This summer thousands of us will spend countless hours watching the world’s very best athletes swim, jump and run really rather fast. When I tune in, however, I always find myself pondering the same question – how would a max-level D&D character fare if they were dropped into the games and told to get cracking?
Fortunately, the 5E rules set out a good amount of guidance on exactly how well characters perform at physical challenges. There are formulas for jumping, climbing, swimming and all manner of other feats.
After a bit of maths I’ve cooked up a list of how well peak heroes stack up to peak athletes at five of the most iconic Olympic events.
First, however, we need to set up a few rules:
No magic items or spells.
Casting Fly is not a reasonable way to win the high jump.
Non-magical class/racial abilities are allowed.
Cunning Action, Action Surge and physical Ki powers are fine. Turning into a Tyrannosaurus Rex or teleporting between shadows is cheating.
If you need to make a save or ability check, take 20.
We’re going for world-record results, so let’s assume that our heroes get lucky.
We’ll take the world record for humans regardless of gender.
Let’s start with one of the most popular events out there – the ultimate test of raw speed and power.
The fastest character I could dream up without magical assistance is a max-level monk. Between Unarmoured Movement, Step of the Wind and a dash action they can travel an impressive 180 ft. in a single round.
With a little bit of maths we can turn this into a 100m pace of 10.95s. While this is pretty impressive, it falls well short of Usain Bolt’s 9.58s world record.
However, the monk probably gets a bit of a moral victory for being able to get within a second of Bolt while carrying a full pack and wearing sandals.
When it comes to leaping over things it turns out that the 5E designers did a pretty good job of matching the peak of fictional humans with their real-world counterparts.
The PHB says that with a run up, a character can vertically jump a number of feet equal to their strength modifier plus three. For a character with 20 strength – the maximum allowed for most heroes – this would give them a personal best of 8 ft., just half an inch short of Javier Sotomayor’s 1993 world record.
However, there is one character that can easily clear this. When a Barbarian hits max level they instantly gain four points of strength and constitution, even if this takes them over the normal limit of 20. With this superhuman strength they can add another two feet to their high-jump, taking the competition easily.
The max-level monk finally gets her gold medal, easily trouncing the competition even though she’s wearing a robe and carrying a quarterstaff.
According to the PHB, every foot you swim takes up two feet of movement. This means that the monk’s 180 ft. turn from the sprint turns into 90 ft. At this pace it will take just 21.87s for her to finish the 100m freestyle.
The closest real-world performance would be César Cielo’s 2009 world record, though he would finish more than 25 seconds behind our monk. It’s worth noting that this is by far the biggest gap of all the events.
Again, I was surprised to find how close this was – at least until our burly Barbarian stepped in and ruined it.
There are two types of weightlifting at the Olympics. There’s the snatch and there’s the clean and jerk, and though both of these ultimately boil down to lifting something heavy over your head I chose the clean and jerk in this comparison as it allows the real-world humans to put up better numbers.
In 2004 Iran’s Hossein Rezazadeh managed to lift an impressive 263kg (579.8lb) to claim the world record. The D&D rules say that this is just under what a character with maximum strength should be able to lift, which is a number of pounds equal to their strength times 30.
However, that extra strength awarded to the level 20 Barbarian means that he would be able to put up 720lb, taking the gold medal handily.
It’s worth noting that the rules don’t actually set out what types of lifts the Barbarian can perform to that level. If we take it entirely literally then real-world deadlift specialists could easily win, as they regularly set records of well over 1,000lb.
Once again the real-world sporting heroes come second to the fantasy-world adventuring heroes, though in their defence it takes a rather strange character to beat them.
The rules dictate that a character taking a run-up can jump a number of feet equal to their strength score. For once, the max-level barbarian isn’t even the front-runner. No, that position falls to a Monk using Step of the Wind, which doubles their jumping distance up to a maximum of 40 ft.
This is more than enough to beat the 8.95 m (29 ft. 4¼ in) world record set by the USA’s Mike Powell in 1991. However, it does require the Monk to be unusually focussed on their strength, potentially to the detriment of their other abilities. Arguably the athletes would have a pretty good shot against a random selection of max-level characters trained for adventuring rather than sporting events!
After all that, I’m actually really impressed by the 5E team’s balancing skills. Going into this I always had the expectation that high-level D&D characters were unstoppable super-beings far beyond the reach of mere mortals.
However, it turns out that in most cases a character with 20s in the appropriate stats does about as well as a top-flight Olympian. In virtually every category it’s a tight-run thing – usually in the athlete’s favour – until we factor in quasi-mystical abilities like Ki and Barbarian super-strength.
So now when someone says that your game is unrealistic, you can point to the long jump record to prove how very wrong they are.