Pathfinder readthough – Chapter 8: Combat (Part 1)

A retroactive (and oft-repeated) introduction: After an actual-play hiatus where I was mostly writing and playtesting for GURPS. I was invited to play in a Pathfinder game, and after a few sessions, it was time to buy the book and learn the rules! I decided to try and read the Pathfinder rules cover-to-cover and see what inspiration strikes, for good or ill!

This is a compilation of the links to read-throughs of Pathfinder-related material

Pathfinder Core Rulebook

0.  Prelude
1.  Introduction
2.  Races

3a. Classes (Barbarian – Monk)
3b. Classes (Paladin – Wizard)

Please make any comments you have at the individual entries!

Chapter 8: Combat

This one’s going to be a doozy. The Combat chapter. That which more or less defines the D&D paradigm, unless it’s the Vancian fire-and-forget magic system (which is, I believe, the single longest chapter in the book; that spell list goes on-and-on like a Journey song).

But, nonetheless, we wade into the fray like a Raging Barbarian. While combat isn’t the only conflict resolution mechanism in Pathfinder, in the few games I’ve played, it is by far the most common. The Combat chapter is 25 pages long, which isn’t that bad, really. 

I’ll cover some basics as I go, commenting on major mechanics and sections – but read the entire thing, maybe twice. A cheat-sheet wouldn’t hurt, but I bet someone’s created one already!

How Combat Works

Combat proceeds according to a very specific cycle. First determine initiative: Roll 1d20 and add any Initiative bonuses you get. You will act in descending order of initiative. However, before you get to the part where that happens, anyone not aware of his attackers gets to get ganked by the rest in the surprise round. After that, combat starts for real, round by round.

The Combat Round

Six seconds of regular time. Somewhat like GURPS, the turns are sort of interleaved, since if you throw a spell or do something that lasts for (say) four rounds, it lasts from the moment you act to just before you act the fifth time, when the effect ends. That’s a subtlety I didn’t know.

Attacks of Opportunity are a bit the odd men out, since they can disrupt normal turn order. More on those later.

Initiative and Surprise

The first round, or more precisely, before the first round starts, gives all sorts of opportunity – though brief – for havoc and mayhem. There’s a surprise round that comes first, where characters who are aware of their foes can act, while those unaware cannot. There are definite benefits to this, as well as to going first in the Initiative order: all foes are “flat footed,” meaning they lose their DEX bonus to AC (opening them up to things like Rogue’s Sneak Attack ability) and cannot make Attacks of Opportunity until they are no longer flat-footed.

Catching your foes flat-footed, or making them take on that status, is a big deal for Rogues.

During the surprise round, if you are aware of foes you can take any move, free, or standard action.

Combat Statistics

The good stuff. Bringin’ the smackdown, Pathfinder style. 

The core mechanic, no matter what Feats or other things might prove for special exceptions or modifications, is straightforward: Roll 1d20 plus a bunch of modifiers with a target number that must equal or beat your target’s Armor Class (AC). While there are lots of if/then to what you may add or subtract, this and the damage roll are the basic things you do.

This is, in its way, similar to GURPS, though it might be even fewer mechanics. GURPS has four basic mechanics: the skill test (roll 3d6 under a target number, most often skill), the skill Contest (roll 3d6 vs. a target, your opponent does the same, whomever has the highest margin of success wins), the Reaction Roll (3d6, higher is better), and the damage roll (Nd6).

Automatic: A 1 is always a miss; a 20 is always a hit, and might be a critical hit. I’m used to a natural 1 being something truly bad, but the designers (correctly, I think) decided a 1 in 20 chance for a 14th level fighter to do something crazy like lop off his own leg is kinda dumb.

Attacking: Base Attack Bonus + STR modifier (if melee) or DEX modifier (if ranged) + size modifier + range penalties (if ranged)

“Defending”: In quotes because it’s totally passive (but see below). 10+Armor+Shield+DEX+other special mods. Note that on p. 184 you can fight defensively. Declare it on your turn, and you take -4 to all your attacks in exchange for a +2 dodge bonus to your AC. More on this when variant attacks come up.

Personally, I’d shake this up a bit! I’d allow you to trade your Base Attack Bonus 2:1 for an AC bonus due to defensive dodging. So a 14th-level fighter, with BAB of +14, could trade that for +7 to AC. Of course, his three attacks are now at 0/-5/-10 . . .

Smackdown: Damage rolls are based on the weapon. Your Base Attack Bonus does not add to damage, but your STR bonuses do . . . except if you’re using a bow or crossbow. A composite bow can get a STR bonus, but not any other sort.

Again, I don’t much like this. if a bow is keyed to your STR (and it should be), then you should be able to get more damage from a stronger bow. Maybe a composite bow gets a 1:1 STR bonus, and regular bows only get half the bonus for STR or something, but if you’re STR 18 instead of STR 10, your arrows should go farther and hit harder.Granted, my biases here should be well known.

You do get extra STR bonus if you use a weapon with two hands (except a light weapon), so that’s a good thing to remember. That +4 STR bonus turns into +6 with a two-handed sword!

On the flip side, you only get half your bonus with your off-hand.

Ouchitude: You have Hit Points. When you get to zero, you’re incapacitated. Negative and your dying, and if you get to -CON you’re dead.

Personally, I’d like to have a wider range between “I’m up and fully active!” at even but 1 HP, incapacitated at precisely zero, dying at negative and dead when you’re at -CON. 

Attacks of Opportunity

This definitely deserves it’s own space. Attacks of opportunity are ways to ensure that the nature of the Pathfinder combat round (abstracted and 6 seconds long) doesn’t engender some silly emergent behavior, such as being able to run past a fully armed and aware foe because your move is 30′ and it’s your turn and not his.

Attacks of Opportunity come in more or less three flavors

Cut-down Attack of Opportunity List
  1. Leaving (but not entering) a threatened square  (Note: the link is a great visualization of the threat area, and makes me understand it much more completely)
  2. An unarmed attack on an armed opponent.

    This is, to me, precisely analogous to a few things that will happen to you in GURPS, not the least of which is that armed parries on unarmed attacks that aren’t strikers are “aggressive,” or damaging, parries automatically.

  3. Doing something – nearly anything – that doesn’t involve keeping a wary eye and a ready weapon to your foe. This is referred to as a Distracting Act in the rules. This is where most of the persnickety rules will come in.
I’ve cut the list from the Pathfinder Reference Document down to those with a “Yes,” under Attacks of Opportunity. If it’s not in the PRD, it’s not on the list. If it’s in the PRD but doesn’t provoke an Attack of Opportunity, I cut it. I did leave some categories that are explicitly “No” in there, one of which is “Take a 5-foot Step” (not shown explicitly, it’s a No Action action).

By the way, the PRD document with AoO in there is totally pasteable into Excel, as it seems to be raw HTML. So sorting it by yes/no is a trivial thing. Recommended.

You can see that a lot of the stuff involves skill use, rooting around in your pack, and a lot of spell and magic item use. I’m tempted to over-generalize that you’re likely going to provoke an Attack if you’re not directly related to smacking down your foe, but I’m sure there are some exceptions the rule. Might want to keep a copy of the full list handy, either in hardcopy or a window link to the PRD.
How Many: One per round. That’s the “may provoke an attack of opportunity” part of the rules, even though the book and table says “Yes.” If you have the Combat Reflexes feat, you can add your DEX bonus to the number you can make (meaning it’s a pretty cool feat if foes are trying to get by you). But by and large, you get one per round.
Saving Throws: Your way of reducing an “unusual or magical” attack. It’s not Armor Class.It functions as your Base Attack Bonus against physical punishment (a lot like a HT roll in GURPS), stuff you have to leap out of the way to avoid, such as some traps (Acrobatic Dodge in GURPS? Maybe a DX roll), and mental or supernatural resistance (a Will roll in GURPS). The Difficulty Class of the task depends on what you’re doing.
Actions in Combat

You can always do one move and one standard action, or a Full-Round action. In addition, you may also perform one swift action and one or more free actions. A move action is also sort of a standard action subtype, so you can, if you like, do two of them if you don’t plan to attack.

Standard Actions: most stuff, like attacks

Move Action: If you don’t otherwise move, you get a No Action 5-foot step somewhere before, during, or after a standard action. This can be pretty key to maintaining your distance from foes.

Full-Round Action: It consumes your entire round. Well, except for swift and free actions. And maybe you can take a step – except when you can’t. This paragraph on p. 181 is both muddled and clear at the same time, which is a neat trick.

Free Action: Drop stuff, drop your concentration on a spell, drop to the floor, prepare spell components, and speak. You can do any or all of these on your turn subject to Rule Zero.

Swift Action: You only get one of these (casting a quickened spell is the only example) but it doesn’t interfere with any other actions you’re allowed to take.

Immediate Action: A swift action you can take at any time, not just on your turn. Handy. Casting Feather Fall is the only example given, but it would seem logical that reaction spells and other things would qualify.

No Action, or Not an Action: Interestingly, nocking an arrow as part of an attack with a bow is the example given here of something that doesn’t even bother talking about in the time scale. In GURPS, It’s two full seconds – one to draw the arrow, another to ready the bow! Granted that’s two of six seconds, but “not worth quantifying” is interesting. Other examples are Delay and making a 5-foot step.

Standard Actions


Most of what you’ll be doing – not all of it, but seemingly most – in melee combat are Standard Actions.  Some key excerpts:

  • Armed melee attacks are standard actions with a 5-foot range, unless you have reach.
  • Unarmed melee attacks provoke an attack of opportunity which happens first, unless you have the Improved Unarmed Strike feat. Also, unarmed attacks do non-lethal damage. And not much of it at that. If you want lethal damage you can have it, but at -4 to hit.
  • Ranged weapons can be thrown five range increments or shot (like bows) 10. That means a composite bow with a 100′ range can shoot 1,000′ or about 330yds. Might be a little bit far, but not out-of-the-question far.
  • Natural attacks such as claws, bites, and tails and wings have a bunch of special caveats that bear reading if these are your attack modes, or you have, say, a Velociraptor Animal Companion that uses them.
  • Multiple attacks are full-round actions, not standard actions. So if you want to be Sir Cuisinart, you’ll give up some freedom of choice
  • It’s -4 to shoot into a melee unless your target is a lot bigger than the other. The rules say “-2 if your target is two sizes larger,” but I’d just say it’s -4 plus the difference in size of your target relative to the foes around him. That scales both ways.
  • This is where Fighting Defensively (mentioned above) is mentioned
  • Roll a 20 and you might have scored a critical hit. Note that some damage types, like a Rogue’s sneak attack, are not multiplied, so read carefully
Magic Items and Casting Spells

Both are standard actions, mostly, and mostly they both provoke attacks of opportunity. Highlights
  • Spell-Triggers, Command Word, and Use-Activated items don’t count as activation; they’re standard actions, I think, but don’t provoke Opportunity attacks
  • “Did I break your concentration?” See Chapter 9 for the Difficulty Class of things that can interrupt you
  • Spells cast as a standard action take effect as immediately as a sword thrust to the guts, which is to say right the heck away.
  • Get thwacked while casting and the DC is 10+damage+spell level. 10 points of damage casting a level 4 spell is a DC 24 check. Yow.
  • Casting on the Defensive: Huh? I’m not sure this is well defined.
  • Touch attacks with a spell are considered to be armed and thus don’t provoke Attacks of Opportunity. Hmmm.
  • You can hold a spell if you don’t want to use it right away, but your hand is now a live wire, and the spell will hit what you touch
Splitting Full-Round Actions

Good for self-consistency, you can split a full-round action into two standard actions, one at the end of Turn A, and the other standard action as the first one of Turn B. This doesn’t apply to Full Attack, charge (why not?), run, or withdraw.
Total Defense

This must be what “on the defensive” means? Anyway, +4 dodge bonus to AC in exchange for, I think, not being able to attack. This can’t be combined with fighting defensively. If you allow the 2:1 exchange I suggest above, this needs to be “adds BAB to AC as Dodge bonus.” This suggests that if anything, maybe the “exchange ratios” need to be more like 1:4 and 1:2 instead of 1:2 and 1:1.
Other Stuff

Without going into details, using a special ability is basically attack-like, move is a standard action, drawing or sheathing a weapon is a move standard action, but may be combined with a move if you have a BAB of +1 or higher. 
Full-Round Actions

Skipping the gory details, if you’re attacking a lot, it’s Full-Round. Some spells are full-round actions. Stepping through difficult terrain is too. One fun one is the Withdraw option, which is running the hell away from combat (2x distance). Not sure what that’s all about, other than the free “you can leave your current hex w/o provoking an attack” thing.

Lots of other descriptions follow, and they’re worth reading, of course.

Injury and Death

Ah, the “what are Hit Points” discussion. Here we go. The short version is as long as you have 1 HP left, you’re fine, good to go, have at ’em. Get to 0 HP and your disabled, go negative and you’re KO’d, and hit a negative HP total equal to your CON, and you die. Rapid transtion from “fully capable” to “deader than hell.”

A massive damage optional rule that says if you take 50HP or half your HP in one blow, whichever is more, you’re dead.

At 0 HP, you’re staggered, can only take one move action, no standard actions without injuring yourself (and thus KO)

If you’re dying, you drop unconscious and lose 1 HP per second until you die or stabilize, but this HP loss is the result of a failed Constitution check, DC 10 plus your negative HP total. If you succeed or roll a 20, no HP loss this turn. Fail, and lose 1 HP. You can be stabilized permanently using magic (any healing stabilizes you) or making a DC 15 Heal check.

Dead, well. Fairly self explanatory.

Natural Healing

1 HP per level per 8 hours of sleep at night. Ability score damage also recovers at one point per ability score per night. Nonlethal damage heals at 1 HP per hour per character level. You get better from a bruisin’ pretty quick at high level, eh?

Non-lethal damage my ass. This is something GURPS gets right, I think, though the frequency of taking such lethal injury from some blows, like punches, is too high.

I’m going to break this one into two parts, due to length. More on Combat later!

4 thoughts on “Pathfinder readthough – Chapter 8: Combat (Part 1)

  1. I think that if you're not separating out different classes of action into different phases – arguably the way oD&D did it – you need to interleave rounds, or the guy who goes last in the initiative sequence (quite possibly a spellcaster) effectively loses a round of duration on all his effects.

    It's a pity not to have fumbles, but one in 20 would be kind of blunt, and requiring an extra die roll for a not-fun thing is… not fun.

    Hit points that don't hurt you until they're gone are a D&D tradition at this point.

    I think that a lot of the AoO fiddliness is an attempt to deal with what GURPS handles by having short rounds (and Champions/Hero handles with phased movement). Is it worth it? Seems like a faff to me, but I'm already a GURPS fan; I know that one thing which frustrates some GURPS players is the situation where there's a fight fifty feet away, they run to help, but by the time they get there it's over.

    As far as fighting defensively goes, I think it would be fair to say that this isn't something D&D encourages – you're meant to be getting in there and bashing things, not holding them off until someone else comes to help.

    1. The only D&D fumble rule I would even consider playing with is one that mirrors the critical hit rules – roll a natural one and it's an automatic miss, then reroll. If you roll a miss, it's a fumble.

      And even then, I'd want to put strict boundaries on fumbles – level 14 fighters cutting their legs off have to be the poster child for "this really isn't fun".

    2. Fortunately, all versions of D&D lack rules for damaging body parts, so a fumbled sword attack by a 14th level fighter usually just results in an embarrassing miss. đŸ˜›

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