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D&D 5e: At-Will Attack Options

This post is about one item on the short list of problems I have with 5th edition D&D. On the whole I think the new edition is brilliant, and if there's a list of problems... well, they are fewer in number and less egregious than any edition prior. Specifically, I think that the game would benefit from giving weapon users a second at-will attack option that doesn't involve changing weapons, preferably divorced from class. To my mind, a fighter with a rapier and a rogue with a rapier have enough distinction from class already.
My reasoning couldn't be simpler. I find it dissatisfying when, round after round, a character makes fundamentally the same attack, summed up as, "I attack the (creature name)." One of the players in my campaign found this especially irksome with the ranger, since for the most part the ranger doesn't even need to move; it wasn't until he reached 4th level and bought the Martial Adept feat to give him some per-short-rest abilities that he really started enjoying the class - since he was a Hunter and picked Colossus Slayer, his action each round up to that point boiled down to "shoot" - it's not like Colossus Slayer really presents a choice to the player At the lowest levels, he had few enough spell slots that even hunter's mark and hail of thorns weren't consistently available as options.
The cantrips available to the spellcasting classes help them partially avoid this problem, except that clerics need an attack cantrip other than sacred flame, and warlocks of Tome or Chain need a cantrip option that can compete with eldritch blast. The Agonizing Blast invocation makes eldritch blast much better than any other cantrip option, and that's a problem.
What at-will options do weapon-wielding characters really have? I'm pointedly not including anything that involves spending any kind of currency.

Boiling this down, the ways to attack someone are Attack, Grapple, and Shove. Readying is a good tactical move in many cases, but it still leads to one of the other action options. There a few other options tucked into the Feat list, though:
There are other feats, such as Shield Master and Tavern Brawler, that tack on additional effects when you make a normal attack, but as they don't offer an alternate Attack option, they don't address what I'm getting at here. (Getting to do extra things on your turn is good, but the player isn't making a new choice - they're just adding a new step to their action resolution.)

The difficult thing about adding alternate Attack options is the dice expressions for attack and damage are so very simple, as outlined above. Adding in a +1 or +2 here or there is clearly a mistake in the 5e design environment without a hugely compelling reason - whereas that and things like it were cornerstones of at-will attack design in 4e. Since the whole point of this post is that I really liked something 4e did and I regret its absence in 5e, let me talk a bit about the general trends of at-will attacks in 4e.

At initial release, 4e was built on the assumption that everyone could make melee or ranged basic attacks, but you never need to do this as your action because you always have a better option available, even among your at-will attacks. At-will attacks in 4e carry some additional benefit, sometimes with a tradeoff and sometimes not. Maybe this is a chance to target a defense other than AC (Piercing Strike), a second ability score bonus added to your weapon damage (Sly Flourish), or a free 5-foot push as a result of your hit (Tide of Iron).

Eventually, they released the Essentials line of books, full of builds for classes, attempting to make 4e more like earlier editions while retaining the power-driven framework of 4e. One of main steps of this change was to focus each class on melee basic attacks, with passive bonuses from stances. I disagreed with this change then as I do now, because while that model at least has a stance-shifting choice point, it's a really strange way to store information, and results in stripping the player's attack declaration back down to, "I attack." (Followed by, "Okay, I hit? All of this stuff happens.")

What kinds of variations could we introduce to the standard attack that are, nevertheless, balanced against it? Targeting an alternate defense is interesting, though in 5e that has to get twisted around to making the attack a saving throw, which is really odd. I'm not sure how you'd explain that in the fiction, so I'm veering away from it for a moment.

Players choosing to impose disadvantage on their own attack rolls to gain some other benefit is on the table, but this triggers some of the disconnect between math and player psychology. Disadvantage is really like taking a -3 (or thereabouts) to your attack roll, but I think it feels a lot worse when one of the two dice succeeds and the other fails, because psychologically it always feels like the roll that failed was the "extra" d20, and disadvantage turned a hit into a miss.

Valiant Strike from the 4e Paladin is really cool. Valiant Strike grants a bonus to your attack roll equal to the number of enemies adjacent to you, encouraging the Paladin to square off against as many enemies as possible - just like you'd hope for a defender. On the other hand, this doesn't directly adapt all that well into 5e, what with slowing down play to count adjacent enemies and add them to a roll - and bounded accuracy hates this idea. Flipping the bonus over to damage helps a little, but there's still the danger of slowdown in gameplay.

Numerous 4e at-will powers drop the ability score bonus to damage, and that's definitely an option. What benefit would the attacker gain from this in its place? Actually, the Battle Master subclass has a pretty solid list of rider effects in its Maneuvers. They aren't all appropriate, but some of them certainly are. Let's see where this goes - in each case assuming the attacker has no superiority dice to spend, because that would make these per-short-rest powers rather than at-will powers.

So as I see it, that leaves me with Disarming, Distracting, Goading, Maneuvering, Menacing (with modification), Precision (with modification), and possibly Sweeping (with modification). That's a really nice list of alternate options, given that all the work I really did was looting one page of the Player's Handbook. It's probably too much information load to drop all of these options on a player at first level, so I'd look at granting one or two at first level, and another at odd-numbered levels thereafter, up to five or six at 9th level.

Of course, you may still not buy the premise that characters need these additional options - maybe you and your players have developed an understanding that results in a functional stunt system in your 5e game, since there are no guidelines for such a thing in the books, or maybe you get enough interest out of attack descriptions that don't have any mechanical weight that you don't care. That sounds dismissive, but in all seriousness, if everyone at the table is satisfied, then you're right, you don't need this.

If you've got more ideas for mechanical approaches or maneuvers that could work here, I'd love to hear them.

In a future post, I'll consider the related issues with cantrips that I mentioned above.

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