Throughout history, grappling has been an inevitability of melee combat. Boxers in a ring will eventually clinch and knights in armor are no different.
The real-world inspirations for our melee fighters and barbarians were all capable grapplers. In-game though, grappler PCs are fairly uncommon.
D&D Basic Rules, p77:
“Grappling: When you want to grab a creature or wrestle with it, you can use the Attack action to make a special melee attack, a grapple. If you’re able to make multiple attacks with the Attack action, this attack replaces one of them.The target of your grapple must be no more than one size larger than you, and it must be within your reach.
Using at least one free hand, you try to seize the target by making a grapple check, a Strength (Athletics) check contested by the target’s Strength (Athletics) or Dexterity (Acrobatics) check (the target chooses the ability to use).
You succeed automatically if the target is incapacitated. If you succeed, you subject the target to the grappled condition (see appendix A). The condition specifies the things that end it, and you can release the target whenever you like (no action required).
Escaping a Grapple. A grappled creature can use its action to escape. To do so, it must succeed on a Strength (Athletics) or Dexterity (Acrobatics) check contested by your Strength (Athletics) check.
Moving a Grappled Creature. When you move, you can drag or carry the grappled creature with you, but your speed is halved, unless the creature is two or more sizes smaller than you.”
Amongst rulebooks filled with optional spells and features for every situation, the combat options available to all classes can be overlooked.
Grapplers have incredible power in 5E though, and a grappler PC can provide game-changing utility to their group.
How Does Grappling Work?
Making A Grapple
On your turn, when you use the attack action, you can choose to make one of your attacks a grapple attempt.
You must have at least one hand free. Your grapple target must be within melee range and can, at most, be one size category larger than you. Most PCs are Medium, so they can grapple creatures that are Large or smaller.
When you attempt a grapple, you roll Athletics (based on strength) and your target can choose to roll either Athletics (based on strength) or Acrobatics (based on dexterity).
If you roll higher than your target then the grapple is successful, and your target gains the Grappled condition. A tie results in the status quo remaining in contested ability checks so a tie means your grapple attempt fails.
The rules allow you to use one attack, when you take the attack action, to make a grapple attempt. If you’re able to make multiple attacks in a single attack action then you only need to sacrifice one attack to make a grapple attempt.
Because you need to take the attack action to grapple, you cannot make a grapple attempt if you’re attacking outside of your action. For example, you can’t grapple as an attack of opportunity.
The rules don’t allow you to make additional grapple attempts within the same attack action if your first attempt failed.
The wording of the rules is slightly vague here though, so your DM may rule differently.
The Grappled Condition – What Does Grappling Do?
The grappled condition reduces the grappled creature’s speed to zero and prevents it from benefitting from any bonuses to speed. In other words, the grappled creature is held in place.
The grappler can also move the grappled creature at half of the grappler’s move speed, or at the grappler’s full move speed if the grappled creature is at least two sizes smaller.
The grappler doesn’t need to make any ability checks to move an already grappled creature.
These effects are fairly limited, but there are further benefits to grappling that can be gained through the Grappler feat.
How Can A Grapple Be Ended?
There are several ways a grapple can be ended.
- The grappler can release the grappled creature at will. This doesn’t require an action.
- The grapple ends if the grappler is incapacitated. For example, if they’re reduced to zero HP and fall unconscious.
- The grapple ends if any effect pushes the grappler and grappled creature apart.
- The grappled creature can use its action to make an escape attempt. To successfully escape, the grappled creature must succeed on an athletics (strength) or acrobatics (dexterity) check, contested by the grappler’s athletics (strength). This time, a draw results in the grapple remaining.
The Grappler Feat
The Grappler feat is very powerful if you plan on a grapple-heavy playstyle. It has two effects.
First, it grants you advantage on your attack rolls against a creature you’re grappling with. This increases the power of grappling in most situations.
Second, the grappler feat allows you to use your action to make a pin attempt. This is a second grapple attempt against an already grappled creature. This takes your full action, unlike a regular grapple attempt.
If a pin attempt succeeds then both you and the grappled creature become restrained until the grapple ends. This means that both you and the grappled creature have your speed reduced to zero.
You also both have disadvantage on your attack rolls and attacks made against you have advantage, and you both have disadvantage when making dexterity saves.
A pin gives your whole party advantage against the target creature, which will allow them to deal a ton of damage. It also makes you extremely vulnerable to attacks from the grappled creature’s allies.
Pins are most useful against single powerful enemies but much riskier when they are multiple enemies to deal with.
How To Build A Grappler PC
PCs of any class can grapple, but there are clear criteria that make a strong grappler.
Most obviously, a grappler should be a melee character. Classes that prefer to deal damage from range with spells, cantrips, and bows make poor grapplers.
Since grapple attempts always use a strength check, you should have a high strength stat and you should play a class that benefits from a high strength stat. This rules out classes like monk and rogue, whose survivability suffers massively without high dexterity.
The ability to make multiple attacks in a single action is also very powerful for grapplers. Since a grapple only replaces a single attack, characters with multiple are still able to deal damage while making grapple attempts.
Grapplers also benefit from having a lot of survivability, since enemies will often target them over other PCs.
High AC and HP are both important.
The ability to increase your size, or decrease an enemy’s size, is incredibly useful. If your character can become Large then you can grapple Huge creatures like giants or adult dragons.
The ability for a PC to keep these creatures pinned round after round, while the rest of the party repeatedly attacks with advantage, is incredibly strong.
The Best Classes for Grapplers
Fighters are excellent grapplers. They gain a second attack at fifth level, and uniquely gain a third at eleventh level (and a fourth at twentieth, if you ever get there). Fighters can also use action surge to take the attack action a second time and use their multiple attacks again.
Barbarians have enormous survivability and are the only class in the game with a d12 hit dice. They have high mobility for catching up to a grapple target and gain a second attack at fifth level.
Paladins have great survivability and get a second attack at fifth level. Paladins can also use Divine Smite, spending spell slots to deal extra damage on any attack. This can be a second attack after a grapple attempt, or even an opportunity attack if your target is trying to escape melee range.
Beasts can only grapple if they have hands or special rules for grappling but a druid can shapeshift into a Constrictor Snake at level 2 or a Crocodile at level 4. Both of these creatures are Large and can grapple Huge creatures.
Circle of the Moon druids can also shapeshift into higher CR beasts, including a Giant Constrictor Snake which can grapple Gargantuan creatures like krakens or ancient dragons.
Pure bards make poor grapplers because strength-based bard builds lack survivability but multiclassing into bard for three levels will give you Expertise.
Expertise allows you to double your athletics proficiency bonus, which will make your grapple attempts much harder to evade.
The Best Races for Grapplers
Most of D&D’s races are viable grapplers, except Small races like gnomes or halflings. There are a few races that stand out as particularly strong grapplers.
The Duergar Magic ability (which you can find on p104 of the Sword Coast Adventurer’s Guide) allows them to self-cast the Enlarge part of Enlarge/Reduce. This allows them to grapple huge creatures, and also gives them advantage on strength-based ability checks such as grapples.
Duergar are Underdark creatures and their Sunlight Sensitivity may make them less viable in some campaigns. If they don’t need to go out in sunlight, Duergar can be a strong option.
Variant humans gain a feat at first level, which allows you to pick up the Grappler feat straight away.
Goliaths and Bugbears
Based purely on the rulebooks, goliaths and bugbears have no advantage in grappling. Their Powerful Build ability means they count as a size larger when determining their carrying capacity and the weight they can push, drag, or lift. This doesn’t apply to grappling.
However, a lot of players and DMs either interpret the rule as applying to grappling or create house rules that it does. If your DM rules in this way, goliaths and bugbears become powerful very powerful options for a grappler build.
When Should I Grapple?
If you don’t have the grappler feat then you should grapple whenever it’s important to control your enemy’s movement. Enemies which try to flee or attack your party from range may be worthwhile to grapple.
If enemies are attempting to complete a separate objective while fighting you, their efforts may also be hampered by a successful grapple.
If you do have the grappler feat then you should be able to find good grappling opportunities in most combat encounters.
In addition to grappling for movement control, you should grapple any high-HP enemies that you expect to make multiple attacks against.
When To Watch Out for Hostile Grapples
Any creature with hands can grapple. That said, DMs are often operating a maximum mental bandwidth while DMing combat.
This means that most DMs won’t use actions like Grapple or Shove unless they’ve specifically planned to do so ahead of the session.
You should expect to see hostile grapples when they would be essential to the fantasy of the enemy you’re fighting. For example, if you’re fighting a Constrictor Snake then you’d expect it to grapple you.
Hostile grapples can be particularly dangerous when you’re fighting enemies which are two or more sizes larger than you because their movement speed isn’t impeded by picking you up.
They can also be very deadly when there are environmental hazards nearby. For example, a cliff edge. In these situations, you should be aware that grappling is a possibility.
Grapple For DMs
How To DM for Grappler PCs
The trick to running combat for any PC is to understand what that PC is good at, and what they’re not good at. Grappler PCs are very powerful in boss fight style encounters where your party is facing a single powerful enemy with a lot of HP, who might also have weaker minions.
From a DM perspective, these fights are the ones you hope will be most difficult. It can be demoralizing if you spend several sessions hyping up a BBEG fight, only for your BBEG to be immediately pinned by a grappler PC and unceremoniously dispatched.
Fear not, though! You can still create challenging encounters; you just need to understand how grapplers affect the difficulty of different fights. Grapplers are much less effective in any encounter where the players must prioritize attacking numerous low-HP enemies.
You shouldn’t exclusively create encounters which hard-counter your grappler PC. Your player has chosen their build because they want to be effective by grappling, and it’s vital to their enjoyment that grappling is effective in a significant fraction of encounters.
When DMing for a grappler PC, you should also be aware that a lot of rule-breaking and rule-bending grappler builds are shared in the online D&D community. Your player may have made incorrect assumptions about certain abilities, or not asked for a DM ruling when one is necessary.
These areas of rule-bending include the Powerful Build ability, interactions between the Grapple and Shove actions, and use of sorcerer’s Twinned Spell ability with the Enlarge/Reduce spell.
It’s not fun for your player if their character doesn’t work the way they’d hoped and it’s not fun for anyone if a player’s character breaks the rules. It’s important to discuss these rulings during character creation to make sure everyone’s operating with the same understanding of the rules.
The Bad Guys Can Grapple Too
Grappling isn’t just for your players, and any variety in your bad guys’ actions can make combat feel much more dynamic. All your humanoid bad guys can grapple, and so can many of the monsters your party faces.
There’s nothing scarier for players than the moment their character is successfully grappled and dragged 15ft towards the edge of an active volcano.
Even if there’s no chance of their characters actually dying, players will panic if the bad guys seem like they’re intelligently thinking about how to kill the party.