Grappling in DnD Basic (5e)

Like many others, I downloaded the Basic Rules for DnD. I play in +Erik Tenkar‘s Swords and Wizardry game, was introduced to roleplaying with Basic, Expert, and AD&D in 1980 or so, and will always have a soft spot in my heart for it, even though my system of choice is currently GURPS.

Furthermore, it and its derivatives together and separately make for the 900-lb. gorilla of the RPG world. It’s probably not wrong to say “as goes DnD, thus goes the tabletop RPG market.”

That being said, there’s really only one yardstick for a game: the quality of its grappling rules.


OK. I’m biased. But how are they?

Grappling in DnD Basic

The rules are, in a word, short. This is good, as any set of basic rules should be.

Grappling is not a regular attack, but a special option. It’s a contest: the attacker makes a Strength (Athletics) check, and the defender can choose between Strength (Athletics) and Dexterity (Acrobatics) to resist.

If you win, your foe has the “grappled” condition.

You can break a grapple by wriggling (win a contest of Dexterity (Acrobatics) vs. Strength (Athletics)) or by force (Strength (Athletics) for both combatants.).

Finally, yes, you can move, but at half speed, unless the target is much smaller than you (two or more sizes smaller to be precise).

Being “grappled” is simply and concisely defined. You can’t move, and get no speed bonus . . . and that’s it. The rest of the condition note on p. 105 of the rules is how the grappled condition ends.

Parting Shot

Well, in terms rules, there aren’t many. What do I think?

The Good

The rules are simple. A contest that allows for a grappler to easily determine if he can grapple his target or not. The resistance roll acknowledges the import of both Strength and Dexterity in grappling, which is also good. Escaping a grapple is likewise clear.

The Bad

Grappling in DnD Basic is still binary. It also is an incredibly limited effect – the only thing it seems to do is reduce the target’s mobility to zero, and the grappler’s mobility to half. Not a great trade. The other thing that strikes me as funny, checking the list of conditions, is that there’s a Restrained condition right there on p. 105.

What does Restrained do for you? Speed is zero, attack rolls have advantage on a restrained creature, and creature’s attack rolls are disadvantaged. The creature has disadvantage on Dexterity saving throws.

Honestly, that’s a better model for grappling. So, without further ado

My First House Rule for DnD Basic (5e)

Grappling follows a progression. If you win a contest of Strength (Athletics) vs. Dexterity (Acrobatics) or Strength (Athletics), you may move one level up in a progression from Grappled to Restrained to Incapacitated to Paralyzed. On the defense, you make a similar check, Dexterity or Strength vs. Strength (though allowing an attacker to use Dexterity would be interesting), and can move one level down in that progression. Note that once you’re Incapacitated, you can’t take actions, so you probably can’t try to escape either.

Furthermore, an attacker may make a Strength (Athletics) contest against Strength (Athletics) or Dexterity (Acrobatics) to throw his foe Prone if the condition of the foe is grappled or better. The attacker may choose whether to go Prone as well.

Finally, grappling increases your unarmed damage. If your foe is grappled, your unarmed attacks are at their usual strength (only one point, plus strength bonuses if they apply). If your foe is restrained, your unarmed attacks do 1d4 (plus Strength bonuses), and if they are incapacitated or better, they do 1d6. If your foe is prone, increase the damage category by one level (a prone grappled foe can be injured for 1d4, a prone restrained foe can get 1d6), but never more than 1d6. Damage type is bludgeoning.

In conclusion

It’s not how I’d do it, but the Condition-based building blocks at least give the option of driving from a binary grappled state to a progression of well-defined states that end in the foe being pinned and helpless. The dependence on both Strength and Dexterity on the defensive gives the nod to wriggly grapplers, but the focus on Strength for attacking is well placed.

As presented in Basic, I’d give the grappling rules a D on the usual A, B, C, D, F grading scale. They’re clear, which is good. But the only outcome presented in basic is to remove your foe’s mobility, and that’s of such incredibly limited value that I suspect no one will do it. The rules suggestion of a progression from grappled to paralyzed is an easy tweak, though, and shows the power of the building blocks. The condition-based rules make for easy tweaking and not a lot of confusion, but in order for grappling to be viable, something must be done to the rules as presented. Because right now, they suck.

Gratuitous, Shameless Plug

Of course, I did do something. I wrote a whole book about it.

Dungeon Grappling is available in Print and PDF, and covers 5e, the OSR, and the Pathfinder Roleplaying Game.

10 thoughts on “Grappling in DnD Basic (5e)

  1. I'm sure you have already figured this out now that the PHB is out, but the "grappler" feat allows you to "restrain" the grapplee (both the grappler and the grapplee get this condition, so you had better hope you have more friends around!) giving the grapplee a pretty significant disadvantage. Sounds like he could still attack the grappler normally (as the disadvantage her has to attack would cancel out his advantage to attack the grappler who is also considered to be restrained) so it still has limited usefulness unless the grappler has a bunch of buddies around to pummel the grapplee. Hard to justify a feat for it, but I could see a dedicated bounty hunter type NPC having it and making life miserable for the party. It would be nice if grappled or restrained affected Somatic spell casting, which might make the tactic more useful.

    1. Now, the necessity of the Grappler feat leads me to "The problem of feats" (; I mean, within the explanation of Grappler there is how to grapple and then restrain, but how a DM handles a player trying to do a somewhat sensible action like this one when she's lacking of this specific feat?

  2. I like this progression. I would let the player lacking the Grappler feat to go ahead and attempt it but without using their proficiency bonus. This may dilute the power of the feat somewhat but Grappler could also be made more flexible by adding another maneuver or two.

    1. I'm a big fan of stripping out attribute or proficiency bonuses and letting characters try just about anything. Especially something like grappling ,where just about anyone can TRY it, it's that fighters will be darn good at it, reflected by proficiency bonus.

      You could even go – with Contests rather than damage – with double proficiency for characters with Feats, and single proficiency with characters without. Attack vs flat score doesn't work quite as well with that, but it can probably be done. Actually, it should work well, thinking about it.

  3. Guys, if you want to really annoy the DM, get the magic initiate feat and choose jump as the spell. Cast jump before an encounter. Grapple somebody, then do a running high jump. Throw them down, then land on them. My character is an 8 foot and 520lb warforged, and has 18 str. He jumps 7 feet off the ground, which is tripled from jump to 21 ft. Since you add 1.5x your height to the jump, i would jump 33 feet. That means 3d6 fall damage for the enemy, and falling objects over 200 lbs deal 1d6 per 10ft, so that means you deal a total of 6d6 damage, only using a grapple and some movement, and your enemy is prone.

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