D&D 5e: At-Will Attack Options

This post is about one item on the short list of problems I have with 5th edition D&D. On the whole I think the new edition is brilliant, and if there’s a list of problems… well, they are fewer in number and less egregious than any edition prior. Specifically, I think that the game would benefit from giving weapon users a second at-will attack option that doesn’t involve changing weapons, preferably divorced from class. To my mind, a fighter with a rapier and a rogue with a rapier have enough distinction from class already.

My reasoning couldn’t be simpler. I find it dissatisfying when, round after round, a character makes fundamentally the same attack, summed up as, “I attack the (creature name).” One of the players in my campaign found this especially irksome with the ranger, since for the most part the ranger doesn’t even need to move; it wasn’t until he reached 4th level and bought the Martial Adept feat to give him some per-short-rest abilities that he really started enjoying the class – since he was a Hunter and picked Colossus Slayer, his action each round up to that point boiled down to “shoot” – it’s not like Colossus Slayer really presents a choice to the player At the lowest levels, he had few enough spell slots that even hunter’s mark and hail of thorns weren’t consistently available as options.

The cantrips available to the spellcasting classes help them partially avoid this problem, except that clerics need an attack cantrip other than sacred flame, and warlocks of Tome or Chain need a cantrip option that can compete with eldritch blast. The Agonizing Blast invocation makes eldritch blast much better than any other cantrip option, and that’s a problem.

What at-will options do weapon-wielding characters really have? I’m pointedly not including anything that involves spending any kind of currency.

  • Attack (d20 + Str or Dex bonus + prof bonus + magic); on a hit deal damage equal to the weapon’s die value + stat bonus + magic.
    • Depending on class, this option might expand into Extra Attacks, additional dice of damage from Divine Strike or similar abilities, situational damage adds such as Sneak Attack, or flat adds from rage. The situational damage add is the only one that really calls on the player to make a choice at the time of action. With rage damage, you make a decision once, usually early in the fight, and stick with it as long as possible.
  • Dash. In most cases, this won’t be your go-to option, as it doesn’t generally get your enemies closer to being dead.
  • Disengage. As with Dash, it’s a situational option that might improve your situation, but more often than not, it’s disappointing if you need to use this for your action, because you’re not making an attack.
  • Dodge. An option of last resort for everyone, unless you have a way to do this without spending your action. At best, it’s a delaying action (presumably while you wait for healing or other aid).
  • Grapple. Unless you have the feat that improves this, 95% of the time it is less appealing than just making an attack. Roll Strength (Athletics) opposed by Strength (Athletics) or Dexterity (Acrobatics). Or, to put that another way, finesse fighters need not apply.
  • Help. This sacrifices your action to make another character’s action more likely to succeed. Most of the time, it’s better to have each of you make your own attacks. (And thank goodness that’s true; it would be obnoxious if the ideal approach to combat was for everyone to pair up into Attacker and Helper.)
  • Hide. If you’re not a Rogue, this is probably not a go-to option for you during combat… and Rogues have Cunning Action to make this even better for them.
  • Ready. Sacrifice other Reaction options to move your action for the round off of your own initiative. This can be a devastatingly good option, in the right situation – especially true if an enemy is behind total cover or otherwise temporarily unassailable.
  • Search. Situationally appropriate, but not common.
  • Shove. Roll Strength (Athletics) opposed by Strength (Athletics) or Dexterity (Acrobatics). As with Grapple – finesse fighters need not apply. If successful, you can either trip the target or push it 5 feet away from you.
    • I like that they cover both Trip attacks and forced movement with this.
  • Use an Object. This is open-ended enough that I’m not actually sure what you’d do with this, but it definitely has some application!

Boiling this down, the ways to attack someone are Attack, Grapple, and Shove. Readying is a good tactical move in many cases, but it still leads to one of the other action options. There a few other options tucked into the Feat list, though:

  • Grappler. This feat improves grappling overall and adds an option to pin a creature – causing both you and your target to be restrained.
  • Great Weapon Master. There’s an option in this feat that amounts to Power Attack: a -5 penalty to hit for a +10 bonus to damage. 10 points of damage is substantial throughout the game, but the different ways classes scale up their weapon damage by level makes this a little weird. It’s a much better option for fighters and rangers, with their smaller base damage and larger number of attacks (here for rangers I’m thinking of Horde Breaker and Whirlwind Attack), than it is for clerics and paladins, who receive Divine Strike dice and fewer attacks. The -5 penalty to hit means you want to throw out as many attacks as possible, because you’re swinging for the fences. I’m not sure how to judge this feat for barbarians, Valor bards, and Blade pact warlocks.
  • Sharpshooter. This feat includes a Power Shot option, taking a -5 penalty to hit in exchange for +10 damage. Everything I just said about Power Attack in Great Weapon Master applies here, except that this is a go-to option for different characters. Bow rogues might be tempted by this, for example, but they should really be focused on making absolutely sure their one attack per round is fired from stealth and hits its target. (That said, the other benefits of this feat are fantastic for bow rogues.)

There are other feats, such as Shield Master and Tavern Brawler, that tack on additional effects when you make a normal attack, but as they don’t offer an alternate Attack option, they don’t address what I’m getting at here. (Getting to do extra things on your turn is good, but the player isn’t making a new choice – they’re just adding a new step to their action resolution.)

The difficult thing about adding alternate Attack options is the dice expressions for attack and damage are so very simple, as outlined above. Adding in a +1 or +2 here or there is clearly a mistake in the 5e design environment without a hugely compelling reason – whereas that and things like it were cornerstones of at-will attack design in 4e. Since the whole point of this post is that I really liked something 4e did and I regret its absence in 5e, let me talk a bit about the general trends of at-will attacks in 4e.

At initial release, 4e was built on the assumption that everyone could make melee or ranged basic attacks, but you never need to do this as your action because you always have a better option available, even among your at-will attacks. At-will attacks in 4e carry some additional benefit, sometimes with a tradeoff and sometimes not. Maybe this is a chance to target a defense other than AC (Piercing Strike), a second ability score bonus added to your weapon damage (Sly Flourish), or a free 5-foot push as a result of your hit (Tide of Iron).

Eventually, they released the Essentials line of books, full of builds for classes, attempting to make 4e more like earlier editions while retaining the power-driven framework of 4e. One of main steps of this change was to focus each class on melee basic attacks, with passive bonuses from stances. I disagreed with this change then as I do now, because while that model at least has a stance-shifting choice point, it’s a really strange way to store information, and results in stripping the player’s attack declaration back down to, “I attack.” (Followed by, “Okay, I hit? All of this stuff happens.”)

What kinds of variations could we introduce to the standard attack that are, nevertheless, balanced against it? Targeting an alternate defense is interesting, though in 5e that has to get twisted around to making the attack a saving throw, which is really odd. I’m not sure how you’d explain that in the fiction, so I’m veering away from it for a moment.
Players choosing to impose disadvantage on their own attack rolls to gain some other benefit is on the table, but this triggers some of the disconnect between math and player psychology. Disadvantage is really like taking a -3 (or thereabouts) to your attack roll, but I think it feels a lot worse when one of the two dice succeeds and the other fails, because psychologically it always feels like the roll that failed was the “extra” d20, and disadvantage turned a hit into a miss.
Valiant Strike from the 4e Paladin is really cool. Valiant Strike grants a bonus to your attack roll equal to the number of enemies adjacent to you, encouraging the Paladin to square off against as many enemies as possible – just like you’d hope for a defender. On the other hand, this doesn’t directly adapt all that well into 5e, what with slowing down play to count adjacent enemies and add them to a roll – and bounded accuracy hates this idea. Flipping the bonus over to damage helps a little, but there’s still the danger of slowdown in gameplay.
Numerous 4e at-will powers drop the ability score bonus to damage, and that’s definitely an option. What benefit would the attacker gain from this in its place? Actually, the Battle Master subclass has a pretty solid list of rider effects in its Maneuvers. They aren’t all appropriate, but some of them certainly are. Let’s see where this goes – in each case assuming the attacker has no superiority dice to spend, because that would make these per-short-rest powers rather than at-will powers.

  • Commander’s Strike is clearly off the table – while it’s a great Battle Master power, I wouldn’t want every weapon-user in the party to have it, and the sacrifice of the ability score bonus to damage doesn’t work out right here. It would not be good to see a team where one character does literally all of the attacking, because all of the other characters sacrifice their actions to let that character attack again.
  • Disarming Attack could work. There would be no ability score bonus to damage, but you’d get the base weapon die plus any magical bonuses or fighting style bonuses (such as the Dueling style). It might be necessary to lower the DC of the Strength saving throw or grant advantage to the defender to make it fair, but right now I’m more interested in rounding up ideas than fine-tuning the balance.
  • Distracting Strike is functionally a free Help action. In exchange for sacrificing your ability score bonus to damage, you grant an ally advantage on their next attack against that target? Seems all right. (Help actions don’t normally require an attack roll, but Distracting Strike obviously does.)
    • There’s a somewhat abusive use of this that I have to point out: two rogues in tandem, each moving in, delivering a Distracting Strike, Disengaging, and finishing out their move. Because they’re each leaving an advantage on that enemy for the other one to clean up, neither of them are ever in melee reach of the enemy at the start of the enemy’s turn. I’m sure there’s a setup where that lets them kill powerful foes without taking even a single point of damage; on the other hand, it’s so cinematic that I would let it work out exactly as planned some of the time.
  • Evasive Footwork doesn’t do anything without a superiority die.
  • Feinting Attack essentially allows you to Help yourself (you’ll go blind) at the cost of a bonus action. Without the ability score bonus to damage or the superiority die, I guess this is fine? I’d speculate that the people most interested in it would be Rogues willing to trade their Cunning Action options for advantage, and thus Sneak Attack. In the balance, they’re losing their Dex bonus to damage in exchange for not needing an adjacent ally, or not needing to find a place to Hide, make a Hide check and shoot. Trading your ability score bonus to damage for your Sneak Attack bonus? Whoa now.
  • Goading Attack grants the target a Wisdom saving throw to resist its taunt/mark effect. Deciding to let this into the game as an at-will is kind of a big deal, though between the Protection fighting style and the Sentinel feat, it’s far from the only at-will defender action. (Notably, the Protection fighting style and the Sentinel feat both primarily work on the character’s reaction rather than action.) I think this is probably okay as an at-will, though.
  • Lunging Attack is probably balanced as-is, but I’m skeptical of allowing constant lunges for some reason. It feels like it should be a rarer, more surprising action, rather than at-will. Your mileage and/or reach may vary.
  • Maneuvering Attack is another classic 4e Warlord function. It’s probably fine, because the loss of the ability score bonus to damage and costing your ally their reaction for the round seems a fair price for a free Disengage and movement up to half your Speed.
  • Menacing Attack adds the frightened effect to your attack, with a Wisdom saving throw to resist the rider. I’m not crazy about letting people throw out the frightened effect at-will; I might tack on that once they’ve rolled a saving throw against your Menacing Attack, they’re immune to further Menacing Attacks from you in that combat (unless you spend superiority dice, because your per-short-rest powers don’t need that restriction).
  • Parry takes place on your reaction, so it’s outside the scope of this idea. Also, its effect value is the character’s superiority die and ability score bonus.
  • Precision Attack doesn’t do anything without a superiority die. That said, trading your ability score bonus to damage for +1d4 to your attack roll is plausible. It even preserves the usefulness of bless, because wouldn’t you like your ability score bonus to damage back? If you rule that a bonus d4 and a penalty d4 cancel each other out, this might be kind of a neat way to let people choose how they want their attack to be penalized by bane.
  • Pushing Attack is hugely better than Shove for forced movement. I do not recommend any implementation of it as an at-will.
  • Rally uses a bonus action, so it’s outside the scope of this idea. Also, its effect value is the character’s superiority die and Charisma ability score bonus.
  • Riposte uses a reaction, so it’s outside the scope of this idea.
  • Sweeping Attack doesn’t do anything, as written, without a superiority die. However, I think letting a character making a sweeping attack deal the weapon’s die value to one target and their ability score bonus to another within 5 feet might be worth a look. Alternately, the weapon’s die value to one and a d4 to the second? I dunno.
  • Trip Attack forces a Strength saving throw, or the target falls prone. It’s interesting that the Battle Master’s Maneuvers sell off the two effects of Shove separately, with triple distance on the push effect. Anyway, Trip Attack is still much better than Shove (would you rather deal damage, or not deal damage?), though it has an additional failure chance in that it requires a weapon attack in the first place. Not an ideal candidate for at-will implementation.

So as I see it, that leaves me with Disarming, Distracting, Goading, Maneuvering, Menacing (with modification), Precision (with modification), and possibly Sweeping (with modification). That’s a really nice list of alternate options, given that all the work I really did was looting one page of the Player’s Handbook. It’s probably too much information load to drop all of these options on a player at first level, so I’d look at granting one or two at first level, and another at odd-numbered levels thereafter, up to five or six at 9th level.
Of course, you may still not buy the premise that characters need these additional options – maybe you and your players have developed an understanding that results in a functional stunt system in your 5e game, since there are no guidelines for such a thing in the books, or maybe you get enough interest out of attack descriptions that don’t have any mechanical weight that you don’t care. That sounds dismissive, but in all seriousness, if everyone at the table is satisfied, then you’re right, you don’t need this.
If you’ve got more ideas for mechanical approaches or maneuvers that could work here, I’d love to hear them.
In a future post, I’ll consider the related issues with cantrips that I mentioned above.

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