I was planning to do something different this week as a topic until I saw today’s article posted by Shawn Merwin over at Critical-Hits.com Check out the article Flank You Very Much: Tactical Play in D&D.
First off I would like to say it’s always great read about someone asking the questions about what did not work in previous systems and what did. RPGs, like everything else, have never hit a zenith. There likely is not one perfect amalgam of rules, concepts, and mechanics to be considered the greatest RPG. The best we can do is continually recycle things that worked well and attempt to create something better than the pieces that fell short.
To briefly sum up the article Shawn Merwin states that a lot of the slow down of 3.X and 4th Edition D&D combat systems can be attributed to flanking. On the surface there is some truth to the thought. The heavy tactical game play revolves around gaining the upper hand on opponents. We as players and game masters alike spend a lot of time attempting to get Combat Advantage. The larger problem being most PCs have powers or features hinging on their ability to get combat advantage. The one presented by Shawn Merwin is the 4e Players Handbook Rogue with its Sneak Attack.
Unfortunately this is where my support drifts from the idea. Flanking is a very specific piece of tactical combat. It sounds like the true root of the problem is combat advantage and ravenously scouring for ways to get it for the extra damage/effect on the attack. But I think you could just as easily say zones of control/opportunity attacks is as much to blame. For me the latter is more indicative. Merwin’s question being ‘why should you need CA to succeed?’ My question is ‘what is keeping you from getting the CA you need to succeed?’ From my own experience at the table combat is bogged by checking all possible movement courses to avoid opportunity attacks, auras, and zones. I am not spending time counting squares of movement to where I can get CA. A grade school child can easily count the actual distance between two miniatures on the board. It’s the time we seem to spend minimizing a risk to the position and weighing the risk versus the reward of the movement.
Now I am not saying to get rid of OAs, marks, or auras. I do believe there needs to be some revision though. I would like to see D&D Next continue the defender traits of 4e. I understand the desire to play without a grid and miniatures, theater of the mind, it can be rewarding. I think with some revision there is middle ground to be found. Removing Flanking for CA and replace it with a linear Gang Up Bonus.
Gang Up Bonus: Gain a bonus on attacks against an adjacent opponent. The attack bonus equals +1 per ally adjacent to the target.
I would also seek to replace cumbersome opportunity attacks with a better mechanic. Perhaps something like this.
Prerequisite: You are adjacent to no enemies.
Trigger: A moving opponent enters and leaves a square you threaten.
Effect: You make a melee basic attack against the opponent.
I such a mechanic will allow for freer movement on the battlefield while reflecting the opportunity to attack a passing enemy when a creature is not already consumed with fighting another enemy in melee. Both these mechanics are easy to play with or without a battle grid. Game masters and players should be able to easily recognize if a creature is engaged and how many creatures are ganging up on a target.
Just as an aside I feel citing the 4e PHB Rogue as an example is a bit silly. For one in the current state of 4e it is ridiculously easy to get combat advantage to the point of flanking being an option to get combat advantage, perhaps not even the easiest way. Secondly, many of the PHB1 classes were poorly built. Clerics and Paladins suffered from MAD (Multiple Attribute Disorder) making them mediocre at everything or decent at 2/3 of their class traits. The PHB1 wizard was built before the designers really figured out what a controller is and how it should function. The martial characters ended up being the most solid classes out of PHB1 with the exception of the warlock (Just realized I’ve been playing D&D 4e for five years and I don’t think I’ve ever played a warlock). The warlock worked because it was built from the start to avoid MAD, allowing a player to focus on Charisma or Constitution and be equally successful. It proved seminal to how 4e classes have evolved.
The problem I see with the rogue in particular is not his need for combat advantage but the entire idea of recurring sneak attack. The rogue as an archetype hinges on the idea of stealth and surprise. Sneak attacks once per round does not make sense. Once the enemy is aware of the rogue he loses that critical element of surprise even if he is ‘hidden’ in combat. I would suggest making Sneak Attack (because you’d be crazy to think WoTC will change the name) an alpha strike ability on an unaware enemy. Let the rogue sneak up on enemies to start combat, drop a lot of damage and then fall back to let the casters and heavy fighters shine in combat. Rogues can still do respectable damage in combat but will front load the damage. This should leave the ‘skills’ character available to do support in combat such as solve puzzles, toss someone a healing potion, and provide that needed adjacent ally for the Flanking/Gang Up Bonus, and be the last line of defense for the glass cannon casters. Leave the heavy front line fighting to the guys in heavy armor.
Hopefully by tweaking the tactical mechanics with thought to gaming without a battle grid D&D Next will provide new and old players alike with a solid system. With any luck and a few grains of good sense the extended, metamorphosing playtest for D&D Next will help to make it a great success.
The reason for the slow down, imo, is individual initiative. You used to have to announce actions, including specific spells, prior to the initiative roll. This made combat flow much differently, with very few out-of-turn “reaction” attacks, and the possibility of spell interruption. Combat was very fast. It also made combat swingy as hell.
I have run an old B/X game with individual initiative, running it almost exactly like a 4e game (using grid, minis, etc), and we had an hour and a half combat at level 6. Not even a huge “end guy” combat either. Playtesting 5e, under multiple DMs, I have seen a two hour combat encounter at level 2. I don’t think flanking has much to do with it, it is each player having their own turn to think about things like flanking, if that makes sense. With individual initiative, the player is constantly reacting to new situations and modifying their next turn. This leads to analysis paralysis, interrupts, people telling people what they should do to set up other players, etc. Then again, this is what makes combat fun to a lot of people. Some players dislike the perceived rigidity of the old combat systems.
Personally, I like both systems for different reasons. I do make tweaks to 4e to speed up combat, but I also don’t want it to go too fast. After all, 4e combat is fun as hell. At the same time, I appreciate the quick bursts of swinginess that you can only really get from classic editions and side-based initiative. But I digress. My point is that I think that individual initiative is the real “culprit” (if there is one) behind longer combat encounters.