The advantages of advantage

In my review of the new D&D edition, I said I would talk about feats at some point. I’m actually going to leave that for the next post and instead I’m going to take a few moments to discuss the advantage/disadvantage mechanic in the new edition. The more I think about this mechanic, the more I think it’s one of the best things about the new edition. Here are some of the things that really appeal to me:

It’s a genuinely good bonus (or significant penalty)…
In earlier editions, lots of effects would grant a +1 bonus or give a -1 penalty to a roll. By definition, such an effect will only make a difference to 1 in 20 rolls; all other rolls would have succeeded or failed irrespective of the effect. As a result, such minor bonuses and penalties could often seem inconsequential. Rolling twice and taking the higher result is about the equivalent of adding 3.5 (just based on expected value), which is always a solid bonus. The exact effect on probability will depend on the specific number required to hit, but is almost always going to be useful; if a 20 is required to hit, the chance of hitting almost doubles; if a 3 is required to hit, the chance of missing goes from 1 in 10 to 1 in 100. This feels like a condition worth achieving.

… but doesn’t change the range of outcomes.
I played a 4th edition epic level character for one adventure, who could generate constant combat advantage and always had +2 to hit from one of his various stances, so every single turn he had a “situational” (but not actually situational) +4 to hit; other characters could generate bonuses on occasions, but his might as well have been baked into his regular attack bonus. This meant that he could theoretically hit creatures that were four levels higher than his fellow adventurers, which doesn’t help the DM when trying to balance encounters. (Fortunately, even though he generally only missed on a 2, he was far from the most overpowered PC in the party.)
Advantage (and disadvantage in the reverse situation) increases a character’s chance to hit without actually altering the range of numbers that can be achieved. This keeps the party more consistently aligned; someone who can generate advantage often may have a better chance to hit, but can’t punch above the rest of the party’s weight.

It doesn’t stack
As I mentioned in my notes on the new edition, 4th edition got out of hand as the number of feats grew too large. Part of this problem was that the number of feats that included stackable bonuses grew and it became an arms race between the DM and the players as to who could inflate their numbers fastest. Advantage and disadvantage don’t stack with themselves and cancel each other out, so there is no chance for a PC to stack up bonuses into some sort of “super-advantage” or inflict so many penalties on an enemy that the DM might as well not roll; the effect is significant, but limited, so a combat shouldn’t become one sided.

It’s streamlined
Here is a conversation that we had a lot, while playing 4th edition. I’m sure some readers will recognise it…
“Ok, I’m attacking the dragon. I have [my usual bonus to hit], plus I have combat advantage and a bonus from last turn.”
“… and that bonus from me.”
“Yes, so that’s [final bonus to hit]. I rolled a 17, so that’s [total].”
“Dave hit on [total plus one], so you were just short. Did you include [some bonus]?”
“Yes, I included that. Have I still got [some other bonus]?”
“No, that was just last round. How about [something else]?”
“Ha! That’s [total plus one]! I hit!”

I’m assuming that with the advantage mechanic, it will go something like this…
“Ok, I’m attacking the dragon. I have [my usual bonus to hit], plus I have advantage from [whatever source]. Ok, the high roll was a 17, so that’s [total].”
“Dave hit on [total plus one]… oh well, so close.”

As long as players take a moment to consider whether they have advantage/disadvantage before a roll (and being the only thing to keep track of, it’s hopefully an easy one to remember), there’s no messing about with extra bonuses on the fly, which saves time in combat and out. Obviously this time may not add up to much, but it’s wasted time that could be spent doing something more fun.

It’s easy for DMs to use on the fly
Players like to try crazy actions and the DM has to adjudicate what sort of bonus or penalty those actions might result in. In a system based on numeric bonuses, this can be hard to judge… does throwing sand in someone’s eyes give a +1 bonus to attack them or +2? And if the bonus is too small (or a 4th edition DM decides it grants combat advantage, which the PC already had anyway) then the player may decide that it’s not worth the effort to take such actions, rendering the discussion moot.
In the new edition, such actions would simply cause advantage (or disadvantage, as appropriate). This is a good bonus (as discussed above), but also one that the DM and player know from the start; the player doesn’t have to think up stuff without knowing how effective it might be, the DM doesn’t have to take time to adjudicate what the bonus might be… “If I chuck sand in his eyes, can I have advantage on my next roll?” “Sure, that makes sense.”

These are just some of the great things about the mechanic, I’m sure there are others. I keenly await a chance to try it out for real.

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