Ability modifiers: 5e vs B/X progression (+musing on power levels in 5e)

We reached 5th level in our D&D campaign last session. Wow, that is a significant step up in the power curve in 5e. 7th level ought to map well enough to the 'superhero' title of OD&D I reckon. We (two battlemasters and a paladin) went up against some 'Varl' that our DM estimated to be of medium difficulty. Curbstomped in the first round. He was faltering by the time my paladin was ready to roll 4d8+2d6+6 for smiting. Didn't even have time to make my extra attack for another 4d8+6 before I had chopped his head off. DM trying not to have his jaw drop at how easy that was for us.

We've had lots of fun at levels 1-4 though. Vulnerable at times, but not too vulnerable. We all had some nice moves and badass moments yet threats were tangible. 5th level feels like we're now consistently baddass. So that is probably my rule of thumb for 5e's implied setting. 1st/2nd - Trained and well above average person but nonetheless mundane. 3rd/4th level - Genuine hero. 5th level: Bruce Willis has walked into the room. Proper badass.

The Thing is totally a 5th level barbarian

The immense playability of levels 1-4 is probably the biggest thumbs up I can give to 5e. I'd be happy to play characters of this level any time. It feels challenging, suitably heroic at times, but not superheroic. Which is, to me, what any levelled character should feel. We've ignored the XP chart for a slower progression - I feel like 5e as written is a bit too much in a hurry to get characters out of the bottom levels. 3rd and 4th level in particular feels like a sweet spot that you could spend more time at than the XP chart suggests. 

Anyway, on to what I really wanted to talk about....


Someone asked in the comments recently why I wasn't using B/X modifiers instead of 5e's for Into the Unknown. It's compelling in some ways - It's lower numbers, which is good. But the B/X progression is also a bit arbitrary and doesn't play too well with other parts of 5e.

Over on Methods & Madness, Eric Diaz was musing on numbers and level of detail people can easily process a while back. This strikes a cord with me, especially as simplicity is a large part of the project of making Into the Unknown as a b/x-y 5e hack.

Having seven degrees of outcome or progression is just so neat (worst, worse, bad, neutral, good, better, best) - It's intuitive and easy to remember. 

But for me, it more significantly means that the numbers map to something you can immediately relate to in the world. For example, a STR progression could go like this:

0-2 -3 Weakest
3-5 -2 Weaker
6-8 -1 Weak
9-11 0 Medium
12-14 +1

15-17 +2

18-20 +3


A person with 13 in Strength instinctively has an idea of how strong he is in the imaginary world. He is "strong." and he gets a +1 to Strength rolls as a result. 

The fact that numbers can map to an in-world natural scale is to me a big deal towards making the game simple and easy to understand. It makes the numbers more than just numbers. 

I like it so much I am thinking of incorporating it Into the Unknown. Pros of it:
  • Giving numbers in-world meaning that is easy to understand
  • Lower numbers is generally good for an easy and simple approach
  • The scale of the 'bounded accuracy' is like a happy medium between 5e B/X.
    It also keeps the old-school standard of 18 being the human best, whilst honoring the 5e standard of 20 being the human best.
Some big cons though
  • Harder to calculate on the fly. 5e's "drop 10 and halve the rest" is pretty easy to calculate in your head. This uses a range of 3 per increment for ability modifiers - at that point, you'll want a table to look it up.
    Mitigator: Players will only need to do this when entering the modifier on their sheet.
  • Ability gains are a big part of levelling up in 5e. Tampering with this makes the progression assymetrical, encouraging math games to figure out how to best allocate your two point gain. Bad.
  • Reduced 5e compatability - This is the big one. It means that a regular 5e character won't be able to join an ItU table without recalculating his modifiers. It also means DMs will have to recalculate everytime they are using stock 5e material on NPCs and critter. Bad bad bad.
I don't know. It's a lovely idea, but hard to see how to bring into this game in an elegant manner.


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