Ask Angry: Why Doesn’t Speed Affect CR in D&D 5E?

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Welcome to the revival of the weekly Ask Angry segment! Each week, I’ll sift through my mailbag and pick out one or more letters to answer. And by mailbag, I mean a specific folder somewhere in the mysterious cloud of 1’s and 0’s that is Gmail that Gmail helpfully organizes for me. And by letter, I mean e-mail. And by one or more, I mean however many will fill about 2,500 to 3,000 words.

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Today, I’m tackling some questions about the mechanics of D&D 5E. Because I find that s$&% fun.

Managrimm asks:

Why doesn’t a monster’s speed factor into it’s CR? The aggressive trait raises your offensive CR. It seems like ranged attackers with a speed of 60’ are more dangerous than ones with a speed of 15’.

Now, to the untrained non-genius who isn’t me, this might seem like a pretty boring question. And the answer is actually pretty straightforward when you think about it. But there’s actually a couple of assumptions about D&D built into it. Assumptions the designers made. And it shows how design assumptions can affect the rules and leave some holes in the rules.

First of all, let’s take a look at the aggressive trait and see if we can figure out why it’s not movement and why it increases offensive CR. And how it increases offensive CR. aggressive is primarily found on orcs. And it reads as follows:

aggressive. As a bonus action, the orc can move up to its speed toward a hostile creature that it can see.

DMG 280 tells us that if we design a creature with the aggressive trait, we should treat its damage output per round as two points higher when we figure it’s offensive CR.

Now, first let’s look at the actual impact that has. If we look on the table on DMG 274, we can see that if a creature’s CR is less than 1, a two-point increase in damage output will almost always result in an increase in its offensive CR. That is, if a creature has an offensive CR of 1/4, it’s damage output 4-5. Increasing that by two points will definitely bump it up into the next category. But at CR 1, the damage ranges start to run about five points and they keep increasing.

What’s the net result? Well, for low CR monsters, aggressive will increase its offensive CR by 1 and therefore increase its total CR by one half because the offensive and defensive CRs are averaged. But after that, the impact will be much smaller.

In the end, the designers were pretty sure the impact of aggressive was pretty negligible except at very low levels. And that makes sense. But how might aggressive actually come up in the game? Let’s see if we can imagine the useful situations when aggressive will come up.

First of all, aggressive is extremely useful at the start of a fight because it allows the orc some extra movement to close with the enemy. That is, the orc can move up to its speed, and then take a bonus action to move some more, and then it can attack. That is to say it allows the orc to maybe get an extra attack during a round in which it would otherwise spend the entire round moving. And that’s why it increases the damage output, but only increases it by a negligible amount. In the rare circumstance, wherein the orc would have to use a move and a dash to close to melee range with a target, it is actually able to get in an extra attack. And that is almost always in the first round of combat.

After that, aggressive becomes more situational and it becomes less and less valuable. If some opponent retreats by disengaging and moving, the orc can close the distance. The problem is that most creatures in the game move at about the same speed, 30 feet. So, in order to truly escape from an orc, most creatures will need to move and dash to have a chance of getting away, and that only works if the creature is actually faster than the orc. And the creature is going to draw an opportunity attack. In those rare cases when a creature is fast or has a bonus action that allows them to disengage or dash (like a rogue’s cunning action), the orc is harder to escape than other creatures. Beyond that, though, aggressive doesn’t really help. Other situations include getting a free move after downing one target to close with another. In general, that isn’t terribly useful unless it allows the orc to advance from a downed melee combatant to a ranged combatant. And, given the way PCs arrange themselves, that is definitely a possibility. In that particular situation, the orcs aggression allows it to close with softer targets and perhaps either force them to accept opportunity attacks or deny them actions.

Now, interestingly, there is the possibility of combining this with multiattack, but things get a little tricky there. The rules are a little bit unclear about how bonus actions interact with movement and multiple attacks. You are allowed to move between attacks if you “take an action that includes multiple attacks” by breaking up your movement speed for the round (PHB 190). Because aggressive is NOT a speed increase, but rather a bonus action, one can argue that it can be inserted between attacks. But that’s a “letter of the rules” argument that I’m not particularly fond of. And I don’t think the designers did that on purpose. You can also argue about whether “you can move up to your speed toward a hostile creature you can see” allows for moving around obstacles or creatures. Must each square of movement carry you closer to your target for it to count as toward? That is also a “letter of the rules” argument and it can be argued that the difference in wording between aggressive, and say, charge (Centaur, MM 38) which uses the phrase “straight toward” is meaningful. Honestly, I don’t think the designers were that deliberate or thoughtful about it.

Okay, so what, ultimately, is the difference between aggressive and just an increase in speed? I mean, it is basically just a doubling of speed, right? Well, the answer is actually in the paragraph above: it’s a bonus action. And I think, to the designers, that was significant. I think that’s why they probably felt they had to assign it a CR.

And this is where we get away from mechanics and into conjecture about how the game is put together and some of the assumptions behind it.

In general, the game is set up on a couple of assumptions. First of all, that on average, most creatures move 30 feet. Fast creatures move around 40 feet. A few very fast creatures, mainly quadrupedal animals known for their speed like horses and hunting cats, move 50 or 60 feet. But that is tremendously rare and not really for humanoids. Now, flying and swimming speeds are faster, but there are special situations governing those. So we don’t need to consider them.

Now, if you look through the Monster Manual, you’ll notice that there is a strong focus on melee combat. Most enemies are melee enemies and of the enemies that aren’t, there are lots of short range attacks like fire breath and poison spitting and the like. And that’s because D&D is mainly a game about melee combat. Notice that D&D doesn’t include things like increased miss chances on ranged attacks if you spend the round moving, modifiers to ranged attacks for unstable footing or vigorous movement, pop-up-pop-down sniping modifiers, or suppression and the actual rules for cover are pretty general. Even the range rules are very limited. Most ranged weapons will never be fired outside of “normal” range which carries no modifiers. There’s no allowance for point blank range, for example. And that’s because D&D is a game that allows for ranged attacks as an exception to its melee combat engine. And, for the most part, the only people who will heavily rely on ranged combat are the player-characters themselves. So that rigor isn’t needed.

Because of its melee focus, Dungeons & Dragons assumes that most fights will happen in small areas. In fact, most combats in D&D happen in areas that are indoors or are effectively as restricted as indoor areas. And there’s a very good reason for that: D&D uses it a grid, it wants you to use a grid, and that grid has to fit on a table. You can choose NOT to use a grid, but that doesn’t change the fact that the game’s rules are based on a world marked out in five-feet squares and precise measures of precision. The game WANTS a grid.

Now, given those assumptions, it’s pretty easy to see why speed is actually pretty trivial. In most situations, the first round will be spent moving around establishing the melee battle lines. In some situations, blows will be exchanged in the first round. Otherwise, they will definitely be exchanged in the second round. And that’s important, because too many rounds of positioning bulls$&% is boring. So, all in all, a high speed is only useful in the first round until the battle tightens up and even then, it is only marginally useful.

THAT is why aggressive has such a minimal impact on CR. That’s the reasoning.

Now, why does aggressive have any impact at all on CR whereas speed doesn’t? Well, my guess is that it’s entirely accidental.

See, the designers worked out that speed in D&D isn’t a big factor in most situations. Unless that speed is special, like flying, the ability to move fast in a melee game isn’t important. What IS important is the action economy. For example, having the speed to close ranks with an opponent or escape from an opponent isn’t a big deal because most opponents WANT to close ranks and the few that don’t want to be in melee range can’t just run away anyway. They have to spend an action to disengage or else they risk taking damage. Speed isn’t that valuable. But extra actions are.

And personally, I agree with that. Speed isn’t valuable in D&D given how the game is put together. A land speed of 60 feet is kind of like a longbow range of 150 feet. “I can close with anything on the battlefield without a penalty in one round” vs. “I can target anything on the battlefield.” Same basic premise.

Ultimately, here’s what I think happened. They wanted to design a neat orc ability. And they came up with aggressive. Orcs can close ranks quickly and they are hard to escape from. And then, because they assigned the ability, they had to figure out what value that ability had. And, as designers, they saw that it was giving them a bonus in the action economy and so they knew it had to have SOME impact. And when they worked through it, they realized the impact was trivial except for the weakest of monsters. And even then, it was still fairly trivial.

In short, the designers never intended for high land speeds within what they considered to be the “normal range” of movement to impact CR because of the way the game is designed. But, when someone designed aggressive, they had to assign it SOME value because it was a trait and because it affected the action economy. But they probably didn’t consider the fact that, in the end, it was no different than a creature with 60 feet of movement. So, basically, the general rules say high speeds are so close to worthless that it’s not worth setting a value. Then, someone came along and said “we have to assign a value to this speed boost” and they set a value as $0.01.

And by the way, remember all that CR crap is just a way of making an estimate. There’s nothing exact in it and some of the values are a bit off kilter. There’s no such thing as perfect balance there.

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19 thoughts on “Ask Angry: Why Doesn’t Speed Affect CR in D&D 5E?

  1. “And by the way, remember all that CR crap is just a way of making an estimate.” Man, I am seeing a lot of that recently. I’ve been converting some older monsters to 5e and I’ve had to pour over the charts and dig into the nitty gritty of monster building. And I think Uncle WotC could have set us down for a nice talk about game design, why damage does this, why senses do that, and so on, and given us a simple, robust system, instead of a pair of charts that wants to make sure we know that Mimicry doesn’t effect CR and that Frightful Presence and Horrifying Visage do the same thing, because we can’t look at the abilities and see they do the same thing.

    I’ve spent way to long with this stupid chart. Thanks for the Article! It just happened to strike a nerve I’ve been working on

  2. When building monsters I deal with speed the same way I deal with flight. No ranged attack? Then it doesn’t really matter how fast you are. Even with a ranged attack you need ridiculously high speed to stay out of melee anyway. PC bullshit landspeeds.

    And anything that fast is going to be like dragons. The speed is cool. But by the time your players can fight it they’ll be able to deal. So it’s not really a factor compared to the normal CR calculations.

  3. I agree with the description of the value (or rather, lack of value) from movement bonuses as the rules are written. But I’m curious whether the community in general feels this is good design.

    I ask because I struggled with very static combat in D&D for a long time. Players would move into position, then combat would devolve into a fixed-position slugfest. I was constantly engineering situations to encourage the PCs to manuever around the battlefield, but the high penalties imposed by opportunity attacks fought against my efforts every step of the way – and complicated combat rules for new players.

    Eventually, I discarded universal opportunity attack rules in favor of treating “threatened terrain” as “difficult terrain” (2x movement cost), and selectively granting opportunity attack abilities via traits/feats/abilities to certain monsters and PCs. This *instantly* made combat more dynamic, more fluid, and more strategic – with players and monsters jockeying for positions of advantage.

    Because opportunity attack rules exist in basically every version of D&D I’ve played, however, I’ve always wondered if I was just missing the value of these rules. Can anyone provide a defense of how (universal) oppoprtunity attack rules improve the balance/flow/etc. of combat in D&D? Or have others instituted similar changes?

    • They make people think about how they’re going to move in a nice, obvious, way.

      ‘Try and run to kill the squishy wizard at the back and you’ll get hit! Unless you figure out a way to not get hit!’

      Is pretty instinctual. ‘If I walk away from this sword guy to stab his heally friend, he’ll stab me.’ Absent some special rule it effects everyone the same. Where as things like, say, difficult terrain, punish characters differently.

      Moving half speed matters a lot more to the 25ft/rnd dwarf fighter than the 70ft/rnd wood elf monk after all. Or the movement 3 warhammer dwarf and the movement 5 warhammer elf. Or the SPD 4 plate armoured Ogrun compared to the SPD 8 light armoured Iosian….

      • Ok, I see how opportunity attacks can affect movement decisions. But static terrain can do the same thing…so I guess it’s the difference between encouraging players to exploit terrain features (without OA) vs. players seizing control over the terrain by positioning (with AO)? I prefer the former, but I can see how others might like the latter.

        Not sure I buy the symmetry argument, however. As you pointed out, “wizards are squishy.” This means opportunity attacks are already asymmetric, as they’re much more punishing for a wizard than a tank. On the other hand, as Angry discussed here, movement speed differences are mostly relevant in the first round. In any case, though, asymmetry is already the bread-and-butter of character progression, so I’m not sure I’d categorize more asymmetry as problematic.

        Do other tactical games (outside close relatives of D&D) have mechanics akin to opportunity attacks? I haven’t noticed them, but my experience is primarily limited to computer games and board games like Descent.

        • The argument for opportunity attacks is to allow rogues to be extra slippery. Without OAs everybody has the same movement rules and the rogue class suddenly has one less trick up their sleeve.

          • Ah, sure – so there are a couple other details to the house rule:

            1. Abilities that negate OAs now also negate the movement penalties of enemies, so a rogue can move through threatened space without paying the extra cost. This may not seem significant at first, but when you consider that the movement penalty affects a 3×3 grid, this means that most creatures with move 6 still cannot break through a line of melee skirmishers with a single move action, but a rogue can.

            2. Instead of attacking on their turn, *any* creature or player can ready an action to perform OAs against any creatures that move into their threatened space (like the overwatch action in the recent XCOM games). Also, I still grant some monsters OA abilities – it’s just no longer universal. Rogue abilities still negate both of these OA sources.

        • Zones of control and spheres of influence are wargame concepts, but they are implemented in a number of ways. Everything from having to stop when you engage an opponent to drawing penalties or drawing attacks when you withdraw.

          That said, your solution is very interesting. I like the idea of a speed penalty for withdrawal, though I do actually like Opportunity Attacks. It would also be interesting if Opportunity Attacks did less damage than normal attacks. That might split the difference nicely, creating situations where it is actually beneficial to take the opportunity attack rather than staying engaged and suffering a bigger hit, especially when combine with a way to pin down an opponent. For example, wizard withdraws, suffering lesser attack, then uses ray of frost or web or something to prevent the monster from following.

          As I think about it, 4E *kind of* had this in that Opportunity Attacks could only be Basic Attacks which were the weakest of all attacks in terms of damage and riders.

          • Yes, in 4e it is often worth the risk of provoking an opportunity attack, either for better positioning or to set up an attack of your own. PCs who are afraid to provoke an OA often get pinned down, seriously reducing their effectiveness.

            I find this is true whichever side of the screen I sit on. However, it helps that I GM so often; I get experience with NPCs and monsters and have no compunction about taking risks with them. It’s harder for people who are exclusively players to learn these tactics because they are risk averse.

          • Idea – bundle up a prepped OA with the defend action, to promote a divide between offensive and defensive modes.

          • 5e Does vaguely approximate that with the lack of Multi- or Extra Attack features on OAs, so that’s something I guess

    • The main purpose of opportunity attacks is to give fighters the ability to better protect the weaker spellcasters by punishing creatures that try to run by them. In fact, they don’t lead to mobile combats, because mobile combats weren’t really the intention. The idea was that melee characters could have stickiness about them. Another reason for opportunity attacks is to make it difficult to use ranged weapons when someone is in your face. You can’t simply step back with impunity and fire away with your bow.

      One way I found to force a little more mobility is to have each hit push its target one or more squares. Those unable (or unwilling) to give ground would have some negative status condition put on them that gives them disadvantage for the next round and advantage to hit them. That would at the very least encourage people to not put their backs against a wall and also leads to problems like “Do I follow the guy I just pushed to use my second attack at the cost of an opportunity attack from his buddy or attack his buddy instead?”

      That gives a partial feel of a more mobile combat, though I’m not sure if the complexity is all that worth it unless you’re playing on a grid. It’s not really a huge change but maybe that minor change is all people really want.

      • I have my own system but I play on a grid as well.

        I’ve given the pushing capacity to the two handed weapons: the wielder who lands a successful attack gets to choose if he wants to push the defender or not, however pushed defenders don’t trigger opportunity attacks. The capacity can be used to push an opponent into an ally’s range or in a trap/hole, or they can choose not to use it so that the enemy stays “sticked” to them. Of course it doesn’t work with big monsters.

        They also have the capacity to strike with an extended range, this gives more mobility to the heavy weapons fighters and they can keep enemies at bay if they want to (which is the historical use of two handed weapons even though it’s not a gameplay argument) which diminishes a little the number of attacks they receive because of the action loss of coming back in contact. To sum it up it gives a little defense and utility to the two handed weapon fighting style to make up for the offensive or defensive advantages of dual or shield options.

        I’m not sure if you can or want to adapt this to your rules but I put it there just as food for thought.

  4. Isn’t aggressive actually less of a threat than an equivalent speed increase, since the speed increase would allow a bonus action to be used in some other way while still retaining the benefit of aggressive? Also, can the orcs really be considered to be getting an extra attack relative to the players? Regardless of how quickly the distance is covered, the orc and the player character they target will be able to attack each other only from the moment they make contact. It doesn’t seem like the orc gets much benefit from being the one to close the distance. Of course, they will take more ranged attacks in rounds they can’t act without a speed increase, but it seems like reducing those attacks is the main result.

    • How many monsters even get bonus actions though? If they’re not using it for anything else, movement seems as good as anything.

      A possible advantage to Aggressive is maybe an orc has a chance to close to melee range with a squishy wizard or rogue before the better-armoured PCs can get into position to block them?

    • The “extra attack” the orc is getting is that it gets to attack in the first round at all, instead of being pelted with ranged attacks by the PCs with no retaliation possible since it doesn’t have a ranged attack of its own. The “extra” is relative to what an identical monster without the Aggressive trait would have gotten, assuming they live for an equal number of rounds.

  5. True. I’ve always found that, absent a really solid chokepoint, if they want to close with your casters, they will. It’s hard to protect them in any battle where they have room to simply go around you. They might choose to engage with your primary combatants, but if it’s more advantageous for them to move on your casters, they will.

  6. I find that the only instance in which movement speed really does matter much is when the players try to escape the encounter. A pack of werewolves that moves at 40 or some hobgoblins on war rhinos would be a lot harder to escape than some zombies or a big lumbering golem that moves at 15 or 20.

    It feels like that stickiness adds to the danger of fighting any given encounter – if things go badly, you’d have a harder time fleeing. But I’m not sure that an encounter being ‘sticky’ is really the same as being difficult. It doesn’t actually make it harder to win, it just increases the stakes if you lose.

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