Mechanics, suggestions, criticisms, and general thoughts
Grappling always occupied a special niche in Dungeons and Dragons, especially in 3.0 and 3.5. It is a system that is valuable to both players, as a unique set of combat options, and DMs, as a dangerous monster tool. With 5.0 on the horizon, I want to provide a running assessment of the updated “grappling” system in this new edition. It has been a long path from 3.5 through 4.0 up until this present day, and grappling has undergone a lot of changes in that time. This post assesses the current system from the player and DM perspective, providing criticisms and suggestions for the future.
Not everyone will share my excitement in this undertaking. For some, 3.0/3.5 grappling was a daunting headache, a set of rules that somehow made the simple act of just grabbing someone more complicated than performing an elaborate arcane ritual. But for others, myself included, it was an awesome system that made wrestling and hand-to-hand fighting a powerful, fun, and useful tactic for certain characters. Admittedly, it was a highly flawed ruleset that simultaneously suffered from overcomplication (I know players who have been at this game for years and still do not understand how natural weapons work in a grapple) but also oversimplification (chokes and joint locks, the most basic grappling moves in real life, are totally absent from D&D).
That said, whether you were a wildshaping Shifter, a ferocious Bear Warrior, a savage Black Blood Cultist, or a mighty Psychic Warrior, you brought a unique skillset to the table that few others could match. Many a DM has had their magical master villain massacred by a well-designed PC grappler. Similarly, the grappling monster was the bane of many a PC. The Improved Grab special attack on any monster entry was enough to send Dervishes, Wizards, Rogues, and dozens of other classes fleeing from the battlefield (or at least investing fortunes into Freedom of Movement and Grease based contingencies).
The 4th Edition of D&D brought some unfortunate changes to grappling. The system was simplified to the point of being unrecognizable. Grappling was reduced to “grabbing”, a basic immobilization that had very few tangible benefits in combat. Yes, there were certain abilities that capitalized on the “Grabbed” status, many of which were specific to Monks and Druids. Unfortunately, these maneuvers were generally inferior to the dozens of other combat options at a 4.0 warrior’s disposal. Although monsters still made frequent use of grab-based attacks, PCs were excluded from the wrestler’s game. This was a sad development for character customizability and for combat flexibility. With 5.0 coming soon, it is time to ensure that grappling/grabbing is a system that everyone can enjoy, appreciate, and fear.
5.0 GRABBING MECHANICS
Here are the most relevant rules for the new system. All of the quotes in this section come from the "How to Play" PDF.
Taking a Turn (p.12)
When you take a turn, you can take one action. You can also move up to your speed. After you have moved and taken your action, your turn ends.
You use a free hand to grab a creature no more than one size category larger than you by making a successful Strength check against the creature’s Strength or Dexterity check (the creatures chooses the ability). If you succeed, the creature is restrained. You can release it at any time, and you must do so if you can’t take actions or if you lose control of the grabbing limb.
5.0 grappling starts with the Grab action. If you initiate a Grab, that is the only action you can take in your round. If you are the attacker, you make a Strength check. If you are the defender, you oppose that check with your preference between Dexterity and Strength. Defender success means that the grab is warded off and the action is wasted. Attacker success means that the target's condition is immediately switched to "restrained".
Notice that size carries different restrictions in 5.0. A medium sized human can try and grab a larger opponent without penalty. Some actions, namely "Push" confer an advantage on the larger combatant. Grab does not.
- The creature’s speed becomes 0, and it cannot benefit from bonuses to its speed.
- Attacks against the creature have advantage, and the creature’s attacks have disadvantage.
- The creature has disadvantage on Dexterity saving throws.
Restrained imposes a fairly serious set of penalties on the grabbed creature. For one, the creature cannot move. This gives grab an edge against targets that benefit from mobility. Secondly, all attack rolls made by the target have disadvantage. All attacks made against it, however, have advantage.
Advantage and Disadvantage (p.3)
If you have an advantage or a disadvantage on a check, an attack roll, or a saving throw, you roll a second D20 when making that roll. You use the highest roll between the dice to determine your result if you have advantage and the lowest roll if you have disadvantage.
No matter how many times you gain advantage or disadvantage on the same check, attack roll, or saving throw, you roll only one additional D20.
3.5 veterans should note that even the grabbing creature, the attacker who initiated the grab, has advantage on his own attack rolls against the target. Similarly, the target of a grab has disadvantage even against the guy who is grabbing him. In 3.5, two creatures engaged in a grapple were vulnerable to people around them (denied Dexterity bonus to AC), but were still on equal footing in the grapple itself. 5.0 changes that, conferring a big benefit on the grabber himself.
Finally, the grabbed creature has disadvantage on all reflex saving throws. This is a unique addition to 5.0 that never happened in older systems, where saving throws were completely unaffected by grapple status.
Escaping a Grab (p.13)
You free yourself from another’s grasp by making a successful Strength or Dexterity check against the Strength check of the creature grabbing you.
Getting out of a grab is also an action, one that you need to take during your turn. If you fail to escape, you have wasted your action and are still considered grabbed and restrained. If you succeed, then you can still take your move action and try and flee the grabbing creature.
REVIEW OF THE 5.0 MECHANICS
- Defender chooses Strength or Dexterity
Some characters will muscle their way out of a grab. Others will squirm and wriggle. 5.0 allows a target to choose their preferred method of escape from the beginning, which is really nice for players who are up against grabbing monsters.
- Target receives penalties. Grabber does not
One of the worst grappling features in 3.5 was that both grapplers effectively suffered the same penalties until one pinned the other. Even if I started a grapple, we both had the same options available to us for the first round or so. The new system shows that the grabber is the clear aggressor. He controls the fight and has all the advantages.
- Not size dependent
A good medium-sized wrestler should be able to grab a larger opponent. He might lose the struggle by virtue of a lower strength or a lack of skill, but he should at least be able to try and hold on. Under the new system, creatures do not gain a bonus to grappling just because they are large; this was a crude interpretation that did not give real world grappling much credit. A target might have big muscles, but that is expressed in their strength score, not their size category. This allows PCs to focus more on Strength and grappling abilities and less on just making yourself large.
- Attacks against target have advantage / attacks by target have disadvantage
This opens up a lot of tactical opportunities for both players and DMs. It also makes a lot of sense; a grabbed creature is going to have trouble using its weapons when getting manhandled around by a stronger opponent.
- Disadvantage on reflex saves
More cool tactical options. Also makes a lot of sense, given the lack of mobility you have when grabbed.
- Lots of design room
The current system gives Wizards a lot of design space to improve on grabbing. Future designers could make maneuvers and/or feats that specifically improve the Strength check in a Grab. They could also present maneuvers and classes that capitalize on an opponent being restrained or grabbed.
NEEDS SOME IMPROVEMENT
- Easy to escape
Even monsters that are supposed to be good at grabbing are mathematically easy to wriggle free of. For example, a Roper has a +4 to its Strength check to maintain a grab, even though it is a Large creature that is specifically designed to grab and hold enemies. That means any decent Fighter or Rogue with a fairly standard 18 in Dexterity or Strength is going to be escape a Roper half of the time. A solution might be to give grapple-oriented monsters (and characters) a bonus to their Grab strength checks.
- Grab is not tied to combat ability
Currently, a creature's/player's ability to fight has no relationship on its ability to grab. A strength 18 fighter at level 1 has the exact same grab bonus as a strength 18 fighter at level 6. Grabbing should somehow account for the improved combat capabilities of a higher level character. It doesn't have to be a straight 1 for 1 trade (attack bonus does not need to improve grab). It could just be adding your character level to the roll, or adding some fraction of your level.
- Spellcasters are unaffected by grabbing
When a spellcaster gets grabbed, he has absolutely no penalties when casting spells. They do not need to make checks to cast, nor is there anything a grabber can do to prevent the spell from being cast. The rules suggest that grabbing might interfere with the target's ability to cast spells, but never makes it explicit. Here is what the current RAW (rules as written) say:Spell Components (p.21)
Unless a spell description says otherwise, a spell requires you to chant mystic words which are its verbal components and you must complete intricate hand motions with at least one of your hands, which are the spell's somatic components. Some spells also have material components that are required for their casting
So, grabbing makes the guy clumsy enough to mess up his attacks but not clumsy enough to mess up his somatic components? I have enough strength to keep a grabbed foe from moving at all, but not enough to mess up his verbal spell components? Spellcasters should absolutely take a concrete penalty to spellcasting when they are grabbed that prevents/inhibits their use of spell components. Maybe it forces them to make a Dexterity check to cast the spell, or an Int/Wis check to say the right words. Or maybe grabbers get special abilities that give them the power to interrupt spellcasting. Either way, this needs to be looked at.
- Unclear terminology
For a lot of players, the rules are the law of the land (or the "RAW" of the land, if you prefer to be punny). The current grab terminology has a lot of technical terms with specific meanings (Strength, check, restrained, action, etc.). But it also has a lot of unclear terms that do not have specific, in-game meanings. With something as potentially complicated as grab, this can lead to a lot of rules situations in game. Here are some ambiguous words that I foresee as being particularly problematic.
- "Free Hand"
If I have a shield strapped to one arm and a sword in my other hand, is the shield side considered a "free hand"? If I grab one opponent with one hand, does that mean I can grab another with my second "free hand"? This term doesn't come up anywhere else in the rules.
- "At any time"
Can I release a held creature only on my turn? Can I do it during their turn? What if I am a DM controlling a flying grabber and I have an action readied to drop a held creature whenever it tries to cast a spell? This "release" action can currently happen at literally any time in the combat round, and that might lead to some rules complications.
Overall, the current 5.0 grab system is not that bad for a first round. There are many nuances that can be added in later through feats, maneuvers, and special monster abilities.
PLAYING AND OPTIMIZING A 5.0 GRABBER
At first, I was worried that 5.0 would not have any good options for playing a grabbing character. Anyone can use the combat action, but only a character optimized for it would enjoy consistent success. Thankfully, even in its vestigial form, the 5.0 system has some great options for players interested in grappling. Here is the optimal route that I recommend to new players.
- ABILITY SCORES
Str 15, Dex 10, Con 15, Int 10, Wis 10, Cha 10
If you want to be an offensive grabber, you need to maximize your Strength score. You probably also want a high Constitution so you can absorb punishment on the front lines. Dex helps your AC, but you are going to be investing in armor anyway, so you won't need the extra defense. The current 5.0 rules are unclear if you can buy starting scores over 15, so I am just going to put 15 in both Con and Str (it doesn't provide a cost for those higher abilities, and it is unclear if this is deliberate or if they assume players to know the point buy system). The other scores don't matter. Assign leftover points as needed.
Human: +2 Strength, +1 all else
Humans are born grapplers. Currently, they are the only race that gives you bonus starting Strength, and that's exactly what you need as an offensive grappler.
Fighter: +1 Strength, create your own fighting style
Grabbing seems like an unarmed system, and without looking at the rules too closely, you might think that Monks make the superior grapplers. Fighters, however, are better in virtually every respect. Monks improve Dex or Con, neither of which are useful for offensive grabbing. Fighters improve Strength. Monks can't wear armor, and so must rely on Dex and Wis for their AC. Because a grappler needs to invest so many points into Str and Con, you don't have enough left over for Dex and Wis. Fighters can just pick up heavy armor and be done with it.
Additionally, heavy hitting fighters are better positioned to capitalize on the "advantage" conferred by grabbing an enemy. Finally, Monks don't have access to a customizable list of maneuvers, and 5.0 grabbing is ALL ABOUT one maneuver. Fighters can design their own fighting style and customize their maneuver list, giving them level 1 access to this important maneuver.
As of right now, 5.0 grabbing is 100% about the Mighty Exertion maneuver. For those that don't know it off the top of their head:Mighty Exertion (Maneuvers, p.3)
Effect: When you make a Strength check, you can spend expertise dice to improve your result. Roll all the expertise dice you spend, but add only the highest die result to your check
This ability is currently the Improved Grapple of 5.0. It is the only way to improve your Strength check for grabbing, but even those few extra bonuses can make a big difference against monsters that have comparably low Strength checks. Sometimes you will roll badly, but when you roll well, you will blow away your foe with your grab check.
Monks also have access to Mighty Exertion, which makes them a viable option for PC grapplers. The big advantage that Monks have on Fighters is their access to Hurricane Strike, a maneuver that allows you to strike an opponent, send them flying away, and knocking them prone in the process. The key word in the maneuver is that you can hurl them "UP TO" 10 feet away. So by RAW, you can technically Grab someone, hit them with Hurricane Strike, and then choose to knock them 0 feet away onto their back while still grabbing them. They would then be prone AND restrained, a definite combat advantage.
Nothing stands out as of now
Unfortunately, there are no good feats or skills that stand out for grapplers. Initiative feats are probably the best option that you have right now, along with some survivability ones (Iron Will comes to mind) to compensate for your otherwise bad saving throws.
Overall, the 5.0 grappler has a great place in the current state of the game. There are also a bunch of other customizability options I didn't talk about. Rogue grapplers are also quite decent, as they are capable of using their combat advantage to generate sneak attacks. They also get a Strength bonus at level 1. Wizards might also have use for grabbing, setting up a foe to fail a reflex saving throw. The same goes for Clerics. This just goes to show that grabbing has great potential in 5.0, even in these introductory months.
MONSTERS AND GRABBING IN 5.0
- Lots of grabbing monsters
Improved Grab based enemies have always been a staple of D&D. It is nice to see so many in this early version of the edition. To me, this suggests that monster grappling is going to be around for a long time to come.
- Good overall variety amongst grab mechanisms
Even when working with fairly simple monsters, Wizards still manages to pack in a decent range of attack options. Some monsters grab off a bite. Some attacks automatically hit if the target is grabbed. Some attacks only open up once a target is grabbed. This just gives a DM a lot of options for his arsenal.
- Emphasis on which monsters are grab-based and which ones are not
A lot of DMs misuse their monsters. The 5.0 bestiary really guides DMs through which monsters are good for grabbing and which are not. It also gives them a very logical progression of which grab-based attacks to use in a round. For more experienced DMs, this might feel a bit heavyhanded. But for newer DMs, or even older DMs that don't want to micromanage too many monsters, 5.0 gives them a lot of help in piloting the bad guys.
NEEDS SOME IMPROVEMENT
- Unclear wording on automatic grabs
A lot of monsters have attacks that also grab the target if they hit. For a lot of players I worked with, it was unclear to them if the monster automatically succeeded at the grab or if they just initiated a grab check. In the end we decided that the monster automatically succeeded at the grab just by virtue of hitting with his other attack. But it could go both ways. A clearer way to denote this: "The mind flayer automatically succeeds at a strength check to grab the target" or even "the mind flayer makes a Strength check to grab the target".
- Too easy to escape grapples
This was really noticeable when we fought an Ankheg. The creature automatically grabs on a bite attack, but maintaining that grab is just too hard for him. He only has a +2 on the grab by virtue of his strength, deriving no benefits from size or other misc. bonuses. Almost any PC has a 14 in either Dex or Str, which means even a level 1 character has a 50%+ chance of escaping each round. Fighting Ankhegs just become an exchange of bite/grab/escape over and over. If the Ankheg could hold on tighter, then PCs would have incentive to try another tactic instead of just making the easy escape roll every round. Here are some other monsters that suffer from this problem:
- Giant Crab
- Gray Ooze
- Mind Flayer
- Ochre Jelly
- Giant Snake
- Automatic hits while grabbed
Some attacks automatically hit while a creature has another target grabbed. Sometimes this is okay, giving DMs guidance as to how they should use their monsters in battle. But other times it makes monsters a bit too scary for players. There is a crushing sense of inevitability when fighting some of these monsters: "If I get grabbed I am just going to die." Once players learn this, they start to do silly things to avoid that fate. For older players, this is easy to get around; improve your tactics and triumph! But for new players, the monster design almost discourages aggressive and creative gameplay because no one just wants to die.
Overall, grabbing and grappling are in pretty good shape for this first stab at 5.0. I would love to hear any suggestions, ideas, complaints, criticisms, and general thoughts that people have on grab/grapple in this new system. I intend on keeping this first and second post updated as the 5.0 game evolves, so anyone interested in grab/grapple has a place to go.
I will try and add sections as people see fit (more 5.0 optimized grapplers, more rules discussions, more monster analysis, etc.)