The Flanking Rule: Why Many DMs Hate It and Why I’ll Still Use It

I never realized when I began writing this blog just how big a hot-button issue flanking is. Personally, being a longtime player of not just Dungeons and Dragons but also various war games, including quasi–war games like Sid Meier’s Civilization series, I thought using the optional flanking rule on page 251 of the fifth-edition Dungeon Master’s Guide was a no-brainer. Yeah, D&D is a game in which silly things happen on the regular, but given a choice, I still like to err on the side of verisimilitude, and it’s a simple fact of life that if you’re being attacked by someone in front of you and someone behind you, you’re going to get the tar kicked out of you.

But after getting some negative feedback to my advocacy of the flanking rule (including one Reddit poster who went so far as to say that as far as he was concerned, it invalidated everything else I say!), I decided to put some feelers out to learn why, exactly, some players are vehemently against granting advantage on attacks against a flanked enemy.

The rules of D&D 5E are written with considerable care and meant to be taken absolutely literally, so instead of glossing as I usually do, I’m going to reproduce the exact wording of this rule, in its entirety:

Optional Rule: Flanking

If you regularly use miniatures, flanking gives combatants a simple way to gain advantage on attack rolls against a common enemy.

A creature can’t flank an enemy that it can’t see. A creature also can’t flank while it is incapacitated. A Large or larger creature is flanking as long as at least one square or hex of its space qualifies for flanking.

Flanking on Squares. When a creature and at least one of its allies are adjacent to an enemy and on opposite sides or corners of the enemy’s space, they flank that enemy, and each of them has advantage on melee attack rolls against that enemy.

When in doubt about whether two creatures flank an enemy on a grid, trace an imaginary line between the centers of the creatures’ spaces. If the line passes through opposite sides or corners of the enemy’s space, the enemy is flanked.

Flanking on Hexes. When a creature and at least one of its allies are adjacent to an enemy and on opposite sides of the enemy’s space, they flank that enemy, and each of them has advantage on attack rolls against that enemy. On hexes, count around the enemy from one creature to its ally. Against a Medium or smaller creature, the allies flank if there are 2 hexes between them. Against a Large creature, the allies flank if there are 4 hexes between them. Against a Huge creature, they must have 5 hexes between them. Against a Gargantuan creature, they must have at least 6 hexes between them.

Some things to pick out here:

  • The clear implication is that flanking only comes into play when using miniatures on a battlemat. If you’re playing “theater of the mind,” there’s no way to adjudicate flanking, so the rule doesn’t apply and the advantage can’t be claimed.
  • You can’t use flanking advantage to negate disadvantage from attacking an unseen enemy.
  • “A creature can’t flank while it’s incapacitated” seems like a silly rule, since you can’t attack if you’re incapacitated, but the important implication is that your ally also has to be capable of taking actions to divide your enemy’s attention. Otherwise, your ally isn’t helping you flank—he or she is merely turning one space into difficult terrain.
  • It’s not enough to attack an enemy from the side for flanking advantage to apply: you must attack from behind. (I’m imputing a concept of facing that technically doesn’t exist in D&D 5E, but you know what I mean.) The four-hex gap for Large creatures on a hex map is odd, because four hexes around in one direction is only three in the other. I’m not sure why the authors didn’t just go with three.
  • Flanking applies to melee attackers only. I assume this is because fending off a melee combatant is a very active process, whereas whether a ranged attack hits you or not depends much more on your attacker than it does on you. (The hex-map rule omits the specific mention of melee attacks, and this omission isn’t corrected in the DMG errata, but I assume it still holds. It’s certainly implied by the adjacency requirement, and as a dungeon master, I wouldn’t allow a player to argue that he or she could use the advantage gained from flanking to negate the disadvantage from shooting at point-blank range.)

In sum, we can infer that the flanking rule is meant to reflect the increased difficulty of defending actively against attacks that are coming from two opposing directions, and thus the increased ease of doing damage with those attacks.

(A curious artifact of the wording of this rule is that if three melee attackers are focusing their assault on a single enemy from the north, south and west, only North and South gain advantage on their rolls—West doesn’t! This is counterintuitive to me, and I think I’d say that if you’re using the flanking rule, it should extend to all melee opponents of a single enemy as long as the necessary conditions for flanking apply to at least two of them. I know my players would agree! But that’s an argument for another day.)

So why is this optional rule, which seems like common sense, hated by so many players?

The most frequently raised objection relates to a phenomenon called the “conga line” (to which more than one commenter applied the modifier “inevitable”!): an alternating row of PC, enemy, PC, enemy, PC, enemy, etc., which all the combatants gravitate to in order to gain flanking advantage.

I can see how such a thing could happen. On the other hand, I can’t see how such a thing could happen without the DM’s aiding and abetting it. First, it assumes that the enemies in question have the intelligence to understand flanking themselves—most likely, a case of meta-knowledge creeping in. Second, it assumes that they have no innate advantage that they’d use more instinctively than flanking. Third, it assumes that they’re all brute brawlers with no tactical sophistication (the assumption that I created this blog in the first place to dispel) and ignores the roles played by non-brutes, especially those with ranged and/or area-effect attacks. Fourth, it assumes they can all get to their positions in the line.

The conga line is precisely the opposite of “inevitable.” It’s like Scholar’s Mate: you can easily avoid it, even subvert it, by choosing not to play along. As a simple example, take the kobold, which has the Pack Tactics feature, giving it advantage on attack rolls when a non-incapacitated ally is within 5 feet of its target. Sure, kobolds could get in the conga line for flanking advantage. But using Pack Tactics is easier. A kobold doesn’t have to be on the opposite side of its target from its ally to gain this advantage. The ally doesn’t even have to be attacking the same target!

This segues into another objection to flanking, which is that it devalues other methods of gaining advantage by having no downside. I think it’s shortsighted to say that flanking has no downside. For instance, if you’re fighting toe-to-toe with a melee opponent, an archer in the enemy’s back rank is effectively at −2 to hit you, because your opponent’s body is partially blocking the shot. If you run around that opponent to flank it, the archer now has a clear shot.

Anytime you venture into the enemy’s territory, you’re an easier target—and a more tempting one—than when you’re holding the front line or sheltering behind it. Flanking without stealth is just isolating yourself. (Speaking of which, does anyone ever complain that the unseen attacker rule—a non-optional basic rule—devalues other sources of advantage because anyone can Hide?)

But let’s look at some of the other common sources of advantage available to PCs:

  • Reckless Attack. The downside of this barbarian class feature is that incoming attacks have advantage, too. It’s already a situational ability that makes sense to use if and only if the barbarian PC makes at least as many attack rolls in a round as all of his or her opponents combined. Wading into enemy territory for flanking advantage is no less reckless, since it can only increase the number of attacks coming the barbarian’s way.
  • Totem Spirit (Wolf). This barbarian feature is like the kobold’s Pack Tactics, except that it applies only when the barbarian is raging, and allies have to be attacking the same target. Positionally, this is still easier to set up than flanking, and barbarian rages aren’t exactly uncommon occurrences.
  • Maneuvers (Distracting Strike, Feinting Attack, Trip Attack). These Battle Master fighter features cost levels and superiority dice; flanking doesn’t. On the other hand, why would a player choose the Battle Master archetype and then not use its features? Battle Masters are quintessential tactics nerds. These set-’em-up-and-knock-’em-down combos are what we live for.
  • Spells. Faerie fire was one such spell specifically cited. It’s an AoE spell affecting a 20-foot cube, which can be reasonably expected to light up four opponents at once (see “Targets in Area of Effect,” DMG 249), conferring advantage on attacks against all four. You know who really digs this? The marksman with Extra Attack, who never gets to take advantage of flanking. Invisibility and greater invisibility are nice for advantage on attack rolls, but their chief benefit lies in being able to put yourself anywhere you want to be before you make that first attack. And then there’s hold person, which I didn’t see cited by any critic of flanking, and for good reason: never in a million years is flanking, which merely gives two melee attackers advantage on their rolls, better than inflicting the paralyzed condition, which not only gives advantage on attack rolls but also incapacitates the opponent and turns every hit into a critical hit.

Now, it’s possible that I’m cudgeling a straw man here, and that the critics’ basic objection is not that it makes these features less useful to those PCs who possess them but that it devalues them by giving every other PC who doesn’t have these features an equally good way of obtaining advantage at insignificant cost. But I see this as even a potential problem only when two specific conditions apply:

  1. The PCs significantly outnumber their enemies (or enemy, in the case of a single monster).
  2. Non–front line PCs aren’t playing their positions.

The second condition is embarrassingly easy to punish. There’s a reason why marksmen and spellslingers are wise to keep their distance: they tend not to be durable. If they rush in to flank for cheap advantage on a melee attack, the consequences are theirs alone to bear. As for front-line fighters, skirmishers and shock attackers, getting in close, maximizing their damage and (in the case of the latter two) getting back out is what they should be doing, always. Giving them advantage on flank attacks isn’t encouraging them to do anything they aren’t doing already, if they’re smart. It’s just giving them a way to occasionally be even more effective at it.

Too much more effective? That’s the essence of the third critique: that advantage, which can swing the expected outcome of an attack roll by as much as 5 points, is too great a benefit for flanking to confer. Let’s be honest, though, and note that this mean bonus only reaches +5 when the unmodified target die roll is 10 or 11—for example, when a character with a +6 bonus to hit is rolling against an armor class of 16 or 17. On average, it’s closer to +4; at the ends of the spectrum, the effective bonus evaporates, because you can’t improve on a natural 20, and a natural 1 will never improve on anything.

Some folks suggest adopting a house rule in which flanking confers a flat +2 to hit. Maybe if I were still playing GURPS I’d go for this, but D&D 5E has a different design philosophy—to streamline everything as much as possible, scraping away the barnacles that clogged up earlier D&D rulesets—which inclines me either to use the optional rule as offered or to forgo it entirely. The intention of 5E is that you either have advantage on your attack, have disadvantage, or have nothing but your weapon and a smile.

That said, 5E wavers from its own intention in one instance: cover. Half cover imposes an effective −2 penalty on an attacker; three-fourths cover, an effective −5. (Cover technically gives the target a bonus to armor class, but the effect is the same.) This lapse on the designers’ part is actually helpful in this debate, because it lets us ask whether the benefit that flanking confers is equivalent in magnitude to negating half cover, equivalent to negating three-fourths cover, or something in between. If it’s something in between—but closer to negating three-fourths cover—then advantage is about right.

The fact that advantage varies with target roll, while a fixed modifier doesn’t, is relevant. Advantage turns a 50/50 chance of success into 3-to-1, but if your chance of success is already 3-to-1, turning it into 10-to-1 (more precisely, turning a 75 percent chance into a 94 percent chance) is simply turning strong likelihood into very strong likelihood. The greater value is on the other end of the scale, where advantage turns a 3-to-1 chance of failure into 5-to-4—nearly, though not quite, even odds. In this case, my chances of hurting my foe in a face-to-face showdown are weak, but with a friend behind it helping me double-team it, they improve to moderate. If my chances of hurting it are moderate, they improve to strong. Does this seem fair to you? It does to me.

Only a few people offered the critique that allowing advantage from flanking slows combat down too much, yet in my opinion, this is a stronger objection than the ones above. Mo’ rules, mo’ problems. However, as DM, you’re the master of ceremonies, and you have the right and the responsibility to impose a measure of discipline, such as not allowing players to discuss their tactics with others in the middle of a battle (verisimilitude again) and giving them a limited amount of time to declare their actions. On the flip side, shouldn’t players be rewarded for working as a team and coordinating their actions and movements—especially if they can do so without discussion, just by anticipating each other’s needs?

Still, there’s one critique of the flanking rule that I can’t dispute: Other DMs used this rule, and these bad things happened to them. Maybe they shouldn’t have happened, maybe they needn’t have happened, but they did. Even if it hasn’t happened at my table, it happened at theirs—which, if nothing else, is a strong argument for keeping this optional rule optional. If it works for you, use it. If you discover that it causes too many problems at your table, stop using it.

Speaking for myself, none of these arguments has convinced me that the optional flanking rule is a bad rule to opt into, and I’ll continue to recommend using it. However, from now on, I’ll do so with some caveats:

  • Keep combat moving. Don’t let players bog it down with tactical discussions that their characters could never have in the middle of a battle.
  • Stick to the letter of the law. Remember that ranged attackers can’t make flank attacks, and that melee attackers must be on opposite sides of a target—and both attacking that same target—in order to gain flanking advantage.
  • Monsters are monsters, not metagamers. Have them fight the way they’d fight, not the way you or your players would fight.
  • Conversely, trained and disciplined NPC warriors should close ranks against PCs who might try to flank them. Rather than settle into the conga line, they’ll cut off access to the squares or hexes that PCs need to get to in order to flank—if not by blocking movement to those squares or hexes, then by occupying those squares or hexes themselves. And ranged attackers will pick off isolated characters who try to make an end run around the front line.
  • A creature that’s flanked will try to get unflanked, by the most effective means it has available. In the case of a Huge or Gargantuan creature, this may include trampling—or eating—a flanker.
  • Bad positioning should result in logical consequences.
  • Remember that, fundamentally, combat is about objectives. In general, the PCs’ opponents are trying to keep them out of their territory, and the PCs are trying to get into it, or vice versa. If you, as the DM, lose sight of this, abuse of flanking advantage isn’t the only bad thing that’s going to happen.

Next: alhoons.

75 thoughts on “The Flanking Rule: Why Many DMs Hate It and Why I’ll Still Use It

  1. Thanks for this breakdown! I’ve personally never seen anything wrong with using Flanking, but I’ve only been able to think about it conceptually, personally – I’ve yet to have an opportunity to use battle maps as a DM, though I plan to do so in my next campaign – but this is some much appreciated and sound advice on how to apply Flanking in order to enhance the tactical experience without impeding on the rest of combat. I especially like your advice on how strategic enemies will deal with flanking – closing ranks is the sort of tactic that I imagine can both really build the theme of an enemy (it tells you that the exiled drow have some high-class military training that the troglodyte brutes don’t quite grasp) as well as give combats variety. Fighting ogres feels different from fighting fire giants, etc.

  2. Flanking is something that will be used sooner if your group has a rogue. Another salient point is that opponents who use tactics (hobgoblins, duergar, drow, etc.) will also try to flank pc’s and get advantage vs them. It cuts both ways. I have run a combat where the 3 melee pc’s tangled with a group of 4 duergar in a swirling mass of melee where every attack on both sides was granting advantage. Movement and action efficiency becomes even more impoertant, rewarding well played pc’s. Vs, say, Giants, it is imperative that pc’s find ways to maximize damage as they can’t sustain healing and tanking vs massive brutes Mano a Mano. Perhaps dm’s should consider how to use this tactic to increase combat speed and up the danger level some when possible, rather than ban it because they find it overpowered. Further, why disallow it in TotM style? It may be risky for pc’s to get in position, but “no risk it, no biscuit” is a maxim that pc’s should grasp onto.

    1. It took me this long to reply because it took me this long to realize that by “TotM” you meant “theater of the mind.” Well, the reason for not using flanking in TotM play is simple: The variant isn’t available to you. It’s available “if you regularly use miniatures.”

          1. It also says modify as you want.

            Can’t use it with TOM is a pretty absolute statement.

            Pathfinder and previous editions had no issues with using it without minis.

            It also doesn’t expressly forbid it.

          2. Well, in that case, do whatever you like, and then write a blog post about it, and argue with all the people who come by to disagree with it. I’m discussing flanking as described in the rules, an optional rule that you can use with miniatures, defined in a way that’s premised on the existence of a battle grid. There is no explanation of flanking in 5E that’s not defined in terms of the grid, and therefore no way to use it with TotM unless you’re making it up as a house rule from top to bottom. That is an absolute statement, and also a factually true one. Also, whether something exists in Pathfinder has exactly nothing to do with whether it exists in 5E.

  3. Thank you for this – I was very much looking forward to this post, and your arguments all seem sound.

    I’ve been thinking of using the optional flanking rule for my group (which includes 8 PCs about evenly split between melee, ranged damage and spell support). Most of that group played 3.0 or 3.5, and so are used to working with the flanking rules (especially our rogue).

    What’s been giving me/us all pause is the interaction between 5e’s less restrictive attack of opportunity/threatened space rules and the flanking bonus. In 3.5e, you could only start circling an enemy 5′ at a time in most cases. Depending on how the groups line up, it’s now easier to circle in 5e in close quarters. That makes the front line a little less “sticky.”

    My concern isn’t that it makes it too easy for the PCs, but quite the opposite. Because our PC group is large, they tend to find themselves in combat v. more than a dozen critters, sometimes with poor enough survival instincts or enough of a swarm mentality that they have no reason to fear getting into enemy territory. Zombies might do it by accident just to get out of each other’s way. Humanoids may have learned that this is how the world works, and they can more quickly defeat opponents they slightly outnumber by being more aggressive and circling. Hobgoblins might start employing defeat in detail more often.

    This is aggravated by the other issue you pointed out: advantage is probably more valuable if you are converting weak odds to hit into moderate odds, rather than strong odds into stronger odds. Based on our pacing and scaling, this will tend to favor the NPCs in most average encounters, and the PCs only in the occasional boss encounter.

    If, e.g., your PCs have been fighting large groups of hobgoblins as their bread and butter, with martial advantage, but not particularly good odds to hit, adding flanking could result in a big swing in difficulty. Starts to look like a PC blender set to “liquefy.”

    So in the short term, we’re still holding off, because we expect melee opponents would see a sudden jump in difficulty relative to the PCs. Verisimilitude, yes, but our group is skittish enough already.

  4. Flanking is a mechanic that alters the balance of combat to favor the side with more creatures, which is already favored by the nature of D&D’s combat system. This would be true no matter the size of the bonus conferred by flanking.

    I would not recommend the flanking rule for new DMs who will already have a difficult time ensuring encounter balance.

    1. The side with more creatures is already favored by the nature of combat itself, period, because the less numerous have to divide their attention, while the more numerous don’t. And real-life flanking alters the balance further, because people cannot simultaneously look in front of them and behind them. This seems to me to fall into the “deal with it” category of problem, not the “OMG something must be done to fix this” category.

      1. Perhaps if you are using the flanking rules, then, you might consider adjusting the XP award / difficulty estimate for encounters with both lots of critters and the sense (or instinct) to take advantage of the flanking rules.

        And conversely, you might further decrease the XP award / difficulty estimate for encounters where the PCs outnumber the bad guys.

        1. The rules already take that in to account. The DMG spells it out quite easily and it jumps up quite a bit when it gets to 6-10 monsters.

  5. Hey, thanks for this post…excellent evaluation, as usual.

    I’m thinking we read a couple of the same posts. I had one of the aforementioned conga lines begin to form in one of my combats (lots of front liners in that session, all looking for gaps to gain advantage from) and was considering trying the suggestion of adding +2 to hit bonus instead of advantage.

    Your evaluation of the mathy bits has caused me to re-reconsider and I think that advantage is just fine. Conga lines have consequences, and the fact that flanking favors the larger force cuts both ways; I see it as a way to make goblin hordes more of a threat to higher level players.

  6. Not only do I use flanking, I have also expanded the opportunity attack rule to be more like 3.5, in that if you move through an opponent’s reach, you incur an opportunity attack if the opponent has an available reaction.

    One thing not mentioned in your blog (but was brought up in comments) is the rogue’s sneak-attack dice when they have advantage on their attack roll. I allow this with flanking, because this makes sense to me. It does have the result of making combat encounters go a little faster, but I find it ironically entertaining when the rogue scores a critical hit with advantage against an opponent who is already wounded and down to less than 5 hp.

    One important bit to remember as DM – unless your monster holds their attack action (which doesn’t make sense unless they are trained and organized), each monster should resolve their entire turn before going to the next. I found myself moving all the monsters going on the same initiative, then resolving their attacks, which is meta-game incorrect. The first monster in doesn’t get advantage from either flanking or pack tactics.

    1. “I found myself moving all the monsters going on the same initiative, then resolving their attacks, which is meta-game incorrect. The first monster in doesn’t get advantage from either flanking or pack tactics.”

      Wow, that is really solid advice. While I don’t think it’d break the game to play the other way, I thin you’re right that it makes a lot more sense and helps keep the monsters on the same footing as the players, since in the base rules the players can’t resolve their turns simultaneously either. And it opens one up to roleplaying uber-tactical monsters versus thuggish monsters. e.g. Hobgoblins ready their actions so they can attack together, Troglodytes don’t.

  7. I have been looking forward to this post and it was just as in depth and sound as i thought it would be. I still use the +2 bonus (because i agree it makes sense that some benefit would be incurred) but i want to see those other abilities and methods of getting advantage shine more. I in no way think flanking is a bad rule, and maybe what flaws it does have were more prevalent in the games ive played because there usually isnt a “front line”; i should probably find a way to fix that. Regardless in my changing this rule, one of my players(barbarian) focuses on trying to shove and grapple targets more, and one of the other casts focuses on using other spells that grant advantage, rather than damage( eg entangle/faerie fire)

  8. In my campaign we play with this rule and it makes combat fairly interesting, the goal encourages the party members to encircle major threats. They’ve done this on three separate occasions.
    -Once to a Construct assassin who they encircled completely so it couldn’t even escape.
    -Once to a Paladin, who they also cut off from his allies so he couldn’t use his Protection Combat Style to help them.
    -Once to an Orc Chief who they used the Sentinel feat on to keep him in place.

    It’s not just them getting advantage out of the feature however, I’ve put to good use when they were attacked by Hobgoblin Iron Shadows. The ninjas kept teleporting around to flank the party it worked well until five characters moved into formation to avoid being flanked. Those that didn’t were all almost killed.

  9. The assumption that it takes a good deal of intelligence to figure out that two attackers have a greater chance of dealing damage when in front of and behind their enemy, to me is laughable. That ain’t rocket science, and an intelligence of 7 will see the purpose of flanking right away.

  10. OK, I will disagree on the barbarian point. First, reckless attack is not that situational. In fact, by experience, I can tell that many barbarians use it almost every turn, unless they’re really in a corner. Barbarians already have the higher hit dice, and a bear totem barbarian will have double that, in practice, so yeah, they have some hp to spare. Also, not every opponent will instantly attack the barbarian when he goes reckless. Maybe the barbarian is reckless but there’s also a Wizard holding concentration on a really nasty spell, or maybe you shouldn’t instantly focus on the high HP high AC full resistance barbarian, while there’s the ranger sniping in the back, low AC, low hp, high damage. So yes, in my opinion, reckless isn’t situational and it loses value when compared to advantage flanking.
    You say Wolf totem is better than flanking because it’s easier to set up, and therefore flanking advantage won’t make the wolf totem useless. But in this case, is a matter of opportunity. Would you choose the wolf totem, and have a slightly better way of getting advantage, when you can take bear totem and… Be a bear, while still you can get advantage in an easy way? I understand wolf totem gives advantage to your teamates, but if you’re using the flanking rule as it is, they also can gain advantage in easy ways. I’m not saying wolf totem is useless with the flanking rule, but it’s a little less useful.
    Now, I’m torn with the flanking rule. I think flanking is a realistic tactic worth implementing, and while I think advantage is a little strong and can dwarf some other tactics, spells and traits, +2 or +1 isn’t good either. Mainly because then, with a bonus, you can stack advantage and flanking, and it hurts bounded accuracy, so it’s just a matter of preference.

    1. “Many barbarians use it almost every turn” isn’t a good enough argument in favor of it, since many PCs also run headlong into the jaws of death. Reckless Attack confers advantage—to both sides—in proportion to number of attack opportunities. It’s modified somewhat by how much damage each attack does—and barbarians usually do a lot—but that won’t usually be enough to make it worth giving a barbie advantage on two attack rolls when his or her opponents thereby gain advantage on three. Mind you, when I refer to the barbarian’s opponents, I’m referring specifically to those who are attacking the barbarian, not to everyone on the opposing “team.” It may be someone else’s job to snipe the wizard or bushwhack the ranger; those folks’ attacks don’t count in evaluating whether it makes sense to use Reckless Attack. And if you turn it the other way around—maybe it’s the barbarian who needs to disrupt a wizard’s concentration, and Reckless Attack gives him or her a better chance of doing so—I mean, this is the definition of “situational,” isn’t it? Reckless Attack is not all-purpose, in the sense that there are cases—common ones—in which it’s clearly suboptimal. That’s why it’s called “Reckless.”

      As for Bear vs. Wolf, it’s still easier for Wolf to gain advantage than it is for Bear, even if Bear has a way to gain advantage, via flanking, that wouldn’t exist without it.

      I just think that if DMs believe that flanking is too powerful, a large part of that comes from their failing to show their players why one has to use it judiciously. Of course players are going to run amok with any advantage they have access to if that access is too cheap. Let them have it, but don’t let them have it cheap.

  11. As someone who mostly plays rogues, flanking bonus makes a big difference. While yes, I do get sneak attack regardless, the ability to take those melee attacks at advantage (since cunning action lets me avoid staying out of line) is very nifty. Also, hide doesn’t devalue advantage since it takes a full action for it, meaning that it is only useful for preparing an ambush or clever play that I would encourage (unless you’re a rogue). I also feel like you undervalue reckless attack since while yes, in a 1v1 scenario, the benefit and cost are equal, the high hp and resistance of the barbarian means that while you do get the the bonus in party play, you still need to make up the opportunity cost of attacking the tankiest class there is.

  12. Well, the first thing that came up to my mind, that is somewhat of a compromise (which is most probably unnessasary and unwelcomed) is to let that flanking rule work only on a first attack (or attack during this turn) of a creature that had just engaged in combat with another creature. It has a narrative reason (a new and somewhat unexpected attacker can have an upper hand at first, but then immidiately after is accounted for in targets’ defence stance (remember, all turns are semi-simultaneus, and all characters are in constant motion, just slightly lagging behind each other)), it makes players rush (which is always a tremendous fun for dm), and the benefit is miniscule, so no conga lines, yet it might still be occasionally useful, so as to ensure the rule is used.

    One other crutch, is to limit an effect to certain kinds of npcs (non-playable creatures in this case)

    And the easiest way is the oldest and truest – make it akin to dm inspiration – you decide when the combat situation is good enough for this rule to apply. A simple run-and-gun won’t suffice (many enemies are experienced killers and can hold their own even in the direst of circumstances). It would work if you have a legitimate narrative reason for an advantage – if a traget has been just struck with a ranged attack (making him pay just enough less of attention to his rear) or a triple reckless attack combo hit of a barbarian. In short don’t make it a rule, make it sensible for a narrative.

    It’s just my two silly cents, and im overly biased towards narrative.

  13. One consideration overlooked in this assessment is the movement rules are different than 4e. Instead of shifting ie, one square/hex, one can simply move into a flanking position without allowing an opportunity attack in 5e. Don’t get me wrong, I’m a fan of flanking, but it’s easier to flank in 5e than 4e and this should be considered in the analysis.

      1. This is actually an important point. 40ft. of movement is enough to run almost a complete circle around a medium creature, a size of creature most players are expected to face most of the time. 30ft. is enough to shift from “front left/right” square to “back” square, get flanking advantage for all your attacks, then shift back, and, potentially, take way less risks than flanking implies.

  14. “A kobold doesn’t have to be on the opposite side of its target from its ally to gain this advantage. The ally doesn’t even have to be attacking the same target!”

    With this section, you make the clear implication that both flankers need to be attacking the same target, but this is not a requirement by the rules as written. Jim and Dave could be standing on opposite sides of Toby The Orc, and Jim will have advantage on his attacks against Toby even if Dave never makes an attack against him (or attacks someone else instead). Dave provides enough of a distraction to Toby simply by being capable of attacking, so long as Jim is on the other side of Toby to round out that distraction combo.

      1. I’d be fine with this restriction, except for one problem: On Jim’s turn, he takes the flanking advantage and attacks Toby. But by the time Dave’s turn comes around in the initiative order, something important has changed. Perhaps the party wizard is being threatened by some other orc. Is Dave locked into fighting Toby because Jim took advantage? Or can Dave run over and attack the other orc? I don’t think it’s very fair to Dave that Jim can lock him into an action that he might not want to take.

        1. Just apply common sense. If Dave attacked Toby in the previous round, or positioned himself there with the stated intention of attacking Toby, give Jim the advantage. If Dave went there for some other, unrelated purpose, don’t.

          1. That’s certainly the DM’s prerogative, though personally I would choose the option that requires less tracking and statements of intention.

        2. You’re taking issue with the fact that D&D is turn based… not with flanking. Similar inconsistencies pop up all over the place in almost all the combat rules, not just the flanking rules. That’s the reality of trying to simulate turn based combat in real time.

          It’s important to remember that the rules of D&D are abstractions of what’s happening in the game. Turn order is an abstraction as well. In theory all turns from the top of initiative to the bottom happen simultaneously and the wizard becoming threatened isn’t something that happens until after Dave has already decided what he’s going to do… despite that the enemy which _will be_ threatening the wizard already took it’s turn.

          If you wanted to be super realistic, it would be entirely reasonable to state that players can never react to what happens durring the same round of combat… but the rules for 5e (and 3.5 for that matter) are not balanced for that… and many abilities and spells assume otherwise.

          Turn based combat isn’t perfect. If I ever get around to finishing the custom system i’m working on (from scratch) it won’t have turn based combat. But making a non-turn based combat system that doesn’t create more problems than it solves or isn’t cumbersome and confusing to use is no small feat.

  15. We tried flanking as adv and its very broken; everyone hits all the time, making armour even less important – and hp/dps – even more important than they already are. We made it a +1 bonus instead, and it works fine.

  16. I think there is a problem with DnD combate rules, which has a bit to do with flanking, which is this: a character can defend himself from N attackers as well as from one. Having many opponents attack you all at the “same” time does not make defending from them much more difficult? What do you think about a house rule like “the character’s AC receives a -1 penalty on the second attack made against him in the same turn, -2 on the third and so on” (ignoring of course the characteristic design of this edition of not using such penalties)?

    1. I think that if I wanted to start imposing rules like that, I’d go back to playing GURPS. The virtue of D&D 5E is how streamlined it is, and giving attackers flanking advantage is sufficient.

      TBH, if there’s any hole I’d want to patch in D&D with a new rule, it’s the lack of differentiation among bludgeoning, piercing and slashing damage, and how armor resists them.

  17. “Still, there’s one critique of the flanking rule that I can’t dispute: Other DMs used this rule, and these bad things happened to them. Maybe they shouldn’t have happened, maybe they needn’t have happened, but they did. Even if it hasn’t happened at my table, it happened at theirs—which, if nothing else, is a strong argument for keeping this optional rule optional. If it works for you, use it. If you discover that it causes too many problems at your table, stop using it.”

    That’s easily the least valid critique. The failure of a large number of DMs to play monsters to their strengths is not a failure of the rules… but a failure of the DMs. At _most_ it’s a failure of WotC to communicate the rules clearly… but I don’t think it’s so much a clarity problem as a lack of capacity for good tactics problem. The reason “murder-hoboism” is endemic in tabletop rpgs like D&D is because most DMs are only tactically and strategically capable of being murder hobos themselves.

    But it never rises to the level of being a problem with the rules. If that were the case then DMs who let players accomplish stupidity like the peasant railgun would be perfectly reasonable in saying “non-player characters” are a bad rule and should be removed from D&D. Or any other (including non-optional) rules where the DMs often don’t understand them and it results in players getting away with murder… or TPKing the players… either way.

    In 3.5 critical hits had to be confirmed… but I’ve never even heard of a DM who enforced that. So then when someone plays a crit-machine build (which I did often) and the DM goes off complaining about how the rules are broken because I consistently critical-hit four times a round (instead of simply _threatening_ a crit fours times a round)… he’s being reasonable? No, he’s being a DM who doesn’t know the rules or understand how they are meant to work. Just like DMs trying to shoe horn called-shots into 3.5 when Power Attack was in the PHB from day one.

    There a lot of things people tend to be stupid about en-mass. The fact that they are doing it en-mass doesn’t magically invert stupidity into intelligence.

    1. “In 3.5 critical hits had to be confirmed… but I’ve never even heard of a DM who enforced that.”

      I always enforced it and so did every DM I ever played with. Any time a player griped about it I pointed out that not requiring confirmation on Crits would generally swing the balance of power toward the monsters for two reasons:
      1) PCs are expected to win most combats. Not requiring confirmation of critical hits increases the randomness of damage output, a situation that favors the underdog, usually the monsters.
      2) Certain enemy types (undead, constructs, oozes, elementals) were immune to crits. Players never are. A tweak to the rules that increases the likelihood of a crit increases the value of immunity to that crit.

      (and yes, I know I’m responding to a post nearly a year old)

  18. Didn’t even realize anti-flankers were a thing until this thread. Well put, like everything else you write about. I’ve never understood why flanking is an optional rule. Flanking and the advantage of superior numbers are such ancient and elemental tactical strategies, I wouldn’t run a game without them. It’s been a staple rule for me since switching to 5e. Never even gave the optional tag a second thought. It’s maybe the most natural mechanic in 5e’s entire rule set. At this point, my players and I view it in the same light as rules like a natural 20 equals a critical. No one at our table even thinks about it. We just roll. I couldn’t fathom doing it any other way.

    1. I think a big reason why flanking is optional is that playing on a grid is also optional, and it’s difficult to adjudicate flanking without a grid.

  19. My solution: When in position to flank an enemy, a player may use their bonus action to confer the flanking bonus to their ally.

    This makes it so that flanking is an actual choice, rather than an effect, as well as placing it within the action economy, potentially competing with other uses of the bonus action. It also allows players with few options for bonus actions the ability to use one. Even though RAW don’t require it as part of the action economy, making it into a choice for a player allows them to feel as though flanking is an actual tactical move, with costs an benefits to be weighed. Does my fighter with shield mastery want to knock the enemy prone, which might not work, and the enemy might act before my ally? Or do I want to use my bonus action to flank the enemy, distracting him enough to give my ally advantage on their attack, regardless of when he acts?

    1. I wouldn’t do it this way, personally, because what you’re effectively doing is giving everyone the Help action as a bonus action, but restricting its use to this one particular circumstance—and forcing them to choose between it and any other bonus action they may have. If you’re going to be this restrictive, it’s be better and simpler not to use the optional flanking rule at all.

  20. The big effect of this solution is to give some kind of cost to the ability to gain advantage. Virtually every other method of gaining advantage in combat costs something, an action, a bonus action, a superiority die, a spell slot, etc.

    As far as competing with other bonus actions, what this does is give each player a meaningful choice. It also gives a character without consistent use of their bonus action something to consistently use their bonus action for. It allows those players to feel as though they’ve made the most of their action economy, which just plain feels good.

    Beyond that, it has the ribbon benefit of making it easier to coax narration, rather than dictation in combat. When a player moves into flanking position, that’s the beginning and end it. When the player chooses to use their bonus action to flank, the follow up is “Okay, what are you doing to give your ally advantage?”

    I think it’s perfectly fair to make flanking actually have some kind of cost. In my estimation, the reason you see my solution as restrictive is because the current rule has no meaningful restrictions. But as you noted, it’s personal preference. I just find that having flanking work in my way addresses a few different things in ways that work well for my groups.

  21. Personally I love the flanking rules. Most of the opposition leaves me wondering just how boring and bland some
    DM’s must be making combat encounters. Is everyone just fighting in big flat open fields or something?

    Position and need to be in certain positions adds huge amounts a tactical outcome to encounters to impact on things like the effect of terrain, impact on ranged attacks and area effect attacks. It nominates natural different targets, allows people to become trapped and subjected to ppportunity attacks etc.

    Conga lines…. oh dear. What are these DM’s doing for that to be a legitimate concern.

    I often see people critisize 5e for lack of tactical play, after reading some of these objects I can see why some may feel that way. Personally we have no issues making most combat encounters tactical and unique.

  22. First time DM, and I instinctively added the optional flanking rule. My players love combat, and I think rules that provide more options for tactical creativity and strategy without adding unnecessary complexity are great. The players in my campaign all enjoy this rule.

  23. I think enemies using tactics shouldn’t get in strange positions they wouldn’t if not for weird rules, but more importantly the rules shouldn’t punish monsters for doing what they would normally do, or incentivize ignoring what they would normally do.

    I haven’t tried it yet, but I think if sides were allowed, units would naturally group up in a more realistic way (especially on a hex grid), both for the offensive value but also to guard their allies (phalanx formations). To flank literally means to protect or threaten the sides.

    If advantage is too much then, I don’t think giving +2 is that much more out of line with how other things in the game work, not that much less streamlined. It’s normal to get bonuses like this, even by armor and cover (as mentioned). If one doesn’t like it, then so be it, you don’t need an excuse or justification, you don’t have to do it. I think this makes a lot of sense though.

    It would be less clean, but I might even consider +1 on sides, +2 from behind, just because it’s kind of an important thing (like armor), and I like positioning and mobility to matter more (but be less required to think about, so you can focus on what the character would really do).

  24. I wonder if just treating Flanking as a sort of “reverse cover” awarding +2 to attack rolls against a flanked target would make it more appealing. For me it’s the “advantage” aspect of canceling out natural 1s and having double the chance for a critical hit that makes it seem overly powerful.

  25. I think one thing that may be happening is that your houserule of if someone is being flanked then anyone else attacking them at melee range is also flanking (which I agree with wholeheartedly) is actually saving you from congo lines. If we use this rule then looping behind enemy lines against an (intelligent) larger force is a terrible idea because as soon as you attack someone from behind his friend gets on the other side of you and then every other enemy that can jumps on you all getting advantage and starts killing you.

    On the other hand if you use the raw rules where you only flank if you are opposite someone then looping behind enemy lines against is less punishable because everyone needs a perfectly positioned partner to flank with so unless they outnumber you enormously and completely surround you, many of them are likely not getting advantage.

    The other thing is that with this house rule removes any incentive to form congolines. Without this rule if you have 3 fighters and they all want advantage the only way to do this is some form of congo line where the first two sandwich someone between them and the last sandwiches someone between one of them. However with this house rule if your 2 buddies start flanking someone it makes much more sense to just join in the fun and attack them too you get advantage probably burst them down faster for better flanking and you are less exposed to be flanked yourself.

    I like this houserule and I am not certain but I think it may be best to either play with this rule or to remove flanking entirely, because in RAW flanking does give some encouragement to congolines without nearly as much downside (just piling up on someone who is exposed doesn’t work to punish. you need everyone to be perfectly positioned i.e. you need to get people on the other side of the congoline to punish.) With this houserule congolining against a larger force gets you destroyed by Raw its a much more viable strategy.

  26. An overlooked, usually minor but potentially significant cost to flanking: if you’re moving in to attack, you may have to move an extra 10′, if you want to do it on your first turn of contact. So, did you start 20′ from the enemy? Because if so, you were in range for *them* to get the first flanking attacks.

    Even pulling off a basic flanking maneuver requires a bit more coordination than is immediately apparent (vs enemies with tactical competence).

    Calculations assuming generic humanoid speeds.

  27. , DM this game I am a strict RAW person. If the PHB and other books say it happens, I just assume it works because that is the description of the attack, advantage, or whatever. We can talk about passive perception vs. active investigation. If a PC spends the points, feats or MIN/MAXES to have a passive perception of 30+, I will give them the what the MECHANICS let them have.

    They noticed exactly where that secret door is and exactly how to open it.

    I also don’t ever tell them “Roll Perception”. That is the point of it. I need to know certain abilities and stats that are passive. When I say “roll” for something it perks the group ears. The passive ability is so that I just know what they can do. If a party member makes a passive check I tell that party member what they learned.

    Therefore I design my encounters accordingly. If a PC wants to Coffelock,there is an NPC who can do the same. If a party member wants to PC as a Revenant, I have have a baddy who can Min/Max the same way. The MM is sometimes a fallback for Improv DM’s but encounters are more than stat blocks.

    Imagine a Grappling Brass Dragon, who changes to human form, and back wwith a splash of Druid. If the PC’s can do it, so can you.

    At the end of the day, even MIN/MAXER’s want to have their moments in the spotlight; let them have it. If a DM feels RAW is broken, it goes both ways.

    As a player, I prefer RAW to “That doesn’t make sense”. The whole game is a conceit in the first place.

  28. The problem with most 5e rules is people try to paraphrase them for simplicity and they change the rule. Even in this discussion of the letter of the rules, you then went on to talk about having to be behind and not on the side. This is absolutely incorrect. Front left corner and right side flank. Front and back flanks, note the one in front still gets the bonus. Everyone needs to stop paraphrasing rules, and honestly stop attempting to refer to previous editions.

    1. “Front left corner and right side” do not flank. The rule explicitly states that to get the bonus, attackers must be on opposite sides (or, in the case of square grids, at opposite corners). Seven-thirty and three o’clock aren’t good enough.

      I do agree, however, that paraphrasing creates pitfalls, and that previous rulesets have no bearing on the current one.

  29. Check out a monk with the dodge ki power and movement. He consistently moves into flank positions with his greater movement. If it is a single baddie, the return combat attack against him will be disadvantaged. Tough combo.

  30. I feel having two combatants on one is advantage enough and if the character wants the other to actually help grant Advantage, the other combatant should use the Help action. Otherwise, what’s the point of that action in the first place?

        1. Which is fine, I just feel like it’s much easier to position yourself to flank, or requesting another creature to flank without using an action and granting both users advantage where without that you’d need to have a feature or use an action for one creature to have that advantage.

          Don’t get me wrong, though. I love flanking especially when I’m doing large-scale battles.

  31. I introduced a “minor advantage/disadvantage” rule in my game. If you have a minor advantage, you gain a +1 to the roll UNLESS you also have advantage or disadvantage. Either advantage or Disadvantage overrides the minor advantage/disadvantage.

    I use minor advantage for flanking, high ground, and other situations “on the fly” that I don’t think are sufficient for full advantage/disadvantage.

  32. Evolved creatures never let themselves get congo-lined unless both their wisdom (survival instinct) and intelligence (tactical knowledge) are less than 10. Only the completely inept overexpose themselves in this way. Instead of joining a congo line, creatures are far more likely to utilize the shove action to reposition their oppponents favorably and isolate them from one another if they have the numbers advantage, or to use their allies and walls/tables/trees etc defensively if they don’t.

    Goblins will never congo line because they need never fear opportunity attacks with nimble escape and will never willingly end a turn next to an opponent; hobgoblin will never congo line because they have the martial discipline to avoid being flanked to start with; bugbears will never congo line because they’re lazy and if their prey has the wherewithal to flank them after surviving the bugbears’ surprise attack, they’re better off fleeing anyway.

  33. Is it ever explicit why flanking grants advantage? I ask because I’m curious about the Alert feat and its feature: “Other creatures don’t gain advantage on Attack rolls against you as a result of being unseen by you.”

    This seems like it would be one way to mitigate the drawback of being flanked.

  34. I suppose my problem with flanking comes from when I was a player in a previous campaign. We were a melee heavy party (due to the DM not letting us tell each other what we were making before hand but that’s another story) and we were pretty switched on tactically.

    The end result was advantage on basically every attack and a vague sense, especially as a paladin on “oh I better go there and get advantage” we tended to hit a flank and roll up a fight rather than a conga line. But the impact was the same fights began to feel very samey and advantage didn’t feel special when you were getting it more than you weren’t.

    There are a lot of mobility options in feats and spells which aren’t avaliable to most monsters and with the action economy as it is the only way for most monsters to get unflanked without taking oppertunity attacks is to spend their action on a shove.

    In my current game (that I DM) I can see how it would have benefits in encouraging teamwork, but the idea of doubling their crit chances more often than not doesn’t seem worth the benefit.

  35. (Speaking of which, does anyone ever complain that the unseen attacker rule—a non-optional basic rule—devalues other sources of advantage because anyone can Hide?)

    Because movement economy and action economy are two differing things and are separate from each-other. Actions are not as granular as moving, Mobile gives you 10 feet of movement, but no feat in the game without some 5d chess IQ brew would give you a theoretical 1/3 action/bonus action.

  36. Good article but I have to say, I’ve been DMing weekly since 1977 and I’m currently in a group I’ve played with for 5-30 years. Not one of us has seen flanking turn into a conga line. We only use minis, no TotM and use flank all the time.

  37. For your about me, Plate Mail was AC 3, Field Plate was 2, Full Plate was 1. Plate Mail + Shield (because back then you used sword and board) was 2 which is probably why you were off by one.

  38. We changed the dynamic of the flanking like this: “when you’re flanking an opponent with an ally you can use the Help Action as bonus action”.

    It’s well balanced and keeps high the tactical aspect of choosing if helping or doing other bonus actions.

      1. No it doesn’t. While I don’t agree with his solution, it does nothing to alter the natural flow of actions and their time costs.

        You are literally just declaring a Help action, and the beneficiary rolls an additional die, no differently than declaring any other bonus action that grants Advantage.

        If there’s a cost, is in the value of other abilities that grant Advantage, which goes back to the objections on this article.

        But this house rule would have no cost on action economy, at all.

        1. The wrench isn’t the cost. It’s the upending of what’s an action and what’s a bonus action. Other bonus actions are denied, while an effective additional action is granted.

  39. A group of 4 goblins attacks 4 PCs.

    They choose to focus on the fighter.

    At +4 to hit, the first Goblin moves in and Readies an attack when it has advantage.

    A second Goblin dashes/disengages in.

    Two attacks, effective +9* to hit vs AC 16.

    0.65 to hit × 5.5 damage = 3.6 expected damage

    3.6 ×4 = 14.4 damage against the fighter.

    A barbarian could have 15 hp. But I haven’t accounted for crits.

    *Use What number you like for advantage, but a fighter can reasonably be expected to have 12 hp. If expected damage is close to 12 then you ko the fighter.

    Without advantage: 4 goblin attacks at +4

    0.4×5.5 = 2.2 damage.

    2.2 ×4 = 8.8 damage.

    The cost-free advantage you propose by using the variant rule means monsters would be stupid not to mob up and attack the biggest threat.

    Other than that, excellent blog. I recommend it to all DMs and am getting your book.

    1. You are correct, monsters would be stupid not to mob up and attack the biggest threat. That’s the point of this entire blog, that they know what they’re doing.

  40. Nothing RAW prevents a ranged attacker (or spellcaster, or non-combatant even) providing flanking advantage to a melee attacker opposite, although they would not get advantage themselves. RAW explicitly does not say “an allied melee attacker” needs to be adjacent and opposite, all it says is “at least one of its allies”.

    Also, the requirement for having an ally in a flanking position only applies to the moment the attack is made, so there is nothing to stop three attackers doing an “attack and move” dance around a single opponent, each receiving and providing flanking advantage to both of their allies in sequence.

    Can a spiritual weapon provide or receive flanking advantage? In the game I run, I have ruled that it may provide, but not receive; I can see no “logical” reason why it shouldn’t, but it’s already a super powerful low level spell and I didn’t want to beef it up even more.

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