Posted by: markfender | February 25, 2014


One of the constant complaints about D&D is that the math doesn’t work.

scott-pilgrim-level-upThere are various sources for this “math,” which is where the problem comes in. As monsters advance in difficulty, their AC/Saves/damage/hit points increase. The idea is that, as the character improve, these same numbers will increase as well, resulting in a similar odds of hitting/damaging/etc. at each level. But, there are many different sources for bonuses. In 3rd edition D&D, there was attribute bonuses, base attack bonuses, feat bonuses, and magic item bonuses, (at least in the “I added up all these numbers before the fight started” way – there were always spells and other bits and bobs that could influence the bonuses within an encounter) with an implied range that these bonuses should be at each level. 4e was more explicit at spelling out those bonuses (especially when it came to magic items), but it still failed to properly account for these bonuses. The interim game, Star Wars SAGA, fell more towards the 4e model (with 1/2 level being accounted for a steady number progression) but it screwed up the skill progression, which made skills that actually had powers (Use the Force) not function correctly within the already determined math.

Weirdly, earlier editions of D&D solved this problem. Attribute bonuses increased rarely, if ever, leading to attack bonus and magic item bonuses being the only modifiers that escalated across the level range.

I lay all that out to ask “Is there really a point to number progression?” Across several editions of D&D, it has been apparently been impossible to balance this progression, so why do it? Likewise, 4e makes it pretty explicit that the DCs will be increasing as you level up as well, leading to a zero-sum game where the differences in your bonus and the target number remain the same across all thirty levels. So, why even have the numbers go up? Wouldn’t it fix a lot of math issues to just divorce math entirely?

I’m not arguing against advancement. Even older editions of D&D, with its slower bonus gain, provided new abilities and opportunities at new levels. 4e has a wide gamut of powers to choose from at new levels, providing new tactical options. But it seems to me that a lot of issues could be solved by simply providing more options instead of higher numbers, since apparently that’s very hard to balance.

I’m not ruling out number increases entirely either. I mean, bigger numbers are cool. They make you feel like you’ve gotten better and truly ‘leveled up.’ But, with the relatively small range of numbers available within a d20 framework, it’s a very difficult thing to properly balance.

So, how important is number progression to the “D&D experience?” Are you just not even playing D&D if the numbers don’t keep going up?



  1. I will definitely agree that there is a bit of a zero sum game going on with d20 games. As the player levels and stats go up, the monsters get more difficult and there appears to be no progression. This type of progressive scaling is often a complaint in video games where the monsters just get tougher as the character does so there never appears to be any progress made. Sure, you hit 5% harder, but the bad guy has 5% more hitpoints so it ends up being a wash. However PnP RPGs are not stuck in one sort of constant progressive scaling due to the control of the GM and encounters.

    An example of this that I can think of would be the fighter that I played in the old Birthright campaign converted over to 3rd. As the characters leveled up, and Challenge Ratings went up, sure, there was that scaling issue. However, when later in the campaign it came time for war, it quickly became apparent that the veteran character I was playing could very easily slaughter groups of rank and file soldiers single handedly as his overall offensive and defensive capabilities (numbers) made it extremely low risk, even when trying to use weight of numbers against him. This was not something he would have been able to do at the beginning of his career.

    Similarly, group appropriate Challenge Ratings can be broken down into numerous types of smaller monsters, which allows for the group to get the “more powerful” feeling as something that was challenging for them previously, now they can take whole groups of them on. Where once they might have a difficult fight versus six orcs, they later find themselves fighting off a small warband of twenty in a defense of a village and the growth in power is more apparent. Mixing up the challenges between the one big bad thing and mixed groups of smaller bad things keep the encounters fresher in my opinion as they allow for more tactics rather than everyone throwing the kitchen sink at the single CR X big bad.

    So in a case like that, I feel there is a point to the numbers going up in progression, which is just a part of the character growth in d20. There is also new feats, new spells, more skills and so forth which allow for more options and new avenues for the character to go. Being that I am fond of Rogue types of characters in d20, I definitely love seeing my characters skills get to the point that what would once be very challenging maneuvers become very simple for my better skilled character to attempt.

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