The Obvious Innovation in Fifth-edition Dungeons & Dragons That No Designer Saw Before

Stirrups. Zero. Shipping containers. Luggage with wheels. All these innovations seem obvious in hindsight. But they went undiscovered for millennia, until someone’s bright idea changed the world—or at least put airport porters out of work. Even those hotel shower rods that curve made someone rich.

Fifth edition Dungeons & Dragons includes one obvious-in-hindsight innovation that the game’s past designers failed to spot. Alas, it won’t make anyone rich.

Sverrir by ArboUp until fourth edition, D&D fighters gained extra attacks, but fourth edition avoided them. The designers shunned extra attacks partly to speed play by reducing the number of attack and damage rolls. Sure, spells attacked lots of targets, but at least spells only required one damage roll.

Also fourth edition, like all earlier editions of D&D, aimed to parcel out benefits smoothly as characters leveled up. In theory, this made the difference in power between, a 4th- and 5th-level character about the same as the difference between levels 5 and 6. Characters at similar levels could adventure together without someone routinely dealing twice as much damage. But a second attack on every turn brings a fighter a big jump in power.

The designers of past editions worked to smooth these jumps in power by granting fighters something less than a full extra attack. AD&D gave fighters extra half attacks, and a need to remember half attacks. Third edition traded half attacks and the memory issue for weaker attacks and fiddly attack penalties. These solutions complicated the game with awkward memory demands and calculations.

So playtest versions of fifth edition did not grant fighters and other martial characters an Extra Attack feature. Rather than gaining more attacks, these classes earned features that enabled attacks to deal more damage. But this approach put fighters at a disadvantage against weaker foes easily dropped by a single blow.

When a fighter confronts a goblin horde and only makes one attack per turn, no amount of extra damage matters because one strike can only fell one goblin per turn. To help martial types against weak foes, the playtest included cleaving-attack powers that swept through groups. But such features failed to remedy another trouble: To-hit bonuses in fifth-edition increase at a slower rate and never grow as big as in earlier editions. The designers call this bounded accuracy, because they do not come from marketing. Bounded accuracy means that fighters hit weaker foes less easily than in past editions.

Fighter types should hew through the rabble like grass until, bloodied and battle worn, they stand triumphant. But in the playtest, even the mightiest spent turns muffing their one attack against some mook. With an extra attack, misses matter less because there’s more where that came from.

During the playtest, I wrote, “If D&D Next’s designers can find a good way to allow fighters to gain multiple attacks against weaker opponents, then a key piece of the Next design puzzle falls into place.”

Late in fifth edition’s creation, the designers compared the benefits each class gained as they leveled and noticed that wizards leap in power at 5th and at 11th levels. These jumps come from quirks of a spell list that date to the beginning of the game. At 5th level, wizards gain potent attack spells like Fireball, plus unbalancing buffs like Haste. At 11th level, wizards gain 6th-level spells, which bring save-or-die effects like Disintegrate. At the 9th spell level, Gary Gygax felt comfortable stashing world-altering spells like Wish and Time Stop, because his players never reached 17th level and never gained easy access to them.

Earlier editions of D&D aimed to parcel out benefits smoothly as characters leveled up. Those editions’ designers ignored the leaps in power certain spells brought; the fifth-edition designers embraced the leaps.

This brought the obvious-in-hindsight innovation: Rather than offering fighters half attacks or fiddly attack penalties, fifth edition matches the leaps in power brought by additional attacks to the leaps brought by 3rd, 6th, and 9th-level spells. Fighters gain extra attacks as wizards gain these spells. At the same levels, other classes gain potent powers and spells of their own. For instance, the bard’s Hypnotic Pattern spell got a fifth-edition redesign that moves it to 3rd level and dramatically increases the spell’s power. 

Third and fourth editions arbitrarily aligned the game’s tiers with 10th and 20th levels, because of round numbers. The fifth-edition tiers match to the levels where characters gain the best new powers and spells. These leaps in ability mean 4th- and 5th-level characters cannot adventure together without displaying big power differences, but characters in the same tier can join a party and contribute.

It all seems obvious now. Designer Mike Mearls says that a lot of innovations in game design work that way.

19 thoughts on “The Obvious Innovation in Fifth-edition Dungeons & Dragons That No Designer Saw Before

  1. sapphirecrook

    Almost. Fighters get their 4th attack at level 20, as a capstone. It’s a weirdly unexciting capstone, though.

    Instead, at level 17, they get another Action Surge (2 between Short Rests) which may or may not be the better deal. Especially if your GM gives you plenty of Short Rests~ 😀

  2. DM_Bill


    Thanks for continuing to do these excellent articles.

    I’ve seen reference to the idea of DnD being “lonely fun”, since guys like us want to play the game far more then we actually get to. To fill that void, we read about the game, design maps that may never be used, collect and paint mini’s, and on and on. That has never been more true now in the time of the “great plague”.

    I look forward to your articles. Keep up the good work!

    1. Groon the Wonderdog

      Online play is a great way to go. I dm several games a week now which is great for me, although finding a game can be an issue at times if you have a unforgiving schedule.

    2. Brian B

      You are absolutely Correct!! My friends can only play once a month, while I can play once a week. I can’t find any other groups so I sit and read, make maps, watch YouTube on dnd. It’s rather painful.

    3. Lee

      > “lonely fun”, since guys like us want to play the game far more then we actually get to

      OMG, I hardly ever play, and I’m not even sure I want to, now that I’m a grown adult…it just takes a lot of time. (I’ve played I guess a few dozen sessions over the course of my life…I’ll probably get roped into more at some point.)

      Yet for some reason I find this game design stuff really fascinating. I’ve wasted too many hours trying to figure out what I think the ideal set of attributes, die mechanics, and action resolution system would be… And thinking about how GURPS and the Storyteller system(s) (although die pools bother me because performance becomes more variable as skill increases) are superior to D&D, even though I’ve never actually played GURPS. This excellent blog is finally changing my mind about D&D, at least when it comes to 5e…but why do I care? I don’t expect to play any of them any time soon! What’s wrong with me?

  3. Me

    I’m confused. You started this whole thing off with “5th ed does something new and radically different”, and spends half the article talking about how extra attacks are old.

    Then at the end the big reveal is that the new and different thing is … extra attacks (with all the problems highlighted in the rest of the article) … just at *slightly* different levels than before.

    The amazing new “wheels on luggage” innovation is the same problematic, game-slowing multiple attacks … just at slightly different XP numbers?

    1. sapphirecrook

      One thing it has over 3.5e though, is that in 3.5e you had to use a full-round-action to do it, and used decreasing modifiers. Sure, it was -5 each attack, but some classes had extra attacks like Flurry, or Vital Strike, and pulling it off took setting up.

      In 5e you just get to run around with a sword flailing like an idiot.

    2. Concibar

      I also found it a bit heavy handed, but the extra attack is not the innovation. The innovation is embracing leaps in power. The articles explains all the drawbacks of making a smooth power curve, sth. that caused problems for a long time. DnD 5 just said “fuck it, just make sure everyone gets the same bumpy power curve.”

      1. Me

        I get that that was the conclusion. I also get that he started out by saying multiple attacks were a problem. Where I’m lost is in the middle.

        1. Nathan Porter

          … I too understand little of the supposed logic of this article. Are we pursuing an end to cumbersome multi-attack mechanics… with more multi-attack mechanics?! Maddening article…

  4. Elix45

    The D&D system is, and always will be hindering, and the spell system should be scrapped and redesigned. Along with the combat system. He k Palladium fantasy has a better system, and that’s not saying much. I think a perfect system would be a mix of shadowrun, D&D 3.5, Palladium and Warhammer fantasy.

    1. Ben

      Check the DM’s guide. Cleave is in there as an optional rule on a sidebar, and it does pretty much exactly that.

  5. CS Barnhart

    “awkward memory demands and calculations” is the criticism of older editions while praising an edition riddled with “awkward memory demands and calculations”. One of the key flaws to this article, and it’s misdirected praise, is the simple matter that abilities in pre3E D&D were often tied to levels and levels accumulated based on different xp benchmarks between 3classes, not tge exact same rate.

    In addition that bonus “half” attack, a descriptor used to diminish its value and create an instant bias against it, was a constant. It didn’t require a long rest or short rest to recover or be the only option available like a 5th level wizard and fireball.

    Not to mention pre5E warriors weren’t crippled by bounded accuracy or the lazy and unimaginative advantage/disadvantage rule and before 3E wizards had 2/3 less hit point potential, only warriors gained full benefit from constitution and strength.

    The obvious innovation was there all along, you were just oblivious to it.

    There is nothing wrong with 5E or its rules or how the game plays, but let’s stop pretending its innovative.

  6. Pingback: Making a Tier 4 D&D Encounter for Characters Who Play Like Superheroes | DMDavid

  7. Pingback: Ninth-level D&D spells Were Never Intended for Players | DMDavid

Leave a Reply