It’s Time to Talk About Superiority Dice

I decided not to review the new Unearthed Arcana. It’s fine, and while it’s more beefy than a few prior versions (the tiefling document, in particular), it’s still a bit scant, and definitely skews toward player options, which is something I’d like to see them get away from with these documents. Especially since they’re only coming out with 6 each year, now.

One thing did strike me, though, while I was reading it (LINK so that you can follow along). The Monster Hunter archetype for the fighter, like the Scout and Cavalier that came out earlier this year in their Kits of Old document (LINK), uses superiority dice in a very unique way to help shape the flavor of the class and offering a variety of options linked through this one system.

I liked this idea back in the Kits of Old doc, and I like it here. However, there are some issues that I would like to discuss regarding the way these superiority dice are being used. What makes superiority dice great (and they really are great), and what parts could really be improved?

What are Superiority Dice?

So, before we talk about the positives and negatives of the system, let’s break down what the system actually is. Certain fighter archetypes (and one Ranger variant) gain Superiority Dice—which begin as d8s, and increase in size over time—which they can spend in order to perform special actions. Most of these actions take the form of attack riders, tripping or disarming foes while also dealing additional damage. They are, essentially, a combination of the various point pools in editions past (the monk’s Ki Pool comes to mind) and the Action Point/Dice mechanic made popular by the Eberron campaign setting.

They’re also reminiscent of the Token system in the Iron Heroes RPG, as well as the Stunt Dice system in Fantasy Age. You can see that it’s a versatile system, and I believe I recall an early version of the 5e playtest using a universal Expertise Dice system for every class that looked a lot like modern Superiority Dice.

What Makes Them Great?

The best part of Superiority dice is, honestly, the versatility they bring to the game. For a very long time, D&D and other systems have been trying to figure out a solid way to give Fighters, arguably one of the most bland classes in the game, something to do in combat other than “hit the enemy with my axe.” The earliest I can personally remember is the Tome of Battle, which introduced a wide variety of maneuvers labeled under “sword magic” and a weirdly complex system that, while interesting, did not spread in the way the authors probably would have hoped. But there are further examples as we go further. Combat Feats in Pathfinder (and their later expansion with the Stamina system in Pathfinder Unchained), the various Warrior features in Fantasy Age, the entire structure of D&D 4th Edition, and hundreds of Homebrew creations.

Superiority dice appear, at a glance, to be the answer. The question, of course, is why? Why is it that this odd little die mechanic is, for lack of a better word, superior to its predecessors?

Well, there’s a few reasons.

First, it creates a perfect standardization for the various maneuvers’ powers. They must all utilize the superiority die, and their level of strength is inherently tied to the die. You won’t see any martial maneuvers that add 100 damage or throw fireballs, because they’re all tied into that d8, d10, or d12 that you roll. In addition to that, they kind of force the maneuvers to remain grounded. By establishing that you must tie the maneuver to the superiority die, you eliminate a lot of the more crazy features present in previous maneuver-system attempts. You don’t have to worry about maneuvers that freeze time or cause automatic death blows because the entire purpose of superiority dice, with only minor exception, is to ADD to a previously-established roll.

They also allow for fantastic customization when it comes to class archetypes. The Cavalier, Scout, and Monster Hunter archetypes are beautiful examples of this in action. Each one uses superiority dice, like the Battlemaster archetype. But rather than simply getting to choose maneuvers, they gain a custom list of techniques that fit in perfectly with their flavor. Cavaliers can knock enemies prone with lances and protect their mounts from damage with their superiority dice; scouts can bolster their skill checks and reduce damage against themselves when wearing light armorl; and Monster Hunters can interrupt spellcasters’ concentration and detect hidden or invisible beings.

Spoilers, but I’m in the process of integrating superiority dice into the next iteration of my Ranger class, and it’s a versatile enough system that I could see it integrated into any number of classes (including spellcasters. Now THERE’s an idea), or even used as a basis for an entire system on its own.

But Superiority dice aren’t all sunshine and rainbows.

What Makes Them Less Than Great?

In all honesty, it’s not superiority dice as a system that fails so much as how it is modified. Take a look at any and every fighter archetype that uses superiority dice, and you’ll find two things they all have in common. Improved Combat Superiority and Relentless are the two features that dominate the back half of every single fighter archetype that uses this system. And while Relentless is a really great feature that increases the staying power of fighters who are stretched beyond their normal limits, Improved Combat Superiority, which simply increases the size of your superiority die, and takes up both 10th and 18th level. Effectively, that’s a net gain of +1 on either attack or damage rolls an average of 2-3 times per combat. And that’s not much.

Of course, I understand that 10th and 18th level aren’t exactly supposed to be exciting levels based on the average arc of a class in 5e. The problem that arises, however, is the fact that more than half of the “official” fighter archetypes have the exact same back half. And when you realize that each archetype is only effectively defined by two class features (levels 3 and 7), it suddenly starts to make them all feel very same-y.

And Yet…

The interesting thing about this flaw in the Superiority Dice system is that the Battlemaster archetype actually gets away with it. I should look back at it with the hindsight of seeing how its features have corrupted other archetypes. I should see a flawed system, that was sprouted from this one subclass. But I don’t, because the Battlemaster has one special thing that the others do not. Unlike the Cavalier, Scout, or Monster Hunter, the Battlemaster’s options actually expand over time.

Each of these later archetypes gain 3-4 options to use when spending their superiority dice. And…that’s it. The scout can do exactly three things with its superiority dice from levels 3 to 20. The Monster Hunter and Cavalier start with 4, and arguably get up to 4 ½, since they can spend TWO superiority dice at once at 7th level, in specific situations.

SNORE!

Compare this to the Battle Master, which begins with three maneuvers chosen from a list (it’s the generic option, so giving it a generic list and letting it choose is fine), and then gains three more as it increases in level, giving it a grand total of 6 at 15th level. In addition, it gets to switch out maneuvers every time it gains a new one, allowing it to refine its list and perfect its use of combat superiority over time.

The other archetypes don’t get this level of customization. Nor should they, of course. The Scout, Cavalier and Monster Hunter are NOT intended to be customizable because they are much more specific options that fit into much more niche areas of the game. HOWEVER, this narrowing of focus should not negate an expansion of options within the subclasses themselves.

So, How Do We Fix It?

The question is, of course, once we’ve identified the problem: how do we fix it? What do we do to these additional, niche archetypes in order to make them not only more balanced, but more INTERESTING, as well?

Well, I think the obvious first answer is to remove Improved Combat Superiority from all three of them. All three of these archetypes now gain d8s as Superiority dice, and they remain d8s throughout their career. Why? Well, because if we’re going to add new features to these archetypes, and create archetypes that use the Battle Master’s unique feature (the Superiority Dice themselves) then I think we should probably allow the Battle Master to at least keep some of its uniqueness. Allow it to be the only subclass that actually improves the size of its superiority dice, since it is the origin of the feature. Let these new options instead expand on the idea, rather than copy it.

From there, we have to figure out what to add at 10th and 18th levels. I think 10th level should be easy for every subclass. Simply add new options to spend superiority dice on. And at 18th level, we add a pinnacle feature—a capstone to the subclass that makes it all feel worth the effort.

Let’s start with the cavalier.

The Cavalier

The cavalier breaks one of the cardinal rules of fighter archetype design (which I have broken, as well, admittedly): it gives a useful combat feature at 7th level. Ferocious Charge is pretty damn cool, but it shouldn’t come at 7th level. To make up for this, none of the 10th-level options are going to be particularly awesome in combat.

I’m thinking first of all we give them a rally action, as cavaliers are usually captains, keeping their allies inspired as they fight from atop their steed. For simplicity’s sake, I’m going to make it the same as the Rally option presented in the Battlemaster. And second, I like the idea of being able to grant superiority dice to your mount. So, any time your mount would make an ability check, you can spend one superiority die and add the result to the check. Your mount really isn’t going to be making many of these, so I think that allowing the full bonus on the check is fine.

Then, at 18th level, we need our capstone feature. I’m actually stealing a little bit from one of the Cavalier archetypes in Pathfinder with this one. We’re going to call it Horse Lord, and it’s going to negate all opportunity attacks from moving out of a creature’s range as long as the cavalier’s mounted. This allows the cavalier to literally ride through the battlefield, striking at foes at their leisure. It does not, however, negate the extra opportunity attack condition granted by the Polearm Master feat, which is intentionally designed to defend against charging opponents.

In practice, it looks like this. I’m giving the maneuvers names, because they should have had names to begin with.

Expanded Superiority

At 10th level, you gain access to both of the following maneuvers, and can spend superiority dice on them normally.

  • Once per turn, you can use a bonus action and spend one superiority die to bolster the resolve of one of your companions. When you do so, choose a friendly creature who can see or hear you. That creature gains temporary hit points equal to the superiority die roll + your Charisma modifier. This can be used to grant your mount temporary hit points.
  • Mounted Skill. Whenever your mount makes an ability check, you may immediately spend one superiority die to improve the check and help it succeed. Add the number rolled on the superiority die roll to the result of the ability check. You may do this after making the check, but before learning if it was successful.

Horse Lord

At 18th level, as long as you are mounted, you no longer provoke attacks of opportunity when leaving a creature’s reach.

The Scout

Unlike the cavalier, the scout does follow the level 7 rule. It gains the Natural Explorer feature at 3rd level and it improves at 7th and 15th level. Now, personally, I feel like this feature is weak, and even the ranger always pairs it with another feature. Therefore, I’m actually giving it an extra feature at 7th level, in addition to the level 10 and 18 features.

At 7th level, I’m going simple. Expertise with the stealth and survival skills. It fits well enough with the rest of the subclass, and doesn’t directly impact combat.

10th level is going to bring two more maneuvers. This puts it one shy of every other archetype, but its “boost my AC when wearing light or medium armor” maneuver (see why they need names?) rocks all kinds of hard, so I’m okay with it. I see scouts as being more tricky, focusing on battlefield control with their attacks, so I’m going to give it the Pushing Attack and Trip Attack maneuvers at 10th level, making it an interesting counterpoint to the cavalier by directly influencing enemies, rather than allies.

For its level 18 feature, I’m stealing directly from the Ranger and giving the scout the Vanish feature. It does double duty of letting the scout hide and preventing it from being tracked, making it a perfect encapsulation of what a scout is to a party of adventurers. It’s technically coming 4 levels later than the Ranger’s Vanish, but I’m mostly okay with that since the Fighter already has 3 attacks and the option to take an extra action on its turn by this point.

In practice, it looks like this:

Scout’s Expertise

At 7th level, if you have proficiency in Stealth or Survival, your proficiency bonus is doubled for any ability check you make using either of those skills.

Expanded Superiority

At 10th level, you gain access to both of the following maneuvers, and can spend superiority dice on them normally.

  • Pushing Attack. When you hit a creature with a weapon attack, you can expend one superiority die to attempt to drive the target back. You add the superiority die to the attack’s damage roll, and if the target is Large or smaller, it must make a Strength saving throw. On a failed save, you push the target up to 15 feet away from you.
  • Trip Attack. When you hit a creature with a weapon attack, you can expend one superiority die to attempt to knock the target down. You add the superiority die to the attack’s damage roll, and if the target is Large or smaller, it must make a Strength saving throw. On a failed save, you knock the target prone.

Vanish

At 18th level, you may take the Hide action as a bonus action on your turn. In addition, you cannot be tracked by nonmagical means, unless you choose to leave a trail.

Monster Hunter

The monster hunter’s pretty interesting, in that it actually comes off as kind of a witch AND monster hunter. Its ability to interrupt spells is pretty sweet when engaging with spellcasters, and while Monster Slayer breaks the level 7 rule, it’s seriously awesome when dealing with actual supernatural monsters. I’d probably add Monstrosity to its list, but that’s a personal thing.

At level 10, I’m first of all going to give it a Marking attack, which will add the superiority die’s damage to the attack, but will also mark the target and allow you to know exactly where they are in relation to you for 24 hours. Effectively, you’re placing a mystical spider tracer on them, or hitting them with a paintball in monster hunter. And while this is a combat technique, I feel like it’s so situational (you’re basically only going to use it when a creature is already going to run away) that it’s not going to get used very often. When it does get used, however, I think people will really enjoy their effectively-perfect tracking. In addition to that, I’ll allow it to add it to Intelligence (Arcana, History, or Nature) checks. Again, something that COULD come in handy, but isn’t very combat-effective.

For the monster hunter’s capstone, I think I’ll give it a super-defense against supernatural powers. Advantage on saves against Aberrations, fey, fiends, and undead feels appropriate.

Again, it looks like this in practice.

Expanded Superiority

At 10th level, you gain access to both of the following maneuvers, and can spend superiority dice on them normally.

  • Marking Attack. When you hit a creature with a weapon attack, you can expend one superiority die to mark it with a mystical tracer. You add the superiority die to the attack’s damage roll, and you automatically know its direction and distance relative to you for 24 hours thereafter.
  • Monstrous Knowledge. Whenever you make an ability check to which you can apply the Arcana, History, Nature, or Religion skills, you may expend a superiority die and add it to the roll. You can use this feature after seeing the total, but before learning if you succeeded or failed.

Supernatural Resistance

At 18th level, you gain advantage on all saving throws caused by aberrations, fey, fiends, or undead.

Conclusion

And…I guess that’s the end. If you’d like a document that compiles all of the changes presented in this article, you can view and download it here:

LINK.

Again, I overall really love Superiority Dice. I think that they’re a great system that adds a lot of versatility to D&D and are a great way to make fighters interesting again. My problems with them are how, when introduced in new and interesting ways through Unearthed Arcana, the designers felt the need to simply copy and paste the back half of the Battle Master into each one. They deserve more than that, and I think I provided that more with this article.

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8 thoughts on “It’s Time to Talk About Superiority Dice

  1. I’m a peculiarly strong anti-Vancer, so the one thing I don’t like about superiority dice is how they are basically spell slots by another name. Here’s what I’ve been messing around with:

    -The battle master gets one superiority die (1d6, or maybe 1d4). He can always use this die to gain damage to an attack (yes, we’d need to balance this against other class features. Assume we’re building the class from the ground up.).

    -Instead of dealing extra damage, you may perform a maneuver. These work exactly like in the PHB, except that instead of getting extra damage or other bonuses, you lose the bonus damage you would otherwise get from your superiority die. (The other way to balance this might be to forget about dice entirely and say you perform a maneuver by losing the benefit of your combat style, though it wouldn’t work with Protection).

    -If performing so many maneuvers per round seems overpowered, we can limit the class to one maneuver per round.

    This addresses your two concerns about SD. They don’t have to scale because they increase on their own thanks to the fighter’s extra attacks. And you don’t have to worry about replenishing them because they are always on. The only concern might be, would players be willing to lose damage to attempt some effect?

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    • Your idea is an interesting one, and I definitely wouldn’t mind testing it out. That said, our view on its necessity is a bit divided, since I don’t really have a problem with spell slots or other per-day powers, and therefore Superiority Dice don’t cause me that knee-jerk rejection.

      One thing I really do like, though, is that you’re removing the additional damage in order to use maneuvers. I’ve considered for a long time how to encourage players to use varied attacks and tactics in combat, and I think you’ve hit upon an interesting solution. The problem I’ve always had is that the standard methods are always either too powerful or too discouraging. Simply allowing a player to trip on every single attack by, say, taking a feat is far too powerful. But creating a drawback or cost, such as disadvantage on their attack roll, basically guarantees that they will never actually use the technique. However, with your method, the cost for executing a maneuver is taking away something that was already free to begin with, which means that it’s viewed with less value than your core attack.

      I think that balancing factors would need to be put in place, like limiting the damage/maneuvers to 1/turn. But it “could” work, in theory. Playtesting would have to bear this one out, though.

      Neat idea, 1mac.

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      • Thanks! And yes, the idea I hope offers something even for those who are not irrationally allergic to per-day powers! Your take is how I would hope players would see it, as a bonus that can be swapped for other bonuses. Pessimistically, they might also see the bonus as an entitlement that they’d rather not risk losing. As you say, only playtesting could bear it out (alas, LFG!).

        I’ve just started getting into 5e, and as my desire to futz with the system exerts itself, your blog has been tremendously helpful. Kudos!

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  2. I rather like the idea of being able to use the combat maneuvers in place of an attack as many times as you like. Granted Maybe this is because my table top RPG background stems from pathfinder and that game had a host of combat maneuvers you could do in place of one of your attacks. I have fond memories of playing a brawler who would bull rush through crowds sending people tumbling to the side and using “awesome blow” to uppercut people into the sky just to pin them in a grapple when they land. Even little things like disarming people aren’t in 5th edition’s core rules (I know that there are optional rules in the DMG to cater for people who want to do stuff like that but not every GM will use those rules sadly)

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  3. I don’t mind the superiority dice as a concept. What I can’t stand is similar to 1Mac’s objection. I’m not concerned about Vancian magic. What I hate is that there are not only common maneuvers unavailable to other combatants, but also that those that have special maneuvers (like the Scout above) at some point actually forgets how to push or trip somebody.

    I also hate “mark” abilities that are not spell based, but that’s a different issue…

    I completely rewrote the fighters, so that all fighters gain superiority dice that function in a manner similarly to Bardic Inspiration for themselves. Because they represent a time that you get an extra advantage, I don’t have an issue with a limited number of them. I don’t consider these magical in nature either. Basically a few times a day you’ll spot a particular weakness, take advantage of a mistake by the opponent, etc. and this gives the player control over that in a minor way.

    It’s also replacing Second Wind for my build. I can provide the whole build (Fighter: Champion; Eldritch Knight; Knight; Master-At-Arms; Thug) if you’d like. Although I’m still working on the Eldritch Knight and Knight. But for this I’ll just focus on Superiority Dice and the now separated Maneuvers.

    SUPERIORITY DICE
    Starting at 1st level you gain a number of Superiority Dice equal to your Strength or Dexterity modifier. You select which modifier, and this cannot be changed later.
    Your Superiority Dice are d6. The die becomes a d8 at 5th level, a d10 at 10th level, and a d12 at 15th level.
    As a bonus action, you can use spend one superiority die to add to your hit points.
    Starting at 2nd level, you can add your Superiority Dice to an attack roll.
    Starting at 3rd level to a damage roll (Strength) or AC (Dexterity).
    You regain your superiority dice at the end of a long rest.

    And all fighters gain Maneuvers:
    MANEUVERS
    Starting at 3rd level, you learn three maneuvers of your choice, which are detailed below. You can use only one maneuver per attack. You learn an additional maneuver of your choice at 7th, 10th, and 15th level. Each time you learn new maneuvers, you can also replace one maneuver with a different one.

    Many of the original maneuvers from the PHB are in use as potential called shots by anybody (They work very similar to the fighter maneuvers but you have disadvantage, and cannot use them when you have disadvantage). These are the ones I’ve reserved for trained (fighters) characters. They can be used as often as desired, might fail, and have potential risks. Most important, they never “forget” how to do them.:

    MANEUVERS
    The maneuvers are presented in alphabetical order. If the target of a Maneuver marked with an asterisk (*) makes a successful saving throw, they may immediately use their reaction to make one weapon attack against you.

    Commander’s Strike. When you take the Attack action on your turn, you can forego one of your attacks and use a bonus action to direct one of your companions to immediately use its reaction to make one weapon attack. If you make a successful DC 13 Charisma (Persuasion) check that creature can add your Charisma bonus to their attack.

    Counter Attack. When another creature damages you with a melee attack, you can immediately use your reaction to make one weapon attack.

    Distracting Strike.* When you hit a creature with a weapon attack, the target must make a Wisdom saving throw. If successful you distract the creature, giving your allies an opening. The next attack roll against the target by an attacker other than you has advantage if the attack is made before the start of your next turn.

    Evasive Footwork.* When you move in combat, your target must make a Wisdom saving throw or you increase your AC by 1d4 against that target until you stop moving.

    Feinting Attack.* You can use a bonus action on your turn to feint, choosing one creature within 5 feet of you as your target. If the target fails a Wisdom saving throw, you have advantage on your nextattack roll against that creature.

    Goading Attack.* When you hit a creature with a weapon attack, you can use a bonus action to goad the creature into attacking you. If the target fails a Wisdom saving throw, the target has disadvantage on all attack rolls against targets other than you until the end of your next turn.

    Lunging Attack.* You can use a bonus action to extend your reach, choosing one creature within 10 feet of you. If your target fails a Dexterity saving throw you have advantage on your next attack against that target.

    Lunging Riposte.* You can use a bonus action to extend your reach, choosing one creature within 10 feet of you. If your target fails a Dexterity saving throw you can immediately use your reaction to make one weapon attack against that target.

    Maneuvering Attack.* When you hit a creature with a weapon attack, you can maneuver one of your comrades into a more advantageous position. Choose a creature within your reach who must make a Wisdom saving throw. If the saving throw fails, you can choose a friendly creature who can see or hear you. That creature can use its reaction to move up to half its speed without provoking opportunity attacks from the target of your attacks.

    Menacing Attack.* When you hit a creature with a weapon attack, that creature must make a Wisdom saving throw. On a failed save, it is frightened of you until the end of your next turn.

    Parry.* You can use a bonus action to take a -4 penalty to attacks and gain a +2 bonus to AC until the start of your next turn.

    Precision Attack. When you hit a creature with a weapon attack, you can use a bonus action to land your blow more precisely. You have advantage on your next attack against that target, but the next attack against you has advantage.

    Rally. You can use a bonus action to bolster the resolve of one creature who can see or hear you. When you do so, choose a friendly creature who can see or hear you. If you make a successful DC 13 Charisma (Persuasion) check, that creature reduces the damage of the next attack that hits by half if the attack is made before the start of your next turn.

    Riposte. Opportunity attack against a target that misses you by 5 or less.

    Sweeping Attack. If you drop your opponent you can attack another creature within 5 ft. of you, the total number of potential attacks is 1 per level of fighter.

    Of the two main archetypes, the Battlemaster focuses on gaining more fighting styles and more maneuvers. They have the breadth.

    The Champion focuses on getting really good at a single fighting style (extra critical and stuff like that), and is the one that gains Relentless (at 7th level) because the superiority dice is their thing (better depth, that is better to hit or damage due to the Superiority dice).

    I have also beefed up the Fighting Styles to better reflect that in earlier editions, fighters were better at combat (their to hit progression was better) than anybody else.

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