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I know this will obviously vary between groups, but when running playtests and calculating the CR of monsters, the developers must have calculated "average player characters".

So, two important questions concerning those "average PCs":

  • What is their initial strength?

    (In my group we use sum of initial abilities=80)

AND

  • How are they supposed to progress?

    One talent every 3 levels and 1 ability increase every 4 levels seems very little to me. Am I as a DM intended to give them better weapons and/or ability enhancing items as they progress?

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  • \$\begingroup\$ Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat. \$\endgroup\$ – SevenSidedDie May 5 '18 at 2:40
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3.5e is not, even remotely, a balanced game. PCs of a given level can have wildly differing power and ability, and this has little to do with ability scores, per se. In fact, one of the hallmarks of the strongest classes is really needing only one good score, while weak classes can really need four or five.

Consequently, CR also varies wildly. Some monsters are cakewalks even for poorly-made characters levels below where they should be, while others can be death traps even for well-made characters higher level than supposedly necessary.

As a result, it is almost impossible to talk about an “average” PC. You can talk about a middle-of-the-road class, played to something like half its potential, but even that is very hard to call “average,” much less “what the designers were expecting.” We have no idea what they were expecting.

And there is reason to believe they didn’t really know, either. After all, the wild imbalances of the game probably were never intentional. And we know the playtesting was lack luster—notoriously, we know Sean K. Reynolds tested the wizard class, which has proven to be quite possibly the strongest class in the game, with an Intelligence score of 11 and a bizarre fetish for attacking things with a scimitar. This did not prove to be representative of the class’s power.

Moreover, comparing different classes—especially magical classes versus mundane classes—really seems to demonstrate that two very different games were being imagined by the designers. Mundane classes just never grow the way spellcasters do every time they get a new level of spells. They never get answers to the huge array of magical challenges they face—while spellcasters always “have a spell for that,” whatever that is.

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There are different ways to determine starting abilities of a character, but the standard one is to roll them as "4d6, drop 1", which means the player rolls 4 dice and drop the worst one, add them together to get a number. This is repeated 5 times, so the player has 6 scores to assign between the different abilities. This article on anydice shows what you could expect the player to get as abilities if they use this method. To sum up, their conclusion:

the average roll is rougly 16, 14, 13, 12, 10, 9

Most of the GM have their own way to handle this, and a common alternative for those who don't like random is a point-buy system where each character has a pool of points they can spend to improve each ability, usually it will cost more points to improve an already high ability, to discourage minmaxing.

With your method (sum of the abilities=80), players will probably have arrays of abilities like 18, 18, 18, 10, 8, 8, which is clearly better than what you can hope to get with most of the methods I have seen.

About their progression... Well, you are right, they only get one feat (it's not called a talent) every 3 levels and one ability increase every 4 levels, but they are supposed to also have all the features that come with their class level (like more HP, more skill points, a better bonus to hit opponents, more spells, more other class features...) The ability increase is very minor when you compare it to all the other bonus a character can get.

They also are indeed supposed to get better gear as they progress, but not as a gift as they level up. They are supposed to find this during their quests, or get it as rewards, or buy it... There is a table in the DM manual (that I can't legally link you here) where you can see approximately how much gear a PC of a given level is supposed to have.

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  • \$\begingroup\$ oops, the talent one was a mistranslation, thanks for pointing it out. \$\endgroup\$ – FFN May 5 '18 at 1:56

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