About the Stat Vs Stat series
This nine-part series looks at opposed stat checks and what they can represent. Part 8 will create a new characterization tool, The Stat Matrix, based on the interactions described, and show how to use it to turn stats into characters, and Part 9 will wrap up the series by turning that process on its head – demonstrating a way to use the Stat Matrix to turn a personality into a set of stats for a character.
What Is Strength?
According to the 3.x rules, “STR measures your character’s muscle and physical power.” Pathfinder says much the same thing (“muscle and physical power”). In fact, it measures nothing of the kind; what they measure is the character’s capacity for generating physical force – force for shoving, pulling, lifting, carrying and hitting things – and for jumping over obstacles, wrestling, bending things, and breaking things.
Logically, a STR check would be called for to ascertain how effectively the character targets and delivers the force that they are capable of. There are a couple of subtle nuances that can make an interpretational difference of which GMs should be aware, and should choose between.
Option 1: Reduction from Potential Maximum
This is the most common interpretation. It assumes that the best that a character can produce is the amount indicated by the stat value, and a stat check shows how far removed from that maximum a specific effort is. Most of the time (a success), the losses will be negligible, but from time to time (a failure) a string of minor problems – stance, targeting, leverage, whatever – will compound to limit the amount of force actually delivered relative to the potential to “not enough”. The assumption therefore is that the character’s stat is a measure of the maximum that the character can achieve.
Option 2: Capacity for extraordinary Results
When a GM allows a system for critical successes and failures on stat checks, regardless of the actual mechanics of that system, he has opted for this variation whether he realizes it or not. In addition to the either/or situation of “enough” vs. “not enough” force, the capacity for a critical failure or fumble indicates that a character can achieve catastrophically less than the performance indicated by their stat value, or devastatingly more. The assumption on which these mechanics are built is therefore that the character’s stat is a measure of the power delivered on an average successful result.
That in itself delivers a sting in the tail of the definition – the lower the stat, the lower the chances of a successful stat check, so the less likely a character is to actually deliver on his potential. The goal posts keep moving. Very few GMs who introduce a critical success/failure mechanic are aware of all the nuances and subtleties that such systems incorporate.
Option 3: Effective Force Delivery
I know at least one GM who decided that an incremental effect was preferable than the “all or nothing” ledge of the standard “enough/not-enough” mechanic. Essentially, every point of success on a Stat check adds +1 to the character’s effective STR, every point by which the character falls short subtracts 1 from the character’s effective STR. The results have the advantage of transparency to the players, and it readily translates to any derivative of STR, such as the amount that a character can carry. So far as I know, this system was never anything more than a theoretical exercise (the GM in question never refereed D&D or any derivative of the system), but it’s one heck of a proposition.
And it’s in Stat Vs Stat contests that this variant really shows it’s value, because ultimately it produces a simple and direct comparison between the two scores that makes it completely obvious who has won and who has lost.
STR Checks: General implications
If every character delivered their optimum capacity every time, Stat vs Stat tests are completely straightforward. You compare the stats and the highest wins – full stop, end of story. Incorporating a stat check die roll of any sort immediately adds a fuzziness to this straightforward picture. A character whose stat is slightly lower than that of the character with whom he is being compared can still win any individual contest, though if the comparison happens often enough, the superior raw stat will bias the outcomes – statistically, overall, nothing changes, so a higher stat retains its overall value.
Nevertheless, the combination of this fuzziness with variations on the game mechanics of the stat check create nuances of interpretation. Option one is all about how badly each character fails to live up to their potential, and who fails by the most relative to their optimum. Option two implies that there are things that the character can do to enhance his situation directly as well as by compromising what the other character can deliver, resulting in a more dynamic range of descriptive interpretations – but requiring the GM to interpret the results, or a lot of the added value of the option is lost.
There is a subject within engineering – more properly, in mechanical engineering – called statics. It’s used to calculate loads and stresses and that sort of thing in basic engineering and works by abstracting a construction to its essential elements. You don’t need to understand statics to interpret STR rolls, but it can definitely help. What may surprise a lot of people is that the terminology and concepts that they often apply in converting roll results into descriptive language actually derive from an amateur understanding of statics.
For example, consider a character trying to push a pole over. If the roll fails, the GM might talk about the character losing traction, or not having enough grip on the ground to put their full strength into it. Or they might think about the pole as a lever, and the character pushing too close to the fulcrum of the lever (where the pole enters the ground) to be able to achieve full effect. Or the pole’s resistance to bending (metal) or fracturing (wood/stone) might be less than the resistance of the ground into which the pole is embedded – and once the pole bends or breaks, it reduces the effective force being applied on pushing the pole out of the ground. These are all concepts of statics, whether the GM knows it or not.
Under the “critical success” model, the GM might suggest a flaw or fracture in the surface of the ground that creates a weakness in a particular direction, enhancing the effective STR relative to the requirement, when interpreting a critical success in narrative terminology. Again, this is a more advanced application of statics.
STR Vs Stat
The preceding section mentions a key concept that is essential to interpreting STR vs Stat checks – STR is about generating force, which is used to overcome resistance. This metaphor of resistance is a key touchstone to employ when converting STR vs Stat contests into narrative language, which is essential to assigning meaning and relevance to the stat checks.
STR Vs. STR:
This is absolutely the most obvious stat vs. stat comparison going.
There aren’t many cases where a character is trying to overcome his own strength (I discount Mirrors Of Opposition because they produce outside opponents who simply happen to have the same STR score). But there’s at least one circumstance that produces such a check.
Arguably, attempting to control the effects of a stat is also a function of the stat. The implication is that when STR needs to be applied with finesse – neither too much nor too little – the outcome is best determined with an opposed internal STR vs STR check. One check is to apply sufficient force, the other is to control the application of that STR. If the first roll fails, then the character has applied too little force, if the second fails then the character has applied too much, or has applied it incorrectly in some manner – pushing when he should have pulled, or whatever. A good example would be throwing something fragile that you don’t want to break – or don’t want to break over you, but there are others. Certain rope restraints, for example, that connect the ankles to a choke-hold while forcing the character into an uncomfortable position – stooped or bent over, or with the legs bent all the way at the knees. Attempting to burst these bonds with STR would definitely merit consideration as an application of STR vs STR – though it could also be argued that the check should belong in the next category, STR vs CON.
This application of opposed stat checks has particular significance when the concept of Casual Strength is taken into consideration, something I’ll get to in a moment.
Arm-wrestling. Boxing (actually, you would usually use the combat mechanics for Boxing, unless you want to employ a more cinematic approach). Trying to force open a door while another character holds it closed. Hauling a heavy load up a cliff or a wall. A tug-of-war. Heck, even a contest like the shot-put or hammer-throw – though some people might argue that there’s enough technique involved there that it should be a Dex check and not a Strength check, or something even more convoluted.
There’s a game mechanic in the Hero System called “Casual Strength”. The basic idea is that characters exert one-tenth of their strength every time they push a button, pull a chair out from the table, grip a doorbell, shake a hand, pick up a glass or a bottle, etc. When you’re dealing with superheroic characters who can have many times the strength of ordinary people, this can be important – breaking the button when you push it, pulling the chair back so hard that the backboard is ripped off, tearing the doorknob out of the door if you don’t turn the knob all the way, breaking the bones in someone’s hand, and so on.
You can derive a similar value for D&D / Pathfinder by dividing the amount that a character can carry by five and then converting that back to a STR score. A character with STR 18, according to Pathfinder can carry 100lbs as light load – which gives a 20lb capacity for using casual STR, which is a STR of 6. A character with STR 25 has a light-load capacity of 266 lbs – giving a casual STR of about 13.5. Why is this useful?
It means that the character with STR 25 exerts more force without thinking about it as a character with STR 13 does deliberately at light load levels – and more than the absolute all-out effort (exceptional die rolls notwithstanding) as a character with STR 5. The STR 18 character has casual STR equal to a deliberate effort by a character with STR 6 – and more than an all-out effort by a character with STR 2. That doesn’t sound like much, but it must be remembered that “character” in this context should have a very broad interpretation. A higher STR character can deal with a larger, heavier, stronger pet with casual STR – all that you really want to use – while a weaker character may have to make a deliberate effort just to restrain an animal while walking it.
STR vs STR checks, and the notion of casual STR, can be used to provide context for what the character considers ordinary life, and that’s well worth the effort of analysis.
STR Vs. CON
But that’s the barest tip of the iceberg of the utility of understanding STR vs Stat checks. Let us now turn our attention to STR vs CON.
Str Vs Con external checks are fairly straightforward, at first glance. One character is attempting to use STR to inflict pain and the other is trying to resist this persuasion. There’s a relatively narrow intersection point between the two, which narrows even further when combat mechanics are used to exclude the more violent possibilities.
But some thought reveals a few more subtle situations. Attempting to break a horse, for example, is less about skill as a rider, and not at all about skill in animal handling – it’s more a contest between the STR of the horse attempting to throw the rider and the STR of the rider attempting to stay on. The fact that it’s possible at all is a result of Statics once again – the rider has gravity and his mass on his side, while the horse is fighting to overcome gravity and it’s own mass, and is unable to bring his full strength to bear because it’s in the wrong direction (up, not forwards). As a result, even though the horse has more STR than the man, it can’t bring all of it to bear; its effective STR is a lot lower. Enough to make it a fair contest, in fact – which is why bucking broncos are a regular part of rodeos to this day.
Things get more interesting when you start considering situations in which the same character is making opposed CON and STR checks.
If the difference between STR and CON is high enough, the character may be so strong that he injures himself slightly when he exerts himself – pulling and straining muscles, etc. Athletes do this all the time, especially if they aren’t sufficiently warmed up before commencing full-intensity activities. As a general rule of thumb, there are two modes that I would consider: Half STR and STR-5.
Half STR means that the character’s CON is half the character’s STR or less; STR-5 means that the character’s STR is five or more higher than the character’s CON. The latter gives a greater chance of a successful CON check, ie a pair of dice rolls for a result of “nothing happens”, the former means that making such an opposed check is far more likely to indicate an injury. The assessment of how severely the character should be compromised by such injuries is another decision for the GM to make, preferably in advance.
Sidebar: Which stat covers determination?
A while back, I wrote an article which attempts to figure out which stat should govern instincts and intuitive insights A Rational Intuition. Another, equally-vexing question is which stat reflects a character’s determination? The usual answer in my games has been that this is a function of “Will”, which is a part of the Wisdom stat – so much so that I have sometimes renamed the stat and made Wisdom a sub-function of Will.
This is not the only possible answer. Another is that determination is a function of force of personality, and therefore it should be an expression of Charisma. This has the benefit of doing something useful with what is otherwise one of the most useless of the stats in terms of doing things for the character.
And still another school of thought suggests that determination should be an expression of whatever stat best expresses what the character wants to achieve. A character with high STR has a high level of willpower when it comes to using physical force – in effect, because they are good at it, they have learned to rely on it, and to resort to it more readily.
In an effort to keep this series of manageable length, I’m going to try to assume (despite the obvious contradiction) that all of these are true at the same time. The GM should make his own ruling on the subject and then reject interpretations of opposed stat checks that don’t agree with that decision.
STR compromised by health
Another occasion on which STR vs CON checks are appropriate is when the character’s health is compromising his capabilities. This could be anything from a hangover to food poisoning to a wave of supernaturally-induced nausea. At least at lower levels, it would not be inappropriate to have characters engaged in combat with undead need to make CON checks to overcome the stench. This applies when determination uses “the most appropriate stat” model.
We’ve all heard stories of ordinary people being driven to extraordinary feats of strength in moments of utmost desperation. This is often described as Hysterical Strength. This is the sort of extreme result that only a critical success system models into an RPG, and it’s clearly a case of overriding the normal limits placed on the in-built biological capacity. The side effects – torn muscles and damaged joints – are so obviously akin to the self-injury category already mentioned that this is clearly best modeled by an internal opposed stat check – the character’s STR is saying “yes” but the character’s CON is saying “don’t be crazy”, while the character’s rational mind is hardly saying anything at all. When circumstances seemed appropriate, I would permit a character to exhibit hysterical STR – but only if they failed both an INT check and a CON check while succeeding in a STR check opposing both of these, AND rolling a natural 20 on d20 (or 3 on 3d6 for the Hero system, where low results are good).
STR Vs. DEX
Nimbleness and delicacy of touch can often be at odds with the application of force. Even more often, the two are complimentary, with both checks needing to succeed in order to accomplish whatever it is that the character is attempting.
One character provides force while another aims and directs that force. One character attempts to hold a character still with sheer force while the other attempts to wriggle free. One character throws something that another character attempts to catch. One character attempts to keep his footing on a slippery surface while another attempts to push him over. These are all examples of external STR vs. DEX checks.
Of course, who needs another character trying to push you over? Simply using force on a slippery surface is challenge enough, and is an example of an internal STR vs. DEX check. In fact, any situation calling for both the application of force and any form of physical delicacy other than direct control of STR is an internal STR vs. DEX check, which is why these are amongst the most common checks required.
Reaction Time is another attribute of DEX, and can also result in a STR vs DEX check. A character is picking up a chest, which seems rather heavier than he initially expected from its size, when he notices a rope or lever attached to its underside – can he stop lifting the chest before setting off the trap? Or has he been tricked into lifting too vigorously to stop in time? Perhaps the mechanism is a little rusty, explaining the additional weight, and giving the character his one chance to stop himself in time. Can he hold it up absolutely still? That requires both STR and DEX.
Caber-tossing is about more than simply throwing a heavy piece of timber. You have to throw it in such a way that it spins through 180 degrees, so that the point that starts on the top ends up being farther away from the character; the relative success of one caber-toss verses another lies in the distance between the point of launch and where that bottom end falls. There is arguably enough finesse involved to require both a STR and a DEX check.
Hammer-tossing and shot-put are arguably examples of the same thing.
Running while pulling a wagon or rickshaw or even a stretcher with a patient? STR and DEX combined, definitely.
STR Vs. INT
This is a little more problematic. In fact the only example I could think of is…
…where a character is attempting to overcome someone’s reasoned and rational arguement with a show of force. This could be aimed at the opposing character, or at an audience. The character using the INT check might be attempting to stop the STR character from rushing headlong into a dangerous or unknown situation, a possible ambush, or something along those lines. Or the character using the STR might be attempting to persuade the opposed character to grasp the nettle because time is running out to take action.
Of course, any sort of dispute between rationality and force can be internal as easily as external. This is a key personality indicator.
STR Vs. WIS
INT and WIS are so similar that a straightforward analogue of the STR vs INT example also applies directly to STR vs WIS contests, both external and internal. Instead of applying cold rationality to counter the arguements of force, though, this tends to be about force vs doctrine and general experience. And that makes this another key personality indicator.
STR Vs. CHA
…and the same is true where a display of force attempts to overwhelm charisma or emotional arguement.
Emotional arguement? When did that become part of Charisma?
Officially, never. My line of arguement runs as follows: Empathy is a key element of charisma. Empathy is about understanding emotions. Displaying the emotional cues or arguements that will cause a particular group to respond to a speaker in the fashion he wants is therefore an application of charisma – a character with a high charisma attracts people because they like him, and one of the reasons that they like him is because he is able to lead their emotions in the direction he wants them to go. It follows that an appeal to the emotions of a crowd is an attempt to use charisma on that crowd, and therefore emotional arguements are part of applied Charisma.
This of course means that any attempt to control one’s own emotional response can also be an attribute of charisma – so long as you aren’t trying to use logic or common sense to dissuade yourself. “I know they are just trying to make me angry, and they’ve succeeded, and I’ve got a right to be angry. I also know they are doing this to get me to do something hasty, without thinking, and since that’s what they want me to do, I’m not going to give them the satisfaction. Their turn will come…”
Anger management is often about finding a safe outlet for the emotional overload. Rationality plays no part in this; it has to be a learned behavior, you can only be rational after getting control of your emotions. It is not so much about dispelling anger as it is dissipating rage to permit a rational response to the cause of the anger – and about techniques to prevent the anger building up to the point of uncontrolled rage in the first place.
STR can be equated to a character’s instinct toward a violent reaction (certainly, there’s no other stat that comes close), and a STR vs CHA check can therefore represent a character’s impulse control. Which is certainly not an obvious application of stat checks, but is definitely food for thought. And the perfect place to end this article.
In the (eventual) next part of this series: CON comes under the spotlight.
- Stat Vs Stat Part One: Introduction – The Basis and Methods of comparison
- Stat Vs Stat Part Two: Strength Vs. Stat