(This post continues a discussion I started in “What does D&D have to do with ironclad ships?”)
As I discussed in “Riding the power curve,” the next iteration of Dungeons & Dragons attempts to straighten out fourth edition’s logarithmic power curve by refusing to let characters benefit from both steep bonuses to hit and big increases to damage. Instead, characters mostly get increases to damage.
When we compare D&D Next to early editions, Next limits the to-hit bonuses characters gain as they advance in exchange for greater bonuses to the damage they inflict.
Before I delve into the benefits and drawbacks of this exchange, I ought to address two practical objections to trading to-hit bonuses for damage.
Should skill increase damage?
Some argue that a more skillful combatant’s blows should not deal more damage. After all, a crossbow bolt always hits with the same force, so it should always strike with the same damage. Personally, when I’m struck by a crossbow bolt, I care deeply about where it hits. Maybe that’s just me.
As I explained, in “The brilliance of unrealistic hit points,” hit points in D&D work as a damage-reduction mechanic. As characters increase in level, their rising hit points reduce the effective damage they suffer. Reasonably, as characters increase in level, they could also grow better at inflicting damage by overcoming defenses to strike vulnerable places or to apply more force to a blow. I’m no Miyamoto Musashi, but I’ve earned enough bruises sparring with practice swords to know that finding an opening to tap an opponent demands less skill than finding enough room for a kill strike─or even a cut.
And if you worry about unusual cases of oozes struck by crossbows, adjust at the table.
Hits inflict more than damage
In D&D, a hit can bring the threat of poison, level drain, and many other secondary effects. In these cases, the attack’s damage matters less than dealing the hit. A higher level character’s chance to hit improves less, so their chance of inflicting secondary effects sees little improvement.
This matters, but it matters less than you may think.
First, to-hit rolls take a much smaller place in D&D Next than in 4E. D&D Next switches from non-AC defenses back to saving throws. Virtually all spell attacks return to skipping the to-hit roll entirely.
Second, attacks versus AC return to focusing on damage. To an extent, I liked how 4E added tactical richness to combat by devising interesting attacks. However, for my taste, too many effects appeared in play. I grew tired of seeing combatants perched on stacks of Alea markers, unable to do anything but stand and make saves.
In D&D Next, as in early editions, weapon attacks mostly inflict damage, and the attacks that threaten something like poison or level drain usually come from monsters.
Third, the saving throw returns as a defense against bad things other than damage. In 4E, hits against AC can inflict crippling effects without saves. Just getting hit automatically subjects you to poison, or paralysis, or whatever. In older editions, when the spider bit or the ghoul clawed, you took then damage but you also saved versus poison or paralysis. I appreciate 4E’s streamlined system, but dropping the defensive saving throw contributed to battlefields bogged down with more conditions and other markers than even the designers anticipated.
D&D Next brings back saving throws as a defense against effects like poison and level-drain. We no longer need to rely on to-hit rolls as the final test of whether a poisoned dagger drew enough blood to overcome your constitution. Because monsters make most of the attacks that poison, paralyze, drain, and so on, most players should be happy to see the save return. Plus, despite the extra roll, the save probably speeds play by reducing the number harmful conditions that take effect.
Despite these three points, in D&D next, your high-level character is weaker when she makes attacks versus AC to inflict crippling effects. If I were to design, say, a poisoner class, I would make their chance to hit nearly automatic, and focus on saving throws as the principle defense against poison.