Dungeons & Dragons Game Design

On Skill Alone

One of the ideas from D&D Next that I find most interesting is what the designers are calling bounded accuracy. The basic idea is that the target numbers for rolls don’t scale with level. This means that a higher bonus means that a character has a higher chance of success and that roll difficulties can be based on the task rather than who is attempting it. This is a big departure from D&D 4e’s design that included difficulties and bonuses that scaled automatically with level.

While bounded accuracy is being applied to attack bonuses and defenses, the current plan for D&D Next seems to be to have hit points and damage scale with level. This is supposed to result in a system where a Dungeon Master can use multiple low-level monsters against higher level characters. The idea is that the monsters will still be able to hit thanks to bounded accuracy, but each hit’s damage will take away a smaller percentage of a hero’s total hp. This allows the system to avoid needing a mechanic like D&D 4e’s minions since standard low-level monsters can be used in a similar way.

As far as I can tell, the combination of scaling damage and bounded accuracy should work well for a game system. It fixes one of the aspects of D&D 4e that I generally dislike (level-based difficulties), and sounds like it should keep monsters relevent for a wider range of levels than in other D&D editions where both difficulties and damage scale with level.

One thing I haven’t been able to shake though is that the scaling hit points and damage don’t seem to match the fiction I want to emulate in my games. I want a master swordsman to win a fight because she manages to parry  her less skilled opponent’s attacks rather than because she can withstand multiple sword slashes. Likewise, I want a peasant with a pike to be able to severely wound or even kill a well-trained warrior if he manages to land a blow. Some of this is probably just a matter of terminology. For example, thinking about hit points as stamina rather than wounds helps. I’m not convinced that updating terminology alone would make the system match what I’m now looking for in a game.

As an alternative, I’ve been brainstorming a system that keeps the core ideas of bounded accuracy while also not automatically scaling hit points or damage. My basic idea is that a player can choose new bonuses and abilities for a character as it gains levels, but there aren’t any automatic gains. For example, a high-level knight might improve her ability to hit with a sword and be able to parry her opponent’s blows, but a high level wizard likely won’t be any better with a sword than a low-level one. While I feel this is a better match for the fiction I’d like to emulate, I’m not sure it could support as wide of power range as D&D or if it will make as good of a game.

What type of scaling do you prefer for characters as they level up?

The On Skill Alone image in this post is based on this photo by MichaelEClarke. Like the original photo, the image is free to share and remix under the same CC BY-NC-SA 2.0 license.

By Scott Boehmer

A game enthusiast and software engineer.

15 replies on “On Skill Alone”

I voted for the “nothing should scale with level” choice because I think that’s what most people come to D&D expecting — a 10th Level Fighter is a master swordsman, but he’s still just a man. I have a number of posts addressing these assumptions and why I don’t think they fit what D&D is trying to emulate — specifically, that above 1st Level you can’t consider a character “just a man,” and above a certain level you can’t even consider them “a mere mortal.” D&D has a very wide-ranging, course-grained system of power, and people want it to me narrower and finer-grained.

I think it’s important to note, though, the “bounded accuracy” only solves a problem that *we created*, although that problem got codified in the rules of 4E. As you note, DCs in 3.X (and before) aren’t meant to scale with level, and so a bigger bonus means a better chance of success — and eventually the ability to perform “impossible” tasks.

Final note (I do tend to go on), scaling hit points with level is only really a problem if you don’t intend for characters to become superhuman, and even then only if you expect that 1 HP means the same thing whether you have 3 max or 150 max. Thinking about hit points and damage is something I’ve been meaning to do for a while, but it’s a daunting behemoth.

Hit points are easier think of realistically the more abstract they are. Of course, designing mechanics specifically intended to make healing “realistic” really throws a wrench into that approach, so the next edition will be back to HPs not being very realistic at all.

“Hit points are easier think of realistically the more abstract they are.”

That’s one way of addressing the issue, but I’m sure it’s not the only way and I suspect it’s not the most satisfying way for me. You’re right, though, that the interaction of Hit points (which increase per level), Damage, and Healing (which are both effectively static) complicates the whole thing; how come CLW heals a low level character to full but is barely noticeable to a high level character? Why does getting cut by a sword effectively hurt less for a high level character?

At the same time, “abstracting” HP doesn’t necessarily fix the problem, either. If HP represent luck and divine favor, why does CLW affect it at all?

“If HP represent luck and divine favor, why does CLW affect it at all?” Because the name of the spell is meaningless. Only the effect it has is relevant. It could be an appeal to a god, a reading of the character’s fortune, a recuperative slap on the back, a threat, a portent of doom, an inspiring word, anything.

Yes, there are other ways, but the simplest and overall most effective on is abstraction and reflavoring. The system itself causes problems with that, because some of the designs (or designers) don’t take into account the abstraction. But with a little thought and flexibility it’s still effective.

A “satisfying way”? What on earth? How about we have a way that works, and then figure out how to think of it in a satisfactory way?

“Because the name of the spell is meaningless.”

if that works for you then fine; that doesn’t work for me, so I’m going to try to find something that does.

“A “satisfying way”? What on earth?”

Sorry, I should have been clear that I mean “satisfying to me.” I think it’s clear that you and I have different goals when we approach RPGs, and that’s fine, but it means that solutions that work for you aren’t going to work for me.

Yeah, a fighter is just a man, but a wizard gets to be Gandalf. Yippee.

The initial paragraph repeats the assumption that I’ve often heard, but never quite understood: that in 4e skill checks are artificially inflated, and that PCs never get better at things as a result. But that’s all in how it’s described. A DC 10 challenge is very different from the DC 20 challenge later on, even if they are both Athletics checks to climb a wall. It’s very different situation in the DC 20 case. DC 10 challenges still exist in the world, but there’s little to no point in pitting the characters against them, or rolling for it if you do.

I’m sure whatever system they decide on will be fine, but I’m tired of the reason for it being due to a reaction to a misunderstanding of the 4e approach. If it’s a good system it’s good system for its own reasons.

My issue with scaling DCs in 4E is primarily tied to mechanics that explicitly use things like “hard DC” to set the difficulty. For example, the Table of Combustibles terrain power says that it is a hard DC to flip over a table, which then isn’t backed up by any explaination why the DC for a 6th level character to flip a table is higher than what a 1st level character needs. Yes, I want a door in a demilich’s lair to be harder to open than one in a goblin’s hut, but I want it to be driven by fiction (adamantine w/ a magical seal vs rotting wood) rather than mechanics (breaking open doors should be a hard check).

To add to that, it’s a breakdown in how DCs are presented based on a shift in the perspective the rules take. In 3.X, the rules are more world-oriented, and so you have a set DC for “adamantine door” or “rotted wood”, with circumstantial modifiers for construction, locks, etc. In 4E, the rules are very much player-oriented, and they focus more on “what is an appropriate challenge” than modeling any specific thing.

I think there’s an argument for both sides: on the one hand, the rules probably need to care more about what’s a challenge for given PCs, and the DM can describe it appropriately. It breaks down when things that should be static (flipping over a table) are presented as variable (hard DC). On the other hand, if the DM has a thing in mind (rotted door), it’s more helpful if the rules tell him how to model that, with things “breaking down” if he doesn’t have a clear idea of what “a good challenge” is for his characters.

In the end you need both, and the direction you come from depends on if you’re focusing on “how do I model the world” versus “how do I challenge the players.”

No one fiction is going to accomplish that for everyone, so it’s left open for the DM (or players) to fill in that fiction. And sometimes the fiction really doesn’t matter.

The approach I’d like to see is having guidelines for what DCs are challenging to characters based on skill bonus/level and then also having a list of difficulties tied to fiction. The first table would let me know that if I want to challenge my level X party, I should use a DC of Y. The second table would then help determine which sorts of obstacles I should include to get the DC to the challenging value based on the story assumptions of the designers. A DM would still be free to adjust the story however they feel is appropriate for their game, but it would provide a baseline to work from.

I’ve spent a good few years playing in a game designed by a couple of friends of mine (I’ve almost finished the interview, and I promise I’ll blog it soon) where an awful lot of effort has been put into making sure that there are no special rules for characters or NPCs that tie to their level. yes, someone who’s been playing the character for a lot longer could be amazing with a sword/ax/balloon on a stick, but only if that’s how you want the character to be. It’s stuff like this that stops me ever fully getting onto the D&D train I’m afraid.

DCs are abstract and that’s a good thing. Maybe flipping the table isn’t difficult, but flipping it in such a way that you make sure to combine the combustibles is what’s difficult. It’s not hard to justify it, and it doesn’t always need to be justified.

Don’t model the world with rules. That’s a tried-and-failed approach.

One issue with the ability to choose your advancements is that it can lead to a wide disparity in the party. And that can make it hard to challenge the party.

Let’s say you have two fighters in your group. Alice always chooses offense abilities (to-hit and damage), Bob always chooses defensive abilities (AC and HP). They do this for many levels. Any creature that can hurt Bob will kill Alice with one or two hits. Any creature that can withstand Alice’s attacks can’t be affected by Bob. It’s really hard to create an adventure for this group.

This could be something you want in your games, but for many people it’s an unintended consequence.

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