Without Encumbrance, Strength Is a Roleplaying Choice for Sub-Optimal Characters

Of the 6 players gathered for my weekend of D&D, nobody showed up with a character with a strength higher than 8. Fifth edition D&D makes Strength a common dump stat because the game lacks an encumbrance system that players use. I’ve never played fifth edition with the option, mainly because I’ve never played this edition in a style that encourages the bookkeeping. Encumbrance fits with a gritty style of dungeon crawl that focuses on counting torches, rations, and perhaps abandoning copper pieces in favor of more portable loot.

When encumbrance feels like an accounting exercise that players ignore, Dexterity becomes king. By selecting ranged or finesse weapons, a Dexterity-based character can approach the damage of a similar character based on Strength—more with optimal feats. Plus, a high Dexterity enables an AC nearly as stout as the heaviest armor, wins initiative, and improves common Dexterity saves rather than rare Strength saves.

With encumbrance justifiably relegated to a seldom-used optional rule, a more evolved D&D design would boost the value of Strength with some advantages over Dexterity. After all, mighty warriors swinging great big swords form a deeply resonant part of fantasy and the game. I want to play those characters without feeling like I made a sacrifice for the sake of roleplaying.

For more, see A Game Design History of the Dump Stat.

Next on Thursday: Dungeons are contrived for fun games.

13 thoughts on “Without Encumbrance, Strength Is a Roleplaying Choice for Sub-Optimal Characters

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  2. Ilbranteloth

    It’s not just encumbrance. The game has been (re)designed and the idea of what makes “good DMing” has made it so you don’t need any particular class or ability to succeed.

    In the past, feats of strength could be a common aspect of an adventure being just carrying things. Sure, they weren’t super common, but they added another layer along with combat and encumbrance.

    On the other hand, does it really matter?

    I think it does in the sense that it seems to matter to players conceptually. Despite the fact that ability scores has relatively low importance in the era before defined ability checks, they were important because the focus was less on mechanics and more balanced with the role playing spectrum.

    Players who care understand that the abilities are an important aspect to role playing. But the ever-increasing focus on building a game that actively engages mechanics to move the game forward has greatly shifted the balance toward mechanics first. This really took hold in 3e when what used to be viewed as “bad” gaming – rules-focused players (rules lawyers and munchkinizers) – shifted into what many saw as the *only* way of gaming -optimizers.

    The introduction of more mechanics made many players feel forced to choose mechanics over character because the rules rewarded characters with highly focused mechanical builds. This is a bit of an illusion, because you *can* play without that focus, even at a table where others do optimize, but it helps greatly if the DM doesn’t run a mechanically-focused game.

    Role-playing is a soft mechanic in the game and matters only of the DM and players make it an integral part of the game. Especially ability-based role playing.

    The fact is, the 5e could have been designed to better balance ability scores. Or they could have redesigned it to better reflect the new approach, which is really, “everybody is average at many things, and extraordinary in a few things.” That’s how most people role-play their PCs, which is, “like me but with super abilities).

    There designers choose to focus on the hard skills, the things that engage the mechanics. They have trained players and DMs through three editions to have this focus. Players seem to instinctively feel that being below average in any ability is bad, but not enough to sacrifice a bonus for picking other options. And once everybody starts dumping the same stat, it no longer matters.

  3. Frederick Coen

    In my campaign, I’ve found the solution is Athletics. Last night, the rogue wanted to climb a ruined tower with her grappling hook and rope… Athletics. Earlier, Drowned Dead tried to swamp their raft (Acrobatics to remain standing), and grab people and toss them overboard (Athletics to hold the raft; Acrobatics couldn’t be used because trying to keep balance). Later, the rogue wanted to pry open an old safe (straight up STR check). This was all in one session.

    My sorcerer has a few times gotten to make Opportunity Attacks with his staff… and failed to inflict damage due to his -1 STR modifier.

    But, to your point about Encumbrance, I (and a fellow player/DM) am considering moving to a simple “slot-based” encumbrance system, where low STR gets costs you slots. A little bookkeeping for Inventory Management, without true Encumbrance. Mostly, if a weak character tries to do something that seems out of bounds, I just tell them. “Sorry, Araylia, you can’t carry the jeweled statue; it’s too heavy.”

    1. Remi

      If you want to play with encumbrance but hate the accounting, I’d look to use the Bulk system found in Starfinder and Pathfinder 2. Makes calculations easier and makes you (at least me) not dump STR

  4. mrboxty

    I think it would be fair for a DM to just announce that they don’t like dump stats and it is a harsh and brutal world where any sign of weakness will be targeted relentlessly.

    If there was a table of bad traits that players had to pick from when they dump a stat then it would help with RP narrating the character’s failures at ability check.

  5. Melnlumnijwic

    Dump stats will exist for as long as players have control over stats. That’s not a bad thing or a good thing, it just is. I also think carrying capacity is too merciful and too much bookkeeping for a skirmish war-and-feelings game. You practically have to try to become over encumbered in my experience even with 8 strength.

  6. Backcountry164

    There are also feats that optimize a strength based build also. No dex based character is equalling the damage of a character using Great Weapon Master. Throw in Polearm Master and it isn’t even close.
    And of course there are many things besides combat and encumbrance that might require at least an average str score. If you aren’t using these things then why wouldn’t your players dump the stat that they don’t need??

  7. Tales from a Minotaur Barbarian Strength Rogue

    Yeah, this idea is whack. Strength might not add to your AC in 5e the way Dex does, but you get a static AC. Additionally strength has a higher cap with plate mail than you would with studded leather and max Dex, where plate mail only requires a 15 strength, instead of a 20 to max out your AC’s bonuses. Also without feats, Dex mains never go above a d8 for damage, where strength gets you a d12. I hope your players never get shadows thrown at them, or that 8 strength is going to become their downfall.

    1. Colton Stiles

      Dex has a d8 spear, rapier. Also mage armor or various class abilities grant 13ac+ dex which can match plate. Also +1 studded leather is cheaper than normal mundane plate armor, which would make it the same as plate armor with maxed dex.

    2. Colton Stiles

      Also I hope your players never get (insert 90% of spell saves, monster attacks and traps) thrown at them, or that lack of dex is going to become their downfall.

  8. Cyn0sure

    IMHO, the solution is simple. Go back to the way damage with melee weapons was handled in 3E. (And, for that matter, in every edition before that.) That is, a combatant’s Str bonus is what’s added to their damage roll with a melee weapon, regardless of whether they’re wielding a Finesse weapon or not.

    I don’t know why the designers of 5E decided to allow players to apply their Dex bonus to damage rolls with Finesse weapons. That seems to me a design decision that is not only against tradition, but also leaves the game open to players relying too much on Dex and using Str as a dump stat, which is what we’ve been seeing all to often with 5E players.

    Same goes for ranged weapons. In my 5E campaigns, a combatant adds their Str bonus to their damage roll with a ranged weapon, regardless of whether they used their Dex or Str bonus for their attack roll. Furthermore, a combatant adds their Str bonus to not only their damage roll with a thrown weapon, but also to their damage roll with a bow or crossbow, because it’s assumed that the bow or crossbow they’re equipped with has been built for their Str. (We handle it differently in the rare case when a combatant attacks with a bow or crossbow that doesn’t belong to them.)

    Yes, this house rule tends to annoy players coming into one of my campaigns with an uber-Dex character build in mind. But I try to discourage players from that sort of min-max’ing.

  9. The Redcrosse Knight

    I think the best solution would be to combine Strength and Constitution into a single stat (maybe call it Might). Then players would face a competitive choice between additional hit points versus all the miscellaneous benefits of Dex. It won’t ever happen, because the six ability scores are sacred cows at this point, but it really would be the ideal solution.


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