An interesting question came up in an online discussion of D&D Next, and I very much anticipated seeing how the answers would play out. The question regarded how players and DMs handled flanking in the playtest, since the current iteration of the rules do not mention flanking. I was most interested in not what people would say, but how they would approach the question.
Having played all editions of D&D, I am happy to have seen no special rules given for flanking yet. Two things have slowed down my 3e and 4e D&D games more than anything, and flanking plays a big role in both of them. I don’t have a problem with the concept of flanking per se. But what flanking leads to can be problematic in RPGs. One problem is what tactical movement can do to a game, and the other problem is tying benefits gained by “advantage” or “combat advantage” to powerful character choices.
Groups that I played D&D, AD&D, and 2e AD&D with rarely used tactical maps. We sometimes used minis or hastily sketched maps to show general positioning, but that was it. Occasionally the DM might give bonuses or penalties based on position and player description, but nothing was formally codified. There were rules in the AD&D Dungeon Master’s Guide that covered changes to Armor Class based on positioning and the number of attacks coming at a creature, but we ignored those as overly fiddly. Once in a while we would try to codify positioning rules—either from the book or home-ruled—but we invariably scrapped them because the group decided that we ended up spending too much time trying to get into positions rather than telling a cool story.
With 3e and then 4e, when I started running (and writing) lots and lots of D&D games for the public, I noticed that the counting of squares and the precision of movement took up about 10% of total game time—sometimes more with certain players and DMs. Of course, much of this tactical movement had to do with attacks of opportunity, but flanking was definitely a part of this problem. The focus on tactical movement could grind the pace of a game practically to a halt.
The other problem with flanking is that when you give a character powerful abilities that are tied to game mechanics—specifically sneak attack/backstab damage bonuses—when that character has advantage, then tie those abilities to tactical positioning, you are changing the focus of the game dramatically. By making flanking the easiest way to get advantage, and by making a character’s most powerful attack reliant on advantage, you are essentially making a whole class reliant on positioning to be effective (or what certain players think of as effective). That makes it hard for DMs who want to run—or have players who want to play—a more “theater of the mind” type of game to make that class work. Certainly it can still be done, but it takes more tweaking than it should.
It got so bad with some 3e and 4e D&D players that if they couldn’t get advantage, they didn’t even want to bother attacking. That is a shame, and it was generally short-sighted on the part of the players, but the rules did too much set the player’s attitude. In fact, Feinting Trick was added to the 4e D&D Essentials rogue’s choices to give damage bonus to attacks that DIDN’T have advantage. When you need a power to entice a player to attack when she doesn’t have advantage, something is wrong.
When I brought up this problem with flanking in the discussion, trying to highlight flanking not just simply as a tactic to get a small bonus in the game, some of the responses speak to the problem that game designers, and especially the current D&D Next developers are having. The “simulationists” cited their years of fighting experience, challenging me to try and defend myself from flanking attacks. And I get it. But that’s not the point. I probably wouldn’t be able to defend myself very well while unarmed either, or while on fire, but that doesn’t mean we need rules giving advantage against unarmed foes or creatures taking ongoing damage. The “power gamers” cannot imagine a game where they cannot get a bonus based on where their mini is positioned. That’s a valid thought.
When considering why something is or isn’t in the game, if we want to talk intelligently about the subject, we need to actually think about why something is or isn’t in the game. Spouting preferences has its place, of course. Liking a certain aspect of a game, or disliking it, is only natural. But at some point there has to be a recognition of the basic building blocks of the game. That little rush when your character (or monster) gets into a good tactical position and hits because of the bonus supplied through tactics can be sweet (maybe doing more damage in the process), but at the other end there is a price for it. The evaluation of that rush versus the price the game pays for it is at the crux of game design.
I understand there are players who love 3e and 4e D&D because of its tactical skirmish bent. Heck, sometimes I am that player. But when the game’s tactical rules make it harder to run a fast but still fun story-based game, then it is time to revisit them. That is why I am happy that flanking is not yet present and the opportunity attack element of D&D Next is lighter. I would have no problem seeing a tactics-heavy combat scheme added as an option in an advanced version of the game, but I want the base game to not rely on positioning. And because of that, I think characters must be created in a way that lets them be effective without relying so heavily on tactical movement.