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 out made someone rich.

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

Way back in my analysis of bounded accuracy, I explained how attackers in D&D Next tended to hit harder as they leveled up, rather than hitting more often. In “Changing the balance of power,” I wrote that fighters suffered from this new design. “The accuracy-for-damage trade matters most to fighters. Fireball and Blade Barrier work as well as ever. The rogue remains content to sneak up on the goblin king.” But if the Queen of Battle confronts a goblin horde, and she only makes one attack per turn, no amount of extra damage matters, because she can only fell one goblin per turn. “Fighter-types should hew through the rabble like grass until, bloodied and battle worn, they stand triumphant. Instead, they wind up muffing to-hit rolls against one mook.

Sverrir by ArboEarlier editions of the game offer a solution, a solution so odious that I hesitate to mention it. If fighters gain multiple attacks per round, the misses matter less because there’s more where that came from!

Multiple attacks seemed bad because they always brought awkward memory demands and calculation. “D&D’s designers have struggled to parcel out extra attacks as fighters gain levels. Jumping from one attack directly to two results in a rather sudden leap in power. Instead, 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. Yuck.

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 D&D Next’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 dates 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 free access to them.

Earlier editions of D&D aimed to parcel out benefits smoothly as characters leveled up. Those edition’s 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, 5E 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 make similar leaps, such as the rogue’s Uncanny Dodge ability.

Third and fourth editions arbitrarily aligned the game’s tiers with 10th and 20th levels, because of round numbers. Fifth edition aligns the game’s tiers with the leaps in power brought by 3rd, 6th, and 9th-level wizard spells. The designers finessed the other classes so they gain benefits to match the wizards’ gains.

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

17 thoughts on “The obvious innovation in fifth-edition Dungeons & Dragons that no designer saw before

  1. Orillion

    I imagine all of us amateur game designers came up with this solution at some point in our lives. I was writing a system giving out spectacular feat-like powers to fighters (chosen from things like catching arrows bare-handed and other such things–high-magic setting, of course) over a decade ago.

    Of course, now that the idea is canonized in the minds of players, the system I’m working on doesn’t even use levels and I can’t really benefit from this kind of thing.

  2. Thom

    My system allows adventures to make as many extra attacks as they want, knowingly penalizing their defenses until their next turn (so, opponents have an advantage for the next series). This allows heroes to be heroes. A fighter should be able to clear 3-4 goblins in a round if he’s more powerful than his foes. My 2 cents.

    1. DM David Post author

      Hi Thom,
      Thanks for your two cents. Trading extra attacks for a defensive penalty adds an interesting tactical decision. Do players make the trade when they think they can finish a bigger, more dangerous monster? If your foe doesn’t live to make another attack, the penalty means nothing.


      1. Tom B

        There was a Dragon article some time ago on ‘stances’: Full Defense, Active Defensive, Balanced, Active Attack, Full Attack. Balanced would be the normal case, Active defense offered some AC benefits and you could use an attack to party. Full Defense allowed no attacks and a good AC benefit plus parrying. Active attack gave you an AC penalty in exchange for a hit and damage benefit. Full Attack gave you attack benefits, a big AC penalty, and an extra attack.

        Depending on your role in an encounter (holding the line, pushing the attack, tying up enemies without getting dropped, etc), you could chose a stance that was appropriate for the current need.

        It made for an interesting combat choice and most of the time it was the warrior types that used it (it didn’t matter for spell casting at range or ranged combatants).

        One thing I hated in 3.5 and 4E, the feat trees (3.5) and the powers (4E) wanted to quantify everything, so your average L1 fighter had no option to even try to shove aside or shove back or knock down an enemy combatant. 5E at least leaves that kind of a fuzzy area that a DM can rule on, but I’ve written out a chart for ‘sucker punch’, ‘head butt’, ‘leg sweep’, etc. to give our fights flavour. Gary always said make up a rule as you need it, based on what you know about the system. 5E seems to encourage that freedom again.

  3. Nerdarchy

    Ah, the iterative attacks of past editions! Another thing that’s gone a long way to level the playing field between martial and spellcasters is to have very few spells that a magic user can have active at once.

  4. Greg

    Actually, 5th edition contains a combat variant that more fundamentally addresses this issue and your concern that no amount of extra damage matters with one attack per round. On p. 272 of the DMG, the “Cleaving Through Creatures” combat option allows high amounts of damage to be applied to multiple targets, effectively creating multiple attacks from a single attack. If a previously undamaged creature is reduced to 0 HP by a melee attack, any excess damage can be delivered to another creature within reach if the original attack roll would hit it. If this subsequent creature was likewise undamaged but is now reduced to 0 HP, then the process can be repeated until there are no valid targets left or until the damage carried over fails to reduce an undamaged creature to 0 HP. This applies to all character classes and is available at any level. It’s perfect for lower level monsters such as the horde of goblins in your example above. You can envision it as a fighter cleaving through opponents in close proximity, dramatically using force and momentum to deliver primary and collateral damage. And, as fighters and other melee combat specialists gain multiple attacks and greater abilities to do more damage in a single attack, this option becomes more effective and even feasible to use against some higher level monsters.

    1. hedgehobbit

      This system was the original damage system Dave Arneson used (pre Gary Gygax) and was seen in print as far back as Empire of the Petal Throne (’76). The original meaning of the term “hit dice” was the amount of dice you rolled as damage when you hit. There are tales of high level fighters killing over 100 orcs in a few rounds of combat via this rule.

      1. DM David Post author

        Hi hedgehobbit,
        Fascinating. Thanks! Do you know of source that explains this history of hit dice in more detail?


  5. Sr. Rojo

    I agree with you with the convenience of scale the power progress of warriors same as wizards, but the “horde rules” is so older than 1st edition or even more. Gygax rules that a warrior can make attacks equal as his or her level vs creatures of 1-1 HD, an when 12th level arrives vs 2HD (and 3HD at level 13, 4HD at 14, etc…) So a 5th level warrior can make 5 attacks vs kobolds or goblins.

    On the other hand, y 2nd edition the warriors are more attacks because the damage was minor than, for example, 3th o 4th, so a warriors needs more attacks to kill a monster. In this way the dinamic of the attack-miss accuracy is more important than in 4th edition when is was more “all or nothing” . In 2nd a +1 bonus is very important because the great number of attacks per round, in 3th is better a +2 to Strenght than Weapon Focus.

  6. Stephen Turner

    Can I say that Chivalry and Sorcery has always had this design in every edition since 1977. Fighters get to hit more often and easier as they improve.

  7. Grampy_Bone

    Huh? What are you talking about?

    In 3rd Edition:

    Fighter Attack Progression:
    Level 6/11/16 (Two, three, four attacks).

    Wizard Spell Progression
    Level 5/11/17 (3rd, 6th, 9th level spells).

    It was already pretty much the same. Fighters never gained bonus attacks at 10 and 20.

    Moreover, there were the magic creation tiers (+1 bonuses at levels 4/8/12/16/20) which served as incremental power upgrades for everyone.

    1. David Hartlage Post author

      Hi Grampy_Bone,
      Thanks for commenting! Third edition imposed a different base-attack bonus on each of the Fighter’s multiple attacks. The 5E designers found a way to avoid this complication.


  8. Ashley Walker

    This system is better than previous editions, but 13th Age’s strategy is superior. Single nonmagic attacks simply scale with level, the same way that magic attacks always have. This not only allows mundane classes to keep up with casters, but allows casters to still be useful when there magic isn’t available. It’s much more fun, and requires a lot less time in implemention.

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  10. Mike

    Yes, it was a sound move. Though I and our circle preferred to use level 5 spells as a measure – it’s Teleport and Raise Dead, come on! 😉 It also corresponeded nicely with 1e “name levels” where masters of their craft started to gain strongholds and attract followers.


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