Tuesday, May 14, 2013

Benchmarking Your PCs?

In my last post, I proposed a fairly unbalanced feat to prop up a sub-optimal character. But what happens if the character takes that feat and does astoundingly well in the campaign, blowing up my monsters before they get a chance to do anything cool? How do I know whether my success has gone too far, or whether I've succeeded in matching a comparable optimized build? I'd love to compare that character's numbers to a baseline chart to see whether I've homebrewed too far and he needs to be reined in.

In D&D 3.5 and its younger sibling/child/sleek and deadly archnemesis cloned from a piece of its DNA (Pathfinder), there is a table you can look at if you're trying to make a "balanced" monster. If I wake up from a particularly worthwhile nightmare and decide to lob its monstrous protagonist, tentacles writhing and hellmaws grinning, at my unsuspecting players, I can look at that table to figure out what reasonable stats might be for my homebrew beastie to challenge a party of any level. The table is especially useful if I don't know the rules for advancing monsters, templates, assigning DCs to supernatural abilities, etc... or if I just don't want to take the time to build a rules-legal monster from scratch.

What if I had a table like that to compare PC power levels? It would let me compare my players' numbers to see how they stack up to other builds. To me, player numbers are much more important to balance than monster numbers: I can flub, adjust, and flagrantly lie about what happens on my side of the screen, but I want to adjust loot and challenges so that the PCs are within the same strike zone of fun and challenge, so that I can merrily fling my nightmare beasts and baseball metaphors at them and know that the entire party will be equally and appropriately challenged by them.

I was going to sit down and start working on that table... until the thought struck me: a monster of a given CR should be an even match for a PC of equal level. The chart should work for PCs as well as monsters, if all you're trying to do is gauge where on the power curve they fall.

Let's try a few examples (PCs written without magical gear):

Level 2 dual-kukri ranger, 18 strength. Attacks at +5/+5, deals 15 average damage. Significantly higher than the +4 attack, 7-10 damage CR 2 monster.

Level 8 dual-kukri ranger, 20 strength. Attacks at +12/+12/+7/+7, deals 41 average damage (using very sloppy crit math). The CR 8 monster attacks at +15 and does 26-35 damage if all its attacks hit. This lines up well with the table: “a creature with lower than normal attack bonuses will often deal higher damage”.

Level 2 enchanter, 18 int. Enchantment spell DC 16. Destroys its monstrous counterpart, whose primary ability DC is 13. By level 8, the enchanter is throwing DC 22 spells while the monster is still at 18.

This project will take some time and doing- the first place to start will be to look at the “Pathfinder Iconic” characters and see how they match up. I'm betting they will match the creature design table very closely... and that the actual PCs I've seen at my table over the past two years will look nothing like those numbers at all.

Any takers?


  1. It should be noted that the table to which you refer is in part of the Core Rules. The table doesn't account for any power creep that may have been introduce to the game since release.


    Also I don't think that using only one or two columns of the table for comparisons is a fair assessment. You don't get a complete picture. For example:

    My optimized Sorcerer 8 has a high DC of 21 (4th level spells) and a low DC of 18 (1st level spells). Yes, this is much higher than the listed 18 Primary DC of the table. But I have less than half the listed HP, 1/3 the listed AC, and my best Save is only two points higher than the listed Worst Save. Have I made a specialist? Yes. Am I comparable to a CR 8 critter? Absolutely.

  2. I remember reading somewhere that the Iconic's were designed more with flavor in mind rather than optimization. Can't remember exactly how it was worded. May have been related to PFS