Article: D&D Next – An Alternative to Combat Expertise
Note: This article is aimed primarily at people who have participated in the D&D Next playtest. If you haven’t seen it yet, check it out! Furthermore, I refer to “expertise dice” a lot in this article – the current version of the playtest refers to this mechanic as “martial damage dice”. This mechanic was originally called “expertise dice” upon introduction, and the basics of the mechanic haven’t changed, so I use the phrases interchangeably.
The newest D&D Next playtest packet is upon us, and it looks like it’s going to be the last one we get for a while! A dearth of new material doesn’t sound like good news, but I’m sure I’m not the only one taking this opportunity to really delve into the system and start picking it apart. I’ve had a chance to run the game in actual play and I’ve pored over the rules quite a bit, and while this version of the game is much improved over the last playtest packet, there are still a lot of rough edges that need smoothing, nearly all of which have to do with “martial” classes and how their damage scales upwards as they gain levels.
Of course, I’m not writing this article to mudsling for negativity’s sake – I think the spellcasters are handled perfectly so far and the base game is as solid as ever. I’m also not merely going to point out what is wrong without offering solutions – I have solutions, solutions that I think are good ones, and that’s why I got excited enough to share them that I wrote this whole article! But before I can delve into those solutions, I’m going to have to go into what I believe the problems are.
Expertise dice (or “martial damage dice”, as they are currently known) are a feature of Combat Expertise, a class feature gained by all weapon-using or “martial” classes, like fighters, rogues, monks, and to some extent, clerics. The gist of it is that you get a small “pool” of dice you can spend on extra weapon damage, and the pool replenishes at the start of your turn each round. Depending on your class abilities, you can also spend them on “maneuvers” to trade out the extra damage for other effects, like reducing incoming damage, instilling harmful conditions on your opponents, and so on.
They were introduced as a unique game mechanic for fighters, but proved popular enough that the designers decided to try giving them to all weapon-using classes. The current iteration of the game re-frames the mechanic as analogous to 3rd edition’s “base attack bonus” – that is, a representation of any martial combat character getting better at their craft. Currently, only classes that are expected to fight with weapons get this feature (which is all of them but the wizard, as of the current packet). While this sounds pretty okay on paper, it’s presented a lot of challenges and problems.
Firstly, your choice of weapon now ceases to be meaningful once you reach mid-levels. One of the differences between different weapons is their damage die – a spear, for example, does 1d6 damage, while a greatsword does 1d12. Martial weapons tend to do more damage than basic weapons, finesse weapons do less damage than their non-finesse counterparts, and two-handed weapons do more damage than one-handed weapons. This is a series of checks and balances meant to incentivize certain play types – for example, fighters get access to more damaging weapons than wizards do, and players who focus on strength in lieu of dexterity get more damaging weapons to make up for their lack of mobility.
However, all of these balancing factors go out the window when you reach higher levels, and your weapon contributes only a small portion of your total damage each round. Take, for example, this graph comparing the average attack damage of two otherwise identical fighters – a dagger user and a greatsword user – at level 1, as compared to level 10:
Keep in mind, this is the difference between the most damaging and least damaging weapons in the game. At 1st level, the greatsword provides 40% more damage than the dagger – by level 10, this increase has shrunk to only 13%. For all intents and purposes, their output becomes just about level. Perhaps what is most dangerous about this decrease is that two-handed weapons become unattractive relatively quickly, and using your free hand for two-weapon fighting or a shield becomes a better option once expertise dice crowd out your choice of weapon as a damage source.
Secondly, “combat expertise” as it exists now is too complex of a mechanic to be a universal feature of the game. When you roll your damage dice, it becomes important to keep track of which of your dice originate from your weapon and which of them are expertise/martial damage dice, as you can only use your expertise dice once per round. As it’s possible under some circumstances to use abilities linked to your expertise dice when it isn’t your turn, or to make multiple attacks, it becomes more important to track which ones are being spent.
If this were the defining feature of a class, as it was when it was introduced as a fighter-only option, this wouldn’t be too much of an issue. Every class has to keep track of something – typically spells or another sort of resource. However, expertise dice are now being used as a feature of almost every class in the game, and now different classes are being differentiated by other means as well. This has made the complexity of playing as warrior characters skyrocket upwards.
Thirdly, the fighter is now back to lacking a distinctive mechanic or playstyle. Maneuvers are now accessible to multiple classes – the only thing that differentiates fighters from the other warrior classes are the number of maneuvers they get and what maneuvers they have access to. The “parry” maneuver has been repositioned as a unique fighter-only mechanic, but it still works almost exactly as if it were just another maneuver. Even worse, now that expertise dice are depicted as being base damage rather than extra damage, fighters have lost their throne as the most deadly class, as all of their abilities require them to give up damage from their attacks.
Lastly, the distinction between maneuvers for certain classes – as well as the distinction between maneuvers and feats – has become completely arbitrary. Abilities have jumped back and forth from being feats (at-will abilities accessible to any class) and maneuvers (class-restricted abilities powered by expertise/martial damage dice), and there doesn’t seem to be much rhyme or reason between why only fighters can, say, perform a “spring attack”, while a member of any class can use the “cleave” ability. Maneuvers are also restricted to class-based lists (like spells are), where the distinction again seems arbitrary – only monks, for example, can perform a “controlled fall” to reduce falling damage, while fighters alone can “lunge” and increase their reach. This just raises further questions – why can’t a rogue control his or her fall? Why can’t monks lunge forward with a quarterstaff? This conflict is something that’s always been at odds with the idea of fighters having their own distinct game mechanic, and it’s beginning to rear its ugly head once again.
These are problems that have their origin with design challenges plaguing Dungeons & Dragons since the game’s early iterations. How can this be fixed? How can you have a simple mechanic for damage that takes into account your weapon choice, scales with level, is simple enough for all classes to share, and still leave fighters with something unique?
My proposed solution is to get rid of per-round expertise/”martial damage dice” as a core feature of combat classes and instead scale base damage for warrior classes by adding extra weapon damage dice that aren’t tracked from round to round. These extra weapon dice become the “base” damage for warrior classes, while “extra” damage now comes from unique class-specific game mechanics.
Under this system, instead of gaining “martial damage dice”, warrior characters instead, as they level up, roll multiples of the damage dice of their weapon with every single weapon attack – no tracking the spending or acquisition of these dice whatsoever. This solves the problem of weapon choice no longer mattering at certain levels - the size of your weapon’s damage die remains a significant portion of your damage output, making the choice between a heavy-hitting two hander or a light, finesse-ready short sword and shield a meaningful one. It also solves the problem of combat expertise being a complicated mechanic shared by multiple classes, as applying extra weapon damage dice to every attack requires no tracking whatsoever.
From here, we can start giving classes simple and unique extra damage mechanics. Keep in mind, these are “extra” damage abilities, not “base” damage – a character doesn’t need a unique extra damage mechanic to be able to make a meaningful impact on a fight – so weapon-using characters like bards, clerics, and non-sneak-attacking rogues can still contribute to fights without having an extra damage ability.
Rogues, like the current playtest packet, can have sneak attack as an option that allows them to double their weapon damage dice when attacking with advantage, but still have the option of playing more “tricky” or defensively by taking one of the alternatives to sneak attack presented. Rangers might have their extra damage come from a third edition-style “favored enemy” ability, letting them do more damage against their preferred prey, or might have a fourth edition-style “quarry” ability that lets them designate a single target. Barbarians may have a ferocious “rage” ability that gives them extra damage at the expense of their own defense and control. All of these are things that can be easily stacked on top of gaining extra weapon damage dice as a core feature of all warrior classes.
So where does that leave the fighter? Simple: keep combat expertise and expertise dice as a fighter-only mechanic that makes up a smaller portion of their total damage output. While some other classes have to “work” for their extra damage, activating some special ability or attacking under certain circumstances, giving the fighter extra damage on every attack regardless of circumstances plays into their role as masters of combat techniques.
From here, there’s two more steps to eliminate the arbitrary distinction between feats and class-based maneuvers: first, eliminate “maneuvers” from the game, re-imagining them as feats. This way, special combat maneuvers and abilities become accessible to everyone who has the gumption to master the technique. Fighters can be kept unique by allowing them to gain certain “combat” related feats for free as part of their fighting style class feature, and giving fighters (and only fighters) the unique ability to spend expertise dice to “enhance” the effects of certain combat-related feats in a way that characters of other classes cannot.
For example, let’s take a combat related feat that exists in the game currently: “Shift”, available to the “Skirmisher” specialty. “Shift” is an ability any character can gain, and it allows a character to move without provoking attacks from enemies, as long as their movement is restricted to only five feet. Under this new system I propose, a mobile fighter could gain the “Shift” feat from their fighting style, and also gain the ability to spend their expertise dice to increase the distance they can move while using it – say five extra feet per die spent.
Going the other way, let’s take an ability that’s currently only expressed as a fighter-only maneuver – in this case, “Lunge” – and make it into a feat anyone can take. As it exists, “Lunge” allows you to spend a single expertise die to increase the reach of your attacks by five feet for one round. We can imagine this as a feat anyone can take and use – say, you can increase your attack reach by five feet, but you have disadvantage from the attack. Now, we can have the “lunge” feat as an option the fighter can select and enhance with combat expertise, spending an expertise die to negate the disadvantage. The overall theme here regarding special combat techniques is along the lines of “anyone can do it, but the fighter can do it better” by using expertise dice.
So, there you have it – something that is simple and universal, which eliminates arbitrary limitations on who can pick what abilities while still giving the fighter something unique and special. I believe that moving to a similar system to this would be a good direction for the game to go – if you agree with me, please spread this article around and mention these ideas in playtest feedback surveys! If you don’t agree, or if you have ideas of your own, feel free to share your own solutions in the comments section or send an e-mail regarding this article to CriticalWits@gmail.com!
In the coming weeks, I am likely going to be devising a play-testable modification of the game that uses these suggestions and seeing how they work in play. If they work out all right, I’ll release them in some form for you to try out in your own games – let me know if this is something you’ll be interested in!
Remember, D&D Next can’t be the best edition of D&D yet without your help! Remember to participate in the playtests and keep taking the surveys!
Thanks to Barefoot Liam for the stock image!