In my last post, I wrote about how the Dungeons & Dragons Next proficiency bonus jams all the tables and rules for attack bonuses and saving throw bonuses and check bonuses into a single rising bonus. This consolidation yields a simpler system, but the proficiency mechanic influences every corner of the game.
Proficiency bonuses increase slowly compared to similar bonuses in earlier versions of the game. They top at a mere +6 at 19th level. This slow progression stems from a principle the designers called bounded accuracy, because none of the designers come from the marketing team. Actually, “accuracy” refers to bonuses to the d20 rolls made to-hit, land spells, and make checks. Accuracy is “bounded” because the game no longer assumes characters will automatically gain steep bonuses as they advance to higher levels. See the Legends and Lore post, “Bounded Accuracy” for more.
Bonus to attack
Before third-edition D&D, armor class never rose much. In “‘To Hit’ vs. Armor Class,” longtime D&D designer Steve Winter charts the progression between to-hit rolls and AC. Steve concludes, “In AD&D, as characters advance up the level scale, they constantly gain ground against the monsters’ defenses. A 15th-level fighter doesn’t just hit lower-level monsters more often; he hits all monsters, even those of his own level, more reliably than before.”
This meant that rising attack bonuses eventually made attack rolls into a formality. Mechanically that works, because in early editions, as fighters’ gained levels, their damage increased not because each blow dealt more damage, but because they hit more often.
But attack rolls benefit D&D for two reasons:
- Hit-or-miss attack rolls add fun. To-hit rolls offer more drama than damage rolls, and the rolls provide intermittent, positive reinforcement to attacks. See “Hitting the to-hit sweet spot” for more.
- If to-hit bonuses overwhelm armor bonuses, armor and armor class becomes meaningless to high-level combatants. Perhaps this finally explains the chainmail bikini.
To keep attack rolls meaningful, fourth edition makes ACs rise automatically, even though nothing in the game world justifies the rise. (You might say that the rise in AC reflects combatants’ rising ability to evade attacks, but a rise in hit points reflects the same slipperiness.) The steep rise in AC meant that lower-level creatures couldn’t hit higher-level combatants and forced all battles to feature combatants of similar levels. In 4E, physical armor just provides a flavorful rational for the AC number appropriate for a level and role.
D&D Next returns to the older practice of making armor class a measure of actual armor, or at least something equivalent. At high levels, the game keeps to-hit rolls meaningful by limiting the proficiency bonus to that slight +6 at 19th level. With such a small bonus, to-hit rolls never climb enough to make armor pointless. For more, see “Bounded accuracy and matters of taste.”
In the last public playtest, and for the first time in D&D history, every class shares the same attack bonuses. In Next, characters don’t stand out as much for how often they hit as for what happens when they hit.
Bonus to checks
In third and fourth editions, characters gained steep bonuses to skill checks as they advanced in levels. Each game managed the bonuses in a different way, and each approach led to different problems.
In 3E, characters who improved the same skills with every level became vastly better at those skills than any character who lacked the skill. Eventually, DCs difficult enough to challenge specialists become impossible for parties that lacked a specialist. On the other hand, DCs easy enough to give non-specialists a chance become automatic for specialists. By specialists, I don’t mean a hyper-optimized, one-trick character, just a character who steadily improved the same skills.
In 4E, skills grant a constant, +5 bonus, and every character gains a half-level bonus to every check, so everyone gets steadily better at everything. This approach means that no character grows vastly better than their peers at the same level. It does mean that by level 10, a wizard with an 8 strength gains the ability to smash down a door as well as a first-level character with an 18 strength. To keep characters challenged, and to prevent suddenly mighty, strength-8 wizards from hulking out, 4E includes the “Difficulty class by level” table which appears on page 126 of the Rules Compendium. With this table in play, characters never improve their chance of making any checks, they just face higher DCs. Most players felt like their characters walked a treadmill that offered no actual improvements.
For more on checks in 3E and 4E, see “Two problems that provoked bounded accuracy.”
With the proficiency bonuses, D&D Next attempts to thread a needle. High-level bonuses should not reach so high that challenges for proficient characters become impossible for the rest. But the bonuses should go high enough to give proficient characters a chance to stand out and shine.
At the top end, a 19th-level character with an suitable 20 ability score and proficiency will enjoy a +11 to checks. This bonus falls well within the 1-20 range of a die roll, so most tasks within reach of specialist also fall within the ability of an lucky novice. If anything, the maximum +11 for a talented, proficient, level-20 superhero seems weak.
Two bonuses form that +11, the proficiency bonus and the ability modifier. To me, a proficiency bonus that starts at +2 at level 1 and rises to +6 at level 19 threads the needle well enough.
New characters gain a +2 proficiency bonus as opposed to the +4 or +5 skill bonuses in the last two editions. This paints new D&D Next characters as beginners, little better than untrained. New characters must rely on talent to gain an edge.
However, talented characters barely gain any edge either. Typical new characters gain a +3 ability modifier from their highest score. I’ve shown that ability modifiers are too small for checks. Players make 11.3 attack rolls for every 1 check, according to plausible research that I just made up. With so many attacks, a +3 to-hit bonus lands extra hits. With so few checks, a +3 bonus ranks with the fiddly little pluses that the designers eliminate in favor of the advantage mechanic.
The playtest package’s DM Guidelines advise skipping ability checks when a character uses a high ability score: “Take into account the ability score associated with the intended action. It’s easy for someone with a Strength score of 18 to flip over a table, though not easy for someone with a Strength score of 9.” The D&D Next rules demand this sort of DM intervention because the system fails to give someone with Strength 18 a significant edge over a Strength 9 character. The result of the d20 roll swamps the puny +4 bonus. In practice, the system math makes flipping the table only sightly easier at strength 18.
Update: The published game grants level-one characters a +2 proficiency bonus as opposed to the +1 that appeared in the final playtest.