on Stealth… the disadvantage from stealth comes (to my mind at least) more from the reflections of metal armour and the creaking, rubbing and clinking of metal on metal, so it doesn’t make sense that stronger characters could ignore that.

        The only thing I can think of then would be to offer disadvantage on Athletics checks to do with climbing and jumping if you don’t meet a certain strength threshold in relation to the armour. But I guess it would need a bespoke table based on the armours’ relative weights.

    • duncan

      Hi Rory, as you hint at, even applying my rule there’s still no point having over 10 strength, when maybe there should be. But at least the rule prevents character builds who fight on the front line, going hand to hand with ogres and the like, hiding a poor strength behind a great Dex… I just feel that a high Dex shouldn’t be able to gloss over the (literal) weaknesses of your character, at least not in a combat situation.

  4. Vince

    I’m not currently DMing, but will be in new year. I’m consideringng with the following house rules:
    – Players can choose to add their Dex bonus or their Proficiency bonus to initiative rolls. This doesn’t nerf Dex builds, but gives other experienced characters combat reactions.
    – Players can add Dex bonus to hit when using finesse weapons but don’t get a bonus to damage. Similarly, for Thrown weapons, add Str bonus to damage but not to hit. These are a bit more realistic but not difficult to apply, and give Dex builds a reason to use finesse weapons without making them ridiculous melee and range combatants.
    Any thoughts or advice on those?

    I’d also love to let characters proficient in armour add their Proficiency bonus to AC, but it would break game. I think the designers missed a trick here. It’s the only Proficiency that doesn’t actually give a bonus.

    • duncan

      Hi Vince

      Not saying any of those are bad ideas, but here are some counterpoints.

      – Re: initiative. Would you extend the same courtesy to NPCs and monsters? That would mean higher CR monsters would get a nice boost… esp. those cumbersome ones with low Dex! Once PCs reach a certain level they will all have the same initiative bonus. Final point… is this rule really in need of fixing?

      – Dexterity in D&D allows you to do damage by striking in the right place and by being accurate (not by hitting harder). A bit like how the designers justify sneak attack doing so much damage. I would perhaps support less damage on Dex based attacks… ie. half modifier maybe, or you are forced to use strength instead, whichever is highest, but I think offering no damage bonus is too far. Any reduction won’t be popular with your players, just to warn you!

      Regarding armour, well without proficiency you get a tonne of debilitating penalties (p.144 of the PH). So there’s a massive difference between being proficient or non-proficient already built into the game. Another interesting way the designers could have gone, as you suggest, would for armour to offer a lower flat AC bonus for anyone, regardless of proficiency, and then add the proficiency bonus on top for those that had it. That would have led to a game where your AC rises as you level up, making you harder to kill… in D&D that extra toughness, resilience and damage absorption is represented by rising hit points instead (which are not to be mistaken for literal physical toughness alone, but also the ability to turn what would be major blows to a less experienced character into a minor ones for a more experienced one).

      Just some of my immediate thoughts!

      • Vince

        Thanks Duncan, I appreciate the reply.
        1. Yes, I was thinking of adding appropriate proficiency bonus to monsters’ initiative in the same way. Higher CR monsters should have excellent combat reactions, regardless of Dex. And yes, PCs would end up with the same initiative bonus – not ideal, but that would only be at higher levels. Finally, I don’t think the initiative rule needs fixing (although there certainly are lots of house rule options suggested in other blogs, using Wis or changing initiative every round, etc) – what I do think needs fixing , like your blog says above, is the overpowered nature of Dex.
        2. Good points, thank you. You’re right that it will certainly not be popular with players at my table, but the other option may be to play encumbrance rules properly (as you suggest), which is also going to be unpopular. Will speak with players.
        3. Yeah, I do know the effects of not having armour proficiency, but even still, every other weapon, skill, tool, etc that is tied to proficiency scales with levels. But for some reason, as you go up in levels, you don’t get any better at using armour effectively in combat. I’d favour AC with proficiency bonus and lower hit points totals, but again, I’m not actually suggesting this without a full rethink of the game and balance – and that’s beyond my immediate priorities for game I’ll be running.
        Thanks for the blog and your follow-up to my comment.

  5. DrDebits

    My homebrew

    AC: DEX bonus is not added to armor when the wearers speed is zero.

    Armor: Medium Armor that gives disadvantage to stealth adds up to 2 STR instead of 2 DEX to the AC.

    • Rick Coen

      If you can’t move you can’t dodge, eh? I like it, but I’m reminded of BattleTech, where there is a difference between “not moving” and “being immobile” – one provides no defense bonus, the other gives enemies a bonus to hit and called shots. But I guess that could be the difference here as well – Immobile vs. Restrained.

      I don’t allow DEX bonus either, for unconscious/incapacitated creatures. I have continued to let Immobile and Restrained keep their DEX bonus because (a) it’s easier on me as DM, (b) it reflects shifts of body and mass to minimize hurts, and (c) the players don’t want these rules applied on *them*!

      One similar armor rule I was considering, though, was to allow a high STR character to get AC bonus Heavy Armor if they outstrength’d its minimum; and, a companion rule, anyone can use their CON bonus instead of DEX bonus with Medium or Heavy Armor (but at -2).

      • duncan

        haven’t played BattleTech for about 25 years! Used to love that!

        I think I would rather let grappled creatures keep their Dex bonus as they are being held, not restrained… and can still parry etc. But I might not with restrained. But points a) and c) definitely loom large!

        Maybe all armour needs a table whereby your strength dictates how much use your Dexterity is in the armour… ie. you need to be strong enough, to be able to move freely, and if so, you can use more of your Dex. modifier. I realise that doesn’t do much to make Dex. less powerful… but my goal at the table is rather punish combatants who think they can discard Strength all togehter.

        • Rick Coen

          Could be as simple as “You must have STR bonus equal to the DEX bonus you are using.” But then even Leather would require massive STR.

          Maybe a caveat of “or equal to the armor bonus, whichever is less”? But then Leather still takes 12 STR to get any DEX bonus out of.

          Hmmm…. STR + Prof must equal your DEX bonus or the armor bonus?

          I’ll just stop – maybe not as simple as I hoped! I’d want the rule to be intuitive, though, instead of another table to look up.

    • duncan

      Hi DrDebits

      Hard to argue with the first… (although it’s quite punitive, when in most of those situations attackers get advantage on their rolls anyway, which in some ways represents the target’s lack of manoeuvrability. If you enforce that do you have ask every PC to note their ‘flatfooted’ AC as well and have it handy?)

      What’s the narrative reason behind the second rule? I’m having trouble rationalising that one…

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