A Love-Hate Relationship with the Base-Attack Bonus

Hey, guys! It’s someone different this time. My name is Sean, I’m the best, et cetera. But enough about me! I’m here today to talk to you about a system in the popular role-playing game Dungeons and Dragons: The Base-Attack Bonus. And oh boy, do I have a lot of opinions on this thing. Let’s delve deep into the world of third edition Dungeons and Dragons and all of its… uh… quirks. I’m… I’m so sorry.

First, in order to understand the Base-Attack Bonus, one must understand the rules of Dungeons and Dragons combat. So, we start off with an explanation of the combat rules of Dungeons and Dragons.

In Dungeons and Dragons, at least in any edition that uses the d20 combat system (sorry, THAC0, but you’re too convoluted for your own good), any given creature has what is called an Armor Class. This is determined by the armor of that creature, whether it be the plate mail of a knight, the scarlet scales of a dragon, or the sweater that one NPC’s mom made. To make a long story short, an Armor Class is a number that represents how hard it is to damage a creature. In combat, when attempting to damage a creature, the aggressor must make what is called a “to-hit roll.” This is a roll of a 20-sided die with static modifiers added on. If the result equals or exceeds the target’s Armor Class, then the attack hits. If it does not, then the attack fails.

A d20

The Base-Attack Bonus is a static number that is added to the to-hit roll. The number is determined by your class and level, i.e. a more combat-oriented class’s BAB grows more quickly than a more utility-oriented class’s. When a class’s Base-Attack Bonus grows to 6, they get a second BAB. They now have access to the ability to attack twice in one turn. The to-hit roll of the first attack has the first BAB added on while the to-hit roll of the second attack has the second BAB added on.

In-universe, this system can be explain by the character gaining experience. Maybe the character has gotten so good at doing one attack that they have began experimenting with a two-hit combo. The second hit just isn’t as well-practiced as the first, that’s all.

Now, that seems like a perfectly sound system, both mechanically and in-universe, right?


The answer, dear reader, may surprise you.

The answer is “eh.” Other acceptable responses are “meh,” “kinda,” “sorta,” and “well…”.

At first, the system is impeccable. The second hit isn’t so much less accurate than the first that it’s unusable. The fighter can, conceivably, swing his sword twice in the span of 6 seconds (the amount of time a turn in D&D represents). However, the BAB doesn’t just cap at 2 hits. At higher levels, some classes get to attack a ridiculous number of times. Sorry, monks, but it’s hard to believe that you can punch someone harder than the fighter can swing his 7-foot greatsword eight times in 6 seconds. Mechanically, the system becomes completely neutered, too. In order to compensate for the bonuses (BAB, stat modifiers, magic weapons bonuses) alone eventually having a value greater than that of the highest roll achievable with a d20 roll, the game designers had to make monsters with Armor Classes so ridiculous that the initial +30 to-hit attack could have a chance in hell of missing. In doing so, they made the monster have such a good armor class that the other hits, ironically enough, now don’t have a chance in hell of hitting. Slow clap.

So, every hit besides the first eventually become effectively useless.

You can theoretically hit this guy four times in one turn, just like how I can theoretically survive being shot in the head.
You can theoretically hit this guy four times in one turn, just like how I can theoretically survive being shot in the head.

This problem began in third edition and was never corrected in subsequent versions of third edition. It eventually even carries on into fourth edition.

Ah, you thought that this would be a paragraph about fourth edition, did you? Well, since we don’t talk about garbage in this household, this paragraph will instead be about how 5e made everything in the world right again. How did it manage to save a system so horrifically eviscerated by its own designers? Acquire a copy of the 5th edition Players’ Handbook and find out! Open up to any one of the classes and look at the Base-Attack Bonus! Huh? You can’t find the Base-Attack Bonus, you say? Of course not, because it’s not there. Knowing that saving the Base-Attack Bonus would be like saving a pig already in the oven (read: damn-near impossible), the designers just ate the metaphorical delicious roast pig, learned from their mistakes, and tried a new approach.

Meet the Proficiency Bonus, basically the older brother of the Base-Attack Bonus. Now, I have a bone to pick with this guy, too, but for right now, in this post, it is the lord and savior, as well as the messiah. It might also get honorary Buddha status. I’m not sure yet.

The Proficiency Bonus is a static number added to all rolls that a character makes with “proficiency,” basically performing a task he or she is good at. This includes attacking using weapons with which the character is familiar. Instead of having the clunky-looking +20/+15/+10/+5 of third edition’s Base-Attack Bonus, the Proficiency Bonus is a single number, ranging from +2 to +7, depending on the character’s level.

And what a world of difference this makes!

Instead of making the designers give monsters Armor Classes so astronomically high that Lil’ Wayne would be impressed, the designers can now give monsters Armor Classes that make sense. And instead of telling the combat classes to shove off and deny them the extra attacks they had in earlier editions, 5e just gave all of the extra attacks the ability to use the full Proficiency Bonus. Huzzah! Now your second hit actually does something.

You can actually hit this guy four times in one turn now! Rejoice!

To top it all off, because the Proficiency Bonus allows the characters to keep the feeling of their character slowly getting better with time while also allowing them to attack more than once a turn, none of the in-universe explanations have been lost, while fixing the broken Base-Attack Bonus system.

Even while multiclassing (having one character be multiple classes, say, part fighter and part ranger), the Proficiency Bonus– Wait.

Could this be?

Dear readers, I’ve spent around 1000 words bashing the Base-Attack Bonus and raising the Proficiency Bonus to a pedestal it only kind of deserves to be on. But can it be that I have something positive to say about the Base-Attack Bonus?

It’s better for multiclassing because the extra attacks in 5e are class-exclusive features. There.

As it stands, the Base-Attack Bonus is not bad… in concept. Much like how communism sounds really hype on paper but in practice leads to, more often than not, tears and misery, the Base-Attack Bonus sounded like a good idea at the time, but ended up being the most horrendously broken thing in third edition… is what I would be saying if magic in Dungeons and Dragons did not have the ability to bend the entire game system over its knee and spank it raw. Still, with a little bit of fixing, say, having the BAB cap out at a comfortable +9/+7/+5/+3 bonus, the system could work. Just please don’t let them bring back the old THAC0 nonsense.