Monday, June 11, 2012

The Dice that Bind: Bounded Accuracy in D&D Next

Welcome to your doom!

Wizards of the Coast has an article up about a game mechanic/rubric/system that they are evaluating for inclusion in D&D Next. The system, called “bounded accuracy” seeks to curtail some of the negative side-effects of player advancement.

In past editions of D&D, as characters leveled up, they automatically gained numerous skills and abilities. Though this makes sense from a “practice makes perfect / what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger” sort of thought line, the way it was implemented became a bit broken as characters reached higher levels.

In earlier editions of D&D, low level characters would be reasonably challenged by a hostile encounter with the city watch, or an attempt to scale a cliff. However, as they leveled, these challenges would remain challenging for some while becoming dice-negatingly easy for others, depending on where the players chose to put their points as they leveled. To keep things challenging, GMs had to scale the difficulty of such challenges along with the player’s growing power. City watch officers were laid off in droves and replaced with elite squads of psi-ninjas, and freak hurricanes would appear out of the blue sky any time the characters ventured near a mountainside or city wall... all to maintain a sense of excitement. This mutual power-escalation also often caused a fracturing of player engagement as different characters began specializing in different skills. This resulted in encounters in which the player with the skillz would be the only participant while the others adopted an “Its not even worth trying” stance, choosing instead to just sit things out and comment on their companion’s performance.

Based on my reading of the article, bounded accuracy seeks to mitigate this spreading power creep without removing the rewards gained by leveling. It doesn’t eliminate the power gains, but rather condenses them, so that small bonuses are more meaningful and so that those without bonuses can still participate with some hope of success. According to WOTC, the bounded accuracy system will allow low level characters/monsters to remain a potential threat even against much higher level opponents.

In past editions of D&D, a low level creature couldn’t even make contact in a fight with high level opponents, because the gap between attack rolls and AC made such attacks mechanically impossible. A 10th level player could reasonably decimate an entire continent of kobolds, even if they all banded together to fight back. Zombie hordes were just not that scary past the levels where just a few zombies would suffice. Bounded accuracy seeks to correct that by replacing the gains in attack and defense rolls with gains in hit points, thus allowing the little guys to get in their punches while keeping the big guy resilient. Under this system, if you got enough kobolds in on the action, it could mean death by a thousand tiny fists, even for a badass level character.

The folks over at Obsidian Portal voiced their opinion on the matter in this week’s Haste podcast. The OP guys really hone in on the bounded accuracy’s implications in combat. They raise an excellent point that such strength in numbers threats pose other problems under the D&D rules, specifically that resolving tons of little attacks takes tons of time and drags a game to a halt.

I agree that running a great orcish pigpile might not work very well. However, I think the new system presents a tantalizing opportunity for long, running-battle encounters. The heroes might not have to face a whole horde of low-level baddies at once for it to be a challenge. If the GM sends in the bad guys in waves, he/she can keep the encounter’s scope manageable while  creating a slowly building challenge for their heroes.


  1. You are looking at it wrong. As the players get more powerful, you should not be challenging them with city guards and 5' walkways.
    At the halfway point in AD&D (9th level), the Fighter gets an entire *castle* and followers. By Paragon tier in 4e, you are regularly sailing the astral seas, fighting githyanki pirates who are coasting on their city built on top of a dead god.

    Think of this way: If you ask a raw recruit to do 50 pushups, 50 situps and run a 5 minute mile with a 40 pound ruck, that's challenging. But Green Berets do 10 times that, a day. No DI asks them to do basic recruit stuff, because they're past it.

    If the players want to leave town and the guard tries to stop them, then all it should take is a glower from the party's fighter and a quiet "Piss off." and they should be good to leave town.

    Bounded accuracy is just a crappy way of saying "you will never get better at doing things. Hope you like level 1, because it looks a lot like level 20."

  2. As far as I can tell, the characters will still become badass as they level. The difference will be that, rather than a bandit jumping out of the shadows and being completely unable to hit them, he'll jump out and stab them, only to have the PC smile, lick the blood off the cut and then bash the baddie's face in in a single hit.

  3. Hi,

    Apologies for the off-topic comment, but I couldn't find a contact email for you.

    A while ago I put out an ebook of my writing, called The New Death and others. It's mostly short stories, with some obvious gamer-interest material. For example I have a story inspired by OD&D elves, as well as poems which retell Robert E Howard's King Kull story The Mirrors of Tuzun Thune and HP Lovecraft's Under the Pyramids.

    I was wondering if you'd be interested in doing a review on your blog (either a normal book review, or a review of its suitability as gaming inspiration).

    If so, please let me know your email, and what file format is easiest for you, and I'll send you a free copy. You can email me ( or reply to this thread.

    You can download a sample from Smashwords:

    I'll also link to your review from my blog.


  4. "...seeks to curtail some of the negative side-effects of player advancement."

    Yeah, because I *seriously* hate leveling.


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