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F.A.P.: The Problem With Dexterity

Posted By John Arcadian On August 15, 2008 @ 2:58 am In GMing Advice | 10 Comments

I’m going to be starting a new series of posts about Frequently Abused Powers. Things that can overpower a game and kill the fun factor. Something like a really high Dexterity. I’m going to call it . . .

F.A.P. (Frequently Abused Powers): The Problem With Dexterity

Ahh Dexterity, a god stat by any other name. In any game system that emphasizes any sort of combat it is usually Dexterity (Reflexes, Mobility, etc.) that players can min-max with the most ease. Dexterity seems to crop up as the broken stat in almost any game system. Why is dexterity such a problem?

The hard tasks becomes easy; The realistically impossible task becomes doable.
Building a character with a high dexterity isn’t necessarily a problem. Only when it is in excess or is making a game less fun is it an issue. The biggest problem with a high dexterity (or any overused attribute) is that it can make hard tasks incredibly easy. When a character no longer bats an eyelash at attempting to pick an incredibly difficult lock or avoid a poison dart it starts to feel less like a game and more like look how cool that character is. Some players will love this but only if they are the one doing it. It can also force the Game Master to ramp up the dexterity based challenges and make them break the reality barrier. Exactly how is the duke of this poor country able to afford such incredibly high quality nearly unbeatable locks that seem to be on every single door?

Unfortunately it’s realistic.
Dexterity controls so many different tasks and actions that are related to combat and other areas of finesse that it can’t help but be a little broken. Dexerity is akey factor in things like dodging, attacking with precise weapons, firing ranged weapons, getting to act first, and blocking attacks to name just a few of its applications. Since it also key to other sorts of actions like sleight of hand, piloting, fine motor control, etc. a character can become overpowered in multiple areas with just this one stat.

Dexterity makes one player good at everything but there are 4 players at the table.
The biggest problem that I’ve ever found with a character with a high Dexterity is that it tends to give him or her the biggest piece of cake. Other players who can’t waltz past the same challenges are left with a little less fun and tend to be less active participants. I hate to limit a player’s enjoyment but I hate to see other players having limited enjoyment more.

Dealing With Devious Dexterity.

Game System Limits
Most game systems have ways of preventing characters from having one stat go too high. Using these limits can help you keep an overpowered Dexterity stat in check. If you decide to limit a player with something like this, make sure it is reasonable. Most players hate to see a character lose any kind of power bonus.

House Rules
If dexterity plays too much of a part in a game and is tarnishing the fun element, then come up with some house rules to limit its effectiveness. Nerf the armor bonus that it adds or convey a similar type of bonus for other statistics. Wisdom and Perception can come into play with dodging almost as much as dexterity does. Make sure that house rules don’t detract from the fun of the game and prevent players from flexing their fine motor controlling muscles if that is what they really want to do. The key here is to make the change universal.

Understand Dexterity’s brokenness and use it against the players.
2 words – Dodgy Enemy
4 words – Dodgy Knife Throwing Enemy
1 word – Ninja

Characters with high dexterity can be incredibly broken in a game but so can enemies with high dexterity. Throw a few ninja, acrobatic goblins, dodgy demons, etc. against the characters and give them a challenge. Characters and enemies with high dexterity can also lead to incredible epic and cinematic battles. Think about any kind of Kung Fu movie you’ve ever seen. Let the players and the enemies use their dexterity to its fullest and you might get a combat that looks pretty close to a Bruce Lee classic.

Dexterity’s enemy: perception!
A high dexterity is usually countered by whatever perception score a game system has. An NPC with a high perception, spot, etc. can usually prevent some of the non combat brokenness of dexterity. They can easily see things like pick pocketing or slipping poison into drinks. Some systems even incorporate perception into a characters ability to avoid hits. Having a high perception doesn’t necessarily stand out either. Any NPC could have a high perception and still look like any other NPC. Does the vizier really have eagle like eyes or is that guard going to be able to spot my indiscretion? Hard to tell unless the character has a high perception as well.

If Dexterity is the player’s hammer, start using screws.

If a player is solving everything with their high dexterity then change the dynamic of the game a bit. Shift some of the challenges to things they can’t beat with dexterity. No lock on that door huh, just an 800 pound stone block. Well time for creative problem solving or a broken Strength score. A situation where diplomacy is key? Pity you can’t pickpocket that one away. It is important to do things like this in moderation though. Limiting something broken shouldn’t take away from the players’ fun.

These are some of my thoughts on broken Dexterity. The more I think about it the more I find that determining if a power, skill or ability is broken is a matter of game balance and fun and is highly dependent on the players. A high dexterity can be incredibly fun to play with. Being able to dodge 4 out of every 5 shots is going to make most people smile with uncontained glee. What are some of your worst experiences with a character with broken dexterity? What are the best ways to deal with it that I’ve missed here?

About  John Arcadian

John Arcadian is the head of Silvervine Games, a freelance writer and art director, a website developer, a builder of sonic screwdrivers, and a purveyor of kilted mayhem. When he isn't out causing trouble in his kilt... Well, no, that is pretty much what he does when he isn't running RPGs or or trying to take over the world.




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10 Comments To "F.A.P.: The Problem With Dexterity"

#1 Comment By Troy E. Taylor On August 15, 2008 @ 6:39 am

Hammer and screws …

That is such an excellent point, John. I’m of the opinion that it’s a GOOD thing for players to max out on Dex and Dex skills, because it keeps d20 games (esp. d20 Modern) running smoothly. By the same token, it behooves the DM to adjust the challenges periodically to force them to consider other solutions.

As you say, Str and Wis are excellent counters to Dex. Don’t overlook magic. Effects that cause half-damage even when the Dex/Reflex check succeeds is another one. None of this is fatal to a character, but it’s usually enough to make them think twice on their next move.

#2 Comment By Scott Martin On August 15, 2008 @ 9:30 am

I often find that Dex is the best #2 stat (right after your primary stat, if yours isn’t dex) in most games. In White Wolf’s games it added to attack and dodge rolls; in D&D it adds to ranged attacks and AC. Getting both ends of combat effectiveness (the ability to hit and to avoid hits) in one stat makes it tempting if you want to survive combats.

OF course, other games do the same thing with a different stat– Coyote Trail rolls 90% of your skills into Fitness. It’s pretty hard to put a low score in core values like that, unless it’s a big part of the character concept or you need the stat/build points elsewhere.

#3 Comment By Sarlax On August 15, 2008 @ 9:31 am

Interesting. I’ve never thought of particular stats as broken.

I don’t think Dexterity is the problem, but the idea of a general measure of agility is unrealistic. I don’t expect many Olympic gymnasts are also expert locksmiths, for instance.

I think the problem is in designing challenges that are vulnerable to being easily overcome by a single quality that is otherwise valid to select. It’s like putting cookies on top of the fridge. Sure, it keeps out your little kids, but the teenagers can get them with no problem. Is “height” broken, or is the cookie security system inadequate?

IE, if Dexterity is enough to overcome a lot of challenges in the game, it’s time to come up with other kinds of challenges.

Some games are going to set up different expectations for challenge types, of course. In D&D, for instance, one expects a certain quota of pits to cross, locks to pick, and fireballs to dodge. But a difference of Dex 10 between two characters only represents a 25% chance of success difference. In 3E, the most Dexterous PC (at first level) will have Dex 20, but they’ll also likely have max ranks in Tumble, etc. By second level, their skill bonus is already as important as their natural talent. By 3rd level, their training is more important. In 4E, the “problem” isn’t going to be stats as much as it will be the training bonus in these skills.

In World of Darkness, bumps in stats mean something else. Each die have a 0.3 chance of giving you a success, but since you need only one success, an extra die means a lot more to a low stat PC than a high stat PC. For instance, if I’m working with a dice pool of 1 against a standard difficulty task of 1, I have a 30% chance of succeeding. If I have two dice against the same difficulty, I have a 51% chance. If I have three dice, I have a 65.7% chance. The biggest jump you can get is in going from 1 die to 2.

WoD has other things going on that change the analysis, though. For one, you almost never roll a raw stat like Dex on its own; it’s almost always paired with a skill, which, if you don’t have, makes you suffer a big penalty on your rolls. Drive is a Dex + Drive roll, but if you don’t have Drive, you take -1 to your pool – which means that your first dot of Drive is actually worth 2 dice.

With 5 Dex, you should have at least 4 dice for most Dex-related tasks, which means about a 76% chance of succeeding on simply difficulty tasks. Of course, as difficulty ramps up, you lose dice, and the odds slip back down.

As an Dex 4 athletic mage in Martin’s Las Vegas Mage game, I can see that Dex isn’t the be-all-end-all of stats. It’s nice, but I could have just as much fun and be just as capable (although in a somewhat different role) with any other stat at the same level.

I think this issue gets to how one defines “broken.” Is something broken only for allowing players to overcome challenges with greater than expected frequency?

#4 Comment By koranes On August 15, 2008 @ 9:48 am

Give the players power and then try to kill them as hard as you can … brilliant gnome tactics :-)

#5 Comment By Swordgleam On August 15, 2008 @ 1:35 pm

Perhaps it’s because I’ve played a lot of other systems more than d20, but I haven’t really noticed dex as broken. Maybe it’s just less broken in Iron Heroes, the version of d20 I favor at the moment.

Yeah, the Archer and the Hunter with maxed dex can hit anything they can see, and don’t get hit too often – but their max damage per hit with a bow is 8, whereas the high-str Man-at-Arms and Berserker’s /minimum/ damage with greatswords is 8, and they hit most of the time in melee. Those two might get hit a lot more themselves, but they have the HP to soak it up, thanks to their high con. And depending why you need to get into whatever’s behind that door, a greataxe or an arcanist’s fire spell can get you there just as easily as a lockpick. :D

Perhaps it’s the melee smasher in me, but I just don’t see being able to dodge and having ranged accuracy as “overpowered” when they’re a trade-off for being able to do far less damage. I’ve always seen it as skilled in combat vs all around skilled, and the high dex characters usually tend toward the latter, which is fine with me. They don’t get to take on ogres single-handedly, so why should my glory feel diminished because they’re the ones who can pick a lock?

If you need to get through a locked door, and need to do it without breaking the door down, sounds like you’re running a stealthy-type campaign, and of course it makes more sense to have high dex. If your campaign involves a lot of thiefy stuff, of course the thiefy (ie, high dex) characters get to show off more. If your campaign were set in a school of duelling wizards who needed to research more and more powerful spells, that dex would be a whole lot less useful than int. If everything were about politics and negotiations, without much fighting, dex would still be useful, but not nearly as much as cha. (Incidentally, fighters who think cha is useless are totally overlooking the benefits of the Intimidate skill.)

The “start using screws” paragraph seems to restate in a different way the common (if sometimes hard to implement) advice of “give every player a chance to shine.” Which kind of raises the question, why was only the high-dex guy getting a chance to shine to begin with?

I like Sarlax’s cookie jar analogy. If any stat seems broken, stop having tons of challenges that can be overcome best by that stat.

#6 Comment By Rafe On August 15, 2008 @ 3:46 pm

I don’t think Dex is or can be the only problem stat. Look at Wizards: they only need Int. It powers their attack bonus, damage, key skills and, thus, rituals. It also affects their AC since it’s a Dex or Int choice. Everyone has a stat that seems to be heavily leaned on. I suppose Warlock, Warlord and Paladin are exceptions to some extent because of their “hybrid” natures.

A good solution to an abused stat is to go with “screws” instead of “nails,” as was said. Doors that are jammed or physically barred vs locked doors, puzzles that require some thinking vs just doing Acrobatics, etc.

House rules might help… but I get the feeling that making such alterations would simply piss off the player with the extreme stat. It would be pretty obvious whom you’re penalizing (and that you are, in fact, penalizing that person) if you change a Rogue’s or Ranger’s attack bonus to Wis instead of Dex.

#7 Comment By Joey On August 16, 2008 @ 12:44 am

I have never had a major problem with any of the attributes. However skills have given me problems. I have players who believe you must max out core skills for your class i.e. a 3.5 wizard puts everything they have into concentration and Spellcraft or rogues who put everythign in move silently and hide (Who needs a RIng of invisibility when you have a +30+ in Hide and Move Silently

#8 Comment By Scott Martin On August 17, 2008 @ 2:27 pm

I admit that Dex is far more influential in White Wolf than 3.5. I agree with you that it’s not “broken”… but it is annoying to see so many people feel they HAVE to choose it as a high stat for survivability. Getting hit an extra time or two every battle [because of your lower AC or dodge pool] is a bit annoying– often because the same points in con are wiped out the first time.

#9 Comment By Omnus On August 18, 2008 @ 9:44 pm

The greatest difficulty in preparing to deal with any monster stat is to discipline yourself not to increase the problem yourself. If the player only has to worry, in D&D for instance, about stat increases by level, his stats can’t really go ballistically out of proportion without help from you, either allowing stat-boosting magic, magical items, or feats that boost one’s stats. Naturally, the player will desire these things, perhaps even game-planning around them (I know I have in the past).

Another thing to remember is that keeping your game from getting one-dimensional is often key for maximum enjoyment. That guy who sacrificed everything for that 25 DEX? Doesn’t he have a 5 CHA for his dump stat? So what’s he doing in the social environment or diplomacy you set up? Giving the other players a shine is usually the correct answer. High stats don’t help you with problem-solving, seeing that plot twist coming, or finding satisfaction for your character in other ways outside of “the Monster Stat”. So sprinkle a bit of this and that in your game (not too much, or you’ll end up punishing the stat-monger unfairly) and you can bring some parity back to the game.

#10 Comment By Furore23 On February 5, 2011 @ 7:48 am

Hi, Gnome Stew. Long time lurker, first time poster.
I guess everything is relative but yes Dex is the most frequent recipient of the God-Stat award.

I know when I build or mod a rules set, I tend to default to a list of eight or ten attributes that includes Agility and Coordination. AGL for full-body movements (such as acrobatics and martial arts) and CRD for fine control (such as marksmanship and surgery). It helps.

Also have a look at this you guys:
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Physical_exercise#Categories_of_general_physical_skills


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