Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Calibrating expectations

Philmo shares an article by Justin Alexander from 2007 that shows me I've been thinking about D&D all wrong for a very long time:

D&D: Calibrating Your Expectations

There’s a common fallacy when it comes to D&D, and it goes something like: Einstein was a 20th level physicist. So, in D&D, Einstein – that little old man – has something like a bajillion hit points and you’d need to stab him dozens of times if you wanted to kill him. That’s ridiculous!

The problem with this argument is that Einstein wasn’t a 20th level physicist. A 20th level physicist is one step removed from being the God of Physicists. Einstein was probably something more like a 4th or 5th level expert. [Emphasis mine]

This can be a little bit difficult for some people to accept, so let’s run the math. At 5th level an exceptional specialist like Einstein will have:

+8 skill ranks
+4 ability score bonus
+3 Skill Focus

In the case of our 5th level Einstein, that gives him a +15 bonus to Knowledge (physics) checks. He can casually answer physics-related questions (by taking 10) with a DC of 25. Such questions, according to the PHB description of the Knowledge skill, are among the hardest physics questions known to man. He’ll know the answers to the very hardest questions (DC 30) about 75% of the time.

And when he’s doing research he’ll be able to add the benefits of being able to reference scientific journals (+2 circumstance bonus), gain insight from fellow colleagues (+2 bonus from aid another), use top-of-the-line equipment (+2 circumstance bonus), and similar resources to gain understanding of a problem so intractable that no one has ever understood it before (DC 40+).

(This 5th level Einstein can also be modeled with as few as 5 hit points – 1 per hit die...)

Alexander goes on to run numbers on a variety of performance benchmarks that back up his thesis:

5th level is right at the dividing line between legendary real world performances and the impossible realms of the superhuman.
Almost everyone you have ever met is a 1st level character. The few exceptional people you’ve met are probably 2nd or 3rd level – they’re canny and experienced and can accomplish things that others find difficult or impossible.

If you know someone who’s 4th level, then you’re privileged to know one of the most talented people around: They’re a professional sports player. Or a brain surgeon. Or a rocket scientist.

If you know someone who’s 5th level, then you have the honor of knowing someone that will probably be written about in history books. Walter Payton. Michael Jordan. Albert Einstein. Isaac Newton. Miyamoto Musashi. William Shakespeare.

So when your D&D character hits 6th level, it means they’re literally superhuman: They are capable of achieving things that no human being has ever been capable of achieving. They have transcended the mortal plane and become a mythic hero.

I've been guilty of level inflation myself, and this is a serious gear shift for me. I'm going to have to reassess how my players fit into Alexandrian society.


  1. 4th edition gets this right. Essentially, only heroes have levels (challenges, whether animate or not, have challenge ratings to interact with player characters), and even the least powerful player character is a Hero about whom bards will sing.

    You seeder something similar with SR4, where the designers de-rated the power curve such that a dice pool of 2 is nominally minimally competent, and a professional has a pool of 4 or 5. (They also fiddled with the mechanics to make this at least nominally true as well. The mechanics are less "rich" than previous editions, but much more straightforward.)

    This problem is of course why I prefer using a skill-based system rather than a class-level system for modeling realistic worlds :)

  2. But The circumstance bonuses from the journals and the masterwork equipment don't stack. Or rather the equipment would provide a masterwork bonus rather than a circumstance bonus.

    Yes I know I'm a huge geek. And I agree with Ian, skill driven systems are better for reality-approximating game settings. And I despise the whole "I'm 90 and can withstand a nuclear blast" type of damage tracking.

  3. I'm actually a great fan of the D20 variant used for the D20 Call of Cthulhu game: it dispenses with classes, except to divide characters into "offense option" or "defense option", with minor differences in attack and defense progression between the two. You define your "class" by choosing your own list of class skills.

    I don't fret systems too much, as my games tend to be extremely light on combat, so anything with a usable skill system does it for me. The only levelless skill-progression system I've used is the old West End Games D6 system, which I thought was very well suited to the Star Wars RPG setting.

  4. Rauthbjorn,

    That niggled at me, too, but I don't have the books handy and couldn't recall which bonus type was the exception and was allowed to stack.

  5. Oh, there's nothing like running a game in which the players explicitly know I won't kill characters, because that's no challenge...
    Don't get me wrong, I like d&d for heroic fantasy, but it's set up for Homeric heroes.

  6. Oh, there's nothing like running a game in which the players explicitly know I won't kill characters, because that's no challenge...
    Don't get me wrong, I like d&d for heroic fantasy, but it's set up for Homeric heroes.

  7. Oh, there's nothing like running a game in which the players explicitly know I won't kill characters, because that's no challenge...

    Oh, my, I should rephrase. I tend to run games that are combat-light because everything can easily kill the PCs. At the moment, we're running Cthulhu Invictus on the D20 system. All the lethality of CoC, but with no guns or psychotherapy. >:)

  8. Shadowrun. Sniper rifles at half a klick will tend to put down even the most billy badass street samurai.

    (This game also ended up with outrageously powerful characters, even for SR3, which was a power gamer's delight. Demigods had the team on speed dial. If you've ever seen Leverage, that level of competence in their roles, with less drunken shenanigans on the part of the team leader).

    You don't have to run combat-light to threaten the players with worse-than-death.