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Monday, May 7, 2012

Scaled Abilities

Should everything scale with level?

I've seen people on several occasions say that pretty much, everything should scale with level. A 10th level Fighter should be able to jump farther, last longer, and have a better chance of opening stuck doors or dodging traps. As one person put it recently, the fundamental assumption of D&D is that your character improves and gains power.

Except, of course, that the original D&D books have almost zero improvement of abilities or additional powers outside of spell casting. Everyone increases their hit dice, which are tied to saving throws and combat ability in addition to basic survivability. Spell-casters gain access to higher level spells. Fighters get to fight more opponents simultaneously. And that's pretty much it. The books list several mundane abilities: learning languages, gaining henchmen, mundane acts like searching for secret doors, surprising opponents, spiking doors shut, and yes, opening stuck doors and dodging traps. None of these abilities improve. Movement rates don't improve, either, nor does carrying capacity. I think it's notable that these abilities are mundane. D&D characters are ordinary people with one trick, and only that trick improves as their level increases.

This wouldn't matter, except that those in favor of scaling all abilities to level always get bogged down in how to scale challenges to level as well. If a 10th level Fighter can jump a 50-foot chasm easily, then you need to design areas with 100-foot or 200-foot chasms, to increase the difficulty. Ordinary doors become too easy for 10th level Fighters, so you need special "extra-stuck" doors. The end result, if done right, is that characters face exactly the same difficulty at every level.

In which case, why jump through all those hoops? Make all stuck doors equally difficult for all characters. Occasionally throw in a barred or locked door, or one that's been bricked up. The only things that change are the monsters and magic.


  1. Very helpful. It is now why I consider jumping distance to be based on movement rate, not level.

    I am also starting to see movement rate as a better defence score to roll above to hit than dexterity (were I to abandon traditional armor class). Movement intrinsically incorporates the wearing of armor via encumbrance, rather than having to modify an armor class based on dexterity reduced for certain types of armor.

  2. Last longer? Isn't that something an alchemist can help with?

  3. One possible reason for scaling difficulties and powers would be to allow reminders of how powerful the characters have become... If you encountered a 10ft chasm at level 1, and almost died falling into it, it could provide a nice sense of accomplishment and progression to encounter another one at level 10 and jump it easily.

    This already exists on the combat side of things - a single ghoul is a problem for a first-level character, but a 10th level character would laugh at it.

  4. I just saw the forum thread that inspired this post and responded there, but I'll post a slightly edited version of my response here too.

    I think that having all attributes not scale is important for sandbox play. If you want PCs to be able to go anywhere, the difficulty variance should not be that high (at least not more than is encoded in the example encounter tables). Conversely, some minor challenges will continue to be interesting to high level characters if you avoid the trap of bonus inflation. This is one of the aspects of OD&D that attracts me the most, in fact.

    If you think that level should play a role in the success of a particular action (or at least the avoidance of disaster) you could always allow a saving throw. For the example of a magic-user understanding an ancient grimoire, one could use an intelligence check followed by a save versus spells, or just a save versus spells. But also remember that the increase in a magic-user's power is also modeled by their variety of spells, so I don't think you need to give them extra bonuses just for being higher level. The high level magic user thus already has more tools to bring to bear on the grimoire. Maybe they have a spell they could cast that would solve the problem? Encouraging such solutions also rewards creative play rather than the ability to roll high on a single throw.

  5. @Charles: I can see how some people might want that kind of experience, where you conquer one challenge and don't really need to deal with it again. But other people want more of sandbox experience, as Brendan mentions, plus it makes it harder to design challenges if characters improve in all ways instead of only improving in terms of "extras".

    10-foot pits are a bad example, though, since anyone should be able to jump that unless severely overloaded. The gamer's perception is that, once you've jumped enough pits, you should be able to jump the 10-foot pit even when overloaded; the sandboxer's perception is that you could drop your burden at any time, so why would you add a rule that says "you can stop playing smart when you reach this level."

    @Brendan: That's a good point that a magic-user's improving spells already cover scaling of challenges to level. It reminds me of a post on the Alexandrian about how some spells essential act as a "level up" for the party as a whole: once you get Create Food and Water, you no longer need to worry as much about provisions.

  6. I can see your point, in some ways. But I don't understand why it's ok for casters to be able to overcome challenges but not ok for 'mundane' characters to be able to overcome the same challenges.

    I mean, if you are ok with a wizard having mass flight spells to overcome pits, what's the problem thinking that a 'super hero' can't jump distances that are greater than normal mortals could hope to leap?

    And isn't that the point of some of the mechanics in D&D as it is, like monsters needing magic X to hit being a gatekeeper to new areas.

  7. @Micah: There are at least two potential objections I can think of. One is that spells are single-shot, while scaled superhuman abilities are at-will. The other objection is that the fighter class is meant to be a basic, low-fuss character option, compared to the magic-user, which requires more decision-making and preparation to play. I should probably expand on these ideas in a separate post.

    Additionally, we're dealing with a particular kind of play, here. The question isn't "is it OK for there to be a disparity between spells of increasing power and mundane abilities that never improve?" The question is "Shouldn't all abilities scale with level?" And my answer is "No, if you are playing a more sandbox-y game."