Fixing opportunity attacks

D&D fifth edition has a lot of good things in it and improvements over BECMI and AD&D. The d20 mechanism. Advantage/disadvantage. Race disconnected from class. But one innovation I really don’t like is opportunity attacks. Not only does it penalise “live to fight another day,” it locks down the battlefield and makes everything more static. It’s also completely unrealistic.

Why do I say that? Let’s first look at the text:

You can make an opportunity attack when a hostile creature that you can see moves out of your reach. To make the opportunity attack, you use your reaction to make one melee attack against the provoking creature. The attack occurs right before the creature leaves your reach.

Basic rules/PHB->Making an attack-> Melee attacks

So: if a hostile creature is close or passing, as soon as they move out of your reach (probably 5′, maybe 10′ with a pole arm) you can attack with your reaction, regardless of what else you’re doing (unless that uses your reaction, of course) and regardless of whether you have any multi-attack capability.

Let’s think about this in several different scenarios.

1. You’re in battle with one or a group of monsters and you have used up all your attacks. Another foe comes running past. Somehow, although you can’t attack the group any more, you’re able to attack this other foe. And while you’re turning to attack them, somehow you don’t have an opening to the foes you have been fighting.

This seems unrealistic on several counts.

  • Would this foe, running through a battle, really have dropped their guard while passing?
  • How does their presence, and more specifically departure, mysteriously give you the ability to make another attack you wouldn’t otherwise have been able to make?
  • And most importantly, as I already alluded to, if you turn to make this attack on the passing foe, surely you’d open yourself up to a similar attack from the foes you’re in melee with?

2. Take another scenario. You’re fighting and realise you’re out of your depth, so you break and flee.

You’re an experienced fighter so you’d naturally still keep your guard up as you leave – i.e. Disengage. So why is this not assumed? Why is the assumption that you left yourself open unless you say otherwise?

3. If you walk past someone, they get an opportunity attack. If you get blown past them, despite the fact you’re clearly not in control of your motion, they don’t. If anything I would have expected you to be more vulnerable while being moved against your will.

4. A group of you are in battle with a group of foes. One of them turns away from you to attack one of your allies. If they stay close to you…no opportunity attack. If they drift out of your reach, somehow you get an opportunity attack. If anything I would have thought they would be more vulnerable close to you.

5. Someone is hiding in the bushes and you run past. Okay, here to open yourself up to an attack…but in this case they haven’t used an attack yet, so it’s more like they saved their action to attack if anyone comes close.

6. Someone runs across a gap 30′ away from a Warlock who has already used their action. Why can’t they cast Hellish Rebuke (reaction) as an attack of opportunity? Why is it specifically going out of melee range that triggers the opportunity attack?

7. Someone uses half their movement to rushes in, attacks you, then rushes out of reach again before your turn. In this case I feel the opportunity attack is reasonable and realistic so you have some ability to reply.

Overall you may gather I’m not keen on the opportunity attack as it stands. I like my players to feel they can run away if necessary, but if that means their opponent gets a free attack, that might be the last thing the character does (literally). It also messes with the action economy by effectively changing the number of actions available in a specific situation. And it’s not even very realistic in most situations with experienced fighters (which the characters are supposed to be) in a battle situation.

So how can we make it better? Here’s a set of changes I will try with my group to tighten things up:

  1. A retreat is always assumed to be a Disengage unless you you use your action another way (an attack or a Dash, for example). You don’t have to call Disengage – that’s just how an experienced fighter would do it. However, if you’re sprinting (Dash), you are throwing caution to the wind, so this would create an opening.
  2. Someone passing a melee is always assumed to pass with enough distance to avoid an opportunity attack unless the space is so constricted it wouldn’t be possible to get far enough away (for example in a narrow corridor).
  3. To make an opportunity attack, you must already be wielding a melee weapon.
  4. Making an opportunity attack opens you up to one yourself from anyone you are in melee with.

These are minor tweaks which I hope will provide enough additional inertia to change opportunity attacks from something which prevents movement while still allowing characters to retaliate to attackers who swoop in, attack and then swoop away again.

I’ll post a follow-up in a few weeks once we’ve had the chance to try it out, but in the meantime, please let me know your thoughts in the comments.

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