About Me

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Denver, Colorado, United States
I'm an old time roleplayer who became a soldier who became a veteran who became a developer who became a dba who became a manager who never gave up his dream of a better world. Even if I have to create it myself.

Friday, June 22, 2012

Attacks of Opportunity do not solve the Problem

For those not aware, Attacks of Opportunity (AoOs) are free attacks earned when one character either disengages from, or moves around, another character in melee combat.  Well, there are other times such a thing can occur, but this is the most common, and what I'm focusing on in this discussion.

AoOs have existed in D&D officially for a number of years, and somewhat more unofficially for years past that.  Other games can have similar rules.  Lately the debate has risen up again due to 5e, which doesn't currently have them but probably will soon.  Neither proposal in 5e is effective to me, because it's either "nothing happens" or "roll extra dice that have almost no effect."

In fact, I've never really liked AoOs in most systems, because they don't solve the mechanical problem they are meant to address.

Let's do an experiment to illustrate my point.

The Experiment

Go get a US Marine.  Give him a sword.  Stick him in a hallway with 5 feet on either side of him.

 Great.  Now, go run past him.


After you put your innards back inside your body, let's examine what we've learned:

A trained warrior cannot be run past unless you first disable him or actively move him out of the way.

This is the point that AoOs are supposed to solve, i.e., making fighter types "sticky" so that they can't be ignored and run past.  Because really, who would fight a durable, low DPS tank when a squishy, high DPS wizard is meteor swarming you?

AoOs do not solve this problem - at all.  Who cares if the fighter gets a free attack on me as I move towards the wizard?  I think I can take a 1d8+5 attack.  What I can't take are those 20d6 meteors pelting me every round.

If I have 100 HP, why would I ever care at all about some free basic attack?  The smart tactic in these games is to ignore the warrior, take the hit, and go get the squishies.  As a GM I often wonder why players are so afraid of incurring AoOs when it is clearly hurting them to think that way.

But that is a disassociated line of reasoning.  As we saw in our experiment, the expected and associated behavior would be that characters choosing to ignore the warrior should probably die.

The only way to make AoOs act as a solution to this, is to make them grossly fatal.  In my opinion, that just sort of wastes everyone's time.  Why not design rules to support associated behaviors, rather than with weird penalties or disassociated mechanics like AoOs?

In Phoenix, and I know this is a volatile subject, but one of the things I'm experimenting with is the concept of simply prohibiting fatal maneuvers.  For example, a character can't fire a bow when threatened in melee because they would be cut to pieces while they tried.  And yes, there is training or magic that can overcome that restriction, but breaking the rules via other rules is fun right?

Threatened Zone

One of my focuses in Phoenix is the speeding up of combat.  And not via lame stuff like encouraging players to print out powers on playing cards, or having a sand timer at the table.  Those are great and all, but I prefer that the flow of combat is so quick that it can't help but to feel faster.  I also don't want to sacrifice fun combat decisions and tactics.  I want to have my cake and eat it, too.

Along these lines, if a character in Phoenix is armed with a melee weapon, proficient in that weapon, and active (not unconscious, held, etc.), then that character exhibits a threatened zone equal to the reach of their weapon.  As a general rule, enemies cannot move from one threatened hex, to another threatened hex.  It's simply blocked, unless they spend their entire action to move one hex.  This gives the defending warrior a choice to either move and block, or let them pass.

Aggressors can back off and try to go around, or they can try to shove the warrior out of the way, or whatever else they can dream up, but such ideas are reasonable & associated solutions and they should have a chance at working in the right situations.

Yes, there are exceptions, and yes, there are training options, spells, and more that can creatively deal with this block.  The focus is on creating associated solutions, not banning tactics.

Threatened Zones aren't the only way to achieve associated results, but they are fast, fit with my design goals, and most importantly are fun in tactical combat.  More playtesting will ultimately reveal their solvency.


  1. Some nits to pick.

    I'd have a lot better chance of making it past the marine if:
    1) I had platemail (or even just a shield)
    2) I was Conan or some other badass
    3) I had a weapon to parry with
    4) He was distracted by some other person trying to kill him.

    All of these things at once are typical in a D&D game.

    This is also a HP issue. Real people only have one hitdie. The attack is a bigger deal at low level. 100 HP is excessive. That's a lot of HP inflation.

    1. Sounds like someone has identified some associated solutions with options 1-4.

      Have you considered flanking maneuvers? I suspect that pokey pokey is a lot more successful if I had easy access to someones kidneys while they are looking the other way.

      Maybe I could then use the ballista to perform a backstab.

    2. With regards to the HP issue, I was merely pointing out the silliness of the solution in an existing game system, not supporting it.

      For points #1 and #3: I've had the pleasure of training with Marines while I was in the Army, and I don't agree with these. Given two marines, both equally armored and armed - if one does something completely numbskulled like trying to just run around the other, that person is flat-out dead. (q.v., combat as war.)

      #2 contains a good point, that point being that in my previous example I'm assuming two combatants of roughly equivalent skill. In movies - or even real combat - a high skills differential is obviously important to consider. This still doesn't imply an associated mechanic of attacks of opportunity to me - perhaps more of an opposed contest that factors in levels. Or simply saying something like "5 levels difference means you can ignore their threatened zone" to make it go fast and achieve the same point. Or in the case of Phoenix, "characters of a higher tier can ignore zones from lower tiers."

      #4 and flanking to be commented on below...

      And backstabbing with a ballista should always work, I mean there's nothing against it in the rules.

  2. I like this idea. It reminds me a lot of "zone of control" in hex and counter wargaming, which is a nice clean concept that deals with the problems you mention.

    There are even different variations on the ZOC idea, such as rigid and flexible. The rigid variation says no movement through the ZOC. Some flexible variations say men/units (or certain types of them) can move through an enemy ZOC if the enemy is already otherwise engaged (i.e., the enemy already has one of your guys in its ZOC).

    This would be a simple way of getting around some of the points raised by Anonymous. E.g. you can only slip around a guy if he's already engaged. If you want, maybe throw in something simple like you also have double his hit dice (the "Conan bad-ass" factor) or something along those lines.

    1. Hi Bard - nice hedges last week, btw.

      Glad to hear you think it has potential, and it certainly is similar to old wargaming concepts. Passing safely near a column of M-1 tanks isn't easy unless they are otherwise engaged!

      This also gets to #4 from Anonymous above and Bone's flanking comment. I agree that the concept of rigid/flexible zones is a good one, and having engagement reduce or eliminate a ZOC is worth consideration. However, I'd like to try out the simplest possible version first and see how it works. That will help point in the right direction for future revisions. It will also give a good indication of "feel". Perhaps 1-on-1 doesn't feel like enough of a distraction, but maybe 2-on-1 might feel like, "you know, that should really mean I can run past him now." Also how often will it even come up? Hard to say without playing it out some more.

      The goal isn't to be simulationist, of course, just to get across the intended "feel" in combat. And with as few dice rolls or decision points as possible, so I can nom nom on my cake!

  3. In the games we've played (D&D 4e) we modified the rules to be a basic attack for every square the target passes through, meaning that the runner suffers 3 or 4 attacks and potentially takes more significant damage. Even more so if the defender has a reach greater then 1.
    We felt this was fast and easy to implement in normal play, whilst simulating active attempts to stop the runner the whole time they're in reach


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