Grappling with Grappling

Grappling is a D&D mechanic that has evolved from many maligned paragraphs of text to a simple skill contest. Let’s look at where the current iteration stands, and what can be done to improve grappling in your D&D game.

Grappling in 5th Edition

Grappling is a skill contest that imposes the grappled condition. Effectively, all the grappled condition does is reduce your speed to zero. In order to give this any real teeth, you must knock the grappled target prone.

5e grappling mechanics are simpler than prior editions. While this increased simplicity is widely lauded, it may lead to a dissatisfying experience for the melee character. Unfortunately, simplifying rules can lead to fewer options for the character employing them.

Prior editions of D&D suffered from locking logically-accessible actions (i.e. stuff players want to do) behind feats. 5e opened this up by enabling stuff players want to do through the base rules of the game. For example, Two-Weapon Fighting enables you to use your bonus action to make an off-hand weapon attack, which required specialization in 3e.

Instead, 5e allows characters to accomplish what’s in a player’s imagination, without burdening their characters with a feat tax. Since feats are no longer restrictions on stuff players want to do, they can become making something you can do better. A great implementation of this is the Dual Wielder feat. While Two-Weapon Fighting exists without it, the feat boosts AC, damage dice, and smoothes mechanical interactions.

Grappler Feat

The Grappler feat gives advantage to attack grappled foes, and opens the possibility of pinning an opponent to impose the restrained condition. While this follows the 5e design philosophy of making something you can do better, it violates its aversion to locking logical actions behind a feat tax.

Grappler PHB.png

Note: The designers wanted this feat to be accessible, since it’s the only feat provided in the 5e System Reference Document (SRD).

In the process of paring down this mechanic for 5th Edition, something got lost in translation. As we see from the Player’s Handbook errata, the third part of this feat refers to a rule that was removed from 5th Edition. Indeed, we also see the third benefit removed from the Grappler feat in the updated 5th Edition System Reference Document (SRD).

What can we infer? Apparently, there used to be a grappling rule that enabled a creature one size larger to escape from a grapple without a check. This is a vestige of prior editions, where the size difference would scale your grappling bonus. This was cut for a size restriction, with the simplification of the grappling rules.

Grappler Feat Power

With an inert placeholder, was Grappler left wanting? While a plurality of ThinkDM pollsters consider Grappler a junk-tier feat, there are varied opinions as to its efficacy:

Grappler

How can we improve and coalesce the opinions regarding the Grappler feat? I propose two solutions:

  1. Democratize Grappling
  2. Grappler Feat Improvement

Democratize Grappling

Just give everyone the Grappler feat. Since Grappler is the only feat available in the SRD, it may indicate that the D&D design team was thinking about making it available to everyone. This works with both Grappler features:

Attack Advantage. Attack advantage is a natural consequence of grappling. Otherwise, nobody would grab your shirt collar before they punched your face in. Mechanically, gaining advantage on attack rolls is a fair trade. You sacrifice an attack to make a grapple attempt to gain advantage on attack rolls. If you only have two attacks, you’re better making two attacks, since you have a chance to deal damage twice. Giving the player advantage rewards a successful grapple attempt by giving the sacrificed attack die back.

Imposing Restraint. Pinning is the natural goal of grappling. It was available as a grappling option without a feat in prior editions. In the melee arena, it definitely fits into stuff players want to do, though it has been locked behind a feat tax. The logical result of grappling is to incapacitate your foe, which can only be truly accomplished through the restrained condition. The prone condition doesn’t scratch this itch for me, since it disadvantages ranged attackers and doesn’t help spellcasters with Dexterity saves.

I suggest giving all characters the Grappler feat. While it may complicate the mechanics, it still achieves a fair balance between the overcomplicated mechanics of yore and the 5e philosophy of letting players do stuff players want to do.

Grappler Feat Improvement

Whether or not you democratize grappling for the average PC, the Grappler feat can still be improved by supplementing its missing parts with other abilities.

5e Mechanics

Advantage. Taking a cue from 5e’s most popular new mechanic, allow the feat to grant players advantage on grapple checks. You can rein this in by limiting it to creatures of the same size category (or smaller).

Defense. Taking a cue from Dual Wielder’s AC bonus, perhaps a defensive benefit is in order. A proficient offensive grappler also knows how to defend the same moves. As such, perhaps the Grappler gains advantage on Athletics (Strength) or Acrobatics (Dexterity) checks to escape a grapple.

3e Mechanics

Alternatively, let’s cull the best mechanics from the library that was 3e grappling:

Size Restrictions. While scaled modifiers for size mechanics were a little complicated, the one-up size restriction feels a little too restricted. Consider expanding the size range for grapplers to two sizes larger. You can temper ridiculous antics by requiring the player to roll with disadvantage against an outsized foe.

Spellcasting. You may allow limited spellcasting while grappling. Evaluate how much you want to relax the somatic components considering one of the character’s hands will be occupied. I think a neat way to do this is waive somatic components for spells with a range of touch (e.g. Contagion, Inflict Wounds, Shocking Grasp).

Defense. Adding on to the defensive benefits, perhaps a Grappler can attempt to “wriggle free” as a bonus action on their turn, or as a reaction upon being grappled.

Always remember the lessons of the past. While the onerous mechanics of bygone editions have been dispensed, they can still spice up the options in your current game. 

3 thoughts on “Grappling with Grappling

  1. Been reading a bunch of your entries and I wanted to say awesome job on this stuff! I love the Spell odds from Flesh to Stone and Contagion. It is making me take a 2nd look at Flesh to Stone and confirming what I’ve thought about Contagion for a while.

    A couple of comments here:

    1 – I like/dislike the locking of the restraint condition behind a feat tax on the 5e grapple too, but at the same time it makes a done of sense to me. Unless you are trained in grappling/wrestling you are going to be hard pressed to actually restrain someone. Grabbing someone is easy and you can hamper their movement with just your grip and body weight, but actually restraining them to the point they can’t move… that is a big ask for a normal person, let alone a Wizard. If I were going to pass out the Feat I would limit it to those who are proficient in all martial weapons or something.

    2 – Size restrictions… to keep it more simple I would probably just add in that you have advantage to grapple any creature that is a size smaller than you and disadvantage on grapple checks against creatures that are sizes larger than you

    3 – defensive bonuses – here is where I would actually do something like “Improved Grappler” feat (I know I know no feat trees!), but hear me out. Give Grapple to any class that gets all martial weapons assuming that while they were training with all those weapons, they also worked on hand to hand. Also Monks. Add Improved Grapple: Gain Advantage on all Grapple checks and checks to escape a grapple (this will help against same sized opponents as well as negate the disadvantage that larger creatures would have on you) + add in something like: when you pin a creature you do not gain the restrained condition, and/or when you pin a creature they cannot use somatic components for spell casting

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  2. I’m just getting into playing 5e, (I’ve played about every version except 4th since the Basic box set). It is also our DM’s first time running 5e so we are learning it together. My Barbarian has a high Athletics and we messed up grappling the first time. The DM gave us the restrained condition bonuses as were thinking more wrestling than grabbing someone. Since that session I’ve been researching the mechanics.

    I also come from a historical reenactor background with a broad knowledge of history. Wrestling has been the basis of learning to fight sine ancient times, especially during the medieval period that most fantasy games are based on. If you look at a number of medieval or renaissance fightbooks several plates in the weapons are often laying on the ground and the figures are wrestling. It has always bothered me that wrestling is often made a corner activity that only a few character would ever have any ability with, especially when hidden behind Feat Walls. If you are a trained fighter you should know how to wrestle. Many others that are not trained to fight with weapons would still know how to wrestle. But there would also be some that have no training in wrestling.

    I like the Grappling mechanic in 5e but not that actually the next step in wrestling, restraining your opponent, is behind the Feat Wall and is a weak Feat.

    My house rule idea is to allow any character with proficiency in Athletics to use the Grappler rules or at least the second bullet where you can proceed from a successful grapple into restraining your opponent. This covers the very good point that someone with no training in wrestling would have a hard time pinning someone while not complicating the rules much.

    Now just to negotiate next session with my DM…

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  3. I love these changes! The only thing I would change is only giving creatures who are proficient in the Athletics skill the Grappler feat automatically. I’m definitely going to implement these changes as a house rule in my game.

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