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I'd like to encourage my players to engage in more dynamic melee combat, especially at low levels. We have tried to use the Flanking optional rule on DMG page 251, but weren't happy with the results.

Next session I'm going to introduce two house rules:

  1. Drop Prone: When a creature you can see attacks you with a ranged attack, you can use your reaction to fall to the ground, gaining the prone condition. Attack rolls (including the first one) against a prone target have advantage if the attacker is within 5 feet, or disadvantage otherwise.

  2. Give Ground: When a creature attacks you with a melee attack, you can use your reaction to impose disadvantage on the attack roll and move 5 feet away from the creature without provoking an opportunity attack from it. Your movement will be halved next turn. You cannot Give Ground if the attacker has advantage.

Both reactions are supposed to be available for any creature, not only PCs. Being relatively new to 5e I have concerns regarding possible balance issues. What parts of my house rules can apparently benefit (or hurt) only specific classes?

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  • \$\begingroup\$ By “diversify melee combat”, do you mean encouraging the players to use more diverse tactics? \$\endgroup\$ – SevenSidedDie Feb 1 '17 at 18:52
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    \$\begingroup\$ @SevenSidedDie basically, yes. I want combat to be more dependent on circumstances (room geometry, quality and quantity of combatants, etc), encouraging choosing right tactics in each case. \$\endgroup\$ – enkryptor Feb 1 '17 at 18:58
  • \$\begingroup\$ I don't see any overt balance problems here but have you considered simply diversifying your encounter design and giving your players conflicting goals mid-combat? The Angry DM has a good article on this subject. More rules can add that depth but you pay for it with added complexity. \$\endgroup\$ – Doval Feb 2 '17 at 21:49
  • \$\begingroup\$ @Doval after a long pause of thoughts I decided to change my approach - try thorough encounter design instead of complicating players' life with additional house rules \$\endgroup\$ – enkryptor Feb 7 '17 at 7:39
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Let's assume that the combat system is balanced as-is: that is, that the existing tools the system provides for defensive options in combat have the appropriate trade-offs between cost and benefit.

The basic tool to give an attacker disadvantage is the Dodge action. In addition to the obvious impact of having to spend an action taking Dodge (mostly: not being able to attack or cast a spell), there's a slightly subtler consequence. A creature has to choose to Dodge before the attacks start. This means the Dodging creature is gambling that the cost of forgoing some other action now will be worth the overall defensive benefit in the future.

Drop Prone and Give Ground instead give a defensive benefit now in exchange for a reduction in movement in the future. So the cost is paid after the benefit is received. Even setting aside the actual costs, this is a much better deal for the character! Suppose the house rule was simplified to just:

Desperate Dodge: Any character may spend their reaction to take the Dodge action until the start of their next turn. If they do, they cannot take an action on that turn.

This is much better than the regular Dodge, because a character is guaranteed never to use it unless they really need it. And they can plan around not being able to act on their turn. If this option existed, nobody would use the regular Dodge action.

Now consider:

Cautious Dodge: Any character may spend their reaction to take the Dodge action until the start of their next turn. If they do, they forego their move on that turn.

Cautious Dodge is much better than Desperate Dodge, which was already better than Dodge: it trades the major disadvantage of losing an action for the much more manageable disadvantage of losing movement.

Drop Prone and Give Ground are both generally significantly better than Cautious Dodge. They are slightly more limited (not affecting all attacks, having other minor drawbacks, etc), but their costs are generally lower as well. And much of the time characters only need to protect themselves against a single attack, and can mitigate or ignore the other downsides.

Given that these options are good enough to make one of the basic combat actions much worse by comparison, I would say they are unbalanced relative to the other actions characters have in combat. They remove one of the basic balancing mechanisms by allowing characters to trade immediate benefits for relatively small future costs.

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  • \$\begingroup\$ Since my explanations might be unclear, comparing Drop Prone and Give Ground with Dodge, do you take into account that Drop Prone makes you prone until you stand up? All melee attacks against a prone target will have advantage (not a "minor drawback")? And Give Ground not just imposes disadvantage on an attack, but requires you to take a 5-ft. step back. You can't Give Ground if there is a wall behind you. \$\endgroup\$ – enkryptor Feb 7 '17 at 7:48
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    \$\begingroup\$ Yes, I took that into account; I can expand the answer if you think it necessary. Generally speaking adding conditional downsides like this just means that the incentive is to arrange circumstances so the downside doesn't apply. \$\endgroup\$ – Marq Feb 7 '17 at 12:50
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Drop prone will make the monk's deflect missiles (reduce damage from ranged weapon attacks), the enchanter's instinctive charm (attacker must save or attack the closest target instead) and Uncanny Dodge for Rogue and Ranger less impressive at the very least and could be better (missing vs reduced damage or just hitting another party member).

Give ground could be used to generate opportunity attacks by backing away from the attacker and forcing it to move away from an ally (creating an effect similar to Commander's Strike). It weakens the Monk's Patient Defense feature (dodge as a bonus action for 1 ki point), Uncanny Dodge for Rogue and Ranger (reduce damage) and protection fighting style (less need to protect a guy that can do the same thing himself). Reduced speed isn't a big cost when the opponent is right in front of you, so it would probably be used on every attack.

All characters can take the dodge action to generate a similar effect (against all opponents vs just 1), but the cost is much greater than using their reaction (their entire action). Both rules make it much harder for rogues to use sneak attack when they don't have advantage, impossible if the creatures are playing smart.

If they are allowed they should be a feat, but give ground is probably too good for even that.

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Yinzanat already covered class features that already provided similar features, so here's some analysis on broader implications:

Drop prone will directly nerf ranged attack rolls by giving the target a situationally good way to impose disadvantage on the roll. This means that ranged combat that doesn't use attack rolls will become a stronger choice in comparison: saving throws are unaffected by the target being prone, and some magical attacks like Magic Missile hit automatically. Expect this rule to nerf ranged combatants and shift the focus of ranged combat slightly towards magic. Rogues attempting ranged sneak attacks will lose particularly many opportunities to exercise their skills.

Give ground will depend greatly on circumstances - how much area is there to give ground towards and whether the character is trying to hold their position. If most combats of your campaign take place in open environments, it is practically free. Again, rogues will suffer quite heavily, because disadvantage prevents sneak attacks unless the rogue also has an advantage on the roll from some source.

Both moves inflict disadvantage on attack rolls. Disadvantage squares the probability of an attack hitting the target (excepting the edge cases of natural 1 or 20), so it helps defenders with high AC the most in terms of hits avoided. However, in terms of damage relative to total hit points, squishier classes may benefit more as each dodged blow amounts more to them. High AC and low hit-point creatures are the big winners of disadvantaging rolls - this includes many humanoid monsters, eg. hobgoblins (CR 1/2, AC 18, 11 hit points).

Both moves also consume the defender's reaction, which buffs the side with numerical superiority and makes ganging up on harder-to-hit enemies a stronger tactic, possibly even virtually necessary for monsters with high AC.

Overall, apart from rogues and class features pointed out by Yinzanat, I'd say these new combat moves are not significantly unbalanced on a class-vs-class basis. I would be more worried about their impact on combat pacing - by adding buffs to defending, combats can get incredibly drawn out. I recommend you to reconsider introducing these features, especially if your party includes a rogue fond of their sneak attacks.

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