Thursday, February 19, 2009

Grab... And Then What?

Dungeons & Dragons 3.5 was infamous for its esoteric and befuddling grappling rules. 4th Edition wisely makes grabbing your opponent something exceptionally simple, and the Crypt of Shadows encounter takes the chance to show it off.

Not to great effect, though.

The zombies in the Crypt of Shadows can attempt to grab the players. Their "zombie grab" is a +4 vs Fortitude melee attack; success immobilises the victim, and they can sustain the grab as a minor action. (Players can achieve the same effect with a Str vs Reflex attack.)

So what?

Immobilisation isn't paralysis; an immobilised character is merely prevented from taking move actions, and can still disembowel nearby zombies. In the unlikely event that some fancy swordwork is insufficient to fix the situation, you can escape a grab with a successful Athletics vs Fortitude or Acrobatics vs Reflex attack.

Grabbing is a tanking move; it pins the target into contact with the grabber and prevents them from going after more important enemies. In the Crypt of Shadows, there are no targets that are more important than others. Zombies who grab in this encounter are wasting an action.

This is a problem that has haunted roleplaying systems since the dawn of time, for one very simple reason. There is little reason to grapple an enemy if you are holding a weapon. If you are not holding a weapon, there is little reason to grapple an enemy rather than picking up an improvised weapon. In the unlikely event that unarmed combat actually occurs, there is no good reason not to resolve it using the normal combat rules.

The tanking uses of grabbing are interesting, but every class who is intended to tank has more effective ways of achieving this effect. A common theme is dealing damage as well as pinning the enemy. Players (but not zombies) may also drag a grabbed enemy up to half their speed with a further Str vs Fort attack, which might have some rare tactical use but is made mostly unhelpful by the sheer number of ways you can fail the attack or have your target escape before you reach your destination.

There is an example in a later encounter of the grab rules used well, as part of a monster special ability, but by and large, in an exception-based rule system, this is an exception we did not need to have.


[1] Would the grab rules be substantially improved by allowing a grabber to deal their STR modifier in damage each time they apply or sustain the grab? Or does this just make it clearer that grabbing is an unnecessary exception to the regular combat rules?


Greg Tannahill said...

UPDATE: It has been drawn to my attention that Grab scales oddly compared to other mechanics, and that at paragon tier and above it starts becoming comparitively harder both to grab a target and to escape from a grab, due to the fact that the defence (target number) will be buffed from items but the attack won't.

So if you have a cheap way of applying a grab at higher levels it can actually be very effective due to how hard it is for your target to get away.

Anonymous said...

For our game we ruled that minor actions and free actions are the only thing you can do while grappled. Otherwise, you have to spend a movement or standard first to break the grapple.

By the way, I arrived to the posts late and have been reading from the beginning. I agree with you on so much about the design. However, as you said, it still is fun to run since it is more traditional in it's approach to hack n' slash D&D.

Anonymous said...


From the Monster Manual:
"When two or more zombies attack a single foe, one of them uses zombie grab to prevent the foe’s escape"

This is how I play them and in subsequent rounds the grabbing Zombie just slams away. I can't see any other tactical advantage to grabs at lower levels than as an aid to mobbing.

Tactically aware players will be avoiding that as best they can soooo...

Overall I agree, grab is of limited use until higher levels.

Unknown said...

I made an encounter with flaming zombies. The grab had three fold purpose: force a target to stay n the burning aura, to allow the zombie to make a high damage Bite attack which delivered necrotic damage and a disease, and finally just to emphasize to non-tanks how much they really wanted to stay out of base contact with these guys.

In encounters with powerful artillery monsters, grabbing is a useful thing for skirmishers and lurkers to do to pin down squishies and prevent them from taking cover against artillery. There's a lot of terrain scenarios where this works well.

Also, don't forget henchmen can use the Aid Another power to grant the Big Baddie bonuses to hit a high defense defender. It's not grabbing, but is easily flavored as such. "GRAB HIM!" shouts the bugbear, and four goblins immediately begin snatching at your arms and legs as the bugbear takes a Power Attack swing with his greataxe.