Rear and Flank Bonuses: An Experiment

I just had a strange idea. I was thinking of the normal Rolemaster positional bonuses (+15 for a flank attack, +35 for rear), and what they represent. It seemed to me that characters got these bonuses because targets would find it more difficult to parry, dodge, and block attacks from these awkward directions, due to the fact that it is harder to see them coming and to turn to parry, block, or dodge. But what about a target such as a giant amoeba, that does not have eyes and does not parry, block, or dodge? Why should the amoeba’s attackers get positional bonuses against it?

The other thing that got me thinking of positional bonuses is DnD 5e’s system of positional bonuses — or lack thereof. (My group plays DnD about half the time and about Rolemaster half the time, so I am always comparing the two systems.) The 5e player handbook, which contains the core combat rules, uses no positional bonuses at all — not even flanking. That is of course terrible. However, the Dungeon Master’s Guide lays out optional rules for flanking and facing. Flanking provides advantage (i.e. you get to roll 2 d20s for your attack and take the higher one), which is neat, but can become a bit overpowering; and the downside is that to gain flanking, you have to be on the exact opposite end of the target square/hex from an ally who is also attacking your target. This leads to odd combats that devolve into the famous ‘conga line of death’, a long line of combatants, alternating ally – enemy – ally – enemy, as everyone tries to get the flank bonus by aligning exactly on the opposite edge of an enemy. That isn’t really very realistic and kind of makes a mockery of formations.

The 5e DMG also offers optional rules for facing: attacks through the rear arc benefit from advantage and the target does not get a shield bonus. The shield bonus only applies to attacks through the front and shield side arcs. This is better, and also contains the stipulation that some creatures, such as ‘an amorphous ochre jelly’, do not have rear arcs, as well as more detailed rules for playing on both a square and a hex grid. The downside of the 5e DMG facing rules, however, is that 5e does not have sufficiently developed rules for ‘sticky’ combat: characters only get attacks of opportunity when opponents leave their zones of control too hastily, not just when they move through them too hastily. This means that in 5e, you can circle strafe to an enemy’s rear and attack with advantage all in the same turn with virtually no penalty. Oops — this is the reason why turn-based systems need some ‘stickiness’ to their combat, so that characters have a reasonable chance to react to the actions of their enemies.

To fix DnD 5e’s rules, I’ve brought back 4e’s rule about moving through an enemy’s zone of control: moving through or out of an enemy’s zone of control now provokes opportunity attacks if the movement is hasty (i.e. not using the ‘withdraw’, ‘disengage’ or ‘5-foot-step’ action). This houserule change largely solves the strafing issue. I can now use 5e’s facing rules without getting too annoyed.

But making this change also got me thinking of an innovation to eliminate the ‘conga line of death’ and make formations matter more again: instead of giving advantage in the case of two combatants being on exactly different sides of their opponents, I would only give them a +2 flanking bonus. Similarly, attacks from the flanks (back left and back right on a square grid) would only get a +2 flanking bonus. To get advantage (i.e. the right to roll 2 d20s and take the higher one), you would have to attack through the rear arc only, because advantage can be a huge bonus.

Then I went a bit farther, and thought, instead of flanking bonuses, why not just say that targets don’t get the benefit of any Dexterity bonus against attacks through the flank? Because really, the flanking bonus is meant to represent the fact that it is harder to dodge/block/parry an attack that you can’t really see coming very well. So wouldn’t it be easier just to eliminate the set ‘flank bonus’ altogether, and instead just say that targets don’t get a Dex bonus vs. flank attacks?

Thinking of how I would fix DnD 5e’s positional rules in this way also led me to think about an experiment in applying a similar rule to Rolemaster. What about instead of set bonuses (+15 for flank, +20 for rear) for positional modifiers, we tailored the bonus to the situation and the abilities of the combatants in a more realistic way? What if we said this:

–A Flank attack is an attack made through the left flank or right flank hex. Because such attacks are harder to see and therefore defend against, the target cannot benefit from any shield bonus, and receives only half his quickness and/or parry bonuses.

–A rear attack is an attack made through the rear hex. Because such attacks are especially hard to see and defend against, the target cannot benefit from any shield, quickness, or parry bonuses.

Rather than giving creatures set bonuses, then, we would instead be limiting their defenses in a more realistic way. There would no longer be any abstract ‘flank’ or ‘rear’ bonus that worked the same for every creature and combination of battlefield conditions; rather, flank and rear attacks would be deadlier against combatants that rely on seeing attacks coming and actively defending against them, and less deadly on creatures that don’t defend or even see at all. Amoebas, Gelatinous Cubes, and amorphous ochre jellies everywhere would rejoice (though we’d never hear them, since they don’t have mouths). And we will no longer have any conga lines of death!

Has anyone ever tried anything like this?

6 Replies to “Rear and Flank Bonuses: An Experiment”

  1. If you didn’t go for ‘cannot benefit from parry bonuses’ but rather made it a -50 and -100 to parry attempts, maybe -25/-50 to dodge. you can then allow the RMu style Combat Expertise skills to counter some of those penalties. This would be a boost to arms users.
    RM2 had a reverse strike skill if I remember correctly. That could also be put to work to help counter parry penalties.

    If you think of a martial artist they could be whirling and spinning during their regular attacks and defence. Even in reading some of the Witcher novels the pirouette features frequently giving the character greater awareness behind them.

  2. Yes, set bonuses could accomplish much the same thing, and they might be a bit simpler, though I’m not sure what to do about Quickness bonuses then.

    RMu has included the Reverse Stroke skill, and it would work to reduce those penalties.

    I will have to pick your brain some day about the Witcher novels. I want to make a Witcher class for RMu, but I’ve only played the videogames and I want to make a full list of powers the Witchers have so that I can make 6 base spell lists for them. I’m not quite sure how to represent some of their abilities, like the ones they get from mutations; that doesn’t seem like something well represented by a spell list. Perhaps a unique Background (culture ranks) or a kind of Development Point package? Not sure.

  3. I think Peter’s observation is about right if the fighting style suits. The longer you are in combat the more the defender will manoeuvre to reduce the disadvantage of not being faced to an opponent. The bonus worked with 10 sec combat round because it represented the advantage in the initial flurry of blows. However, RMu is shorter and really if you work on a “real-time” one-second action point it becomes a question of how easy it is to provide parry with reduced awareness of the space around (without eyes in the back of your head). Providing a percentage modifier to the parry bonus makes sense. Of course, you mindless amoeba would not be parrying anyway.

  4. I think it’s worth considering the impact those modifiers, or lack of them, have when compared to character level, too. At higher levels…let’s be honest; they don’t often matter that much. But for first through say third or fourth level they can mean the difference between a crit or just concussion or no damage at all. They also have a different meaning and function when you’re dealing with missile combat as opposed to melee, but that’s likely a different discussion.

    1. The modifiers don’t matter that much at higher levels, but not being able to parry can really matter a lot at higher levels. So changing from set modifiers to just saying you can’t parry or use quickness bonus does I think make a big difference.

      How would you suggest I modify the system for missile combat? You already can’t dodge or parry gunpowder weaponry, so I’m not sure if bonuses are appropriate or not.

  5. Missile fire from the flank or rear has a disruption component as well, because not only is it coming from an unexpected direction but the target also has to determine distance and location as well as direction. Melee is a bit more simple to orient against after that initial attack, so I considered the additional flank and rear penalties a way to model the extra orientation element accompanying those attacks when missiles are involved.

    You could always consider missile attacks after melee has started as counting for Partial Surprise for at least the first attack, although some sort of Flanking bonus (removing the Rear attack since they really come out as the same thing) would work as well. Unexpected fire, from an unanticipated direction, is always nasty business.

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