D&D 5E Raise Thy Swords! Thoughts on improving melee combat in D&D


I am going to try and express an issue I have with, what I feel to be, a limitation in the mechanical design of martial combat. I find it limited in solvable ways that, if remedied, can give a martial player as much control over their character's input in the game as much as a spell caster. I didn't plan this out beforehand, so please forgive errors in the construction of my argument.

I think martial characters are a little underwhelming, mechanically. Sure, a fighter may be good DPR, and a Barbarian a sufficient tank, but the real diversity of 5e's system is in Spellcasting. It alone can cover an extremely high amount of themes and party roles in and out of combat, and spell home brewing is easy and convenient for tweaking current magics in a way that can yield virtually any character concept. Looping back to martial combat, the problem isn't entirely its occasional inferiority. To me, it seems like the current system just doesn't try to give nuance to this side of the game. So, what features exist that could answer this, and what else can be done?

What exists that "should" be "universal"? I remember seeing a post on some website about a person trying to make an advanced medieval-tactician combatant, and asking about how to execute that concept in-game. Comments directed them to Battlemaster. But here's the question-- why must Maneuvers be locked behind one subclass out of the whole martial spectrum? Maneuvers go a long way to giving Martials meaningful tactical resources that affect how they handle their enemies. Not to mention, mechanics for inflicting status effects makes Martials take new roles that would otherwise only have been filled by spells. By locking this behind a class/subclass, that means that these extremely practical options are not compatible with any other character vision, such as Rune Knight, but it also makes a high multi class tax to get options that you should be able to execute as anyone with a sword or bow. What keeps a barbarian from being tactical? In reality, nothing but wit, but in game? Arbitrary restriction.
I think that, to some extent, Battle Master should be a part of the core Fighter class, if not expanded to have superiority dice as a feature common amongst all martial characters. Similarly, I believe that Hunter Ranger ought to just be a part of core ranger. What keeps a Swarmkeeper from knowing how to "break the horde?" Naught but game rule. If you want to use these tactics, you have to sacrifice whichever other themes the other subclasses provide, for little reason.

In more minor instances, what about "parry"? This is at the heart of real life swordplay, but now it's locked behind a feat tax, and Finesse weapons. There isn't even a "Block" option in the game to parallel it. You may say, "take the dodge action and flavor it" or "that's what AC generally represents." I disagree. Options like Parry and the hypothetical Block enable martial characters to make tactical decisions and have style and nuance in their play. Players should make active choices. And at least it would offer something else to do with reactions other than Attacks of Opportunity. So why lock it behind a feat, when anyone can attempt a deflection with whatever they're holding in reality? It continues-- what about shield-shoving? What about the restrictive weapon selection? Why does dual wielding suck? Is there anything to gain from giving the player less options?

On abilities: perhaps "spell slots" are not always spell slots:
Somewhere, I saw something interesting about Ranger. Many of Ranger's spells do not really seem like they need magic. Instead of making a new system, spell slots were used as point-system that balanced physical class abilities. In this case, I suggest expanding the system to more classes, and possibly just renaming it to "ability points." Or something along these lines. Instead of Battle master dice, just give them spell-like abilities to spice up action. This system can be manipulated, clearly. We already have half and third-casters, as well as weird stuff like Pact Magic. This is possible, but my least preferred option. Martial characters are fun to me because of when their focus on different resource management. I prefer decoupling Parry or reforming weapon selection, as well as the below, because every turn offers the whole batch of choices that a person would have.

Optional DMG rules:
Here's what I really like. Disarm, Overrun, Tumble, and Side-Shove are great. They are situational, but combined with Shove and Grapple all together, not always Attacking is actually very valuable. Having a big toolbox is what spell casters get to enjoy. Not to mention the rewarding use of Athletics and Acrobatics skills. If you are in combat, you have a set of rules for a lot of actions you may want to take. It's good to have rules for these things, because I believe it encourages their use by default rather than requiring home-brew, which is bound to be less widespread. I don't know how or what, but if there were more optional rules in the DMG, I'd eagerly check them. Also, just let your melee fighters have Cleave. It's for the best.

I think that disarms, grapples, shoves, overruns, etc. are good narratively for DMs, because players can more effectively end encounters nonfatally. You'd see more enemies and NPCs survive sessions if your casual Fighter could play to their strengths outside of the Attack action. And if that choice has consequences, it may become a continuous and engaging pattern of behavior.

The practical use of non-physical stats:
Some people, rightfully, are concerned about everyone having the same stats. To summarize, I think that the "Spellcasting stats's" skills could have some in-combat use. We saw above how Athletics and Acrobatics (and stealth) could be deployed, so what about the other skills? I think it's good to have an expected framework for how skills can interact, because rules enable informed decisions. Ironically, I think having more rule-infrastructure can cause further engagement. People are more likely to do things if they're aware of the option and can understand it. Even if things that instilled the Fear condition required an Intimidation role. I guess Tasha's Monster-Parlay rules can come in here, too, but still.

What about out of combat?:
That's the thing about the martial-spellcaster divide. Magic is always going to have more potential in utility. With that said, I think relying on the creative use of whichever your skills are as well as tool proficiencies is what's left for you. Xanathar's Guide did a lot for tool proficiencies. So, just making use of those can be fun, if your DM presents opportunity for that. If nothing else, at least a Martial would feel more in-touch with their character because they had choices on the other end of things.

"Wouldn't that combat expansion be too strong?":
I doubt it. Yes, liberated Parry and Block make these characters stronger. Same with the optional actions. Think of it like this: A wizard can become functionally immortal, so maybe let a player knock a sword out of an enemy's hands elegantly. I think that Spellcasters wouldn't be hurting by the increased power of Martials, because so much about Spellcasting goes beyond what is possible within an axe's reach. There's nothing you can do to a martial character (within reason) that can make up for well-placed Invisibility, Knocks, Flight, Fireballs, etc.

That's pretty much it for me on this topic. I hope that D&D, in its next iteration, rounds out the rule-infrastructure overall. I'd love a 5.5 backwards-compatible PHB which fixed everything, but I don't think that's realistic.

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I get where you are coming from. I think there are other games that are better at achieving what you want. Imo, D&D needs to flow in order to work, or else your combats will take hours at higher levels.


I agree that there is a big divide between spell casters and martials when it comes to overall power and utility especially in the later tiers. I don't think there is as much of an outcry about this as there should be because most play occurs in the lower tiers where this divide is not as pronounced. I'm not sure how to go about solving this issue. Adding maneuvers available to all martials may be a start. Being able to inflinct more status conditions, maybe even inventing new status conditions that martials can inflict would be another. Although I never played 4e, I understand that the martials and spell caster classes were much better balanced. Maybe try to find some things from that system that could translate into 5e.

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