3e: Finally Talking About Grappling

Alright, sure, let’s finally tear off this bandaid.

When I bring up the rules for 3e D&D, there are some rules I bring up that the rules were bad at, to, you know, bully them. The challenge rating system was pants, for example, and I will never not mention that. There’s also the imbalance of the wizard, the numerous busted prestige classes, all of that stuff —  it doesn’t work, it’s build on bad assumptions, it relies on players to create their own balance matrix. Lots of great fun reasons to make fun of things.

One area of the rules I make fun of a lot is the grapple rules.

Part of this is because the grapple rules are complicated. But okay, how complicated, and where is this complication? Now, I need to give dispensation: The 3.5 Grappling Rules Are Better. They’re written out as a set of step by step instructions.

The sequence is, pretty simply:

  • Initiate the grapple
  • This provokes an attack of opportunity, so your opponents can hit you.
  • If they hit you and deal damage, the grapple fails and your whole action stops here. For a lot of people this is where grappling ends.
  • If they don’t hit you or don’t deal damage when they hit you, you go on to 2
  • Make a touch attack to determine if you hit. If you miss them, this is where grappling ends. If not, go on to 3.
  • Make an opposed grapple check. If your opponent’s grappling check is higher than yours, this is where grappling ends. If not, go on to 4.
  • Then, you need to move into their square. This is free movement, but if you are held in place or can’t move into their square for some other reason, this is where grappling ends. If not, go on to 5.
  • You are now grappling.

Now, this is annoying, because when you want to do it, you have to check this list. The order of events, the sequence of it, is very specific, because the grappled party – which is usually going to be a non-player character – has four potential outs to this before you’ve actually dealt any damage. Then, once you’ve got them grappled, you can do damage. You get to do your unarmed damage, nonlethal, which is 1d3 or 1d4 depending on your size category.

But when?

Do you get to do it when you finish step 5? Or is that a thing you can do next turn, when you’re already grappling? Is the initiating action of the grapple going to include the damage, or is it a thing that requires an entire turn to do? And if it’s not, then aren’t you spending two turns to make one attack? These rules and their timing is ambiguous, so it’s good that the grapple rules cover a damage exception where they let you know monks can do lethal damage in a grapple, with their unarmed attacks, and all you need to get that sweet perk is play a monk.

That’s a punchline, since it’s really not obvious.

1d4 damage or half of 1d4 damage is essentially the same damage: It’s not worth it. A level 1 character with a quarterstaff is dealing 1d6 damage and they didn’t have to try four failure points to get there. There is no good reason to do this, and there is no good reason to assume this is a useful way to damage an opponent. A figure wearing full plate armour crash-tackling into you and holding you in place while trying to hurt you is going to do the same damage than bumping your foot on a coffee table about half the time. And that isn’t accounting for all the ways that grappling can fail when you try and do it against a weak opponent. If you’re trying to tackle a wizard the mildest of slaps from the worst of weapons is still going to stop you from succeeding at the grapple. What’s more, they can spend their turn attempting to escape with multiple routes.

And these are the better rules that I said aren’t so bad. Back in 3rd edition the rules were worse, particularly because this sequence wasn’t so neatly iterated out in a step-by-step process. The rules in the older book are complicated by having steps described as parts of sentences, and aren’t great at disambiguating when and how you checked for things like the opportunity attack.

You could spend a feat on this, by the way, which would let you circumvent the attack of opportunity from the grappling target, so after one feat you could reduce your failure points on an attack from four to three.

Thing that’s real sad is it’s kinda worth it.

Grappling is really dumb in 3e D&D. It isn’t going to do much damage, it’s prone to fail, it’s easy to resist and the resulting damage is bad. But one of the things you can do while you’re grappling someone is make it harder for them to cast spells. If the spell has a somatic component – gestures, handwiggles – then grappling stops it wholesale. That’s a lot of spells! If they’re pinned, they can’t talk, which means if they have a spell with somatic or verbal components, you stop it. That’s a good, solid control for spellcasters. What’s more, if they’re a spontaneous spellcaster like a sorcerer or bard, then they can’t even use Silent Spell or Still Spell metamagic feats to get out of it, because those feats turn the spell into a full-round action, which they can’t cast while in a grapple.

When you think about ‘grappling’, it’s a pretty basic kind of thing. It’s almost the least complicated form of violence that you can imagine doing – you run up to someone and you grab ‘em. In old memes, the line is Ah Tackle ‘Em. Grappling represents something that eventually comes to the mind of any given new player, when looking through their toolkit for things they can do when ‘just hitting things’ won’t obviously solve a problem.

This is a thing that’s very easy to imagine doing, it’s very easy to imagine the impact it would have, and the impact it would have is directly at odds with the effect it has in the game. The worst part of it is it actually has an impact, but that impact is, in part because of how it relates to power imbalance in the game. A thing a melee combatant can do that shuts off a spellcaster is really strong because spellcasters are really strong and that melee combatant isn’t going to be doing anything as useful as stopping a spellcaster.

Even for just one turn.

Even with all these chances for it to fail.