D&D Starter Set: Combat

Ok, Combat chapter.

This was, all in all, pretty darn good. I have some nits to pick, certainly, but I got to the end of it feeling like I had a pretty good handle on how to run a fight. The whole thing felt closer to 3e than anything else, but as that’s a feeling, it’s pretty subjective.

The biggest thing is that this chapter made me a believer regarding the advantage/disadvantage rules. As a rule, by itself, it looks interesting but not too radical – it’s just bonus and penalty dice, after all. But this chapter reveals that the real power is not the specific mechanic but the way it gets talked about (though the mechanic itself is fun). When you dodge, any attack roll has disadvantage. When you help someone, they gain advantage. This is awesome for a couple of reasons:

  • It conveys the idea much more powerfully than fiddling with specific numbers would
  • It’s a state, which means it can easily be used as a trigger for other mechanical effects. The rogue, for example, can do sneak attack when he has advantage.
  • It’s flexible. It can work equally well in detail and position play as it can in handwavey approximation. To continue with the thief example, when backstab requires flanking, it demands positional awareness. When it requires advantage, it’s much more flexible.
  • It speeds up play. The single best piece of advice in 3e (when in doubt, just add +/1 2 and move on) and the best part of 4e (page 42) both centered around conveying the idea that if you’re in a complex situation, it is better to make a ruling and move forward than it is to stop everything and try to make it just right[1], especially when just right might mean a trivial difference than if you guessed. Because the advantage and disadvantage are dice, they feel more approximate, so there is no onus to give the correct bonus or penalty (’Should this be a +2 or a +3?”) so they make it easier for the GM to just rule that something has an advantage or disadvantage and move on.
  • It also improves the reading experience. “Gives advantage” makes sense in english, and conveys a mechanical ideas in a way that is easy to absorb.
  • It’s more forgiving. Chris Gardiner made an observation which absolutely sold me on the dice mechanic. If you forgot about an advantage or disadvantage when you rolled, the means of correcting that is to just roll another die. That, combined with the simplicity (rather than bonus-counting) of the mechanic removes a huge number of hold-ups in play, as a player stops to make sure he’s accounted for all his bonuses.
  • It’s universal. In previous editions, I would have felt weird having actions and saving throws interact because the bonuses weren’t quite the same thing. Now, if I help you in some way that might improve your death save, or help you remember who you really are, then that comfortably translates into an advantage (rather than some fiddly bonus)

I really and truly hope this mechanic is imbedded into the rest of the rules. If it’s not, it’s still a great piece in the toolbox, if only for adjudicating situations on the fly. But it’s a little bit less awesome if there are still going to be piles of bonuses to keep track of. That’s something I’ll keep my eye on when we get into the spells section.

There’s not much of a throughline for the rest, so I think it’s time to break out the bullet points.

  • My biggest single complaint is that I’m not sure that the introduction and explanation of terminology s very well synced. It’s almost certainly not going to be a problem for anyone coming in from another D&D experience, but I imagine it may be a bit confusing for a true novice[2].
  • I’m not yet sure about the game’s relationship with the grid. It feels like they stepped back to older editions, where the grid is a helpful but non-critical idea, but there are still enough references to “moving through a creature’s space” and such that I feel I’m really going to need to see the spells and the adventures to see which way they truly jump.
  • The basics seem solid. The various action options seem to be streamlined down to move (not “move action”, importantly) and action. No free or minor actions, which seems like an intentional streamlining, but that gets undercut by the necessity of including reactions and bonus actions. Which is fine – they don’t complicate things too much, but all such things are a function of trying to balance clarity and simplicity. Given the ways that free actions got abused in 4e (despite having common sense guidelines), I can’t fault this decision.
  • Oh, two weapon fighting, when will you stop haunting us? I now definitely need to check out the rules on shields, because an off hand weapon seems pretty sweet, at least at low level. The potential limiter seems to be the bonus actions rules – since the off hand attack is a bonus action, and you can only get one of those, I imagine that as characters level, that introduces some tradeoffs. But at first level, I have no idea why everyone who isn’t carrying a shield isn’t packing a second weapon.
  • Range is still in feet. Nothing wrong with that, but it would have been in the spirit of some of the other streamlining if they’d abstracted it a little. But, then, abstraction is a hot button for fan response, so I get why they wouldn’t.
  • Death Saves are basically what I was worried they would be. Effectively, it’s “keep making coin flips (slightly weighted in your favor) until you get three heads and live, or 3 tails and die”. I realize that the real purpose of the mechanic is to buy the character time for party members to help stabilize them while still maintaining a level of tension, but my own experience with it is that it’s largely an excuse to make a soda run.
  • That said, the halfling’s “reroll 1s” ability is even more awesome in the context of death saves. Another point for the tiny gods theory.
  • They kept one of the nice 4e rules – when you drop someone to 0 hp, you decide if it’s a kill or a knockout. So much simpler than subdual.
  • Crits double damage before mods. I can live with that.
  • Opportunity Attacks are fuzzy, and if I didn’t already ‘get’ the intent, I’m not sure I’d understand them from this description. They do seem to tie into the reaction economy (they’re a reaction, of which you only get one) so I think their importance is downplayed a bit
  • There’s fiddly stuff in here – visibility, cover and whatnot. I think it’s all about as clear as could be hoped for.

All in all, this is a good section. I dig it. And more, I feel like i’m getting more of an impression of that 5e feels like[3], and that’s pretty fun.

Boilerplate: I skipped the beta. I am writing these as i read each section, which means I will frequently reveal misunderstandings and faulty assumptions.  That is the cost of doing this “live”, so to speak, but I want to capture those impressions, warts and all.


  1. This is not a “system doesn’t matter” argument, just a simple acknowledgement that there may be times when the system is not clear, and you are better off falling back on (hopefully clearly articulated) core principles and making a call then you are to stop and get it ‘right’. This is especially true if the difference between a guess and a “correct” ruling is likely trivial.  ↩
  2. Which absolutely raises the question of how much of the target audience for this is new players vs existing ones, especially existing ones who may have gone to Pathfinder or the OSR. But sadly, raising the question does not answer it.  ↩
  3. So far my sense is that it’s the game that a time traveller would make if they took the knowledge of what 3e and 4e had done (along with other games in that time), went back to the late 90s and pitched 3rd edition D&D (which is why you can still feel the shape of 2e upon it). This impression might be totally upended as I get further along, but it’s my current snapshot.  ↩

7 thoughts on “D&D Starter Set: Combat

  1. Brad J. Murray

    The other thing I like about advantages and disadvantages is that they disconnect the tactics from the grid — they play equally well in an entirely imaginary space as on a grid full of minis.

  2. Cam Banks

    That last time traveler thing is exactly how I have been describing these rules since I played the demo last year at GenCon.

  3. Jonathan

    I like your anecdote from Chris Gardiner. I think this sells me on the advantage/disadvantage mechanics too. Still curious to see how this works out over a few game sessions.

  4. Drew Shiel

    The two-weapon thing has always been oddly handled. In real armed combat (or at least the game-y version of it in the SCA, which is what I’ve done), if you haven’t something in your off hand, you’re at a disadvantage. You can press the attack with a second weapon, or improve your defense with a shield, or put the second hand with the first on a larger weapon – but leaving it idle is just silly. If the rules reflect that, it makes me happy to my simulationist core.

    1. Rob Donoghue Post author

      The rub with all such things is the question of how precisely you’re modeling things. Footwork matters a lot in a real fight too, but we just sort of accept that our imaginary guy is handling it well. Same could just as easily be done with what the off hand is up to.

      Not that I object to sim reasons for off-hand rules, but I feel comfortable saying the real reason for their prominence is a certain moneymaking drow.

      1. Drew Shiel

        I used to think his popularity was a myth, having not read the books. Then I had a player who, despite the warning that mine was a homebrew world where drow had names like Fall of the Stars and Well of Deep Morning, that Evil Matriarchy(tm) had become just female primogenitural inheritance, and that they were more alchemists and psions than anything else, still wanted to play a two-scimitar-wielding renegade male drow who had a pifwaf and a tambuz, or whatever his special magical items are called.

        … in other words, you may be right.


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