Tag Archives: ability modifiers

How D&D Next moves toward a simpler core game

In “From the brown books to next, D&D tries for elegance,” I discussed how the Dungeons & Dragons Next designers work toward a simpler, more elegant core game. This post describes some of the simplifications that appeared in the public playtest.

Advantage and disadvantage

Third edition D&D featured long lists of plusses and minuses that applied when the situation affected an attack or check. While these modifiers added realism, they slowed play, seldom made a difference, and were often overlooked. D&D Next drops all the fussy calculation for the advantage and disadvantage mechanics: When characters gain a big edge, they gain advantage and use the highest of two die rolls; when characters suffer a handicap, they suffer disadvantage and use the lowest of two rolls. While less accurate than a tally of plusses, the new mechanic plays quickly and eliminates math and memory demands.

Combat modifiers in edition 3.5

Combat modifiers in edition 3.5

Fussy modifiers have appeared in every version of D&D, so when designers considered eliminating them in favor of advantage and disadvantage, they used the playtest to measure players’ reaction. The advantage and disadvantage mechanics gained broad approval.

Skills and ability checks

Other simplifications fell flat. D&D lasted 25 years without the complexity of skills, so designers tested a simpler game with just ability checks. Players rejected the simpler version, earning skills a place in the core system.

Still, when faced with choosing between richer rules and simpler rules, Next designers always opt for simpler. For example, using the same ability modifiers for ability checks and for attacks fails to distinguish exceptional characters from average ones, but the designers side with the flawed—but simpler—option of using the same ability modifiers for combat and for checks.


The last public-playtest rules try to get maximum use from proficiency. A character can be proficient in armor, skills, saving throws, weapons, and tools. Proficiency grants a bonus to attacks, saving throws, and checks, but not armor. The proficiency bonus starts at +1 at level 1 and rises to +6 at level 19.

Proficiency with armor works differently from proficiency with everything else. Rather than granting a proficiency bonus, armor proficiency grants the ability to wear armor without disadvantage. This difference will confuse some players, but earlier editions handled armor proficiency in a similar manner. The designers must feel bound by the longtime use of “armor proficiency.”

Earlier editions of D&D featured countless tables showing bonuses for attack rolls and saving throws, and added additional bonuses for skills and proficiencies. The Next proficiency bonus jams all these tables and rules into a single rising bonus.

If this broad proficiency system reaches the final rules the final rules, then the bonus for all checks, attacks and saves will consolidate under the same formula:

ability modifier + proficiency bonus

Simple. Magic aside, all the other, fiddly bonuses that appeared in earlier versions of the game get replaced with the advantage-and-disavantage mechanic.

This change yields a simpler system, but it makes less difference in play than the advantage mechanic. Players only reference the tables for attacks and saves and so on when they level up. They enter the new numbers on their character sheets and move on. Once the game begins, the consolidation never comes up. Players who generate characters using a computer see even less impact. In comparison, the advantage-and-disadvantage mechanic eliminates half the tables on the DM screen—lists of bonuses applied to every attack and check. Advantage streamlines most rolls in the game.

The simplicity of a single proficiency bonus still offers advantages, but the proficiency mechanic influences every corner of the game. In my next post, I’ll examine all the repercussions.

Next: Proficiency and bounded accuracy

Multiple attacks, ability checks, and keyed illustrations revisited

Murder In Baldur's Gate Launch Weekend

Murder In Baldur’s Gate Launch Weekend

At Gen Con 2013, I’ll be running the Dungeons & Dragons Next adventure Murder in Baldur’s Gate most mornings and afternoons. If you attend Gen Con, check my photo in my About section, and then find me and say hello. In real life, I’m less grainy and less out of focus.

I have yet to run D&D Next, so I’m studying the latest rules packet. After the convention, I plan to write some posts discussing aspects of the design. Until then, I want to revisit a few topics.

In “Changing the balance of power,” I told how D&D Next’s flattened to-hit bonuses weakened high-level fighters against low-level enemies. “Fighter-types should hew through the rabble like grass until, bloodied and battle worn, they stand triumphant. Instead, they wind up muffing to-hit rolls against one mook.” I mentioned that restoring multiple attacks would restore the balance. Perhaps the designers reached the same conclusion, because the latest playtest packet grants multiple attacks to fighters and to some other classes.

The playtest package’s DM Guidlines 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.” As I explained in “In D&D Next, ability modifiers are too small for the ability check mechanic,” the current D&D Next rules practically require 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.

Ulder Ravengard card from Murder in Baldur's Gate

Ulder Ravengard card from Murder in Baldur’s Gate

In “It’s Mathemagical!,” Mike Mearls discusses plans to introduce escalating ability-check bonuses of up to +12. This may finally give exceptional characters a chance to stand out from ordinary characters—at least at higher levels. Still, the game screams for a system where abilities grant bigger bonuses to ability checks. If a +1 bonus per ability point worked for Moldvay in 1981, then it works in Next. Why not adopt the steeper bonuses? I assume that the designers feel wedded to using the same ability bonuses for ability checks as for attacks and saves.

Way back in “Picturing the dungeon – Other publishers revive keyed illustrations,” I praised the face cards Paizo produces to accompany their adventure paths, so I’m delighted to see similar cards packaged with the Murder in Baldur’s Gate launch adventure.

Pyramid of Shadows - View of the Bridge

Pyramid of Shadows – View of the Bridge

In “Picturing the dungeon – keyed illustrations,” I shared my love of the keyed illustrations included in some early adventures. I lamented how TSR and Wizards seemed to have abandoned this enhancement. Recently, a clearance sale prompted me to buy most of the 9 original adventures shipped for fourth edition. To my surprise, many of these adventures include keyed illustrations. In Pyramid of Shadows, a dungeon with a classic feel, the illustrations seem to hold clues to the adventures or show complicated scenes too difficult to describe, so the pictures compliment the adventure perfectly. In some of the other adventures, the illustrations simply add flavor.

In D&D Next, ability modifiers are too small for the ability check mechanic

Imagine the scene: Fastfeet the Rogue and Joe Average need to cross a rickety rope bridge before kobolds have time to drop a bolder from the cliffs above. Fastfeet, with dexterity 20, stands as the quickest halfling alive. Joe Average. with dexterity 10, has a hopelessly mundane, non-D&D name. Let’s call him J’oe. Better.

The wobbly bridge has rotting and missing planks, so crossing it without slowing requires a dexterity check. The DM decides that the crossing counts as an EASY check: DC 10. No problem thinks Fastfeet, I’m optimized to have the highest possible dexterity. I just can’t roll a 1…or a 2, or 3, or 4. Hmmm, I may as well try diplomacy.

Fastfeet, the quickest halfling alive, still suffers a 20% chance of missing an EASY check. Despite being the quickest possible character, Fastfeet only gains an extra 25 percentage points in his chance over J’oe average.

The problem stems from the mere +5 that a 20 characteristic adds to the check. The D20 roll swamps it. This leads to two problems:

  • Exceptional characters do not noticeably stand out. Whether your character has a poor or a great characteristic, every ability check pretty much feels like a coin flip. This becomes particularly noticeable with checks that encourage everyone at the table to try. That’s when everyone puzzles over an ancient map fragment, the resident sage says she will try a history check, and everyone chimes in, “I’ll try too.” Most times, the expert character gets no chance to shine, because her numerical bonus barely exceeds anyone else’s. The success goes to the person who happened to roll a 19.
  • Even when an exceptional character attempts something easy, the outcome remains unpredictable, as in Fastfeet’s case.

I asked Mike Mearls about this issue, and he said that the DM could simply rule that a easy check is an automatic success for characters of advanced ability. The advice patches over bad math with DM fiat. As a DM, I would make that ruling, because the system’s rotten foundation forces it. I would rather see math that works.

You may think that I’m overlooking the skills that address my problem with the math. Forget skills. D&D next has no skill checks or ability checks, only checks. Unlike earlier editions, skills no longer provide a system for determining success, so for example, the skill descriptions no longer include rules for resolution. Skills represent a small number of areas where extraordinary focus and training might help your character make checks.  Skills stand as an optional rule for granting a bonus to a limited number of checks. Most checks rely entirely on ability modifiers.

This means that Fastfeet’s +5 won’t get any better. No athletics or balance skill exists to improve the odds. Even if one did, most characters only get 3 skills.

In 3rd and 4th edition, the DM typically asks for skill checks rather than ability checks. Fastfeet probably has acrobatics skill, granting another +4 or +5 to the check. Suddenly that easy check becomes easy.

Third and fourth edition assumed checks would be skill checks, so both the skill and ability contributed bonuses. Next assumes ability checks. Skills add an unusual bonus rather than an inevitable addition.

I think this simplification makes for a better game. In addition to the virtue of simplicity, an over-reliance on skills tends to encourage players to solve problems by looking at their skill list, rather than thinking about other things their character could do in the game world.

I like the new approach, but in D&D next, the system’s numbers still seem to assume characters always get a skill bonus stacked with an ability bonus. In practice, a first level character gets a maximum bonus of +5 to a typical check. Little mathematical difference exists between a character with extraordinary ability and one with average ability. In third and fourth edition, a level 1 character like Fastfeet saw a bonus closer to +9 or +10, big enough to make a practical difference.

The solution seems obvious. For checks, the ability modifier must double, to +1 for each ability score point over 10. Now Fastfeet enjoys a +10 to dex checks, appropriate for the quickest halfling alive and consistent with the bonus typical in earlier editions.
Obviously, Fastfeet cannot also enjoy a +10 on his bow attacks. The original modifier scale must remain as combat modifiers, separate from ability check modifiers.  The two scales introduce a small, necessary complexity.

On the other hand, calculating ability modifiers becomes easier. A character with 15 dexterity has a +5 ability modifier. As an added bonus, odd-numbered ability scores gain significance in the game. Suddenly 15 really is better than 14.

I realize this change bucks the history of ability modifiers established in 3rd edition, but I can trump that with an earlier precedent.  Check page B60 of the Moldvay basic set from 1981. “To perform a difficult task, the player should roll the ability score or less on 1d20.” The mechanic flips the numbers, asking for a low roll, but your ability score has the same numerical effect as the modifiers I suggest. In the late 70s, I saw this mechanic used frequently. So the change qualifies as old school and it fixes the system. Seems like a win.

Still not convinced? Consider this. Over the course of an adventure, an exceptionally-strong fighter might make a hundred attack rolls. The +5 attack modifier she gains from her 18(00), I mean 20, strength improves them all. She dominates the battlefield. Over the course of the same adventure, the smooth talker with a 20 charisma may get 8 diplomacy checks, tops. Over the course of so few rolls, the 1-20 spread of the die buries the mere +5. The diplomacy skill can help. Still the most charming person you ever meet, in game terms, seems little better than the half orc who picks his nose as he negotiates with the elf king. The player who optimized the smooth talker hardly gets a chance to shine.