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.”
|GRAPPLE RULES||D&D 4E||D&D 3.5||PRPG Beta|
|Core Grapple Rules||Escape: 3+ Paragraphs
Grab: 8+ Paragraphs
|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.