Backstab, Sneak Attack, and suggestions for a more modular design


Sarah Darkmagic - Posted on 30 March 2012

A few days ago, Rob Schwalb posted his ideas on Backstab and Sneak Attack for D&D Next.

Everyone would have access to sneak attack:

Backstab: When you have attack advantage against a creature, you can give up advantage to deal 1d6 extra damage on a hit.

As part of leveling, rogues would have the opportunity to invest in Sneak Attack:

Sneak Attack: Whenever you backstab a creature, you deal 1d6 extra damage. Each time you gain this benefit, increase the extra damage by 1d6.

Let me say right away that I love this idea. I still want it tested and might change my mind about it later, but nothing I’m about to say negates the fact that I love the idea. My argument is more about presentation. The designers have said repeatedly that D&D Next will be modular. I’m really interested in this idea, in particular the idea that we could have a fairly light core, something that people new to the game can pick up quickly but has lots of hooks, to use a techy term, for future expansion and exploration. My argument is that this version of Backstab and Sneak Attack could be more modular and I’d like Backstab to not be part of the core.

I work a lot with Application Programming Interfaces (API), an important part of modular design for computers. The term attack advantage is our interface hook. Whenever a player character has an attack advantage the player can choose to apply the benefit. In the basic case, this is an attack bonus. Have an attack advantage? Add a bonus to your attack roll. Very basic, everyone can pick it up easily, and no real decisions needed.

We could add an optional list, either as a sidebar or in an appendix, that lists other ways to spend your attack bonus. This could include backstab or any number of other benefits that match the story being told during attack. Groups with new players or DMs could ignore these additional uses and add them later after they’ve become more comfortable with the game. Groups that suffer from too much analysis paralysis could also reduce the number of decision points during a turn. Future books could add to the list more easily since we’ve grouped them together and given them a name. Finally, especially if we move them to an appendix in the back of the book, it doesn’t bloat out the combat rules, leaving the impression that combat is the most important part of the game, and potentially makes it easier to reference them later.

End results: DMs feel more in control of the game and the rules they want to use, advanced players still get options, and the core game is pretty lightweight, making it easier to pick up and learn.

The one issue is dealing with Sneak Attack. As written, it requires the rogue employ Backstab to use. I’m curious if that’s really necessary. Does the rogue need to give up the accuracy bonus to get the additional damage earned through training? I don’t have the math in front of me, but I have a feeling we could just change the wording a bit to make it work.

What do you think?

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This is part of why I like taglines and easily parable effects: I like having clear, modular benefits-- like combat advantage, healing surges, the ability to charge, or other such things-- that can be sacrificed or modified using different, optional rules. I think this is one of the benefits of feats, as a Thing: that new ones can be added, subtracted, moved around, or picked through for a given campaign. And this is also why I have never liked balancing a race/class soley on the quality of their feats.

Anyway, I really like the way you're thinking about the information here, and am interested to hear more of like ideas.

With your change, making Backstab another way to use the advantage, the obvious answer is that Sneak Attack is a special version of Backstab only available to certain classes, that gives you both the attack bonus and the extra damage. Why? Because you're an awesome shadow-hugging back-stabbing thief, that's why. Other classes can choose the standard attack bonus or the (maybe only with a feat selection?) extra damage from Backstab.

Seems to me the trick is to de-couple Sneak Attack from the option of Backstab so, for those who do not use the Backstab option, Sneak Attack is still viable.

That's as simple as saying: "Sneak Attack: When you have attack advantage against a creature, you deal 1d6 extra damage. Each time you gain this benefit, your extra damage increases by 1d6. (If the Backstab option is in use, you can also trade your attack advantage bonus for an additional 1d6 damage.)"

Now Sneak Attack works as-is and can also work with Backstab, if that's an available option in play.

@ Kainenchen, Sadly, I think DDN will have less semantic rigor than 4e. As a person who thinks like a technician, I liked the way 4e was designed. The wording was the most precise of any RPG and this cleared up a lot of rules issues. Some of my friends hated that a good deal of the errata was simple wording changes, but I liked that in that it cleared up the misunderstandings with as little functional changes as possible. But many people didn't like these additions, so they're apparently being de-emphasized.

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