FrankenFourth: Martial Maneuvers

One of the complaints leveled against 4th Edition Dungeons & Dragons had to do with abilities that were both non-magical, yet only usable x times per encounter or day. For example, a 1st-level fighter could choose an attack that let him deal damage and prone a target, but could only use it once per encounter, and another that inflicted triple damage, but was only usable once per day.

How they worked was easily explained: some went with narrative control, while others stated that unlike spells, the fighter wasn't necessarily actively intending to use the ability. If you the player used spinning sweep (damage + prone), it meant that while your fighter was trying to hack apart an opponent, he also happened to trip the target in the process.

The point is, it wasn't like your fighter is suddenly unable to trip anything because he ran out of auto-tripping exploits. It was just that if you wanted to trip an enemy it might not be as easy depending on how your DM ruled it (I'd prolly go Strength versus Fortitude or Reflex to prone, penalty if the target is larger than you), and you probably weren't going to get to tack on damage on top of it.

For some, including 5th Edition fans, this didn't suffice (not that any explanation really could have), which I find odd because 5th Edition fighters can also acquire maneuvers that can only be used x times per "short rest" with the Battle Master martial archetype. Battle Master can be chosen at 3rd-level, immediately locking in other class features down the line. It gives you four "superiority dice", which you spend to trigger various maneuvers, all of which are regained during a short rest.

The difference is that in 4th Edition you declare that you're using your tripping attack and then roll (which means the attempt can be wasted), while in 5th Edition you hit an enemy, then declare that you're tripping them: you spend a superiority die, they make a saving throw, and on a fail they get tripped (which means it could also get wasted, just requires two rolls instead of one to figure it out). The superiority die also tacks on bonus damage, which is a nice perk.

Really the only thing I like more about the 5th Edition model is that it provides more flexibility for the fighter, allowing you to mix up your maneuvers. You don't get two trips and one disarm and one distraction each short rest. No, like psionics and power points, you can trip four times, trip twice and disarm twice, disarm twice, trip once, and distract once, and so on. But, like 4th Edition, when you're out you can't use them anymore until you take a short rest.

Before we move on, I want to point out a number of other per-encounter, -short rest and -day abilities across various editions:

  • In Rules Cyclopedia there's a per-encounter despair ability. Fighters also received a number of special attacks at 9th-level.
  • Just skimming 3rd Edition's Player's Handbook I see that a barbarian can only rage a certain number of times per day, the rogue's Defensive Roll (as Special Ability class feature) can only be used once per day, and the Stunning Fist feat can be used a number of times per day based on your level. I'm sure there are more scattered about all the splatbooks.
  • In addition to fighter maneuvers, 5th Edition also has the dragonborn's breath weapon, the half-orc's relentless endurance, the barbarian's Rage, the bard's Bardic Inspiration, the fighter's Second Wind and Action Surge, the rogue's Stroke of Luck, and the Inspiring Leader feat.

So there's certainly a precedence for such abilities, though I think there's a better way of executing some of them that doesn't hinge on the encounter, day, short/long rest, or some sort of currency. Here's an example of our current, untested implementation of a maneuver/exploit from FrankenFourth:

Exploit 18+
The target must make a Strength check (Difficulty 10+your Strength or Dexterity) or drop something it's holding.

Exploit 18+ means that for it to trigger, your total attack roll must meet-or-beat 18 (might change this to a "natural roll" and reduce the number). You don't declare that you're trying to disarm an enemy (there's a specific combat action if you want to actively try doing that). Instead, this represents that while you were hacking away at an enemy, there just happened to be an opening for you to exploit.

Something I should note is that most characters will have something like +1 to +3 to hit at the start of the game (though the war cleric in our Age of Worms playtest campaign has a Strength of 0), and characters only get attack bumps every 4-5 levels. Not sure if I wanna bring stat bumps into the mix, as most monsters only need a 9-12 to hit anyway.

There's no limit on how often these can be used, but you can only use one at a time; if you also have Cleave (attack another enemy within range on a total attack of 18+), if you roll an 18 or higher you'll have to choose whether to disarm your enemy or attack another. If you have multiple attacks (an automatic thing that some classes gain at certain levels), you can mix it up between attacks.

Fighters (and fighter-ish classes like barbarians, rangers, paladins, warlords, etc) don't automatically get maneuvers or exploits or whatever: if you want to have a fighter that focuses mostly on stabbing things, just pick talents that tack on static mods to your character and are largely forgotten about.

Unlike 5th Edition you don't have to make this choice early on, that needlessly locks in many other class features down the line: you can start out taking a few passive talents, choose an exploit talent, and then go right back to the passives. That's a key feature of FrankenFourth: more control over your character's complexity, which has the added bonus of allowing for more organic growth.

So, what do you think?

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  1. I like this idea, I want to keep it in mind for a future 5th ed game I find myself in. If I DM, I would like to try this approach. I started playing 5th ed because my DM wanted to change games. I loathe being locked in with a preset list of class features. Customization my ass. So mind if I borrow it? Of course I'll give proper attribution.


    1. @Anon: Go for it! I'd be interested in hearing how it works for you, as we haven't had a chance to playtest it yet. Actually, lemme know if you want to take a look at the current FrankenFourth doc.

    2. Thank you for your offer. I would like to look at it if possible. Currently, I find myself running a 16th level 5th ed game every couple of weeks or so. I'll try out your suggestion for the fighter in our group. More importantly, I want to apply the thinking behind it to other aspects of 5th ed. I'll let you know what my party thinks.


    3. @Anon: Awesome! Fire off an email to, or hit me up on G+ and I'll send you the Google Doc link.

  2. Would there exploits that are both martial and magical? Like stunning fist is martial and psionic. As a hybrid/multiclass enthusiast these are moves that are, in my opinion, fun to work towards as my character advances.

    1. I know Stunning Fist from 3E D&D was an x times per day non-magical punch, but you had to declare you were using it, then attack, hit with the attack, and IF you hit the monster still got to make a saving throw to resist it.

      I could see a non-magical Stunning Fist being an exploit (triggers on a nat x roll or higher, monster makes a Constitution check to avoid being stunned).

      If it were to cost power points, I'd make it so that the monster has to make the check automatically, that way it's not wasted.

      For hybrid/multiclassers out there, I'd just make groups of talents that require two or more classes, an obvious, iconic example being a spellsword.


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