I like it. That's all.


I find this description of how the D20 System works enormously enlightening and useful.

It speaks of Dungeons and Dragons, but D&D 3.5, D20 Modern and Star Wars RCR are all essentially the same system mechanically, with various tweaks.

D&D: Calibrating Your Expectations

An Essay by Justin Alexander

  • I’ve been working and playing with the new edition of Dungeons & Dragons longer than most. Ryan Dancey sent me a playtest copy of the new Player’s Handbook back in 1999, almost a full year before it was released at GenCon 2000. I had been an outspoken critic of AD&D for several years at that point and, more recently, been involved in a number of heated debates with Ryan over the OGL and D20 Trademark License.
  • By the time I was done reviewing the playtest document and sending my comments back to Ryan, I had basically done a 180-degree turn-around on both. Wizards of the Coast had assembled three incredibly talented game designers – Jonathan Tweet, Monte Cook, and Skip Williams – to rework the system, and they had succeeded brilliantly. They stayed true to the roots of the game and captured the best parts of it, while shedding decades of detritus and poor design. There were still a few quibbles here and there, but they had taken advantage of the largest and most expensive design cycle for an RPG ever conceived and used it to deliver an incredibly robust, flexible, and powerful system.
  • One of the most impressive things about 3rd Edition is the casual realism of the system. You can plug real world values into it, process them through the system, and get back a result with remarkable fidelity to what would happen in the real world.
  • Some people will consider this to be a remarkable claim. It doesn’t take much experience with the roleplaying hobby before you're familiar with dozens of vehement diatribes on the lack of realism in D&D and the resulting shortcomings in the system. Whole laundry lists of complaints (aimed at hit points, the encumbrance system, falling damage, or attacks of opportunity, for example) have been generated. In fact, such claims are so prolific that making the opposite claim (as I have done) is practically a heresy of sorts.
  • But, in my experience, these complaints largely originate either from people carrying over their criticisms of previous editions (where many of the criticisms were true) or from people failing to actually look at the facts and run the numbers.
  • So what I want to do, rather than just making my claim, is to take a look at a few rules, actually run the numbers, and demonstrate how effective D&D really is at modeling the real world.
  • Before we do that, though, I want to make one disclaimer perfectly clear: D&D is a game. Its systems are abstracted and streamlined in order to keep things simple and, more importantly, fun. So, yes, there are compromises. (You’ll see a graphic example of the types of compromises which are made when we talk about the Jump skill.) The game is not a physics text. Nor is it without flaw.
  • It’s just really, really good. And part of what makes it really, really good is the fact that it does this simulation casually. It doesn’t make you do the math. It’s worked the math into the system. All you’ve got to do is roll the dice and handle some basic arithmetic.
  • This essay should also be understood as something more than a defense of the game from illegitimate critique. That defense is, in fact, almost an unintentional consequence of what this essay is actually about: Providing a useful resource for those who want a deeper understanding of what the numbers really mean. If a character has a skill bonus of +15, how talented are they? If they have a Strength of 14 how strong are they? And so forth.

Breaking Down a Door

  • Breaking down a door in D&D requires a Strength check. So the first thing we need to understand is the distribution of ability scores in the general population.
  • According to the DMG, defaults NPCs in D&D are built on one of two arrays: The elite array and the average array. The elite array is used for exceptional individuals. The average array is… well, average.
  • Elite Array: 15, 14, 13, 12, 10, 8
  • Average Array: 13, 12, 11, 10, 9, 8
  • Using the point buy system, the elite array is built on 25 points. The average array is built on 15 points.
  • John Kim demonstrates that the elite array is, in fact, the statistically typical result of rolling 4d6-drop-the-lowest (the default character generation) if you round down fractional results. Similarly, although John doesn’t show it, the average array is the statistically typical results of a 3d6 roll.
  • The DMG doesn’t tell us how common an elite character will be, but they are supposed to be a cut above the average. I think it’s safe to say that they’re supposed to be rare. There are a number of approaches you can take to figuring out exactly how rare. For example, I did some back-of-the-envelope calculations using the DMG demographic information regarding how many characters are of a level high enough to suggest exceptional accomplishment in the real world (as we’ll discuss later). I also ran the numbers from MENSA (which accepts only those who intellectually qualify in the top 2% of the population) and then compensated to include the non-intellectual ability scores. And so forth. But, consistently, these inferences got me a figure right around 5%.
  • What does all this mean? It means that the vast majority of people you meet will be lucky to have a single +1 bonus in any of their ability scores. Most of them will, in fact, have straight 10’s and 11’s across the board.
  • So, with that in mind, let’s go back and talk about breaking down a door.
  • Breaking down a simple wooden door – like the doors you might find inside a typical house – is a DC 13 check. This means that the average person (with a +0 Strength modifier) will succeed at breaking open the door about 40% of the time. This means that one or two strong kicks from just about anybody will kick the door open.
  • This matches our real life experience: Interior doors just aren’t that sturdy.
  • Next, let’s take a look at something sturdier. For example, a well-made front door with its deadbolt secured. This would be a DC 18 check in D&D (for a “good wooden door”). This is a lot harder to bust open: The average person will only have a 10% of knocking it open on the first attempt. It’s going to typically take five or six really solid kicks for the average person to get through such a door.
  • Again: This matches our real life experience. Front doors are strong, but the fact that they’re not impervious to breaking-and-entering is evidenced by thousands of burglaries every year.
  • But once you take a thick wooden beam and use it to bar the door shut with solid iron construction (Break DC 25), it becomes impossible for the average person to simply throw their shoulder against the door and break it open.
  • And, again, this matches the real world. Breaking a six-inch thick beam would be nearly impossible for all but the strongest among us. Breaking such a beam without hitting it directly (instead diffusing our impact through a door) is essentially impossible.
  • Breaking down doors is a simplistic example, but it shows how much thought has gone into make the system consistent with the real world, even when it comes to the small details.
  • It’s also interesting to look at various magical effects in the system and seeing what they mean in real world terms. For example, a hold portal spell adds +5 to the Break DC of a door. So a hold portal spell is basically equivalent to adding a deadbolt to a door (make sense). An arcane lock spell, on the other hand, adds +10 to the Break DC of a door, so it’s basically the equivalent of barring the door shut.
  • So if the necromancer rushes through a portal and magically seals it behind him, what does it feel like when the party’s fighter throws himself against it? Now you know.
  • (And knowing is half the battle. Go Joe!)


  • One of the things which directly led to the creation of this essay was a mini-rant by Shamus Young on encumbrance in D&D:

Now, I like to travel light: I don’t check baggage unless I really need to. For my five-day trip I managed to get everything into a single reasonably-sized carry-on bag. It was just the bare minimum of items for five days: I wore a few clothing items twice to save space, and only carried a couple of books and a laptop for entertainment. Nevertheless, the strap of this bag bit into my shoulder as I walked, and the weight threatened to pull me off balance. A full-out run was nearly impossible, and a light jog caused the weight to bounce all over the place, slam me in the leg, and generally make the simple task of walking a bit more tricky than it normally is. It wasn’t just the weight that was a problem: the volume made the stuff difficult to manage as well.

Note that I was not wearing any metal armor. I wasn’t carrying enough food for five days in the wild. I didn’t have a sword, rope, grapple hook, spare dagger, or any other items D&D characters seem to keep handy. Try lugging five days of food and a few metal weapons a half-mile or so and you’ll quickly see that the D&D rules for carrying capacity are pure comedy.

  • Pure comedy? Well, let’s run the numbers.
  • What was Shamus lugging around with his carry-on that day? Sounds like about three outfits of clothing. A laptop. A couple of books. A complete outfit of clothing in D&D is rated right around 4-5 pounds (unless you’re wearing royal regalia, which we’ll assume he wasn’t), so let’s say 13 pounds of clothing. A quick Google search turns up this page which suggests that his laptop probably weighed about 7 pounds. Poking around on Amazon suggests that books can reasonably weigh anywhere from about half a pound to about three pounds, depending on size and format. Let’s assume an average and call it 3 pounds for two books together. The luggage probably weighs another 7 pounds. Plus another 5 pounds for any miscellaneous stuff he didn’t mention explicitly (like toiletries).
  • Adding that up quickly we can see that Shamus was carrying somewhere in the ballpark of (13 + 7 + 3 + 7 + 5) 35 pounds.
  • Now, I’m guessing that Shamus isn’t a professional weightlifter. And, by the same token, he probably isn’t a 90-pound weakling, either. My guess is that he falls solidly into the D&D average: Strength 10.
  • For a D&D character with a Strength of 10, the 35 pounds or so that Shamus was carrying constitutes a medium load. A medium load hits you with a check penalty on physical actions, reduces your speed, and stops you from running full out.
  • Which, when we compare this to Shamus’ experience, sounds like a pretty accurate mechanical representation: “…the weight threatened to pull me off balance. A full-out run was nearly impossible, and a light jog caused the weight to bounce all over the place, slam me in the leg, and generally make the simple task of walking a bit more tricky than it normally is.”
  • And he was also carrying the weight in the worst way possible – as an off-center load. D&D doesn’t try to model how you’re carrying a load, but it’s reasonable to assume that the rules are designed with the assumption that characters are carrying their gear in a way which minimizes the inconvenience.
  • (To understand the difference, grab a 25-lb. weight and try jogging around the block with it held in your hand. Then load up a backpack with 25 pounds of stuff, pack it tight, and strap it across your back. Do the same run. It’ll be a lot easier. There’s a reason backpacks were invented.)
  • This is one of the way in which D&D chooses to make a playable compromise rather than trying to slavishly model every aspect of reality. Sure, you could try to create a system which attempted to model how awkward it was to carry a particular item in a particular way. Maybe items carried in the hands carry a x2 encumbrance penalty. Maybe carrying more than one or two spears is more difficult than carrying an equal weight of a smaller and more compact item.
  • But such a system would be a nightmare. It’s already enough of an overhead headache to try to keep an accurate tally of just the weight being carried. Most groups will only do the occasional “update” of weight carried, rather than trying to account for every time picked up or dropped as it occurs. And this is fine.
  • But if you tried adding a whole new layer complexity in which players had to figure out exactly how many standard rations will fit into a small, medium, or large backpack or how carrying them in a bag on your hip will affect their encumbrance you’d almost certainly create a system which would never be used (because no one would want to use it). It wouldn’t increase utility and accuracy, it would reduce it.
  • But with that acceptable layer of abstraction in place, how else does the system demonstrate its accuracy?
  • Well, let’s look at the military. How much does the equipment they carry into combat typically carry?
  • Historically, militaries have tended to have kit weights for their infantry soldiers in the 40-60 pound range. We’ve seen that, for average people, this would constitute a medium load: Not so heavy as to be a serious impediment, but definitely inhibiting compared to wearing winter clothes.
  • Of course, most soldiers aren’t of average strength. Boot camp is specifically designed to build strength (among other things). It wouldn’t be unreasonable to expect an average infantryman’s highest ability score (13) to be in Strength. And with a Strength of 13, anything up to 50 pounds is considered a light load (with no penalties to action).
  • And take a look at this recent article: The amount of gear carried by an American infantryman is creeping up into the neighborhood of 70 pounds or more. That’s a heavy load for a person with average strength (10), and even our physically fit soldiers with above average strength (13) who were previously wearing light loads are now being weighed down with a medium load.
  • Our soldiers aren’t too happy with all that extra weight. And D&D shows us why.
  • On a slight tangent, another common complaint about D&D’s encumbrance figures go the other way: They claim that things like longswords should be heavier and that plate armor should make it impossible to do anything physical. Most of these beliefs are either built on shoddy replicas, urban legends, or simple misunderstanding.
  • To pick on Shamus Young again, he also jumped on this bandwagon: “The system is even more messed up than it seems. A quick glance at the item weights in the player handbook will reveal gems like the following: A longsword weighs 4lbs. Even using lightweight modern metal alloys, I think you’d have a very, very hard time getting an adult-sized longsword that weighs only 4lbs. Even if you did somehow have a sword that light, it would feel like a toy in your hand.”
  • But even casual research quickly reveals that 4 lbs. is almost exactly what historical long swords weighed. The essay “What Did Historical Swords Weigh?” by J. Clements is an excellent resource for this. People didn’t make slow, heavy weapons and awkward armor because their lives depended on not making weapons and armor like that.)

Knowledge and Crafting

  • There’s a common fallacy when it comes to D&D, and it goes something like: Einstein was a 20th level physicist. So, in D&D, Einstein – that little old man – has something like a bajillion hit points and you’d need to stab him dozens of times if you wanted to kill him. That’s ridiculous!
  • The problem with this argument is that Einstein wasn’t a 20th level physicist. A 20th level physicist is one step removed from being the God of Physicists. Einstein was probably something more like a 4th or 5th level expert.
  • This can be a little bit difficult for some people to accept, so let’s run the math. At 5th level an exceptional specialist like Einstein will have:
  • +8 skill ranks
  • +4 ability score bonus
  • +3 Skill Focus
  • In the case of our 5th level Einstein, that gives him a +15 bonus to Knowledge (physics) checks. He can casually answer physics-related questions (by taking 10) with a DC of 25. Such questions, according to the PHB description of the Knowledge skill, are among the hardest physics questions known to man. He’ll know the answers to the very hardest questions (DC 30) off the top of his head about 30% of the time.
  • And when he’s doing research he’ll be able to add the benefits of being able to reference scientific journals (+2 circumstance bonus), gain insight from fellow colleagues (+2 bonus from aid another), use top-of-the-line equipment (+2 circumstance bonus), and similar resources to gain understanding of a problem so intractable that no one has ever understood it before (DC 40+).
  • (This 5th level Einstein can also be modeled with as few as 5 hit points – 1 per hit die. Even if he rolled an average number of hit points on each hit die (3 each), as an old man his average Constitution of 10 will have dropped two points. With the resulting Constitution penalty, he still only has 10 hit points. This is the other reason why the hit point argument holds no water.)
  • You’ll see this same fallacy trotted out whenever someone insists that the local blacksmith “must” be at least 10th level in order to be competent in their profession. In reality, the typical village blacksmith is probably only a 1st level character. At 1st level the average blacksmith’s Craft (blacksmithing) skill looks like this:
  • +4 skill ranks
  • +1 Intelligence bonus
  • +3 Skill Focus
  • +2 from an assistant or apprentice helping them
  • That’s a +10 bonus on their checks. This bonus allows them to take 10 and craft masterwork-quality items. By 3rd level an experienced blacksmith can do that without the help of an assistant.
  • Even less capable 1st level blacksmiths (without an assistant or the Skill Focus feat) still have a +5 bonus to their skill. This lets them take 10 and craft high-quality items (the only things they can’t handle are exotic weapons and complex items).
  • And what does an exceptional 5th level blacksmith look like?
  • +8 skill ranks
  • +4 Intelligence bonus
  • +3 Skill Focus
  • +2 masterwork tools
  • +2 from an assistant or apprentice helping them
  • That’s a +19 bonus to the check. When taking 10 he can essentially triple the speed with which he can make common items like iron pots and horseshoes. He can easily create work far surpassing masterwork quality and can every so often (when he rolls a natural 20) create a work of essentially legendary quality (DC 39).
  • What does all this mean?
  • It means that the most extraordinary blacksmiths in the real world top out at 5th level. Amakuni, the legendary Japanese swordsmith who created the folded-steel technique? 5th level.
  • Arachne, the legendary weaver who challenged Athena herself to a duel (and lost)? She might be 10th level.
  • Does this mean you should never throw a 10th level blacksmith into your campaign? Nope. D&D is all about mythic fantasy, after all. But when you do decide to throw a 10th level blacksmith into the mix, consider the fact that this guy will be amazing. He will be producing things that no blacksmith in the real world has ever dreamed of making. And a 20th level blacksmith is one step removed from Hephaestus himself.
  • Coincidentally: Why do dwarves have such a reputation for mastery of the forge? They have a +2 racial bonus to Craft checks. That means that, unlike human blacksmiths, the average dwarf doesn’t need to be 3rd level in order to single-handedly create masterwork items – they can do it at 1st level. Basically, due to their natural aptitude, dwarves are master craftsmen before they ever leave their apprenticeships.


  • How well do these numbers hold up when compared to other skills? Well, let’s take a look at the Jump skill.
  • Based on our analysis of the Knowledge and Craft skills, we know that a 1st level character has professional competency in their chosen field. We also know that a 5th level character represents the most legendary levels of skill – the type of people who come along once in a generation.
  • So, when it comes to jumping, a 1st level character probably represents a typical college athlete. A 5th level character, on the other hand, represents the small handful of jumpers who challenge and break the world records. It would make sense then, that Olympians would probably fall in the 3rd to 4th level range (better than your run-of-the-mill specialists, but not quite at the level of once-in-a-generation).
  • Let’s take a look at a 4th level Olympian jumper:
  • +7 skill ranks
  • +3 Strength bonus
  • +3 Skill Focus
  • That’s a +13 bonus.
  • Now, back in the original 3rd Edition (3.0), the result of a running long jump check was:
  • 5 ft. + 1 ft. per 1 point above 10
  • This can be more easily paraphrased this way: The distance of a long jump is equal to your check result minus 5 feet.
  • Our Olympian’s jumps will range from 9 feet (stumbling all the way on a roll of natural 1) to 28 feet. But a typical Olympic event involves three jumps in which the best distance is recorded. That means that roughly 80% of the time, our long jumper will be jumping between 20 feet and 28 feet in competition.
  • Looking at the 2004 Olympics, the top forty men’s long-jump results during the qualification round range from 24 feet to 27.25 feet. Those types of results will be posted approximately 60% of the time by our Olympic long-jumper.
  • With our 5th level jumper we can bump the ability bonus up to +4, add a +2 synergy bonus from Tumble, or a +4 bonus from the Run feat. The result would be a the ability to achieve jumps in the 29-35 foot range. The world record is currently set at 29.35 feet.
  • So, once again we’re finding that 5th level is right at the dividing line between legendary real world performances and the impossible realms of the superhuman.
  • And you’ll find similar fidelity with the high jump rules. (In fact, the 3.0 high jump rules are even more accurate than the long jump rules.)
  • The jumping rules, however, are perhaps the most visible victim of gameplay compromises in D&D. When the system was revised for D20 Modern, the distance of a long jump was revised to simply equal the DC of the check. This change was later picked up in the 3.5 revision of the D&D rules.
  • This rule is a lot simpler to remember, but it makes jumping significantly easier than any other skill (compared to real world performance). Under the new rules, 1st level characters can now trivially perform Olympic-level jumps and our typical Olympians will be routinely smashing the world record. (The high jump rules, on the other hand, remain fairly accurate.)

Analyzing Aragorn

  • So what have we learned so far? Almost everyone you have ever met is a 1st level character. The few exceptional people you’ve met are probably 2nd or 3rd level – they’re canny and experienced and can accomplish things that others find difficult or impossible.
  • If you know someone who’s 4th level, then you’re privileged to know one of the most talented people around: They’re a professional sports player. Or a brain surgeon. Or a rocket scientist.
  • If you know someone who’s 5th level, then you have the honor of knowing someone that will probably be written about in history books. Walter Payton. Michael Jordan. Albert Einstein. Isaac Newton. Miyamoto Musashi. William Shakespeare.
  • So when your D&D character hits 6th level, it means they’re literally superhuman: They are capable of achieving things that no human being has ever been capable of achieving. They have transcended the mortal plane and become a mythic hero.
  • This requires a shift of perception for some people, but I’ve found it valuable, when crafting my own campaigns, to keep it in mind: Even though the PCs inhabit a world where there are many higher level characters, once they’ve gotten past 5th level or so, they are truly special individuals. They will be noticed. Their accomplishments will be (and should be) things which would enshrine them in the legends of our world. It’s OK for them to excel.
  • To help put this in further perspective, let me pop another popular canard:
  • People love to stat up their favorite heroes from fantasy literature as 20th level juggernauts. Fafhrd? 20th level. Elric? 20th level. Conan? 20th level. Aragorn? 20th level Luke Skywalker? 20th level.
  • I mean, they must be 20th level, right? They’re the biggest, bestest heroes ever! They’re the greatest warriors in a generation! Some of them are reputedly the greatest swordsmen who ever lived in any universe EVAH!
  • But when you stop and analyze what these characters are actually described as achieving, it’s rare to find anything which actually requires a 20th level build.
  • Take Aragorn, for example. He’s clearly described as one of the best warriors in Middle Earth. But what do we actually see him do? Let’s take THE FELLOWSHIP OF THE RINGS as an example:
  • He leads the hobbits through the wilderness with great skill. (The highest Survival DC in the core rules is DC 15. A 1st level character can master the skill for non-tracking purposes. Aragorn, as a master tracker, would need to be 5th level, have at least one level of ranger, and have spent one of his feats on Skill Focus (Survival) to achieve all of this.)
  • He drives off the ringwraiths at Weathertop. (It’s difficult to conclude anything from this because it’s one of the more problematic passages in the book when subjected to analysis. If the ringwraiths are truly impervious to harm from any mortal man, why are they scared off by a guy waving two flaming brands of wood? Are they vulnerable to fire in a way that they’re not vulnerable to mortal weapons? The point is, the true strength of the ringwraiths is obscure, so it’s impossible to know how tough Aragorn would need to be in order to accomplish this.)
  • Aragorn treats Frodo’s wound, unsuccessfully. (The highest Heal DC is 15. As with Survival, Aragorn could have mastered this skill at 1st level.
  • In Moria (fighting orcs): Legolas shot two through the throat. Gimli hewed the legs from under another that had sprung up on Balin's tomb. Boromir and Aragorn slew many. When thirteen had fallen the rest fled shrieking, leaving the defenders unharmed, except for Sam who had a scratch along the scalp. A quick duck had saved him; and he had felled his orc: a sturdy thrust with his Barrow-blade. A fire was smouldering in his brown eyes that would have made Ted Sandyman step backwards, if he had seen it. Aragorn slays no more than six or seven CR 1/2 orcs in this encounter. A trivial accomplishment for a 5th level character.
  • Even if you follow Aragorn all the way through The Two Towers and The Return of the King, you’ll find that this is fairly representative of what he accomplishes. The only other notable ping on the radar is his ability to use athelas, and even if we don’t assume that’s merely an example of him knowing athelas’ properties, with a Knowledge (nature) check, it’s still just one ability.
  • So what can we conclude form this? Aragorn is about 5th level.
  • And since Aragorn is one of the most remarkable individuals in all of Middle Earth, this would imply that Middle Earth is a place largely like our own world: People who achieve 5th level are uniquely gifted and come along but once in a generation.
  • Does that seem like a proper description of Middle Earth? It does. Tolkien was crafting a false mythology – a forgotten epoch of our own world. Thus the people in it are much like the people we know, although they live in a world of heroes and magic.
  • For the record, I’d probably model Aragorn as a Rgr1/Ftr1/Pal3. That gives you the tracking, lay on hands, and quantifies his ineffable ability to instill courage in those around him. Use one of the feat selections for Skill Focus (Survival) and you’re still left with another three feat selections for the final tweaking.
  • Why do people make the mistake of modeling characters like Aragorn as 20th level characters? I think it arises from several factors.
  • First, there is the assumption that the fictional world of the novel is a typical D&D world. If someone is described as the best in the world, therefore, they must be 20th level. Otherwise there would be people better than them and the description wouldn’t be accurate, right? But the reality is that, in Middle Earth, there aren’t any 20th level characters, At least, none of mortal stature. Even the most exceptional of the immortal elves are most likely no more than 8th level or so, and that’s pushing it. Gandalf is a demigod cloaked in mortal form and I’d have difficulty statting him up as even a 10th level character.
  • Second, people can be thrown off by some contortion required by D&D in order to get a very specific set of abilities. A character is described as having one very specific ability that only a 5th level druid can have and is simultaneously described as having another ability that only a 12th level ranger can have, so clearly they must be a 17th level character, right?
  • Well, no. Authors don’t design their characters around the class progressions of the core D&D classes. Take, for example, a character who can assume an ethereal state without casting a spell. The only way to do that in D&D, using only the core classes, is to be a 19th level monk. But if that’s the only special ability the character in question has, it would be completely nonsensical to model them as a 19th level monk – they don’t have any of the plethora of other abilities such a monk possesses. What you’re looking at is a character with a unique class progression or possibly a prestige class. Or maybe a racial ability.
  • Finally, you’ll get into an arms race of expectations which just reinforces the whole thing: Aragorn must be 20th level. So the orcs who posed such a challenge to him must be 15th level or higher. And since those were elite 15th level orcs, Aragorn must have been 20th level in order to face them.

Concluding Thoughts

  • The problem with having false expectations about what Strength 20 or 15th level really means is that it creates a dissonance between what the rules allow characters to do and what you think characters should be able to do. For example, if you think that Conan should be modeled as a 25th level character, then you’re going to be constantly frustrated when the system treats him as a demigod and allows him to do all sorts of insanely powerful things that the literary Conan was never capable of. From there it’s a pretty short step to making pronouncements like D&D can’t do Conan (or Lankhmar or Elric or whatever).
  • The other problem is the expectation it brings to your campaigns. If you believe that epic adventures are only possible for characters who are 20th level, then your players are going to have a long, hard slog through lower levels of utter tedium before they can get to the “good stuff” that resembles the fantasy stories they love.
  • I’m seen people spend countless hours trying to tweak various rules so that, for example, 20th level characters, who are basically mythological demigods, can’t fall off the Cliffs of Insanity and survive because no one could survive a fall like that. Well, that’s true. No one in the real world can survive a fall like that. But that’s because no one in the real world is a demigod. You might be missing the forest for the trees here.
  • The fact that D&D can handle a range of powers from the subhuman all the way up through the superhuman and into the demigod-like is actually one of the system’s strengths. People will rightfully point that, beyond 20th level, the system begins to break down. But compared to virtually every other RPG ever designed, D&D’s performance across that wide range of powers is still amazing. Nothing else can really compare.
  • For example, HERO was originally designed to model superheroes, and it does that exceptionally. It’s also very good at handling cinematic action heroes. But when you ask it to do normal human beings, it starts developing some serious clunkiness. On the other end of the spectrum, GURPS is great at handling human beings near the normal end of the spectrum, but gets progressively more awkward the more powerful the characters become.
  • But what frustrates some people is that D&D assumes that you’re going to move from one level of power to an extremely different level of power. So they spend a lot of time tweaking the system and trying to get it to perform at a more uniform level from 1st to 20th level.
  • I think this is the hard way of doing it. Instead of fighting the system, I’d rather try to work with it: Target the precise range of levels which form the sweet spot for whatever campaign concept I’m working on, and then tinker with the character creation and advancement rules to keep the campaign focused in that sweet spot. Those changes can be as simple as XP awards will be 1/10th the normal size and everyone should create a 5th level character, but more complicated variants are more than possible.
  • The point is that you find that sweet spot and then you tinker with one aspect of the system, rather than trying to redo the whole thing.
  • And the first step in finding that sweet spot is to recognize what the numbers really mean. Which neatly takes us back to the beginning premise of the essay. I wouldn’t suggest going back and re-reading it like a literary ouroboros, though. It’s long enough as it is.


To Eve Forward, for giving me the impetus to collect a variety of my scattered thoughts into this single essay.

To Rupert Boleyn, Malachias Invictus, Doug Lampert, and Sea Wasp (Ryk E. Spoor), who have all contributed to the development of these thoughts in online discussions over the years.

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