The Alexandrian

I’ve been working and playing with the new edition of Dungeons & Dragons longer than most. Ryan Dancey sent me a playtest copy of the new Player’s Handbook back in 1999, almost a full year before it was released at GenCon 2000. I had been an outspoken critic of AD&D for several years at that point and, more recently, been involved in a number of heated debates with Ryan over the OGL and D20 Trademark License.

By the time I was done reviewing the playtest document and sending my comments back to Ryan, I had basically done a 180-degree turn-around on both. Wizards of the Coast had assembled three incredibly talented game designers – Jonathan Tweet, Monte Cook, and Skip Williams – to rework the system, and they had succeeded brilliantly. They stayed true to the roots of the game and captured the best parts of it, while shedding decades of detritus and poor design. There were still a few quibbles here and there, but they had taken advantage of the largest and most expensive design cycle for an RPG ever conceived and used it to deliver an incredibly robust, flexible, and powerful system.

One of the most impressive things about 3rd Edition is the casual realism of the system. You can plug real world values into it, process them through the system, and get back a result with remarkable fidelity to what would happen in the real world.

Some people will consider this to be a remarkable claim. It doesn’t take much experience with the roleplaying hobby before you’re familiar with dozens of vehement diatribes on the lack of realism in D&D and the resulting shortcomings in the system. Whole laundry lists of complaints (aimed at hit points, the encumbrance system, falling damage, or attacks of opportunity, for example) have been generated. In fact, such claims are so prolific that making the opposite claim (as I have done) is practically a heresy of sorts.

But, in my experience, these complaints largely originate either from people carrying over their criticisms of previous editions (where many of the criticisms were true) or from people failing to actually look at the facts and run the numbers.

So what I want to do, rather than just making my claim, is to take a look at a few rules, actually run the numbers, and demonstrate how effective D&D really is at modeling the real world.

Before we do that, though, I want to make one disclaimer perfectly clear: D&D is a game. Its systems are abstracted and streamlined in order to keep things simple and, more importantly, fun. So, yes, there are compromises. (You’ll see a graphic example of the types of compromises which are made when we talk about the Jump skill.) The game is not a physics text. Nor is it without flaw.

It’s just really, really good. And part of what makes it really, really good is the fact that it does this simulation casually. It doesn’t make you do the math. It’s worked the math into the system. All you’ve got to do is roll the dice and handle some basic arithmetic.

This essay should also be understood as something more than a defense of the game from illegitimate critique. That defense is, in fact, almost an unintentional consequence of what this essay is actually about: Providing a useful resource for those who want a deeper understanding of what the numbers really mean. If a character has a skill bonus of +15, how talented are they? If they have a Strength of 14 how strong are they? And so forth.

BREAKING DOWN A DOOR

Breaking down a door in D&D requires a Strength check. So the first thing we need to understand is the distribution of ability scores in the general population.

According to the DMG, defaults NPCs in D&D are built on one of two arrays: The elite array and the average array. The elite array is used for exceptional individuals. The average array is… well, average.

Elite Array: 15, 14, 13, 12, 10, 8

Average Array: 13, 12, 11, 10, 9, 8

Using the point buy system, the elite array is built on 24 points. The average array is built on 15 points.

John Kim demonstrates that the elite array is, in fact, the statistically typical result of rolling 4d6-drop-the-lowest (the default character generation) if you round down fractional results. Similarly, although John doesn’t show it, the average array is the statistically typical results of a 3d6 roll.

The DMG doesn’t tell us how common an elite character will be, but they are supposed to be a “cut above the average”. I think it’s safe to say that they’re supposed to be rare. There are a number of approaches you can take to figuring out exactly how rare. For example, I did some back-of-the-envelope calculations using the DMG demographic information regarding how many characters are of a level high enough to suggest exceptional accomplishment in the real world (as we’ll discuss later). I also ran the numbers from MENSA (which accepts only those who intellectually qualify in the top 2% of the population) and then compensated to include the non-intellectual ability scores. And so forth. But, consistently, these inferences got me a figure right around 5%.

What does all this mean? It means that the vast majority of people you meet will be lucky to have a single +1 bonus in any of their ability scores. Most of them will, in fact, have straight 10’s and 11’s across the board.

So, with that in mind, let’s go back and talk about breaking down a door.

Breaking down a simple wooden door – like the doors you might find inside a typical house – is a DC 13 check. This means that the average person (with a +0 Strength modifier) will succeed at breaking open the door about 40% of the time. This means that one or two strong kicks from just about anybody will kick the door open.

This matches our real life experience: Interior doors just aren’t that sturdy.

Next, let’s take a look at something sturdier. For example, a well-made front door with its deadbolt secured. This would be a DC 18 check in D&D (for a “good wooden door”). This is a lot harder to bust open: The average person will only have a 10% of knocking it open on the first attempt. It’s going to typically take five or six really solid kicks for the average person to get through such a door.

Again: This matches our real life experience. Front doors are strong, but the fact that they’re not impervious to breaking-and-entering is evidenced by thousands of burglaries every year.

But once you take a thick wooden beam and use it to bar the door shut with solid iron construction (Break DC 25), it becomes impossible for the average person to simply throw their shoulder against the door and break it open.

And, again, this matches the real world. Breaking a six-inch thick beam would be nearly impossible for all but the strongest among us. Breaking such a beam without hitting it directly (instead diffusing our impact through a door) is essentially impossible.

Breaking down doors is a simplistic example, but it shows how much thought has gone into make the system consistent with the real world, even when it comes to the small details.

It’s also interesting to look at various magical effects in the system and seeing what they mean in real world terms. For example, a hold portal spell adds +5 to the Break DC of a door. So a hold portal spell is basically equivalent to adding a deadbolt to a door (make sense). An arcane lock spell, on the other hand, adds +10 to the Break DC of a door, so it’s basically the equivalent of barring the door shut.

So if the necromancer rushes through a portal and magically seals it behind him, what does it feel like when the party’s fighter throws himself against it? Now you know.

(And knowing is half the battle. Go Joe!)

ENCUMBRANCE

One of the things which directly led to the creation of this essay was a mini-rant by Shamus Young on encumbrance in D&D:

“Now, I like to travel light: I don’t check baggage unless I really need to. For my five-day trip I managed to get everything into a single reasonably-sized carry-on bag. It was just the bare minimum of items for five days: I wore a few clothing items twice to save space, and only carried a couple of books and a laptop for entertainment. Nevertheless, the strap of this bag bit into my shoulder as I walked, and the weight threatened to pull me off balance. A full-out run was nearly impossible, and a light jog caused the weight to bounce all over the place, slam me in the leg, and generally make the simple task of walking a bit more tricky than it normally is. It wasn’t just the weight that was a problem: the volume made the stuff difficult to manage as well.

Note that I was not wearing any metal armor. I wasn’t carrying enough food for five days in the wild. I didn’t have a sword, rope, grapple hook, spare dagger, or any other items D&D characters seem to keep handy. Try lugging five days of food and a few metal weapons a half-mile or so and you’ll quickly see that the D&D rules for carrying capacity are pure comedy.”

Pure comedy? Well, let’s run the numbers.

What was Shamus lugging around with his carry-on that day? Sounds like about three outfits of clothing. A laptop. A couple of books. A complete outfit of clothing in D&D is rated right around 4-5 pounds (unless you’re wearing royal regalia, which we’ll assume he wasn’t), so let’s say 13 pounds of clothing. A quick Google search turns up this page which suggests that his laptop probably weighed about 7 pounds. Poking around on Amazon suggests that books can reasonably weigh anywhere from about half a pound to about three pounds, depending on size and format. Let’s assume an average and call it 3 pounds for two books together. The luggage probably weighs another 7 pounds. Plus another 5 pounds for any miscellaneous stuff he didn’t mention explicitly (like toiletries).

Adding that up quickly we can see that Shamus was carrying somewhere in the ballpark of (13 + 7 + 3 + 7 + 5) 35 pounds.

Now, I’m guessing that Shamus isn’t a professional weightlifter. And, by the same token, he probably isn’t a 90-pound weakling, either. My guess is that he falls solidly into the D&D average: Strength 10.

For a D&D character with a Strength of 10, the 35 pounds or so that Shamus was carrying constitutes a medium load. A medium load hits you with a check penalty on physical actions, reduces your speed, and stops you from running full out.

Which, when we compare this to Shamus’ experience, sounds like a pretty accurate mechanical representation: “…the weight threatened to pull me off balance. A full-out run was nearly impossible, and a light jog caused the weight to bounce all over the place, slam me in the leg, and generally make the simple task of walking a bit more tricky than it normally is.”

And he was also carrying the weight in the worst way possible – as an off-center load. D&D doesn’t try to model how you’re carrying a load, but it’s reasonable to assume that the rules are designed with the assumption that characters are carrying their gear in a way which minimizes the inconvenience.

(To understand the difference, grab a 25-lb. weight and try jogging around the block with it held in your hand. Then load up a backpack with 25 pounds of stuff, pack it tight, and strap it across your back. Do the same run. It’ll be a lot easier. There’s a reason backpacks were invented.)

This is one of the way in which D&D chooses to make a playable compromise rather than trying to slavishly model every aspect of reality. Sure, you could try to create a system which attempted to model how awkward it was to carry a particular item in a particular way. Maybe items carried in the hands carry a x2 encumbrance penalty. Maybe carrying more than one or two spears is more difficult than carrying an equal weight of a smaller and more compact item.

But such a system would be a nightmare. It’s already enough of an overhead headache to try to keep an accurate tally of just the weight being carried. Most groups will only do the occasional “update” of weight carried, rather than trying to account for every time picked up or dropped as it occurs. And this is fine.

But if you tried adding a whole new layer complexity in which players had to figure out exactly how many standard rations will fit into a small, medium, or large backpack or how carrying them in a bag on your hip will affect their encumbrance you’d almost certainly create a system which would never be used (because no one would want to use it). It wouldn’t increase utility and accuracy, it would reduce it.

But with that acceptable layer of abstraction in place, how else does the system demonstrate its accuracy?

Well, let’s look at the military. How much does the equipment they carry into combat typically carry?

Historically, militaries have tended to have kit weights for their infantry soldiers in the 40-60 pound range. We’ve seen that, for average people, this would constitute a medium load: Not so heavy as to be a serious impediment, but definitely inhibiting compared to wearing winter clothes.

Of course, most soldiers aren’t of average strength. Boot camp is specifically designed to build strength (among other things). It wouldn’t be unreasonable to expect an average infantryman’s highest ability score (13) to be in Strength. And with a Strength of 13, anything up to 50 pounds is considered a light load (with no penalties to action).

And take a look at this recent article: The amount of gear carried by an American infantryman is creeping up into the neighborhood of 70 pounds or more. That’s a heavy load for a person with average strength (10), and even our physically fit soldiers with above average strength (13) who were previously wearing light loads are now being weighed down with a medium load.

Our soldiers aren’t too happy with all that extra weight. And D&D shows us why.

(On a slight tangent, another common complaint about D&D’s encumbrance figures go the other way: They claim that things like longswords should be heavier and that plate armor should make it impossible to do anything physical. Most of these beliefs are either built on shoddy replicas, urban legends, or simple misunderstanding.

To pick on Shamus Young again, he also jumped on this bandwagon: “The system is even more messed up than it seems. A quick glance at the item weights in the player handbook will reveal gems like the following: A longsword weighs 4lbs. Even using lightweight modern metal alloys, I think you’d have a very, very hard time getting an adult-sized longsword that weighs only 4lbs. Even if you did somehow have a sword that light, it would feel like a toy in your hand.”

But even casual research quickly reveals that 4 lbs. is almost exactly what historical long swords weighed. The essay “What Did Historical Swords Weigh?” by J. Clements is an excellent resource for this. People didn’t make slow, heavy weapons and awkward armor because their lives depended on not making weapons and armor like that.)

KNOWLEDGE AND CRAFTING

There’s a common fallacy when it comes to D&D, and it goes something like: Einstein was a 20th level physicist. So, in D&D, Einstein – that little old man – has something like a bajillion hit points and you’d need to stab him dozens of times if you wanted to kill him. That’s ridiculous!

The problem with this argument is that Einstein wasn’t a 20th level physicist. A 20th level physicist is one step removed from being the God of Physicists. Einstein was probably something more like a 4th or 5th level expert.

This can be a little bit difficult for some people to accept, so let’s run the math. At 5th level an exceptional specialist like Einstein will have:

+8 skill ranks
+4 ability score bonus
+3 Skill Focus

In the case of our 5th level Einstein, that gives him a +15 bonus to Knowledge (physics) checks. He can casually answer physics-related questions (by taking 10) with a DC of 25. Such questions, according to the PHB description of the Knowledge skill, are among the hardest physics questions known to man. He’ll know the answers to the very hardest questions (DC 30) about 75% of the time.

And when he’s doing research he’ll be able to add the benefits of being able to reference scientific journals (+2 circumstance bonus), gain insight from fellow colleagues (+2 bonus from aid another), use top-of-the-line equipment (+2 circumstance bonus), and similar resources to gain understanding of a problem so intractable that no one has ever understood it before (DC 40+).

(This 5th level Einstein can also be modeled with as few as 5 hit points – 1 per hit die. Even if he rolled an average number of hit points on each hit die (3 each), as an old man his average Constitution of 10 will have dropped two points. With the resulting Constitution penalty, he still only has 10 hit points. This is the other reason why the hit point argument holds no water.)

You’ll see this same fallacy trotted out whenever someone insists that the local blacksmith “must” be at least 10th level in order to be competent in their profession. In reality, the typical village blacksmith is probably only a 1st level character. At 1st level the average blacksmith’s Craft (blacksmithing) skill looks like this:

+4 skill ranks
+1 Intelligence bonus
+3 Skill Focus
+2 from an assistant or apprentice helping them

That’s a +10 bonus on their checks. This bonus allows them to take 10 and craft masterwork-quality items. By 3rd level an experienced blacksmith can do that without the help of an assistant.

Even less capable 1st level blacksmiths (without an assistant or the Skill Focus feat) still have a +5 bonus to their skill. This lets them take 10 and craft high-quality items (the only things they can’t handle are exotic weapons and complex items).

And what does an exceptional 5th level blacksmith look like?

+8 skill ranks
+4 Intelligence bonus
+3 Skill Focus
+2 masterwork tools
+2 from an assistant or apprentice helping them

That’s a +19 bonus to the check. When taking 10 he can essentially triple the speed with which he can make common items like iron pots and horseshoes. He can easily create work far surpassing masterwork quality and can every so often (when he rolls a natural 20) create a work of essentially legendary quality (DC 39).

What does all this mean?

It means that the most extraordinary blacksmiths in the real world top out at 5th level. Amakuni, the legendary Japanese swordsmith who created the folded-steel technique? 5th level.

Arachne, the legendary weaver who challenged Athena herself to a duel (and lost)? She might be 10th level.

Does this mean you should never throw a 10th level blacksmith into your campaign? Nope. D&D is all about mythic fantasy, after all. But when you do decide to throw a 10th level blacksmith into the mix, consider the fact that this guy will be amazing. He will be producing things that no blacksmith in the real world has ever dreamed of making. And a 20th level blacksmith is one step removed from Hephaestus himself.

(Coincidentally: Why do dwarves have such a reputation for mastery of the forge? They have a +2 racial bonus to Craft checks. That means that, unlike human blacksmiths, the average dwarf doesn’t need to be 3rd level in order to single-handedly create masterwork items – they can do it at 1st level. Basically, due to their natural aptitude, dwarves are master craftsmen before they ever leave their apprenticeships.)

JUMPING

How well do these numbers hold up when compared to other skills? Well, let’s take a look at the Jump skill.

Based on our analysis of the Knowledge and Craft skills, we know that a 1st level character has professional competency in their chosen field. We also know that a 5th level character represents the most legendary levels of skill – the type of people who come along once in a generation.

So, when it comes to jumping, a 1st level character probably represents a typical college athlete. A 5th level character, on the other hand, represents the small handful of jumpers who challenge and break the world records. It would make sense then, that Olympians would probably fall in the 3rd to 4th level range (better than your run-of-the-mill specialists, but not quite at the level of once-in-a-generation).

Let’s take a look at a 4th level Olympian jumper:

+7 skill ranks
+3 Strength bonus
+3 Skill Focus

That’s a +13 bonus.

Now, back in the original 3rd Edition (3.0), the result of a running long jump check was:

5 ft. + 1 ft. per 1 point above 10

This can be more easily paraphrased this way: The distance of a long jump is equal to your check result minus 5 feet.

Our Olympian’s jumps will range from 9 feet (stumbling all the way on a roll of natural 1) to 28 feet. But a typical Olympic event involves three jumps in which the best distance is recorded. That means that roughly 80% of the time, our long jumper will be jumping between 20 feet and 28 feet in competition.

Looking at the 2004 Olympics, the top forty men’s long-jump results during the qualification round range from 24 feet to 27.25 feet. Those types of results will be posted approximately 60% of the time by our Olympic long-jumper.

With out 5th level jumper we can bump the ability bonus up to +4, add a +2 synergy bonus from Tumble, or a +4 bonus from the Run feat. The result would be a the ability to achieve jumps in the 29-35 foot range. The world record is currently set at 29.35 feet.

So, once again we’re finding that 5th level is right at the dividing line between legendary real world performances and the impossible realms of the superhuman.

And you’ll find similar fidelity with the high jump rules. (In fact, the 3.0 high jump rules are even more accurate than the long jump rules.)

The jumping rules, however, are perhaps the most visible victim of gameplay compromises in D&D. When the system was revised for D20 Modern, the distance of a long jump was revised to simply equal the DC of the check. This change was later picked up in the 3.5 revision of the D&D rules.

This rule is a lot simpler to remember, but it makes jumping significantly easier than any other skill (compared to real world performance). Under the new rules, 1st level characters can now trivially perform Olympic-level jumps and our typical Olympians will be routinely smashing the world record. (The high jump rules, on the other hand, remain fairly accurate.)

ANALYZING ARAGORN

So what have we learned so far? Almost everyone you have ever met is a 1st level character. The few exceptional people you’ve met are probably 2nd or 3rd level – they’re canny and experienced and can accomplish things that others find difficult or impossible.

If you know someone who’s 4th level, then you’re privileged to know one of the most talented people around: They’re a professional sports player. Or a brain surgeon. Or a rocket scientist.

If you know someone who’s 5th level, then you have the honor of knowing someone that will probably be written about in history books. Walter Payton. Michael Jordan. Albert Einstein. Isaac Newton. Miyamoto Musashi. William Shakespeare.

So when your D&D character hits 6th level, it means they’re literally superhuman: They are capable of achieving things that no human being has ever been capable of achieving. They have transcended the mortal plane and become a mythic hero.

This requires a shift of perception for some people, but I’ve found it valuable, when crafting my own campaigns, to keep it in mind: Even though the PCs inhabit a world where there are many higher level characters, once they’ve gotten past 5th level or so, they are truly special individuals. They will be noticed. Their accomplishments will be (and should be) things which would enshrine them in the legends of our world. It’s OK for them to excel.

To help put this in further perspective, let me pop another popular canard:

People love to stat up their favorite heroes from fantasy literature as 20th level juggernauts. Fafhrd? 20th level. Elric? 20th level. Conan? 20th level. Aragorn? 20th level Luke Skywalker? 20th level.

I mean, they must be 20th level, right? They’re the biggest, bestest heroes ever! They’re the greatest warriors in a generation! Some of them are reputedly the greatest swordsmen who ever lived in any universe EVAH!

But when you stop and analyze what these characters are actually described as achieving, it’s rare to find anything which actually requires a 20th level build.

Take Aragorn, for example. He’s clearly described as one of the best warriors in Middle Earth. But what do we actually see him do? Let’s take The Fellowship of the Rings as an example:

He leads the hobbits through the wilderness with great skill. (The highest Survival DC in the core rules is DC 15. A 1st level character can master the skill for non-tracking purposes. Aragorn, as a master tracker, would need to be 5th level, have at least one level of ranger, and have spent one of his feats on Skill Focus (Survival) to achieve all of this.)

He drives off the ringwraiths at Weathertop. (It’s difficult to conclude anything from this because it’s one of the more problematic passages in the book when subjected to analysis. If the ringwraiths are truly impervious to harm from any mortal man, why are they scared off by a guy waving two “flaming brands of wood”? Are they vulnerable to fire in a way that they’re not vulnerable to mortal weapons? The point is, the true strength of the ringwraiths is obscure, so it’s impossible to know how tough Aragorn would need to be in order to accomplish this.)

Aragorn treats Frodo’s wound, unsuccessfully. (The highest Heal DC is 15. As with Survival, Aragorn could have mastered this skill at 1st level.

In Moria (fighting orcs): “Legolas shot two through the throat. Gimli hewed the legs from under another that had sprung up on Balin’s tomb. Boromir and Aragorn slew many. When thirteen had fallen the rest fled shrieking, leaving the defenders unharmed, except for Sam who had a scratch along the scalp. A quick duck had saved him; and he had felled his orc: a sturdy thrust with his Barrow-blade. A fire was smouldering in his brown eyes that would have made Ted Sandyman step backwards, if he had seen it. (Aragorn slays no more than six or seven CR 1/2 orcs in this encounter. A trivial accomplishment for a 5th level character.)

Even if you follow Aragorn all the way through The Two Towers and The Return of the King, you’ll find that this is fairly representative of what he accomplishes. The only other notable ping on the radar is his ability to use athelas, and even if we don’t assume that’s merely an example of him knowing athelas’ properties (with a Knowledge (nature) check), it’s still just one ability.

So what can we conclude form this? Aragorn is about 5th level.

And since Aragorn is one of the most remarkable individuals in all of Middle Earth, this would imply that Middle Earth is a place largely like our own world: People who achieve 5th level are uniquely gifted and come along but once in a generation.

Does that seem like a proper description of Middle Earth? It does. Tolkien was crafting a false mythology – a forgotten epoch of our own world. Thus the people in it are much like the people we know, although they live in a world of heroes and magic.

(For the record, I’d probably model Aragorn as a Rgr1/Ftr1/Pal3. That gives you the tracking, lay on hands, and quantifies his ineffable ability to instill courage in those around him. Use one of the feat selections for Skill Focus (Survival) and you’re still left with another three feat selections for the final tweaking.)

Why do people make the mistake of modeling characters like Aragorn as 20th level characters? I think it arises from several factors.

First, there is the assumption that the fictional world of the novel is a typical D&D world. If someone is described as “the best in the world”, therefore, they must be 20th level. Otherwise there would be people better than them and the description wouldn’t be accurate, right? But the reality is that, in Middle Earth, there aren’t any 20th level characters. (At least, none of mortal stature.) Even the most exceptional of the immortal elves are most likely no more than 8th level or so (and that’s pushing it). Gandalf is a demigod cloaked in mortal form and I’d have difficulty statting him up as even a 10th level character.

Second, people can be thrown off by some contortion required by D&D in order to get a very specific set of abilities. A character is described as having one very specific ability that only a 5th level druid can have and is simultaneously described as having another ability that only a 12th level ranger can have, so clearly they must be a 17th level character, right?

Well, no. Authors don’t design their characters around the class progressions of the core D&D classes. Take, for example, a character who can assume an ethereal state without casting a spell. The only way to do that in D&D, using only the core classes, is to be a 19th level monk. But if that’s the only special ability the character in question has, it would be completely nonsensical to model them as a 19th level monk – they don’t have any of the plethora of other abilities such a monk possesses. What you’re looking at is a character with a unique class progression or possibly a prestige class. Or maybe a racial ability.

Finally, you’ll get into an arms race of expectations which just reinforces the whole thing: Aragorn must be 20th level. So the orcs who posed such a challenge to him must be 15th level or higher. And since those were elite 15th level orcs, Aragorn must have been 20th level in order to face them.

CONCLUDING THOUGHTS

The problem with having false expectations about what “Strength 20” or “15th level” really means is that it creates a dissonance between what the rules allow characters to do and what you think characters should be able to do. For example, if you think that Conan should be modeled as a 25th level character, then you’re going to be constantly frustrated when the system treats him as a demigod and allows him to do all sorts of insanely powerful things that the literary Conan was never capable of. From there it’s a pretty short step to making pronouncements like “D&D can’t do Conan” (or Lankhmar or Elric or whatever).

The other problem is the expectation it brings to your campaigns. If you believe that epic adventures are only possible for characters who are 20th level, then your players are going to have a long, hard slog through lower levels of utter tedium before they can get to the “good stuff” that resembles the fantasy stories they love.

I’m seen people spend countless hours trying to tweak various rules so that, for example, 20th level characters (who are basically mythological demigods) can’t fall off the Cliffs of Insanity and survive because “no one could survive a fall like that”. Well, that’s true. No one in the real world can survive a fall like that. But that’s because no one in the real world is a demigod. You might be missing the forest for the trees here.

The fact that D&D can handle a range of powers from the subhuman all the way up through the superhuman and into the demigod-like is actually one of the system’s strengths. People will rightfully point that, beyond 20th level, the system begins to break down. But compared to virtually every other RPG ever designed, D&D’s performance across that wide range of powers is still amazing. Nothing else can really compare.

(For example, HERO was originally designed to model superheroes, and it does that exceptionally. It’s also very good at handling cinematic action heroes. But when you ask it to do normal human beings, it starts developing some serious clunkiness. On the other end of the spectrum, GURPS is great at handling human beings near the normal end of the spectrum, but gets progressively more awkward the more powerful the characters become.)

But what frustrates some people is that D&D assumes that you’re going to move from one level of power to an extremely different level of power. So they spend a lot of time tweaking the system and trying to get it to perform at a more uniform level from 1st to 20th level.

I think this is the hard way of doing it. Instead of fighting the system, I’d rather try to work with it: Target the precise range of levels which form the “sweet spot” for whatever campaign concept I’m working on, and then tinker with the character creation and advancement rules to keep the campaign focused in that sweet spot. Those changes can be as simple as “XP awards will be 1/10th the normal size and everyone should create a 5th level character”, but more complicated variants are more than possible.

The point is that you find that “sweet spot” and then you tinker with one aspect of the system, rather than trying to redo the whole thing.

And the first step in finding that “sweet spot” is to recognize what the numbers really mean. Which neatly takes us back to the beginning premise of the essay. (I wouldn’t suggest going back and re-reading it like a literary ouroboros, though. It’s long enough as it is.)

SPECIAL THANKS

To Eve Forward, for giving me the impetus to collect a variety of my scattered thoughts into this single essay.

To Rupert Boleyn, Malachias Invictus, Doug Lampert, and Sea Wasp (Ryk E. Spoor), who have all contributed to the development of these thoughts in online discussions over the years.

If you found this essay interesting, you might want to check out E(X): The Many Games Inside the World’s Most Popular Roleplaying Game. It’s a sequel of sorts.

25 Responses to “D&D: Calibrating Your Expectations”

  1. Justin Alexander says:

    ARCHIVED HALOSCAN COMMENTS

    Catprog
    Would Bradman by L6

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Batting_average
    Sunday, November 28, 2010, 2:33:06 AM


    Thomas D
    http://www.guardian.co.uk/sport/2007/sep/16/comment.news1

    He’s 4 standard deviations above the average for his sport, and, by that meter of how many deviations the player is above the average, the best known sports player ever.

    You could probably model that with a lot of cricket feats and specializations, though, without putting him at that high a level. That would explain why his average is much higher against South Africa (200) than against england (90) which developed special tactics to counter him specifically. As well as being very skilled, so high level, he had certain unique feats which some were able to counter, some not.

    He had continuing health problems, so he could probably be modelled well with a low constitution, and a high speed.
    Monday, November 29, 2010, 12:59:59 PM


    Scow2
    I think the only flaw is the 3d6 doesn’t give a large enough bell curve to simulate reality. So, most people do demonstrate the 15-point array (though throughout life, they may demonstrate the 25-point array). 3d6 is a way to generate stats and give a bell curve for the random distribution of stats, but doesn’t weight the center enough.

    While people are trying to argue that, since the 3d6 is the “true” representation of normal person generation instead of the likely-more-accurate 15-point generation to demonstrate that having an 18 is more common than we are implying (And thus less special), they are convieniently forgetting that an equal number would have a 3 in a stat, which is So Horribly Incompetant that it would be obvious that the 3d6 does not hold up.

    The 3d6 is reserved for retired or prospective OD&D adventurers. Common NPCs use 15 point buy or Commoner Array.
    Friday, August 20, 2010, 12:12:13 PM


    Darkxarth
    Just rereading this article. As usual, it sends me into a spiral of ideas and creativity. Well written and quite well thought out. Of course, it is supported by and in support of the Epic 6 D&D variant that I enjoy the most. So, I may be a little biased in its favor.
    Tuesday, August 03, 2010, 3:13:44 PM


    ben
    This is a very good article. I never would have thought about it that way. I will most certainly use this idea in my next campaign.
    Friday, April 30, 2010, 8:03:56 PM


    Confanity
    I just reread this again, and it’s still thought-provoking and generally shiny. An almost completely unrelated question arises, though — given that you’ve commented at length on DnD 3.x and 4, what are your thoughts on Pathfinder?
    Friday, February 26, 2010, 9:37:10 AM


    Muninn
    @John: Yes, the system can do that, because the math that was being worked out was the highest possible that you can invest in something due to the limits. For example, the model of Einstein has used (at most) only 1/6 of the available skill points, still has 2 feats left, and could very well still be a master of several disciplines.


    @mman: No, It’s 1 in 36 have an 18 in any score. Only 1 in 216 would have an 18 (or a 1) in any specific score, like you are suggesting.
    Tuesday, January 26, 2010, 6:24:26 AM


    m man
    1 in 36 get an 18? they are prob an adventurer.
    of course getting a 3 in con means they are the 1 in 36 that dont make it past age 5.
    or the 3 in dex that was too slow to avoid the charging bull at 7
    or the 3 in Int that cause them to drown after going swimimng in the well at 10.
    or the 3 in cha that got their head kick in and body hidden at 13.
    Monday, January 25, 2010, 3:18:15 PM


    JRW
    Excellent, thought-provoking article. It might even be enough to get me to jump back into D&D after a ten year hiatus. :D
    Sunday, September 06, 2009, 2:00:53 PM


    John
    It seems to me that while several of the comments were based on incomplete reading, and appropriately dismissed as not being worth your time to answer, there were a couple of others with valid points that you chose to ignore.

    Specifically, the complaint about your comment, “the vast majority of the people you meet will be lucky to have a single +1 bonus in any of their ability scores.” is well warranted. Even with the flat 3d6 (rolled for average people), there’s a better than 35% chance any given attribute is 12 or higher. The vast majority of people I meet WILL have a +1 in at least one attribute. You are simply completely wrong on this point.

    It was also mentioned in the comments that if we use the average character rolls, one person in 36-37 will have an 18 for one of their attributes. Therefore most people actually know someone with a +4 score in something. You seem to imply otherwise.

    You also didn’t respond to the comment that your level 5 for Aragorn is a lower limit based on the few actions you chose to model for. You conclude that Aragorn IS about 5th level, when you really need to be concluding that Aragorn must be AT LEAST 5th level. This is a huge difference.

    To expand, picking a few actions to model ignores everything else a person can do. “Plus 15 to Physics” wasn’t the sum of Einstein. I don’t know much about the man, but let’s substitute Newton to make the point more clear. Can level 5 contain a character who completely revolutionizes multiple fields of study, like mathematics, physics, and optics? What about Da Vinci? (okay, that might be cheating.)

    The thing is, I strongly agree with the thrust of your article. People really don’t understand what high levels mean, and your article is very useful for describing it. I just find it problematic that you link your great points to pretty suspicious or incorrect assumptions about the math.
    Thursday, August 13, 2009, 2:28:26 PM


    Guest
    Re: Aragorn’s level…

    Instead of saying, “Aragorn must be AT LEAST 5th level,” it may be more accurate to Justin’s point to say, “Aragorn doesn’t NEED TO BE ANY HIGHER than 5th level” to accomplish the heroic deeds he performs in the novels — making the point that 5th level is heroic enough to mirror the heroic feats in Tolkien’s fiction. Obviously Aragorn could be better than that, he just doesn’t require a higher level build to accurately do justice to his fictional persona.
    Saturday, September 25, 2010, 7:02:59 PM


    grautry
    You know, since I commented on your wandering monster article, I might as well comment on this one.

    IMO, this is one of the best D&D articles I’ve ever seen.

    I always found it hard to explain just how powerful D&D characters are to my friends. This article solves this quite neatly.

    Overall, job well done.

    I’ve been wondering and I think this sort of perception – that a, let’s say, 15th level character is basically a ‘tough guy’ instead of a minor demigod actually comes from computer games.

    It just seems to me that games like NWN(as much as I like them) and similar don’t really show just how insanely powerful you are as a high-level D&D character.

    Thus, this sort of “Aragorn? 20th level. Gandalf? 75th level”(I actually remember someone trying to stat Gandalf as a character of around that level) perception.

    Anyway, I’m going on a tangent here.

    Overall, job well done.
    Tuesday, July 28, 2009, 7:16:19 AM


    Midgardsormr
    Regarding Aragorn’s level, I’d hesitate to put him lower than 8th or 9th level given Gandalf’s assertion that “there are names among us that are worth more than a thousand mail-clad knights apiece” during the Battle at the Morannon Gate. Of course, that assessment is based on more than fighting prowess—it also takes into account the morale effect on both sides and the superior tactical skill of the Captains of the West.

    In addition, Aragorn won a psychic battle against Sauron (who *is* just one step below a god) for control of the Palantîr of Orthanc. Even considering possible bonuses for the Palantîri being attuned to his lineage and the possibility that the Orthanc stone was stronger than the one held by Sauron, that’s still an impressive feat.

    Still and all, D&D isn’t really meant to resemble Middle Earth, though I’ll allow that it does at least as good a job as MERP ever did.

    Very good article; I learned some things from it that I’ll take forward into my games. Thank you!
    Friday, March 27, 2009, 11:08:18 AM


    J. Scott Mohn
    Sauron as depicted in the films is little more than an 11th level lich cleric. In the Hobbit he is simply called “the Necromancer”. In the films (I can’t find my book collection, so I’m going from memory of the films at the moment), the only time we see Sauron is in the beginning, clad in heavy armor, standing twice as tall as any man, completely ravaging the enemy lines with his mace. His life force is bound to a near undestroyable magic item (his ring). All of these things can be done by an 11th level cleric (clerics are the best necromancers, clerics can wear armor, they begin with mace proficiency, they can forge magic rings, they can become liches, they can cast spells like Righteous Might to grow to large size and gain lots of combat bonuses, they get an aura of fear, etc).

    Really, there’s nobody in the entire Lord of the Rings films that I’d stat higher than 11th. There’s simply no one that displays that much power. Even the Balor in D&D who’s supposed to look like the Balrog from LotR is overpowered. If the Balrog in LotR used the stats of the Balor from D&D, then the party never would have had the chance to run. The balor would have simply used one of its spell-like abilities to completely destroy them. It could have began the “fight” (more like slaughter) by unleashing Blasphemy, killing all of them, while using telekinesis in the same round to hurl members of the fellowship off the small path, and that’s before he greater-teleported ontop of them. Gandalf stood in front of the Balrog to prevent him from passing. The Balrog in LotR was probably not more than CR 7-10.
    Wednesday, November 17, 2010, 12:13:38 PM


    Robes
    Great article.
    TomB: I am surprised noone has brought this up: Ballistic armour would have a check penalty. I have no idea about the relative weights and flexibilities and such of armours, and where modern ballistic armour would fit on the armour list in terms of CP, but that might have something to do with it.

    But, like a few people have said: This certainly changes how I look at campaign worlds now.
    Sunday, February 22, 2009, 10:04:54 AM


    Octal
    Blah–I meant to mention that I think I see how you would get 75%, but I got sidetracked. So, this is what should have been after the second paragraph. If you assume that a task with a DC of 1 more than another is 5% more difficult (ie, 45% chance of success vs 40% chance of success… I’m not sure “5% more difficult” is quite the right way to put it, but you see what I mean), and that a task you can take ten on has a 100% chance of success, then you can get that result by saying, DC 25 = 100% chance of success, DC 26 = 95% chance, and so on. But, that doesn’t work across the “take ten” line for the reason I mentioned.
    Thursday, February 05, 2009, 6:50:30 PM


    Octal
    Minor quibble:

    “He’ll know the answers to the very hardest questions (DC 30) about 75% of the time.”

    To make a skillcheck of DC 30 with a +15 bonus, you need to roll a 15 or higher. That means knowing the answer about 30% of the time, not 75%.

    Right after the point at which someone can take ten (here, moving from DC 25 to DC 26 questions) you see a large spike in the difficulty… from “automatically succeed” to “fifty-fifty”. I find this a somewhat reasonable way to model knowledge checks, at least, since there is a tendancy to learn lower-level things first, then move on to more difficult things (which build *on* the easier things and require an understanding of them). (As a side note, I favor the interpretation that for knowledge checks, you just *know* anything at or below the DC at which you can take ten and succeed… but under pressure (being attacked by a monster and making a check for its weaknesses, for example) you may not be able to *remember* it. A DM could even model that by having the character remember the relevant fact a bit later, after the pressure’s off. I’m sure most of us have experienced *that*–having a relevant fact surface in your mind as soon as you no longer urgently need it.)
    Thursday, February 05, 2009, 6:39:14 PM


    Diamondeye
    Overall, very good article. However, I would point out that Aragorn’s level of 5, based on observing his actions, is a lower limit, not an uppr limit to his abilities. The fact that he needs to be about level 5 to do them doesn’t preclude him being level 6, 7, 8, or higher.

    I’m not trying to say he’s necessarily significantly higher than 5, but he might possibly be in the 6-8 range. Granted, he doesn’t perform any feats more significantly impressive than what you used as examples, but he also really never needs to.
    Wednesday, September 17, 2008, 1:59:25 PM


    reddir
    I agree with Abu Dhabi, in that this article totaly changed my view of what character levels and skills mean in D&D. I too had thought level 10 was what was needed for a character to be considered resonably successful in the world. Now I have a much greater appreciation for the characters I start playing at level 1, as well as the NPCs around them.
    Friday, March 21, 2008, 12:02:34 PM


    Frank
    Oops. My first comment didn´t get through. Here goes:

    In the skill examples you´re not taking into account aging. I personally am ot a fan of adult 1st level NPC. NPCs get experience too. 1st level represents adolescents imo, take a look at the starting ages for PC classes.

    Do you know the “NPC over a life time ” threads on ENWorld? They are similar to SKRs Theory about Peasants and present average NPC progressions from level 1 to about level 6 over a lifetime, by assigning them roughly 1xp per day.

    Under this system a 5th level (N)PC will have had age modifiers applied at least once, more likely twice.

    So yes a 5h level character who is still around age 30 or younger is indeed very extraordinary. But the physical skill examples suffer if you take into account age modifiers.
    Sunday, February 17, 2008, 4:21:45 AM


    Frank
    Excellent article, btw.
    Sunday, February 17, 2008, 4:20:49 AM


    Justin Alexander
    PerennialRook: Good point regarding the AoOs.

    RodTheWorm: Thanks for the kind words.
    Saturday, February 16, 2008, 2:30:54 PM


    RodTheWorm
    Despite many disparaging comments, I think this is one of the best inspirational articles to DMs on the net. Not only are lower levels great fun, but it feels more realistic and takes less work. My only qualm is that casters lose out on a fair amount of their abilities, which are fairly back loaded, but I suppose if you top out at level ten that’s still pretty decent.

    This article plus the NPC generator at aarg.com just helped me add a very characterful level 4 expert elf pianist to my slowly growing campaign world.

    Also, you may want to bear in mind that due to PC classes being better than NPC classess, the characters will likely be substantially better than average from the offset. A level 1 fighter for instance could take on 2-3 level 1 warriors or a single level 3. This effectively makes him a veteran already.
    Monday, January 14, 2008, 6:09:35 PM


    PerennialRook
    I loved the article. I hate to point out that the cat never draws an AoO because the commoner isn’t considered armed, a prerequisite for making an AoO. Also, Arthur could have easily been a 5th level character running around with a +1 longsword.
    Sunday, January 13, 2008, 4:24:04 AM


    Veridian
    Interesting article. I’d never thought to actually look at the D&D rules in that sort of way, but now I read it, it does actually make good sense.

    I guess many of us are used to settings such as Forgotten Realms, which is chock a block full of high level NPCs. Tends to put the focus more on having powerful heros that still pale in comparison to such near-godly people.

    Ultimately I suppose a group would have to decide whether they wanted a ‘realistic’ game (where they are maybe lvl 5, perhaps 6), or whether they wish to accumulate what is to them, tangible power. I guess, I myself fall in the latter category. I find it a little dull at low levels, but then, at higher levels it is equally dull (I mean 15+, when you and your party could concievably go and overthrow a demon lord in his own home with some preparations)

    So, to each unto his own, but let us not forget the foundations that the game was built on.

    Thanks for the insight

    ~V
    Saturday, October 27, 2007, 2:04:49 AM


    Justin Alexander
    hunajamarinoitu wrote: “Also, statements like “no other RPG can compare” sound like the author hasn’t even played, or read, many other RPGs. Runequest did just about everything at least as well as D&D 3.0, and it was released in 1979, over 20 years earlier.”

    Context is pretty important.

    What the author actually said was that “compared to virtually every other RPG designed, D&D’s performance across that wide range of powers [from subhuman all the way up through the superhuman and into the demigod-like] is still amazing”.

    Now, I’ve played RuneQuest. Several different editions of it, in fact. And the reality is that RuneQuest is not designed to allow PCs with demigod-like powers. Your assertion that it DOES allow for PCs with demigod-like powers is really quite absurd to anyone who has even read through the rulebook.

    I’d address your other complaints, but oddly — despite your claim that I ignored them in the essay — all of them are, in fact, explicitly discussed there. I can only assume that you didn’t actually read the essay for comprehension.

    Also: RuneQuest was published in 1978, not 1979. (And some of the rules had appeared even earlier than that in various publications.)

    It’s just not that hard to get your facts straight before blurting ill-thought opinions into the digital ether. Try harder.
    Thursday, October 25, 2007, 4:26:24 PM


    Abu Dhabi
    “This essay reads as if the author is going out of his way to find the few solitary instances where the game accidentally makes some real-world sense, and willfully ignoring the majority of situations where it doesn’t – and even all the situations cherry-picked here don’t hold up very well in close scrutiny.”

    Please elaborate. Also, I won’t accept the commoner/cat scenario as a valid argument. That is a fringe case, something bound to crop up if you get into places where the numbers are approximated.

    “Two examples: One, as pointed out above, what D&D considers a “Light load” will seriously impede movement and actions in the real world. Secondly, the very idea that Einstein would have to become a better combatant (= increase his level, which increases his BAB and HP) to become a better physicist is plain absurd. The first problem is a minor one, as the encumbrance rules in general aren’t a very interesting part of the game, but the second betrays a serious problem in the game’s structure: to become better at _anything_, you have to become a better warrior first. That does not make sense.”

    I agree that making martial prowess linked to the amount of levels only, rather than it being a normal skill is silly – I believe it’s in that way the makers of DnD thought to put a crimp on powergaming.

    I disagree, however, that 33 pounds would seriously inconvenience the average human. I carry more to Uni every workday! As long as it’s properly spread out among the various pockets and the backpack, I’m not impeded very much.

    “Also, statements like “no other RPG can compare” sound like the author hasn’t even played, or read, many other RPGs. Runequest did just about everything at least as well as D&D 3.0, and it was released in 1979, over 20 years earlier.”

    What is this “Runequest”? ;p
    Saturday, October 20, 2007, 2:27:07 PM


    hunajamarinoitu
    This essay reads as if the author is going out of his way to find the few solitary instances where the game accidentally makes some real-world sense, and willfully ignoring the majority of situations where it doesn’t – and even all the situations cherry-picked here don’t hold up very well in close scrutiny.

    Two examples: One, as pointed out above, what D&D considers a “Light load” will seriously impede movement and actions in the real world. Secondly, the very idea that Einstein would have to become a better combatant (= increase his level, which increases his BAB and HP) to become a better physicist is plain absurd. The first problem is a minor one, as the encumbrance rules in general aren’t a very interesting part of the game, but the second betrays a serious problem in the game’s structure: to become better at _anything_, you have to become a better warrior first. That does not make sense.

    Also, statements like “no other RPG can compare” sound like the author hasn’t even played, or read, many other RPGs. Runequest did just about everything at least as well as D&D 3.0, and it was released in 1979, over 20 years earlier.
    Tuesday, October 16, 2007, 4:59:16 AM


    Justin Alexander
    Ah, I see. I had assumed that you had actually read the essay before attempting to reply to it. Obviously you have not. If you had, you would have read this paragraph right smack-dab in the middle of the introduction:

    “Before we do that, though, I want to make one disclaimer perfectly clear: D&D is a game. Its systems are abstracted and streamlined in order to keep things simple and, more importantly, fun. So, yes, there are compromises. (You’ll see a graphic example of the types of compromises which are made when we talk about the Jump skill.) The game is not a physics text. Nor is it without flaw.”

    I could go on and point out that (a) you have probably never actually confronted a cat who was interested in dealing lethal damage to you; (b) the typical scratches you receive from a cat are well below the threshold of what D&D considers a point of damage; and so forth.

    But you’d probably just ignore it so that you could pompously preach about how I should stop doing my job (which is freelance game design) and “get on with my life”.
    Saturday, September 22, 2007, 10:47:10 PM
    Liked by 3 Guests


    ObscureGamer
    You seem like a nice guy, so I mean this not to disrespect you, but only in the interest of illuminating truth.

    It seems your overeagerness to prove the realism of DnD 3.5 comes from a misguided affection for the rules. I have no particular bias for or against DnD and d20 (indeed, I make frequent use of both as the mood strikes me and the opportunity presents itself), but to lionize it as a mirror-image of reality seems intellectually dishonest to me.

    You seem to be glibly ignoring the fact that it is nothing less than sheer madness that a housecat could EVER kill a human being, unless that human being were completely immobilized and helpless, and even then I imagine it would take a good few hours for unconsciousness or death to occur, unless it was a pack of feral cats, which would be statted differently than housecats.

    Suppose the commoner provokes the first attack on the cat, and the cat is then free to make use of all three of its natural attacks? Who do the odds favor then?

    Speaking as someone who has a friend who owns many cats, and has been scratched and bitten on many occasions, I can safely say that there is little danger of a common, normal person falling unconscious from cat scratches and bites (which is guaranteed to occur to a typical human commoner in DnD after two or three scratches).

    So yeah, in conclusion, you are a nice guy, but you really need to get off your high horse. Accept and love DnD for what it was meant to be – an entertaining fantasy-fiction environment for adventures. It is not, nor was it ever meant to be, a perfect simulacrum of real life. The sooner you accept this and get on with your life, the better off you’ll be.
    Saturday, September 22, 2007, 2:46:33 PM


    Justin Alexander
    (1) A cat has a BAB of +0, just like a commoner.

    (2) Their only bonus to Initiative comes from Dexterity, which a Commoner could just as easily have. But let’s go ahead and assume that the cat’s +2 initiative bonus will let them go first.

    (3) While the cat does have three attacks if they perform a full attack, the maximum damage they can do with any one of those attacks is 1 hp of damage.

    The commoner has 2 hit points on average (same as the cat). Here’s how the combat goes:

    (1) The cat goes first and goes for the attack. They have a reach of 0 ft., so they provoke an attack of opportunity.

    (2) The unarmed commoner, with an attack bonus of +0, makes an AoO vs. AC 14. They hit 35% of the time, doing on average 2 points of damage and staggering the cat (preventing the cat from making an attack this round or a full round attack on any future round).

    (3) But let’s assume they miss, so the cat makes their one attack with their claws. They have a 70% chance of hitting and doing 1 hp of damage. This has no chance of taking the commoner down.

    (4) Now the commoner withdraws. The cat approaches and provokes another AoO. There’s now a 50% chance that the cat has been disabled and a 0% chance that the commoner has been.

    Rinse, wash, repeat. Basically you discover that by the time the cat has any ability to take the commoner out of the fight, the commoner is already 85% likely to have taken the cat out.

    There is very little chance that a cat will kill a commoner. There is essentially NO chance that they’ll take down a wizard.

    So, if a DM has a common housecat completely out of character and attack a human being… its still vastly unlikely that the cat will win.

    And now you know. And knowing is half the battle.
    Friday, September 21, 2007, 7:33:57 PM


    ObscureGamer
    Justin – for further proof of how perfectly the 3.5 DnD roleplaying system mimics real life, pit a commoner against a typical housecat.

    With its superior BAB, superior initiative, and three attacks per round, to say nothing of the superior AC, the domesticated kitty cat is going to have little trouble killing its master most of the time.

    In fact, the housecat has decent odds against a 1st level wizard PC hero.

    Clearly, if you’re a commoner and you want to have any hope at all of defeating a cat or equivalent threat, you’d better be armed to the teeth, and have ranged weapons, and a few friends.
    Tuesday, September 18, 2007, 8:38:39 PM


    Justin Alexander
    TomB wrote: “Saying that a game where character classes support 20 levels, but the majority of people would be 1st to at most 5th level without becoming superhuman can support non-superhuman play is true, but a bit disingenious.”

    For me, that’s like saying that claiming that GURPS can handle realistic gameplay is disingenuous because it also allows for 500-point GURPS Supers characters.

    D&D handles a range of power levels. It provides excellent gameplay within most of those power levels. And if you don’t want to use it within those power levels, then all you need to do is make the small tweak of not using the other power levels it provides.

    Which seems pretty reasonable: If you want to play a 100-point GURPS game and not a 500-point GURPS game, simply don’t play with 500-point characters. If you want to play a 5th-10th level D&D game and not a 20th level D&D game, don’t play with the 20th level characters.

    TomB: “A lot of us like a more gritty world, where a character won’t ascend to the heights of his long-term achievement at level 5. ”

    Which is like saying that you want a more gritty world where a character won’t ascend to the heights of his long-term achievement at 500 points.

    You’re confusing the reality of the gameworld with the metagame of the mechanics.
    -
    Sunday, September 16, 2007, 11:49:36 AM


    Dan
    Think it would be: 1-((1-(1/6)^3)^6)^36 ~= 63% chance that at least one of 36 people would have one stat at 18.

    You need a crowd of 108 people to get over 95% chance that one (or more) has 18 in one (or more) stats.
    Wednesday, September 12, 2007, 12:34:34 PM


    Rob
    Check out Ryan Stoughton’s E6 variant for a way to extend the lower level not superhero play of d20

    It’s on enworld message boards
    Friday, September 07, 2007, 5:32:51 PM


    Erik
    OK. So most people will be 1st level, a few 2nd and you will ocationally meet a third level character. The problem with this is that it takes far to short time to level. A player is quite capable of achieving one level per week, and a level each year is extremely slow.
    Wednesday, September 05, 2007, 7:40:17 AM


    Turanil
    This article was eye opening! After reading it, I am tempted to give 3.5 another chance… (but capping all levels at 6th or 7th).
    Tuesday, September 04, 2007, 2:05:01 PM


    Abu Dhabi
    Red Machine D: Obvious troll is obvious, to use that particular interneticism. Try again.

    For the record, 1/36 ~= 0.027778, and 1-(1-(1/6)^3)^6 ~= 0.027458. It’s slightly less likely than one in thirty-six to have a score of 18, unless I did something wrong.

    I also disagree that there’s nothing to do for a 5th level character. There’s PLENTY to do. Perform a coup d’etat on some poor country and lead it to greatness? Go on a hike across the planes? Start collecting money from people who would like your overpowered self away from their territories?
    Monday, September 03, 2007, 1:12:20 AM


    TomB
    I quote:

    Not necessarily. As I wrote in the essay, D&D is about mythic fantasy.

    The other approach is to back away from the standard D&D approach and scale the entire world — except for a handful of truly powerful heroes and villains, like the PCs — to a more realistic pitch. This means that the PCs, at mid-to-high levels, will essentially become demigods striding among mere mortals.

    Comment:

    D&D does superheroic fantasy well. D&D can do Conan or Harn-esque levels, but not very well. Saying that a game where character classes support 20 levels, but the majority of people would be 1st to at most 5th level without becoming superhuman can support non-superhuman play is true, but a bit disingenious.

    That’s like saying you can see colour if all you can see is red and orange. Technically true, but not terribly useful.

    A lot of us like a more gritty world, where a character won’t ascend to the heights of his long-term achievement at level 5. If, at level 5, my warrior can take on the best in the Kingdom (Aragorn) and lay him out, then there isn’t much more to do. Unless of course you enjoy the Dragon-a-Day approach to adventuring.

    And if you try to scale the whole game universe over 5 levels, you get some of the problems you pointed out with GURPS with high powered PCs or HERO with normals.

    D&D *can* do the more mundane game. But it strains the system. And that’s a bit disappointing. In my experience, the great majority (I’ve DM’d for about 40 over the last 20+ years) seem to prefer Level 1-9, with the sweet spot being levels 3-6. I’ve only rarely seen games go beyond 12th level just because it does get relatively outrageous and neither the DM nor the PCs have as much enjoyment. The characters become superhuman caricatures rather than fallible humans overcoming a challenge which makes it harder to feel a sense of accomplishment.

    I see more sense of accomplishment from most players on surviving first level scuffles with orcs and kobolds than I do surviving 10th level scuffles with Elementals and Dragons.

    So, don’t go off too far in touting D&D’s great potential for modelling reality. And FYI, if you’ve ever worn modern ballistic armour and tried to chase an insurgent in sandals and a cloth shift, you’ll find out that, despite a 14 STR and an officially light encumberance, you just *cannot* do the things he can and you ARE restricted in movement, and that’s with state of the art kinesiological analysis used to design the armours and high tech materials. The game just does not capture that.

    Nor does it do a good job of capturing, as few games I know do, the difference between a good day and a bad day for a character.

    It’s a rules system – every one of those has flaws. It also models a certain level of environment, which is high-magic, high-fantasy superheroic character best of all. The further you get from that, the more it shows cracks.
    Friday, August 31, 2007, 5:28:05 PM


    Red Machine D
    Hey, dickshit! Have you gotten it through your thick skull that D&d is a FANTASY GAME and that it’s not realistic AT ALL?

    Why don’t you write a long, worthless article about how D&D is ridiculous because it uses magic, and magic doesn’t exist?

    Fuckin’ dumbass. Go get hit by a drunk driver.
    Sunday, August 26, 2007, 12:31:54 PM


    Einvaldurinn
    If that is so, then any real comparison is meaningless because the average person in a D&D world would be operating at an entirely different level then the average person in the real world. Check your DMG, page 110 under the heading “Elite and Average Characters”, specifically this quote: “Average characters on the other handm have average abilities(rolled on 3d6) and don’t get maximum hit points from their first hit die.

    It seems pretty clear to me. If humans in D&D are really humans, one in 36 IRL has an 18.
    Sunday, August 26, 2007, 11:13:47 AM


    Tanais
    Einvaldrunn: I think the point is more along the lines of people in the real world aren’t created with 3d6 rolls, only these standout Heroes that then go out and take the world by storm. While the professionals WILL tend to score a bit higher in their chosen field, my Barber is going to reveert back into the average stat range.

    Personally, I see myself as having a couple extra Int points at the cost of a couple Con points, but still balanced out overall on the same point scale.
    Sunday, August 26, 2007, 12:54:07 AM


    Abu Dhabi
    I find this essay wholly awesome. The comments are mostly awesome as well. Me and my IRC gaming group have been changed FOREVER by reading this. Thank you so much for writing this!

    Why, before reading this article, I was under the impression that truly competent people were level 10. This’ll seriously alter the NPC layout of my future campaigns.
    Saturday, August 25, 2007, 5:27:03 PM


    Einvaldurinn
    RobTzu, you have six tries. You know, for your six ability scores?
    And Calmypal, normal people are rolled on 3d6. Not generated with the 10s and 11s array. It’s right there in the DMG.
    Saturday, August 25, 2007, 7:52:24 AM


    RobTzu
    The odds of an 18 rolling 3d6 is one in 216 (6*6*6) not one in 36 as a previous poster stated.
    Friday, August 10, 2007, 12:33:07 AM


    Calmypal
    Einvaldurinn, you miss the point. He isn’t saying the average character shouldn’t have any +1s. He’s saying the average person in the real world has the abilities of a character with no +1s. Again, the D&D character generation process creates heroes of legend.
    Tuesday, August 07, 2007, 1:22:18 PM


    Einvaldurinn
    How do you figure that the majority of people won’t even have a single +1 from their ability scores? Normal people should be rolled on 3d6, most of them should have at least a +1. Right? And one in 36 should have an 18 in one of their ability scores, meaning that most people know at least one person with an 18 for one of their ability scores.
    Just try rolling a few sets, see how many it takes to get one with nothing but 10′s and 11′s.
    Tuesday, August 07, 2007, 9:15:51 AM


    Benedict
    Oh and I should add that all above numbers were completely off the cuff.
    Friday, July 27, 2007, 12:02:57 PM


    Benedict
    The problem with the chess game as a single opposed check is that chess is a fluid dynamic game of changing strengths. Just because a player is currently strong (they have a great deal of skill) this doesn’t mean that through poor play or unexpected strategy they couldn’t be weakened.

    So lets take our example, and have our chess champion play confidently and take ten on his first roll. Our new player rolls and beats our chess champion. Now, not only has he lost the first of several opposed checks (to model the length of the game) but his position is weakened by the taking of one or many pieces. So now our champion is operating at a handicap, maybe as much as a -5 to his skill, for having inadequate materials. Expand the situation, say our chess champion has a fondness for knights, and both knights have been taken. This could be a crippling blow to him, where to another player it would be a mild inconvenience. Now hes angry (-1), reckless (-1), and hes missing pieces (-3 to be fair). He still takes ten, because hes confident of crushing his opponent. Our chess afficionado, however, is in a stronger position, having better tools (+2) and rolls well again, further crippling our chess master. Now hes furious (-2), vengeful (-2) and has even more missing pieces (-5). Meanwhile, our chess afficianado has narrowed the gap between skill and superior position, leveraging his piece differential to a +5, or even +10 bonus. From this point forward, its obvious who will win. This is consistent with real world play to an extent. A sophisticated situation such as a chess game cannot be resolved with a single opposed check, as its simply not logical to do so. However, sometimes out of expediency, you may have to distill quite complex things down to single opposed checks to speed the game along. At this point, “reality” suffers in the name of narative casuality and pacing. You allow the chess champion (due to his higher skill) to simply defeat the chess buff because its the fastest way to progress. It is an evil necessity, but a necessity nonetheless. From a GM standpoint, you should have no qualms about doing this, but you should recognize that at that exact point in time you have “broken” reality for the sake of a good story.
    Friday, July 27, 2007, 11:40:01 AM


    Justin Alexander
    Launcelot wrote: “Let me come up with an example, and let’s use your assumtions, they are good. Joe is a good and clever chess amateur; chess are his major non-professional interest, he reads books about them, trains and plays a few games every week.”

    I should do a follow-up regarding opposed tasks like this and combat scenarios.

    For combat, I put together a lengthy analysis during a discussion over at the Giant in the Playground forums:

    http://www.giantitp.com/forums/showthread.php?t=37561&page=5

    Opposed tasks like a game of chess — which are more complicated than the simple “do I see them or not?” type of opposed check — should probably be resolved as a series of opposed checks. This is something I would like to see covered in the core rules, but you’re quite right that it’s not a type of task that D&D is very good at handling right out of the box.

    Launcelot wrote: “Now, let’s say Rob and Will want to date the same girl. Will is tall, strong beautiful, clever, well dressed, and rich enough to own a Ferrari, while Rob is… Okay, okay, that’s a bad example.”

    LOL.

    Thanks for the feedback! It’s always appreciated!
    Thursday, June 07, 2007, 3:17:32 PM


    Justin Alexander
    Launcelot wrote: “Too bad I can’t access my core books right now, nor will bother doing a search through the SRD, but I remember 3e has a system for generating the demographics of a settlement, as well as the levels of the people which make up its population. Maybe someone will be able to give the reference. According to those rules, your average big city will indeed have a blacksmith who is 10th level or more. Hence I think that, in spite of its consistency, your view is a departure from this particular part of the core (which is certainly a guideline more than actual rules).”

    Not necessarily. As I wrote in the essay, D&D is about mythic fantasy. It’s not inappropriate for a large city to have a 10th level blacksmith — it’s just important to remember what type of skill that 10th level blacksmith has.

    In other words, when the players go to the workshop of the best blacksmith in a major metropolis, they should see works of art which are literally out of this world. In other words, a typical D&D campaign world should be filled with wonders — and if you can keep that perspective, I think it makes the game a little more special.

    The other approach is to back away from the standard D&D approach and scale the entire world — except for a handful of truly powerful heroes and villains, like the PCs — to a more realistic pitch. This means that the PCs, at mid-to-high levels, will essentially become demigods striding among mere mortals.
    Thursday, June 07, 2007, 3:08:53 PM


    Launcelot
    Still on the topic of the greatest randomness of the rules when compared to reality, here’s anoter example, based this time on the combat rules.

    Jim and Jack are two young computer engineers. Neither of them has received a military training or practiced any kind of combat sport in his life. But Jim has always been pretty sportive and agile, he was always among the best students in sports in all his classes. To this day he still runs every sunday and lifts weights 2 or 3 times a week. He weights 180 lbs. I model him as a 1st level expert, 14 STR, 14 CON, 14 DEX, 5 HPs, no combat feat whatsoever. Jack has always been quite weak physically, and slow, among the worst in sports of all his classes. Having other aptitudes and absolutely no taste for it, he’s never practiced any kind of sports except when it was mandatory in highschool. He weights 130 lbs. I model him as a 1st level expert, 8 STR, 8 DEX, 8 CON and 2 HPs, no combat feat whatsoever.

    Now let’s say Jim and Jack are put up against each other in a sword fight. This is a loyal fight, to the death. In the real world, we know Jack doesn’t stand a chance. The game system leaves him with a small but non-negligible chance of actually winning. The randomness of the combat system decreases when levels increase, but it is very random at first level, more than close-quarters fights are in real life.

    Now, let’s say Rob and Will want to date the same girl. Will is tall, strong beautiful, clever, well dressed, and rich enough to own a Ferrari, while Rob is… Okay, okay, that’s a bad example.
    Sunday, June 03, 2007, 2:23:04 AM


    Launcelot
    Oops, my comment was too long, thank god I used Ctrl+C before posting… Here’s the follow-up:

    My other point is the following, to put is simply: in many respects, D&D rules are more random than reality. This holds especially true when we’re speaking of a fight or an opposed skill check, as my examples will probably show.

    In the real world, some tasks are quite random, some are much less. In the game world, there’s what you can mange at best by rolling a 20 or taking it, and what you’ll end up doing on an actual series of rolls, especially opposed rolls. It appears to me that, although it also certainly envisages the latter, your essay mostly bases itself off the former.

    Let me come up with an example, and let’s use your assumtions, they are good. Joe is a good and clever chess amateur; chess are his major non-professional interest, he reads books about them, trains and plays a few games every week. But after all he is not a professional, and I model him as 2nd level, Int 15, 4 ranks in the appropriate skill, which gives a +6 bonus. Peter (or maybe I should say Piotr) is the current chess world champion, although he’s probably not one of the very greatest players of all times: I model him as 4th level, Int 18, 7 skill ranks, skill focus, which gives a +14 bonus. The chess game between the two is a “No retry” situation, so the players can’t take 20; playing against an amateur, the champion is not feeling particularly threatened, and Peter’s player takes 10. Joe’s player rolls the dice, of course. In the game world, we have a 10% probability that Joe wins this game. In case Peter’s player doesn’t take 10, Joe’s chances are even better… In the real world, I tend to think Joe’s chances would be more in the spectrum of 0.1 to 1% (and that’s only because even great champions sometimes – very rarely – make ugly mistakes).
    Sunday, June 03, 2007, 1:57:09 AM


    Launcelot
    Thanks for this interesting essay. The assumption that the range of normal human ability is described accurately by levels 1-5 is interesting, your numbers are sound.

    Now I have a couple of remarks, which would constitute a mitigation of your views more than straight objections.

    You wrote:
    “Does this mean you should never throw a 10th level blacksmith into your campaign? Nope. D&D is all about mythic fantasy, after all. But when you do decide to throw a 10th level blacksmith into the mix, consider the fact that this guy will be amazing. He will be producing things that no blacksmith in the real world has ever dreamed of making. And a 20th level blacksmith is one step removed from Hephaestus himself.”

    Too bad I can’t access my core books right now, nor will bother doing a search through the SRD, but I remember 3e has a system for generating the demographics of a settlement, as well as the levels of the people which make up its population. Maybe someone will be able to give the reference. According to those rules, your average big city will indeed have a blacksmith who is 10th level or more. Hence I think that, in spite of its consistency, your view is a departure from this particular part of the core (which is certainly a guideline more than actual rules).

    Now on to more general matters about the way the rules model reality:

    Experience isn’t everything. I’ve actually never seen a RPG model the creativity and plasticity of the youth. You spoke of Einstein, this is an interesting example. It has to be noted that he, like most major physicists of history, was actually relatively young when he first came up with relativity: 26 for restrained relativity. Then, he published his other major original contribution (general relativty) when he was 36. Before the age of 26, he also came up with pretty important equations on the topic of particle diffusion. As is the case for a awful lot of major scientists, the majority of them I’d say, his most fecond period was his late-twenties, early-thirties, although he was certainly less experienced then than in later parts of his life. There is a difference between something that is really difficult to manage because it requires not only gifts, but also a long practice, and something that is really difficult to manage because it’s new and none thought of it before (relativity by the time of Einstein probably was both). This is why I say experience isn’t everything. In the end, having a lot experience is generally great, but also happens to be bad at times, because it locks you up in habits: every manager knows there are delicate tasks he’d rather give to an experienced worker, and delicate tasks which are better done by a young and fresh employee. Anyway, this aspect of human reality is never described in RPGs.

    My other point is the following, to put is simply: in many respects, D&D rules are more random than reality. This holds especially true when we’re speaking of a fight or an opposed
    Sunday, June 03, 2007, 1:53:38 AM


    Ed
    Excellent article. However, I think I’d put Aragorn at Rgr1/Pal4, as this gives him the Turn Undead ability and explains his driving off of the ringwraiths without sacrificing much (he really only loses a bonus feat).
    Sunday, May 13, 2007, 1:48:23 PM

  2. Dryhad says:

    I know this is old, but I’ve been thinking about it a lot lately, specifically the abilities of higher level charaters.

    I want to say first of all that I don’t disagree with your analysis. I think you’ve shown definitively that extraordinary people in the real world are about level 5, and that at this level their abilities correspond with reality fairly accurately.

    What I do think, though, is that if you apply a similar analysis to higher levels you don’t find superhuman abilities, let alone demigodhood. Your 5th level characters, with their various bonuses, can already perform the highest DC functions of whichever skills they’re specialised in. More skill ranks will only allow them do these things more consistently and, in some cases, quickly (Jump is a special case, but it _does_ have a cap under 3.0 rules, which you identify as more accurate). Beyond the abilities of anyone in the real world, perhaps, but only in the area of efficiency. The end product is still the same.

    Other stats don’t make much difference either. Base Attack is essentially arbitrary, depending on the Armor Class of whatever you’re attacking. Even if we could figure out those stats, a 20th level character is only going to be hitting more often, they won’t do any more damage than a 5th level character with the same equipment. Saving throws are much like skills, nothing a 20th level character can do can’t also be done by a slightly luckier 5th level character. The only thing that really increases to demigod heights is hit points.

    What 20th level characters can do is _more_. They can’t do much better at a given skill than a 5th level master, but they can master more skills. I’m not sure it’s accurate to call them demigods for this, though, since that implies to me feats of which no mortal would be capable. Whereas all they can really do is more of what mortals are already capable.

  3. Justin Alexander says:

    ARCHIVED HALOSCAN COMMENTS

    James Hutchings
    Good article! It reminds me of the early Dragon article, Gandalf Was A Fifth-Level Magic-User, whose point is obvious from the title.
    Saturday, March 12, 2011, 5:59:38 PM

  4. Scryer's Eve says:

    Very insightful article. Wish I had more to say about it.

  5. Justin Alexander says:

    ARCHIVED HALOSCAN COMMENTS

    Komandantekrull
    Chapó!

    I always thought D&D 3.5 was some bullshit game, for the characterization of Conan at level 25, taverkeeper of level 6 and a bitch of level 8. But now it… it has… logic.

    Everybody is level 1. The best warrior of kingdom is level 3. Lancelot is level 5. And Sauron is a level 11 bad cleric.

    Genius! And not only genius, it is also better and more roleplaying. Because you have to use the rules to make consistently the pjs and the pnjs, instead of lots and lots of lazy and crazy levels whom doesnt go anywhere.

    Ive liked it very much, thanks.
    Saturday, August 27, 2011, 9:56:53 AM


    Guest
    I am officially a fan. This is an excellent article. While I may be a little late to the comment party, I’d ask a particular I had not seen directly addressed.

    Feat access seem particularly difficult to attribute within the particular model. I could make very strong aruments for even the 4th level Olympic fencer to possess and repeatedly demonstrate a number of combat and tactial feats far in excess of their level allowance. Would you consider this a problem with the presented model, or within the system?
    Monday, August 15, 2011, 10:37:26 PM

  6. Justin Alexander says:

    ARCHIVED HALOSCAN COMMENTS

    Crysknife
    Amazing article, probably the single best piece on d&d I’ve ever read.
    I would have also liked a more in-depth explanation of what specific ability scores stand for (eg what a cha 8 characters is like? Just plain and a bit boring or downright autistic? what int 8 is like? just not bright but on the level of the average physical labourer or is he mentally retarded? What str 14 is like? is he a pro bodybuilder or is he the guy next door which go to the gym 2 times per week?). I’d love to hear your thoughts on the common range of 8-18 you expect to find in your and yours friends characters when you play in d&d, with maybe a few words for the really high level range of 30-36.
    Anyway, great article, thanks for the great work!
    Wednesday, October 19, 2011, 8:14:44 AM


    Guest
    I am officially a fan. This is an excellent article. While I may be a little late to the comment party, I’d ask a particular I had not seen directly addressed.

    Feat access seem particularly difficult to attribute within the particular model. I could make very strong aruments for even the 4th level Olympic fencer to possess and repeatedly demonstrate a number of combat and tactial feats far in excess of their level allowance. Would you consider this a problem with the presented model, or within the system?
    Monday, August 15, 2011, 10:37:26 PM


    James Hutchings
    Good article! It reminds me of the early Dragon article, Gandalf Was A Fifth-Level Magic-User, whose point is obvious from the title.
    Saturday, March 12, 2011, 5:59:38 PM

  7. ronaldsf says:

    Do you have thoughts on the E6 system? I haven’t tried it yet, but would like to know your take on it.

  8. Justin Alexander says:

    I haven’t tried it, either, but I have looked at it. Seems like a nice, simple way of “locking in” a particular style of D&D that a lot of people are looking for.

    I’ve got a half-finished essay laying about on my hard drive about “E(X): The Many Games Inside the World’s Most Popular Roleplaying Game”. One of the interesting knock-on effects from “Calibrating Your Expectations” is that what I considered a secondary conclusion of the essay (target your “sweet spot” and lock the system into that range instead of trying to fight the system by playing outside of that range) was actually the primary thing most people took away from it.

    (The primary point I thought I was making was “high-level characters are epic, let’s tell some stories worthy of Hercules”.)

    … I should really finish writing that essay at some point.

  9. Fast 4 Speed says:

    Having some problem with my own essay writing also.

  10. Frank Lazar says:

    I read through your essay and it gave me quite a bit of food for thought.

    Does this mean that you’re a proponent of E6? (If you’re not familliar that means capping everyone at 6th level and giving them feats every 5 or 10,000 experience points instead.

  11. Alan says:

    Wow. In so many words this essay is exactly what I’ve been feeling with DnD for some time. There’s definitely a “sweet spot.” It may be different from person to person, but it’s there for sure. For me, it’s the dark feel of the fight scene at the beginning of the movie Kingdom of Heaven or even the feel of 13th Warrior. So 5th level is about right. Good Job.

  12. Gavinfoxx says:

    I would say that Gandalf is modeled in 3.5e as a 6th level Paladin. Good with a sword, limited spellcasting, Shadowfax, limited ability to heal others, inspire courage, divine grace… it all fits with what he actually does in the books!

  13. Matis Masters says:

    I was talking to a friend the other day, and we end up on an argument about the demigod-like structures, in D&D, for example, a “well-made” wall that has 800 HP, is difficult to break even to a mage capable of creating a rain of metorites. So it makes no sense that mage characters above lvl 10 would find it difficult to blow up a wall, since they can shift planes, create matter, shoot fireballs capable of killing LOTS of peasants. So we found out the walls in D&D being a little imbalanced, somehow. But I would like to hear the hear your thoughts after this great Article, and from an experience player. We were talking about the 3.5 system. If would be great if you can elaborate on this to help us understand that part of the D&D world.

    Thanks and great article!

  14. Justin Alexander says:

    First, put the meteor swarm spell in perspective: Each of its four bursts does 6d6 points of damage, making them equivalent to a large cannon.

    For a stone wall to have 800 hit points, it would need to be 4.5 feet thick. For a masonry wall, it would need to be 9 feet thick.

    Such walls would not be considered cannon-proof, but it would be expected that they would need to be pounded repeatedly by cannon-fire before succumbing to collapse.

    I’m not an expert in siegecraft and I’m not finding any easily referencable numbers (except that at 8 meters walls started to be considered “cannon-proof”), but, basically, the amount of force it would take to punch through 9 feet of brick will kill a lot of peasants if you line ‘em up for the slaughter.

  15. Confanity says:

    @Matis, another thought: modern military technicians wouldn’t try to knock down a stone wall with incendiaries. Why would a wizard faced with a wall use Meteor Swarm, which just isn’t the right tool for the job, when Disintegrate would work better?

  16. Lex the Zephyr says:

    “Now let’s say Jim and Jack are put up against each other in a sword fight. This is a loyal fight, to the death. In the real world, we know Jack doesn’t stand a chance. The game system leaves him with a small but non-negligible chance of actually winning. The randomness of the combat system decreases when levels increase, but it is very random at first level, more than close-quarters fights are in real life.”

    For the arguments of “Einstein shouldn’t be a better fighter because he leveled up” and this one, nobody actually considers the massive non-proficiency penalties involved. Einstein would only be able to fatally stab someone in a knife fight (if he were fifth level with .5 BAB) 3 times out of every 10 per attempted lunge:

    Jim and Jack have non-proficiency with swords, so -4 to hit. Assuming that their backgrounds offer a 0.5 BAB and that they’re both first level, this means they have no base attack bonus to speak of.
    Jim gets +2 to AC and +2 to hit, with a +3 to damage (using both hands) from his attributes.
    Jack has a -1 to AC, a -1 to hit, and a -1 to damage from his attributes.
    Assume they both have 3 HP from hit die, so that gives Jim 5 HP and Jack 2 HP.

    Jim is attacking an effective AC of 9 with an effective Attack of -2, so he needs an 11 to hit, or a 50% chance.
    Jack is attacking an effective AC of 12 with an effective Attack of -5, so he needs a 17 or greater, or a 20% chance.
    Assuming Jim hits, that’s 1d6+3 damage. If Jack hits, that’s 1d6-1 damage.

    Jack has a minimal chance of actually staggering Jim, never mind outright killing him with a single attack. Meanwhile, Jim pretty much wins in any given combat round 50% of the time.

    Oh, sure, it might take a couple rounds for Jim to score that hit, but that’s because he’s not a sword fighter by any stretch. The fact is, he’d have to make some severe screwups to get himself nicked in this fight, never mind killed.

  17. John says:

    Let’s say Jim plays it smart and fights defensively. That slows the fight down even more, but also shifts the odds even further in his favor.

  18. Rob says:

    A wonderfully written article. However there is only one thing it does not take into effect. All of the magical beasts. Those monsters are more common in the D&D world settings, meaning that human beings would have run into them more often.

    I believe this would have shifted the “survival of the fittest” curve up a notch and lead to a higher base stat that what is given; however probably by only 4-8 points max divided across all the ability scores.

  19. William Pell says:

    I like this article and it makes a lot of good points, but some of the conclusions you draw from it simply don’t work for several reasons.

    For instance, saying 5th level adventurers are really badass ignores the fact that they have very few hit points and can easily be killed, and it definitely hugely ignores the vast majority of monsters, spells, magic items and so forth that exist in D&D. A +2 Amulet of Mighty Fists costs 24,000 gp, putting it outside the WBL expectations of a 7th-level character, and yet its effect on the game is pretty minimal. If you ever want to fight a beholder, you have to be twice the level of the greatest human heroes to ever live? No, there’s a lot of screwy things with that assumption; it may well have some truth, but it’s not ultimately the answer.

    And the other problem is even bigger: if you regard leveling up as some incredible threshold of transcendance, where you step out of the world of Einstein and Aragorn into some Wuxia fantasy that lets you stand on treetops…well, leveling up is the only way a D&D character EVER CHANGES, except by acquiring money and spending it. You never learn new Feats or Skills if you’re not allowed to level up because it would take you out of the game’s milieu. It’s okay to say that there needs to be a limiting factor on how you can take your highest Skill rank, but what about all the others? The D&D rules pretty much force you to assume your character is a myopic ultra-specialist; if he’s trained for physical combat and is of only average intelligence, he’s incapable of learning how to sing or studying history, unable to add even +1 to his checks until he’s killed several hundred orcs.

    I don’t really have a conclusion, just a vague sense that things aren’t quite as they should be.

  20. Justin Alexander says:

    @William: I’ll be honest. I find your argument that “people in the real world must be a lot tougher than you say because you totally have to be tougher in order to kill a beholder” unconvincing.

    Perhaps you’re unaware of this, but beholders don’t actually exist in the real world. ;)

    You seem to think that my argument is “characters higher than 5th level shouldn’t exist in D&D”. Quite the opposite. And I’d like to call particular attention to this passage from the essay: “Does this mean you should never throw a 10th level blacksmith into your campaign? Nope. D&D is all about mythic fantasy, after all. But when you do decide to throw a 10th level blacksmith into the mix, consider the fact that this guy will be amazing. He will be producing things that no blacksmith in the real world has ever dreamed of making. And a 20th level blacksmith is one step removed from Hephaestus himself.”

    It’s not that you shouldn’t include legendary heroes capable of grappling beholders in your campaign world. It’s that you should recognize that they are legendary heroes capable of grappling beholders into submission. And thinking about what that means.

    If you don’t recognize that fact and think about what it means, you’ll end up with a lot of cognitive dissonance as you try to figure out why Joe Blow the Average Guy is capable of taking out a full-grown dragon. (It ain’t because he’s got a +2 amulet of mighty fists.)

  21. Cookie says:

    Really interesting article, great read. Personally I would only modify a bit on DnD to make it realistic, such as creatures medium or smaller gaining hp at each even level, and classes exp requirements are by their cr. (for example, commoners & warriors require less exp to level up than a fighter.. although I don’t find commoner’s cr same as warrior believable)

  22. a-d says:

    Questions
    What would you say the heal dc on curing cancer would be?
    AIDS? Old age?

    If the character doing the check was from a medieval period, would that effect what their ranks in heal meant?

    Anyone can make a check in any skill, but can only succeed if the dc if five or below. Is that, “I heard it in a bar,” high school diploma, or college level knowledge/skill?
    (Might be wrong about being able to make any dc of five in any skill.)

    If a real world martial artist and a level one monk are compared to each other, doesn’t the martial artist have more attacks per six seconds?
    How about a real world black belt to a level twenty monk?

    If the manga character Ranma Saotome, from “Ranma 1/2″ is set in dnd, how would he be classified?

    What about the manga/anime character Kakashi Hatake from “Naruto”?
    Okay, both of them can be high level if needed, but what about Naruto Uzumaki himself? Or Sasuke Uchiha?
    It can probably be assumed they’d be in the level one category, so how do they compare to most dnd classes?

    Reason for Asking
    Like many I’m sure, I’ve considered taking my dnd characters and inserting them into various manga/anime/books/television series/games so they could learn the same skills shown there and share their own. But when I try to compare my characters to theirs, it seems like they’d be at a severe disadvantage.

    As mentioned above, dnd characters seem to far fewer attacks per round when compared to even real world people. Then there’s the question over how a more learned society would evaluate a medieval persons knowledge base.

    For example, if we assume that the characters Dr. Beverly Crusher or Dr. “Bones” McCoy from the “Star Trek” television series are both level six, and capable of hitting a dc of 40 on medical issues, would a medieval person of the same level who was also capable of hitting the same dc in their time period still be able to reach one of “Star Trek’s” 40′s?
    Seems unlikely, but then what should their skill rank be?

    It’s somewhat frustrating to try and place a high level medieval scholar into someplace like the Ninja Universe of “Naruto” and have articles like yours claim they should be able almost untouchable. Especially when comparing their mobility and attack rates.

    And ‘that’s’ without the confusing matter of how quickly players level up in dnd.
    The pace dnd characters set in leveling up excuses not being able to increase their skill ranks outside of leveling, but if taken outside of dnd, a persons ability to acquire knowledge becomes worrying.
    What does anyone being able to reach a dc of 5 mean?

    It can’t be college level, can it?

    Conclusion
    You’ve obviously thought about how to compare dnd and real/real’ish life more than I have, and for longer.
    Any clarification you could offer would be very, very appreciated.

  23. voolla blog » Blog Archive » doudoune moncler 2013 Jefferies reiterates Buy on Abbott but cuts estimates says:

    [...] Also, the continue reading the sacred books of the bible opens up revelations of truth nearly every time we study it diligently. A paragraph or scripture may not mean anything to us on the first reading, but over time, its meaning suddenly jumps out at us. Our soul and spirit swallows it up and it becomes alive within our minds and hearts. Have come activity exactly who handle surplus inside the given belly icon [...]

  24. TheDS says:

    Very nice article, wish you would correct the handful of mistakes people have pointed out so I could feel good about spreading this to my group and not having them either get misinformed or start disbelieving in the core concept just because of an error. I really like the idea of reigning in ultra-high expectations, especially in the Pokémon generation, where EVERYONE seems to think that everything has to be more powerful than everything else. (A Meatloaf song comes to mind.)

    I want to ask your opinion about the Leadership feat. My only real experience with D&D is Pathfinder, and just in the last few months, during which they have apparently made a number of significant rules changes, but maybe this question/observation will still make sense.

    You can get the Leadership Feat at level 7. With a high Charisma and a lot of good planning to gain circumstantial bonuses, you could easily have a level 5 character (Einstein) as a sidekick (Iolaus to your Hercules), AND 40 followers, one of whom is level 4, another level 3, 3 at level 2, and the remaining 35 at level 1.

    The best you can do is to have about 163 followers, which could be accomplished with some seriously expensive magic, but would be far easier to account for if you were at least level 13 or so.

    Now I’m not making the mistake of suggesting that some of the most popular people in history who had millions of devoted followers doing their bidding should be directly represented in that table, and that’s justification for thinking that Leadership is broken or that it justifies calling Hitler a level 100 character, but I would think that you would need more than 40 devoted followers, or even 163 devoted followers, to accomplish the kinds of things that someone like Hitler accomplished.

    Of course, I could be missing something important here, or the table may simply be inadequate to simulate the level of influence he enjoyed, but I was wondering how you felt that kind of thing fit into the “keep everything as low as possible” way of explaining things you have introduced.

  25. TheDS says:

    In a completely different direction, what are your feelings on generating stats, and how do they affect what someone’s “real level” is? For instance, take two fighters who are as identical as possible. One has a total stat bonus of +3, the other a +9 (the difference between 17, 15, 13, 11, 9, 7 and 18, 16, 14, 12, 10, 8).

    One is clearly a little more powerful than the other, but how much so? Enough to justify considering the higher one to be a level higher? And if the other one starts with a lot of gold, he can buy items which bump his stats up to be equal to the other character, he just had to spend like 32,000 gold to do it. Give that gold to the better character instead, and now what do you have?

    An Einstein with an 18 Int and 5 skill levels is equally as effective in game terms as a sub-Einstein with a 14 Int and 7 skill levels, but the first can potentially get there at level 5, while the second cannot get there before level 7. What does that mean for our demonstration of the game as a reasonable model of reality (as long as you’re willing to suspend a little disbelief)? Because this is somewhat important, as we are now starting to go beyond Einstein. Maybe not everyone, but you extend the trend of education in the last couple centuries, and it won’t be too long before Relativity is part of Basic Science for 5th graders.

Leave a Reply

Archives

Pages


Recent Posts

Recent Comments

Proudly powered by WordPress. Theme developed with WordPress Theme Generator.
Copyright © The Alexandrian. All rights reserved.