Last Monday I wrote a fairly extensive blog on the troubling negativity toward 4E by D&D Next designers and proponents (Kicking 4E Under the Edition Bus). I touched on WotC articles and blogs regarding Feats and Bounded Accuracy, and got some great responses from the community. I really enjoyed the lively discussion in the blog comments, and want to thank everyone for keeping it on point (for the most part).
But this past weekend, I had a chat with one of the players in my D&D game about my recent blog. And during the discussion, another issue came to light about Bounded Accuracy which makes it even less desirable of a mechanic, for both Dungeon Masters and Players.
Bounded Accuracy drastically skews the conventions of Risk versus Reward in D&D.
So as a follow-up to last week’s blog, I wanted to take a deeper look at the Bounded Accuracy mechanic as to how it will affect game play when it allows low-level monsters to be a constant threat to high level characters.
As I pointed out in last week’s blog, Bounded Accuracy really has never been a game mechanic in previous editions of D&D before, with the exception of Armor Class. Prior to 4E, both monster and character attacks and saves increased by Hit Dice and Level. The higher Level you were or the more Hit Dice you had, the more likely it was that a swing would land a damaging blow, and that one would resist against magical, poisonous, and other deadly effects.
On the other hand, Armor Class for characters was dependent solely upon gear, although Wizards and Clerics had some spells which could bolster AC on a short term basis. Fighters and Clerics were expected to gravitate toward wearing plate mail armor and using shields until magic armor started dropping as treasure rewards. Rogues and Wizards had to start looking for magic upgrades almost immediately, likely coming to blows over Rings of Protection and Bracers of Armor when they were found among the loot. But even in an average AD&D campaign and Second Edition, most characters could expect to move to high ACs (AC 3 to AC 0) in a reasonable number of levels, and possibly moving into the vaunted “negative” AC range. Of course, it was touch easier to increase character AC without resorting to magic items under the SRD rules, as there were quite a few feats which could grant additional AC under a variety of circumstances (Dodge, Combat Reflexes, etc.).
And in AD&D and 2nd Edition particularly, monsters had ACs which varied wildly, with some high level creatures having very poor ACs while some low level monsters had very high ACs. For instance, if we look at high HD monsters like Giants in AD&D, they ranged from the “high” AC 0 Stone Giant (9 HD) down to the AC 4 Frost Giant (HD 10), the latter having only one AC better than a Gnoll (2 HD). Of course, this changed quite a bit in 3.5, where higher HD monsters would typically have higher Armor Classes as well, but there were still some fairly “big” HD monsters out there with low ACs. Then again, under SRD rules with a creature’s Armor Class “math” being part of the stat block, a DM could readily add real armor, protective magic items, and spell effects to a monster to boost its AC just like a player-character might have.
So what exactly does all this mean? Well, in pre-4E editions, it means that characters constantly improve their combat attacks as they level, while Armor Class climbs at a slower rate, based upon available gear. For monsters, it’s pretty much the same, except that their ACs might be low or high, depending on how the monster was designed, but is still modifiable by the Dungeon Master. In 4E, monster and player attacks and defenses increase incrementally by level, but staying relatively close to 45% to 50% chances to hit regardless of which side of the screen you’re on.
Now under the Bounded Accuracy mechanic, per the Legend & Lore article, “…monsters don’t lose the ability to hit the player characters—instead they take out a smaller percentage chunk of the characters’ hit points.” It would appear it is very difficult for characters to get much higher than a AC of 18 without spending serious amounts of gold on exceptional gear, like mithral mail, dragonscale, or adamantine armor, or gaining magic items. Nearly all of the monsters in the Open Playtest have ACs of 15-17, with a few that reach up as high as 20. This would seem to suggest that hitting AC 20 is a “big deal” under Bounded Accuracy, and going over that is quite hard to accomplish.
So I wanted to create some examples of combats under the various editions, using the monster presented in the L&L article – the humble goblin. Here’s a creature which is the staple foe of low level adventurers, and rarely finds itself in high level adventures due to its rather wimpy nature. For the examples, I’m going to use a Dwarven Fighter, like the one provided in the open playtest, but modified by edition.
AD&D: The Goblin has AC 6, 4 hit points, and does 1-6 damage. It can hit a Fighter in chainmail (AC 5) 30% of the time. Conversely, the 1st Level Dwarven Fighter with an 18 /76 can hit a goblin 45% of the time with his battleaxe for 1-8 + 4 damage. Assuming maximum hit points for the Fighter (12 hp) and average damage, it takes 4 goblins about 4 rounds to drop the Fighter, while the Fighter can instantly kill a goblin every other round. Assuming the Fighter has upgraded his armor to plate mail (AC 3) and his hit points to 48 by Level 5, the goblins now only hit him 15% of the time. On the other hand, the Fighter hits puny goblins 65% of the time, and can swing at 5 of them per round, because they are less than a full hit dice – that’s an average of 3 goblins auto-killed per round! It now takes about 40 goblins to seriously challenge the Fighter, and he’s likely to have finished the goblins off well before they can do substantial hit points.
SRD/3.5: Under these rules, a goblin has AC 15, 5hp, and does 1-6 damage. The Level 1 Dwarven Fighter has AC 15 as well (Chain shirt + DEX) and a dwarven waraxe doing 1-10 + 4, and has a maximum of 12 HP. The goblin can hit the Fighter 40% of the time, meaning it only takes about 3 goblins to seriously threaten him. However, the Fighter hits a goblin 50% of the time for an autokill each swing, so it would probably take 4 goblins to assure his demise. By 5th Level, the Fighter can easily afford to upgrade to full plate (AC 19), meaning that goblins can only hit him 20% of the time now, while he can clobber a goblin 75% of the time for an autokill. Although situational modifiers like flanking might make a pack of goblins a greater threat, there are a number of feats available over 5 levels for the Fighter to make him more than a match for a pack of goblins. It’s likely he can take on 30 goblins without being too overwhelmed, but 20 is a more likely fight.
D&D 4E: Based upon 4E rules, a lone Dwarven Fighter (Essentials Slayer) would be evenly matched by four Goblin minions or a single Goblin Warrior in a balanced encounter. Assuming the single goblin, the Dwarf will be hit about 50% of the time for an average 6 hp damage, while he will strike back and hit the goblin 70% of the time (Poised Assault) for an average of 13 hp of damage. This will kill the goblin in four rounds, while the dwarf will barely take less than half his hit points. By Level 5, the Dwaven Fighter would have to take on 5 Level 1 Goblin Warriors for an even fight, but by this point they can only hit him 30% of the time for an average of 6 hp each. The Fighter (Slayer) can hit them back 90% of the time for an average of 16 hit points damage per swing. Assuming the Fighter can avoid them flanking him, he can kill them in ten rounds, suffering only around 50 total hit points of damage over the course of the fight. He’ll probably have to blow a Second Wind here, but he’ll survive easily.
D&D Next: Under the proposed rules, goblins have AC 14 and 5hp, and are autokilled by the Level 1 Fighter as in previous examples. They can hit the Fighter about 40% of the time, while the Fighter can strike back at them with a hit probability of 65%. However, the goblins have a new power which allows them to do extra damage if they have advantage, and increased attack skill with ranged weapons (bow). This cranks their ability to hit, from out of the darkness at 60’ range, up to 70% because of Advantage, and doing 1d6 + 1 plus a bonus 1d6 damage from “Dirty Ticks”. An initial attack by 4 goblins at 60’ range in darkness leaves the Level 1 Dwarven Fighter dying on the ground, never knowing what hit him. By Level 5, the Dwarven Fighter has 48 hp now just like the AD&D version), and has probably upgraded his AC to 17. This changes the attack numbers of the goblins by only 10%, while his own ability to hit has not increased – at least as far as we know, although Level 4 and Level 5 might grant Theme bonuses. Using the 12 goblin squad suggested by the L&L article, 7 of the goblins will hit the Level 5 Fighter out of the darkness, and he still drops to the ground and takes a dirt nap – probably to be later carted off and made into dwarven jerky for the goblin village.
So even for a Level 5 Fighter, a pack of just 4 goblins remains a threat under D&D Next Bounded Accuracy. In previous editions, the goblins become merely a nuisance to the Fighter by Level 5, requiring a ton of them to put up a Fight. In 4E, an even encounter is just that – an even encounter. Five Level 1 Goblins is an even match and provides a decent challenge.
But most importantly, in 4E, they also provide a reasonable reward – not so in previous editions or in D&D Next!
Risk Versus Reward
One of the main issues I have with continuing to use low level monsters to challenge higher level characters is in the Risk (Death) versus the Reward (Experience Points/Treasure). Low level monsters have not only small offerings of treasure, but offer a substantially tiny fraction of the experience points needed to advance a level.
D&D 4E solved this problem by balancing encounters based upon an experience point budget, and using treasure parcels. Under the examples I gave, the Level 5 Lone Dwarven Slayer would advance to Level 6 after facing just four of those 5 Goblin encounters, because each one grants 500 experience points. He would also get treasure based upon the Level 5 parcel table, so while the solo adventure might be a rough one, with every combat chancey, he would still gain decent rewards for the threats he took on.
Under AD&D, the 40 goblins only grant around 400 experience points, a mere drop in the bucket of the 17,000 XP needed for Level 6. Then again, the AD&D Fighter could pound those packs of goblins for days before requiring a rest, although the treasure would be fairly small pickings.
SRD rules would have the L5 Lone Dwarf facing off against only two packs of 20 goblins to reach Level 6, and the treasure is considered to be Standard for that monster, which means fairly decent loot for his trouble.
But under D&D Next, assuming a miracle happens and a Level 5 Fighter coupld take out a pack of 12 goblins, the net gain is only 1200 experience points. Per the character sheet so far, it takes 6000 XP to reach 3rd level Fighter, so if we extrapolate, we could guess that a Level 5 Fighter needs either a total of 30000 XP (linear progression) or 64000 XP (quadratic progression) to reach Level 6. Assuming (and praying!) Next uses the linear progression, a Fighter would have to take on the Dirty Dozen Goblins around nine times in order to level up, and we’ve seen the chances of surviving even once is slim to none. Of course, he might have a whole pack of buddies with him, including a cleric, wizard, rogue, and perhaps another Fighter. Now the odds of survival go up substantially against the evil goblin squad, but now the heroes must face 45 encounters with a dozen goblins each – not exactly what most players want to hear when they are contemplating their next chance to Level Up.
So in essence, Bounded Accuracy skews the Risk versus Reward contract that DMs and Players have as an unspoken rule. Literally, if D&D Next players see 12 goblins on the field, they should just run away and hope to find a better encounter down the road. It is not worth their time or energy to take on these foes, given how much damage they can inflict, and how few experience points they offer. Of course, we have no idea what the treasure is worth for a pack of goblins, but it would have to be a pretty huge pile to make it worth the characters’ time and effort facing them.
Not to mention, has it occurred to the WotC designers how it will make characters feel to be substantially beaten down by a pack of Level 1 monsters when they are Level 5 heroes? Not exactly a great moment to be a player – and I imagine a bit embarrassing for the DM.
Bounded Accuracy is one of those mechanics that seems great when you’re cooking it up in a planning session, but which has serious problems when implemented in a real game. Characters need to move beyond low level monsters, which should become trivial to encounter, and need only show up as cannon fodder for a big baddie to use. I’ve done this plenty of times in past games in older editions, with an evil high priest or wizard using piles of orcs or goblins against the heroes to keep them at bay. The real experience is in finally reaching the leader and defeating him, harried and distracted all the while by his low level minions. The encounters tend to be actually worth something then, because that one leader type is likely to be notably higher level than the party, and worth about 80% of the entire experience points in the encounter. But it’s still a lot of fun to have those weanie low level monsters running around the battlefield, because they really aren’t much of a threat, and they can be killed in in a wanton bloodfrenzy by the melee types, or blown to smithereens by the wizard.
But once you start making low level monsters too serious of a threat, as Bounded Accuracy does, I think all that fun is going to fly right out the window.
So until next blog… I wish you Happy Gaming!