Chad Perrin: SOB

10 February 2009

Grappling: D&D 4E vs. D&D 3.5 vs. PRPG Beta

Filed under: Geek,Review,RPG — Tags: , , — apotheon @ 04:46

This is part of my RPG series of entries here at SOB. See the inaugural entry in the series for more details.

In a reddit comment, I made the points in the following table in a slightly less polished form, in response to someone else's comment that 4E grappling rules are "literally about two paragraphs."

Core Grapple Rules Escape: 3+ Paragraphs
Grab: 8+ Paragraphs
The "+" is due to the fact that some of those paragraphs might arguably be counted as more than one paragraph.
10 Paragraphs 6 Paragraphs
Total Paragraphs 11+ Paragraphs 10 Paragraphs 6 Paragraphs
Additional Special Cases None A Couple Pages None; See Below
Playability 4 Stars: quick and slick 0 Stars: unplayable as written; requires elaborating articles (see "All About Grappling" articles HERE) or house rules 4 Stars: quick and slick
Flexibility 2 Stars: fairly rigid and limited 3 Stars: open and extensible, once you fill in playability gaps; limited by not being compatible with a lot of other combat action rules 4 Stars: open and extensible; unified with many other special combat actions under the Combat Maneuver system
Coverage 2 Stars: limited special case handling 4 Stars: excellent coverage of special cases 3 Stars: special cases are easily inferred from the unification of the Combat Maneuver system, and from grappling rules text particularly; a lot of stuff not explicitly addressed in the Beta; special case coverage from 3.5 is compatible, and easily imported
Elegance 3 Stars: simple design, well presented 0 Stars: seriously, the way it's written in the PHB, it is literally unplayable — and confusing enough that this is not readily apparent; the explanation reads like it was written by James Joyce 4 Stars: simple design, well presented, unified with a lot of other combat actions under the Combat Manuever System; unification could have gone further

As you can see, none of them rate five stars in any category. The closest any of them get to a fifth star in any category is Pathfinder RPG Beta in the Elegance category — but it has to lose that one star because there are other combat actions that could reasonably have been unified within a single system, without losing verisimilitude and playability. In fact, playability might benefit from further combat action unification.

4E pretends to have a unified system, but its unity in regards to grappling and other special combat actions is really just a thin veneer of clarified terminology over an exception-based system that isn't as different from 3.5's as many of its proponents like to think.

3.5 is just a train wreck when it comes to grappling. The lack of unification of the special combat actions rules may actually be a good thing, in that the disaster of grapple rules wasn't able to infect the rest of the rules.

I'd call Pathfinder RPG the best of the three, by a clear margin, and 4E second best, for grappling rules. If 3.5's grapple rules were actually complete and playable, I'd have a much harder time choosing beteen them and the 4E rules, because of the drastic difference in flexibility and special case coverage. In practice, I prefer 3.5 grapple rules, with house rules to make them usable, over 4E rules out of the book — because there are fewer house rules needed to make 3.5 grappling work than to make 4E grappling cover all the special cases that might arise. In terms of pure rules canon, however, 4E blows 3.5 out of the water in terms of grappling rules, for the simple reason that 3.5's grappling rules as presented in the book are literally unusable.


  1. An excellent comparison. I don't think my group ever tried to figure out the 3.5 version of grapple, we just sort of house ruled the thing. When I heard 4e had solved the grapple issue, I was actually disappointed when I actually saw it in use, because I thought it was too simple (though limited may be a better word).

    Comment by Mad Brew — 11 February 2009 @ 05:44

  2. Thanks for the kind words.

    I actually tried to figure out the 3.5 grappling rules a couple of times. They are so haphazardly presented that it took me a couple of times trying to sort them out to figure out there was something missing. That also makes it effectively impossible to figure out what is missing from the grappling rules in the PHB alone. The fact that a series of four articles is needed to clarify how the grappling rules are used is a grim sign, considering the comprehensive special case coverage offered within the PHB itself — so I never actually bothered to read the articles to figure out how (or even whether) the grappling rules have been clarified and filled in enough to be useful. It's easier to just fake it, either with house rules or with winging it on the spot when someone tries to grapple.

    Even easier, though, is using the Combat Maneuver System, which made me quite happy when I first encountered it.

    Comment by apotheon — 11 February 2009 @ 08:58

  3. All such tables should have an extra column for "rolemaster."

    e.g. core grapple rules: 1 paragraph, 3 tables taking up one page each playability: -10 flexibility: 10 coverage: +100 elegance: -1000 Additional special cases: every possible roll between 01 and 100 is its own special case

    Sometimes, you can drown in the well...

    Comment by faustusnotes — 13 February 2009 @ 03:07

  4. There's definitely a good reason my friends and I, over the years, have come up with so many alternate names for Rolemaster. A couple of examples are "Roll-Master" and "Chartmaster".

    Of course, the way Rolemaster is designed would be ideal for adaptation to an online virtual tabletop game. Too bad it isn't available under a license that would let me create and distribute such an application.

    Comment by apotheon — 13 February 2009 @ 04:23

  5. so so true! I've often thought it would be better than 3.5e for computer gaming too – the feedback window would be full of all sorts of colourful information, you'd have lots of character choice and spells, it'd be great.

    Comment by faustusnotes — 15 February 2009 @ 11:09

  6. "Paragraphs" is an exceedingly misleading term; the 4e paragraphs are each very short, more like bullet points, whereas the ones in Pathfinder and 3.5 are rather wordy.

    I didn't bother to wordcount 3.5, but a quick automated check shows that PRPG's grapple rules are 449 words + 333 words for the CMB system itself (and it would be unfair to exclude those, as it covers the actual mechanic used in Grapple); the rules in 4th edition are 335 words for Grab and 76 words for Escape.

    Comment by JT — 21 March 2009 @ 11:54

    1. I'm skeptical of your numbers, but it's about bed time for me, so I'll just take your word for it — for now, at least.

    2. When I referred to paragraphs, I just used the metric the other guy used.f

    3. Paragraphs aren't as misleading a metric as you claim. Properly formed paragraphs each focus on a single point or concept. The major difference between a paragraph and a bullet point is usually that the bullet point doesn't explain things as fully or provide as smooth a presentation of the covered concept.

    4. I don't think there's anything wrong with explaining things more fully or comprehensively, so I don't see how a higher per-paragraph word count is necessarily a bad thing.

    5. Word count in an explanation doesn't translate directly into complexity of the explained system.

    6. There are underlying mechanics not explained in the Grab and Escape sections in 4E, either, so there are other paragraphs you should add into your calculation for 4E too, if you really want to start drawing in underlying mechanics to inflate numbers.

    7. None of what you said changes anything I said about the comparative characteristics of the systems above, really.

    Comment by apotheon — 22 March 2009 @ 12:24

  7. [...] to that, there were some parts of the rules that simply failed to achieve much good, such as the truly incomprehensible grapple rules of 3E. For many, though, it was easier to house rule (most of) the warts away than to house rule the kind [...]

    Pingback by Chad Perrin: SOB » D&D: The more things change, the more they change. — 22 March 2009 @ 09:42

  8. Am I really the only person who finds the 3.5e grapple rules to be perfectly intuitive? Granted I had to read them half a dozen times, but now I can smoothly run a grapple without even cracking the book in most cases. Doesn't slow combat down at all. Whence "literally unplayable?"

    Not that I argue about PRPG being generally a step up, mind you. I do hope the final version of Combat Maneuvers works closer to this, but that's really a minor mechanical difference relative to the overall streamlining.

    Comment by Lief Clennon — 22 April 2009 @ 03:44

  9. I rather suspect you're assuming some additional mechanics that aren't actually explained in the grapple rules in the 3.5 PHB. If you make assumptions about parts of it, so you kinda automatically fill in the gaps, you may not notice there are gaps — but you may also end up playing it differently than someone else who assumed an alternate gap-filler. It's literally unplayable as written because, when you take it literally as written, you're not assuming anything to fill in the gaps.

    I'll have to give those alternate CMB rules a closer look later, when I'm up for doing a one-to-one comparison with the rules as presented in the PRPG Beta to see how they differ. Thanks for the link. I'm really bad at keeping up with the Paizo forums (since the Paizo forums lack the kind of functionality I've come to expect from forum software, even though the "feel" of the interface is most excellent).

    Comment by apotheon — 22 April 2009 @ 05:02

  10. By the way, I fixed the typo in your HTML.

    I used to have a preview plugin, but a WordPress version upgrade irrevocably broke it, so I just turned the thing off rather than fight with it to get it working again only to have it happen again on the next WordPress upgrade.

    I don't much like WordPress. . . .

    Comment by apotheon — 22 April 2009 @ 05:05

  11. @Lief:

    No, you're not the only one. I have no trouble with the 3.5e grapple rules at all.

    The idea that they are is a pernicious meme readily cured by turning to page 72 of the 1st edition Dungeon Master's Guide and reading the section on 'Non-lethal and weaponless combat'.

    Comment by Lurkinggherkin — 4 May 2009 @ 02:59

  12. Sorry, that should read -

    "The idea that they are [over-complicated] is a pernicious meme..."

    Comment by Lurkinggherkin — 4 May 2009 @ 03:02

  13. I know that I'm coming in late on this, but it might be worthwhile to include the D&D 2nd Edition grappling rules as described in the Complete Fighter's Handbook. They simple and WAY overpowered if you applied them as the rules stated. If you put multiple proficiency slots into Grappling/Wrestling, you could (1) add 1 point of damage to your attack for each proficiency slot added (guaranteed damage), and (2) you could move up and down along the table for each proficiency slot added. Once you hit 3 prof slots, you could almost automatically choose a hold rather than a strike, and them just keep doing damage with that hold turn after turn.

    Like real life, it wasn't good for multiple opponents, but even a low level fighter could defeat opponents of much higher levels by locking in one hold and just cranking it. If your DM was smart, he/she would limit the amount of damage you could do to one extremity and cause you to render that extremity useless. After all, you aren't going to kill someone with an armbar or an ankle lock, but you can render them unable to swing a weapon or walk. If that happened (or if you went against a magic user), it was usually best to go for a choke.

    Comment by Doug — 22 January 2012 @ 02:27

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