Monday, August 24, 2015

Dissing Dexterity

AKA The Usual Futility

This is not the post I was originally planning to write. What I had planned to write, what I was working on formulating (somewhat) in my head last night, was a post about the ability score called Strength (STR) that we all so love and over-rate, and some ways in which it might actually be used to garner more love, even from the softer (magicky) section of adventurers. But while formulating, this little problem child kept sneaking into the forefront of my brain and annoying the heck out of me.  So let's deal with that little bastard first: Dexterity (DEX).

First a little history (just roll with me, folks...the 'why' of it will be explained in due time).

DEX first appears in Men & Magic (volume 1 of OD&D) with the following description:
Dexterity applies to both manual speed and conjuration. It will indicate the character's missile ability and speed with actions such as firing first, getting off a spell, etc.
That's all it says. It's sole mechanical effect is to give a +1 bonus to firing missile if the score is 13+ and a -1 penalty if the score is less than 9. The Greyhawk supplement expands this, stating it is also "affects the ability of character to act/react" and allows fighters of high (15+) DEX to "use their unusual manual dexterity to attempt to dodge or party opponents' attacks," reducing opponents' attack roll by 1 for every point of DEX above 14.

[this translates to the standard AC bonuses...not penalties...found in the 1E PHB]

Greyhawk also made DEX the prime requisite of the thief class, first introduced in the same volume.

Holmes Basic states simply that DEX "applies to speed and accuracy" and while it retains the ability as a prime requisite of the thief class (now, apparently, standard), it ignores the defensive bonus while keeping the missile fire bonus of the original book (Holmes does offer an alternate "parry rule" that is available to all classes and not dependent on DEX). Holmes takes the ability's description of speed as a mandate and uses DEX as the sole determinant of ordering actions in combat...a mechanic never repeated in later editions.

Gygax further expands the ability in AD&D, writing that:
Dexterity encompasses a number of physical attributes including hand-eye coordination, agility, reflexes, precision, balance, and speed of movement.
Which is a very broad definition indeed, if one is used to the idea of dexterity being synonymous with  manual dexterity, the most usual "real world" use of the term. Regarding mechanics, DEX provides the Greyhawk fighter bonuses, though now for all characters, along with a similar bonus against certain types of saving throws that can be "dodged;" there are also equivalent penalties for low DEX scores. The bonus/penalties to missile fire have also been expanded to a range on 1-3 and apply equally to surprise situations (as a number of awarded segments of action).

Moldvay Basic (B/X) has a smaller range of bonuses/penalties, though they apply over a broader spectrum of DEX (anything outside the 9-12 norm). Combat rounds in B/X are not the segmented affair of AD&D and so the reaction adjustment doesn't apply, but Moldvay offers the option of allowing DEX to adjust individual initiative, if the DM is using the more complicated "pair combat" (the real precursor of individual combat order as found in 3rd edition+). Moldvay's definition states:
"Dexterity" is a measure of speed and agility. A character with a high Dexterity score is "good with his hands" and has a good sense of balance.
Note the "good with his hands" phrase would seem to refer to manual dexterity...this might not be what the original author intended (we'll come back to this).

I don't have copies of BECMI/RC or the 2nd edition PHB at hand, but my remembrance is that their definitions and adjustments are unchanged from B/X and 1E (respectively). If I'm mistaken, I apologize.

Likewise, I don't have a 3rd edition book available here in Paraguay, but the on-line SRD for D20 defines DEX as follows:
Dexterity measures hand-eye coordination, agility, reflexes, and balance.
It's adjustments apply to armor class, ranged attacks, reflex saving throws, and DEX related skill rolls...these latter being skills that pertain to agility, balance, or manual dexterity,

Jesus Lord, how this shit morphs over three to four decades.

Manual dexterity, the real world term generally used when one hears the word "dexterity" outside of a gaming context, refers to a person's ability with their hands, specifically how skillful (deft) they are with their hands. In the "old days" a person with good manual dexterity might be skilled at a (hand) carving or sewing. These days, we'd probably use it when discussing someone's ability to mash the controller of a console game. If you look up the term "dexterity" in wikipedia, it redirects you to the entry for fine motor skill...hand-eye coordination, in other words. This is the common definition of the term.

However, there is a broader use of the term "dexterity" which applies to mental adroitness...the skillful and clever handling of any complex situation can be done with dexterity, even if its not done with one's hands. The word comes from the latin word dexteritas meaning aptness or readiness.

But we'll come back to definitions in a moment...let's focus on what the damn stat does, and maybe then we'll be able to reconcile it with the meaning (if necessary). 'Cause, at the moment, the thing is a bit of a mess. To be clear, there are three main mechanical effects that have been used over the years with regard to this thing called "DEX:"

- a measure of proficiency with ranged or "missile" attacks
- a measure of combat reaction/speed
- a measure of defensive bonus in combat

The way these mechanics are handled from edition to edition varies, but that's pretty much the list. Let's blow 'em up one at a time.

Missile combat: using a ranged weapon, whether you're talking rifles or archery or knife-throwing, is only minimally a matter of "hand-eye coordination." The more important factors are proper technique, a good eye/depth perception, and (and longer ranger) and understanding of physics and environmental factors. Perhaps hand-eye coordination (which is a part of "fine motor skills" and thus manual dexterity) might be more pertinent to short-range, non-assisted shots (i.e. thrown weapons as opposed to shooting with a bow or crossbow)...this can be observed by a "coordinated person" having  a better basketball shot, for example. But, at least with regard to knife-throwing (I have no experience with spear/javelin throwing), such coordination is of minimal use...proper technique is required to throw a weapon with the accuracy needed to achieve an effective "hit" (i.e. one capable of inflicting damage). This is best modeled (in D&D) by class and level. Perhaps more coordination will help one to learn faster (like a prime requisite adding an XP bonus), but since D&D handles advancement in broader strokes (at least, with respect to combat), it would seem little worth to draft such mechanics.

Combat reaction: in (American) football, they have a couple sayings regarding speed. "You can't coach speed" is one; "speed kills" is another. But unless you're doing an Old West style showdown (or attempting to pull the trigger of your automatic firearm faster than the other guy), straight-line speed is not a huge factor in combat. Hell, sometimes making a brash attack is a good way to get suckered into the other guy's attack. Timing and distance is important, knowing when to be aggressive and when not to, and (for purposes of accuracy and effectiveness) keeping a cool head, are the most important factors in determining who's going to damage (or kill) the other person first. Training and experience (again, best modeled by class and level), followed by a good combination of level-headedness and controlled aggression are the most important parts reacting quickly and effectively in opposed to panicking, stumbling, and fumbling into a massacre or route. In the "primitive" non-modern combat found in D&D, physical speed and dexterity should have no part.

Defensive bonus: much as we might romanticize the swashbuckling swordsman in cinema, dodging and weaving isn't really a big part of hand-to-hand combat with weapons. Timing, distance, and technique...all of which come, again, from training and experience...are the things that will keep you from harm's way. And in cramped quarters (like, say, fighting a squad of goblins with fellow party members in a subterranean chamber) the idea agilely dodging is laughable; you're more likely to "dodge" into the attack of a different foe (or one  of your buddies!). Discipline, armor, good use of cover, and shields are all things that will serve to protect you from harm. A certain amount of manual dexterity could, I suppose, help you in batting aside ("parrying") a spear with your hand axe...but for me, this is best modeled with training and experience: class and level dependent hit points. Whittled away hit points can model the fatigue that comes with parrying blow after blow, not to mention the bruise caused by catching the haft of an axe with your shoulder (instead of the sharpened business end).

Agility, by the way, isn't generally necessary in hand-to-hand combat. Most fighting techniques focus on bringing the pain, in the most expedient manner possible, closing distance as soon as a good opening is found. Moving quickly with precision (i.e. accuracy) is a matter of practice, practice, practice, in order to move smoothly. That was the mantra of my old fencing master, anyway: slow is smooth, smooth is fast. And we'd practice handwork for 20 minutes trying to be slow, precise, and smooth, all in aid of training the fast (smooth and precise) hand.

[and that, of course, was sport fencing. In real combat, you're not worried about "precision;" you're worried about killing without getting killed. Practice and experience become so much more valuable, then, to act with minimal thought]

Going through these, it makes me wonder why one would even need such an ability score, even in the earliest edition. What makes it so necessary to add an additional descriptive measuring a character's dexterity, when it had so little effect on the mechanics of the game (compared to the prime requisites and the very important mechanics of CON and CHA). It feels like the designer(s) were harkening back to school days, and the drafting of teams for the playground activities. I'm sure most of us have had the childhood experience of encountering kids who excelled in hitting and throwing the ball, kids who could naturally (as a gift of good genetics) run faster and farther than others, even from an early age without training. If we were lucky, we might have been these kids...but there's always someone faster, who can throw/hit farther, jump higher, swim better, etc. As children learning our place in the world, we often find ourselves measuring ourselves against our peers, asking ourselves "where do I rank?"

Years of training...not DEX.
Even though DEX need not serve any great mechanical purpose in terms of the adult fantasy adventurers we portray in the game, it feels based on a measure of which character would be better at softball. Or, to put in less snarky fashion, which characters are more athletic than others. Even though the importance of general athleticism was pretty small in medieval life (and D&D is usually gauged as pseudo-medieval). And even giving it importance, it means little when it comes to adult, trained adventurers...who's to say the wizard hasn't become proficient at a thousand yoga postures as part of his mystic training, or engaged in some sort of acrobatic bootcamp similar to Jedi Luke on planet Dagobah? Sure, the fighter knows how to ride and joust in full armor, but he's got a lot more important things to learn than how to touch his toes or throw a tight spiral.

My default presumption is that D&D adventurers are hardy individuals that can ride, climb, swim, and hike for miles over rough terrain. Athletics and hand-eye coordination (except as it pertains to an individual's training and class abilities) is of little use to me. If it was especially important to be (for example) a strong swimmer or agile climber, the easiest thing would be to have a feat or talent called "naturally athletic" that would provide a small bonus over other (non-talented) characters. But otherwise, I have a hard time justifying the inclusion of the ability score, based on its physical description alone...too little mechanics to justify it.

Now, as a prime requisite for a thief character, and using the broader definition of "dexterity," I can see it as potentially useful. But that's for another post.


  1. huh. I've always quite liked dex. For me, and in my personal heartbreaker, stats are kind of a way of life. Certain types of characters tend to need certain stats- rogues using dex for example. In my game the default melee bonus comes from the "Mettle" stat, but a character wielding a 'light' weapon (dagger, rapier, whip) can opt to use dex instead. Or a character wielding a heavy weapon can choose to use their "Brawn" modifier to hit and to damage. In more of a direct reply to your post though, I just think dex is a super useful stat, So much of what my characters do leaves me needing a specific metric to measure their speed, sure-footedness, and catching ability. I always thought strength was the real dog of the original stats.

    1. @ Pierce:

      Mechanically, DEX has morphed into one of the MOST useful stats, mechanically speaking. I suppose part of this post is musing whether it needs to be DE-emphasized.

  2. The Rules Cyclopedia defines Dexterity as "the character's nimbleness and grace."

    Moldvay's initiative adjustment actually comes from Gygax in issue #2 of The Strategic Review, which explains the line about "...speed with actions such as firing first, getting off a spell, etc."

    I think Gygax added the AC and reaction adjustments in response to the CalTech players, who added an Agility score to their game

    I grew up with that later conception of Dexterity found in D&D, but lately I've been wanting to restrict it to hand-eye coordination. I plan on keeping it. It could be very useful when dealing with traps. I also love the way it affects your decisions regarding armor and weapons, which to me is the whole point of ability scores: giving players different incentives

    I have trouble buying your argument against the missile adjustment. Practice with archery is supposed to improve hand-eye coordination, so clearly it must be useful to have. Adjusting experience, as you mentioned, might be a good solution

    1. @ ProfOats:

      Grrr...CalTech people!
      ; )

      I can actually get behind the missile bonus adjustment...I just can't justify giving more bonus than the +1 found in the original edition of the game.

    2. Darn West Coast gamers ruined everything!

      Yeah, I think that's about all it really needs. Only reason I can think of to go higher is if you want to use the same modifiers for each stat (something I've yet to decide on)

      What do you think of Dex modifying attack rolls instead of Strength? It's something I've considered, though I might restrict it to smaller weapons I wouldn't give a damage bonus to, like a dagger

    3. @ ProfO:

      As I've written before, I'd kind of like to get away from ability scores being so important for combat...this includes (potentially) reducing or eliminating strength bonuses. I certainly wouldn't want to ADD bonuses to DEX!

      I mean, it depends on what you want to model. Does the grizzled veteran come up against the hotshot novice with the high DEX and think, whoa, I'm outmatched? In my world, usually the answer is "no;" the quick guy with no experience doesn't hold a candle to the guy of 2nd or 3rd level. He's unblooded, prone to mistakes, lacking in savvy.

      This is why I'm more inclined to making attack bonuses (especially in melee) solely based on class and level. I understand that ain't everyone's cup o tea.

  3. I always thought of having a high DEX as having fast reaction times / quick reflexes. This is something which is not modeled by STR. Refelxes/reaction time is extremely important in both hand to hand combat (AC bonus - regardless of skill and training, someone with faster reaction times is harder to hit, although really it should also come with a bonus to hit as well) and any kind of missile fire at a moving target (as opposed to target practice). If you think of DEX like that it also makes sense why it would be important for a thief (pick pocket and disarm traps in particular, and also for backstab).

    1. @ Carl:

      I guess I just believe that a PRACTICAL USE of reaction / reflexes is much more readily modeled by training and experience (i.e. class and level). I suppose one could argue that a high DEX (and, thus, better mechanical bonus) could be a result of training...but then why would one fighter (for example) have an advantage of +2 or +3 over the fighter with average DEX? Because the former went to a "better fighter school?" A 2 point step in attack chance is a pretty steep adjustment in B/X play where it takes THREE EXPERIENCE LEVELS (for fighter types; other classes take more) to make up the difference.