Combat Realism - Being Outnumbered (5e Variant Rule)

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Combat Realism - Being Outnumbered[edit]

Other articles have addressed improving the realism of one-on-one combat in Dungeons and Dragons 5th edition. One remaining gap is how to factor the advantage gained when multiple attackers gang up on a smaller number of defenders. Fighting two (or more) opponents at the same time is of course harder than fighting them straight after each other - it is much harder to defend from two (or more) directions at the same time and the best of fighters rapidly struggle as the number of opponents increases. The outnumbered hero is a strong trope in fantasy literature and a common feature in adventures and it is important to have rules for this. In most circumstances, there is only one official rule in Dungeons and Dragons 5th edition that be applied: the Help action (sacrificing your own attack to give a colleague advantage). This probably does not go far enough and feels an unnecessary loss of an attack - in reality there is significant advantage from both attackers attacking at the same time without one having to feint or distract instead. Some creatures have access to a more effective outnumbering advantage with skills such as Pack Tactics but, conversely, this probably goes too far in applying advantage nearly all the time.

Variant rules have been developed to improve that realism, especially Flanking (DMG p251, opponents on opposite sides of a target gaining advantage). Flanking also featured in previous editions - e.g. as a +2 bonus to attack in v3.5. However this really does not cover it. Whilst part of the advantage comes from blind-siding your opponent (and note an unseen opponent in 5e already has advantage on attack), part is just from two (or more) attackers attacking at the same time - even head-on. The new options proposed below are intended to be a near-definitive set of alternatives to handling outnumbered defenders. Enough detail is presented to clearly describe the core mechanics and apply them in your own games but finer details would bog it down and are best left for a future wiki.

A note on terminology before starting: a Melee here includes all individuals which are in range of at least one hostile opponent within the Melee. And the rules below generally only apply to melee attacks (not ranged).


Options that give Advantage to the attackers[edit]

This group of options keep to the 5e aesthetic (and that of Help and Pack Tactics) but determining Advantage for attackers when they outnumber their opponent(s). As such, they largely supersede the generally weaker Help action (although this still has its uses when a weaker attacker want to ensure its stronger colleague gains Advantage). On the other hand, they strengthen the value of the Dodge action, which would now negate the Advantage gained by the attackers (magic users might make use of Darkness or Invisibility for a similar effect, or even up the numbers with a familiar, animate objects, wall of blades, etc)


Option 1: Hit ‘Em While They’re Down[edit]

Attacker has advantage if their target has already been (melee) attacked that turn. Optionally, you may allow the defender to choose to give the first attacker of the round advantage so that they can “save” the non-advantage attack for a future attacker in that round (but without a guarantee that there will be another attacker!)


Option 2: Bring Out The Miniatures[edit]

There are three logical alternatives for an option that determines advantage based on how many attackers are in range (i.e. threatening), all really require miniatures to keep track of play:

- Option 2a: Attacker has advantage against target if there is at least one other attacker threatening that target (i.e. in reach). Defender may choose one attacker that does not get advantage (but no guarantee that this combatant will attack!)

- Option 2b: Attacker has advantage against target is in reach of more attackers than defenders. Defender may choose one attacker that does not get advantage (but no guarantee that this combatant will attack!)

- Option 2c: Attacker has advantage against target if target is threatened by least one other attacker and neither attacker is threatened by a different defender. Note all such attackers gain Advantage and defender does not get to prevent one of these.


Option 3: Drowning in Foes[edit]

(All) attackers have advantage if they outnumber defenders in the Melee by 2:1 or more (i.e. at least double as many attackers as defenders).


Option 4: Under The Radar[edit]

When attackers outnumbers defenders in the Melee, defenders select which attacker(s) are unmarked (roll for it if there is disagreement amongst the defenders). The unmarked attacker(s) have advantage on attack (whomever they attack)


Additional Optional Modifiers[edit]

As an additional option, consider allowing modifiers that permit a defender to handle more attackers:

- Off-hand Defense: using a shield prevents 1 (more) attacker from gaining advantage when outnumbering the shield bearer (shield bearer’s choice which attacker). Characters with the Dual Wielder feat gain the same benefit if wielding a second weapon. Likewise characters with the Polearm Master feat if wielding a polearm (by using the butt of the weapon).

- Skills and Feats: consider allowing a Multiple Defense skill/feat that is similar to the above.

- Attack vs Defense: consider allowing martial classes to sacrifice one of their attacks to prevent 1 (more) attacker from gaining advantage as above (as opposed to sacrificing the entire Attack action to take the Dodge action instead)


Options that give an Attack Bonus to the attackers[edit]

This group of options stray into the territory of modifiers that 5e has generally tried to minimise. However, they can work well by avoiding the interaction with the growing list of other Advantage/Disadvantage modifiers (Help, Dodge, etc) and there is a strong precedent in the modifiers for cover. Note that with this group of options, you can still allow the Invisible or Hidden attacker to have Advantage - allowing the combat benefit from attacking in numbers and the advantage from sneaking up behind the distracted defender to be applied separately.


Option 5: Ganging Up[edit]

Attacker gets a +1 bonus to attack for every other attacker threatening the target (i.e. +2 if two attackers, +3 if three attackers, etc)


Option 6: Piling On The Hurt[edit]

Attacker gets a +2 bonus for each other attacker that has already attacked that that target (i.e. +0 for first attacker, +2 for second, +4 for third, etc)


Additional Optional Modifiers[edit]

As an additional option, consider allowing modifiers that permit a defender to handle more attackers:

- Off-hand Defense: using a shield removes 1 attacker’s bonus (shield bearer’s choice which attacker). Characters with the Dual Wielder feat gain the same benefit if wielding a second weapon. Likewise characters with the Polearm Master feat if wielding a polearm (by using the butt of the weapon).

- Skills and Feats: consider allowing a Multiple Defense skill/feat that is similar to the above.

- Attack vs Defense: consider allowing martial classes to sacrifice one of their attacks to removes 1 attacker’s bonus as above (as opposed to sacrificing the entire Attack action to take the Dodge action instead)


Options 7: The Purist[edit]

The Purist approach is to divide up that element of the Defender’s AC/Defense that pertains to active defense and again the influence of other role-play systems must be acknowledged here, including the underrated Dragon Warriors that was little known outside of the UK.

Divide DEX bonus (and Proficiency bonus if using variant rules) amongst potential attackers (but not armor or shield). Do this the first time the Defender is attacked that round.


Options 8: The Grand Unified Theory[edit]

Those familiar with the core combat realism rules will know there is a final Grand Unified Theory option there that has much of the same effect as the other options but works differently and is simpler to apply. The Grand Unified Theory for the outnumbered defender aims to do the same for when attackers outnumber defenders:

If at end of a turn, a Melee participant has not been attacked, then they gain a (melee) Opportunity Attack (reaction) against any target within range. Note that is nearly equivalent to having had advantage on their attack that round (two rolls of the dice - but here with the potential of both hitting). It captures a theme that the main reason that the attacker has advantage is that the defender cannot pay enough attention to them, allowing an opportunity to strike without meeting their full defense. By triggering at the end of the round, it makes it easy to determine which attacker is being ignored by the defenders and hence is able to attack without being concerned about their own defense. And it normalises for defenders that might have 4 attacks a round and hence be able to keep 4 attackers at bay. In 5e combat, the 6 second round is all about how many shots an assailant can make count in that time, and when your opponent is not paying you attention, you have scope to make one more telling blow.

This is actually a remarkably versatile rule to use and logical to apply in other circumstances where a combatant has effectively been ignored by all other combatants. Optionally you may want to include any kind of attack here (i.e. the Melee participant has not been hit my any ranged attacks and/or spells either) and you could consider triggering an entire Opportunity Attack Action (allows the ignored fighter with 4 attacks to have made all of those “at advantage”).


Conclusions[edit]

All of eight options provide a credible, and feasible, way to account for the advantage of outnumbering an opponent(s) - choose the method that works best for you. Options 1, 4, 5 and 8 have the advantage of being the easiest to apply in most circumstances and, of these, Option 5 (Ganging Up) and Option 8 (The Grand Unified Theory) are particularly recommended.


Epilogue[edit]

See Combat Realism - Defense and Armor Options for core rules to increase combat realism. _RM_


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