Strength Versus Dexterity in Roleplaying Games

Apr 2, 2015 | Opinions

So, roleplaying games. The typical RPG has statistics for each player character – in the case of D&D, my system of choice, those stats are Strength, Dexterity, Constitution, Intelligence, Wisdom and Charisma. Stats are used to determine a base level for a character, and they usually affect various skills and abilities a character acquires over the course of the game, particularly in how that character handles weaponry in the case of fantasy RPGs. One thing that comes up very often, that just happens to be wrong, is in the use of Strength for melee weapons, and Dexterity for ranged weapons.

Think about Lord of the Rings, for example, as being the progenitor of this idea. Aragorn uses strength to wield a longsword, and Legolas (being an elf) is dexterous and uses a bow. In D&D, Strength is not applied to ranged weapons, and Dexterity is not applied to melee weapons. Elves are very good with bows, humans are good with swords, etc. Surprise surprise, this doesn’t really hold true for actual real life.

Strength in Melee

One thing you learn very quickly in swordfighting is that, once you develop enough strength to effectively wield your chosen blade, everything comes down to the physics of levers and raw strength matters a lot less than skill and good mechanics. Even when fighting with a large, heavy weapon, like a greatsword, having the strength to hit hard with it doesn’t translate to being able to hit effectively with it.

From my experience with the longsword, I know that the ability to control the weapon depends very heavily on dexterity and applied knowledge of the techniques we’re taught in class. It doesn’t ever depend on how hard you can swing the weapon, because (again) physics! Let me explain…

  • A longsword is basically a long, steel lever. It’s also sharp, in theory, and it doesn’t have to be razor sharp to really hurt someone.
  • A longsword has weight. It has weight that’s placed far from the point where you hold it, hence why swinging a 3.5lb sword around will wear out your shoulders pretty quickly.
  • A longsword requires a certain amount of energy to get it moving through space – and it requires the same amount of energy to stop it moving through space as well.

The funny thing about levers is that you can use them in interesting ways to make your base level of strength count for a lot more than it should. This is something that’s demonstrated quite often in Academie Duello – one fighter holds up their sword, another crosses their sword using the three advantages (across the centre line, true edge forward, forte against debole) to gain leverage. What we see is that a strong crossing defeats the strength of the opposing fighter so effectively that they really have no other option but to disengage from it. Finding the strong crossing requires dexterity.

The funny thing about swords is that they really don’t need to hit very hard. A rapier needs about 4lbs of force to penetrate a body, for example. Shocking, I know, that a weapon designed to inflict grievous wounds on someone can do so very effectively and without much effort! Practically speaking, this means that you won’t really get much extra effect for putting more power into the strike. If your technique is good, you’ll land the hit and do damage regardless of that extra power, and if your technique is bad – well, you’ll probably lose if your opponent has any skill, because a more powerful strike is equally as difficult to stop and change direction when that opponent counters it and runs you through.

Remember what I said about control? The sword is a defensive weapon as well as an offensive one, and the defensive part is the part that suffers when you put too much energy into a hit, such that any counter by your opponent can’t be parried or dodged. Control requires dexterity.

Dexterity in Ranged

So the flip side of this can be seen in archery, with the trope being that archery requires dexterity, nimbleness, whatever. In truth, I’m not sure exactly how this got started in general, or why anyone decided that elves = higher dexterity = weaker strength, and on that basis gave them bows. I can only conclude that the person in question was completely ignorant of anything to do with archery, and never bothered to even open a book on archery.

Take a look at this:

Mary Rose Longbows

These are English longbows recovered from the wreck of the Mary Rose. They are warbows, over six feet long, with draw weights around 150-160lbs. Other longbows have been found with draw weights up to 185lbs.

I just want to be clear about this – a draw weight over 100lbs is absolutely batcrap insane. That’s a hundred pounds of weight, being pulled with only the arm and back muscles, in three fingers (if they’re using the Mediterranean grip) to the side of the head, and still maintaining accuracy and control of the arrow. A reasonably fit adult can pull a draw weight around 60lbs, with practice. There are very, very few modern archers who can draw and shoot a 180lb bow.

I want to impress upon you that handling a bow that can put arrows through an enemy combatant requires so much more strength than a sword that it’s flat out ridiculous. For example: the Bow of Lothlorien, given to Legolas by Galadriel in Lord of the Rings. The Mary Rose longbows start at 100lbs and only go up, meaning that Legolas is not only strong enough to draw at least 100lbs, he’s also strong enough to draw and fire with blistering accuracy at close and far ranges.

Technically this means that the elves would probably beat the Uruk-Hai in arm-wrestling.


Lord of the Rings probably has much to answer for at this point, seeing as many of the tropes and ideas in it have infected pretty much all fantasy in more mediums than I can count. This particular trope is a very odd one, I have to say, as it can be completely tossed on its head in about five minutes of reading! Long story short, it’s clear that Gary Gygax et al. got it wrong, way back when D&D was originally written, when it defined melee weapons as only being affected by strength and ranged weapons as only being affected by dexterity. In reality, dexterity plays a much bigger role in melee, and strength plays a bigger role in archery.