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Does the Armor Class system produce HP Bloat?

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Ok so, not going to lie, I like D&D a lot, but I kind of hate Armor Class.

I don't mind the system of "roll your bonuses against a target number to hit". It's certainly more efficient than systems that require opposing rolls or success levels. I don't even mind armor being rolled into your defense (as opposed to providing damage soak).  What grinds my gears is that outside of a few specific class features (usually restricted to monks), in most versions of D&D your armor class is almost completely locked in at character creation. You can get better armor (though it's usually only a one or two point difference), and in rare cases you might improve your dexterity modifier by one, but there's no inherent AC improvement through leveling up (even for fighters). I find it to be a bit immersion-breaking that a character can spend years of their life getting into swordfights, and not get any better at not being stabbed.

Thinking about this lately, I realized that it's probably the reason why hit points work the way they do in D&D. Gygax always insisted that HP partly existed to represent the characters' ability to avoid debilitating damage, which is why it increases with level when pure physical resilience probably wouldn't increase at that rate, and I suspect it developed that way because the AC system couldn't do it. My point is that the AC system makes a certain amount of HP bloat almost necessary.

This is borne out by looking at other games, whether it's Dragon Warriors, WFRP, Cyberpunk, or even Call of Cthulhu. In games where HP increases are rare or even impossible, it is almost always because defense is some kind skill or stat which you can improve with experience.

It's weird to me that more OSR and OGL games haven't tried to address this. The only one I know of is Radiance, which makes avoiding attacks another function of the save system.

Having a to-hit roll and hit point damage allows you to create a Cartesian plane.  In the NE quadrant are threats that can hit you and deal a lot of damage; in the SE quadrant are threats that can hit you but only deal minor damage; in the NW quadrant are threats that are unlikely to hit you but deal a lot of damage when they do, and in the SW quadrant are 'mooks' that can't really hurt, and even if they do, it's insignificant. 

There are other ways to create differing types of threats, but if you only have one axis, it's harder to differentiate them to create those four types of threats. 

In 1st and 2nd edition, I felt that my AC always improved. 

In the game that I play with my friends, we have a Base Defense Bonus that increases as you gain levels.  While your AC doesn't get better very quickly, it is true that opponents that could hit you at low levels might miss you more often.  If you want higher level characters to have less to fear from lower level opposition, providing some bonus to AC to reflect that might make sense. 

From a 'satisfaction' stand-point, I think that players should expect to hit 'equal opposition' more than 50% of the time (I ballpark it at 75%).  Hitting on a 6+ (instead of an 11+) makes a difference in how combat plays. 

Steven Mitchell:
Yes it does, but maybe not the extent that you might think.  After all, early D&D wasn't this bloated, and for most levels barely felt bloated at all to many people.  Of course, where the line crosses into bloat is going to vary by personal preference, too.

There are several factors to consider, with each person having their own view of the pros and cons of trading off between the factors:

- How far do you want to push ease of handling?  This includes the simplicity of avoiding armor as damage reduction versus whatever complexity your alternative brings, as well as tracking various states on each combatant.

- How many creatures in a fight?  The more creatures you have, the more compromises you have to make here, despite what you think on the other factors.  (Doesn't mean that you make the same compromises that I would make or start in the same place or set the creature threshold in the same place--but where ever you start, you are going to have to change past N number of creatures in the fight.)

- Where do you draw the line on bloat?  I draw it on triple digit hit points, except in the rarest of cases (e.g. super tough dwarf fighter at maximum level, immense dragons, etc.)  I'll force the math to cap it there, even if it costs me elsewhere.  Others will work out the math of the system to suit, then let the hit points fall where that dictates.

- How much do you want low-powered creatures to threaten high-powered creatures, and how much?  If you want it possible for any character to die at any time (e.g. crossbow bolt to the head), then a D&D-style system is a poor fit, though you might be OK with certain versions at low levels.  If you want superheros running around until exhausted, everything short of bloat is a feature, not a bug.  It's in the middle, where a lot of people live, that the margins matter.

How you deal with all of that isn't changing one thing in a vacuum.  For example, I want less hit point bloat, AC getting better over time (moderately at first, then slowly), more deadly than any WotC version but slightly less deadly than early D&D low-levels, more risky than early D&D high-levels, weapons doing more damage than most D&D versions, and more variety in critical hits.  Executed, that's going to produce something not exactly D&D, but still capable of using Armor as AC, increasing hit points, and at least mitigate most of your points.  It can't eliminate them entirely, because that's the nature of the trade offs.  Getting there is being clear about the goals of the system and then making the widgets and math do that. 

For example, I let Armor and Ability mods to AC stack (like early D&D) but put some caps on magic boosts (but not entirely), and built the game around an implied setting where the better armor is hard to get and not everyone can learn to use it productively (more so than most D&D versions).  Ability scores can improve slowly.  Net result is that in the low levels, characters can find mundane armor to upgrade in most cases, with later magic and ability score improvements chipping in later.  Between incremental AC improvements and slowly increasing hit points, later characters are more resilient, because the two have a multiplying effect.  Slightly more hit points and slightly better armor class can be quite notable in combination.  Then to keep the risk, I went with a Wound Point/Hit Point variant, and carefully considered what went directly into my equivalent of Wound Points, building it directly into the system and math from the beginning instead of trying to glue it onto an existing D&D version. 

So there is room for nuance.  The trick is there is only so far you can push an existing system when it made trades you don't like, before you are essentially rewriting the system from the ground up.  Rooting out hit point bloat in place that you don't like is akin to pulling crab grass in a yard instead of spraying it or digging it all up and starting over. 


Cap Character Classes at 50 Hit Points. Remember to reduce Monster Hit Points by 50%.

Semper Fidelis,


The AC system fundamentally has nothing to do with hit point bloat. The AC system goes back to 1974 OD&D and one could argue that through Chainmail and other gaming traces back even earlier. There was no bloat back in 1974. It's all about the way the rules have evolved.

(1) Hit dice have changed. Supplement II Greyhawk in 1976 had magic-users using d4's but now they have d6's. Fighters have gone from d6 to d8 do d10. Making the types of HD larger means HP totals will become larger.

(2) The transition from rolling to averaged numbers. In the old days if you rolled a d6 sometimes you'd get a 1, sometimes you rolled a 6. The 5E way is to allow for each d6 to become an automatic 4 hit points. That can cause HP bloat.

(3) CON bonuses are greater now. Boxed set OD&D had a +1 HP bonus for each level if you had a CON of 15 or higher. 5E allows for a +1 if you have a CON of 12, +2 for a 14, +3 for a 16, and so on. Larger CON bonuses cause HP bloat.

(4) Higher levels cause HP bloat. A lot of OD&D games in the 70's tended to cap out at level 10 or so. AD&D lifted that to level 20. Those extra levels mean more hit dice and more CON bonuses, so philosophy has contributed to HP bloat.

So really all you need to do is look at the way the rules have evolved from edition to edition. Over time the norm has been an emphasis on "player friendly" rules, which almost always means more hit points. I've been pondering running a 5E campaign where every character gets half hit points but damage stays the same.  :D


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