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The Attacks of Opportunity are an important part in D&D and spinoffs of the game like Pathfinder. What does this rule do for the game-system? How does it affect the fun of the players? Why was this rule introduced? What design goal does it have?

I don't want to discuss if it is good or bad, I want to get a clearer understanding of the function it has in the game-system.

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According to third edition designer Skip Williams, in his article Attacks of Opportunity (Part One), D&D uses attacks of opportunity to add tactical complexity and danger, to discourage certain actions in combat without banning them outright, and to balance out useful or powerful combat manoevers:

Skip Williams:

The D&D game uses its attack of opportunity rules to add some spice to combat. These rules offer characters more options in combat than just standing there and exchanging attacks with foes, while at the same time making sure that characters involved in a fight have a proper appreciation for the dangers they face.

Many rules in the game would be very different (and probably much harder to use) without attacks of opportunity to balance them. The rules for spellcasting, ranged attacks, movement, and special attack actions such as disarming, grappling, and tripping all depend on the existence of attacks of opportunity.

In some cases, attacks of opportunity mimic the rules of the miniature wargames that inspired D&D:

  • In ancient warfare, when two units were engaged in hand-to-hand combat, the first to turn and flee suffered losses as the enemy took the opportunity to press the attack. A unit had to withdraw very carefully to avoid this.
  • Archers fought poorly against adjacent melee units.
  • Unarmed men are at penalty against armed men, whose weapons typically grant longer reach.

In other cases, they enforce the thematics of D&D's fantasy tropes:

  • Wizards aren't front-line fighters, so they are penalized for casting when threatened by an enemy in melee. (For the same reason, wizards can't wear armour without penalty and don't have martial weapon proficiencies.)

Sometimes, the attack of opportunity exists to balance out special attacks:

  • Mike Mearls' Book of Iron Might (2004) analyzes D&D 3.5's combat system and concludes that without the attack of opportunity, most special attacks like trip and disarm would require an attack penalty of -10 or more to balance them out.
  • Attack penalties are bad, because missing is dull. Failure as a penalty is boring; danger as a penalty is exciting. Danger penalties reward you for taking risks, while attack penalties discourage you from trying.
  • If there were no drawback to trip, disarm and the like, players may use these attacks more frequently than the game's designers intended.
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BTW, if you're an old hand you might recall the patchwork of rules for these things in the original D&D and AD&D. Attacks of opportunity provide a single consistent mechanic that, as Jonathan pointed out, actually makes the game more interesting. – drxzcl Nov 10 '11 at 20:00
I like this, but nothing about "so you can't casually run past/through a horde of enemies"? To me that sort of tactical consideration is the obvious primary motivation. – SirTechSpec Jul 7 at 20:54

Opportunity attacks serve multiple purposes.

  • They don't allow you to walk around the whole battlefield whenever you want.

This is mostly useful to prevent the thief from always using the backstab attack on every round. By creating opportunity attacks, there comes a cost to a thief trying to always get behind someone. (or flanking in general)

  • They create a sort of realism where an archer does not fight directly with a swordsman.

This adds a small about of realism, and keeps ranged attackers both at a range, and gives them consequences if that range get eliminated. This also helps prevent ranged combatants from being used to help construct a flanking position.

  • They give a purpose to tactical actions such as trip or disarm

This isn't true in 4e, but in other versions of D&D where picking up a weapon, or standing up gave an opportunity attack, it allowed for more variance in strategy.

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So it boils down to 'simulating realism' (at least to some degree). All three reasons you give are about more realism. But if we look at RPGs, simulating realism shouldn't always the most important design-goal. Are there reasons for AoO besides realism? – Mnementh Nov 10 '11 at 12:36
No, I don't think it is simulating realism. Only point 2 does that. And it isn't even realism as much as "maintaining archetypes". It's about tactical options and diversity and "balance of power" – GMNoob Nov 10 '11 at 12:38

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