A Mathematical Examination of the Most Commonly Employed Martial Feats in Pathfinder
A plethora of feats may be leveraged in the Pathfinder RPG to increase the amount of damage a character is capable of dealing in a given turn (DPR, or damage per round). Among these, a limited selection of them are the most commonly employed, and further feats, class features, and equipment are typically selected to best synergize with these ‘primary’ damage strategies. These Primary Strategies are:
- Trading attack for damage: Power Attack, Deadly Aim, Piranha Strike
- Raw damage increases: Arcane Strike, Weapon Specialization, using a weapon two-handed
- Crit-fishing: Critical Focus/keen weapons, Improved Critical
- Bypassing Damage Resistance: Clustered Shot, Pummeling Style
- Taking more attacks: Two-Weapon Fighting, Improved Two-Weapon Fighting, Greater Two-Weapon Fighting, Hurtful, Rapid Shot, Manyshot, Brawler’s Flurry, Unchained Monk Flurry, Ki Strike
- Multiplying damage dice: Vital Strike, Improved Vital Strike, Greater Vital Strike
The objective of this post is to look at how much a character’s DPR is increased by utilizing a given combat feat or set thereof. I will construct my data and analyses in a manner that clarifies and simplifies the mathematical consequences of these primary combat feats to the PFRPG player-base. It is my hope that these analyses speed and improve the feat selection process for those seeking to play or theory-craft martial characters.
In order to evaluate how effective each option is, I will present simple baseline scenarios showing how much damage we would expect to do both with and without the use of a discussed feat. Expected Damage Value, or EDV, is derived by a formula explained in my article on character bench-marking, Bench-Pressing. The short version is that we multiply average damage on a hit by chance to hit, which is modified somewhat by our critical chance and multiplier. I will be testing feats at levels 4, 8, and 12. I made ‘baselines’ for character attack and damage, and used the Average Monster Statistics table to find the average enemy AC and DR at CRs equal to the levels I have selected (an AMCREL, for Average Monster: Challenge Rating Equals Level). I then calculated the baseline character’s EDV at each of these levels, such that given primary combat strategies can be compared to the baseline as well as one another.
For the level 4 benchmarks I will assume that without the effects of a feat being discussed a character will have a +10 bonus to hit (4 BAB, 4 from a stat, +1 from Weapon Focus, and a +1 Weapon) against an enemy AC of 17 (the average AC of a CR 4 creature) for 1d8+5 damage (18 STR and +1 weapon) while wielding a weapon one handed. The baseline’s EDV against no DR is 6.98. and 3.48 against DR 5.
At level 8 our baseline will be two attacks at +17/+12 (+8 BAB, +1 Weapon Focus, +6 from a Stat, +2 weapon) against AC 21 for 1d8+8 damage. Our baseline has an EDV of 19 against no DR, but only 4.525 against DR 10.
Our level 12 baseline will have an attack loadout of +24/+19/+14 (12 BAB, +1 Weapon Focus, +8 from a stat, +3 weapon) for 1d8 + 11 against an AC of 27. It has an EDV of 31.74, but a mere 2.5 against DR 15.
Some notes about our baselines: I’m assuming a lot here, and violations of my assumptions in your own characters should alter how you evaluate the performance of the character options discussed below slightly. Namely, I’m assuming your attack/damage stat is the same (you’re not doing Dex to hit but Str to damage) it begins at 18, receives all of your inherent bonuses at levels 4, 8, and 12, that you get a +2 Stat belt between levels 4 and 8, and that you upgrade that item to +6 by level 12. I’m assuming you are a full BAB class, that your class does not grant additional features (like Weapon Training) to help your attack and damage rolls, and you do not have wondrous items beyond stat belts and enhanced (1d8, 20/x2) weapons to help further. Basically, I assumed a very optimal character in very un-optimal circumstances to act as a sort of ‘whitewash’ baseline version. It has no buffs, tactical advantages, class features, or equipment beyond what I’ve mentioned to help it.
The raw numbers of EDV and attack rolls I give here are less important than % differences, and for the most part, variance from these assumptions will have very slight effects on the percentage increase in power from any given feat. If Power Attacking generally increases DPR by 30%, that is the relevant datum, even if that exact percentage will vary somewhat depending on your build. There are some exceptions.
The big one is that if you are a 3/4 BAB class, feats that increase accuracy are better for you than they are for full BAB classes, and feats that sacrifice accuracy for damage are not quite as beneficial to you.
Large amounts of damage from a class feature, such as Sneak Attack, is also an important consideration. Characters with these class features will generally be more concerned with accuracy increases than damage, as they already do substantial damage when they hit. For example, our level 12 baseline would have attack rolls 3 lower as a rogue (due to being a 3/4 BAB class), but would deal 36.5 average damage on a hit rather than 15.5. As their average damage on a hit is more than twice as large, each +/- 1 to attack rolls (5% likelihood of connecting a blow) is similarly twice as potent. Even more effective are extra attacks. Other exceptions will be noted within the discussions of feats themselves.
Directly Adding Damage:
Let’s start with the simplest of all the methods for adding damage, literally just adding it. The three methods I see most commonly employed are Weapon Specialization and Greater Weapon Specialization (+2 damage each), Arcane Strike (+1 damage, increases by 1 at every caster level that is a multiple of 5), and using a weapon two-handed. We’ll start with the option that doesn’t require any feat investment, just swinging with both hands.
Without Power Attack (which we’ll get to shortly), two-handing our weapon nets us 2 more damage at level 4, 3 damage at 8, and 4 damage at 12. These work out to an EDV that hovers around the 20% marker fairly consistently against non-DR opponents. Against fairly typical DR opponents, the EDV increase is far greater. At level 4 it is already a 42% increase, and by level 12 is approaches 330%. We will see this pattern again; even modest increases to damage are immensely important against opponents with good DR that you can’t bypass entirely.
Weapon Specialization is of exactly the same benefit as two-handing a weapon at level 4, not as great at level 8, and distinctly inferior by 12. At 12, however, one can take Greater Weapon Focus, which makes it just as good again. The cost-benefit here is pretty straightforward: Weapon Spec costs a feat or two, while two-handing costs a hand. That means Weapon Spec can be used while swashbuckling, using a shield, two-weapon fighting, or shooting a ranged weapon. However, unlike two-handing it will not multiply the damage from Power Attack by 1.5, and the benefits will not continue to increase with your damage stat.
Arcane Strike starts off worse than Weapon Spec, becomes its equal at 5, is better at 10, but worse than Greater Weapon Spec at 12. It requires a swift action to actually use, scales very slowly, and even at level 20 is only 5 damage. If you’re using it, you’re probably a 3/4 BAB Arcane caster (by which I pretty much mean Magus), so there are probably better ways (empowered shocking grasp) for you to get more damage on your attacks. That said, a magus can’t take Weapon Spec, and cannot use several important class features while two-handing a weapon, so I suppose they take what they can get when they aren’t using spellstrike.
Trading Attack for Damage:
There are three big feats here: Power Attack, Deadly Aim, and Piranha Strike. They all work roughly the same way, you trade a -1 penalty to hit for +2 damage. The attack roll penalty and damage bonus increase by -1 and +2 respectively every time your BAB reaches a multiple of 4. Importantly, Power Attack’s bonus damage is multiplied by 1.5 (along with your damage stat’s bonus damage) if you wield a weapon two-handed. This is not true of Piranha Strike (light weapons cannot be wielded two-handed), nor Deadly Aim.
Power Attack at 4 (1H): +8 (1d8+9), EDV=8.5, vs DR = 5.5
Power Attack at 4 (2H): +8 (1d8+13), EDV = 11, vs DR = 8
Power Attack at 8 (1H): +14/+9 (1d8+14), EDV = 22.34, vs DR = 10.84
Power Attack at 8 (2H): +14/+9 (1d8+20), EDV = 29.58, vs DR = 18.08
Power Attack at 12 (1H): +20/+15/+10 (1d8+19), EDV = 33.31, vs DR = 13.06
Power Attack at 12(2H): +20/+15/+10 (1d8+27), EDV = 44.65, vs DR = 24.4
Analysis of Power Attack, Deadly Aim, and Piranha Strike:
Against an average AC, these feats are always worthwhile in and of themselves. At level 4, even one-handed we get a 22% damage increase over baseline, and a whopping 58% increase against DR. These percentages are even better when two-handing.
The behavior of the feat is a bit strange from here, however. We see the % increase to EDV shrink over time against no DR (only 12% by level 8, and a mere 5% by level 12), but skyrocket against level-appropriate DR (140% at level 8, a whopping 424% by level 12). This basically affirms the old rule-of-thumb that +1 attack is roughly worth +2 damage, as over time the difference between power attacking and not seems to approach 0…except for DR. Our average damage without Power Attack falls closer and closer to being entirely negated by enemy DR as time goes on, so putting a decent amount of damage on top means that even if we hit more rarely, its to our net benefit because we actually accomplish something when we do connect. I should also note that if a character has significantly better attack modifiers than my baseline, the benefits of Power Attack to EDV are even more noticeable, even against non-DR opponents.
Two-handing weapons also increases the utility of Power Attack into mid and high level play. At level 12, a two-handed power attack gives us 40% more EDV than a single-handed non-power attack, and a massive 880% increase against DR 15.
Taking More Attacks:
The stand-by here is the Two-Weapon Fighting (TWF) line. For a -2 attack penalty (assuming you’re using a light weapon in one of your hands, which you absolutely should) you get an extra attack at your highest BAB. Improved TWF gives another attack at your first iterative’s BAB, with no additional penalty, and Greater TWF gives you yet another attack at your second iterative’s BAB with no additional penalty. Brawler’s Flurry works the same way, and Rapid Shot is essentially TWF for archers. Manyshot isn’t like ITWF, however, as it gives you a second arrow on your first attack rather than an additional attack at your iterative BAB. The Unchained Monk is also a bit different (read: better), as you get additional attacks at your highest BAB, and can grab another one by spending a ki point.
So, let’s see how the TWF line works. I’m going to be looking particularly at how much difference ITWF and GTWF make over just the basic TWF feat, and how well it performs in conjunction with Power Attack and similar. I’ll assume that we also take Double Slice, or that a class feature like Brawler’s Flurry gives you the benefits of it. I do this because I’m lazy and don’t feel like making my EDV calculations even more complicated.
At level 4, TWF increases our EDV by about 71% against no DR or DR 5. At low level, TWF seems to perform better than Power Attack in all circumstances, even better than a two-handed power attacker hitting against DR.
At level 8, our EDV with TWF increases by roughly 35.5%, and adding ITWF brings us to 65.75 over baseline against a non-DR opponent. Against DR, the full TWF line continues to offer us about 70% or so over baseline, while Power Attack blows that out of the water at 140% over baseline with a weapon in one hand, and around 300% while two-handing.
At level 12, TWF+ITWF+GTWF remains right around 70% above baseline (about 32% comes from TWF, 25% from ITWF, and 13% from GTWF), whether or not we’re going against DR. It seems that taking twice as many attacks, but at a -2 penalty will grant an approximately 70% damage increase in virtually any circumstance. A two-handed power attacker will only achieve a 40% EDV increase over baseline when not facing DR, but an 880% increase against DR 15, and a 150% increase against DR 10.
TWF and its downstream feats perform quite well all the way into high level play when DR isn’t an issue, but are hit much harder than Power Attackers when it comes to DR. This is unsurprising, as we have less damage that can go over the DR, and the DR is hitting us twice as often. There are plenty of methods to get past DR, so you might not be so worried. The real trouble is actually getting all of the feats. We need a high enough Dex score that we’re practically forced to get finesse and Dex-to-damage, which is not so easily accomplished since feats like Slashing Grace were errata’d to be inoperable when wielding two weapons. Additionally, where Power Attack is a single feat with no feats as pre-requisites, getting all we want out of TWF requires 4 feats.
I won’t be doing a separate analysis for Brawler’s Flurry or the CRB Monk’s flurry, which work virtually identically to the TWF line (albeit without actually needing to qualify for or spend feats, including double slice), nor Rapid Shot/Manyshot. Rapid shot is essentially ranged TWF, just remember that Manyshot is a bit better than ITWF, as uses your first attack rather than granting another iterative. This is fairly analogous to Hurtful, which grants another full BAB attack against a shaken opponent as a swift action. Hurtful is basically a must-have for intimidation builds, but is niche enough (and not PFS legal) that I don’t think an in-depth EDV analysis is particularly necessary. It’s great if you can use it properly (Cornugon Smash), otherwise leave it.
What I will analyze, however, is the Unchained Monk’s flurry. It works in a meaningfully different manner than TWF, and there’s some additional cheese one can stack on top. Unlike TWF, there’s no -2 penalty, we don’t need double-slice to do full damage, and we can even use a weapon two-handed so long as it has the Monk special weapon quality. Additionally, the bonus attacks all happen at our highest BAB, and we can even spend ki to get another attack when we really need it. Without the -2 penalty from TWF, Power Attack’s penalties also seem much less scary.
All else being equal, the EDV of a flurrying (unarmed) monk will simply double the baseline at level 4, and triple if we spend a ki for another strike. At level 8 flurrying takes our EDV up by about 59%, or 116% when we spend a ki. At level 12 we have our second flurry attack, so a flurry gives us 92.3% additional damage, and 138.5% additional damage when we spend a ki. Now, we’re still going to get hit pretty hard by DR, as each attack takes it. That said, we can just Power Attack on our flurry, and could even use a two-handed monk weapon.
For example, our level 12 baseline monk Power Attacking with a Temple Sword two-handed deals around 45.3 EDV on a non-flurry full-attack (25 after DR), 92.3 with flurry (51 after DR), and 115.75 (64 after DR) if we spend a ki. With unarmed strikes rather than a temple sword, this monk would only deal 85 damage or so with his Power Attack ki flurry, demonstrating the importance of that 1.5x STR and Power Attack damage bonus.
DR only once Feats:
Speaking of monks, let’s look at feats like Pummeling Style that allow us to only take DR once on a full attack. The other feat like this is Clustered Shot. Neither feat can be used in conjunction with two-handing a weapon (Pummeling Style only works with unarmed strikes, Clustered Shot with ranged weapons) and both of them are more effective the more attacks on has, so I’ll look at it at level 12.
An unarmed (baseline level 12) monk flurrying with Pummeling Style at level 12 deals 46 EDV after DR, even without Power Attack or a ki attack, and 70 with both. Likewise, our baseline used as an archer with rapid shot, manyshot, deadly aim, and Clustered Shot will deal 43.16 EDV on a full attack at level 12. Basically, we see that at high level play a flurrying monk with Pummeling Style or a fully-kitted archer do about the same damage to a DR 15 opponent that a two-handed power attacker does to opponents without DR.
These feats are really of paramount importance if you can properly leverage them.
Improved Critical and Critical Focus:
I’m going to evaluate these feats a bit differently. We don’t really need to actually do EDV calculations, as the feat can be evaluated derived just from chance to hit and the initial crit range and multiplier.
The worst candidate for Improved Critical is a 20/x2 weapon. These weapons have a 5% chance of doubling damage, meaning that on average it adds 5% to your EDV. This percentage actually needs to be modified by your chance of confirming a crit, however. For example, if you roll a Nat 20 but need a 9 or higher to confirm the critical, it really only adds 3% to your overall expected damage. Improved Critical then adds another 3% to your average damage (for 6% total). Critical Focus adds 4 to the confirmation chance, meaning that your critical range would now add 8% to your overall expected damage on the attack.
A rapier has an 18-20/x2 crit range, meaning it adds roughly 15% to your EDV before being modified by your chance of confirming a critical. If we have the same chance of confirming a critical as before, it’s really 9%. Improved critical increases this to 18% damage, and Critical Focus takes us to 24%.
A scythe has a 20/x4 crit range. Oddly, this works out numerically to be identical to the rapier. While we only crit on a Nat 20, it being x4 means it adds 15% EDV total. Then the same manipulations we did before happen, and we wind up at the same place. The difference isn’t so much mathematical as practical: typically a x4 crit is overkill. I’d generally prefer to get critical hits more frequently than such a powerful critical once in a blue moon. This is especially true when one has special abilities that trigger when one confirms a critical hit; quantity is better than quality.
The best critical range for DPR is that of the falcata. It is a 19-20/x3 weapon. This means that by default the crit range raises its average damage by 20%. If we confirm on a 9 or higher, it is 12% by default. Improved Critical raises that to 24%, and Critical Focus takes us all the way to 32%.
Using 9 or higher as our critical confirmation chance is admittedly arbitrary, but I felt it represented a fairly average case, given fluctuating attack roll bonuses, enemy ACs, and which attack of a full attack actually rolls in your crit range. Also, it made the math easy to illustrate.
This feat really isn’t worth evaluating with the 1d8 weapon we’ve been using as our baseline thus far. With that kind of weapon, the feat is pretty much pointless. I’m going to evaluate the feat at level 8 with a Large impact +2 greatsword, and I’ll upgrade it to +3 for level 12 and use Improved Vital Strike. I will be single-attacking (as one must with Vital Strike) and using Power Attack, since pretty much everyone I’ve ever seen use Vital Strike power attacks.
So, we’ll have a +14 attack modifier for 8d6+20 (48 average) with a 19-20 crit range…but 4d6 doesn’t multiply on a crit. Our EDV is 36 against our average monster AC of 21. On a full attack with this weapon, our EDV is 42.84. On a single attack without Vital Strike, it would be 26.18. So, Vital Strike took us about 2/3 of the way from a normal single attack to what our full-attack’s EDV would look like. Basically, its worth doing if you need to use your move action for something other than full-attacking, but you’re better served doing a full-attack otherwise. Against DR 10, the difference between a Vital Strike (28.98 EDV) and a full-attack (31.34 EDV) was smaller, but the full-attack still won out. Still, we’ve basically shown that Vital Strike is of significant benefit when we need to advance and attack, especially when the enemy has decent DR.
At level 12 we’ll be doing an attack at +20 for 12d6+27 (69 average damage), which with this weapon against an AC of 27 gives us an EDV of 51.17. Our full attack, however, is only 51.66. Against DR, Improved Vital Strike actually edges out a full-attack for total damage.
Vital Strike is an excellent way of ameliorating damage loss from being unable to full-attack, for getting more damage above DR one can’t bypass, and Improved and Greater Vital strike only make it better over time. However, if one wants to use the feat, it is important to use the biggest, baddest weapon you can find. When each feat adds 14 average damage as it does here, it is effective. If you’re using a rapier, the extra 3.5 average damage isn’t exactly thrilling.
Feats that directly add damage are nice to add on top of one of the other strategies outlined here, but can’t really replace them. I would consider feats that add tactical options (like Stand Still, Spring Attack, Combat Patrol, etc.) rather than them unless you really want to optimize DPR and have no need for more ‘tricks’.
Power Attack is, mathematically speaking, strictly inferior to TWF in terms of raw DPR with a typical martial. However, the feat, stat, and gp investment is far lesser. A Two-Weapon fighter needs at least Double Strike, TWF, and ITWF to keep up with Power Attack in late level. They will also need either Agile weapons, a minimum of 3 levels in Unchained Rogue to deal Dexterity to damage, or have a high enough DEX to take the feats while still using STR for attacks and damage. Power Attack also outperforms TWF strategies whenever Damage Resistance is a real consideration. Using a weapon two-handed with Power Attack makes a huge difference in terms of DPR, and significantly closes the gap between PA and TWF against non-DR opponents. Two-Weapon Fighting is better for classes that get a lot of bonus damage on their attacks (such as Sneak Attack die), and those of us that add status conditions to their attacks, as you’ll have more chances to add them.
Combining Power Attack and TWF, while incredibly resource intensive, is actually quite good at mid-high level. Taking both the -2 from TWF and the scaling penalties from PA is painful, so using this strategy requires significant investment in attack bonus. (Keep your weapon enhancement bonus high, buy a Pale Green Cracked Ioun Stone, befriend the Bard, etc.) The resource investment is hugely ameliorated by getting TWF feats free through class features, such as Brawlers and Monks.
The Unchained Monk’s flurry (unlike the chained monk, Sacred Fist Warpriest, and Brawler) is a straight upgrade over TWF feats. Gaining the bonus attacks at your highest attack bonus really is that important, and they don’t have the -2 penalties associated with the TWF line. Any STR based monk flurrying has higher damage output with a two-handed Temple Sword than unarmed strikes. However, they cannot benefit from Pummeling Style while using a sword. Then again, you can just kick to pummel while still holding your sword.
Clustered Shot and Pummeling Style might not be ‘primary strategies’, but if you have the pre-requisites, they are good enough that you should absolutely get them. If you hit with 4 attacks against a DR 10 opponent, these feats are netting you a whopping 30 damage. I mean, that’s the amount of damage you get from Power Attack at level 16, but without any kind of attack roll penalty.
Improved Critical is by no means as potent as either Power Attack, the TWF line, or a well-utilized Vital Strike. However, it stacks with all of those things and has no associated attack roll penalties. There are some class features and other abilities that activate when you confirm a critical hit. Depending on what weapon you’re using, Improved Critical is a very worthwhile feat. Critical Focus is a very minor increase in overall EDV, unless you basically need to crit to hit. If that’s the case, you’ve got other problems. It is basically a feat tax for the downstream critical feats.
Vital Strike is a niche build, but if you have the right weapon it can be good. Rarely is it as good as making a full attack. It typically takes one’s EDV about halfway from what you’d see on a single attack to what you’d get from a full attack. It is worthwhile to have if you find yourself having to advance to attack frequently, or if you use your move actions frequently for other abilities. However, even if you possess the feat, you really shouldn’t use it if you can full-attack instead. It’s possible to build for it well enough that this isn’t the case, but I’d check your EDV rigorously before making the decision to always Vital Strike.
So, that is my analysis of what I see as the most commonly employed combat feat strategies employed in Pathfinder. If you have questions or input, feel free to contact me on the paizo fora. My username there is Le Petite Mort.