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Friday, August 21, 2015

Rules Lawyers - Fight! (D&D 5th ed Feats edition)

This is a post cross written with my long time friend and gamer ally Otto over at Quarzis Games.
Here is his post on the same subject .. GO READ IT!
We have picked a subject that has come up in our games and decided that we woudl both write posts about it. Neither one of us really knew what tact the other woudl take when writing our posts so the  "FIGHT" part of this title might be a bit misleading. (it's not.) Z

For the  record Otto is  how shall we say ... ummm.... Smart, like wicked smart, eloquent, perceptive and humble about it. So I am in the  position of bringing a knife to a gunfight here, I best be on my game.  Hey though at least I'm not surprised!
Scanned from the D&D 5th ed PHB

That is my clever segway to bring us all the  way to this ugly son of a bitch.









I need to say a couple things before I continue.

In one of my blog posts I said:
"The best thing about  5th edition D&D feats is that they are optional."
I stand by that. The ability to  just never use the feats or for a gm to say, "Nah we're not using them." is a good thing. Being that feats aren't central to the game's core system (As they were in 3.0  / 3.5 ) they are completely optional. For my money this solves any problems a GM has with any of the feats, either nix them completely or pull out the feats that are troublesome.

Given that feats only come around every few levels and the player would  have to give up a sizable +2 to, their attributes to pick a feat. Played for maximum benefit that +2  on attributes  will always give the character at least an additional +1 bonus to something. Considering the trade off feats should have some punch. Even still I have issue with some of the 5th ed Feats, and "Alert" is pretty much top of my list.

The scanned text above is the complete entry for the Alert feat.


  • (Part 1) Always on the look out for danger.
  • (Part 2) You gain a +5 to initiative.
  • (Part 3) You can't be surprised while you are conscious.
  • (part 4) Other creatures do not gain an advantage on attack rolls against you as a result of being hidden from you.
(Part 1) I like the description of  "Always on the lookout for danger."  This invokes images of twitchy street wise rouge who knows that danger lurks around every corner, and of the  hardened professional fighter who knows what to look for in every situation. I think there should be a feat for this sort of personality, mechanical representation for the kind of character who is never calm, ever vigilant, and always ready. I can appreciate these types of characters because I see them in movies. A kung fu expert awakes from meditation just in the  split second he needs to block a sword strike, a cowboy who hears the  jingle of spur, turns and shoots before his assailant even has a chance. This kind of super reaction is an attribute that characters in fiction do have.

(Part 2) +5 to initiative:
If a player poo-poo's a +5 to anything in the fifth edition game then I don't know what might make that player happy. Mathematically this is basically "advantage" on every initiative. Factor in a decent Dex score and chances are this character is going first most rounds.
In my opinion this is enough. It covers the Feats description and is more than you can get for the +2 attribute bonus you gave up.
A solid bonus to a roll that is made at the beginning of every combat, which affects the  flow of encounter as a whole. Good Deal that.
Give a wizard "Alert" and  watch how often he or she stuffs groups of enemies before they get to do anything constructive. 

(Part 3) You can't be Surprised while conscious.
I get it the character is so alert that they react to things more quickly than others. Like when I play basketball, some of the  folks playing with me are faster to the ball than I am, they are more "ALERT." I can appreciate that interpretation.
Here's where I call foul. 
  • The +5 initiative already covers being quicker the the ball or your sword or whatever. This Feat is constructed so a player never has to worry about foolishly walking into a room without checking the corners.
  • The reaction mechanic (PHB 190) already covers things like the monk's ability to  snag arrows out  of the air or other situations that trigger an action by a character. 
  • The "Ready" action  (pg 193) extends this concept to pretty much anything the GM will allow, up to things like "If he takes one more step I hit him in the face!" kind of things.
  • The use of the word "never" should be outlawed from role-playing games. To say "Never surprised" takes the surprised condition out of  the GM's toolkit. There are a few mechanical things the GM  has available to build tension. (darkness, the  threat of surprise, being lost, resource management..) The Game has a bad habit of giving characters easy ways to circumvent most of them. This feat removes surprise from the list, completely. Any time the   word "Never" grabs one of my tools and  throws it away, I'm not happy. ( Read this from Goblin Punch for another  look at keeping threats, threatening.)
  • Being surprised is considerably worse than rolling a poor initiative. Surprised creatures can't move or act until the end of the turn, and may not take reactions until the end of the turn. In 5th edition "Surprised" is treated more like a short term condition. Ambushing your target is almost useless without the surprised condition. The two examples given under surprise on PG 189 PHB are A band of characters jumping from the  trees on some unsuspecting bandits and a Gelatinous cube gliding silently down a hallway. These are both ambushes by definition, If the DM was to say  "Ok you guys all get a free attack because they never saw it coming!" The DM has in effect just given you the benefits surprise and just skipped the protocol of the  checks. This feat kills the threat of ambush at least for the targets that have Alert.
  • For the  record, A gm can inflict "surprised"  As Defined on Page 189 of the 5th edition PHB, using the  following process. If one side of a fight might logically surprise another then the  Gm asks for or makes Dexterity checks (Stealth) for "anyone hiding" and compares them to the Passive Wisdom (perception) of "Each Creature on the opposing side. The text makes a point of mentioning that not all members of a group need to be surprised some may, some may not be. *
  • The Alert feat Diminishes anyone with a good wisdom but not the feat, why have that high passive perception? You're not going to need it all that much you have alert. 
  • It diminishes ambush predators and to an extent high Dex opponents, why bother with the Dex bonus or stealth or that back stabbing thief when the feat says "never surprised"?  Just take the feat, It is THE BEST CHOICE.
(Part 4) 
"Other Players do not gain advantage on attack rolls against you as a result of being hidden from you"
This part is my big hang up.
On Pg 177 there is a pop out that describes hiding using a stealth check. It states "In combat most creatures stay alert for signs of danger all around, so if you come out of hiding and approach a creature, it usually sees you."
It then continues, " the Dungeon Master might allow you to stay hidden as you approach a creature that is distracted, allowing you to gain advantage on an attack."
Neat!
But not against Aler.
So if you are a DM using an NPC rogue as an enemy:
  • Don't hide then try to get advantage on an attack in an effort to get your extra sneak-attack damage. 
  • Don't bother with the assassins arch type skill of assassinate. You can never get that critical for surprising a target with Alert.
Alert effectively kills camouflage, invisibility, hiding in shadows, and back-stabs as threats to the character and  gain as tools to raise the tension in a fight. It makes no sense when looked at as a package with the  other two benefits. The character can already never be surprised, with this hiding really only has a defensive benefit.

If your DM gets smart and gives some of those NPC bad guys tier own ALERT Feats .. things could get bizarre.

Lets look at it all for a second:

Player: I know they are close so while I'm hidden up here, I want to us my ready action, anything that steps into that clearing I shoot it with my  bow."

DM looks at his NPC ranger, she has the Alert feat.

DM: A brown cloaked figure enters the clearing.....

Player: I SHOOT!

Ok now what? 
The player has already spent their action as a hold so they fire? Wait no they should check for surprise first to see if the  ranger looses this turn completely including their reactions. Hold on, the target can  NEVER be surprised so her alertness is going to say LOOK OUT no surprise check. Well at least the attacker gets advantage for being hidden? Nope alert kills that to. So roll initiative right? Well no ...We're back to the player has already spent their action as a hold, so your going to take that action away?

Surprise happens before initiative so how can a DM or a Player execute a plan to get the drop on someone with the Alert Feat if it steps in front initiative. It's a nightmare.

It's not that the  Feat is innately unbalanced, if only one character or very special NPC takes it to represent some supernatural level of training, I could get behind that.

However I think I have shown a few salient points:


  • It steps on so many other core mechanics all at once that it borderlines on  bad design. 
  • It takes tools out of teh GM's tool box by using the term NEVER when describing an effect.
  • It can lead to a web of logical semi correct situation interpretations that is a time wasting table discussion waiting to happen ***
  • As written the feat is so strong that a player would be foolish to pass it up.

  • My final verdict:  The Alert Feat is  Bad design that has possibly unintended mechanical interactions through withing the  scope of the game and should be used with caution.
    AKA ... Broken.
Thank you for reading .. Now go read Otto's post!

-Mark.






*  I am not going into how horrid it would be if these rules were interpreted by the  letter and five attackers all with  different dexterity scores tried to surprise 5 opponents all with different wisdom scores. It's a hack job.
** As a DM in that situation I would let the hidden player fire because they already spent the action, and move the +5 initiative bonus to the  targets AC. Then start the next round with a normal initiative no mods for anyone. And explain "You weren't surprised he just fired as soon as he saw you, your alertness allowed you the  +5 AC." To be honest though, I am not  at all sure that is the  right answer.
*** This is called "The Flying Snake Effect"