• Justin Handlin

Optional Dungeons & Dragons Combat Rules You Should Be Using in Dungeons & Dragons

When it comes to combat, we are always looking for ways to ensure our combat is as engaging and dynamic as possible. The Dungeon Master’s Guide gives us some pretty great starting points. While I have lots of my own thoughts and adjustments to these and more. I wanted to start you off with what Wizards of the Coast recommends, and share my thoughts on each of them with you. Below is a quick overview of the advantages, and disadvantages. This is important because each option adds both pros and cons to the game. Now, let’s get into it.


First, let's get into the advantage of adding some of these options into your Dungeons & Dragons 5th Edition game.

Plain and simple, they just give the player characters and monsters more options and actions they can take in combat. This means we can easily add an additional layer of complexity and depth to the game. Something, many old-school fans feel 5e is lacking. It further puts more rules into play for specific types of actions and options, that otherwise are left ambiguous, that often lean more on the DMs adjudication.


When we get right down to it, the simplest and greatest disadvantage to additional rules and options is going to be game pacing and combat slow down. With more options comes more things the players have to consider in each decision they make. Too many options can lead to analysis paralysis. This is when they’ve got so many options, they don’t know what they are going to do.

Additional combat options can lead to confusion for newer players. When not every table uses the same rules, jumping in and out of different games means you may be expected to learn new rules between tables. Which honestly, isn’t super fun for most people. But, that’s just my opinion.

There are likely more pros and cons than I’ve mentioned here for you, but these are the ones I feel are most of note. I wanted you to be well aware of these before deciding to include them in your own stories and adventures.

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DMG Combat Options

You can find the details of each of these combat options in the Dungeon Master’s Guide starting on page 270.

Initiative Variants:

The initiative variants come in a variety of styles. Each is designed to take a different approach in how the turn order of combat is decided. Many believe that there should be more factors to turn order than just a d20 roll + your Dexterity modifier. I honestly agree with this for a number of reasons that I will share with you shortly.

Initiative Score: The initiative score that the DMG provides is one I find very interesting. Each character just has a solid Initiative value of 10 + Dexterity modifier. This is used as a more passive value. Because of this, it doesn’t change throughout the game unless the character increases their Dexterity modifier or they gain a feature that improves their Initiative.

This means that there is no Initiative rolling at the start of combat. Instead, combat just starts with the highest passive initiative between the characters and monsters. This can significantly speed up combat since it takes very little time to add monsters into an existing location on the list. Unfortunately, this also means that the turn order of combat becomes incredibly predictable.

Side Initiative: This format reminds me greatly of the old-school JRPG games such as Final Fantasy. In this, each team rolls initiative. The side with the highest total goes first. Simple as that. Honestly, this seems kinda dull when you first think about it. But upon implementation, its greatest strength appears. Each character can take turns in whatever order they want. This makes for absolutely fantastic tabletop teamwork and in-game planning. Which is just so much fun. Team combos emerge that never really came up before as they can discuss the best approach together.

The largest issue that I’ve discovered is that due to the action economy, one side may wipe out the other before they get a chance to go. As a GM this means far more understanding of combat balance is required to ensure that doesn’t happen.

Speed Factor: Now this is one that I think gives the most complexity to the players and their characters. Core character choices such as spells, weapon choice, and even creature size have a direct impact on the initiative roll by adding modifiers. For example, a Tiny creature gets a +5 bonus to initiative, while a Huge creature has a -5. When it comes to weapons such as the light or finesse provides a +2 bonus, while a melee, two-handed weapon imposes a -2 penalty.

This is one of my favorite initiative variants. It makes small choices such as weapon matter. A great example is a fighter can change from a greatsword to a shortsword to move up higher in the initiative in the next round. This then can put her above the goblin and allow her to deal a deadly blow before the goblin gets another turn. Which is about as dynamic as you can get. The same is true for choosing spells. A more powerful spell requires more time to cast. The player must choose spells quickly as they get a negative modifier equal to the level of the spell.

This obviously makes for an extremely unpredictable and dynamic shifting encounter. But the cost is a significant slow down in the game as turn orders move during the rounds. Keeping track by hand can be a pain. But, if you’re using an automated program such as a VTT counter, then this is a boon to dynamic combat in your game.

Action Options

Climb onto Bigger Creatures: Two of my favorite games are God of War and Shadow of the Colossus. Both allow for something that we don’t quite see enough of, doing battle on top of a creature of titanic size. The DMG offers some great details on how to deal with this sort of battle. The utilization of contested checks to move and leap across the monstrous titan is a layer of combat that should be tossed into every campaign at least once in my opinion. The additional inclusion of rules to use the titan’s features as cover is just fantastic. The only real disadvantage of incorporating rules for this is the high level of difficulty to capture this sort of encounter on a battle grid. A creature of this size is going to be in constant motion, meaning the battlefield changes round to round. Which can’t be captured on a grid very easily.

Disarm: Let’s talk about the disarm option. This is already something a character can do with a basic contested check. The benefit of making it available to the players out of the DMG is that they know and are reminded they can do it. Think about it. When was the last time a player character tried to disarm an enemy who wasn’t playing a battlemaster fighter? Why do you think that is? It’s because it's listed as something they can do, so they do it.

Disarming a foe is a powerful tactic. Especially when you realize they can use their free Object Interaction to kick the dropped item away so another character can pick it up on their turn. This effectively neuters the enemy in most cases. I will never forget the first time my goblins disarmed a barbarian from his greataxe and then another ran off with it. The player was pissed off! It was a family heirloom after all. He was forced to fight with his handaxes. Let's just say, disarming became much more prevalent in that campaign after that.

The only real disadvantage of having it in the game is that it doesn’t specifically state that if the character can make multiple attacks, that this feature replaces one of those attacks. Meaning, a character with an extra attack would lose out. For me, I would probably allow it to replace that attack and remove this disadvantage altogether.

Mark: Mark is a strange feature. It basically allows a character to target a specific creature that it designates to have advantage on opportunity attacks against the “marked” target. In addition, an opportunity attack against a marked target doesn’t consume their reaction.

I see what the creatures were trying to do here. They wanted to encourage a target to stay focused on one enemy, and punish them (with advantage on opportunity attacks) should they go and engage another target. But, it just falls flat. This rarely happens anyway, and when it does, they often take the disengage action. This just seems like a clumsy design choice IMO.

I would instead suggest something more along the lines of granting an opportunity attack against the marked target should they make an attack against another target. This promotes the use of more opportunity attacks against enemies who attack other allies. Which seems to better fit the theme of tanking they seem to be going for. For me, this is an unnecessary option in the game and I don’t recommend it.

Overrun: I love the idea of this mechanic. It basically allows a forced push through a hostile enemy's space by making a contested check. This is great as it allows the character to close a gap or reach a location even when an enemy blockade bars their way. It's pretty straight forward and every character can do it. This is a nice balance of new options versus risk. Since the enemies will still get opportunity attacks against the one overrunning them.

I do like that it can use a bonus action or an action to pull it off. This makes it very versatile. The only disadvantage I see with this coming up at the table is healers and weaker party members will be much more difficult to protect if the big meeting orc chieftain can just slam past the defenders and slice them in twain.

Shove Aside: The shove action to knock a creature prone is a significant boon to martial classes. The problem is the other half of the shove action which allows them to be pushed 10 feet hardly feels even remotely as useful. Nine times out of ten the characters will choose to knock prone. Shove aside helps with that. it allows the character to move the target in ANY direction up to 5 feet. Now that not so useful feature is now far more versatile. It can become a staple of battlefield control and maneuvering.

The largest issue with this ruling is that the attacker has disadvantage on the check. A punishing penalty to be sure. It seems a bit unnecessary to me. I have allowed this extra action without the penalty as an option for my players. While they don’t use it often, when they do, it’s a game-changer. I’m looking at you spike growth.

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Tumble: Much like the overrun, this allows the character to tuck and roll through a hostile creature's space with a skill check. The creature tries to duck and roll through a hostile creature’s space as an action or bonus action. This adds a bit of versatility when compared to say the Disengage action, as you can reach an area you might not otherwise be able to. Once again creating more movement opportunities. As with the overrun, it doesn’t stop the character from being targeted by opportunity attacks. In both cases, I think on a success you shouldn’t have to take opportunity attacks from the target whose space you’re passing through. This kinda acts as a limited version of cunning action rogues have.

Hitting Cover: If you’re not including this in your games, you should be. When a ranged attack misses you can optionally have it hit the cover it is hiding behind. This is fantastic, especially when you consider creatures provide cover. It’s worth noting that the attack roll still needs to be higher than the “covers” AC. This adds a level of battlefield complexity that should get more use. Particularly when it comes to rogues and small creatures who can fully benefit from coverage of larger creatures.

One downside I can see with using this in your games is that it adds more rolls to the game and thus, slows it down even more. That being said, it’s certainly something that can amplify the strategic element of battle.

Cleaving Through Creatures: Player characters want to feel epic! It's hard to do that when you can generally only attack one creature at a time. This feature allows the character to clear weaker enemies more easily, and make them feel powerful. If you like running hordes of minion monsters against your players this allows for faster clearing. Basically, when an undamaged creature is brought to 0 in a single hit, excess damage can carry over to another creature adjacent to it. So long as the attack roll still hits its AC. If that creature is undamaged and killed, rinse and repeat. The interesting thing about this as it allows the melee characters a bit more power, without actually increasing their damage output. Making for an epic feeling when a single barbarian swing can take down several weaker monsters.

I don’t have much to say about this, though it does allow ALL melee weapons. Something I’m not a fan of. I’ve allowed this in my game for two-handed weapons only. Works very well.

Injuries: Lingering injuries is something that isn’t for everyone. If you prefer a bit of gritty gameplay, then it’s certainly a nice touch. Especially if the characters keep track of the effects that they earn. Basically, there are few times a character has to roll on the table mostly when they take a critical hit, fail a death save, or when they drop to 0 hp. I personally really like this for when they drop to 0 hit points. This is a great way to encourage them to avoid dropping to zero. Of course, these can be addressed and corrected with powerful enough magic. But, by making them pretty common, characters may take pride in their wounds. They become great roleplay opportunities as the dwarf tells the tale of his battle with a beholder. Pulling up his shirt to reveal the damage left by one of its crazy eye rays.

The most obvious disadvantage of this as it adds a layer of weakness to a character that wouldn’t otherwise be there. While some are mostly flavor such as a minor scar. Others have serious penalties such as festering wounds that reduce hit point maximum progressively until addressed.

Massive Damage: Following up on the details of the lingering effects. Massive Damage forces a Constitution saving throw if a creature takes damage from a single blow that exceeds half their maximum hit points. On a failure, they roll on the system shock table. This is a great way to give a mechanical effect to extremely powerful hits to monsters and characters. One of which is being stunned until the end of its next turn. This really allows the table to feel those mighty high dice rolls or the effect of their might on weaker enemies as a whole. I personally love this addition and highly recommend it.

It’s worth noting that this is a bit dangerous as an attack that wouldn’t normally drop a character or monster to zero, will do so, should they fail a saving throw. This makes a character with a weak Constitution much more susceptible to crumbling in a heap at the feet of an enemy who delivers a devastating blow. But man...the reaction the players will have when a character goes down in a single blow will be a literal system shock.

Overall, these are by design optional. Each comes with its pros and cons. In my opinion, they certainly add a layer of complexity that sometimes Dungeons & Dragons 5e could really use. I recommend giving each one a go in your games. If not for an entire campaign, at least for a single adventure. Get feedback from the players, and see what they think.

How about it? Do you or will you be using any of these? Share with us in the comments which Combat Options you use and how your table gets the most out of them.

Keep your blades sharp and spells prepared heroes!

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