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Recently I heard a friend saying that melee combatants had fewer options than 4e or 3.x:

Ranged combat was somewhat interesting in that you could deal with cover, aiming, and so forth. Fighters had no options other than "I attack". Rogues ended up in a cycle of "Turn 1: hide. Turn 2: Sneak Attack. Repeat till it's dead." You can dash, but that's only once. You can try to get Advantage, but chances are you won't get the opportunity (you don't even get Advantage for flanking!). So basically a melee fight boils down to charging up to an enemy, then standing there and saying "I attack" every turn.

He went on to say that in 4e, Fighters and Rogues had as many options as Wizards in terms of Powers and in 3.x they had more options where you could trade attack for damage and so forth, but there were no such options in 5e.

I haven't played any melee classes in D&D 5e, so I'd like to know: is he right? Are melee combatants pretty much just limited to running up to an enemy and saying "I attack"? Or do they have other options that my friend didn't consider?

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flanking doesn't provide advantage, but a TWF rogue doesn't need advantage to be effective (they get to add sneak attack damage if they have an enemy of their enemy next to their enemy). –  wax eagle Jul 31 at 15:37
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Isn't "if they have an enemy of their enemy next to their enemy" even better than flanking, which was restricted to straight lines? –  Adriano Varoli Piazza Jul 31 at 19:42
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@AdrianoVaroliPiazza and allies, yes, but it also only provides access to SA, not advantage (5e's combat advantage replacement) –  wax eagle Jul 31 at 20:12

5 Answers 5

up vote 22 down vote accepted

Yes...sort of. More at L1 than at other levels though.

For a brief look at this, let's look at the 4 basic L1 characters and see what their defined combat options are.

  • Wizard: 3 L1 spells/day (they get the extra from an afternoon nap). 3-4 cantrips. Generally the wizard has the most combat options. They have more daily spells than the cleric and they have several offensive cantrips to choose from (firebolt and ray of frost are the two that come to mind, they have another). Their cantrips either do a good bit of damage or slow or push. This gives them good options in melee, at range and on the daily power front. Lots of options on their turn.

  • Cleric: 2 L1 spells/day, 3-4 cantrips. The cleric only has 1 attack cantrip, but the current cleric is designed to be played by a dwarf, and they get a genuine melee option (with proper stat allocation, it's better than their cantrips at L1). This gives them a good number of options (several of their cantrips are cool utilities in combat too). So they have a good number of choices on their turn.

  • Rogue: no spells, all powers phrased in the form of MBA, and their cool movement power doesn't kick in until L2. The L1 rogue's only way to reliably generate SA is to actually get into melee and find a buddy to stand next to their target (The other way is to stay at range, and also find a buddy to stand next to their target). Otherwise the L1 rogue does spend half their turns hiding (which is sad). So yeah, limited options here in combat (L1 rogue out of combat is a skill monkey and that's cool). Most of the combat decision for the rogue are whether or not to eat an opportunity attack to go over to the fighter's target to deal SA on it.

  • Fighter: Even more boring than the rogue. He has two main choices: which target am I going to hit with my weapon, and is it time to burn my Second Wind. Granted, this makes the fighter the most self sufficient character, but it doesn't provide many interesting combat options. Similar to the rogue, the fighter's best option sometimes is to eat the OA and walk over to the rogue's target so he doesn't have to eat the OA himself.

So yeah, L1 is pretty boring for the Fighter and the Rogue. Here's the good news: L1 is designed to be very short. And L2 is where a ton of the good stuff is for the Fighter and the Rogue*. The Rogue gets their class defining power: Cunning Action. This lets them hide, move and attack all in one turn (or disengage, move and attack all in one). This is the power that makes the rogue tick in a lot of ways. For the Fighter, they get the power that lets them compete with the rogue in damage 1-20. Their Action surge power gives them a second meaningful per rest choice in encounters, they get another action on their turn.

Neither of these choices really solves the "I attack the goblin with my sword until he's dead." However, in many ways, this isn't all that different from the level of choice an Essentials class character has on their turn in 4e (well, it's fewer options, but it's fairly close by L2 I think).

Ultimately, breaking the "I attack the goblin until he's dead" cycle is not something that 5e addresses very well. It's left to the players to "try something interesting" to get the upper hand, and this seems to be encouraged by the system. Like it or not, this is 5e's design paradigm for basic D&D. With the PHB coming out next month, two new martial archtypes for the fighter, and two new sub classes for the rogue should provide them with additional options on their turn (Eldritch knight is a gish type with spells, and the Battle Master fighter uses combat expertise dice to do other stuff).

*I think there is a pretty good reason for this. I believe this is largely to limit the effectiveness of single level MC dips into fighter and rogue to get some of their strongest powers (they already get a lot at L1, the fighter alone gets a fighting style, weapon and armor profs, and second wind.).

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The archetypical Cleric is a Dwarf? Have they been reading Order of the Stick or something? :P –  Mason Wheeler Jul 31 at 18:15
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@MasonWheeler The 3rd edition cleric iconic (which predates OotS) is a dwarf. That itself references even earlier editions, where dwarven spellcasters are limited to divine magic. OotS got it from D&D, not the other way around. –  SevenSidedDie Jul 31 at 18:30

Imagine you have a friend who roleplays in Second Life. There are all kinds of emoting macros there to supplement the textual channel they use to weave their stories.

Now put that person on the stage. "This has so few options, I can't do anything except stand here and talk!"

That would be obviously ridiculous, right?

The situation is the same in D&D (any D&D), but it's much less obvious because we don't spend our entire lifetime learning to interact with the salient objects of D&D's "space", so our natural intuitions about the flexibility of real bodies in space seem to often get lost in the mess of codified options.

But that's just the intuition pump. Let's look at the rules.

No, a fighter has more options than just "I attack"

Is a fighter limited to standing and saying "I attack"? No more than a wizard's options in the second or third round are just standing there and saying "I cast magic missile."

The basic actions

There are several possible actions in combat that are already codified. Let's get those out of the way, because the codified actions are super-distracting from the real point but need to be mentioned because they're trivially true alternatives to the Attack action and need to be here for completeness: running, dodging, helping an ally, hiding (it's not just for rogues!), disengaging from melee, readying a reaction, trying to spot something hidden, and interacting with an entire world of possible objects that might be nearby.

Yes, a lot of the codified actions might seem irrelevant to a fighter — but only if you prejudice the fighter's position by assuming that they will always be standing toe-to-toe with an enemy, every round, every combat. Being busy crossing swords with a foe does tend to limit your options, especially when you've pre-limited them to a set list of choices, so unless making the fighter look bad is the point of the exercise that's an invalid assumption.

Even if a fighter is a dedicated front-line soldier, getting to and controlling the front line is more complex than just attacking every round, and the available actions are just Lego pieces available to build larger tactics from. A fighter that isn't choosing to be a front-line soldier has the durability to be more dynamic and can pull off damage-risking things squishier characters can't — a fighter is wasted on a monotonous "I attack" every round!

All the world's a stage, even combat

Just like that friend standing on the theatre stage at a loss for what to do, someone who has the idea that the only things their fighter can do are fully described by the basic actions is blinkered by familiar habits. Breaking out of them is superficially trivial — just do something else — but in practice very hard. The more someone is steeped in the concepts of efficient action economy use and optimal tactics, the more their thinking will focus on the codified options even when confronted with an improvisational game system. What feels like freedom for one person can feel like a burden to another. Fortunately 5e recognises that combat improvisation isn't for everyone — there are other classes to choose, with more codified options.

Fifth edition is explicitly bringing D&D back to its improvisational roleplaying roots, where the codified combat options were just that — things players commonly had their PCs attempt to do, slowly codified into specific, repeatable rules from the players improvising their actions and the DM(s) improvising the resolution mechanics. Codified actions are just a way to add a bit of consistency to the most commonly-used actions. They're not a menu of the only actions possible.

Improvisation isn't just possible, it's the rule

This refocusing on improvisation isn't harped on in 5e so far, since it isn't necessary for a group to improvise in combat if they all don't want to, but improvising is a normal, explicit rule now, as explicated in D&D Basic Rules v0.1 with a player-facing sidebar on page 72 and its matching DM-facing sidebar on page 74. Improvising something is not provided as an action — that would merely confuse the point of saying "improvising is possible" (and besides, it's up to the DM's improvisation what kind of action, if any, it is), but it is a rule. It's always been possible, but making it an explicit rule means that players can rely on it to make sure DMs don't limit them to just the list of actions. That doesn't mean DMs can't houserule improvisation out of their game, of course, just that they have to communicate that limitation clearly, if they want to play that kind of game instead of the default.

Given that you can always improvise (and it's backed by rule authority in 5e), the reality is that every option a fighter has in a more rigidly-defined system is available. Think of a codified combat option in another game. Now attempt it with the fighter just by saying you do. That's how 5e works.

  • "I flip the table in their faces."
    "Okay, that's Strength versus their Dexterity to see how explosively fast you flip it and if they get out of the way. Oooh, three failed."

  • "I trip the orc."
    "Cool, okay. Strength versus Strength."
    "Do I get advantage or anything?"
    "Nah, you've just got a sword. A staff or a chain or something would get advantage, but not a sword."

  • "I trip the centaur."
    "Seriously? I suppose Conan the Buff has a chance even if it's got four legs... Anyway, yeah, Strength versus Strength just like last time, but you have disadvantage."

  • "I feint with my rapier and stop short, trying to unbalance my foe and open their defense."
    "Hm, how about Dexterity versus Wisdom? If you make it, it'll count as Helping yourself on your next attack or your next round, whichever comes first."
    "Okay. Wait, what are the helping rules... Oh, that's just Advantage. Sure. But no need to make it complicated, just say it gives Advantage."

If you can think of something, you can try it. Leap off of tables and try to get your falling weight behind your sword for extra damage. Throw your cloak at their face. Unleash a screaming battle cry to shake their morale. Growl out a demand that they surrender or die as you hack away with the normal combat actions — just because it's an Intimidation attempt doesn't mean you have to look for a combat action to let you do it in combat, it's just talking!

Your friend is wrong

So your friends is right in a way. The fighter's options could be limited to just standing there and saying "I attack" if you're only looking at the list of combat actions as a menu of possibilities. There's very little in the way of real alternatives when you're toe-to-toe with a foe, given that limitation. But there is no reason you should accept that premise in a discussion of fighters in 5e, because 5e doesn't.

Your friend is wrong in the larger system that 5e provides. Combat isn't a special "world" in 5e, where the only things you can do are these N choices and all the normal flexibility of roleplaying is taken away with the flip of the initiative lightswitch. Combat is just an extension of the freeform part of the game, with a few options nailed down to make sure each group and player has a bit of consistency in the middle of the big Venn diagram of unlimited possibilities.

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I guess the part I'm having trouble understanding is why martial character have to carry the weight of improvisational choices. I'm a 4e guy, at L5 my 4e fighter could grab every enemy within 15' of him, drag them next to him and hit them with his sword. I doubt my DM is going to let me improvise that action without a rather..heavy cost. That's the kind of tactical efficacy the wizard and rogue have and the fighter and rogue are lacking in their basic forms. –  wax eagle Jul 31 at 17:44
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@waxeagle Because it's a different game. 5e is deliberately not making every class equally mechanically complex, because they found that was not something every player desired, and it was one of the barriers to adoption of 4e. Simpler fighters means that the game provides more character-creation options. And martial character don't have to carry the weight of improv: first it's not objectively a weight, as for some/many players/GMs it's actually a relief, but the PHB has complex martial characters for those who like complex + martial flavour. –  SevenSidedDie Jul 31 at 17:51
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@waxeagle And that combo actually might be something you can improvise, but have to work for to set up outside the character-advancement subsystem. First: how does he accomplish that, actually and physically? How could those physical actions be replicated in a description of mundane bodily movements and use of tools? Break it down into the actions (codified) and motions (improvised) that constitute it. If it's superheroic it might not be possible still in one round, true, but no character has ever translated to a new game with their precise mechanics intact. –  SevenSidedDie Jul 31 at 20:33
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If the person asking the question is labeling his question dnd-5e it appears to me that he would like an answer that pertains to the rules of D&D 5th edition. As in "in D&D 5E, does a rogue and fighter have less options PRINTED IN THE RULEBOOK than a wizard or cleric". To which the answer is obviously yes, fighters and rogues have significantly less options as described in the rules than a spellcaster. In addition to the rules, everybody gets a million options of improv theater, but those are rule system independent and could as well be 4E or any other edition. –  Tobold Aug 1 at 8:22
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@Tobold you are mixing up what the Question is, and what the OP cited as and example for comparision his friend said. The main question point is clearly "Can I just do simple Attack in 5e, or are there other options?" - It is clearly not a question about "please give me only rule printed action codes". If there is a spell saying "you can cast anything from small sparks to a campfire with this" this is also a range of options, although not each is printed individually –  Falco Aug 1 at 13:34

There's a few options, though most of them depend on terrain and GM's rulings to make them more useful.

Attack, Move, Attack

Once the Fighter gets multiple attacks, you now have at least the minimum strategy of being able to split up your Speed movement at all times. So you can attack, move, attack, move again. This makes fighting lower level minion types strategically interesting as you have to figure out how to take them all on, which order, etc.

Action Surges

Fighters get Action Surges, which you can spend to get an extra action. Although I'm guessing most people are going to use this to make an extra attack or gulp down healing potions, I can see some potentially interesting uses if you're in situations where doing something besides hitting someone is also important ("Pull the lever! It drops the gate!").

Grapple/Prone

Restrained targets have disadvantage to attack anyone, and there is advantage to attack them. This is useful if you have a target with high AC that the rest of the group is having a hard time hitting, or, if it has a high attack bonus itself, and potentially multiple attacks. Knocking things prone also has a similar effect.

This can be done pretty much anywhere, with the only limitations being size and if the creature has enough of a body to be made prone (aka, slimes, amorphous things, etc.)

Grapple and Enemy Shield

Allied units count as cover in this edition. So you can grapple an enemy and use them as cover against other enemies. Useful against group attacks. Since Cover also gives advantage with Dex Saves, you can also use it grab a minion to protect against area effect spells or breath attacks.

Shove/Drag

Shove knocks an enemy back 5 ft. If you grapple, you can drag them up to half your speed.

This is useful in situations where there's a hazard to throw enemies into/off of, etc. "I grapple, drag him to the stairs, spend my Action Surge (extra action available to Fighters) and Shove him down the stairs".

This is highly dependent on terrain, but provides some interesting options, for sure.

Stunting

So far in this edition's free Basic Rules online, there isn't anything as explicit as 4E's pg. 42 on stunting. It has like a short sentence or two telling the GM they can use the attribute rolls to improvise for other actions, but not much else. Depending on what comes out in the DMG, this either will be well supported with advice, or it will be left completely in the GM's hands to make up.

If the former, presumably it ends up helping folks do stuff like Matthew Finch's Quick Primer to Old School Gaming where technically if you can think it up, you can try it in combat ("I push the statue over so it topples on them." "I roll the barrel down the stairs at them", etc.)

If the latter, then effectively we end up back to the core problem 3E really got stuck on - "The game rules mostly expect you to only do what your powers/feats say you can do, and don't bother trying much else unless your GM is bending the game significantly".

Obviously, until more rules drop, we're stuck on speculation. So, there's a little more than "I attack" but a lot of this depends on the situations you're in and whatever comes out next for the rules in advising how to run the game.

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I want to agree, but the reasoning toward the end in "Stunting" is perplexing. The reasoning that "if there isn't advice, letting other things be possible is the GM 'bending' the game" applies equally to 2e and 1e and B/X... they all didn't have rules or advice except "your imagination is the only limit to what you can try", yet don't have this problem apparently endemic to 3e? –  SevenSidedDie Jul 31 at 16:28
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3E added the general tendency of making everything a feat. "Trip attack? Feat. Swing a chair? Feat. Swing from a chandelier? Feat." previous editions didn't do that. To be sure, previous ones didn't give much support, but the rules didn't aim towards codifying each possible stunt as much. When you want to do something beyond what the rules cover, you often look to how the rules handle the things they DO cover, and in the case of 3E it was making everything a feat. –  Bankuei Jul 31 at 16:59
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That makes more sense. But then it's not the lack of advice, it's the proliferation of codifications, and the locking of those codifications behind character-advancement choices. –  SevenSidedDie Jul 31 at 17:29

Position matters

If your character is a steel box with a pointy stick that says "I ATTACK" every 2.3 seconds, then it doesn't mean that it's limited to standing around. Your position matters a lot.

The tactical goals of someone who can both take damage and deal damage are simple - prevent your buddies from taking damage, and kill stuff. Other classes may deal damage as well as you do, so you don't specialize on that, but you can and must put your effort in taking damage properly. What does that involve? Movement!

Disable enemy artillery

Many battles will involve some squishy ranged enemies behind their buddies, that would like nothing more than to stand there and hurt you. It's your job to prevent that - instead of standing toe-to-toe with a goblin until he dies, it might be an option to close in to his wizard buddy before that. If reaching him requires taking an extra attack from the melee line, then a fighter with good defenses is most capable of doing that. This will require interesting maneuvering, instead of spending many rounds until their melee part dies.

Protect your buddies

In the exact opposite manner, you don't want a direwolf chewing on your wizard, and it's the melee job to prevent that - either by simply standing there and being a meatshield, or actively preventing it from moving by grappling and such.

In short, the "take a hit-give a hit" is not the main point; the ability to "take a hit-give a hit" is a tool that you can and should use to control the battlefield positioning. If you're standing still for most of your combat, it's quite likely that you could be more effective.

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Keep in mind too that in Basic all they've given us are the most bog-standard sub-classes for Rogue and Fighter. Melee characters who want more to do will likely find something that tickles their fancy. Battlemaster Fighters in particular seem to be a nod to 4e Fighters and Warlords.

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