Looking for a short, sweet, and authoritative answer as to the tone/theme power level of characters in 5e in comparison to 4e and 3.5e.

I'm looking specifically for theme of the power level presented - 3.5e in my view was zeroes to demigods, characters that literally reshaped the setting and the play style changed completely from 1st to 20th. 4e had increasing levels of enemies with more powerful themes, but the play style is/was relatively similar from 1-30. Is 5e more like 3.5e in that regard? 4e? Is it different entirely in terms of presented power level? Feel free to draw on other sources of fiction to describe it if it falls outside the existing 3.5e or 4e paradigms.


2 Answers 2


In OD&D high level characters had more hit points, a improved to-hit chance, and due to acquisition of magic items, a superior armor class. Wizards and clerics had increased damage due to higher levels spell but all the other classes had flat damage curve. If it increased it was solely due to having a magic item. The difference between the highest and lowest values was not dramatic in OD&D. High level character could be overwhelmed through attrition.

Starting with AD&D 1st, the difference between the highest level and the lowest level began to increase. Non-wizards, particularly fighters, also improved how in much damage they did as well as enjoyed a improved armor class, more hit points, etc.

With 3rd edition the wealth of options increased dramatically for all classes. A trend that was continued in 4th editions. This was especially telling in the use of the open ended ascending AC. Both editions made it easy to push the armor class of high levels to point where a natural 20 was needed by most lower level creatures. Given the fact that the methods of dealing damage increased both in frequency and amount dealt this one-two punch meant that not even attrition tactics were effective against the highest levels.

The open ended scale was also applied to skills and other non-combat skills. Leaving higher level characters with bonuses larger than the +19 difference generated by opposing d20 rolls. This also led to effect where the difficulty of mundane objects became trivial high level characters. Leading to many authors to develop special variant of doors, traps, in the quest to find challenges for high level character. These variants were considered by some to push the limits of being believable.

D&D 5e in contrast caps the open ended bonuses of previous editions. An example is the proficiency bonus which starts at +2 at 1st level and +6 at 20th. Ability scores at capped at 20 when a character levels and gains a attribute increase. Monster to hit bonus and Armor Class are similarly scaled.

This result in a game in which the power balance is similar to that of the 1974 edition of OD&D. Although it is achieved by using a different set of mechanics and numbers.

Character differences The mechanics of the 1974 edition of OD&D were very minimalist compared to later editions. When players attempted as their characters to deal with traps, roleplay with NPCs, figure out mechanism. They had to use their own skills in conjunction with the referee rulings. The implication of this is that in terms of mechanics there was little that was different between characters.

This extended partially into combat where all classes started out with the same to hit chances and dealt the same damage (1d6) regardless of weapon.

AD&D 1st, and 2nd edition made the classes very different from one another. 3rd edition refined the flexibility introduced in 2nd edition so that just about any type of character could be produced throughout the 20th level of play. However this was achieved through the combination of combined specialized elements from classes and feats. Feats and classes themselves were highly specific. A pure fighter was very different than a pure Wizard.

The difference between the characters in 5e returns D&D to a situation similar to that of 1974 OD&D. However unlike the minimalist OD&D, the differences between characters are baked into the mechanics through bounded accuracy.

It can be basically summed up as Any character can attempt any actions but some are better than other at certain actions. A handful of abilities (like spellcasting, martial skill, religion, etc) remain the specialized ability of a specific class. Everything else, anybody can do.

In OD&D the everything else boiled down to player skill. In D&D 5e adds specific mechanics that can be improved through advancement. In the D&D 5e Basic Set this is mostly due to the choice of proficient skills and what ability gets increased. This produced a dynamic that is unique to 5e.

  • 2nd edition every character could specialize through kits as well as classes. Kits often focused on non combat abilities.
  • 3rd edition every character could either specialize by taking repeated levels in the same class and specific feats or they could become generalists by taking levels in other classes.
  • Each characters has specialized abilities as a result of their class but are generalists otherwise.
  • \$\begingroup\$ Hey, thanks for the answer. If there was a conclusion here that summed up the differences in a more general way in terms of characters (the last section, but more focused), i'd accept this. \$\endgroup\$
    – user2754
    Commented Jul 22, 2014 at 20:34
  • 3
    \$\begingroup\$ Also, it might be worth noting that (at least in my experience), 4e used a system of bounded modifier and target to attempt to achieve a roughly equal chance of hitting/damaging/stunning at all levels, and additionally similar styles of abilities so at level 30 playing a fighter felt roughly similar to playing a fighter at level 5. To me that's different than in 3.5e which did not have that system, and where at higher levels you could have characters that 'auto-hit' and effects that were vastly different in nature than those available at level 1. Same game vs different game. Do you get me? \$\endgroup\$
    – user2754
    Commented Jul 22, 2014 at 20:36

The expected tiers of play are laid out clearly in the Basic Rules, page 10.

There are four tiers of play: (Tier names are my own)

  1. (levels 1- 4) Apprentice tier, facing threats against farmsteads or villages, as someone learning to become an adventurer.
  2. (levels 5-10) Expert tier, facing threats against cities and kingdoms, as an adventurer.
  3. (levels 11-16) Paragon tier, facing threats against regions and continents as an adventurer who is a cut above all other adventures.
  4. (levels 17-20) Epic tier, facing threats against the world or multiverse as an iconic Hero or villain.

You can compare this to 4e's 3 tiers which start and end higher, though the threats are the same. (You can get more information about each tier from this question here)

  1. (levels 1-10)Heroic tier, facing adventures in farms, forests and cities, as a heroic icon.
  2. (levels 11-20)Paragon tier, facing adventures in Kingdoms and politics, as a supramortal.
  3. (levels 21-30) Epic tier, facing threats against the gods and the world, as a demigod.

And this can be compared to 3e, where tiers were not clearly defined in the rules, but as one of the answers in the previous linked question states: (Italics are my own edits to make it more relevant to this question)

D&D 3 tiers as used before 4E

Levels 1-5 = low level (≅ 5E Competant)
Levels 6-10 = mid level (≅ > 5E Specialist)
Levels 11-20 = high level (≅ 5E Heroic icon)
Levels 21-40 = > Epic level (≅> 5E Heroic icon)
Levels 41-50 = Demigods \
Levels 46-55 = minor gods \ See 3E Deities & Demigods
Levels 50-60 = major gods /
This breakdown is based strongly in the BXCMI tiers.

The BXCMI Tiers, just for completeness & comparison:

Levels 1-3 = Basic Levels
4-14 = Expert Levels
15-25 = Companion Levels
26-36 = Master Levels
i1-i36 = Immortal - essentially levels 37-72

In Basic levels, characters dungeon crawl. While written modules are levels 1-3, the basic sets all include levels 1-5, and basic modules are often not too easy for level 4 and 5 parties.
In Expert levels, characters travel overland to reach dungeons. They may begin to become political. in Companion levels, characters establish dominions and become rulers, and begin to travel the multiverse.
In Master levels, characters routinely travel between planes, and begin to quest for immortality.
In Immortal levels, characters are essentially demi-gods... and can rise to being major movers and shakers of the multiverse.
The Later Wrath of the Immortals rules change the mechanics, but not the general tiers. There are 6 subtiers in either version, each 6 levels wide, but those subtiers were not made use of on the adventures, unlike the B/X/CM/M tiers (which had separate module lines). Many would argue the term "demigod" for levels i24-i36; they are capable of quite interesting feats of universe alteration.


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