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.
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.
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:
How can we improve and coalesce the opinions regarding the Grappler feat? I propose two solutions:
- Democratize Grappling
- Grappler Feat Improvement
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.
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.
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.