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D&D Basic: Combat and Conditions

This is my fourth post reviewing the D&D Basic rules, including comparison to the last playtest packet. Previous posts have covered races and classes; personality, backgrounds, and equipment; and general rules and adventuring. Judging by the title of the post, I'm probably writing about combat and conditions this time. Like all of the posts in this series, I expect to run on at the mouth keyboard a bit. Unless this is your first-ever visit to Harbinger of Doom (in which case, Hi! tip your servers), now is a rather silly time to be surprised about that. I'm skipping over spellcasting and the spell list for now, because the combat chapter gives me a lot to talk about as is.

In a conversation about D&D Basic a few days ago, I discovered to my chagrin that I had read this chapter well enough to see what's here, but not well enough to notice what isn't. Sort of a... curious incident of the dog in the night-time. Anyway, I'll get to that. There are slight tweaks in the wording of Surprise and Initiative; Surprise is clarified slightly, in case you didn't infer from explications elsewhere how to know which characters perceive one another. Initiative is now technically a Dexterity check (in which, currently, no one is proficient), which is only a change in phrasing. The playtest rules also left some DM discretion on how to handle NPC initiative, but it has been codified a bit more in Basic (a fine change - it's Basic, and clarity trumps options in this one usage). On the whole this text could just about be lifted from 2e, though resolving surprise has gotten a lot less eye-bleeding.

The phrasing on the game's action economy has changed a touch: what was once a swift action is now called a "bonus action," and the rules no longer prevent you from casting a spell with both your action and a bonus action (if any). On the other hand, the text is very clear that you do not have a "bonus action slot" by default; you gain a bonus action only if: "a special ability, spell, or other feature of the game states that you can do something as a bonus action. You otherwise don't have a bonus action to take." I am 95% sure I know what they're trying to say here, but I think the text is misleading. If I'm a cleric who has prepared healing word (casting time: 1 bonus action), can I cast it, or do I have to do something else to gain a bonus action which I can then spend? Now, I'm not an idiot (no matter what you've heard); I think the clear intention is that the spell's casting time being listed as "1 bonus action" satisfies the requirement to receive a bonus action, but... ambiguous wording is ambiguous.

So why don't the rules just say that you get one swift minor bonus action per round, along with your action and your move? Good question, but I get the impression that there was some obscure-to-me blowback during 4e about people feeling like they were wasting a critical part of their action if they didn't have a minor-action power to use. This convoluted wording is here to stop people from feeling bad, basically. (If I'm wrong and there's some compelling reason for all of this business, then cool.)

Swift actions prohibiting characters from casting two spells in a round was one of my personal windmills throughout the playtest. While I don't pretend that my feedback carried extraordinary weight, it's still an important change - especially now that they're giving wizards a few more bonus-action spells. Oh, sure, a wizard can use some weapons, and Rory over at Blog of Holding has argued compellingly that low-level wizards should still use light crossbows. Given the particular spells that have bonus-action casting times, though, it would have been nonsensical to lock out other spellcasting.

EDIT: Astute Reader John Coleman has pointed out to me that the Spellcasting chapter indicates that on any round that you cast a spell with a bonus action, cantrips are the only spells you can cast with your main action. This is less bad than the playtest's rule, but unless they're planning to blow the doors wide open on what you can cast with your bonus action, this is unnecessarily restrictive.

We're not quite done with the action economy, though, because technically you get one other kind of action up to once per round. They really buried the lead on this one, but in the paragraph on Other Activity on Your Turn, they mention that you can interact with one object or environmental feature per round for free, and any interaction beyond that costs your action. In D&D, when you can do a category of things once per round, it's not free. It's an independent class of actions. Also, what's up with drawing only one weapon "for free" on your turn? Do they seriously intend for it to take a whole turn of actions (freebie + action) or two separate turns' worth of free object interactions to draw both your rapier and main-gauche? That doesn't pass the sniff test; I choose to conclude that they just didn't consider the use case of the two-weapon fighter.

I do like that they give a sample list of things you could do with your free action in a sidebar, at least - this is sort of a new rules concept and guidance helps. On the other hand, they seem to overlook how important some of these applications are - this is how they stored rules for recovering a weapon that has been disarmed or fishing a potion out of your backpack. (This just in: Heward's Handy Haversack now 50% less necessary.) Don't get me wrong: this is some of the most excellent simplification D&D has ever received. This may be the first time since 2e came out (1989) that a new edition of the rules (of any tabletop game) is indisputably simpler than that which preceded it.

One important application of bonus actions is two-weapon fighting. Your off-hand weapon attack uses a bonus action - which means that it isn't multiplied by a fighter's Extra Attack or Action Surge - good fix there, nine attacks in a round (ten with haste) is more than enough. On the other hand, this steers rogues away from two-weapon fighting pretty strongly, since Cunning Action is such a central aspect of rogue gameplay. (In the balance, rogues may still want to consider it - that second attack is a way to make damn sure that they land their Sneak Attack damage this round. If at first you don't succeed, stab, stab again.)

I'm also surprised to see two-weapon fighting limited so that both weapons must be Light. I predict they will eventually either change this rule to what it should be (main hand can be any one-handed weapon; off-hand must be light or a shield), or they'll introduce a workaround to reintroduce shield-bashing. The other really obvious use case that this prevents is rapier-and-dagger, one of the few two-weapon fighting styles that saw real-world use.

Now, this rule is the same as in the playtest packet - in the playtest, you solve this problem by waiting until fourth level and buying the Dual Wielder feat (as well as the Shield Master feat, if you want to shield bash), which does some other stuff in addition to letting you finally use your favored fighting style. There's nothing crazy or special about this fighting style, and certainly not enough to justify making you wait until fourth level just to get your character image right. "Just spend a feat on it" is a terrible solution to any problem of this kind - remember how the whole Feats system is supposed to be optional? At most, you get seven of these things, so they should be setting you apart rather than granting basic functionality.
Brief Digression: How much weird shit have D&D designers been forced to do to the rules on fighting styles, over the years, all because R.A. Salvatore didn't check the rules or basic physics to see if two scimitars made any sense?
Huh, interesting: moving through any creature's space is difficult terrain. A hostile creature's space is outright impassible unless it is two size categories larger or smaller than you. This amuses me to no end - halflings and gnomes experience completely different gameplay than medium-size creatures do with Large creatures, and vice versa. Also huh - and I wonder if this is just a Basic thing that will change in the DMG, or if it's a system-wide change - size categories mean the same thing they did in 3.x and 4e, but they only range from Tiny to Gargantuan. Diminutive and Fine don't come up all that much, but Colossal is good to have on hand. (But then, sizes don't carry automatic stat adjustments as they did in 3.x. From what we've seen, 5e monster design is descriptive rather than derivative; that is, the DM adjusts numbers to adequately describe the concept at hand, rather than deriving statistics from tables and exhaustively detailed rules.)

The sidebar on playing on a grid makes the opposite choice from the playtest packet: in Basic, diagonal movement costs one square of Speed (4e-style), where the playtest packet favored 3.x-style diagonal movement, costing 1.5 squares of Speed for every square moved diagonally. It does specify that the DMG will include rules for both. It's almost like they know that the people who like each approach really, really like each approach, and will casually commit murder at the game table to see that their preference wins out. This is seen as disruptive to gameplay, to say nothing of quarterly sales numbers, so they're willing to let you have it either way (if you're going to play with a grid in the first place.)

Moving on to the specific ways you can spend your action, they've cut Charge, Coup de Grace, and Hinder. They've renamed Hustle to Dash and Use an Item to Use an Object; the text of Use an Object also takes into account all of the business about interacting with objects for free that I mentioned before. Grapple and Knock Down were reorganized to live within the Attack action. Way back at the start of this post, I mentioned something missing, and it's been missing for a good while at least: Delay. Right now, there's no explicit way to move your initiative later into the round, or to the top of the next round - Readying an Action makes your action into a reaction instead, and doesn't change your initiative. To be fair, Delay is a non-action, but the ability to delay and go whenever you want in a turn is one of the advantages of winning initiative in the first place.

D&D Basic has rules for ranged attacks while in melee range: such attacks do not provoke opportunity attacks, but the attack suffers disadvantage, as the opponent tries to foul your shot. As Mearls mentioned in... some Legends & Lore post or other, OAs have been hugely simplified because a table lookup to see if an action provokes is terrible for the flow of action. It's probably still enough of a discouragement that people mostly won't use ranged weapons at melee distance.

The next change of any note is Grappling. I've noted before that D&D has a lot of legacy issues with grappling, especially with allowing a highly specialized grappler to completely dominate the contest with a non-specialized grappler. D&D Basic shows every sign of trying to cut off that kind of deep specialization-as-optimal play, so how did they do here? Well, let's assume you only choose to initiate a grapple if you think you have some chance of success. Karl, a 17th-level fighter, has thusly specialized: 20 Strength and proficiency in Athletics, putting him at +11. (Quick note, because this is a big deal: skills scale exactly like attack rolls, so this doesn't break the math! Until we're talking about magic items, and there could certainly be items that grant grapple bonuses.) The weakest possible defense is a character with low Strength and low Dexterity, who is proficient in neither Athletics nor Acrobatics. 3 Str and Dex isn't all that reasonable, so let's assume that Karl's enemy, Victor Timothy, has an 8 in one of those stats and no proficiency. +11 vs. -1? Okay, a 12-point edge is pretty dominating, but it isn't the whole spread of the d20. Score one for Bounded Accuracy, I guess?

I'm dubious about contested rolls for grappling and shoves. I think it's not too unreasonable to say that, if you're habitually going to be in melee combat, you really need to be proficient in either Athletics or Acrobatics. I wonder if these rolls count as attacks for the purposes of automatic success on a 20 or failure on a 1?

Critical hits have changed up a lot, with a marginal net gain that is wildly more swingy. It initially looks like it should make a bigger difference on the averages than it does, but the real effect is to - depending on your view - either slow down play or increase excitement. Check my math here:

This has a couple of other effects. Abilities that let you reroll damage dice, such as the Great Weapon fighting style, can potentially come up more often, thus stabilizing damage upward but also increasing the mathematical complexity of the asskicking. In the playtest model, crits would make the Great Weapon fighting style less beneficial; here, they increase its use greatly. Flat adds are much less desirable than dice adds in 5e-style crits than they were in 3.x (where crits doubled flat adds). 

Finally, with very large dice equations, I see why they really didn't want to open the door to spell crits - a crit on a cone of cold (8d8) could keep us all here awhile, since I would bet that most people don't own eight 8-sided dice, so they're rolling in four sets of four, if not eight sets of two. (Also, if a dragon could crit with a breath weapon, fuhgeddaboutit.) At the same time, I find it a little disappointing, because one of the thrilling parts of gameplay is closed off to spellcasters, as well as being closed off as a hook for magic item design. An attack roll can miss, hit, or crit; the saving throw that is its closest cognate can only hit or (usually) partially-hit, unless the target has Evasion or whatever. I might think about a crit effect if the target rolls a 1 to save, and make the crit effect something other than "roll all damage dice twice."

Damage types haven't changed, but I note the absence of a clear "constriction" damage source, since calling it "bludgeoning" is an awkward fit, and a "bleeding" damage source (noting that bleeds often retain the damage type of their originating attack). Of course, I can't currently prove that either of these damage types would even be necessary in 5e, but I'd be surprised if they weren't eventually useful for some creature or ability.

The rules for death from massive damage have been stable for... maybe the entire playtest. I'm on record as being no friend of 3.x's (and 2e's, for that matter) massive damage rules, so how do these measure up? Well, I like that massive damage isn't a workaround to the hit point pool, for starters. The thing I hated about massive damage was that in high-level 3.x D&D, 50 damage is just not that big of a deal anymore ("Empowered fireball says you bitches can, on average, suck it"), and I have no real interest in a metagame around fights coming down to who is first to roll a 1 on a massive-damage Fortitude save, you know? No, 5e's massive damage numbers are a workaround to death saves. (With an ability cap of 20 on Constitution, PCs shouldn't reach the really obnoxiously high hit point totals... until there's enough demand for levels 21+, anyway.) 

I think I like the fact that massive damage gets pretty hard to reach at a certain point, and there's no other coup de grace move in the game. This makes a huge difference in keeping the power of hold person (a mere second-level spell!) in-bounds - you could have the whole party focus attacks on the held target and deal automatic crits with melee attacks, but at least their ability to deal damage still matters. This benefits players immensely as well - a pair of ghouls can't tag-team poor Victor Timothy (paralysis followed by a coup de grace) before any of Vic's allies can intervene. Sure, Vic is still screwed, and might still die from Ghoul #2's critical hit. 5e ghouls aren't toothless, but they don't obviate hit point totals the way 3.x ghouls could. 
If you need an argument to realism, how about this - it's a lot easier to put a weapon, shield, or for that matter your whole body between Vic and Ghoul #2 than turn-based combat or grid positioning really support.
I think this is the first time we've had rules for mounted combat or underwater combat in 5e. The rules presented here feel very... clean. The designers have shown what I would call exceptional discipline in keeping things simple - these rules won't satisfy the hard-line simulationist, but for those of a less extreme stance, these rules are easy to parse at a glance. If a DM didn't remember the rule exactly and didn't want to look it up, a basic familiarity with advantage and disadvantage would lead to the DM making a call pretty close to by-the-book, thanks to consistent use of simple and straightforward building blocks. The only disappointing things are that there are no suggestions of what Animal Handling might let you do while mounted, and fighting in water grants resistance to fire but has no effect on lightning - a nigh-universal interaction in other gaming media. These are not a huge deal, though.

Finally, Conditions. D&D Basic has fifteen conditions listed here, which do represent the overwhelming majority of temporary states that a character can (currently) suffer: fourteen negative, one positive (invisibility). So... I like that there's a Conditions list, but I think they should have doubled down on this and moved more conditions out of spell descriptions and into this list. Haste comes to mind - sure, there's no way outside of the haste spell to generate that effect right now, but it's not implausible in the longer term, and why have a condition list if you're going to have to dig through the spell list for a bunch of the conditions anyway? Slow isn't part of D&D Basic, though it was in the playtest packet and it's one of those legacy spells that is guaranteed to resurface. I expect we'll see conditions modeled on slow showing up in non-spell sources, so it's a good candidate for the list too. There are probably a lot of others I could come up with if I set to it, so I'll stop at disease of any or all kinds, etherealness, and en flambe (currently only an effect from alchemist's fire).

One more thing, because I nitpick like a boss (we've all had that boss, and I am already sorry I compared myself to him or her). If you're going to list Prone here (which is wise), restate the rules for purging this effect. If a character suffers a negative condition, include the fix for that condition in the most logical place to look for that information. The text mentions that you can stand up to end the condition, yes - what I'm getting at is that standing up costs half your Speed for the round. They get really close to doing this with the Grappled condition, but they stop short and don't list using Athletics or Acrobatics to break a grapple here. Now, it's possible that they're planning for effects that render you prone and keep you there, or grapples that those skills can't break... but they'd already have to clarify the hell out of that in the new cause of the effect, so they might as well write the Condition list around the currently-universal case.


In the balance, the Combat and Conditions sections are handled well. I have my nitpicks with them, many of which may be unjust because this is Basic. I do think they've phrased things awkwardly in places, such as the presentation of the action economy. There's nothing here that damages 5e's credibility or function overall - and the Combat chapter (of other games, especially earlier editions) has often been the source of subtle but enduring problems and staggering complexities.

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