How Minotaurs Caused the Shield Master Rule Reversal

Dungeons & Dragon’s May 2018 Unearthed Arcana updated the Minotaur race. With three years since the original release, the improvements in the race design can tell us a lot about what lessons the Wizards of the Coast D&D team learned in that time.

Here is the new version of the Minotaur’s Hammering Horns from the May 2018 Unearthed Arcana: Centaurs and Minotaurs:

Hammering Horns 2018

Here is the old version of the Minotaur’s Hammering Horns from the May 2015 Unearthed Arcana: Waterborne Adventures:

Hammering Horns 2015

What Changed?

Timing. Due to some very nuanced language, the Minotaur can now use Hammering Horns in the middle of its Attack action. This is important because the prior language would require the entire Attack action (i.e. all attacks) to resolve before the Minotaur could trigger Hammering Horns.

Decision Making. The timing nuance requires a Minotaur with multiattack to make a decision upon hitting. While the Minotaur can trigger Hammering Horns on their first hit, they could be pushing their foe out of range. This may not be an issue, due to the fact that characters can move between attacks (Player’s Handbook p. 190). Also, you get a cool thematic bullrush feel when you attack-push-move-attack. However, if a Minotaur decides to wait on using Hammering Horns until their final attack, they may miss out on the benefit.

Action Economy. Hammering Horns now requires the Minotaur to make a shove as a reaction, not a bonus action. I am using the Action Tracker in my playtesting to see if this makes a difference in how much the Minotaur can do each round.

Restrictions. The ability was refined by adding size and reach restrictions. Instead of saying that you “cannot use” the shove to knock prone, the ability was rewritten to only enable you to push. The rewritten language is still a little confusing, since “shove” is a defined attack that allows you to knock prone (Player’s Handbook p. 195). This should probably be changed to “push” (or another term) if the mechanical effect is to remain the same.

Saving Throw. Instead of granting an automatic push, the new rule installed a Strength saving throw. While a good limiting mechanic, this also creates confusion with the “shove” terminology. The shove attack requires a skill contest, whereas Hammering Horns sets a DC.

Why Did It Change?

The intention of the Hammering Horns changes is reflected in D&D Lead Rules Designer Jeremy Crawford’s recent ruling reversal on the Shield Master feat:

Action Triggers 6

This ruling is all about action timing. The old Hammering Horns trigger functions the same as Shield Master, differing only in its use of “when” instead of “if” terminology. You had to resolve your full Attack action and then you could use Hammering Horns as a bonus action attack. Crawford verifies this in a few follow-up tweets:

This is where things get interesting. Even though we are talking about the Shield Master bonus action, we see Crawford add reactions to the same category. He clarifies that this ruling is about (bonus) (re)actions that trigger. He also explains that movement is an explicit carve-out to the Action economy.

Three days later, three-year-old Hammering Horns isn’t designed like Shield Master any more. The new rule does three things differently that are reflected in Crawford’s comments:

  • Using a reaction instead of a bonus action.
  • Creating an explicit exception that allows you to interrupt your Attack action.
  • Mechanics that encourage you to use your movement in the middle of your Attack action.

I’d wager that Crawford decided the Shield Master rule needed a revisit after hammering out the Minotaur mechanics. Would Shield Master be built this way today? It’s interesting to see design philosophy manifest within core rulings and revised playtest material almost simultaneously. We see that philosophy simply stated here:

Action Triggers 2

Good homebrew expresses themes in clear, concise text. When crafting features that are an exception, be explicit. Especially when it comes to action economy. The evolution of the Minotaur’s Hammering Horns shows just how true that is.

Quality of Life Improvements

We received additional insight on the “shove” design changes in the May 15, 2018 Dragon+ stream. It turns out the language of the “shove” mechanic was rewritten for a few reasons:

Rules Loophole. There’s a loophole with the shove attack that does not technically require the defender to be conscious. Saving throws are cleaner because the rules are built in.

Reducing References. It’s poor form to make a player look up another rule. Just say what it does. This is especially true in the case of an action or attack which also provides an exception to the referenced rule. This might be acceptable if you are providing a small exception to a large ruleset, but not if the exception removes half the ability (in this case, knocking prone).

Speed. The designers opted for a saving throw as opposed to the “shove” contest because it’s faster in combat. After playing a few years of 5th Edition D&D, the designers have realized that skill contests are more appropriate for resolution of conflicts outside of combat, whereas combat benefits from having structured single rolls, such as attacks (vs. AC) and spell saves (vs. DC).

“Once you’re in the realm of combat, (it’s) almost always best to rely on saving throws and attack rolls because system can deal with those things in a very clear way.”
— Jeremy E. Crawford, May 15, 2018 Dragon+

Skill Contests vs. Standard DCs

Specialized race/class features should be stronger than what’s generally available to everyone…if they consume the same action economy. If a race/class gets a shove attack feature that takes an attack action, it should do more damage or something tactical.

Another option for building race/class features is to make a regular action/attack a bonus action or reaction. Where should the power level of a race/class feature be when it consumes a different type of action? Should it match the original benchmark? Should it be more powerful, because it’s special to the character? Should it be less powerful, to account for the fact that its consuming a different type of action? We can get an idea by examining the design reliance on saving throws:

“[The shove] rule is meant essentially for anybody to be able to use and for nonspecialists. But, you’ll notice that most special abilities in the game–whether they are class features in the fighter, or they are spells, or they are monster abilities–when they…clobber somebody and hurl them back, usually its a saving throw.”
— Jeremy Crawford, March 15, 2018 Dragon+

While a saving throw rule is less variant than a skill contest, it’s not necessarily better for the attacker. A standard DC (8 + Proficiency + Strength) is easier to beat than a proficient Athletics roll (10.5 + Proficiency + Strength) on average. You are taking a risk by rolling dice, but the odds are 65% that you’ll roll at least an 8:

Odds of 8.png

On the other hand, the saving throw rule may nerf the defender’s save chance, since they lose the chance to choose the better of their Strength or Dexterity check from the shove contest. This will depend on whether the defender has Strength save proficiency, Athletics (Strength) proficiency, or Acrobatics (Dexterity) proficiency.

In order for the saving throw rule to benefit the attacker, the defender must exceed the average 2.5 DC difference. The defender’s Strength save must be 3 higher than the better of their Athletics (Strength) or Acrobatics (Dexterity) skill. Here’s the factors at play:

Strength vs. Dexterity. In general, most monsters have higher Strength saves than Dexterity saves, so the change does not harm them. The majority whose Dexterity so far outstrips their Strength (5+) are small beasts that serve as familiars (30+), fodder minions (Goblin, Kobold, Quasit, Imp), incorporeal creatures that don’t care if they are pushed (Banshee, Shadow Demon, Air Elemental), or tiny undead that don’t care because they float (Demilich, Flameskull, Will-O’-Wisp).

Save and Skill Proficiencies. A saving throw rule helps creatures who have proficiency in Strength saving throws. This is a small set. Among all the creatures in the Basic Rules, Monster Manual, and Volo’s Guide to Monsters (including veterans and skins), 24 have Strength save proficiency.

A saving throw rule harms creatures that can no longer add their Athletics (Strength) or Acrobatics (Dexterity) proficiencies in a shove contest. This too is a very small subset of the baddies you may encounter. Among all the creatures in the Basic Rules, Monster Manual, and Volo’s Guide to Monsters (including veterans and skins), only 32 have proficiency in Athletics (Strength) and 10 in Acrobatics (Dexterity).

While Strength save proficiency is less numerous, it is arguably more ubiquitous. Creatures with Strength save proficiency are popular: most Fiends, Undead, Gith, and a couple Giants. Athletics proficiency goes to Giants, Grung, a few monkeys, and the notorious Redcap. The Fey creatures Darkling and Quickling are the only non-veteran creatures with Acrobatics skill. Unless you’re playing a campaign full of Giants (i.e. Storm King’s Thunder), a saving throw rule is probably worse than a skill contest.

So there you have it. When balancing a regular action that you have converted to a reaction or bonus action for a class ability, don’t worry if you dampen the effect. Also consider the other options available to your race/class (such as Hammering Horns’ deference to Goring Rush). If you are building a race, be sensitive to the fact that the player’s class selection may give them access to Bonus Actions that can crowd that design space.

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