D&D 5ENo ascending bonuses: A mathematical framework for 5e

I'd like to propose a mathematical framework for 5e that I think would allow one to play a game that feels both like 1e/2e and 3e/4e at the same time and that I think could address some of the verisimilitude issues.

We'll start with the framework that 4e uses, since objectively speaking that edition has what I believe is the most sound mathematical framework. In 4e, all monsters have certain base defenses and attack bonuses calculated to best challenge a player of a certain level by providing a hit probability or a probability to be hit within a certain desired range. There is some minor variation depending on the creature and role.

Then every monster effectively gets +1 to each defense and attack bonus every level it has. PCs follow the same math, though their math is broken up a bit. Over the course of 30 levels, a PC will get +15 base, +6 from magic items, +7 to +9 from stats and feats to bring it up to +30 as well.

3e worked similarly but its math was much more ragged and uneven on the player side. On the monster side it scaled a little better with designers using "natural armor" as a sort of an arbitrary catch-all cheat to bring a monster's AC to its expected level. But how tough an encounter was could still vary wildly depending on how optimized the PC's were. IME, 4e math was much more uniform in that respect. A lot less variance from the baseline for the most part, though groups with optimized leaders could push themselves a bit off the scale. But since monster math was so transparent and no longer clung to the illusion that monster stats were somehow grounded in reality, it was easier for DMs to compensate when designing encounters without the tedium of trying to justify monster defenses and attacks through feats, class levels and magic items.

(Yes, I'm biased to 4e design. Sorry 3e fans. My "tedium" is your "fun". I get it. )

BUT, I think there is a better way for all of us, regardless of what edition you prefer.

For 5e, lets get off the ascending bonus treadmill. If a monster and PC's attacks and defences are all relative, let's just get rid of it. So a level 1 PC still get your base ability mods, your bonus from armor and shield, and some feats (rarely). But take magic items out of expected advancement, no stat increases, and no 1/2 level bonus. Likewise, monster stats don't increase by +1 per level either. You still increase HPs and damage by level, just not all the other bonuses.

This accomplishes several things. First it brings a lot of old school style verisimilitude back to the game. A level 30 PC is tougher than a level 1 PC because it will have more options, more HP, and does more damage per attack(s), but it won't have ridiculous attack bonuses or defenses. A group of town guards is still a threat because they may still be able to hit them with more than a natural 20. You are a hero, an epic one in fact, but still mortal.

Second, it becomes much easier for PCs to face meaningful challenges both above and below their level without them rapidly becoming too easy or too hard. There is more room for a DM to craft adventures or used published ones without having to think to hard about monster math or being tied to a narrow level range.

Third, you can bring back some of the different bonuses from 3e to add some verisimilitude without it getting ridiculous, especially if you severely limit stacking of different bonus types. So maybe one monster is tougher because it has natural armor, another has a dodge bonus, but you no longer have monsters with +20 natural armor just so it can fight a warrior with a ridiculous +20 to hit.

Fourth, magic is no longer needed, so it can be rare and special. A +1 sword makes everything easier to hit and is special without it becoming mandatory just to fight monsters of a certain level. If a PC is expected to hit a monster of its level on average 60% of the time, then each magic plus is something special. And a +5 sword becomes something truly epic and special rather than an expected part of character advancement. But you don't actually need these weapons to be effective.

Fifth, skill checks no longer need to scale to ridiculous numbers. A wall thats a DC 20 to scale at level 1 is still a DC 20 at level 20.

Sixth, you can do some other fun things as well, like using stats as defenses. Maybe Poison in your system attacks your Con score as if it was a defense like AC or the 4e Fortitude defense. In some of Mearl's legend and lore columns he talked about dispensing with Fort, Ref, and Will altogether. I disagree with that and believe thats worthy of a separate discussion, but this is one way you could make it work.

Seventh, you could simplify monster design. A monster is just a monster, it doesn't need a role. Though I like roles, but I could see them now simply being templates instead of a defacto monster class as in 4e. So lets say the PCs invade a den of kobolds. You want a wizard kobold hurling blasts of fire at them, just slap on the artillery role template. It might tweak its defenses and base HP up or down and give it an at-will fire blast. Want some kobolds to run up and stab at the PCs with spears? Add the skirmisher template to the base kobold. Its simple and quick. It combines the best of 3e and 4e monster design. Don't like monster roles? Just ignore them. Build monsters 3e style with class levels, feats, and magic.

Eighth, assuming that 5e can strip out miniature based movement rules from the core classes, you could literally run 5e PCs through a 1e/2e adventure with nothing but simple on the fly conversion for the most part. Just create a chart ala the 4e DMG pg 42, or like the Sly Flourish DM cheat sheet for 4e. With a list of monster HP and damage per level and BAM! instant 1e/2e to 5e conversion tool. Just look up the classic monsters HD on the chart and now you know how much damage it should do and what its 5e HP should be. Slap on an appropriate monster role template and you are good to go.

This gives you a 5e that is literally 90% compatible with 1e/2e modules. Keep all the 4e combat rules as the 5e "miniature" rules and now you have a 5e thats 90% compatible with 4e as well. Even 3e adventures or Paizo APs could be largely converted on the fly. And if the core 5e classes are simple enough, a hardcore 3e monster fan could go to town building 5e monsters just like they would have done in 3e.

There are some cons depending on what you like. If you want a high level PC that can wade through mooks with impunity, then this isn't the mod for you. And the system has less tolerance for bonus stacking that could break the scale. So the rules would have to keep a sharp eye on bonuses that stack from class abilities, feats, and what not.

But I think in the end you would end up with a game that could truly appeal to fans of all editions.

----------------------
UPDATE:

So a couple of people pointed out some issues: How would a legendary archer fare in a contest with a lower level one? Ascending bonuses provide a feeling of advancement, what about that?

So a couple of ways to address that. One is to reintroduce say a +1 per 5 levels skill/inherent bonus that represents that. I would make it overlap but not stack with magic items and this also would help to balance out the inevitable impact of magic items on the game. I've always felt that the bonus a magic item provides to hit represents the item guiding the hand of a lesser user, whereas a veteran warrior wouldn't need such assistance. That does reintroduce an ascending bonus, but at a far reduced rate.

The other thing to keep in mind is that presumably higher level PCs would have options, talents, tricks, feats, etc. that would allow them to achieve things a lower level PC could not. For example, you could have an epic level archery talent that several times per day (just for example sake) that any one shot is a natural 20, or perhaps they always roll 2d20 and take the higher number. There, now your legendary archer would never lose to a level 1 archer and you didn't have to give them a +20 bonus to their shot to represent that.

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MarkChevallier

First Post
This proposal seems to be grounded in the notion that challenges in the game should be level specific; this is what the 4E math tried to achieve.

This isn't the case in previous editions - a DC20 wall to climb in 3E was DC20 regardless of the level you might be. (Although of course, a GM might introduce harder walls to climb as the game progressed, the "reality" behind it would be that the wall was a different wall with fewer handholds, and you might well expect to encounter dozens of old, easy walls for every super-wall you met.)

Monsters were similar - a high level monster wouldn't have to have an AC within a range based on its level (which in turn, would be in a range based on the PCs level). It's AC would sometimes be much higher and sometimes much lower than you expect, if it made sense for that monster. If so, there would often be other ways to defeat it, or it might have other defenses that made it hard to overcome, or it's challenge might not necessarily be represented in the field of combat.

In any case, I think you'd run into scaling issues with this system - it'd be change the relative toughness of level 20 to level 1 opponents (as you recognise) which would change the nature of the game slightly, I think. A level 20 wizard, for example, simply by virtue of their new magic and spells, might be significantly tougher than what we might call a level 20 "basic" fighter, who doesn't have a significantly better to-hit or defense to compensate.

This proposal seems to be grounded in the notion that challenges in the game should be level specific; this is what the 4E math tried to achieve.

This isn't the case in previous editions - a DC20 wall to climb in 3E was DC20 regardless of the level you might be. (Although of course, a GM might introduce harder walls to climb as the game progressed, the "reality" behind it would be that the wall was a different wall with fewer handholds, and you might well expect to encounter dozens of old, easy walls for every super-wall you met.)

Yes and no. DCs were static in 3e, but player bonuses and skills were not. Mike Mearls had a whole L&L column on the problems this could cause. Getting rid of ascending bonuses is an attempt to actually make static DC meaningful so the benefits they provide in terms of maintaining verisimilitude is not rendered moot by PCs with off the chart bonuses.

Monsters were similar - a high level monster wouldn't have to have an AC within a range based on its level (which in turn, would be in a range based on the PCs level). It's AC would sometimes be much higher and sometimes much lower than you expect, if it made sense for that monster. If so, there would often be other ways to defeat it, or it might have other defenses that made it hard to overcome, or it's challenge might not necessarily be represented in the field of combat.

Uncommon even in 1e/2e. For the most part higher hit die monsters had a commensurately higher AC and deadlier attacks (more likely to have a save or die or spell abilities) in those editions. 3e/4e were the same. Pathfinder codified monster power level progression on a chart that actually fits pretty well with the 4e expected monster progression. 4e was just more obvious about it by flat out saying this monster gets this bonus. Whereas 3e tried to obfuscate things a bit by trying to justify the monster's stats with arbitrarily assigning it bonuses like a natural armor bonus to help it reach the expected baseline.

Regardless, getting rid of ascending bonuses actually helps the game get to a state where a monster's stats don't have to be inflated to challenge PCs of a given level.

In any case, I think you'd run into scaling issues with this system - it'd be change the relative toughness of level 20 to level 1 opponents (as you recognise) which would change the nature of the game slightly, I think. A level 20 wizard, for example, simply by virtue of their new magic and spells, might be significantly tougher than what we might call a level 20 "basic" fighter, who doesn't have a significantly better to-hit or defense to compensate.

The fighter wouldn't have off the chart bonuses or defenses but the wizard wouldn't either. I'm also operating under the assumption that the class power parity achieved in 4e would be largely maintained in 5e. Obviously, if you go back to high level wizards far outclassing a high level fighter in power then this system breaks down a bit.

Frostmarrow

First Post
I'm prepared to agree with you OP but I find it hard to envision what it would look like. The notion of ascending bonuses is too ingrained.

But what you are saying is basically that Damage and Hit Points increase with level but BAB and AC stays at the base line. An ancient Red Dragon has a say +4 to hit, 10d10 dmg, AC 20 and 200 HP?

Saint&Sinner

Explorer
That's close to what Dungeon World does. And it gives a old school flavor with new school mechanics.

First Post
I agree, and this is very similar to Iron Heroes, where you just get the + dc and attack and there's no item modification (or not suppose to be) throw the math off.

Plus, it makes magic special again as opposed to being acquired. IN a place where magic is special, every low level villain has +x armor and weapons just to balance you out.

I'm prepared to agree with you OP but I find it hard to envision what it would look like. The notion of ascending bonuses is too ingrained.

But what you are saying is basically that Damage and Hit Points increase with level but BAB and AC stays at the base line. An ancient Red Dragon has a say +4 to hit, 10d10 dmg, AC 20 and 200 HP?

Right, thats the general idea. Right now, it would have say +24 to hit and AC 40, but the adventurer's facing it would also have commensurately higher ACs and attack bonuses as well. We just flatten the curve by taking away from both sides equally.

Thinking about it further, I think this would make multi-classing work better as well. If class levels give you access to abilities but you didn't have to keep up with the BAB, Fort, Ref, Will arms race then multi-classing becomes more viable and much less prone to making PCs that are over or under powered.

Wormwood

I was proposing that bonuses be drastically reduced (but by 1/2 or 4/5ths, for example)---but dropping them altogether is fairly intriguing.

Giving this some thought.

Mustrum_Ridcully

Hero
Right, thats the general idea. Right now, it would have say +24 to hit and AC 40, but the adventurer's facing it would also have commensurately higher ACs and attack bonuses as well. We just flatten the curve by taking away from both sides equally.

Thinking about it further, I think this would make multi-classing work better as well. If class levels give you access to abilities but you didn't have to keep up with the BAB, Fort, Ref, Will arms race then multi-classing becomes more viable and much less prone to making PCs that are over or under powered.
While multiclassing and BAB/Saves was a 3E problem, I think one issue remains - front-loading of classes. But even that can be handled, I suppose. 4E does it by multiclassing a really small dip and only getting very minor features. Like Mark 1/day or Healing Word 1/day. There may be alternatives - the dip could be larger but cost more (instead of a feat, it costs you one of your class features?).

I kinda like the idea of removing most of the scaling in attack, defense and skills. But there is a danger of people feeling that you lose in terms of character advancement. A 5th level and a 1st level character are only different in hit points?

But maybe even that can get adressed, by giving more "utility power" like abilities - e.g not "more + to jump" but "jump your speed without rolling a die" or "scale sheer surface", "hide in plain sight".

I would still prefer to remove magical items entirely, but one way to keep it but weaken it is to make the bonus a once/encounter or day thing, or only apply to damage rolls, instead of attacks.

Frostmarrow

First Post
Right, thats the general idea. Right now, it would have say +24 to hit and AC 40, but the adventurer's facing it would also have commensurately higher ACs and attack bonuses as well. We just flatten the curve by taking away from both sides equally.

Thinking about it further, I think this would make multi-classing work better as well. If class levels give you access to abilities but you didn't have to keep up with the BAB, Fort, Ref, Will arms race then multi-classing becomes more viable and much less prone to making PCs that are over or under powered.

In that case I'm in favor. In the old days the only thing that changed with level was numbers. Nowadays numbers and feats (and stuff) change. It stands to reason we keep feats (and stuff) and drop numbers.

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