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Alternatives to flanking in 5e

Straight from the DMG, Chapter 8
"Optional Rule: Flanking"

Read that? Optional! Well isn't that something?! Somewhere in the transition between editions I got something mixed up. This wouldn't be the first time I've unintentionally grafted something from a previous edition onto this one...
"ME: Can I have a Diplomacy check? PLAYER: Wat?"
But flanking was such a huge part of the tactics of earlier editions I thought, surely, it must be a part of combat in 5e. Nope! It's an optional rule tucked away in the DMG rather than in the core RAW (Rules as Written).

Now, I don't plan on changing how I'm running our current campaign at all. My players have internalized flanking as part of how they play their characters. These tactics are core to their combat strategies, and I don't plan on yanking the rug out from under them. However, this got me curious about how you actually play the game without it.

Flanking is such a powerful optional rule that it really blinded me to a lot of the other options you have for gaining advantage during combat. When all you have to do is spend a bit of movement, some of the other ways of doing it become very underpowered.

Bear with me if you actually read the PHB correctly and have already figured all these things out.


"You can lend your aid to another creature in the completion of a task. When you take the Help action, the creature you aid gains advantage on the next ability check it makes to perform the task you are helping with, provided that it makes the check before the start of your next turn.
Alternatively, you can aid a friendly creature in attacking a creature within 5 feet of you. You feint, distract the target, or in some other way team up to make your ally's attack more effective. If your ally attacks the target before your next turn, the first attack roll is made with advantage."
This action was a big head-scratcher to me when I still thought flanking was a core rule. Why would you spend a whole action to give someone advantage in combat, when you could just move around them and attack?

Help hasn't been used once at my table, probably for two reasons.

  1. When all you have to do is flank someone for advantage, you can then take 2 attacks against the target at advantage by spending a bit of movement.
  2. I don't think anyone in my group realized that this action works for giving advantage to anyone attacking the creature, not just allies adjacent to the creature. 
Help can give advantage to attacks to anyone. I need to point this out to players in the future. I can see this being a very useful action for high AC characters who want the ensure that a spell attack from a distant ally actually connects with the enemy.


"When you take the Hide action, you make a Dexterity (Stealth) check in an attempt to hide, following the rules for hiding. If you succeed, you gain certain benefits, as described in the "Unseen Attackers and Targets" section later in this chapter."
Again from chapter 9 of the DMG. When flanking is on the table, this action is a bit of a head scratcher. Sure, being able to escape the prying eyes of your enemy is a helpful survival tactic, but why is it called out here in the combat actions section?

Well, because it's a consistent way of gaining advantage on an attack without needing the assistance of any of your allies. It's all making sense now!

True Strike 

"You extend your hand and point a finger at a target in range. Your magic grants you a brief insight into the target's defenses. On your next turn, you gain advantage on your first attack roll against the target, provided that this spell hasn't ended."
Why in the world would you ever use this spell in a game where flanking exists? You spend your whole action to gain advantage on your next attack. Seems like a waste.

If you aren't using flanking however, this spell fills a specific niche. Like the hide action, it allows you to give advantage to yourself without the assistance of another player character. It also has utility above the hide action in that it doesn't require you to make an opposed check. You can't fail at True Strike, you can fail at hiding.


"A blinded creature can't see and automatically fails any ability check that requires sight. Attack rolls against the creature have advantage, and the creature's attack rolls have disadvantage"
Spells that inflict blindness such as blindness/deafness or blinding smite also become devalued when you add the flanking rule to the game. Blinding a creature is a very powerful effect because it both grants advantage to you and disadvantage to your opponents. In a game without flanking, blindness/deafness makes perfect sense as a 2nd level spell. With flanking, it's a wasted spell slot.


"Attack rolls against the creature have disadvantage, and the creature's attack rolls have advantage."
Invisibility is another effect that loses some of its luster in a combat encounter when advantage is easy to come by.


There are probably more ways to create advantage in combat I'm missing here, but I think we can draw some conclusions from this.

First is that the designers of 5e seemingly spent a lot of time and effort thinking about how to gain advantages in combat. In RAW, you don't get advantage for just positioning. It often costs a full action to gain advantage, and unless you are using spells, the action can come with some drawbacks or restrictions, namely needing an ally or a potential of failure.

Second is that the optional rules in the DMG don't come with their own analysis on what exactly the rule will do to your game. We've seen here a whole slice of the game is devalued by one simple little rule.

Third, I run combat in many different ways throughout a campaign. For quick and dirty fights we use theater of the mind. For more complex encounters, we use minis. Flanking doesn't translate well into the theater of the mind because it's too easy to fudge, making it so that you almost always have advantage on your attacks. All the rules for gaining advantage listed here don't require precise positioning in order to determine their effects. They translate well to both theater of the mind and miniatures style combat.

And last, I've come to the conclusion that playing without the optional flanking rule seems like a more tactically rich, and interesting way of handling gaining advantage in combat. It provides more difficult choices and tradeoffs for increasing your odds of hitting an enemy. I'll definitely be leaving out this optional rule in the next campaign I run.


  1. Interesting take on Flanking. I agree that Flanking does diminish the rules listed above. Maybe it has been a crutch but the losing an action (assisting and ally, hide, etc) to gain an additional die a round later is a strange thing. Why not just take the 1 die attack this round and the 1 die attack next round. It seems that the need to use 2 actions to gain a 2nd die defeats the purpose.

    1. Rolling 2d20 doesn't have the same statistical output as rolling 1d20 twice because there is a dependency between the two dice.

      Also, the help action can let a low attack bonus, low damage character give advantage to a high attack bonus, high damage character.

  2. These are concrete reasons why the optional flanking rule is garbage (imho). Its also just straight up 'too powerful' for the amount of effort required to get it (move around a bit).

    For that reason, I use this house rule: when more than one creature move to surround a single enemy, they each get a bonus on attack rolls equal to how much they outnumber their target by.

    So, if two PCs gang up on an orc, they each get +2 to hit. If three goblins surround a Paladin, they each get +3 to hit. You can of course put some kind of limit on this (for example, maximum 4 equal-sized creatures can surround a single target; half that amount if larger; doubled if smaller, etc).

    Best of all, all those other things characters can do to gain Advantage, well, they can still do those AND maybe try to flank!

    And its not as if the game is suffering from 'bonus' bloat. There are no other floating modifiers (bonuses/penalties) to worry about (other than cover penalties with ranged attacks, but that never applies when flanking anyway).


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