Sometime a while back I happened upon some articles about worldbuilding with the Monster Manual, and I’ve been doing some thinking about it on my own since then, particularly in regards to the “normal people” of a D&D world.
Somewhere lost in the dim mists of the edition wars, there was an interesting article about the balance of 3.x, and how DCs, skill ranks, and ability scores all worked perfectly to simulate a realistic setting if you assumed that almost every person in the average D&D world is an NPC classed character of level 1-5 or so with ability scores ranging from 8-12. Even the paltry 1d4 damage of a dagger is deadly if you only have 4 hit points, and on that scale is the 5d6 damage of a fireball any more dangerous than the 2d6+3 battleaxe of an orc? Not really. To a low-level 3.x NPC, anything that has a positive attack bonus is likely to kill them with one or two shots.
With that discussion in mind, I started looking at the NPC stat blocks in the 5E Monster Manual to see what I could deduce about the “normal” population. Here’s what I found.
- Still sucks to be the 99%. Commoners (CR 0) have 10s across the board, 4 hit points, and a +2 proficiency bonus (but no proficiencies). Racial bonuses and any training you wish to give them will make the biggest difference– a racial stat bump and proficiency in a given skill will get them all the way up to the dizzying heights of +3 at something.
- Constabulary/soldiery quality varies widely. A Guard (CR 1/8) is almost three times as durable as a commoner, with 11 hit points and of course armor that makes them very difficult for the unwashed rabble to hit in the first place– but they are positively outclassed by the Thug (CR 1/2), whose 32 hit points and multiattack with their mace put the guard in big danger if the thug manages to win initiative. The guard still outclasses the Tribal Warrior (CR 1/8) by virtue solely of their better gear, but all three of them look like amateurs compared to the Veteran (CR 3) or the Knight (CR 3). The Gladiator (CR 5) is probably the scariest “normal” opponent, with a sturdy AC 16, 112(!) hit points, and three attacks.
- As I am a gentleman, sirrah, I beg of you, “Not to the face.” The Noble (CR 1/8) is fragile, with a mere 9 hp and only his parry to protect him. Even surrounded by guards a noble is well-advised to surrender to the Bandit Captain (CR 2) solo, with his three attacks and 65 hit points, much less one who’s surrounded by, y’know, his Bandits (CR 1/8), who are akin to tribal warriors in ferocity. Knights by comparison are much more fearsome, being well protected (AC 18), durable (hp 52), and can probably take the Bandit Captain one-on-one plus is a better leader.
- No, Mr. Bond, you are only CR 1. The Spy (CR 1) is roughly on par with a 2nd or 3rd level rogue, quite dangerous even to the Thug if they can get in a sneak attack or two, but not much danger to the Veteran in a straight-up fight. The Scout (CR 1/2) is tougher than a Guard or a Bandit but not by much.
- Using magic is cheating! Spellcasters weird the CR system. The Mage (CR 6) is a 9th level wizard, with 12 AC, 40 hit points, and one cone of cold, making it a glass cannon. The Priest (CL 2) is a 5th level cleric, and the Druid (CR 2) is a 4th level druid. 5E calculates CR almost entirely as a factor of hit points and damage output assuming a solo encounter, so the fragile mage and the not-really-a-combat-specialist priest end up being fairly low on the CR totem pole for the amount of impact they can have as part of a well-crafted team. But then we look at the Archmage (CR 12), who is an 18th level wizard. These crazy-powerful reshapers-of-the-universe who can stop time or grant a wish still don’t rate as powerful as a single storm giant because they “only” have 99 hit points and can only fire off cone of cold three times.
So when you look at these figures for the “baseline” populace, you start to see some trends. First off, hit points are all over the map. An assassin going after the king might have to be able to kill someone with 9 hit points, 52 hit points, or more depending on if that king is a mighty warrior or a feeble aristocrat. Still, it would appear that most members of the “normal” populace have about 5-30 hit points, which means that they’d fare wildly differently against a goblin’s knife but roast equally in the breath weapon of an adult dragon. It’s only when you get to the most battle-hardened NPCs (the Bandit Captain, the Gladiator, the Knight, the Veteran) that facing that kind of threat becomes even feasible, much less having any chance of success.
It also means that an NPC “adventuring party” consisting of a Veteran (fighter), Spy (rogue), Mage (wizard), and Priest (cleric) would be a “hard” encounter for a party of four 8th level PCs and “deadly” for anything lower. If we assume “hard” to be roughly where groups come into parity, that puts a generic group of adventurers solidly in the “heroes of the realm” tier.
If you look at skill levels as measured by proficiency, most skilled experts have about a +3 to +5 with their most tricked-out ability, and somewhere around +1 with everything else due to their ability scores. Few NPCs have saving throws to speak of, maybe a +2 or +3 with their best ability. A few outliers buck these trends, having +6 or up to +10 with one or two things.
Thus, an “average” person in 5E has something like AC 13, 20 hp, +5 with their best skill and +1 with any others, +3 to their best saving throw and +1 with the rest, and can do somewhere around 10 points of damage in a round of combat with their primary attack. In an average-person-vs-average-person fight, whichever one wins initiative and makes better use of situational advantages will probably defeat the other in 2-4 rounds, probably getting fairly beat up themselves in the process.
It also means that player characters start outclassing “average” people somewhere around 3rd level probably… which is just about right.