So I recently had a few conversations that shared a common theme: the assumptions you bring to D&D can drastically change the way you approach the system. Some of these conversations were about game-world assumptions and while those can change the way you approach the game (a setting where all rogues are thieves is different from a setting where rogues are more likely bored noblemen or commissioned spies), that’s not what I’m interested in talking about right now. I’d like to put out my assumptions on the Pathfinder/D&D 3.X system mechanics and what they mean.
As I’ve mentioned before, my perspective on D&D is strongly influenced by Justin Alexander’s Calibrating Your Expectations post; I highly recommend that you go read it to get the foundation I’m working from. I’m going to try to not simply recreate Justin’s post, but he’s covered most of the bases pretty well.
The very first thing to recognize is that, at least the way they’re done today, Player-Characters are not only above average, but they generally approach the peak of mortal ability. This can be seen in two aspects: Attributes and Class.
As Justin notes, PCs use the “elite” array of 15,14,13,12,10,8 (which is the mathmatically expected result of 4d6-drop-lowest, which seems to be the fashion these days for random stats), and based on some statistics in the 3.0 DMG he concludes that this puts them in the top 5% of the population (as far as raw ability and natural talent goes). Standard NPCs use the 13,12,11,10,9,8 array (this is the expected results of 3d6), and the theoretical “average person” would be 10,10,10,10,10,10 (I actually think that this NPC exists with fair frequency, since any given score describes a small range of ability).
It’s worth noting here that a score of 8 or 9 is “below average,” but that doesn’t mean it’s crippling disability. I think this is easiest to show with INT, but it can be extended to other attributes. In a lot of places (though I can’t remember if any were ‘official’) it’s been said that INTx10 gives you a rough idea of the character’s IQ score. (Palladium Book’s RIFTS system states this explicitly). “Normal” IQ is considered to be between 70 and 130. The definition of “mental retardation” doesn’t kick in until below 70, but it’s only mild retardation if it’s above 50; these people can learn to live on their own and maintain a job. Severe, “unable to function on their own” retardation is marked at 35 and below, and the D&D system marks INT 3 as the lower limit of sentient life. A dim character has an IQ of 5 to 7; above 7 they might not be the smartest person in the room, but it’s unlikely anyone would notice. Forrest Gump, I would guess, probably has an IQ of 5 or 6. At the same time, “genius” level IQ was originally set at 140, or INT 14.
I generally consider 18 to be the peak of natural human ability; above that there needs to be something beyond “natural” at work. By the rules a human COULD roll an 18 and then apply their racial +2 to get a 20, but I generally consider this inappropriate. I freely admit that this may just be my preference, but that’s most of what we’re talking about anyways. Demi-humans can surpass the limit of 18, depending on how they’re measured on average versus humans (elves are smarter and more agile, orcs are stronger, etc). I don’t consider this a double standard; humans are marked by adaptability and I feel that’s the appropriate use of their +2 bonus; demi-humans are noted for other things and as such are expected to surpass humans in certain ways.
When people think about classes, they typically think about Fighters, Rogues, Clerics, Wizards and so on. That’s reasonable because these are the classes that PCs typically have. The problem is when people assume that all soldiers are Fighters, all thieves are Rogues, and all priests are Clerics. (Personally, I think a given priest is as likely to be a Rogue as a Cleric, but that may be a discussion for another time). In fact, these PC classes represent a significant advantage in terms of training and skill above and beyond what’s available to most people. Most people have NPC Classes — Adept, Aristocrat, Commoner, Expert, and Warrior — these are classes that most people don’t think about because they aren’t meant to represent adventurers. In 3.X I think these classes are only listed in the DMG, and I’m pretty sure they were essentially ignored in 4E altogether. (I could be wrong on both counts.) Rogues and Bards are PC-quality Experts, Fighters and Barbarians are PC-quality Warriors, Wizards and Clerics are PC-quality Adepts, and so on. The PC classes represent a higher level of training, either because you had a better teacher or because you were able to better develop the skills you were given, or some similar situation. In fact, depending on your world, most people are probably going to be Commoners, with Experts representing artisans, etc.
So, Player-Characters are naturally more gifted than most of the population, and then get better training than even their peers. This already sets Player-Characters well above the norm, which in turn makes them capable of adventuring and (one hopes) becoming heroes. But my main take-away is this: although the game may focus around PCs as our protagonists, the mechanics can not be calibrated to PCs as the baseline, because they simply are not baseline characters. For the world to be consistent, PCs need to be recognized as above the norm and systems should assume average or slightly-above-average NPC-quality abilities.
I have more to say on my assumptions and understanding of the 3.X system (possibly a lot more), but I think this is a good stopping point for the time being.