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Using Advantage and Disadvantage in 5e

by Mike on 19 February 2024

"Advantage" and "disadvantage" are fantastic improvisational tools for 5e GMs. They give you incentives and discouragements to steer things towards the fun. Always remember that you have the ability to assign advantage and disadvantage in your toolbox to make the game more fun.

Many situations in the game already apply advantage or disadvantage. Being invisible or being unable to see applies such effects. Attacking someone within 5 feet who is prone gives you advantage while shooting at them from range gives you disadvantage.

Setting DCs and Offering Advantage or Disadvantage

It's important to understand when to raise or lower a DC and when to use advantage and disadvantage. Here's my lazy rule of thumb: You set a DC for a given situation regardless of the character performing the action. Breaking down a door might be a DC 18 but it's a DC 18 for anyone. The DC doesn't change based on who's doing it.

Advantage and disadvantage can change depending on who's performing the action. A circus performer might have a better chance at calming down an owlbear who used to work at the circus. Not only do they use their Wisdom bonus and add their proficiency with Animal Handling but their own special background makes them particularly good at this one specific thing. You might decide that their past experiences grants them advantage.

DCs are fixed based on the situation – advantage and disadvantage are circumstantial to the characters performing the action.

Advantageous Situations

There are many other places we can offer advantage. Here are a few:

Terrain features. High ground might give characters advantage against targets down below. Fighting in a big mud pit might provide disadvantage.

Cinematic Action. Performing a fantastic acrobatic feat might provide advantage if you make the right check (see "Cinematic Advantage" for details).

Superior knowledge. A character's background, upbringing, species, or some other part of their history might grant them advantage on particular ability checks alongside their skill proficiency.

Incentives for Dangerous Choices. We can use advantage to incentivize players to draw characters into danger. Often we'd do this through inspiration, giving them inspiration for being willing to accept a risk they might not otherwise take but we might also offer direct advantage in the situation. Hugging the door isn't enough to get a great view of the arcane pillar but if they get right on top of it, they'd have advantage on the check.

For superior roleplaying. Often we hear about the situation in which a player does an amazing job roleplaying a situation but rolls a 2 on their Charisma (Persuasion) check. We can offer a player advantage if they do a particularly great job attempting to convince the viceroy of their need to speak to the queen. If a player does an amazing job roleplaying, maybe they automatically succeed.

Encouraging Teamwork. Lean in on characters helping one another by providing the character with the best overall bonus advantage as one or more other characters use the "help" action (see chapter 9 of the Player's Handbook) to help them succeed. Don't look for ways to stop two characters working on a problem – leap at the chance.

Steering Away with Disadvantage

We probably want to invoke disadvantage less often than we offer advantage. For every ten times we offer advantage, we may invoke disadvantage once. We can use disadvantage to steer characters away from things that clearly wouldn't work and we can declare it ahead of time. If a character is attempting something clearly too difficult, we might give it a high DC and disadvantage.

Often we invoke disadvantage with the expectation that the character simply changes their mind. That's totally fine.

Your GM's Helper

Advantage and disadvantage are powerful and easy tools to shift the direction of the game. Give them freely and use them to steer the game towards the most fun.

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