Since the start of the D&D Next play tests, one of the more scrutinized mechanics has been the advantage/disadvantage system. The system affects die rolls for various checks, but instead of the standard +/- modifier system, it gives the player another roll of the d20. Players with advantage would roll the d20 twice and use the higher result. Players with disadvantage would do the same, but use the lower of the two.
There has been a lot of debate and analysis on this, including tons of mathematical modeling to show the effect on the probabilities of individual dice rolls. If you’re interested, check out this article, this one, and this forum. Both articles look at the math and do a nice job of breaking down exactly what it all means in case numbers aren’t your strong suit. The forum, well it’s an Internet forum so you know what you’ll get, but there are decent arguments being made for and against.
I can appreciate the statistical analysis and arguments about power creep and whether the system has a stronger or weaker effect than the +2/-2 modifier system we are used to seeing. I get all that. However, I’m more interested in the sub-question that seems to come up in all of these articles and runs as the undercurrent to the whole advantage discussion: Is this D&D?
Of course, that’s a remarkably abstract question and not really entirely definable, but we’re going to try. What we’re really asking is, does it make the game fun and does it help contribute to the freedom and creativity that make D&D unique?
First, let’s discuss the issue of fun. Generally, rolling more dice is always more fun. The results of those rolls aren’t always enjoyable though as anyone who has rolled a 5 then used up an action point only to roll a 3 can attest.Giving players more opportunities to do cool things does make the game more enjoyable and more importantly, you’re putting the outcome of the game more in the hands of the PCs.
Players around a table get more excited about an extra d6 added to damage than they do a +2 bonus. Sure the effect of the bonus is constant and that d6 could be a 1, but the act of rolling is what’s important.
DMing games at PAX East, the excitement of the game is always hampered when someone is about to perform an awesome attack, only to roll a three. Seeing as these sessions are “Learn to Play” and encouraging fun is more or less half the battle, I will sometimes toss the player another d20 and just say “roll that”.
What results is usually a high number – this is of course not causually related in any way, it just so happens that this little tactic has never resulted in one of my players rolling less than a 16. The table erupts in cheers and we continue on.
Essentially I gave that player advantage for one turn. Even if that player rolls another dud, we’re creating another chance for success and building the tension back up.
The other thing to consider is how the advantage system affects creativity and freedom. On the surface, it might not appear that it does, but by giving players a safety net you’re encouraging them to be more proactive and try things they might normally avoid.
Actions are a very precious commodity, especially big daily type actions and powers, which players horde constantly and only unleash when they absolutely must or when the bonuses are so high in their favor that failure is nearly impossible.Advantage removes some of the trepidation and fear that a turn might be wasted.
There is of course, the flip-side of this discussion, disadvantage. This works the same as advantage except the lower result is used. Obviously, this isn’t going to gain any cheers around the table, but like the Force, D&D has to retain some semblance of balance, and so we take the bad with the good.
Now, overall there are concerns, and legitimate ones at that. Will it be too easy to gain advantage? Will stacking it several times and having offsetting disadvantage effects cause problems in tracking? Will power gamers be able to exploit it along with bonuses to ensure that they never fail an attack?
The answer to all these questions is potentially a very resounding yes, but these are all issues that can be addressed. What’s more importnat to focus on is that Wizards has developed a mechanic that keeps players engaged and fosters fun and creativity around the table .The issues can be solved through play-testing, it’s just nice to see we’re play-testing for the right reasons.