The Advantages of Advantage

Every time I go back to reading The Angry GM, that sonavabitch makes me want to try running a game again. Not just any game, but good ol’ DnD. What can I say? Either he’s a persuasive writer or I’m just a gullible sod.

In either case, reading the latest batch of rants and articles got me thinking about player agency. After looking up some old stuff of bankuei’s on fictional positioning, and I’m thinking the two go hand-in-hand with 5e’s Advantage and Disadvantage system.

A brief overview: In 5e, players can sometimes either get “advantage” or “disadvantage” when performing an action. If they have an advantage, they roll two d20’s and take the higher number, if they have a disadvantage they roll two and take the lower result. As part of 5e’s unifying superstructure, there’s a lot of conditions, statuses, and spells that grant advantage and disadvantage in specific situations, but there is also a surprising amount of leeway given to the GM.

Spoony, when reviewing 5e, took some significant umbrage with this system. He proclaimed boldly that “You know what this means, right? Players are constantly going to be trying to wheedle advantage out of the DM!”

Uh. Yes, Spoony. That’s called roleplaying.

On both a micro and macro level, a player’s agency comes from their actions and choices having an affect on the game. What advantage and disadvantage allows the players and GM to do is invoke fictional positioning  and make choices that affect it in order to influence the game’s outcome. If a player does something particularly clever, or would work particularly well in a given situation, they can get an advantage! This encourages the players to think deeply about fictional positioning, and the “how” of what their character’s do. It’s not just “I attack the goblin,” it’s “Hmm… well, the goblin is using a spear, right? Well then, I’m going to bat his spear aside with my shield and then try to get in close so I can shank him with my shortsword.” The Wise GM can then reward such levels of thought and creative storytelling with an instant, mechanical reward: Advantage on the attack roll! This, in turn, creates a positive feedback loop of clever description, well thought-out action and engaged players.

The Angry GM has a great article on applying this principle to traps. When a player triggers a trap, the Angry GM suggests having the PC hear an audible “click”, giving them a split-second to react. Then, depending on what they do, they can be granted advantage, disadvantage, or neither. In this way, we take an encounter that is traditionally very “low” agency (“Yeah, so you triggered a trap you couldn’t see. Roll a Reflex Save.”) to very “high” agency by granting the player’s choice and mechanical consequence to that choice.

I say, why not apply this idea more broadly? When the rogue sneaks, why not grant advantage if he tries to muffle his footsteps across the cold cobblestone? Or grant the party face-man advantage when he makes a particularly convincing argument to an NPC? Any narrative positioning can be made mechanically important (and therefore worthwhile to the most hard-core gamist) through Advantage and Disadvantage.

Now, one thing I’d argue is that while granting Advantage is all well in good, a GM should be a little more sparing with giving his player’s Disadvantage. Disadvantage is effectively the stick to Advantage’s carrot, and may disincline someone from considering or vocalizing their character’s fictional positioning for fear of getting whacked with the Disadvantage stick if they pick the wrong option.

Which isn’t to say you can’t let the player’s clever schemes give the NPC’s Disadvantage. Say, by blotting out all the torches in a room to grant them Disadvantage on a perception check. All’s fair in screwing over the hapless NPCs.

Advantage is, in my opinion, a great system that is tragically underused. In the hands of a Wise GM (and clever players!) it can bring a whole new level of narrative depth and rewarding play to any game of Dungeons and Dragons.

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