One of the innovations in the new 5th edition of Dungeons & Dragons is the introduction of the Advantage / Disadvantage mechanic. In case you’ve somehow managed to miss it, instead of tracking lots of individual modifiers, a situation that is helpful to you gives you Advantage: roll 2d20 and take the best result. Similarly, when things are against you, you have Disadvantage: roll 2d20 and take the lowest value.
The benefit of the this mechanic in terms of simplicity – and I’ll just call it Advantage from now on, but everything I’m going to say applies in similar ways to Disadvantage – is pretty self evident. You don’t need to learn lots of individual modifiers, you don’t need to add and subtract lots of numbers on the fly: you have Advantage, or you don’t. Easy. However, it actually offers a range of other benefits that maybe aren’t quite so obvious, but that reveal just how damned clever Advantage is.
- Keeping it tight – through Advantage, you improve the chance of success without increasing the range of success. The average result is higher, you are more likely to get a high number, but the maximum result is still 20. Why is this useful? It means DMs don’t have to account for the possibility of lots of modifiers when assigning a suitable difficulty number to a task. Even with the most positive circumstances, a DM can easily work out the maximum range for any given group of characters and set challenges at an appropriate level. It also means that whether a PC can accomplish a near impossible task is ultimately down to that character’s ability, not a pile of external bonuses. Advantage increases the chance of success, it doesn’t make success possible when otherwise it was not.
- Preventing cock-ups – where Advantage has its biggest impact is in reducing the odds of getting a really low result. In this respect, it’s an excellent mechanic to represent operating under no pressure: you won’t always achieve amazing success, but you’re unlikely to absolutely muck it up. With Advantage, you only have a 25% chance of rolling under 11. To get the same odds using flat modifiers, you’d need a +5 bonus.
- Vital blow! – giving flat modifiers can create the odd situation where you’re almost guaranteed to hit an enemy, but your chance of a critical hit is largely unaffected. This doesn’t make a lot of sense. If an opponent is easier to strike, it follows that it also ought to be easier to find that chink in their armour or land that especially telling blow. Advantage, on the other hand, increases both the chance of success and the chance of a Critical hit quite substantially (typically, from 5% to 9.8%). A victory for common sense and another reason for players to seek it out wherever possible!
- Setting the tone – the final benefit I’m listing here is probably the most important. Most people I’ve spoken to assumed that the intent with Advantage is that it was the replacement for old situational modifiers such as flanking and the like. In fact, this isn’t explicitly the case. The D&D5 rules are actually rather ambiguous about when Advantage should be used. This makes it an extremely powerful tool for GMs to use in setting the tone of their game. You want a highly tactical 3rd edition style game? Award Advantage for getting into good positions, teamwork, attacking from elevation and so forth. You want a cinematic swashbuckling game? Award Advantage for over the top action, colourful description and bold derring do. You want a cautious slow-paced game? Award Advantage for taking care and planning ahead. You want reckless PCs charging at breakneck speed through your dungeons? Award Advantage for throwing caution to the wind, dynamism and energy.
In short, Advantage is probably the most powerful tool D&D has ever seen to reinforce whatever is important to you and make your game, your game.
Next up I’ll be looking a bit more at Advantage and how you might take it to the max.