March 1, 2012

A Boot on the Face of Level 1 Damage ... Forever!

My personal favorite level of play in Dungeons & Dragons 4th Edition is the very first level. Part of that is due to the simplicity and purity of the characters that are seen. More than that, adventures at 1st Level, even standardized published WotC adventures, have the a higher feel of threat and danger, and also move combat along at a brisk pace.Many others before me have belabored tips & tricks to help speed play up, or analyzed why players take longer to perform their turn at higher levels, and all manner of related subjects. All of these long-winded speculations are unnecessary. I believe that to capture the feeling of threat at Level 1 through all Levels, one must simply do the math.

Thus, my end goal here is to develop a new, simple chart that shows updated damage-by-level information across all 30 levels of play that keeps the relative amount of damage inflicted the same, starting at the brutality of 1st Level. If you think that the MM3-era math is just fine and are comfortable with the paltry amount of damage your epic tier dungeoneers (who have unprecedented access to healing, resist, boosted defenses, and other ways of negating damage) are taking, then read no further, this article is of no use to you.

To start, here's a basic chart showing the common MM3-era damage-by-level expressions for Minion, Low, Moderate, High, Limited, and Falling damage. Straight out of the books here.

Next, I took these die rolls, found the average results, and then expressed them as a fraction of a typical dungeoneer's maximum hit points at each level. For hit points, I assume a 1st level dungeoneer has 25 HP and increases at 5 HP per level. I feel that's a pretty standard and average rate, and many dungeoneers gain far more than that, but for purposes of this post that would only drive my point home further.

As you can see, at 1st Level Minion damage deals 16% of a dungeoneer's HP, Low damage deals 26% of a dungeoneer's HP, Moderate damage deals 34% of a dungeoneer's HP, High damage deals 46% of a dungeoneer's HP, Limited damage deals 56% of a dungeoneer's HP, and falling damage deals 44% of a dungeoneer's HP.

When you take that further and look at all the levels, you'll see a very sharp decline in how much "punch" a typical monster or terrain power does to a dungeoneer as they increase in level, especially in the Limited Damage expressions. As dungeoneers get closer and closer to Level 30, the damage taken drops and the ability to recover from damage increases. This two-pronged defense creates a very hard to kill dungeoneer using typical methods. For me, this is excessively so.

To rectify this, let's take the damage ratios found earlier at 1st Level and apply them to ALL THE LEVELS, like so:

It's then kind of a guessing game as to how one would like to express these average values in terms of die rolls, but I think I've got something half-decent.

Yikes! Pretty hefty numbers and a big jump even as early as the second half of Heroic Tier. But that is what we're looking for. Finally, we can take a look at a graph of these numbers.

As you can see, there are still some ups and downs, but overall these new damage die expressions give a much more flat and smooth pace throughout all levels. I hope this little tool  and exercise helps out other Dungeon Masters get a better working knowledge of how much their creature's damage values are really hurting the dungeoneers, and how best to challenge those dungoneers in a meaningful way.


  1. Awesome! 1st-level just works in a way that later levels fail to. This is such a handy reference to keep damage expressions in the proper ballpark. Thanks for the analysis!

    1. Thanks! One of the things I think would be neat, too, is to use this method as a tool to adjust damage expressions to whatever metric you find most acceptable. Like, if you really dig how bad it hurts at Level 3, you can easily retcon all the other damage expressions to be in line with that.

    2. I'm currently working on a 10th level fourthcore(ish) dungeon. This is really going to help me baseline the damage nicely.

  2. I've often wondered what would happen if you simply took the grind out of 4e. A lot of the monster math is dependent on the players' need for a bigger number every level/half-level. Having a +8 attack bonus and 30 HP at 20th level would still include the 20 or so powers and status effects that come with it.

  3. To take Angille's comment one step further, why do we need levels at all? To me they're the biggest pain in the ass in the game, and the most massive hurdle when writing my own monsters and traps, because every level requires a different math. And for what? Our goal, as stated in this post, is to present a certain level of danger to our players across all levels--so why do we need the levels at all if they're all supposed to feel the same?

    1. Indeed! I'm all aboard for that, and came very close to doing so this past summer when I ran my 4E Modern campaign (

      As far as I can tell, increasing the math at every level is a failed attempt to give the players a sense of meaningful accomplishment, an attempt to make "Leveling Up" a meaningful reward. However, as you and I both know, it's really just an escalating arms race between the factors involved; hit bonus vs. defenses, damage vs. hp, etc.

      I think a possible alternative would be to provide increased options and diversity of strategies when Leveling, at the expense of greater risk of utter defeat. Before I backed off on doing this with Modern, I planned on having the typical Gamma World progression of more and more powers/talents/etc.; but everything a dungeoneer could dish out was set at Level 1 tier damage and hit points, and creatures progressively did slightly more damage (+1/Level) with otherwise the same Level 1 stats. It's maybe a little complicated to explain here, and may get brought up in a future post.

    2. The math at every level both gives the players a sense of advancement (when they revisit foes they fought 2 levels ago, it is much easier), *and* as a slow and steady nerf on accumulated toys.

      Your +2 damage feat or ability at level 2 is less important by level 30, because at level 2 it was +2 damage on a 5 point attack, and at level 30 it is a +2 damage on a 30 point attack.

      It moves the baseline.

      Now, you could carefully strip out much of the "automatic" scaling in the game and only leave the "manual" scaling. This will make balance harder; before hand, you got X power automatically, then your picks added Y.

      So two people with different picks had power X+Y vs X+Y'. If Y=X and Y' = Y/2, these two characters differ by a factor of 25%.

      If you throw X away (the automatic scaling from leveling), then they differ by a factor of two. 75% vs 100% and 50% vs 100% are very different situations.

      You can fix this by balancing all "picks" -- items, powers, feats, paths -- better. But you can fix it *easier* by handing out free power-ups that dominate over the power granted by "picks".

      Such "balanced picks" could eventually end up looking a lot like leveling up. If every feat grants the same benefits, you might as well strip it from the feats and grant it automatically from leveling up. If they don't, then imbalance is hard to avoid unless the feats don't do anything significant.

      I mean, a feat granting +1 to hit (and nothing else) that happens to stack with another family of such feats. After you get 15 of them, you now auto-hit on all attacks. The DM throws an encounter balanced for your accuracy, and nobody else in your party can do anything because they all auto-miss.

      Restricting such a feat to a one-off doesn't make it *worse*, it just makes how great it is *a bit harder to see*. Someone making 30 choices (powers, feats, paths, items) that are each 10% better than their friend's ends up 16 times stronger than their friend. These choices can be as innocuous as "+1 to hit"; so long as they mutually stack and synergize, you are going to be playing a different game at the end.

      Now, the choice of what 4e bumped -- ATK and DEF and HP -- is questionable. HP is a good choice I think; but ATK and DEF are affine. Having them move in lockstep doesn't help much, nor does it make other bonuses matter any less.

      The scaling of power damage is a good plan; but they did a poor job of it. (Power damage fails to scale fast enough, to the point that the dice you roll on a power are not important to how good the power is by mid-game 4e).

      Now, little of this matters until you reach the equivalent of paragon in 4e; note that 4e also fails by this point. The beauty of level 1 in 4e was that while you had choices, it was hard to your choices so badly your character was comparatively useless; by level 10 in 4e this is easy. So even after their work, they didn't pull off balance between characters.

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  5. This is exactly what my damage looks like at 29th level right now. I found in mid-paragon how broken my damage expressions were (this was before MM3 math came out and I'm still not 100% satisfied with that even). So I started doubling the static damage modifier and adding an extra damage die based off of whatever it stated previously. As the level continued to rise, it still wasn't enough so I found myself doubling the static damage again. I found that adding dice helped sometimes, but doubling the modifier made a huge difference. Now I'll be rolling 3d10+45 for an at-will expression monster attack and 5d10+55 for a limited and it's working out quite threatening. And critical hits got exciting again. Rolling 6d20 + 33 does sound amazing though!

    I'm of the mindset that the math shouldn't really be balanced at Epic. If the party want to fight the gods, it should HURT.....A LOT. Otherwise your gods suck and who wants to challenge sucky gods?

  6. Excellent and just in time for my Epic Campaign! I too have been unhappy with the MM3 math. My players already have a healthy dose of fear, but this is really gonna make them sit up and pay attention.

    Thanks for the homework!

    1. Glad to be of service! Make sure to let me know how your players react to getting hit with a critical hit from one of the new Limited Damage types. At Level 30 we're looking at a massive 155 damage! Truly epic!

  7. A very excellent piece of numbers work here, and it goes very well with articles TheIdDM (and I, as follow-up) wrote on status effects and condition riders for PCs and monsters (respectively). At the end of my analysis I concluded that condition riders simply aren't that important to determining the outcome of a fight, and that a +5 bonus to defenses and to-hit will overcome all of the daily powers with stun in the whole world. It's nice to see an approach from the opposite side of the coin: damage.

  8. This work is amazing, but it makes me want to apply Occam's Razor to it:

    Why have PC hit points and monster damage scale with level at all?

    If you're changing all monster damage in the game to preserve the feel of level 1, why not just scale all monsters down to level 1 damage expressions and keep the PCs' hit points the same.

    This has a few interesting side effects:

    * A crit from a level 1 creature kills a level 30 adventurer just as dead as that of a level 30 monster (which is inherently more realistic)
    * Traps and hazards remain equally threatening regardless of level
    * PCs have an easier timer assessing the relative threat of an attack based on its damage
    * Scaling monsters is easier

    I'm sure some things might complicate this, but it's an interesting thought.

    1. Oh, I am all for that! Like I was talking with Dr. Davy Jones (comment above), I toyed with that very idea when I put together 4E Modern. I think it's a wonderful idea if you can keep the feeling of meaningful advancement by means of new and more complicated attacks/utilities/etc. while still retaining the basic numerical parameters of that sweetest of sweet spots: Level 1. Basically, let's avoid the escalating arms race of higher and higher numbers in favor of a system that's easier to work with and easier for DM's to design encounters around. You always know a Level 5 Solo is going to rock the socks off Level 1 dungeoneers; I hear repeated stories from The Epic Tier of N+4 Solo's being no big thing. Why change that assumption? Why add add that HP bloat?

  9. I love the article. It must have taken a lot of work to do this. I agree that we lose some of feel wen we reach epic level. It's funny to say, but I had to rest a lot less often at epic than at starting levels. We used to do 3-4 encounters before needing an extended rest and now our personal best is about 9-10(excluding skill challenges and RP encounters).


  10. This is interesting from a pure damage perspective, and maybe that's how you and your group likes to play most of the time, but you're omitting the impact of the various things that go along with damage (special and status effects), which can be a big deal in higher levels.

    I've played, written, and run a lot of 4e, including a fair bit of epic-level, where I've written and DM'ed more than I've played, and I don't find it especially harder to hurt epic level characters because of the damage expressions. What empowers higher-level characters in my experience is the many ways a party of 30th level characters have to counter and/or overcome `bad luck' as opposed to a party of 1st level characters.

    Of course, if your group has more fun when you ignore effects in favor of damage, that's great. If your group has more fun when you increase the damage to compensate for the party's increased versatility, that's awesome. I suspect you might find that you've made it very hard to play a certain kind of character, but that's not a big problem - maybe nobody likes to play that kind of character, and maybe they really appreciate the added challenge.

    On the other hand, I'm pretty sure that if I used your adjusted numbers in my epic games, I'd be killing PCs every session, probably more than one. I'm sure that there are groups that enjoy that style of truly-dangerous play, but I'm not at all sure that it should be the default.

  11. One (minor) bonus to leveling: Spiraling storylines, where the PCs interact again with villains they faced when they were at a lower level. Now, they wade through the villains' minions, and while the BBEG may have acquired a few new tricks, the players get those moments in the leadup of feeling like their characters have become true badasses. (like in my Star Wars game, my level 12 PCs no longer run from the horde of stormtroopers... at least, not until the elites show up!)

    - Geoff

  12. Relevant to your interests? I worked out a system that does the same thing for monster HP- keeps it at 1st level proportions in regards to PC damage.

  13. Thank you for the work. I will be using this on all of my monsters going forward.

    However, I have a a feeling that this damage is still to low, given all the methods paragon and epic pcs have to recover from damage. I just don't know if there is a good way to quantify that in added into the damage.