Monday, January 23, 2012

A Brief History of Attack Bonuses

The subject of the bonuses that characters earn for leveling up is a contentious one (in my experience, anyway). I believe that's because it goes directly to the heart of what a D&D character is at its most fundamental: a list of numbers and situation-based alterations to the rules. The arguments center on whether the benefits of gaining levels are too much, too little, or just right.

There's a sense that these bonuses have escalated across editions, and that's generally true, but only in certain regards. It's not true in one aspect that may surprise people -- attack bonuses.

I've graphed the "automatic" attack bonuses that fighters gained in early editions of the game (OD&D in 1974, AD&D in 1979, and D&D Basic/Expert in 1981) along with 4th Edition (2008). These comparisons are necessarily rough because of the game's evolution, but they're still important.

Before showing the graphs and drawing conclusions, I'll lay out some of the ground rules.

The modifiers that are taken into account are the bonuses from the attacker's level, from Strength, from magic weapons, and from the expertise feat that is considered so essential in 4E. Fourth Edition has a regimented scale for magic weapons and Strength increases, unlike earlier editions that left these things in the hands of the DM and the random treasure tables. In early editions, Strength rarely changed after character creation. When it did, it was an exceptional occurrence. The amount of magic weaponry in the hands of early adventurers could vary wildly from campaign to campaign. Those scales are based on my experience as player, designer, and publisher.

The D&D B/X graph covers levels 1-15; OD&D and AD&D cover levels 1-20; and 4E covers levels 1-30. These are the levels included in the rulebooks. You can argue whether all of these levels really are playable, but the rulebooks claim that they are, and I'll take them at their word for this comparison.

With all of that out of the way, here are the graphs. Note that these are additive graphs; each line adds its values to the line below it, so that the top line on the graph shows the total value of all modifiers.

Original D&D (1974)
Advanced D&D (1979)
D&D Basic/Expert (1981)
D&D 4th Edition (2008)
Finally, here's a graph that plots the four totals against each other. This one's not additive; each line is the top line from the preceding four graphs.

Four Editions Compared
What these graphs show is that in all four of these D&D editions, a fighter's attack bonus increases at approximately the same pace and is approximately equal to his level throughout his adventuring career. The exception is the low-level 4E fighter, who starts with an advantage thanks to the handling of Strength bonuses in 4E (and 3E, which isn't covered here, obviously). That initial advantage wanes as the character advances.

These are only the basics, of course. Fourth Edition injects the all-important class powers, which can boost  the attack roll when it really matters. That's a somewhat different class of inflation, however, and I don't think it negates the importance of the progressions shown on these charts.

From my perspective, none of this is the real point. As interesting as this analysis is, it's not an end in itself. Instead, it lays the foundation for a much bigger question: Is there a better way to reward characters and players for gaining levels? That's a topic for later in the week.


P.S.: A quick note on why I chose these editions to compare. 4E is obvious. 2nd Ed. AD&D was omitted because it's basically identical to 1st Ed. Both OD&D and B/X were included because they employ different progressions from AD&D, and OD&D offers no bonus for high Strength. I find it interesting that in the end, those differences turn out to be more superficial than they appear. 3E doesn't appear for the simple reason that all my 3E manuals are packed away in boxes at the back of the storage room, and I didn't feel like digging them out.


  1. This doesn't surprise me. Also, I suspect the 3e one would be completely out of whack with all the others.

    This feeds into the idea that I've had. Which is to stop the escalation of attack bonuses period. Reward people with more choices but not more bonuses.

    What I'd really like to see is a chart that showed the minimum and maximum bonuses in each edition to show the "power gap" between the weakest possible character and most powerful character.

    1. A character needed Strength 9 or better to be a fighter in AD&D (eg). Str 9 gave no bonus. The maximum Strength (18/00) gave a +4 bonus. That's pretty much the spread right there. Much more important and less predictable was magical gear. Gauntlets of ogre power and a +4 guisarme-voulge made a bigger difference than Strength, assuming you got them.

    2. 18/00 was +3 to hit, +6 damage. 25 strength was +7 to hit, +14 damage. So, at 20th level the difference between the 9 str fighter who has no magic items(+19 to hit, from THAC0) and the one that has a 25 Str and a +5 weapon, and double specialization in their weapon in 2e(+34 to hit) was 15 points. 1e didn't have specialization, so the difference would be 3 points less.

      In 4e the difference is between an 8 stat character with no magic items and no combat feats and a 30 stat character with every bonus to hit they can get. That's +16 vs +37. Or 21 points difference.

      I don't want to do the 3e one because there are too many variables. And too many long term buffs to attack rolls. But, I can safely say the gap is bigger than any other edition.

    3. 1E specialization was introduced in Unearthed Arcana (pg. 18)... just depends on the books you want to use i suppose

  2. Steve, your previous post certainly got me thinking (and posting) about the illusion of combat bonus increases having a true effect, as it's offset by coresponding AC adjustments (and Hit Point pools come into effect, especially at higher levels).

    All three are connected to each other, and to tone down one you would have to rachet back all three to some extent.

    Anyhow, thanks for making me think.

  3. I was looking at this progression just the other day:

    The missing element from your analysis is that the original editions (Basic, AD&D, 3rd Edition) is that the attack bonuses don't take into account the weapon bonuses, like 4th edition does. So your curves there could be much steeper for those early editions depending on the whims of the DM or the fall of the dice on a random table.

    1. Thanks for the link; I like your take on the subject.

      In my graphs for the early editions, I assumed that characters would have magical weapons with pluses approx. equal to the square root of their levels (a bit more in B/X). That was generally true of the games I participated in, but there were plenty of campaigns where that would have been considered ludicrously low. As noted above, a girdle of giant strength + vorpal blade cleared all bets off the table.

  4. I'd love to see the comparison of the attack bonus for other classes.

    1. It's the same for all classes in 4E. In early editions, other classes lost ground against the fighter at varying rates: clerics slowly, thieves moderately, and magic-users quickly. They had other special abilities in and out of combat to compensate, of course.

    2. I keep meaning to graph “to hit” for the B/X classes by XP but haven’t gotten around to it. Although the thief has a slower “to hit” progression than fighter, it has a faster XP progression.

  5. I can't believe you didn't label your axes.


  6. A couple of things I’m wondering about...

    1. Is there a difference in damage between editions that ought to be considered here as well? In any edition, does damage tend to scale up with level?

    2. Should the multiple attacks/round in some editions be included?

  7. Between this and you ILLUSORY MATH post, I've been wondering the benefits of the level structure in D&D. One thing keeps coming up first for me -- levels, even if the math remains relatively scaled, allow for certain threats beyond the ken of certain characters. It doesn't matter that a 20th level character needs an 11 to hit a CR 20 critter, just like a 1st level character needs an 11 to hit a CR 1 critter -- what matters is that the upward scale makes that CR 20 an horrifying threat to lower-level heroes.

  8. @Robert Damage does not scale with class. Magic weapons, specialization, and stat bonuses (where stats increase) provide the only increases to damage. I have been feeling for a long time that it should be damage that scales with level, rather than to-hit bonuses. It is my contention that scaling damage is more in the spirit of Chainmail, the very root of the game. Even if you're not interested in taking it that far back, it just makes more sense to scale damage. A guy that can kill you with one blow is much more intimidating than one that will hit me 6 out of 10 tries, but it will take him 10 hits to kill me.

  9. Is this comparison across editions really relevant if taken out of the context of the game?

    I think the more interesting question is the disparity between attacks and defenses.
    In earlier editions you might meet much weaker and stronger enemies than your level ~dictates while in later editions the progression is an illusion since you mostly meet level-appropriate enemies.
    4E fixes the disparity of the math of high level characters' attacks vs defenses from 3rd edition but ends up making the progression almost irrelevant especially when the effect of magic items is calculated straight into the combat abilities of monsters.
    Is there a difference between attack +5 vs defense 15 and attack +10 vs defense 20?

  10. Totally agree with Pekka. +5 vs. 15 and +10 vs. 20 is a wash. This kind off attack and defense progression does, however, have a pernicious effect on defenses in 4E: the defenses become more connected to a monster's level than to its concept. You end up with these absurd cases of slow, clumsy monsters having ridiculously high reflex scores just because they are level 25 (or whatever). It totally defeats the purpose of having multiple defense scores (at least for the monsters).