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Player's Guide: Advanced Combat Mechanics

PostPosted: Sun Jul 27, 2014 4:57 pm
by Nightwolf
Advanced Combat Mechanics
Dice combat is the root of many headaches in D&D. As if six types of actions weren't enough fun, myriad special attacks and other variables mix it up in melee. This guide will highlight common points of confusion in complex combat, and assumes that the reader has a basic understanding of the Player's Handbook (or SRD).

Initiative and the Surprise Round
"Begin at the beginning... and go on till you come to the end: then stop." -Lewis Carroll, Alice's Adventures in Wonderland

Initiative is generally called when a character attempts a hostile act, such as drawing a weapon or casting a spell. Order is determined by initiative rolls, and ties are broken first by comparing initiative modifiers, and then rerolling if necessary (NB: the reroll serves only to break the tie, and not to override the previous roll). Before each character has a chance to act in initiative order, they are considered flat-footed and therefore temporarily lack their Dex bonus to AC, even if all parties are aware of the ensuing combat. This is occasionally a point of confusion.

When only a subset of the individuals have awareness of their foes, combat begins with a surprise round. In other words, this ensures that the unsuspecting side doesn't go first. (What would they be doing, anyway?) Here's a deceptively simple example:

Trouble Among Thieves wrote:Verbal tensions arise as Billy, Bob, and Joe dispute how to divvy up treasure among members of their bandit gang. Billy has a knife concealed in his sleeve; neither Bob nor Joe are aware. Billy draws his knife and tries to kill Joe.

Let's take a careful look at the combat here. The first glaring question we should ask ourselves is, "When does combat begin?" Logically, Billy's turn will take place before the others, since they aren't aware of the threat. Does this mean that Billy secures the first spot in initiative order? Yes... and no.

Recalling how the surprise round works, Billy is the only one who is aware of ensuing combat. Thus, a surprise round takes place in which he is the only participant. The key difference is that a surprise round only allows a single standard action, in addition to free actions. Since drawing a hidden weapon is a standard action, the mechanics of combat guarantee that Billy has time to go first and draw the knife (but NOT attack!). Even with the Quick Draw feat, he only has time to draw the weapon in the surprise round.

At this point, regular combat ensures in initiative order. Notice that drawing a hidden weapon did NOT guarantee Billy a chance to attack Joe while Joe was flat-footed! If Joe beats Billy in initiative, Joe will have a chance to take appropriate defensive measures, such as drawing a weapon of his own and backing away. Thus, the ability to hide a weapon only guarantees being the first to be armed, and insures against being caught flat-footed. Characters' speeds of reaction, reflected through initiatives, determine ability to strike first.

An exaggerated example may help to clarify why the rules are written as such:
Suppose Billy was instead a frail low-level wizard who hid a knife up his sleeve. It would make sense that trained thieves with superior initiatives would be able to respond quickly and perhaps even take him out by winning initiative order. Billy the Wizard gained the advantages of losing flat-footedness (via participation in the surprise round) and being armed, but would not be guaranteed an opportunity to strike first with the knife. Note that ruling otherwise would give all casters with the Conceal Spellcasting skill trick two standard actions before anyone else has a chance to act, with a successful sleight of hand vs. spot check.

Final notes:
With the proper skill tricks, the sleight of hand skill may still be helpful for forcing foes to be flat-footed in the above scenarios. Specifically: Sudden Draw and Hidden Blade.

Attacks of Opportunity
The SRD explains attacks of opportunity (AoOs) quite clearly. AoOs are triggered by distracting acts in threatened squares, and are limited to one per character per round, unless otherwise specified by feats, items, spells, etc.

Common points of confusion include methods of avoiding AoOs and common distracting acts.

While tumbling is the most common method by which characters avoid AoOs, combating a flat-footed foe is another quite useful method. For example, a character who moves before a foe during the initiative could freely run past flat-footed foes (see above: all foes are flat-footed until their first turn in init) without triggering attacks of opportunity. This includes running straight through their squares, doing the chicken dance in squares adjacent to them (remember: flat-footed implies no threatened squares), or even attempting to pilfer unattended items via Sleight of Hand!

Common distracting acts include casting spells of 1 standard action or longer as well; spells with a duration of immediate, swift, or free do not provoke AoO's. Additionally, casting defensively allows the avoidance of AoOs with a Concentration check (DC 15 + level of spell being cast).

Actions in Combat
Surprise round aside, characters are permitted the following actions each round:
  • Standard Action
  • Move Action
  • Swift Action
  • Immediate Action
  • Free Actions (any number within reason, DM fiat)

Actions may be taken in any order. A second move action may take the place of the standard action if desired. Immediate actions may occur on any character's initiative, and expend the following turn's swift action. A full-round action may be spent in place of both the move and standard actions. If the character did not use the movement action to travel, then a 5' step is permitted as an additional action.

An oft-forgotten full-round action is the Withdraw- move twice your speed, and don't consider your current square as threatened.

Full-round actions may be broken up, and attacks may be made before deciding whether to expend entire full-round actions, or single standard actions. Consider the following:

Fred the Foolish Fighter wrote:For some reason or another, Fighter Fred decided to challenge an apparition to a duel. In his hands, Fred carried a pair of ordinary scimitars. The ghost approached Fred, stopping adjacent to his square. "Come at me," it said. For simplicity's sake, Fred forgot to make an AoO.

It's now Fred's turn in initiative order. Fred can choose from any number of options. Let's suppose he wants to size up the ghost. Ordinarily, players tend to declare all of their actions at the beginning of the round, but this is not required! Perhaps the only clever thing that Fred does today is this:

Fred has the Two-Weapon Fighting (TWF) feat, and decides to take a swing as if he were planning to use both weapons. His player rolls a 19, but Fred still misses. IC'ly, Fred is shocked that his foe apparently dodged what he personally judged as a strong attack. So far, Fred has only spent what would be considered a standard action, just at a -2 penalty due to the TWF feat. Typically, he would finish the round by turning his actions into a full-round attack, but instead, Fred decides to tuck his tail and run. This option is available to him because he stopped at one attack.

((Special thanks to Ian, for explaining how decisions to make full-attacks can be delayed in this way))

Let's take a look at another fancy combat case. This time, we will examine how actions may be taken in no particular order.

Mariella the Mighty Monk wrote:Mariella the Monk has flurry of blows. At level 10, she has three attacks while performing a flurry. Around her neck she wears a Chronocharm of the Horizon Walker, which allows the user to expend a swift action to move half of her move speed.

Three goblin goonies attempt to surround Mariella. Two are spaced 10 feet apart, and the third is 30 feet away. Since madam monk is standing adjacent to one of the 10'-apart goonies, she decides upon a clever combat maneuver:

Like Fred, Mariella begins combat attacking with the modifier she would use for her flurry of blows. The goblin next to her passes out from internal bleeding.

She now confirms that she will use her entire full-round action on a flurry of blows. Taking a 5' step to her left, she kicks the second goblin in the face. He passes out, too. Oh, but there's more!

With her Chronocharm, Mariella expends her swift action to move 30 additional feet (her move speed is 60' as a level 10 monk) to the third goblin. With her third and final attack, she KO's the last green goonie standing.

Combat Modifiers
Refer to tables for stats.

Please note that entangled does not imply losing a dex bonus (e.g. subject to sneak attack), nor does prone or cowering.

Another subtlety: although pinned and helpless both imply immobility, one can only perform a coup de grace on a helpless foe. Think about "pinned" like two wrestlers in a ring: the struggle continues if the pinned one can squirm free. When helpless, one is at the mercy of one's enemy: knocked out, bound with rope, etc. However, both pinned and helpless imply a loss of dex bonus because the subject is held immobile.

Special Attacks
These can set up interesting situations! I will focus on the ones most common, as well as a few intriguing others. The general trend: getting up close in someone's face (Bull Rush, Disarm, Grapple, Sunder, Overrun, Trip) triggers an AoO without the matching feat. Then, do an opposed check of some sort to see who's better at the specialized form of combat.

Aid another- Standard action to boost an ally's next attack or AC by 2. Especially useful at low levels when attack bonuses can mean a world of difference, you can help your buddy land a power attack: Aid another, tumble to the other side, and flank! +4 attack right there. Outside of combat, it's a potential boost to skills even if you have zero ranks. Thus, this game mechanic can be used to reflect IC cooperation.

Charge- Full-round action, +2 attack, -2 AC, go double movement speed in a straight line. If hindered any way by terrain, gnomes (or other obstacle-creatures), or invisible anvils, it simply can't be done. Unless you have the skill tricks to break these rules: Nimble Charge (dashing through the snow...), Twisted Charge (go around things) It can be performed in the surprise round, in which case distance is limited to normal movement.

Grapple- As mentioned above, it begins with an AoO, then leads to an opposed check. Specifically,
  1. AoO (without feat)
  2. Touch to begin grappling (can't wrestle if they dodge out of the way)
  3. Opposed Grapple: BAB + str + size

Now, imagine hugging a bear. Your plate armor doesn't do anything anymore, right? That's why you do grapple checks instead of attacks—it's a specialized form of combat.

Mounted Combat- The mount spends a move action for you, and you retain yours! Checks and penalties apply.

Special Initiative Actions
Delay- This is how you skip your turn, and go whenever you want. "Wait for it... wait for it..."

Ready- Ever wonder how you can coordinate flanking with your buddy? This is how. Spend your standard action for the turn to set the conditions for expending it later. If you want, you can position yourself to help an ally flank (move), then simultaneously attack an enemy from both sides (Readied action).

Additional "Ready" fun- Ever seen the movie, Gladiator? (link to scene) Yeah, you can do it in D&D, too. For instance, ready some caltrops and simply toss them in the way of a charger. They stop immediately. If placed in the right square, you get a full round's worth of attacks on your next turn. Other options include bull rushing, grappling, and tripping. See? Told you those special attacks were fun!

  • All are flat-footed until first turn in initiative regardless of awareness
  • Participation in surprise round depends on awareness; only standard actions allowed
  • AoOs cannot be made by flat-footed characters
  • A Concentration check can avoid AoOs even when threatened
  • Actions in combat include: Standard, Move, Swift, Immediate, and Free;
  • Standard + Move = Full-round
  • 5' step available when move not used for physical displacement
  • Withdraw- useful for fleeing from hairy situations without Tumble
  • Actions may be expended in any order
  • Dex bonus NOT lost (i.e. no sneak attacking :( ) - entangled, prone, cowering
  • Dex bonus LOST: immobile, i.e. pinned (still fighting) or helpless (toast!)
  • Aid another- useful for low-level teamwork
  • Charge- move fast, in a straight line
  • Grapple- don't stress, it's 3 steps
  • Mounted Combat- sit on your move-action generator
  • Delay to skip your turn
  • Ready to coordinate attacks, attempt fun stunts

Oh, and one final thing. These fancy-pants combat options are just here to supplement the fun, particularly for melee characters. If you want to avoid them, >95% of the time you can! Like June's sig says:

"Play the game, not the rules."