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By Skip Williams
Players being what they are, a DM can sometimes face a bewildering array of magical effects. For example, a stalwart member of your party wears gauntlets of ogre power, a +2 chainmail, a heavy shield, a ring of protection +1, and boots of striding and springing. Assuming the character in question is a human with a Strength score of 16 and a Dexterity score of 13, what is the character's initiative, speed, Armor Class, attack bonus, and Reflex save bonus after receiving or using the spells aid, barkskin, bull's strength, cat's grace, doom, expeditious retreat, mage armor, prayer, shield, and shield of faith?
If this question makes your head spin, you can relax. The answers are right in the descriptions for the spells and items mentioned.
The Language of Bonuses
Handling some of the trickiest parts of the D&D game becomes second nature if you learn the terminology associated with them. Our example deals with a plethora of bonuses that a character has amassed; fortunately for us, the terminology that describes bonuses is one of the most powerful tools the game provides to DMís and players. For a discussion of the most common bonuses in the game, see the Bonus Types section in Chapter 2 of the Dungeon Master's Guide.
The first step in untangling the Gordian knot of bonuses in our example involves looking up the descriptions of the various items and spells and finding the names of all those bonuses. So, let's do that:
The basic rule to remember when combining two or more bonuses is this: two or more bonuses of different type stack, and two or more bonuses of the same type overlap. In general, a bonus's name indicates its type. A bonus with no name has no type and it stacks with any other bonus, but not with itself.
Stacking and Overlapping
What's stacking and overlapping? I'm glad you asked.
When two or more bonuses stack, they're cumulative and you add their effects. If you stack two +1 bonuses, you get a +2 bonus.
When two or more bonuses overlap, they're not cumulative and you use only the highest bonus. You don't add the effects, but they don't go away either. If one of whatever gives you an overlapping bonus goes away, the other might still be around to take up the slack. Of course, there are some exceptions to this rule, and we'll look at those later, but for now let's just try to answer our original question.
Our example human has a base speed of 30 feet. In chainmail, that drops to 20 feet (see Table 7-6 in the Player's Handbook).
The character has two enhancement bonuses to speed (+10 feet from the boots of striding and springing and +30 feet from the expeditious retreat spell). Since they're both enhancement bonuses, they overlap, and the character can use only the higher bonus. Obviously, the +30 feet from the expeditious retreat spell is the speed bonus to use, but how does that interact with the reduced speed from the chainmail?
Always apply increases to a speed before making any adjustments for armor or encumbrance (see Tactical Movement, in Chapter 8 of the Player's Handbook). The expeditious retreat spell adds +30 feet to our human's base speed of 30 feet, which yields a speed of 60 feet, which chainmail reduces to 40 feet (see Armor and Encumbrance in Chapter 2 of the Dungeon Master's Guide). The boots are still working, however, so when the expeditious retreat spell ends the character still has a slight speed increase. The character's base speed is still 30 feet, +10 from the boots, which chainmail reduces to 30 feet (also from Armor and Encumbrance in Chapter 2 of the Dungeon Master's Guide).
We'll get started with the Armor Class of the example character now!
Our example character has a wealth of Armor Class improvements:
Please note a couple of things here:
Multiple Enhancement Bonuses: The character is effectively getting two enhancement bonuses to Armor Class (from the +2 chainmail and the barkskin spell), and that works in this case because those two bonuses are being applied to two different elements of the character's Armor Class.
Where Enhancement Bonuses Apply: In general, an enhancement bonus goes with a specific item a character uses, or with one of the user's abilities or other statistics. The example character's touch Armor Class is only 14, because a touch attack bypasses the character's armor bonus (including the +2 from the magic armor), natural armor bonus (including the +2 from the barkskin spell), and shield bonus. Those enhancement bonuses don't float around the character, warding off harm; they improve a specific aspect of the character's defenses.
Overlapping Bonuses are Still in Place: This can become significant when dealing with Armor Class. For example, our human has an Armor Class of 24 against an incorporeal touch attack, as follows:
Now that we've figured out Armor Class, let's take a peek at the attack bonus that our example character has. We'll move on to the Reflex save and jumping after that.
Our example character enjoys several attack bonuses for both melee and ranged attacks.
Please note a couple of things here:
Base Attack Bonus Not Included: Whatever base attack bonus the example character might have isn't figured in here.
Penalties Are Unnamed: In the current version of the D&D game, no penalty has a name, so it "stacks" with any bonus and it also stacks with all other penalties (but not with itself).
Full Dexterity Bonus Still Applies: Wearing armor does not reduce your Dexterity score or your Dexterity bonus. It just limits how much of that bonus you can apply to your Armor Class. Our example character gets the full +3 on ranged attacks from Dexterity 17.
Most of the saving throw bonuses our example character has collected apply to all kinds of saving throws, but let's just look at the Reflex save:
Some more notes:
Base Save Bonuses Not Included: Whatever base save bonus the example character might have isn't figured in here.
Full Dexterity Bonus Still Applies: As note previously, the Dexterity cap for armor applies only to Armor Class.
Our example character actually is quite a jumper, even without the jump spell, thanks to a great Strength score and all that speed, but let's work though all the modifiers:
Notable things here include the following:
Bonuses to Skills Count for Untrained Checks: When a skill can be used untrained, any bonuses to the check that a character may acquire apply to the check.
The Jump Spell
A jump spell would give our example character at least a +10 enhancement bonus on Jump checks. This stacks with all the example character's other Jump bonuses, for a total Jump bonus of +17, allowing running long jumps of up to 37 feet.
Let's go over the exceptions to the rules plus a few other things of note as we wrap up the article focused on this question: Does it Stack?
Exceptions to the Rules for Stacking Bonuses
As with many things in the D&D game, the general rules are simple -- it's the exceptions that become difficult. Let's look at a few.
Bonuses of the Same Type
As noted earlier, bonuses of the same type (and with the same name) don't stack, but that's not always true:
Circumstance Bonuses: Circumstance bonuses stack when they arise from different circumstances. For example, you might get a circumstance bonus to Move Silently checks when you're walking on a soft surface, such as sand or moss. You might also get a circumstance bonus to Move Silently checks when moving in a very noisy environment.
Dodge Bonuses: A dodge bonus affects your Armor Class. All dodge bonuses stack. Most bonus types have names so that you can tell which one you can stack. A dodge bonus is named so that you can tell when you get it and when you don't. For example, you can't use dodge bonuses when you're flat-footed or anytime you're denied a Dexterity bonus.
A bonus that doesn't have a name stacks with anything except itself. This is always true, but it's sometimes hard to remember. For example, many feats provide unnamed bonuses, so don't panic when you read a feat description and it provides a bonus without a name. An unnamed bonus from a feat stacks with any other bonus; however you can't stack that unnamed bonus if you take the feat twice.
Synergy Bonuses: What once was called a synergy bonus in the previous version of the D&D game is now just an unnamed bonus. For example, if you have 5 or more ranks in the Handle Animal skill, you get a +2 bonus on Ride checks and wild empathy checks. As an unnamed bonus, this stacks with other bonuses you might have to Ride checks or wild empathy checks.
Base Attack and Save Bonuses
The base attack bonus and base save bonuses a character gets from class levels -- or that a creature gets from its type and Hit Dice -- are not true bonuses at all. (That's one reason why base attack and save bonuses aren't mentioned in the Bonus Types section in Chapter 2 of the Dungeon Master's Guide.) This is a situation where the language of the game gets a little muddy. Base attack and save bonuses are called "bonuses" strictly as a matter of convenience, mostly because you write them down and use them just like a regular bonus.
You can treat a base attack bonus or a base save bonus just like an unnamed bonus, except that two or more base attack or save bonuses from different classes always stack. You cannot take a class twice and stack the base attack or base save bonuses from the class. Instead, you must add up all your levels in the class and use the appropriate base attack and base save bonuses for that level.
It's also important to remember that you don't get extra attacks when you add extra bonuses to a high base attack bonus. For example, if your base attack bonus from all your classes is +7, you can make two attacks when you use the full attack action (+7/+2). If you then add +3 points to your attacks from a high ability score and another +2 from an enhancement bonus on your weapon, you still get only two attacks, but you add that +2 and +3 (for a total of +5) to each attack (+12/+7).
Inherent Bonuses and Level-Based Ability Increases
When you have an inherent bonus to an ability score, you're limited to a +5 inherent bonus to any single ability score. Since an inherent bonus has a name, it won't stack with another inherent bonus (so be careful with those manuals and tomes). The ability score increase you get every four character levels is not an inherent bonus; the ability score you choose to increase just gets bigger.
A Final Word That's about all there is. There's not much to stacking bonuses. Just remember the basic rules:
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