Mechanical Thinking is a new series that presents new houserules that you can add to your home D&D games, and then interrogates the underlying mechanics, examines what problems the rule solves, and identifies what the rule can do to improve your game. Then, once all is said and done, join me and other readers in the comments for a discussion about the proposed rule. Just remember that all rules have their place, and while they might not fit your table, they might be perfect for another gaming group.
If you have a mind for mechanics or for the process of game design, or if you want hone the mechanical side of your RPG knowledge, this series is for you!
Today’s mechanic is overextending. I mused about it on Twitter at the beginning of March, and I think this is an idea worth taking a closer look at. Here’s the mechanic I proposed there:
Some adventurers fight recklessly, allowing them to land cutting blows at the cost of leaving their most vulnerable areas open to attack. Once per turn, when you miss with a melee attack, you can choose to hit instead. If you do so, any attack that hits you before the beginning of your next turn is a critical hit.
Overextending is a house rule that arose in one of my games when my players were growing frustrated that they effectively wasted their turn whenever they missed with their attack. There’s merit to this frustration; in a turn-based game like D&D, a player can sometimes be left waiting a long time for their next turn in combat to come around, especially if there are a lot of players at the table or if the DM includes a lot of monsters in a single combat.
In my experience, I’ve found three solutions to this problem:
- Make turns go by faster.
- Give players more opportunities to act off-turn.
- Make player turns “count” more.
The Overextend mechanic touches on two of these issues; it helps players avoid the feeling that they’ve wasted their turn if they miss an attack roll by introducing a more dynamic and less binary system. It also slows play by making turns potentially go slower, since everyone who misses at least once in a round has to weight the costs and benefits of overextending. Consider this: missing an attack in D&D isn’t just painful because you didn’t contribute to whittling away your foe’s hit points, but because nothing happened. Good stories are made up of changes in tension, but the consequence for failure in this situation is the narratively weak option of maintaining the status quo. Put another way, the least interesting outcome in any story or any game is “nothing happens.”
Introducing a system that allows characters to succeed at a cost (similar to more narrative-focused games like Dungeon World) helps the story feel dynamic, even if it actually puts the “successful” character in a worse position overall than failure would have. This helps players feel like their turn has counted, because even if they’re suddenly in a bad position, they’ve managed to make the combat encounter more interesting.
There are other ways of making player turns feel like they mattered. If the DM or player has good descriptive chops, then they can narrate the missed attack roll in a way that gives the player a little more time in the spotlight. Even if their turn didn’t accomplish anything, being able to stay in the spotlight just a bit longer can help them narrate their actions and let them have narrative fun a little longer, even if they aren’t having a ton of mechanical fun.
Issues and Revisions
That said, this house rule isn’t perfect. Every rule, even official ones, can and should be tweaked to better serve the table that they’re playing at. Consider what the effects of allowing a player to automatically hit once per turn can change the game. Rogues and paladins, whose Sneak Attack and Divine Smite features give them huge damage bursts as long as they hit, would love to have this feature. Guaranteeing a hit can remove tension from an otherwise nail-biting die roll. Meanwhile, fighters who have many attacks per turn, but with very few added effects, are left in the dust by this feature.
If you want to avoid the attack being a guaranteed sure thing, consider allowing the character to reroll a missed attack with advantage, instead. “Once per turn, when you miss with a melee attack, you can choose to reroll the attack with advantage.”
Additionally, some players may think that opening their character up to devastating critical hits is too much of a drawback, especially if you’re using the modified version of the rule above, and the attack isn’t guaranteed. A way to soften the impact of the drawback, while still keeping it threatening, is to instead allow all creatures adjacent to the overextending character to make a single attack against them.
Incorporating both the tempered bonus and softened drawback results in the following, more moderate version of overextending:
Some adventurers fight recklessly, allowing them to land cutting blows at the cost of leaving their defenses open to counterattack by opportunistic foes. Once per turn, when you miss with a melee attack, you can choose to reroll the attack with advantage. If you do so, all creatures within 5 feet of you can use a reaction to make a single melee attack against you.
I would place this rule under the "Melee Attacks" in chapter 9: Combat of the Player's Handbook. Would you use this house rule at your table? What about it appeals to you, and what would you change to better suit your group’s playstyle? Let me know in the comments!
James Haeck is the lead writer for D&D Beyond, the co-author of Waterdeep: Dragon Heist and the Critical Role Tal'Dorei Campaign Setting, the DM of Worlds Apart, and a freelance writer for Wizards of the Coast, the D&D Adventurers League, and Kobold Press. He lives in Seattle, Washington with his partner Hannah and their feline adventurers Mei and Marzipan. You can usually find him wasting time on Twitter at @jamesjhaeck.