Naturally, every player wants bigger and better characters. But what happens when they get them?
Ability Score Generation
Originally, ability scores were generated by rolling 3d6 six times and assigning these rolls to the six abilities in the order rolled. Later editions allowed these rolls to be assigned to scores as desired. Then 3d6 was replaced with 4d6 discard lowest. This still allowed for “low” ability scores. Standard arrays (predefined, assignable scores) and point buy systems emerged to eliminate scores below a certain point and allow further customization of starting scores. With some of these new techniques (at least in some campaigns), it is possible to start out with all six ability scores at ridiculously high levels.
Additional Ability Score Points
3rd edition introduced an additional ability point every 4th level. What player wouldn’t be excited about that? As a DM, I thought it was a pretty good idea. After all, it makes sense that a body builder could work out in order to become stronger, a gymnast could train to become more dexterous, an academic could study and practice mental exercises to become more intelligent.
In fact, in my game I later extended that to offer characters an additional ability point every 2nd level. In order to reduce extraordinary ability scores, I did add a restriction that no base ability score (before adding magical bonuses) could be raised to more than 10 points above the lowest ability score. I thought this was a pretty good idea… at least at first.
Skills have been around from the beginning, in one form or another. From 2nd edition on you could train in various skills to improve your proficiency with them. In each edition thereafter, skills have been drastically changed and each time additional bonuses became available. Again, taken by itself, this still sounds very reasonable.
Increases by Level
In later editions, nearly everything a character does has ½ the character’s level added to the chance for success. Attacks, defenses, saving throws, skill checks, ability checks, everything a character does is done better as the character increases in level. All this is done to reflect the character’s training and experience in performing these tasks.
Although it makes sense that a more experienced character will be better at most things, this experience is already represented in other ways. Adding an additional bonus of ½ level is just too much and is at the core of the problem.
There are many thousands of magical items from various editions and 3rd party products. It’s not hard to find numerous items that will enhance any given ability score, skill, or other aspect of a character. These items, and similarly related spell effects, are an important part of the game. However, too many items enhancing the same skill or ability can have a deleterious effect. There are already some fairly effective restrictions keeping potential problems in check. Magic items really only become an issue when DMs circumvent those restrictions or 3rd party items are allowed without ensuring that they are not overpowered.
So What’s Wrong With Super Heroes?
Characters now have higher ability scores, more bonuses to every action they take, their level gives them bonuses reflecting their expertise, their magic items enhance everything they do. They are now superhuman. What’s wrong with that? They are supposed to be heroes after all.
The problem is that they are so superhuman that it’s difficult to present an opponent that is a challenge. Worse than that, if such opponents exist these creatures could lay waste entire cities without being in any danger from ordinary guards and soldiers.
Against other challenges (those requiring skill checks, ability checks, saves, etc), these characters have near-automatic success (in most cases, anything but a natural 1 on 1d20) in situations where an ordinary human would have no chance whatsoever.
In short, these superhuman characters imbalance the game.
The Official Solution
In recent editions, everything is handled by the same mechanic. The player rolls 1d20, adds the character’s relevant bonuses, and compares the result to a DC. To compensate for the power creep that is built into the system, the DC for various actions is raised in order to present a challenge to these super human characters.
This presents a number of problems. First, ordinary humans have no chance of hitting these DCs. Second, not all super human characters are created equal. If one doesn’t have all the best of everything, she starts to fall behind. This leads to a need for character optimization and metagaming. Lastly, and perhaps most importantly, the DCs necessary to “achieve balance” become ridiculous and nonsensical.
Keep in mind also that this system of steadily raising the DC as characters progress offsets their bonuses to the point that a character effectively has the same chance for success at all levels (or even less chance at high levels if they don’t maintain the “expected” gains). The numbers involve are higher but there is no real benefit. Clearly, this solution is not the right approach.
First let me say that I am a huge fan of a standard array. In my game I use 10, 11, 12, 13, 14, 16 (arranged as desired). This guarantees that any character can qualify to be any class the player desires (Including Champion – my version of Paladin). They may be a bit high but I do think that characters should be above average (just not superhuman).
Beyond that initial boost, I have removed most of the other causes (or at least what I perceive to be the causes) of the problem. Characters no longer receive additional ability score points from leveling. Nor do they add ½ their level to everything. In fact, bonus to hit and damage is now the only thing they add ½ their level to.
Characters can train in skills and add their training, as well as their ability bonus, to their chance of success. Since they no longer add ½ their level, their skill-related capabilities then remain fairly static at all levels. There is a small amount of skill training available each level but there is a cap on the maximum level of training possible for each skill.
Magic items work as always and can increase every aspect of a character. Certain magic items have however been rewritten or removed as have certain spells.
So now, other than swinging a sword or firing a bow, characters have generally the same chance of success at every level. Naturally, there is a slow gain in everything (owing mostly to better gear) but it is minimal enough that opponents don’t have to be ridiculously inflated to be a threat and DCs can be static at all levels without being too difficult for ordinary humans or too easy for high level characters.
Is It Too Much?
This may sound like much of the benefit of leveling has been removed. That’s an understandable impression given the power bloat that has become the norm in recent editions. Keep in mind that the higher DCs that were used to offset the enhanced capabilities were keeping characters from actually seeing much improvement. Generally, they had roughly the same chance of success but with larger numbers involved. The only real difference was that other aspects of the game were out of whack.
When a character gains a level, she gains hit points. She gains bonuses to hit and damage (scaled by class). Casters gain more and higher level spells. Better gear is obtained. Overall characters still gain quite a bit. Since DCs are now static, these gains actually are more effective.
The perceived benefits may have gone down but the effectiveness of the characters should be unchanged and other aspects of the game should be back to normal.