Over at Nerdarchy the YouTube channel Nerdarchists Dave and Ted get down and dirty to talk about fighting dirty in fifth edition Dungeons & Dragons. It’s an unusual topic because fighting dirty essentially means not playing by the rules, which is kind of how the whole tabletop roleplaying game experience operates. Unlike fighting dirty in something like a Mixed Martial Arts competition, character actions don’t simply occur and become subject to rules after the fact. The question then becomes how can 5E D&D character fight dirty by using the rules themselves? At the end of the day fighting dirty embodies a willingness to do something to win that an opponent is unwilling to do under the assumption everyone plays by the same rules. So let’s get into it.
Dirty fighting abounds in 5E D&D
The weirdness of trying to be a dirty fighter in 5E D&D becomes clearer the more you consider the structure of the game itself. The most pared down basic rules provide the foundation for what any creature can do in combat. The growing list of abilities characters gain as they advance in level essentially give you the rules for doing many other things often overriding the basic rules. This is a common game design scenario. In other words how do you break the rules when all the cool things you can do in a way create new rules to break the basic rules in the first place?
Metagaming is the best answer I can come up with to solve this strange circumstance.
Flying in the face of countless players’ advice and preferences for fast paced, immersive or performative game play, metagaming feels like the only real quantifiable barometer for fighting dirty and depending on how it’s implemented could even contribute back to the storytelling as much as the crunchy combat encounters. Certainly there’s space to explore for using your turn in combat to kick sand in someone’s face, sucker punch them or poke them in the eye but I’ve got two caveats for this approach. One is to consider every player’s responsibility in making dirty fighting part of the shared narrative. What I mean is when you keep in mind hit points are an abstraction along with the idea characters are always trying their best to gain the upper hand, fighting dirty is simply a narrative tool. If you think fighters are boring because they just swing their sword every round, try imagining them feinting, blocking, ducking, weaving, getting the sun to reflect off their blade in the opponents eyes and any dirty fighting techniques you want. This isn’t limited to strictly conventional combat either — a face full of poison spray can come across as dirty as a thumb in the eye. The second caveat is game balance. If anyone can make a creature blinded by kicking sand in their face as a bonus action or especially free action, the blindness/deafness spell doesn’t seem like such an accomplishment to learn.
Metagame that fight!
Back to metagaming, let a player with a character who fights dirty or an entire group of dirty fighters keep the Monster Manual open at the table. Now that’s a way to circumvent the rules because after you take all the modifications, exceptions, cool character features and traits away the rules for playing 5E D&D are really simple.
- The DM describes the environment.
- The players describe what they want to do.
- The DM narrates the results of their actions.
A metagame dirty fighter uses their place in the order of operations to do what no other creatures or players involved are willing to do to win — break the fourth wall essentially. Suppose this hypothetical 5E D&D dirty fighter encounters an awakened shrub. (Like the ones in Gone But Not Forgotten perhaps?) How might the dirty fighter describe what they want to do?
- It’s only got AC 9 — super easy to hit!
- Speed 20 ft. — easy, move 30 ft. away and hit it with a ranged attack
- Damage Vulnerabilities Fire — YASS
- Damage Resistances Piercing — put that rapier away
- Languages One language known by its creator (and 10 Intelligence) — Try communicating with it instead!
- False Appearance — Get away from all the nearby shrubs!
- Rake — Variant human who started with the Heavy Armor Master feat, you’re on!
You can apply the same logic and procedure all the way up to the tarrasque, taking opponents apart in a way real life fighters cannot — through precision knowledge of everything about them and the luxury of time to think. Taking it a step further, if this dirty fighter gains advance knowledge of what they’ll be up against they basically gain Batman’s “super power” of time to plan. When you know for certain you’ll be facing a bog standard lich, imagine all the precautions and countermeasures you can put into place. Even the most evil great wizards who embrace undeath might take a moment to reflect on how dirty the fight went while they wait for a new body to form next to the phylactery, coalescing out of glowing smoke that issues from the device — if the dirty fighters don’t also metagame finding and destroying that too.