Blake – Welcome to Behind the Roll, an examination of numbers in Dungeons and Dragons 5th Edition! While roleplaying is (and, in my opinion, should always be) the focus of the game, there’s no denying that the system has numbers designed into it. I’ll examine some of these numbers and figure out what’s fair, what’s not, and what’s ideal. Today you’re in for a treat as I delve into the eternal score conflict: Dexterity vs. Constitution! Prepare for a long haul…
Instead of talking about the long winded history between editions and how the scores held up I’ll just point out that both scores have a grudge. The very definition of the scores is the main issue for most people; Dexterity measures some sort of agility or deftness while Constitution is straight up toughness. Many an adventurer has fallen from a lack of one or the other and 5e is no exception. Between fiery dragons, pitfalls, and poisons, an adventurer’s life is, as Hobbes would describe it, “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.” So what makes this competition fierce in 5e? The answer boils down to versatility of the stats. Let’s dig out some stats.
The simplest stat is Con, a direct measure of a character’s toughness. The Player’s Handbook puts its use as follows:
“Constitution checks are uncommon, and no skills apply to Constitution checks, because the endurance this ability represents is largely passive rather than involving a specific effort on the part of a character or monster.”
It gives a few examples ranging from drinking Dwarves under the table to holding concentration on a spell. Unfortunately, there are no skill checks that use Con and it only modifies three things: spell concentration, helping Con saves, and Hit Points. So far Con is looking to be a little weak.
Dex is the stat that shines bright in 5e. With three skills, Initiative, Dex saves, AC, and finesse/ranged weapons, its solid performance makes it a great score for anyone. Armor can, of course, inhibit Dex in terms of the increase of AC, but the skill still seems more useful than Con.
The first thing I’d like to look at is skills. Con does not help any skills while Dex is used for three. Simple, right? Acrobatics helps avoid grapples, Stealth helps you get the jump on enemies, and Slight of Hand can get you a key to get out of jail. All the numbers are in favor of Dex, obviously. Score? Dex 1, Con 0.
Saving throw time. In earlier versions of D&D, Con was very important to resist the infamous “Save or Die” abilities and spells. With the removal of these spells, Con still resists a decent number of effects, such as Disintegrate. Dex, on the other hand… hold on, I’ve just gotten word that Disintegrate now uses a Dex save instead of a Con save. Turns out most of the saves in the game are Dex based now. How lame is that? Dex 2, Con 0.
When it comes to spellcasting, take a moment to appreciate the finely woven crackle of lightning and its pleasant smell of ozone. Done? Good, because the the only time you’re going to need Con is if you use spells requiring concentration. Most of the better spells in the game do not use concentration. If you are using a concentration spell, you likely are a Gish and already have a decent Con score or you’re casting outside of combat. Dex 3, Con 0.
Now that I’m done building the dramatic tension, it’s number time! The score so far is way stacked against Con, and there’s a good reason for it. But instead of focusing on Dex vs. Con, it’s time to focus on the numbers: HP and AC. HP is quite obviously the amount of damage you can take before falling unconscious. AC is a more nebulous stat which includes your armor and reaction time (Base Armor AC and Dex). For each 2 points in Dex above 10, your AC will increase by one. Similarly, for each 2 points in Con above 10 will increase your HP by 1. Are both of these benefits equal? The answer surprised me as well.
What exactly are you trying to avoid with Dex and Con stats? Falling unconscious, obviously. You want to stay in the fight as long as you can. Consider the d20: it’s used to roll those sweet, sweet attack rolls. Attacks do damage, so the goal here should be to minimize damage by EITHER avoiding it altogether OR being able to tough it out. Putting the d20 in percentages is far easier to compare, so each number represents a 5% chance (100% / 20 = 5%). The percentage for an attack roll to hit only uses Dex and does not factor in Con. This means that each score is going to be calculated somewhat differently. Sticking with Dex, each point of AC adds a 5% chance to avoid an attack. Simple enough.
Things get a little messy once we start looking at HP. Con, obviously, adds to your HP while Dex does not. Instead, Dex has to be translated from AC to HP. With the Dex percentage figured out, we can conclude that each 2 points of Dex above 10 will increase the AC by 5%, which means your effective HP (not your actual HP) increases by 5%. Con, on the other hand, simply adds to your HP and must be turned into a percentage of a character’s Maximum HP. Each 2 points of Con above 10 increase your HP and effective HP by the same amount (which is 1) but must be converted to a percentage based on your HP which will vary based on class.
At level 1, Con stands out better than Dex. As a d6 Hit Die class, such as the Wizard, 1 extra HP from Con outshines an extra 5% HP from Dex (Con provides a 16% increase in HP while Dex is still just a 5%). Even as a Barbarian with a d12 Hit Die (we won’t consider the Unarmored Defense feature), Con is still better than Dex (Con increases by 8%, Dex increases by 5%). As the levels progress, Con actually begins to stand out. At level 2 using the average HP roll for a character, the Wizard gains a hefty 20% from Con while the Barbarian gets 10%. The disparity increases over time as Dex is quickly left in the dust. Con is our surprising winner for staying alive.
While Con gets a nice gold star sticker, Dex grinds Con into the dust by adding more damage onto finesse and ranged weapons as well as boosting Initiative. Dex adds to the damage and attack rolls, while Con does nothing. Final Score? Dex 4, Con 1. If you’re a powergamer, Dex is the only way to go.
Don’t discount Con altogether. Classes that can effectively use Dex and Con together can end up virtually invulnerable with decent utility. Barbarians, Dex-based Fighters/Paladins, and Rogues should be filled with glee at this! Lower HP casters can also gain a larger percent of HP and if for some reason you’re using a concentration spell you’ll get a ton of use out of Con.
At the end of the day, Dex triumphs over Con. You don’t gain as much defense with Dex, but the other characteristics in skills relegate Con to a secondary or tertiary stat. Still, Dex isn’t going to help you downing “just one more” ale. That’s the number Behind the Roll!