Bounded accuracy and matters of taste

(This post continues a discussion I started in “What does D&D have to do with ironclad ships?”)

In my last post, I wrote about how to-hit and damage bonuses contributed to Dungeons & Dragons’ power curve. When we compare D&D Next to early editions of D&D, we see a key trade off: The Next design reins in the to-hit bonuses characters gain as they advance. In compensation, characters gain greater bonuses to the damage they inflict. This trade off stems from something the designers called bounded accuracy, which spurred controversy. While most of the discussion focuses on bounded accuracy’s place in combat, in “Two problems that provoked bounded accuracy,” I wrote about bounded accuracy and ability checks.

Months ago, I wrote to explain that the influence of ability bonuses was too small for ability checks, so you might suppose I would like to see characters earning big to-hit pluses as they advance levels. But characters engage in many combats and make countless attack rolls, so even small bonuses earn big payoffs, and I’m fine with that. However, I understand that aspects of the bounded-accuracy controversy hinge on matters of taste.

In fourth edition, as characters leveled, they enjoyed steep increases in to-hit bonuses matched with continuing increases in the damage each attack dealt. This led to characters increasing exponentially in power. If you hit twice as often, and each hit does twice the damage, than you boast four times the power. Of course, monsters follow a similar power curve, so you never notice unless characters face creatures outside their narrow level band.

In character, your logarithmic increase in power feels exciting as unbeatable monsters and impossible challenges quickly become possible, and then easy.

Repainted town guardIf you want to keep suspension of disbelief, do not dare to consider the world-building implications of the 4E power curve. I checked the stats for a town guard in a heroic-tier Living Forgotten Realms adventure. As scaled for party level 10, this rank-and-file guard has AC 26 and 106 hit points. Where were these super guards a few adventures ago when the goblins attacked the town? The goblins could only hit AC26 on a 20, so they would have needed to make an average of 262 attacks on each guard to earn a kill. Of course, you can suppose that in your world, you have no super guards, but what happens when you reverse the roles, and a lone giant shows up to defeat an army?  Obviously, many players never consider this balance of power, so the game hums along. Those of us who cannot help thinking of such things find it all distasteful.

What if there are no super guards? Nowadays, the D&D rules specifically limit players to non-evil characters. In the early days, no such limitation existed. D&D focused more on killing things for selfish gains than on heroically driving back the darkness. I remember players musing that it made little sense to loot the dungeon when easy pickings lay in town. What happens when a player decides to “role play” his evil character by singlehandedly massacring and looting a town full of level-0 folk? Fortunately, my players always honored the social contract and returned to the dungeon.

Beyond the exponential power curve, players have other preferences. How high a level do you need to be before you should be allowed to hit Asmodeus on a 19? (Keep in mind, since first edition, a roll of 20 always hits.) How much of a bonus should attributes provide as compared to your per-level bonuses? I don’t think I can sway you on these matters any more than I can coax you into a new favorite ice cream flavor.

Next: D&D Next trades to-hit bonuses for enhanced damage

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