Thursday, October 2, 2014

Musings: Advantage, Disadvantage and Bounded Accuracy in 5E (Thur, Oct 2)

I’m planning a 5E campaign for one of my two game groups and that means reading through not just the new PHB and starter kits but also a lot of the online design discussions so I understand why the game is the way it is. A lot of the discussion revolves around a pair of 5E innovations – Advantage/Disadvantage and Bounded Accuracy

Advantage/Disadvantage is the mechanism for removing all of the +1 tracking that occurred in earlier systems. Rather than getting a +2 for having the high ground and another +2 for flanking and a +1 for racial advantage and a +2 for the Bard’s singing you simply roll 2d20 with an attack or skill test and take the higher roll. Likewise if you have a mass of penalties you roll 2d10 and take the lower roll. There’s a general claim that the bonus and penalty tracking got really bad in 3E onward but I never saw it as a problem (and will admit that when I was playing 2E I’d engineer insane contrivances like the black mesh bag designed to make my continual light stone instead produce twilight conditions to boost the efficacy of my Fairy Fire spell, layered with a Prayer and a Chant simultaneously – I referred to myself as a +1 Slut in my drive to be a force multiplier for the party fighters). Still, this is an elegant enough mechanic that won’t cause too much problem.

Bounded Accuracy is the designer’s term for doing away with the really high bonuses that higher level PCs could accrue in 3E onward. If your thief maxes out their Climb skill (just to pick an example) by high level their bonus is so high that things that challenge them will be impossible for their partners. This is something I have a lot less sympathy for, just because I have been running some version of 3E on and off for 14 years and I have never seen it. Now enough other people have brought this up that it must be happening, but it still floors me.

I’ve run/played several campaigns up to 9th level and others where I started the PCs at 14th or so and one of two things always happen – the players opt for PCs with very broad skill sets that max out around +10 in any one skill (so that a take 10 will give a 20 result) or the PCs focus on one skill that they bring up to superhuman levels with skill and magic and therefore I treat them as… superhuman. Now, I run a lot of supers games with Ninja heroes or people who can turn invisible or intangible while staying part of a team so the idea of having managing challenges for someone with +25 with Hide, Sneak and Climb just doesn’t worry me.

For combat fighter types would have high to hit rolls that people though would require really high Armor Classes on opponents, high enough to make other PCs unable to hit. But 3E solved that problem by giving additional attacks ever increasing penalties, so you could aim the AC at their 2nd or 3rd attack bonus and it would just mean fighters would hit reliably on their 1st attack.

I just don’t see either as a game breaker, but apparently a lot of people who played a lot of D&D did. There was some inexplicable urge to say “the sample characters are built to look like X, but the rules allow me to build my PC to have up to X+8, so I have to do that! Wow, PCs at X+8 are stomping over some parts of the adventure and wrecking party cohesion, we need to try to bed the rules to make X+8 the standard. Now everyone has X+8 and look at all these unfixable problems the system has. These rules suck for letting me ignore the suggested designs and build my character to X+8!” So now we need to fix that.

5E solves these ‘problems’ (and I’m sorry if I sound derisive here, but I’ve been listening to some variant of “doctor it hurts when I do this” for more than a decade) by radically curtailing the bonuses PCs get. A 7th level fighter used to get a +7 to hit on his first attack for skill, probably up to +12 when you add in magic and stats, letting him reliably hit most targets with his first attack and increasingly less reliably with his second attack. Now that fighter has a +3 for to hit, likely increased to +8 with magic and stats. Notice how his stats and any magic are now more important than his skill? That’s a design decision – it’s probably not until 17th level that a characters training with their key abilities outstrips the bonus they get from their stats, and at no point is the combination going to exceed +11. (OK, I lie – Rogues can get up to a +17, which means there’s a good chance that stealth, climbing and similar skill checks will still have to be statted outside the easy range of anyone else.)

The goal on this is to keep the bonus in line with the AC ranges and make lower difficulty scores the standard. The outcome is that PCs don’t have heroic bonuses for a very long time and the swinginess of the d20 means an awful lot more than before. Worse, with no way to stack a meaningful skill bonus onto a stat bonus the strongest, smartest or most graceful people in the world end up with a 25% advantage over the average man. The game designer’s solution for this is to let the DM skip those checks for high attribute characters in favor of auto successes, which is a fine piece of handwaving.

I may be wrong – this may all work swimmingly. I admire the designers for identifying a problem and trying to fix it. It’s just not a problem I ever had, and I don’t know about the solution. I’ll find out soon enough. 

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