I was really excited by the creative design space offered by the 5e fighter’s expertise dice mechanic, but I was much more interested by the improvisational space it created. It was a fluid, flexible mechanic, a spendable yet rechargeable resource designed to be burned for varied combat actions. It was as simple as the player wanted it to be and changed depending on desired role: it kept damage off the tank, added damage to the brute, and could be used for mob control by the defender.
But there’s a problem. No sooner was it created but content and options were heaped on the character and the potential to improv was removed as room to stunt shrunk. Is this an issue? Maybe. It depends on the type of game you like. D&D has always been a very codified game with rules for everything (excluding Basic D&D) so this is likely not a problem for much of the audience, especially fans of the last two editions. But if D&D wants to grow its audience beyond the constraints of its current fanbase, plus embrace what separates tabletop RPGs from video and board games (a dedicated human referee who can adjudicate and narrate) then it's something to think about.
As a head’s up, this blog has spun out of my earlier piece on “DM May I” play, including discussion in the comments. So if you hated that piece you might want to listen to some calming music while drinking soothing tea during your reading.
Here’s the thesis of this blog: too much content limits the ability to improv. The more options and powers a character has, the larger the minimum number of choices, the harder it becomes to improvise actions in combat.
Imagine the fighter is locked in brutal mortal combat with an armoured skeleton. No matter what the player does, he cannot land a significant enough hit to get past the armour or damage reduction of the monster. So he opts for a spontaneous change of tactics and tries to trip the skeleton. In 1e and 2e there weren’t really rules for that action, so the DM could make it up. Opposed Strength checks worked well. 3e had the strict codified rules that made it a possibility but a suboptimal choice; anyone could attempt a trip attack, but unless the character was built for it the chances of success would be lower and the enemy typically got a free attack. In 4e tripping was reserved for characters with a power that knocked an enemy prone, so doing so without a power required DM fiat, a skill check, and likely wouldn’t do any damage. Just like 3e, you could try tripping if you really, really wanted, but it was a suboptimal choice.
Nothing in 4e prevents a DM from saying “it’s balanced for a power to allow you to attack and knock an enemy prone, so I’ll let you improv that” but there’s the subtle implication that skill is required, that a character needs particular training to trip reflected in knowing a related power. Otherwise, what was the benefit of taking that power? Few DMs would allow a wizard to make-up a spell or cast something they did not know, so why are fighters (and rogues and rangers) different?
The number of powers is also an impediment. It’s one thing for a DM to allow a player to attempt an At-Will power untrained, but an Encounter power is something else. But with the sheer number of Encounter powers in the game, it becomes harder and harder to know exactly what should and should not be possible. It becomes easier to just say “no” rather than admit to being uncertain if something is equivalent to an At-Will or an Encounter or a feat or a Paragon feature.
As mentioned, a solid DM can work around the power limitation, calling for a skill check or imposing a penalty on the attack (or, like 3e, allowing the monster to make a free attack). But requiring skilled DMing is the kind of “DM May I?” play that adding options was meant to circumvent. It’s an ironic situation: to prevent DM fiat and unskilled DMs from limiting player options the number of inherent options is increased, which makes it harder for DM fiat to allow additional options or requires an even more adept DM.
Moving on to 5e, the fighter’s combat superiority seems like a flexible stuntable mechanic. If the player want to attempt something cinematic but powerful (or combat changing), then the DM can call for them to sacrifice an expertise die or two. (This might be a bit too much like a plot coupon mechanic, but I rather like “plot points” and similar narrative manipulation mechanics.) However, the designers quickly latched onto the mechanic and wrote-up a number of combat manoeuvres that allow the expertise dice to be spent for specific benefits.
Working with the above example, a fighter can spend an expertise die to knock an enemy prone. Again, it’s harder to justify stunting if there’s a power that does exactly what the stunt would be.
Room to Bloat
The combat superiority mechanic has been in public hands for a month, and there’s already a dozen options for the first five levels. It’s very easy to imagine many, many additional powers being added, quickly covering every conceivable manoeuvre. As mentioned above, the more content there is in the game, the easier it is for a DM to be overwhelmed by potential rule abuse or precedent-setting of a bad call. But there are other issues.
Nature abhors a vacuum and game designers abhor a design gap. They design games: it’s their reason for living, it’s their very nature. When crossing rivers on the backs of frogs, game designers don’t sting but devise games related to river crossing or riding frogs. A fresh blank mechanic calls out to them like sirens calling with an offer of beer and pizza. Content must be created, their imaginations burst with ideas that simply must be added to the game.
Expect many more fighter combat manoeuvres in the future, each one encroaching a little farther into the territory of stunting.
Additionally, fighter combat manoeuvres are unique to the fighter. Currently, only the fighter has tumble. The rogue doesn’t. Let me repeat and emphasise that: rogues cannot tumble in 5e. By sticking the fighter tricks in the fighter section and codifying most combat tricks and stunts as expressions of spent expertise dice, the question becomes: how can rogues pull off a combat stunt? Or a ranger or barbarian or even a wizard? Having separate combat manoeuvres for each class – or even just the weapon-based classes – would lead to the bloat of 4e, where every option or trick was presented two or even three times, sometimes with very little mechanical difference. Having three different versions of fireball with slightly different names was a waste of pages, and having three different versions of “tumble” or “knockdown” is equally problematic.
What’s the solution? There really isn’t one apart from not generating content and deliberately leaving gaps in the rules. This doesn’t seem like a satisfactory solution for much of the audience who clamour more codification.
Moving some of the codification to rules modules might be one option, aiming for a minimum baked-in design and options – such as a minimal number of fighter combat manoeuvres and much overlap across builds – to leave room for improvisation and stunting. This could not just be implied, but would need to be stated outright. There would have to be a codification of the lack of codification to encourage and allow DMs to narratively fill those gaps. Serious advice on improvisation and the balance of certain actions, a look behind the designer’s curtain at what they allowed (and why) and what they purposely did not allow.
I really don’t see that as happening. Gaps last a finite period until the next round of splatbooks – as every accessory needs to add a brand new mechanic – or the next managerial change when the policy of the company shifts. It’s too easy to imagine designers looking at the fighter’s combat expertise mechanic, looking at the rogue and then saying “hey, what if the rogue could give up sneak attack dice to impose conditions?” Suddenly we have additional rogue schemes or feats that offer those options, with rogues trading a dice of sneak damage to knock an enemy prone. And just as suddenly rogues can no longer trip enemies without special training.
Again, as the internet saying goes, your mileage may vary. This may not be a problem or even a potential issue depending on your group and playstyle. But it's worth remembering and musing about during the upcoming months and future playtesting.
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