Combat Maneuvers – Anything can be attempted (DnD5)

We didn’t have enough people to run Majestic Wilderlands today, so we yakked a bit about magic items and game design. 

One thing that came up was a rules variant, based on the “you got your GURPS in my D&D” concept. But not even really that. The basic philosophy was that of the OSR and the games run before rules were fully codified:

Anything can be attempted.

This is something that GURPS does well with the current combat system, and since +Rob Conley+Daniel McEntee, and I were all quite familiar with the system, it was natural to make analogies. 

Edit: And Rob amplified on his on takeaways from the discussion in a post on Combat Stunts for S&W over on his blog.

But simply: anyone should be able to (for example) trip anyone else. Battle Masters (a Fighter archetype) should be better at it than anyone else. But anyone should be able to try.

I more or less have a theory about combat mechanics. Use what’s there.



Right now, a lot of the maneuvers seem to be “make an attack roll, and add the superiority die to your damage roll; the foe makes a saving throw against the damage roll.


Huh? I mean, I suppose. Most damage rolls are 1d4 to 1d12 plus about 0-5. Sometimes a bit more or less, but that gives a range from 1 to 17 or so. 1d8+6 isn’t too far wrong for a duellist with STR (or DEX for a finesse weapon) 18. That’s about a 10, so not too hard. The 1d8 you add as a Battle Master makes that save closer to 15. Tough but not crazy talk.

This was just a miss on my part. The Battle Master has a saving throw value against which the maneuvers are judged, and is has nothing to do with damage. It’s equal to DC = 8 + your proficiency bonus + your Strength or Dexterity modifier (your choice)

But what if everyone could try this stuff, but the Battle Masters of the world just did it better

That superiority die allows that with no mechanical help, though I think rolling a saving throw against damage is . . . weird.

Alternate Mechanics


There are two parts to this – did you hit, and do you achieve the desired effect. This is akin to an attack roll vs your foe’s AC, followed by a damage roll. So given that we’re used to making two die rolls, we can try and keep it that way. 


On the offense, I’m a big fan of keeping it an attack roll. This is why when +Peter V. Dell’Orto and I did our alternate grappling rules treatment for D&D games, we kept it as an attack vs. AC. It’s simple, it’s precalculated, and everyone gets it.

Should it be harder to trip someone in plate armor and a shield? Probably not . . . but you can deal with that too.

On the defensive side, you’re going to want a fixed target number, so

  • Keep it based on Armor Class. This doesn’t really fit for all situations, but it’s simple.
  • Make it as 15+an attribute modifier of your foe. 
    • Why 15? These “special” attacks should be more difficult to pull off than bashing someone with a sword, and typical AC for a dude in armor is probably more like 16, not 11.
    • What attribute modifier? That depends what you’re doing! A trip or disarm might be resisted by STR or DEX, whichever is better (or see below). A feint might be resisted by WIS.
    • Do you have a special feat? Unarmored Defense should allow adding CON or WIS to your DEX or STR as befitting your class abilities. Alternately as well, martial stuff could be resisted by STR unless you have Martial Arts, in which case you can use DEX if its better (and Martial Arts would make a great independent Feat)
For the special consequences, I think Saving Throw. But what DC?
  • A flat value. 10 or 15 are typical choices
  • The way it is now: DC for battlemaster is 8+Proficiency+Attribute bonus. The way to make this class-specific would be to allow proficiency OR attribute bonus, but not both, for combative characters (those with STR and/or maybe DEX as a primary attribute), and neither proficiency nor attribute bonuses for non-combatives. You could get proficiency and/or attribute bonuses for non-combative characters via Feat selection.
  • A scaled value: 10 plus your foe’s proficiency bonus, so it would vary from 12 to 16
  • A margin of success: 10+ however much the attacker made his roll by! That’s not very D&D-like, but a really good attack roll would have some benefit
If the saving throw is failed, Bad Things Happen. Trips would knock you prone. Disarms . . . well, there you go. Menacing Attacks (a CHA-based or Intimidation-based attack roll?) impose Frightened. A Goading attack would give your foe disadvantage, while a Feint might give you advantage, and a Districting attack still gives a friend advantage – excellent for setting up your friendly neighborhood thief for a Sneak Attack.
Some things might be harder. A Lunging Attack goes for an extra 5 feet. That can be bonus enough – so maybe a Lunging Attack is at a penalty (-5) or at disadvantage (which is more usual for 5e). The expenditure of the superiority die would then put that attack back on even odds with a normal attack, but damage would be unchanged (presumably there’s a reason to extend your reach. 
Parting Shot

I feel the same way about the Battle Master maneuvers that I feel about the -5 to hit in exchange for +10 damage you get from Sharpshooter or Great Weapon Master. This is the sort of trade-off that any character should be able to attempt . . . but those with a Feat (or superiority dice) should be better at than usual.
It makes combat more interesting, more varied, and provides more choices. What should I give up in order to gain somewhere else?
With D&D, you give up something (or gain something) on the hit roll. I take a penalty to hit, or accept disadvantage, in order to gain some other benefit. I can boost my Armor Class (a bonus to defend) or take a penalty to it, but will suffer on my offensive abilities. Dodge already does this – all attacks against you have disadvantage if you give up your ability to attack at all. I can get a boost to damage by taking a penalty to hit. I can do more damage if I spend HP of my own, giving up staying power for myself to take a foe out of the fight faster.
Choices make for fun, varied combats. They can also lead to decision paralysis, which is where one has to be careful in offering up too many – or too complicated – options. But a few simple trades are good. 
And where you have a situation where if you want to get fancy, you can, but if you want to be good at getting fancy, you need to be trained at it (a la Battle Master or the Martial Adept feat).

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