Tag Archives: advantage and disadvantage

Daggerheart vs. the MCDM RPG vs. D&D: A Playtest Comparison

If games to suit every play style and new games bringing fresh ideas makes a golden age, then the best time for gamers is now. In the past weeks, I’ve played preview releases of two upcoming games: the MCDM RPG championed by Matt Colville with lead designer James Introcaso, and the Daggerheart RPG championed by Matt Mercer with lead designer Spenser Starke. Both games play in the same genre and style as D&D, but each aims to prove more fun for certain styles of play. The MCDM RPG seeks to recreate some of the tactical play exemplified by fourth edition D&D in fast-paced, cinematic battles. Daggerheart targets a more narrative, rules-light style that fosters heroic moments and chances for players to reveal their characters.

Core mechanics

The core mechanics of these games target 3 common gripes about the core mechanic of D&D.

  • A lack of degrees of success or failure limits the potential outcomes of a check.
  • Players experience a feel-bad moment when they miss and lose their opportunity to do something interesting on their turn.
  • The swinginess of D&D’s d20 mechanic, which can make experts look inept and zeros look like heroes.

Degrees of success

In Daggerheart’s core mechanic, players roll a pair of 12-sided dice and add the numbers. If the total exceeds a target number, then the roll succeeds. Aside from the different dice, this resembles a d20 check, but Daggerheart adds a twist. One of the d12s is marked as the Hope die and the other the Fear die. The die that rolls higher adds Hope or Fear to the result. Whether or not a roll succeeds, a roll with Hope brings a boost in the form of a Hope token players can spend to benefit their character. A roll with Fear brings complications, potentially success at a price. The game master gains a fear token they can spend to make the character’s predicament more difficult. Hope and Fear create a range of heroic moments and setbacks that players and game masters can use to inspire storytelling.

Games with such success-with-complications, fail-forward mechanics weigh game masters with the extra creative burden of improvising complications to pair with success. For combat rolls though, Daggerheart gives GMs who gain Fear a menu of complications to select. The first complication is that players lose initiative, something this post will discuss later.

The MCDM RPG bakes degrees of success into the game’s power roll mechanic. The higher the sum of 2d6, the better the degree. They even have names for the degrees: tier 1, tier 2, and tier 3. Perhaps they considered reaching to older games like Marvel Super Heroes for tier names like good, excellent, and remarkable, but for one type of rolls tier 1 means a small success, and for another type, tier 1 means failure. The game features two types of power rolls: ability rolls, which correspond to D&D’s attack rolls, and tests, which correspond to D&D’s ability checks. Ability rolls don’t have a chance of failure, which leads to the second common gripe levelled at the D&D’s core d20 mechanic.

No missed attacks

The MCDM RPG tries to eliminate the down moments when a player misses an attack and wastes their turn. All ability rolls succeed, with an outcome that determines a degree of success and sets an amount of damage. Without damage rolls, the system plays faster. No one likes to lose a turn to a miss, but in play I found that the lack of failure in attack rolls made combat feel less compelling. The reason comes down to something psychologists call intermittent reinforcement where a behavior like rolling attacks earns inconsistent and unpredictable rewards. Intermittent reinforcement built the casinos along the Las Vegas Strip and it’s why no one would play a slot machine that returns exactly $0.97 every time you drop a dollar. To be fair, the version of the MCDM RPG I played used a different combat mechanic where players just rolled damage, so even the biggest roll on a formula like 2d6+6 yielded just 5 more points than average. The new mechanic allows bigger results for big rolls and undoubtedly plays better.

Swingy d20s

Both the MCDM RPG and Daggerheart adopt core mechanics that have players rolling two dice and summing the total. In the MCDM RPG it’s 2d6; in Daggerheart it’s 2d12. Both games have a good reason to avoid the single d20 roll in D&D. When you roll 2 dice and sum the results, numbers in the middle become much more common, creating a bell curve. When you roll just one 20-sided die, extreme results prove just as common as average results. That leads to the sort of wacky outcomes that frequently seen in D&D games where the mighty thewed barbarian slams into the door, rolls a 2, and bounces off. Next, the pencil-necked gnome wizard kicks the door, rolls an 18 and it crashes open. With a d20 roll, the roll swamps the influence of a character’s abilities. Some d20 games try to reward expert characters by giving them very high modifiers. A character with something a +15 skill bonus stands out from one with no bonus, but then to challenge that character, GMs need difficulty classes like 30, which become completely unreachable for most characters. So high-level adventures start including impossible obstacles for parties that lack the right sort of character. (See Why D&D’s d20 Tests Make Experts Look Inept and How to Make the Best of It.)

By adding two die rolls to get a bell curve of results, expert characters start to feel like experts who reliably succeed, and average characters need extraordinary luck to accomplish difficult tasks. All that happens without forcing the game to set difficulties that make tasks impossible for average characters.

Advantage and disadvantage.

Gamers love how fifth edition’s advantage and disadvantage mechanic streamlines all the fiddly +1 and +2 modifiers included in earlier editions of the game. The new edition also removes past rules for how these modifiers stack. Instead, advantage and disadvantage provide a simple, compelling alternative. It’s a blunt adjustment, but considering how swingy d20 rolls are anyway, the coarse mechanic hardly seems to matter in play.

To me, and apparently to the designers of the MCDM RPG and Daggerheart, the worst part of advantage and disadvantage stems from how it never stacks. If a character has a consistent way of gaining advantage, other decisions, tactics and character traits that grant advantage stop mattering. The game feels flat. This is why cover—an easy advantage to consistently gain—typically imposes a -2 penalty rather than imposing disadvantage on attackers.

In Daggerheart, advantage and disadvantage don’t entirely wash out. If a character has two sources of advantage and one source of disadvantage, they still gain one advantage die. Because of the 2d12 bell curve, small modifiers make bigger differences, so advantage means just rolling an extra d6 and adding the results.

In the MCDM RPG, the 2d6 rolls provide an even narrower range of numbers, so the design team settled on modifying the roll with up to two edges of + 1 or two banes of –1. That feels less exciting than rolling extra dice, but it worked best in testing.


Both Daggerheart and the MCDM RPG attempt to improve on D&D’s cyclical initiative system.

In the MCDM RPG, characters can go in any order as decided by their players. The game master takes a turn after each of the character’s turns. In D&D, when a solo monster rolls a poor initiative, the entire party gets to unleash their best spells and attacks first, potentially turning an exciting fight into a quick execution. The MCDM RPG’s alternating initiative prevents such a letdown while providing a more consistent experience.

Daggerheart goes for a looser system that feels even more freewheeling and narrative. Players can take a turn whenever they like. One player can even take multiple turns in a row. I suspect the designers intend to enable heroic moments where characters can string actions into sequences that feel cinematic without the game’s turn order interrupting each moment with 10 minutes of everyone else’s turns.

This goal doesn’t always happen, because a roll with Fear gives the next turn to the GM, but with a bit of luck the game can unlock cinematic, heroic moments.

Naturally, some gamers worry that such a loose system will encourage players to hog the spotlight, and certainly that fear seems valid. I’ve played games where one player with the party’s best interests at heart tried to help us “win” by dominating the action like a superior basketball player might try to help the team by taking every shot.

Still, D&D became a better game when designers stopped trying to fix obnoxious players. Most players strive to share the spotlight. However, the real trouble is that both MCDM and Daggerheart’s systems threaten to slow the game’s pace during combat.

Before third edition, most D&D groups used side initiative, so the party and the DM each rolled a die and the side with the best roll went first. During a party’s initiative, they decided the characters’ turns to act. Most tables rolled initiative every round, and that added some exciting uncertainly, but all this added friction. Third edition’s lead designer Jonathan Tweet says, “It takes forever to go through the round because no one knows who’s next and people get dropped.”

The third-edition team decided to try a rule that originated in some West Coast D&D variants like the Warlock rules devised at Caltech and the Perrin Conventions created by future Runequest designer and D&D contributor Steve Perrin. That variant was cyclical initiative where everyone rolls to establish an order and the order stays the same throughout the fight. “It feels more like combat because it’s faster. By the end of the turn, by the end of the 5 hours playing D&D, you’ve had way more fun because things have gone faster.”

Fifth edition’s initiative system removes decision making to make play faster. Unlike in past editions, players can’t even delay their turns. The designers imposed this restriction to speed the pace of combat.

Designer Monte Cook says, “If you can look at something that happens 20, 30, 50 times during a game session, and eliminate that or decrease it hugely, you’re going to make the game run faster, more smoothly. That idea is now a big part of my game designer toolbox.”

Combat escalation

In D&D, major battles typically start with characters unleashing their most powerful spells and abilities, sometimes turning a climactic showdown into an anticlimactic beat down. But if the foes survive and the fight wears on, depleted characters start grinding with basic attacks. Instead of rising excitement, the game sputters. Both the MCDM RPG and Daggerheart give characters resources that can replenish or even increase during combat. In the MCDM RPG, various heroic resources like rage can increase; in Daggerheart Hope can increase. Especially in the MCDM RPG, this helps create a sense of escalating action in battles. Meanwhile, a growing stack of Fear tokens can lead to a growing sense of peril.

The MCDM RPG even adds a resource called victories that makes characters stronger as they press on during an adventuring day. Instead of encouraging a 5-minute adventuring day, the system encourages players to test their limits like real heroes.

Resolution transparency

When I played Daggerheart, my character Garrick included a feature that seemed intended to foster looser, more narrative play. His battle strategist feature made him especially good at combat maneuvers like shoves, grapples, and trips. However, the playtest lacks any rules for these sorts of maneuvers. Perhaps I’m shackled to an outdated mindset, but I feel more comfortable playing in a system where I understand how my character’s actions will be resolved. If every use of an ability means that the GM and I must improvise a fair way to resolve the action, then I’m inclined to skip delaying the game for that discussion.

Ability scores

Both Daggerheart and the MCDM RPG use ability scores that parallel the scores used in D&D. Both systems take advantage of their clean-sheet designs to replace some of the scores’ names with more suitable terms. For example, both systems replace Charisma with Presence, a term that removes the implication of comeliness, leaving just force of personality. Daggerheart makes another interesting revision. It replaces Dexterity with two scores: Agility and Finesse. In D&D, Dexterity proves too valuable, so players build quick characters and the PCs in play show less variety. By turning Dexterity into two scores, Daggerheart gives each score a more equal value in the game. Daggerheart drops another score that D&D makes too valuable: Constitution. Every D&D character is alike in boasting a stout Constitution, and that means the score does little to make characters distinct. Instead, in Daggerheart, a character’s hit points mainly depend on their class.


D&D makes dropping to zero hit points easy but dying—except at first level—nearly impossible. This makes difficult battles into unintentionally comical scenes where characters keep flopping to the ground, presumably at death’s door, only to be repeatedly revived. The rules even inspire a counterintuitive strategy where a player might refuse to heal friends until they lay dying because damage below 0 heals for free. This robs any sense of peril from going near death. Players with a dying character worry more about losing a turn than losing a character. If no one bothers to pour a potion in your character’s mouth, then rolling a death save instead of taking an action provides D&D’s ultimate feel-bad moment.

When a D&D character defies the odds and really dies, the game tends to make the big moment into the anticlimactic result of a series of lost turns and bad death saves. We want characters to die in heroic blazes of glory that feel cinematic rather than by bleeding out into the dirt.

Both Daggerheart and the MCDM RPG introduce rules for death and dying that vastly improve on D&D by giving characters a shot at a heroic finale.

In the MCDM RPG, a character with 0 or less Health becomes unbalanced. They can still act but most actions cost them 5 more Health. If the negative Health value reaches half their Health maximum value, they die. This challenges players to decide how much they wish to press their luck. Should a character risk a blaze of glory or shrink back to safety? Characters die because they dared for glory.

Daggerheart gives characters with no hit points a choice of death moves:

  • They can take an action, gain an automatic critical success, and then die.
  • They can risk their lives on a die roll. If they roll Hope, they regain Hit Points; if the roll Fear, they die.
  • They can drop unconscious and “work with the GM to describe how the situation gets much worse.” This option risks permanently reducing your character’s capacity for Hope by one. New Characters can accumulate up to 5 Hope tokens. If that capacity ever drops to 0, the hopeless character must end their journey.

When designers create D&D’s sixth edition, they should look to Daggerheart and the MCDM RPG for inspiration, but until then these rules count as the best ideas to steal for your game.

Durable first level characters

In D&D, first level characters are a durable as soap bubbles, so new players typically enter the game at its most dangerous. New players who lose characters often have a bad play experience and decide D&D isn’t the game for them. They might be wrong, but they walk away anyway. Both the MCDM RPG and Daggerheart make new characters durable, a feature that D&D gained with fourth edition and lost with fifth. If you’re listening to me now, you might be a D&D enthusiast who lost characters in their first game and kept playing, so you might argue that I am making a problem out of nothing, but that’s survival bias that ignores all the potential fans who quit because their characters died during their first session. None of those folks are reading this post now.

As for my first games of the MCDM RPG and Daggerheart, both games left me ready for more.

The 9th-Level Spell that Breaks D&D (It’s Not Wish)

When Magic the Gathering players talk about broken cards, they mean ones powerful enough to dominate games so that every competitive deck either includes the card or focuses on countering it. These cards break the game by destroying the options that make playing fun. D&D includes some spells that suck fun from the game, but nothing that ruins it.

Still, foresight breaks D&D. I don’t mean that it’s over-overpowered; 9th level spells should deliver wahoo powers that feel a bit overpowered. In the words of lead designer Jeremy Crawford, “High-level spells are often just whack-a-doo on purpose.” (I’ll bet he didn’t expect to be quoted on that one.)

By broken, I mean that foresight makes D&D dull, and a 9th-level spell should always add excitement. Even if the spell’s power wrecks an encounter, the magic should feel game breaking and thrilling. Foresight just feels game breaking and boring.

For 8 hours, the target of foresight “can’t be surprised and has advantage on attack rolls, ability checks, and saving throws. Additionally, other creatures have disadvantage on attack rolls against the target for the duration.”

Fifth edition’s rules for advantage and disadvantage streamline the game by eliminating the fiddly pluses and minuses that older editions imposed on attacks and checks. While the old modifiers added realism, they slowed play and seldom made a difference.

To gain even more quick simplicity, multiple sources of advantage and disadvantage don’t stack. At most they offset, leading to a straight roll. Usually that works because multiple advantages and disadvantages come infrequently. (For instances where this rule creates illogical situations, see numbers 12 and 10 of the 13 of the Craziest Quirks in the Dungeons & Dragons Rules.)

The simple approach falters when some ongoing factor adds advantage or disadvantage to every roll. Suddenly other circumstances stop affecting the odds. D&D’s designers recognized this when they opted to have cover impose a minus to attacks rather than disadvantage. They wanted a factor as common as cover to stack with all the other situations that can create advantage and disadvantage in a fight.

During my D&D weekend, when two level-20 wizards benefited from the 8-hour duration of foresight and spent an entire adventure with advantage, I realized how much less interesting the game became. Foresight eliminates all motivations to seek an edge. By erasing fifth-edition’s foundation of advantage/disadvantage, foresight nullifies the effect of too many decisions, tactics and character traits.

Incidentally, the 3rd-edition version of foresight gave just a +2 bonus to AC and Reflex saves—at 9th level! Instead of a broken spell that sucked the fun from D&D, the spell just sucked.

“I Assist” Isn’t an Improved Guidance Cantrip that Anyone Can Cast

In episode 124 of the Down with D&D podcast, hosts Shawn Merwin and Chris Sniezak discussed a scene that reoccurs at my tables too. “In a lot of games that I’ve run, everyone is always assisting every check they possibly can,” Shawn explains. “Someone tries to do something, and someone will just pipe up, ‘I assist.’”

This pattern brings advantage to every check, trivializing the game’s challenges. Because no one needs to engage with the game world to gain an edge, routine assistance discourages ingenuity.

Chris Sniezak offers a potential remedy: “When someone says that they want to help, the first question that the dungeon master should ask is, ‘How do you help?’”

Ask players to describe how they assist, and then grant—or deny—advantage based on whether the assistance could help. The Dungeon Master’s Guide explains, “You decide whether a circumstance influences a roll in one direction or another, and you grant advantage or impose disadvantage as a result.” Rather than making “I assist” a real-world incantation that grants advantage, judge assistance as a circumstance that might merit advantage.

Photo by Mykola Swarnyk

If a character tries to climb from a frozen river onto the ice, a hand up will probably help. Encouragement shouted from the shore probably won’t.

Describing the assistance immerses players in the game world and helps the story come alive.

Specific actions to assist might expose a helper to danger. Offering a hand out of that river would mean crawling onto the cracking ice. Often, assistance means coming in range of a potential trap.

Unlike past Dungeons & Dragons rules, fifth edition lets characters assist without a required check. Nonetheless, the actions made to assist might require a check. Suppose a helper chooses not to risk the thin ice and opts to throw a rope instead. Casting a rope to a sinking character’s flailing hands might require a dexterity check.

In an ideal game, players describe their actions and DMs respond by calling for ability checks. This protocol extends to assisting. The player describes how they help, and then the DM grants advantage. Typically, I don’t insist on this order, so I happily ask players how they help. But during role-playing interaction, I stick to the protocol.

After a player acts in character to persuade a non-player character, I don’t let bystanders volunteer to assist the check. Only characters with speaking parts—the characters who contributed to a scene—get to assist. When two or more characters contribute to an interaction, I typically grant advantage without a player request. Sometimes I accept a reminder.

The D&D rules offer two alternatives to assistance.

Group checks come when everyone might need to make at a check. The rule assumes skilled characters assist the rest, so only half the group needs to succeed.

The second alternative is letting everyone make an attempt. After all, helping someone search a room amounts to two separate searches. Rolling two separate lockpicking attempts makes more sense than letting one character assist by encircling the rogue from behind to guide her hand like a creepy golf instructor.

Unless time, skill, or other circumstances limit an attempt to a couple of party members, separate roles usually offer better odds. But consider this: If everyone in the party enjoys time to make a check in safety, why even bother making the check? Do you just want to give everyone a chance to roll?

Sometimes I do that. Everyone likes to roll. I wonder how many players liked the old assistance rules better just because the helper gets to roll?

Five new or different rules in the fifth-edition Dungeons & Dragons game

With the launch of the fifth edition of Dungeons & Dragons, the designers hosted panels at Gen Con 2014 introducing the game to new and returning players. You can listen to designers Rodney Thompson and Greg Bilsland at one of these sessions recorded by the Tome Show Podcast.

During the discussions, the designers listed 5 new or different things in the new edition. This post recaps that list.

First though, the designers explained the game’s core: Whenever a character’s action has an uncertain outcome, you roll a twenty-sided die (d20), add a bonus, and try to reach a target number. If your roll plus your bonus equals or exceeds the number, you succeed. In the game, players make three types of d20 rolls following this mechanic.

  • When your character tries to strike an enemy in combat, an attack roll determines whether the attack hits. To succeed, an attack roll must equal or exceed a foe’s armor class.
  • When your character attempts a task with a chance of failure, an ability check determines success. To succeed, an ability check must equal or exceed a difficulty class.
  • When your character resists a spell, trap, poison, disease, or similar danger, a saving throw determines whether the character succumbs. To succeed, a saving throw must equal or exceed a difficulty class.

As players make these d20 rolls on behalf of their characters, the dungeon master makes these rolls for the monsters.

These mechanics existed in earlier editions, but the fifth edition makes five, key additions:

1. Advantage and Disadvantage

When something in the game world improves your chance of hitting, succeeding at a task, or avoiding a threat, you gain advantage on your d20 roll. When you have advantage, you roll two twenty-sided dice and use the highest of the two die rolls. For example, when your foe cannot see you and properly defend, you might gain advantage on an attack . Similarly, when circumstances hurt your chance of success, you suffer disadvantage. When you have disadvantage, you roll two d20 and use the lowest of the two rolls.

Advantage and disadvantage don’t multiply. Even if you gain advantage from more than one source, you never roll more than two d20 dice. You cannot stack advantages. Likewise, If you suffer disadvantage from two sources, you still just roll two d20 and take the lowest. If you both gain advantage and suffer disadvantage on the same roll, they cancel and you roll one d20. Any number of sources of advantage and disadvantage cancel each other out, leading to rolling one d20. This spares players from having to count advantages and disadvantages.

Advantage and disadvantage replace most of the pluses and minuses that appeared in earlier editions, but the mechanic does not apply to cover. A target with half cover gains a +2 bonus to AC and dexterity saving throws. A target with three-quarters cover gains a +5 bonus to AC and dexterity saving throws. For more on this design choice, see “How cover and tool proficiency reveal choices in fifth-edition design.”

Reason for change. Third-edition D&D featured long lists of pluses and minuses that applied when the situation affected an attack or check. While these modifiers added realism, they slowed play, seldom made a difference, and were often overlooked. Fifth edition drops all the fussy calculation for advantage and disadvantage. While less of a simulation than a tally of pluses, the new mechanic plays quickly and eliminates math and memory demands.

“I just invented a new D&D term: Sadvantage. That’s when you have advantage and still can’t hit.” – Greg Bilsland.

2. Spellcasting and spell slots

Except for Rangers and Paladins, every spellcaster knows a number of cantrips. Cantrips can be cast at will, as often as desired. More powerful spells cost spell slots to cast.

Every spellcaster has a number of spell slots they spend to cast spells. As Rodney Thompson explains, slots are the fuel characters burn to cast spells. Spell slots have a level and you can spend them to cast a spell of equal level or lower. For example, you can spend a second-level slot to cast either a first or second level spell.

Many spells become more powerful when cast with a higher-level spell slot. For example, the first-level Magic Missile spell shoots another missile when cast with a second-level slot. Unlike in third edition, spells never grow more powerful simply because a higher-level caster throws them. Only spending a higher-level slot boosts their power.

Characters regain spell slots after a long rest.

Preparing spells. Characters in most classes must prepare spells before they can cast them. When you cast a spell, you spend a spell slot, but the spell remains prepared. Unlike in earlier editions, you can cast a prepared spell more than once, as long as you still have slots to spend. After a long rest, you can change the spells you have prepared.

Bards, Sorcerers, and Warlocks don’t prepare spells. They know spells that they can cast whenever they have slots to spend. You choose which spells your character knows as you gain levels.

Reason for change. This system grants casters an extra measure of flexibility. It spares players the risk of preparing spells that prove useless, resulting in a bad day of adventure.

3. Concentration

Many spells require their caster to maintain concentration to keep their magic going. These spells list durations such as “Concentration, up to 1 minute,” meaning that if the caster concentrates, the spell lasts a minute.

Losing concentration. A spellcaster can concentrate on just one spell at a time. You can cast other spells that do not require concentration without breaking concentration. You can end concentration on a spell at any time, without an action. This ends the spell’s effects, but lets you cast a new spell that demands concentration.

When casters maintaining concentration take damage, they must make a Constitution saving throw to keep their spell going. The DC equals 10 or half the damage suffered, whichever is higher.

Combining magical effects. When different spells’ overlap, the effects add together. The effects of the same spell cast multiple times don’t combine. Only apply the one spell with the most potent effect, such as the highest bonus. If that spell ends, then less potent spells may show their effects.

Reason for change. In earlier editions, higher-level parties might enter a fight blanketed with spells like Haste, Invisible, Fly, Blur, Polymorph Self, Resist Elements, and on and on. Players needed spreadsheets to track their bonuses, while the DM struggled to create any challenge. Then when the evil mage casts dispel magic, buffs disappear and all the numbers need recalculation. Concentration simplifies the game by limiting the magical effects in play.

Concentration forces the min-maxers to search harder for broken combinations of spell effects. Multiple spell casters can still combine effects, but the designers see this as teamwork, not as a single character dominating the game.

Concentration also opens tactical options. Casters become targets for foes aiming to break concentration and stop spells. For more, see “Fifth-edition D&D strategy for fourth-edition players: Kill the wizard.”

Not all spells with durations require concentration. A few spells such as Mage Armor, Mirror Image, and Fire Shield offer protection without concentration.

4. Proficiency

Characters have proficiency in the things they do well. A character can be proficient in armor, skills, saving throws, weapons, and tools.

Proficiency grants a bonus to the d20 rolls you make for attacks, saving throws, and checks. The proficiency bonus starts at +2 at level 1 and rises to +6 at level 19. Proficiency appears throughout the system.

  • When characters are proficient with a weapon, they add their proficiency bonus to the attack roll. When characters lack proficiency, they do not gain this bonus.
  • When characters cast a spell that requires an attack roll, they add their proficiency bonus to the roll. Spellcasters always gain proficiency with spells they can cast.
  • When characters make an ability check covered by one of their skills, they add their proficiency bonus to the check.
  • When characters are proficient with tools used to make an ability check, they add their proficiency bonus to the check. You never add a proficiency bonus for both a skill and a tool to the same check.
  • When characters are proficient with a type of saving throw, they add their proficiency bonus to those saves.

Proficiency with armor works differently from proficiency with everything else. Rather than granting a proficiency bonus, armor proficiency grants the ability to wear armor without disadvantage. This difference may confuse new players, but earlier editions handled armor proficiency in a similar manner.

Reason for change. Earlier editions of D&D featured countless tables showing bonuses for attack rolls and saving throws, and added additional bonuses for skills and proficiencies. The fifth-edition proficiency bonus simplifies by sweeping all these tables and rules into a single rising bonus. For more, see “How D&D Next moves toward a simpler core game” and “Proficiency and bounded accuracy in D&D Next.”

5. Bonus actions

Characters take just one action on their turn. Some class features, spells, and other abilities let you take an additional action called a bonus action. Three key limitations apply to bonus actions.

  • To gain a bonus action, something like a special ability or spell must state that you get a bonus action to do something. Otherwise, you get no bonus action. For example, when you take an attack action to attack with a light melee weapon in one hand, you can use a bonus action to attack with a second light melee weapon in your other hand.
  • You can only take one bonus action. For example, at second level, the Rogue’s Cunning Action class feature grants a bonus action to Dash, Disengage, or Hide. If your rogue also wields two weapons, then you must choose between using your one bonus for your Cunning Action or for a second weapon strike.
  • You can only take bonus actions on your turn. For example, your rogue cannot interrupt another turn to take the bonus action granted by Cunning Action.

Reason for change. Fourth-edition characters could gain numerous extra actions, which helped the game earn a reputation for long turns. Bonus actions speed play by limiting the number of extra things someone can do during a turn.

How cover and tool proficiency reveal choices in fifth-edition design

In order to create a simpler, more elegant, version of Dungeons & Dragons, the designers eliminated most of the situational modifiers that appeared in earlier editions. See “How D&D Next moves toward a simpler core game.” While these modifiers appealed to players who favored simulation, they slowed play and were often forgotten. Besides, simulation has never been D&D’s strength.

Combat modifiers in edition 3.5

Combat modifiers in edition 3.5

In fifth edition, when someone gains an edge, they gain advantage. When someone suffers a handicap, they suffer disadvantage. Most of the rarely-meaningful and frequently-forgotten pluses and minuses disappear.

But as the designers worked to purge situational modifiers, D&D, thieves tools presented a problem. In earlier editions, Rogues used thieves’ tools because they granted a +2 bonus thievery checks. But this new design had no room for that +2 bonus. Still, thieves’ tools have appeared in equipment lists since the early days. I’m certain the designers felt compelled to keep the tools in the game. But without a bonus, why should a rogue bother spending for the toolkit?

The designers arrived at an ingenious solution: tool proficiencies. By making the use of thieves’ tools a proficiency rather a skill, rogues still need to buy the tools to pick locks and disable traps.

When the designers worked so hard to eliminate the +2 for tool use, why did they bother preserving the +2 and +5 bonuses to AC gained by cover? These bonuses stand as virtually the only situational modifiers in the game. Why not just give disadvantage to someone attacking a target behind cover?

The modifiers remain because they combine with disadvantage. Multiple instances of disadvantage do not stack. If you suffer disadvantage from two sources you still only have one disadvantage. So if an archer suffered disadvantage because she targeted someone behind cover, and if she also suffered disadvantage from long range, she would still only suffer one disadvantage. The fifth-edition designers favored simplicity over simulation, but they weren’t ready to make hitting someone behind cover at long range exactly as hard as hitting someone just at long range.

How D&D Next moves toward a simpler core game

In “From the brown books to next, D&D tries for elegance,” I discussed how the Dungeons & Dragons Next designers work toward a simpler, more elegant core game. This post describes some of the simplifications that appeared in the public playtest.

Advantage and disadvantage

Third edition D&D featured long lists of plusses and minuses that applied when the situation affected an attack or check. While these modifiers added realism, they slowed play, seldom made a difference, and were often overlooked. D&D Next drops all the fussy calculation for the advantage and disadvantage mechanics: When characters gain a big edge, they gain advantage and use the highest of two die rolls; when characters suffer a handicap, they suffer disadvantage and use the lowest of two rolls. While less accurate than a tally of plusses, the new mechanic plays quickly and eliminates math and memory demands.

Combat modifiers in edition 3.5

Combat modifiers in edition 3.5

Fussy modifiers have appeared in every version of D&D, so when designers considered eliminating them in favor of advantage and disadvantage, they used the playtest to measure players’ reaction. The advantage and disadvantage mechanics gained broad approval.

Skills and ability checks

Other simplifications fell flat. D&D lasted 25 years without the complexity of skills, so designers tested a simpler game with just ability checks. Players rejected the simpler version, earning skills a place in the core system.

Still, when faced with choosing between richer rules and simpler rules, Next designers always opt for simpler. For example, using the same ability modifiers for ability checks and for attacks fails to distinguish exceptional characters from average ones, but the designers side with the flawed—but simpler—option of using the same ability modifiers for combat and for checks.


The last public-playtest rules try to get maximum use from proficiency. A character can be proficient in armor, skills, saving throws, weapons, and tools. Proficiency grants a bonus to attacks, saving throws, and checks, but not armor. The proficiency bonus starts at +1 at level 1 and rises to +6 at level 19.

Proficiency with armor works differently from proficiency with everything else. Rather than granting a proficiency bonus, armor proficiency grants the ability to wear armor without disadvantage. This difference will confuse some players, but earlier editions handled armor proficiency in a similar manner. The designers must feel bound by the longtime use of “armor proficiency.”

Earlier editions of D&D featured countless tables showing bonuses for attack rolls and saving throws, and added additional bonuses for skills and proficiencies. The Next proficiency bonus jams all these tables and rules into a single rising bonus.

If this broad proficiency system reaches the final rules the final rules, then the bonus for all checks, attacks and saves will consolidate under the same formula:

ability modifier + proficiency bonus

Simple. Magic aside, all the other, fiddly bonuses that appeared in earlier versions of the game get replaced with the advantage-and-disavantage mechanic.

This change yields a simpler system, but it makes less difference in play than the advantage mechanic. Players only reference the tables for attacks and saves and so on when they level up. They enter the new numbers on their character sheets and move on. Once the game begins, the consolidation never comes up. Players who generate characters using a computer see even less impact. In comparison, the advantage-and-disadvantage mechanic eliminates half the tables on the DM screen—lists of bonuses applied to every attack and check. Advantage streamlines most rolls in the game.

The simplicity of a single proficiency bonus still offers advantages, but the proficiency mechanic influences every corner of the game. In my next post, I’ll examine all the repercussions.

Next: Proficiency and bounded accuracy