One of D&D Next’s big new mechanics are Advantage and Disadvantage, probably the most innovative and unique mechanic the playtest has left us with. Instead of passing out modifiers, the DM instead passes out Advantages and Disadvantages: the former lets you roll 2d20 and take the better result, the latter has you rolling 2d20 and taking the worse. It’s a design to curb a bloat of conditional modifiers, such as those for flanking, cover, terrain advantage (“I have the high ground!”), aid another, and what have you. Instead of worrying about stacking modifiers from forty sources, just KISS it: make it into an Advantage or a Disadvantage.
Some people actually crunched the statistics on Critical Hits and on Online Dungeon Master. It shows that the bonus from Advantage are a bit more preferable to a flat +2 bonus; it would take up to a +5 flat modifier to become 100% superior to the Advantage 2d20. On the Disadvantage side, it balances out: you’d have to get down to a -4/-5 penalty before you get something preferable to Disadvantage. (Or, you could say they’re the equivalent of a +/- 4.5.) Statistically, it’s much more powerful than the various +2 bonuses you got in 3.x (flanking, aid another) or 4th (combat advantage), and balanced out by Disadvantage.
Disadvantage, I think, has some of the more interesting applications. Trying to climb a wet rope in the rain? Trying to sneak in heavy armor? Attempting a physical action when you have low health? Attempting a complex action while on fire? Disadvantage. Just take it on and let the dice do the work.
I really like the concept . It’s a simple mechanical device to cover a character’s merit and flaw, in a way reminiscent of Star Wars SAGA and its rolling skill bonuses meant to replicate the same kind of advantage/disadvantage system. (I always wondered why that wasn’t incorporated into 4e, since it was one of the many interesting tweaks SAGA had. Then again, I’ve never been convinced that such a diverse and fluid setting as Star Wars should be run in a class/level system, otherwise you end up with the Ewok/Jedi, Wookie/Jedi, Jawa/Jedi type abominations.) Most of all, it’s trying to work more “fluff” into the core game mechanics, and get away from dozens of fiddly +1+2 modifiers, something I’m 100% behind.
On second thought, I’m worried about it on a mechanical standpoint. It’s a glorified aura of luck/unluck tied to a few specific character traits. I ended up with a lot of firsthand experience with luck/unluck in Pathfinder. In my Legacy of Fire campaign, the players spent most of the first module fighting pugwampis, a type of gremlin with an aura of unluck—the same “roll 2d20, take the lower roll” as Next’s Disadvantage.
The players could easily overcome the gremlins, but it was a time-consuming process; the little pugs were designed not to be a threat with their 2 hp and weak offense, but had set up shop in areas that complicated combat: a cactus patch, a kitchen full of broken pottery, an attic with punky floor sections that collapsed. These were monsters designed to be less of a threat and more of a challenge, with their powerful unlucky aura, shatter SLA’s, and environmental hazards. And the number of bad rolls meant that pugwampi combats were prolonged, and verging on lethal slapstick. My players loved the pugwampis—loved to hate them, because they hated the aura of unluck. It became a rite of passage for the original two players, in a “You weren’t there, man, out in the shit” Vietnam vet kind of thing. They even had their own derogatory slur, calling them “rugpuppies” for some reason I’ve since forgot.
Anyways. From where I was sitting behind the screen, the 2d20 drop one aura of unluck tended to be failure-centric. There’s nothing more distressing to a player than rolling crits and high rolls and instead having to take a 2 or a 5 instead. Matt lucked out by rolling middling values, so while most of his attacks failed, he didn’t botch and go careening into the cutlery. (Though, he was the one who was Bull Rushed off the attic into the chapel twenty feet below, where he cowered under his tower shield as gremlins attempted to shatter it.) The other player has the worst die luck I’ve ever seen, so his 2d20 results would almost always be something like 19 and 1; in the first three or five sessions, primarily gremlin-bashing ones, he got enough critical fumbles in combat or on critical checks—50—that I gave him the Prince of Persia achievement feat: “No, no, that’s not how it happened.”
Another similar use came later, in a Kingmaker campaign, when I was watching a couple of witches cast luck/unluck hexes on enemies and allies, then Cackle so that they’d endure. The dice flew freely and with vigor that night.
I’d chalk part of it up to bad player luck, bad dice rolls, chaos theory, impurities in the dice, and any other dice theory reasons why neither of them ever rolled within their predicted two-die bell curves, and instead mostly got extreme polarity in their rolls. Every gamer has seen those streaks of high or low rolls, seemingly unnatural in their occurrence and defeating the layman’s knowledge of probability; that one time you rolled a character with all 18s for stats, that time you rolled five twenties in a row, that time your dice aced (or exploded) and gave you ten successes on three dice, or an end result of 43 on one d10. (I’ve seen all of those, by the way.)
And that’s where I’m cautious of Dis/Advantage: the amount of extra dice rolled per session moving things from a nice flat plane (1d20) to an inverse bell curve (2d20, take the better or worse). Statistically they won’t have much of an impact over an entire campaign, but what about that one freak session where just about every Advantage succeeds or every Disadvantage fails. That is what the system was intended to do, of course—Advantage makes your life easier, Disadvantage represents a complicated action—and it’s not a guarantee. Again, streaks like those will balance themselves out over time. It’s possible to roll two 20s on Disadvantage or two 1s on Advantage, after all.
The Bottom Line
I like the concept, but I’m leery of its execution. The frequency with which it’s applied will be as much of a determining factor as probability or specific roll results. I have the feeling the mechanics will pan out in the grand scheme of things, but I’d hate to have to convince my pugwampi killers to switch to using the system.