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Improved Grappling Rules for 5th Edition

So here’s a question for any Dungeon Masters out there… have you ever pit your adventurers against an awesome and powerful foe and looked forward to the epic battle that was going to ensure between them… only for one of the characters to shout out on round one of the combat “I’m going to grapple him!”

One lucky roll later and your supposedly awe-inspiring NPC is restrained by a weedy 1st level halfling rogue whilst the others rain blows on his motionless ass, making short work of him.

(Image by Janus on ddemotivators).

(Image by Janus on ddemotivators).

The 5e D&D grappling rules have a lot to be desired in my opinion, and are also pretty vague. For a start the condition of being grappled (p290 in Player’s Handbook) states only that the subject cannot move, however most players will expect some kind of advantage over an NPC they have successfully wrestled with. It would make more sense if the conditions of being restrained (p292 PH) were also applied to the grappled subject.

In short, I’ve come up with what I think are improved rules, which effectively reduce your chances to grapple in armed combat, when such circumstances would realistically make this very difficult indeed, but do make grappling well worthwhile in the right circumstances. I also made some slight tweaks, for example whilst it makes sense that you can avoid being grappled using Dexterity / Acrobatics, once grappled it makes sense that only Strength / Athletics will set you free (you can hardly cartwheel out of danger if someone is holding your ankles). These rules are a little more complicated than Wizard of the Coast’s but I am confident that they will improve your gameplay and help you create realistic scenarios that your players will understand.

IMPROVED GRAPPLING RULES (5e DnD)

When you want to grab a creature or wrestle with it you can use the Attack action to make a special melee attack, a grapple. If you’re able to make multiple attacks with the Attack action this attack replaces one of them.

The target of your grapple must be within your reach and can be the same size as you, one size larger than you (in which case you suffer disadvantage), one size smaller (you gain advantage), or two sizes smaller (disadvantage… it’s hard to grab a rabbit!).

You can choose to use one hand (at disadvantage), or two hands. You must drop anything in these hands in order to grapple. If your target is armed you provoke an opportunity of attack from your opponent. If this attack is successful you take damage and the grapple automatically fails.

If the creature is unarmed and / or they fail on their attack of opportunity you make an Strength (Athletics) check contested by the target’s Strength (Athletics) or Dexterity (Acrobatics) check (the target may choose which). If you succeed you subject the target to the restrained condition.

Escaping A Grapple

A grappled creature can use its action to escape. To do it must contest a Strength (Athletics) check with its opponent. Note that the original contest would count at the victim’s reaction, so if they have not used their action this round (ie. they were after their attacker in the initiative sequence) they may use it in the same round to try and escape. Alternatively they may try to attack (with disadvantage, see conditions for being restrained). If they hit their target (who cannot add their dex modifier to their AC), the grappler must make a Strength check with DC 10 + damage of the attack to maintain the grapple.

If the victim of a grapple fails to escape for three turns, including the turn they were grappled in, then they are considered to be incapacitated (can speak only).

Moving a Grappled Creature

When you move you can drag or carry the grappled creature with you but your speed is halved, unless the creature is two or more sizes smaller than you.

RESTRAINED (GRAPPLED)

(Modified from Player’s Handbook p292).

  • A restrained creature’s speed become 0.
  • Attack rolls against the creature have advantage (also they can’t add their dex modifier to their AC), and the creature’s attack rolls have disadvantage.
  • The creature has disadvantage on Dexterity saving throws.
  • Spellcasters must roll DC 15 (modified by spellcasting ability) to cast spells that include more than verbal components (spells with only verbal components can be cast as normal).

Further Notes

Note that monsters with a different physiognomy to humans that naturally grapple in their attacks, such as giant scorpions, do not provoke an opportunity attack when trying to grapple.

Once a creature is grappled, a second person, with at least one free hand, can use their action to confer advantage on keeping the subject grappled, provided he moves before the victim in the initiative chain. (The DM may rule that a third person renders the victim incapacitated provided they are of the same size as the one being grappled).

A grappler may use their bonus action to attack their victim (with advantage, as per the conditions of being restrained) either with an unarmed strike or a weapon (in the latter only if they succeeded in grappling with one hand… which remember they do with disadvantage). This means however, if they were not already, that they are now grappling with one hand, and so contest any escape attempt in this round at disadvantage.

The person who is being grappled normally has disadvantage on their attack rolls (see restrained condition above), however if they attack their grappler with unarmed strike or short weapon (dagger or smaller) they can lose that disadvantage. The DM may rule that they need to make a sleight of hand check to be able to draw a dagger if they were not already carrying it. Suggested DC10.

EXAMPLE OF NEW RULES IN PLAY

Nada a 4th level fighter / rogue PC with strength 14 is speaking with Xenia (a 4th level rogue assassin with strength 10, dex 18), a mysterious half elf with a scarred face, in The Thirsty Goat Tavern. She decides she can’t trust Xenia and without warning jumps across the table to grab her. Xenia is alert so Nada doesn’t get a surprise, but the DM gives Nada first initiative for the round without rolling. She rolls 12 for her attempted grapple and has proficiency in athletics making a total of 16, but Xenia has proficiency in acrobatics +4 dex modifier rolls 11 and gets a total of 17, ducking aside as Nada goes flying over the tabletop, sending two flagons of ale flying. Xenia promptly draws her shortsword, stabs Nada (who the DM rules is prone) and then uses her move turn to run out of the tavern door. Here she runs into Grunder a half orc paladin PC who was guarding the door. He drops his sword and also tries to grapple her, using both his hands. Xenia now is armed though, so he provokes an opportunity attack – which unfortunately for Xenia pings off his plate mail, allowing him to go through with the grapple. Grunder has strength 18 and rolls a 15 (+2 +4 = 21)… Xenia rolls a 3 (+2 +4 = 9). She is grappled and subjected to conditions of being restrained. They roll for initiative and Xenia wins. She has a choice… contest the grapple using strength (athletics), as she can no longer use acrobatics. Or make an attack at disadvantage that might force Grunder to let go of her. As she isn’t proficient in athletics, she prefers her chances at making an attack at disadvantage. She has +6 to hit AC18 and luckily rolls a 12 and a 19. She deals Grunder a meaty 9 hp damage, meaning he has to make DC 19 to maintain the grapple. The lucky half orc rolls 13, which with his proficiency and str bonus is just enough. Xenia is still grappled. It’s then Nada’s turn to act and she leaps to her feet and attacks Xenia with her longsword with advantage dealing 10hp damage. Grunder then uses his bonus action to punch Xenia, again at advantage, dealing 5hp damage. Realising she’s in a bind, Xenia begs for mercy.

For an in depth discussion on grappling check this conversation out on Facebook that these rules prompted (I should add that many defended the original rules for their simplicity, and stressed that grappling is just for reducing the movement of your opponent). If you’ve had any issues with grappling or playtested my rules please leave a comment below.

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8 Comments

  1. Heh. I just finished a Kickstarter for a new set of grappling rules for 5e, Pathfinder, and OSR games, called Dungeon Grappling. Some of the things you talk about above will be pretty familiar reading the rules (parallel evolution), and I take a few things to their logical conclusion, I think. Anyway, I’ve been a fan of alternate or advanced grappling rules for a while; would have been interesting to have come across this before (my KS started Nov 6 or 7, finished last week).

    • duncan

      Hey Douglas, thanks for the comment. Feel free to link to your Kickstarter (as I understand you have created a set of rules for sale?) as hopefully it’s of interest to anyone who arrived on this post. My own rules need to be playtested some more, but I thought I’d get them out there!

      • Thanks, duncan. Sorry, things got a bit tense – not due to Kickstarter, but due to some international business travel. The KS campaign is over, and it funded fully, plus all the stretch goals. You can still do pre-orders, though, which will ship out just as soon as all of my KS backers’ orders are fulfilled, via https://dungeon-grappling-rpg-supplement.backerkit.com/hosted_preorders

        It’s not quite the same discount as the KS campaign, but it’s not full retail price, either.

  2. James

    Tried this out on a one day playtest with some friends.
    These totally nerf the usefulness of grappling…
    While I applaud your efforts, it falls short of keeping grappling worthwhile as an option to players.

    • duncan

      Ok well appreciate you trying them out James. We are still play testing some different variants. It takes a long time however as obviously luck plays a massive role so it’s hard to see what is fair and balanced. I do think grappling in armed combat should be very difficult and my rules reflect that, but I’ve made successful grapples much more powerful if you can pull them off because they lead to restrained condition and not just zero movement as per the official rules. Have you tried playing with just the official rules btw?

  3. DNDplayer

    Your rule is still problematic for a monk.
    Can you believe that a martial art expert can’t deflect an attack? Of course that’s stupid.

    Moreover, any martial art practitioner will simply say that sometimes you allow being grabbed so that you can use the attacker strength to defeat the attacker. The rule set out above simply doesn’t reflect that.

    This wrestling is more like sumo wrestling. You have to hold your opponent and then use sheer strength to push the opponent off the ring.

    This wrestling rule simply needs to be rewritten or scrapped

  4. Wyvern

    This one I disagree with on several points:

    – The added rules about imposing advantage or disadvantage based on relative sizes and number of hands used make sense from a realism perspective, but they make the grappling rules considerably more complicated. This was one of the biggest complaints against 3e’s grappling rules, and 5e greatly simplified them. Adding more rules to keep track of is a step backwards.

    – It’s already possible to restrain a grappled opponent if you have the Grappler feat, and I don’t have a problem with this. It makes sense to me that pinning your opponent would require training in wrestling technique. Furthermore, even trained wrestlers have to work at it; their opponent isn’t immediately pinned the moment they begin grappling. I think you have a false expectation stemming from the use the word “grappling”. As described in the rules, it doesn’t necessarily mean you’re actually wrestling with one another, it could just mean you’ve grabbed them by the arm.

    – I totally don’t have a problem with using Acrobatics to escape. This is a case where knowledge of past editions is actually helpful, because it’s clearly standing in for the Escape Artist skill from 3e (which no longer exists), and represents escaping a grapple by squirming out of the opponent’s grasp instead of having to rely solely on brute force to break their grip.

    – “Spellcasters must roll DC 15” is really awkward wording. You never “roll” a DC, you make an ability check versus a DC. If I understand your intentions correctly, the proper wording would be “Spellcasters must make a spellcasting ability check (DC 15) to cast spells…” Also state whether they get to add their proficiency bonus or not, and whether or not they lose the spell slot if they fail (I vote no).

    – Lastly, I don’t see how your changes solve the problem you described in your opening paragraph. (Which personally I don’t think is a problem to begin with; if the PCs manage to defeat a powerful opponent through clever use of tactics, that’s a *good* thing in my book.) In fact, they mostly have the opposite effect because if the PCs succeed in grappling your “awe-inspiring” NPC, that NPC a) is instantly restrained, b) is defeated if they can’t break free in two rounds *or* if the PCs dogpile them (and why wouldn’t they?), c) can’t rely on Dexterity to wiggle free, and d) has trouble casting spells. (Plus, if they’re a wizard or sorcerer they’re not likely to have a melee weapon in hand, so no opportunity attack to avoid the grapple in the first place.)

    And by the way, if the players have any sense at all the “weedy halfling rogue” isn’t the one who’s going to be attempting to grapple; they’ll let one of the stronger PCs do it and then use sneak attack (with advantage, if your house rules are in play).

    For my part, the only real issue I have with the grappling rules as-written is the wonky effects on movement:
    – A grappled opponent can’t move at all without breaking the grapple, but the grappler can freely drag them anywhere, no check required. Even if the grappler is smaller than the one being grappled.
    – The two can be forcefully separated (for instance if both are caught in the area of a *thunderwave* spell and one fails their save while the other makes it) with no chance for the grappler to maintain their grip.
    – If you have the Grappler feat and restrain your opponent, you suffer no drawbacks even though logically your movement should be limited while keeping them pinned.
    – There’s no by-the-book method to jump onto the back of a larger enemy creature and ride it, despite that being a staple of fantasy action movies.

    • duncan

      I think those are mostly fair criticisms, and I also agree with your criticisms of the official rules. I wrote this post with only a few months experience of playing 5th edition (and furthermore my frustration with the rules, all stemmed from our group playing the incorrect rules in the first place!).

      Grappling is a bit of a nightmare to deal with, and simplifying its use and advantages was probably a clever move by Crawford and co.

      When time permits, may have a rethink on this subject.

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