I must create a system, or be enslaved by another man's. I will not reason and compare: my business is to create.

- William Blake

Sunday, April 04, 2021

Dexterity, the god-stat that failed

In my latest post about armor, I 've got one comment saying: "I like it, except for negative Dex modifiers applying to plate armour. Dexterity is already the God Stat in 5e, and the last thing martials need is a nerf, however slight. SOMEONE in the world should be able to dump Dex."

He is definitely right.

Dex is already too powerful in 5e, and I've fallen into the same trap, so I am changing that part. Dex shouldn't affect you in heavy armor, even if negative, at least in the usual 5e rules.

There are three main functions for Dexterity in D&D: agility (the ability to dodge, do acrobatics, etc.), aim (shoot ranged weapons) and precise hand movements (pick locks, etc.). This sounds like too much already - in  real life, there's no reason to assume that a decent marksmen is good at acrobatics - but, fair enough, abilities are meant to be broad.

But Dexterity is also the main thing defining your initiative. Even if you're casting a spell. So, dexterous characters also think fast. 

And there is combat. Now, Dexterity allows you to fight with a rapier (not a light weapon in real life...) or shortsword as efficiently as a strong fighter, and dealing the same amount of damage.

Wielding a 18 lb. crossbow? Better have good Dex - because Str in unimportant. Longbow - a weapon that requires a lot of strength to draw? Better have good Dex too, since a longbow doesn't require (or use) strength in the game (well, unless you're using some of the ideas like the ones I've mentioned in Manual of Arms).

Art by Rick Troula.

Dex allows you to have high AC with no armor or light armor. Fair enough, Str lets you wear heavy armor... Although you might have a penalty to stealth because of that, and the armor is encumbering, obvious to enemies, takes some time to put on (and take off), and there are even official modules that say you cannot sleep in armor, or go through the jungle in armor, etc. ad nauseam.

Saving Throws? Same. Dex saves are the most common in the game. For some reason, that heavy armor you're wearing won't protect you from a fireball or some fire traps (oh, you use Dex to disarm non-magical traps, obviously). Fortunately, a trap that shoots arrows attacks AC - do not ask for a Dex saving throw!

Then, there are skills. Dexterity has three in 5e: Acrobatics, Sleight of Hand, and Stealth. "Mental" abilities (Int, Wis, Cha) have 4-5 skills each, but Str has only one - and Con, none. 

And tools. Check the Player's Handbook, page 154: 
Tool use is not tied to a single ability, since proficiency with a tool represents broader knowledge of its use. For example, the DM might ask you to make a Dexterity check to carve a fine detail with your woodcarver's tools, or a Strength check to make something out of particularly hard wood.
Both Dex and Str are used as examples... but Dex see to be the norm, with Str the exception ("particularly hard wood"...). I wonder which stat is used to build a chair out of ordinary wood. But I digress. I think most tools would use Intelligence, which is nice because Int deserves the boost.

Here is more form the PHB: 
Other Dexterity Checks. The GM might call for a Dexterity check when you try to accomplish tasks like the following:
- Control a heavily laden cart on a steep descent
- Steer a chariot around a tight turn
- Pick a lock
- Disable a trap
- Securely tie up a prisoner
- Wriggle free of bonds
- Play a stringed instrument
- Craft a small or detailed object
So, now I can play a lute with Dex. And control a heavily laden cart... I assume the PC is on the cart, otherwise I'd use Str. Knots? They require Dex too. In real life, knots require more knowledge (of which knot to use, etc.) than dexterity.

Maybe I'm nitpicking, but I believe I've made my point.

So, instead of complaining, I want to offer some solutions.

* Initiative. The idea that you need high Dex to quickly cast a spell, for example, makes little sense. You can just ditch initiative and you won't lose much. Or, in other words, make a single roll for initiative and whatever ability or skill you're using (casting a spell that doesn't require a roll, use you casting stat).

* AC. I'll skip this one, since I've been writing a series of posts on armor and will continue soon.

* Weapons. My suggestion is this: you always add Strength bonus to damage, regardless of weapon. If this is too radical, consider adding "composite bows" to your games.

* Tools. They should use Intelligence by default. Intelligence is a weak stat for non-casters in 5e. Knots are a matter of Intelligence. Artistry is Intelligence, Wisdom, maybe even Charisma... not Dexterity. well, unless you're dancing or something.

* Saves. First, do not use a Dex save when your armor could (as least theoretically) protect you. But this might require big changes to the game. A less radical approach is just giving +1 to Dex saves when wearing medium armor, +2 when wearing heavy armor. This represents the fact that, while it might be harder to dodge an Cordon of Arrows while in heavy armor, it is somewhat useful to have your entire body covered in metal when that happens!
Or am I crazy for suggesting plate armor should offer some protection agasint arrows?

Of course, you do not get to add a bonus if you're trying to dodge Black Tentacles, since they will grab you feet no matter what you're wearing!

FWIW, I'm incorporating some of these ideas in my next Manual of Arms. I hope I can publish it in April!

Some of them don't fit 5e that well, so I'll incorporate them in my minimalist D&D, further down the line.


  1. Fix for Dex-based initiative.

    Initiative should be the highest (skill + roll) total, and yes, Casters should have to roll casting, and targets should only rarely get a save on a successfully cast roll.

    That way, if the caster gets the highest roll, despite it being a powerful spell, it goes first. Or a melee fighter gets a nat 20, they go first unless someone else gets a nat 20 and their total with the N20 is higher than the fighter's, etc.

    1. Yes, exactly! One roll is enough. Rolled a nat 20 for initiative? congrats, you act first and your blow is a critical hit!

    2. This is like 1E WEG Star Wars. Everyone declares their action and rolls. The referee resolves from highest roll to lowest.

      e.g.: If Han's blaster roll is higher than Greedo's, he shoots first and potentially kills Greedo before he can return fire even if Greedo's own roll was enough to hit Han.

    3. Great system and PERFECT example!

  2. My 'standard' answer to Dex's power is to divide it into Dexterity, AC and Agility. Agi takes over Initiative and Reflex, while Dex keeps Ranged Attacks. The Skills are split too: Agi gets Stealth and Acrobatics while Dex keeps dealing with locks, traps and slight of hand (I forget how 5e breaks those down).

    1. Yup, that's a great idea! I once wrote a system with 8 stats (divided Dex into Dex/Agi and also Wis into Perception and Willpower), but never published it.