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by Mike on 11 January 2021
Instead of using the optional flanking rule, offer deals to players to trade ability checks using in-world features to gain advantage on their next attack.
Chapter 8 of the Dungeon Master's Guide offers an optional rule for flanking in which creatures gain advantage against an enemy if an ally is on the opposite side of the enemy. It's a popular rule, used by about half of nearly 1,200 DMs polled on Twitter. I'm not a fan of it. First, it only works when playing with a 5 foot per square grid. It's not easy to use in combat using the theater of the mind. It also offers a major bonus for little risk. It's not hard to get around the other side of an enemy. Previous versions of D&D used to offer a +2 bonus for flanking while advantage results in something closer to +4 or +5. It also removes the value of many other features offering advantage in certain circumstances such as hiding, pack tactics, and others.
Instead of offering flanking for positioning, why not offer advantage for big risky cinematic actions the characters take. Characters can get advantage for scaling a steep wall to gain the high ground. They can leap off of balconies, swing from chandeliers, or leap up onto a monster's back. There are so many cool cinematic ways we might offer advantage to a character beyond "I'm on the other side of it".
Injecting cinematic advantage into your game is all about offering deals; trading in-world fiction and a skill check from players for advantage on their next attack. This helps draw players out of the mechanics of their characters and into the story of the situation itself.
Most of the time the transactions of cinematic advantage comes down to the following:
When you describe the situation during combat, clarify what features can be used. Write them down on a 3x5 card and stick them on the table if you want. This is an old trick from Fate in which we write down aspects of the scenes characters invoke to gain a bonus on their action. When each character is about to take their turn, remind them what options they have to gain a cinematic advantage. Offer them deals. Let them know what the DC is and what happens if they fail. Sometimes players riff off of these ideas and come up with something new — go for it!
The goal of cinematic advantage to draw the players into the fiction and get the characters to take fun risks to get a boost. Offer good deals. Work with your players, not against them, to take the deal.
Cinematic advantage trades the pure mechanical aspects of flanking with cool action-packed in-world storytelling. It doesn't require miniatures or a grid, you can do it with any type of combat you run whether it's deep tactical play or free-wheeling theater of the mind. It draws the players into the fiction but still offers a clear mechanical boost for their creative effort. It lets players show off the capabilities of their characters, grabbing cinematic advantages with skills their characters are clearly good at.
Don't set the DCs based on the characters, however. That chandelier doesn't get more awkward just because the character who wants to swing from it happens to be proficient in acrobatics and has a dexterity bonus of +5. Set the difficulty independently from the characters attempting the check. You want players to take these deals.
Here are twenty examples of ways characters might get advantage on an enemy. Most of these ways involve a succeeding on a skill check as part of their attack action to gain the advantage.
Take any opportunity you can to draw players into the fiction of the game. Instead of offering a purely mechanical benefit like flanking, consider offering cinematic opportunities for the characters to gain advantage. Work with them to tell action-packed stories of high adventure and take risks to gain the upper hand on their foes. Such techniques work across any combat style whether you play on a gridded battle map or using pure theater of the mind combat and can help your stories come alive at the table.
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