let’s drop the 4e level bonus!

So, several years after 4e came out, how is “+1 to everything every two levels” level bonus working out for everyone?

Every time you gain an even level, you have to do a lot of writing on your character sheet (or, more likely, print out a new sheet). You have to add the +1 level bonus to the attack rolls on all of your power cards, add 1 to your defenses and initiative, and update every. single. skill.

I’m starting to wonder whether you couldn’t scrap this level bonus, and just let characters’ abilities climb based on attribute boosts, enhancement bonuses, and other perks.

The level bonus has NO EFFECT on level-appropriate challenges, since the bonuses are applied to attacks and defenses (or skill bonuses and DCs). The main effect of the bonus is to make levels more meaningful. If characters or monsters have a few levels between them, they can’t reasonably compete against each other. Does this make things more fun? Let’s examine every aspect of the level-bonus rule separately.

Attack rolls and defenses: These march in lockstep, so let’s examine them together. The design intent of 4e was that monsters’ defenses would increase by 1 point every level; PC attacks would also increase by 1 every level, .5 from the level bonus and .5 from everything else (ability bonuses, enhancement bonuses, and misc etc). (In fact, the original math was slightly wrong, which means that we’re saddled with the Weapon Expertise fix.)

I don’t actually love the rapid increase of attack bonuses and defenses. Experience with 4e shows that it tends to make the most exciting fights – those against high-level opponents – drag on through miss after miss.

Is that really a fun way to handle a very tough battle? No, it isn’t, as 4e designers recognized. That’s why they developed Elite and Solo monsters, who have the increased HP and damage output of higher-level opponents, but the attacks and defenses of level-appropriate opponents.

What if we removed the level bonus from PC attacks and defenses? (We’d also have to subtract 1 point per two levels from monster attack bonuses and defenses.) Higher-level monsters would still have more HP and do more damage than lower-level foes, but their defenses wouldn’t recede quite as fast into unhittability. We’d effectively be turning every high-level monster into something more like an Elite or Solo monster.

Also, does it make fantasy-logic sense that powerful enemies are unhittable? Maybe a little bit – ogres with thick skin or fast duelists are hard to hurt. But an orc champion might not be much dodgier than an orc grunt. He can just take more damage, and behead you before you get a second attack.

Let’s try removing it!

A level 1 fighter with a +7 attack bonus (+4 strength, +3 weapon proficiency) attacks a level 8 orc. Without the level bonus, the orc’s AC is maybe 18 instead of 22. The PC hits on a 11 or better, instead of a 15 or better.

The orc strikes back! Instead of having a +13 attack bonus, he has a +9, so he hits the fighter’s AC 18 with a roll of 9 instead of needing only a 5.

Suddenly, instead of having a dull, foregone-conclusion combat round, we have some excitement around the combat rolls. Of course, the orc is still going to win the combat, because he hits like a jackhammer. His attacks still do an average of 16+ damage per attack, meaning he can bloody the fighter with one hit: while the fighter, doing possibly 9 or 10 damage per hit, is going to take a while to carve through the orc’s 90 HP. This, to me, seems like a more exciting way to model a one-sided battle.


Character skill bonuses get higher as characters gain levels, which makes sense: higher-level characters are more competent. However, the current 4e skill paradigm is that skill DCs are relative to the characters’ level anyway. A Hard climb check is always a Hard climb check, no matter the character level: there are only a handful of fixed DCs, like those for jump distance, at which higher-level characters actually improve.

If characters always face level-appropriate skill DCs, what’s the point of laboriously adding 1 to every skill bonus and DC every two levels? Let’s just forget that rigmarole and let PC skills slowly improve as they accrue attribute bonuses and skill-boosting items. We’ll subtract half-level from the giant skill DC chart as well.

This change has no downside (since it actually has virtually no mechanical effect at all), and would save a lot of erasing/reprinting of the character sheet.


Since initiative rises steeply with level, it becomes an inevitable part of combat that higher-level opponents go before you. Does this make any sense? Why does a high-level zombie, with a speed of 4, necessarily beat you to the punch?

Also worth noting are the important areas where the level bonus is not used:

Damage Although, for instance, Strength checks and Strength-based skills increase by one point every two levels, Strength-based damage does not (which confused me when I started 4e, and probably confuses other new players). Damage increases are, instead, cooked into attacks: higher-level attacks let you roll more dice.

Hit points Characters and monsters get HP per level via a separate subsystem. The extra HP and damage given to monsters and characters, plus the non-level bonuses to other attributes, might make for more entertaining encounters between opponents of different level.

7 Responses to “let’s drop the 4e level bonus!”

  1. Sam says:

    This sounds grand to me.

  2. callin says:

    You never covered the real reason why this was instituted in the first place. Players want to feel like they are getting something for reaching a new level and this is another thing they get. Take this away and there is one less reason to look forward to leveling.
    Personally I just use the Character Builder and the players simply let the program recalculate everything and they reprint their sheets. It costs some in paper and ink but it is easy to do.

  3. Philo Pharynx says:

    * Many rituals have DC based effects. This is cool as characters advance to where they can get new effects from old rituals.

    * Many skill checks are not level-based. At mid-paragon, even untrained people can jump over a couple squares of terrain. This has really influenced our fights. Opposed checks would become close to level-equivalent across the board.

    * I’ll sometimes use lower level monsters instead of minions. In order to let them hit, they use aid another. Like minions it’s not a lot of damage, but you need to take actions to deal with them. Unlike minions, you can’t just blast with an area effect and they all go poof!

    * I also like the drama where higher level monsters rarely miss and PC attacks miss more often. It ratchets up things in a different way than a solo. A solo battle is an endurance match – it goes on forever because they have so many freaking hp. With some solos, there isn’t even as much of a threat to the players because the solo is limited by the action economy. In comparison, a high level monster challenges the players to work together to get every advantage. Controllers need to focus on penalizing it, leaders need to buff their allies, Defenders need to keep it locked down and strikers need to time their strikes. If anybody fails, then someone’s going down. But since the don’t have the HP of a solo, the battle doesn’t last forever once the party gets in the groove.

    *There’s also the halfway solution. Increase the bonus at levels ending in 2,6 and 0. This is the even levels where they don’t get a stat bump and every tier. It reduces the rate of increase, but still allows for some advancement.

    *As for the hassle, it’s nonexistent for me. I use an excel sheet that autocalculates everything.

  4. Dave says:

    Other things to consider are conditions and saving throws. Conditions that don’t deal damage (e.g. prone, dazed, slowed) automatically scale with level, because they are equally inconvenient at all levels. Saving throws always have the same difficulty regardless of your level and the level of who’s making you roll a saving throw. Sounds good, right? Maybe not.

    I remember there being some talk about the design principles behind saving throws around the time that 4e came out. The reason why a high-level wizard’s spells are just as easy to shake off as those of his apprentice (the saving throws are the same) is that the former has a higher attack bonus, and thus a longer duration on average when calculating in the chance of no duration at all.

    Perhaps a better example of this issue might be someone trying to knock a dragon prone. Sure, a low-level PC could knock over a baby dragon pretty easily, but an adult dragon? I don’t think so! While removing the level-based bonuses works great in many situations, this is one where it probably doesn’t.

  5. paul says:

    A lot of interesting points here:

    -Players like to feel like they are getting something: I actually think that in 4e, there are a lot of goodies handed out at level, and most of them are less transparently a getting-nowhere treadmill than this. At every level you get a new power or feat. Sometimes you get a stat bonus, which increases your attack and skill numbers anyway. I’d actually be OK if the level bonus was replaced with slightly more frequent stat boosts.

    -Non-level-based ritual and skill checks: I feel like the 4e designers are actually backing off these nowadays, and recommending using the DC chart for nearly everything. Not sure if that’s good or bad.

    -Philo’s description of a fight against a high-level monster: this is not a bad point. There are circumstances where fighting a high-defenses, low-HP monster may be fun.

    -Also worth noting is that in my system, higher-level creatures will still have higher attacks and defenses – the curve will just be gentler. A level 30 monster will have +15, instead of +30, to all attacks and defenses: still virtually unhittable by a low-level character.

  6. Shinobicow says:

    How big of a problem is this for you really? If you level at the pace suggested, you can’t be leveling very often… assuming you play weekly, maybe you level once a month… Even if you played like we do, once every other week, and level every other session, you are still only leveling once a month… Even if you take it to the extreme, where you play once a day and level every game session, you would actually be doing this only once very 2 days and in reality, there isn’t all that much math invovled. BUt, if you took this away, you are going to be working on houseruling and changing monster stats for quite a long time…

  7. paul paul says:

    We’ve definitely leveled quite a few times over the past year or two. My group(s) play pretty frequently, and we tend to jump around from campaign to campaign because everybody likes to DM. Some of our campaigns level at an accelerated rate.

    That said, I’m not actually going to play with this change. As you suggest, it would be too hard to integrate with Character Builder. (Monsters wouldn’t be too hard to change, as I usually play off MM3 on a business card.) This is more of a “if I ruled the world”/”suggestion for 5e” -type rant.

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