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There's a pretty good chance that my PCs will enter a team-battle tournament soon. One of the characters that they might fight has an ability that would give disadvantage to attack someone other than him.

When do I tell the player that their attack would have disadvantage? For context, to save time, we'll often say, "Three attacks on guy X." Should I stop him after the first one and let him know it's at disadvantage, or after he's committed to attacking?

When do I let my players know their roll will be affected?

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  • \$\begingroup\$ Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat. \$\endgroup\$ – mxyzplk says reinstate Monica Dec 28 '18 at 2:25
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    \$\begingroup\$ The ability or spell causing this effect can be quite important on how noticeable it is. Can you clarify which power you are talking about? \$\endgroup\$ – SeriousBri Dec 28 '18 at 10:51
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In general, intelligent creatures in D&D 5e know when they're under an effect, as long as that effect has perceptible signifiers.

See PH page 204 (which is about magic, but the principle establishes the basic principle): people under a spell effect don't know about it unless it has a perceptible effect. This means that if it does have such an effect, they should know about it.

This is a core principle of all role play, not just D&D -- players should know about stuff their characters would be able to perceive. Yes, I know this is basic, but trust me, I'm going somewhere with this.

This means that while you don't have to tell players explicitly how a "marked"-style ability (which generally signifies that the character in question is positioning themselves in a way that will let them counter-attack if the target attacks anyone except the) works, you are being unfair if you don't give them the basic description that will let them react intelligently.

If you look back at 4th edition (where the "marked" condition originated), the purpose of the "marked" concept (which, no, isn't an explicit condition in 5th edition, but is still present in concept) isn't to let a character -- PC or NPC -- do extra damage. Instead it's to help a character designed to take hits to do their job; to prevent their allies from taking damage by "persuading" foes to attack their higher defenses instead.

This means that if you rule that characters who are targeted by such a defensive ability have no awareness of it, you're letting your monsters (and PCs who take similar abilities) do extra damage, but at the expense of being able to accomplish their role.

Instead, it's better overall to give people descriptions of what's going on that will allow them to make meaningful choices; whether to attack the person who is, say "watching you closely, and seems ready to attack if you take your eyes off them for a moment", or to ignore the damage in order to get the foe out of position and maybe take down a higher value target. Similarly, it's better to play monsters that care about their well-being and have enough perceptual awareness to usually respect marks, so that PCs who take abilities like this (like Sentinel) can often do their jobs of protecting allies.

Of course, particularly if the clues here are present, but not obvious, it's entirely reasonable to ask for a Perception (or Insight, in some cases) check and base how much description you give a player based on that roll. It's also reasonable (preferable, even) to rule that some monsters (or other opponents) either don't notice a character using a feat or ability like this -- or simply don't care.

This all assumes that this is an ability with a trigger. In cases where the character has a penalty, they should have a general idea of why the penalty exists. If it's someone interfering with them physically, they'll certainly know who that is. If instead it's a magical effect messing with their aim, they'll know that, say, their attack got blocked by something invisible, or that a shot that was on target got deflected by something unseen.

Now, regarding your final question, this has a very clear answer.

Every attack a character makes during their turn is sequenced and is resolved before they make another one; even if the player says "I attack the orc three times," the three attacks are really separate. So if they get new information after the first attack (like the attack gaining disadvantage or the orc falling over dead) then they should find that out immediately and get an opportunity to change their mind about the other attacks.

Similarly, if the player says something like "I move away from the giant and attack the statue in the corner" their attack isn't necessarily wasted if the giant knocks them prone before they can get away, because the movement is separate from their attack. Once they're on the floor, they can change their mind and decide to attack whatever's in range, rather than swing futilely against the sui-distant statue.

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    \$\begingroup\$ I feel like this is the right answer, but could use better organization or better descriptions. Enemies that are ready or relaxed or distracting are going to look and behave in a way that matches the mechanics. Use the rules to weave the narrative. Give the players the information that the (highly competent) characters can see. \$\endgroup\$ – aherocalledFrog Dec 26 '18 at 18:58
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    \$\begingroup\$ I also feel like this gives the right answer, but is very confusing to read. \$\endgroup\$ – SeriousBri Dec 28 '18 at 10:49
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Let them know after committing to the first attack at latest

By the rules, each attack can have a separate target, and don't need to be called out before the first attack. Therefore, your players have the right to switch the target after their first attack for any reason --- the first target may have died, it may have turned out to impose disadvantage, it may have had a damage resistance, or whatever. "Three attacks on [target]" is, unless explicitly ruled otherwise, just a convenience thing and should not be regarded as a mechanical commitment.

"Okay," you might say, "but should I rule it that way then?" My answer is no, you shouldn't. First of all, penalizing your players for using a shorthand is not cool and will feel like antagonizing them for no proper reason. It is a convenience thing and depriving them of that convenience for no reason will not serve any practical purpose.

Likewise, you could rule that regardless of the wording, all attacks made will have to target the same creature, but that reduces the tactical agency the players have (in layman's terms, they have less interesting choices to make) and has the potential to slow down combat encounters significantly. In all fairness, it's more likely to increase metagaming than reduce it, since the players will have to consider eg. whether they want to use their three attacks at a creature that's likely to go down in just one hit.

Finally, one might consider the option of not letting the players know they're rolling at a disadvantage at all (and rolling the second die in secret), but I seriously recommend against this. It will just lead to clumsy and confusing gameplay, put more stress on the GM as they have to remember to roll after player attacks and is very transparently "unusual" to the players. Metagaming shouldn't even be a concern here --- surely the characters, after attempting an attack, should realize that something is making hitting the target more difficult than usual?

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    \$\begingroup\$ That last question in your answer sums it up for me: How would a (say) fighter, who trained his whole life in melee, knowing how to read situations, understand his own body and movements in a fight and all that, not realize "something is off, you keep being distracted by that other guy and you feel like your hits don't connect with the same strength" at the very least. And then once that is out there, players will normally try something else (like attack the distracting guy). Then they would realize exactly what's off \$\endgroup\$ – Patrice Dec 26 '18 at 15:04
  • \$\begingroup\$ While a good answer this misses the possibility of the effect being obvious before even making the attack. A goading attack or spell such as compelled dual would be known right away, even if the actual mechanics behind them are not. \$\endgroup\$ – SeriousBri Dec 28 '18 at 10:52
  • \$\begingroup\$ @T.J.L. where does my answer imply otherwise and how should I improve it? \$\endgroup\$ – kviiri Jan 11 at 14:00
  • \$\begingroup\$ @T.J.L. i thought it'd be obvious from the context, but is this better? \$\endgroup\$ – kviiri Jan 11 at 14:04
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Make it interesting, at least

If my guess is correct you're talking about something similar to Goading Strike from the Battle Master?

I'd give the party some information the instant it happened, and if they still didn't get it, I'd inform them the mechanics after they made an attack at disadvantage.

For example:

The enemy knight with full armor and his rapier and dagger take an attack on you, he taunts laughing, "Are you an utter fool? You leave your guard WIDE open, Har har har, this is like stabbing fish in a barrel!"

Whomever he targets with this effect, I'd also tell them that the words of the enemy seem to echo in their ears, making them feel annoyed and distracted. IF they still decided to attack a different enemy, even after I've told them how annoying the knight was, then I'd tell them on making the first attack, it is at disadvantage and again remind them the taunting/goading words of the 2 weapon knight and probably explain the mechanics I was using.

Honestly just make it something that feels organic and they'll probably like it. Imagine that these players haven't fought someone like this before, or maybe they have, how does that change things?

I'd use this in reverse also, for example a random animal probably wouldn't know to attack casters who are concentrating on spells. They'd probably attack the fighters/barbarians directly in front of them.

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Each attack resolves individually

It is important to remember that each attack resolves individually and players should know the result of the previous attack before deciding on how to use the second. This applies when the first attack downs an opponent so that PCs can use additional attacks against a different target. It also applies to abilities like Great Weapon Master or Sharpshooter where players can decide whether or not to use them based on the results of the first attack. Therefore it must also apply in this situation.

If the character isn't aware of it

If the cause of the disadvantage is from some effect or ability that the PC would not be aware of then then you tell the player they have disadvantage after they declare the target of their first attack. The player cannot then choose not to attack, they are already committed and must attack the chosen target. This ensures they engage the target before they discover the effect and must choose to take an attack of opportunity if they want to attack another target that is further away.

However they may have abilities which negate the disadvantage (i.e. Reckless Attack) and I would allow them to declare these after discovering they have disadvantage. This isn't precisely covered by the rules and you are free to rule the other way. I rule this way as it helps players to feel less disappointed by the disadvantage effect.

Below is an example of how that would run at my table:

Barbarian: I move up to the orc and attack him.

DM: As you approach the orc you realise there is something slightly off about him. Roll your attack with disadvantage

Barbarian: Weird Orc makes me angry, I swing recklessly to negates the disadvantage. * rolls normally *

If the character is aware of it

Sometimes the effect may be something the character would be aware of (i.e Blur) in those circumstances you should inform the player as soon as their character would become aware of it. When you describe the scene the character can see also describe the mechanical effect. I use the same rule for obvious difficult terrain or damaging environmental effects.

Here's an example of how that would play out:

DM: As you approach the orc warband, you see the leader shout some commands to his allies, he then readies his weapon and stands to confront you. As you watch him his form seems to go in and out of focus, as though he were moving rapidly while standing still. You will have disadvantage on attacks against him.

Barbarian: I don't like the look of the leader. I run over and attack one of the other orcs.

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