Skill Spotlight – Acrobatics



When I wrote Bench-Pressing, I only paid lip-service to skills. To get into more detail was just beyond the scope of that article. Every skill works differently, has different character options that help, there’s a huge variety in the magnitude of the DCs we’d typically face, etc. I have decided to write fairly detailed analyses of the more complex and important skills in Pathfinder as stand-alone articles. I will skip Appraise (which is too simple to merit an article) and begin at the top with Acrobatics.

The most important thing to remember when bench-marking skills is simply this; your benchmarks are set by your goals. What you want to do with a skill dictates how high you should get your modifier through character resource investment.

Acrobatics is a great example of this principle. The DCs for Acrobatics can vary wildly. For example, if you simply like to use the Fighting Defensively action, your total modifier may not be important to you. All you want is to have 3 ranks so that your AC bonus when doing so goes from +2 to +3. Even if your total modifier is negative after Armor Check Penalty, you’ll still get the benefit you wanted out of your rank investment. On the other hand, being able to jump up 5′ with 100% consistency in combat would require a +19 total modifier.

Avoiding Attacks of Opportunity (AoOs)

For many characters, I suspect the DCs for moving through threatened squares without provoking attacks of opportunity will be their important benchmark. For the purposes of this exercise, I will assume that you do not care to move through the enemy’s square, nor at full speed. You simply want to move through the threatened range without provoking.

In order to benchmark, I need to know what the average CMD is for an average monster who’s challenge rating is equal to our level (AMCREL). Unfortunately, the Average Monster Statistics by CR table does not provide CMD. Fortunately, this google document does.

I will benchmark a level 8 character’s ability to tumble past AoOs as an example. The average CR 8 monster’s CMD is 28. I’m going to say the Purple rated is 100% chance to avoid an AoO, Blue is 75%, Green is making the DC when taking 10, and Orange is a 35% chance to dodge the AoO. In order to reach my Purple benchmark, I therefore need a whopping +27, +22 for Blue, a green rating requires only a +18, and Orange is at +14.

To recap the bench-marking process, we use the linked google spreadsheet to find the CMD of monsters at a CR equal to our evaluated character’s level, find the percentage chance of success to avoid an AoO with an Acrobatics check, and determine if that is sufficient to fulfill the goals we are setting for the character.

Any PC actually attempting to keep a Purple benchmark in Acrobatics will need to be Dex focused, and have an armor that isn’t penalizing them. Even so, full ranks, a (pretty optimized) Dex of 24, and a Class skill bonus only gets us to +18A character with a high AC might only buy a MW tool for tumbling (why not, it’s only 50 gp) and be content with their 65% chance of evading the AoO. After all, even if the enemy attempts an attack, they probably won’t hit. If the character is fairly reliant on avoiding AoOs for damage mitigation, we may want to get our modifier even higher. A considerable (+5 competence) bonus could come from the Daredevil Boots for a mere 1,400 gp. That takes us from 65% success all the way to 90%, in the upper range of Blue. I’m sure some more bonuses could be found and stacked on top, but that’s a good stopping point for resource investment. Even when facing a tough CR 10 monster with a higher than average CMD (say, 38 or so), the character will have a 40% chance of avoiding an AoO. In other words, the character will expect a very high success rate during typical challenges, and a meaningful success rate in very challenging circumstances.

Balance, Long Jumps, and High Jumps

These are the other uses for Acrobatics. Jump DCs are easy to remember: every 5 on a long jump moves you one square. In other words, your check result (rounded down to the nearest multiple of 5) is the distance you travel on the jump. High jumps are much more difficult; you jump up 1′ for every 4 of your DC. So, an Acrobatics result of 20 moves you 20’horizontally, or 5′ upwards. Balance check DCs are determined by circumstance modifiers, basically. Crossing a 7″ wide balance beam is a DC 10, but if you want to move at full speed up a steep, ice-slicked, 7″ railing during a storm it will be DC 30 to do so. It’s difficult to benchmark these uses as ‘character goals’, but I generally think that a modifier of 5+LVL is Orange, 10+LVL is Green, 15+LVL is Blue, and 20+LVL is Purple.

Character Options

One class with a great Acrobatics class feature is the Monk (unchained or otherwise), and it is for jumping. Monks with the High Jump ki power always get their level as a bonus to Acrobatics checks to jump, and can get a +20 if they spend a ki. If our level 8 character above were a Monk (with another MW tool for high jumps), they would have a +28 modifier. This means they would never fail to jump lower than 7′ vertically, and can jump up to 30′ horizontally with a 95% success rate. By spending a ki, these distances go up to 12′ vertically or 50′ horizontally. That can be useful when facing low-flying opponents or leaping wide chasms. The Winding Path Renegade archetype of Brawler also has access to this ability.

Ninjas can take the High Jumper ninja trick to halve the DCs for high jumps. Our level 8 character (+20 modifier) from before would then be able to jump 10′ vertically without failure, and up to 15′ when taking 10.

The Kineticist has the Air’s Leap Wild Talent. This will allow jumping Acrobatics checks to take you twice as high or far on jumps, or four times normal for a point of burn.

The Acrobatics Skill Unlock is okay. The penalty to tumble through threatened squares at full speed is halved (from -10 to -5) when you get it at level 5. When you hit 10 ranks, you can use an Acrobatics roll with a -10 penalty to replace your CMD vs. trip maneuvers or on Reflex saves to avoid falling. You can also use Acrobatics to reduce falling damage more than usual. At level 15, you can stand up from prone without provoking. None of these are necessarily bad things to have, but I also don’t think they’re anything to write home about.

I’m sure there are other class features that bear mentioning, but that’s all I know off the top of my head. I’ll incorporate input if others can think of more.

Notable Mundane Items

A collapsible trampoline and balancing pole are a nice set of cheap items to help with common non-combat Acrobatics challenges. Ice Skates can be handy on occasion, allowing full-speed movement on icy surfaces with a mere DC 5 check. Masterwork Tools, as always, are worthwhile for just about any check you are likely to attempt with much frequency. I think elbow and knee pads make sense as a MW Tool for tumbling.

Notable Magic Items

Balanced Armor (+1 effective armor enhancement) – This isn’t too shabby at providing bonuses to acrobatics, and the cost isn’t terrible. The problem is the limitations on the bonuses. You get +4, but only for resisting bull-rush/overrun maneuvers and on checks made to maintain your balance. If you’re investing much in Acrobatics already, you probably  don’t have an issue with balance DCs. Bonuses to CMD are nice, but bull-rush and overrun maneuvers aren’t usually much of a threat (as opposed to grapple and trip), and don’t come up all that often.

Ring of Jumping (2,500 gp) – This is a fairly low cost item for a +5 competence bonus, and a ring slot is a nice place to shove a situational bonus like this one. Unfortunately, the bonus only applies to high/long jumps, not balance or tumbling checks. Still, it’s none too shabby, especially if we have some kind of class feature that lowers our high jump DCs. For characters that place a lot of importance on their jump DCs, this is Blue rated. For those using Acrobatics more for tumbling, it falls to Orange.

Improved Ring of Jumping (10,000 gp) – This is the same as the normal ring of jumping, but the bonus is +10. I still think this is green for those that prioritize jumping, but it falls to Red for those that don’t. The higher price tag just makes this a silly purchase unless there is a strong motivation to have a high jump modifier.

Ring of Unquenchable Passions (6,500 gp) – This ring is pretty awesome. The competence bonus to Acrobatics is +5, but is not specified to any types of checks. It works for tumbling, jumping, balancing, everything. It also gives a +1 deflection bonus to AC (so we don’t have to occupy our other ring slot with a ring of protection), and the +2 to saves vs. disease is a nice cherry on top. It’s a bit more expensive than the Daredevil boots, but the slot is less important and the other benefits are nice.

Rod of Balance (15,000 gp) – This item does a lot for us, but is fairly pricey and occupies a hand. While in use, it gives the same +10 bonus for jumps as the Improved Ring of Jumping, but also doubles the distance covered by the jump. Our level 8 character from before, for example, would go from never failing to jump 5′ vertically to 14′ and from 20′ horizontally to 60′. It also halves our damage from falling, makes the wielder immune to the prone condition, and makes fighting defensively a bit better. All in all, it is much better than the Improved Ring, other than the fact that it occupies a hand. That really is a strong mark against it.

Quarterstaff of Vaulting (19,100) – This one is a mixed bag. It’s only a +1/+1 quarterstaff, so if you don’t intend to use a quarterstaff, this purchase isn’t for you. It’s also very expensive for the +5 competence bonus it gives to Acrobatics, or for a +1 weapon generally. It has a few other small benefits, but the one that can make this a truly great investment for a few characters is its final ability. You can vault over an opponent’s head with a DC 25 Acrobatics check in place of a 5′ step. You land on the opposite side of them, and this doesn’t provoke. The ability to 5′ step into flanking can be amazing. For example, I have a Vanara Hunter that wields a quarterstaff, and he uses Outflank with his animal companion. By the time I could afford this item, the DC 25 check would be an auto-success, and it would allow me to flank with my Lion buddy a lot more consistently. That said, I doubt very many people will get that kind of mileage out of it. For most, the Ring of Unquenchable Passions is a much more sensible purchase.

Belt of Tumbling (800 gp) – It gives a +4 to Acrobatics checks to tumble at a very, very low price. The only thing that prevents this from being Blue or Purple rated is its slot: belt. This is an item that will probably last from levels 2-4 or so, and then get sold back for half price to free your waist up for a stat belt. Still, it bore mentioning.

Boots of Vaulting (3,500 gp) – These are sort of an upgrade to the Daredevil boots. They’re around double the cost, and provide double the bonus at a +10. Usually doubling a +5 skill bonus quadruples cost, so we’ve got a good deal there. We even get to count ourselves as having a running start even when we don’t.

There are, however, some issues. We only get the bonus 1/round at maximum. Also, we can only use the +10 to avoid AoOs if we are jumping through their threatened area. Finally, if we do this more than 1/minute, we get our movement speed halved. That last penalty is easily addressed with any kind of healing, including a DC 15 Heal check. Still, it could be annoying to deal with mid-combat.

Daredevil Boots/Softpaws (1,400/1,800 gp) – The Daredevil boots are pretty phenomenal for their price. If you use Acrobatics primarily to avoid AoOs, these are for you (at least until you can afford the Ring of Unquenchable Passions) as they grant a +5 competence bonus to tumble checks, and if you successfully avoid the AoO, you get a +1 on attack rolls against the enemy for the remainder of the round. You get to do this 10 rounds/day. The softpaws cost 400 more and work exactly the same way, except the bonus on attacks is +2 instead. I think it is worth the extra 400 gp, but only Catfolk can benefit from the softpaws.

Elixir of Tumbling (250 gp) – This is one of those items that is fantastic for non-specialists, and occasionally useful for those that invest in Acrobatics heavily. It grants a +10 competence bonus for a very low price, but only for one hour ever. For those who haven’t invested in Acrobatics (especially those in heavy armor) this can make obviate certain nightmare scenarios, like a dungeon covered in DC 15 balance check ice. I have a 12 Dex character that wears full-plate, and this item takes him from a -4 Acrobatics mod to +6, allowing him to make routine checks when he needs to. Specialists probably already have a (non-stacking) competence bonus to Acrobatics, and will rarely require whatever additional boost this grants them. Still, someone with a +5 competence item could quaff this for an additional +5 during a particularly tough situation.

Vermilion Rhomboid Ioun Stone (10,000 gp) – Gives +5 competence on all Acrobatics and Swim checks. While this is a very expensive way to get a +5 competence, it is slot-less, and the Swim bonus is nice. Acrobatics specialists usually don’t have a great strength modifier, so the Swim bonus could really help on occasion.

Standout Feats

I’ll get the obvious two out of the way first. Acrobatic gives a +2 bonus to Acrobatics (and Fly) that increases to +4 at level 10. Skill Focus (Acrobatics) grants a +3 that increases to +6 at level 10. I rate both of these as Orange, because I think that feats whose only benefit is granting bonuses on skill checks to be supremely lackluster in virtually all circumstances.

Branch Pounce – I don’t really know how to rate this one, but I think some cheese is probably attainable. Basically, you can add your falling damage on a downward vertical charge attack. If you hit on the attack, you take a bit less falling damage yourself. I think that this could be combined with the boots of the cat and potentially some kind teleportation or flight magic for some weird hijinks. I leave it to better minds to figure out the best way to leverage this silliness.

Canny Tumble – If you are a character that gets strong advantage from opponents being flat-footed (rogues), this feat might be for you. Essentially, if you avoid an AoO from an opponent, you get a +2 and they’re flat-footed against your next attack this round. This can be nice if you don’t have a flanking partner and want that single attack for Debilitating Strike and some sneak attack die, or if you’re moving into flank for the additional +2 and lower opposing AC for your single attack. This feat probably turns Blue if you are also using Shatter Defenses and the Intimidate Rogue’s Edge. You can get your sneak attack and shatter their defenses such that they count as flat-footed next round as well. Between the two feats, one no longer truly needs a flanking partner.

Circling Mongoose – This feat would be blue if it weren’t for the pre-reqs. You can 5′ step between each attack of a full-attack, but you have to roll Acrobatics as normal to avoid AoOs. If you hit on an attack, you can flank with yourself on the rest of your attacks. Needing to go through the Spring Attack line is pretty painful, particularly because the class that benefits most from this feat is the rogue again, which isn’t rich in feats. It would synergize nicely with TWF, but that is another lengthy feat line we’re unlikely to have room for. Still, the ability to maneuver yourself around and count as flanking without a partner is quite nice. This doesn’t make you better at Acrobatics, but gives you something nice to do with the skill if you’re already invested.

Disorienting Maneuver – This is basically Canny Tumble, but instead of the opponent counting as flat-footed, you get a +4 on trip attempts. The only pre-req feat is Dodge. This feat obviously isn’t for everyone, but for trip builds leveraging greater trip, vicious stomp, brute stomp, etc. it can be very useful. You are much more likely to trip successfully, and then get off your barrage of attacks of opportunity. That said, it doesn’t really make you capable of anything new, it’s just a numerical bonus on a maneuver that was already probably going to succeed (at least, if you’ve built for your trip CMB properly). Still, I imagine some will get decent mileage out of it. It could be very useful on something like a Master of Many Styles monk, whose 3/4 BAB, multiple attribute dependency, and lack of other attack roll bonuses can make consistently succeeding combat maneuvers difficult.

Slayer’s Feint – You can use Acrobatics instead of Bluff to feint. Look, I’ve never seen a feint build that actually worked well, but I know some folks love them. Acrobatics tends to be an easier skill to scale (especially for Dex based martials), so this could be worthwhile for some. Unfortunately, you have to dip a level of Slayer or take the Acrobatic feat, which isn’t great. Oh, and Combat Expertise. Hmm. Those are issues.

Adding other Attributes or Replacing Dexterity

Monkey Style adds your Wisdom to Acrobatics checks. Some other benefits, including a swift action Kip Up (stand from prone without provoking) as a DC 20 Acrobatics check.

Wisdom in the Flesh (religious trait) – use Wisdom instead of Dex for Acrobatics, and makes it a class skill.

Bards can use their versatile performance to replace Acrobatics with Perform. This will render many of the character options I have outlined moot, but could still be a good idea for them, as there are plenty of ways to boost your Perform skill.


Acrobatics has some great items to benefit it, but not so many great feats. It can help you trip enemies or sneak attack them, and of course avoid attacks of opportunity and fight defensively. This is more combat utility than we see from most skills, and the ability to navigate some dungeon difficulties shouldn’t be underestimated.


Musings on the Metamorph

A Lambast of Deplorable Design


I recently came across a rules question referring to the metamorph alchemist, an archetype I had hitherto never heard of, and subsequently investigated. It is, simply speaking, some of the strangest design I have ever seen. It is mind-boggling to me that this was written, edited, published, and made legal for Society play.

Let’s take this from the top. You lose swift alchemy, swift poisoning, instant alchemy, the ability to make extracts, everything to do with bombs, and mutagen. Wait, now we get mutagen back? I guess that just makes sure this archetype is not nor will ever be compatible with other archetypes (such as the Rage Chemist). Hell, the author even added Disguise to class skills. Really went scorched earth on those compatibilities.

It isn’t really an alchemist at this point. Hell, I don’t think it even has any honest-to-god stat dependencies, though you’re definitely going Strength based melee bruiser. Dex would work with an agile amulet of the mighty fists, I suppose, but most of the better forms are big.

It keeps poison resistance, mutagen, and discoveries. You can’t really do extract, potion, or bomb discoveries though…so one will mostly end up spending in the ‘Other Discoveries’ category. The first Discovery you take, however, is the Feral Mutagen. It nets you 2 claws and a bite whenever you drink your mutagen, which can add another attack or two to one of your morphed forms in late levels. Decent options from the ‘Others’ are psychokinetic tincture, extra limbs/twin, (Unfortunately, your extra limbs won’t come with you if you change forms so far as I can tell), tumour familiars, and mummification. One actually has to take the preserve organs discovery to go mummy though, because the adaptive physiology feature only works similarly to preserve organs. It isn’t actually preserve organs. Fast healing could be nice in a pinch as well, I guess.  I mean, what else are you spending your discoveries on?

Here’s what you get in return: you can alter self until 5th level, then you can morph into monster dudes that can give you different movement types, natural attacks, darkvision, and scent. You get hours/level of the form, so at least there’s that. There are plenty of Medium sized monstrous humanoids that are quite high CR, but keep in mind the limitations of monstrous form I. We’re only getting senses, movement, and natural attacks. This is why I suggest the Gargoyle, for 4 natural attacks and a fly speed. The Charda is another potent option, offering some water navigation ability and a whopping 5 natural attacks, though Small size probably hurts our damage. Notably, the Popobala is  quite nice before level 9 (or even after). While Medium, it has a fly speed, and 6 natural attacks (some are secondary). At level 11, the  monstrous physique SLA also grants Popobala forms frightful presence, grab on some of its attacks, and rend.

That’s really it though. That’s a huge problem: this class really does nothing interesting until 9th level. It can mutagen to get a physical stat bump sometimes, but that’s just a less flexible rage that requires an hour to re-prepare. It has no bonus feats, paltry secondary class feature boosts from discoveries, light armor and simple weapon proficiencies, and the forms and abilities we’re limited to are occasional conveniences at best. The only real play I see here is to power attack with as many natural attacks as you can. You’ll be a glorified Expert with more attacks and a fly speed, but you’ll get by.

At level 9, the other major problem comes into view. The metamorph starts to quickly ramp in power beyond what is acceptable in polite society. At this level, we go from monstrous physique I to m.p II. It is a very significant difference. When we go Large (Tiny and smaller monstrous humanoids do not exist, so far as I can tell) our AC goes up by 1 more (natural armor increases are somewhat offset by size and dex penalties), our damage die increase, and we get a bit more Strength. Our movement speeds increase a bit, but we don’t get any new types. Our senses’ visual radii increase as well, but again no new types.

Those are all well and good, but it is the ability list that sets this spell so very far above its predecessor. Those abilities are, “freeze, grab, leap attack, mimicry, pounce, sound mimicry, speak with sharks, and trip.”

Freeze, leap attack, sound mimicry, and speak with sharks are so niche they don’t really deserve more page space.

Grab and trip are pretty obvious; you may find a form or two that will allow you to do some free combat maneuvers. I can see leveraging them, and getting some decent mileage. You’ll probably have size and strength bonuses helping them stick, and with the right equipment and feat choices this could be a potent strategy.

Mimicry (from the Doppelganger form) grants the metamorph proficiency in all weapons and armors, and allows the use of literally every scroll and wand without UMD. That second clause can be an incredible ability in the hands of a savvy adventuring party, as feeding gold and scrolls to the metamorph opens a vast array of utility and trouble-shooting options otherwise restricted to classes they don’t have. While it doesn’t increase our Strength and Natural Armor as much as we’d like, the Doppelganger can use any weapon, so having a decent Falcata or something isn’t a terrible idea. I don’t think this ability was intended to work with monstrous physique, honestly. Other monstrous humanoids have abilities called mimicry as well, but those are just for making animal noises usually. RAW, I believe it works though.

We either go Calikang or Doppelganger for Mimicry. In all likelihood, one stays a Calikang most of the time and occasionally switches to Doppelganger in various out-of-combat situations that require some subtlety.

The reason we like the Calikang is simple: it naturally has 6 (primary) slam attacks. This is poorly reflected in its stat block, as the bestiary version is using two arms for longswords, and then using the remaining four slams for a shield bonus to AC and secondary natural attacks (because it is also using manufactured weapons). We don’t even get the AC bonus, so just going all slams as primary natural attacks behooves us. How ridiculous is this? Let’s crunch some numbers.

A LVL 9 Metamorph that went 18 starting STR, +2 at lvls 4 and 8, +4 STR belt, their mutagen, and morphed into a Calikang will have a STR of 32. The metamorph will likely also have a +1 amulet of the mighty fists.  6 BAB, -2 from Power Attack, -1 from size, +1 from the amulet, +11 from STR, Weapon Focus (slam), and a pale green cracked ioun stone gives us a +17 to attack for 1d6+16. Feral mutagen will add a 2d6+16 bite attack as well. That is an average damage of 109 against an average CR 9 creature’s AC of 23, which is about 95% of its HP. Add on the AC boost, the darkvision, and monstrous reach on all those attacks, and this ability has officially become over-the-top stupid powerful. One might think Weapon Focus (slam) is a bit silly, but it and Improved Unarmed Strike allow us to take Feral Weapon Training, which will later help us use feats like Improved and Greater Trip/Grapple while in monstrous forms. (A 1 level dip in Unarmed Fighter isn’t a bad thought to pick up some feats and proficiencies. Human helps with the feat taxes as well, obviously.)

BUT WAIT, THERE’S MORE! A mere two levels later, we get to monstrous physique III. So, we can get to Huge sized creatures (granting +6 STR instead of +4), our senses options now include blindsense and all-around vision (plus our radii get better), and the movement options now include burrow (plus all our speeds/maneuverabilities improve). This would all be well and good, but there are some new abilities as well: blood frenzy, cold vigor, constrict, ferocity, horrific appearance, jet, natural cunning, overwhelming, poison, pounce, rake, trample, and web.

The Charda becomes a more attractive option in situations that you’d like to bull rush or trip, and it has 5 natural attacks, ferocity, and cold vigor to boot.

The Tunnel Brute is a good form for moving around dungeons in unexpected ways, allowing the metamorph to learn the enemies’ locations with tremorsense while moving through cavern walls with impunity. It also is Large, has 4 primary natural attacks, poison, and a climb speed.

The Gegenees is an attractive option, as it is basically an upgraded Calikang. We still have 6 slams, but we’re Huge sized now and all the slams have grab. Imagine having a 15′ reach, 6 attacks + 6 free grapple attempts each round. With size bonuses and your massive STR, it wouldn’t take too much resource investment (a dusty rose ioun stone and improved/greater grapple) to make this thing a hard shut-down for most situations. Again, Feral Mutagen can net us a 3d6 bite attack on top.

The Tikbalang becomes a much better choice now that we can get pounce from out forms, offering ranged attacks, scent, and trample to boot. It can be quite nice for encounters with lots of enemies leveraging distance and stealth.

I think the Gegenees is our form of choice at this level though, as it can pump out just ungodly amounts of damage while still grappling multiple opponents and taking frequent AoOs.


This archetype just isn’t one. It seems like the author wanted to develop a full class, but was only authorized to make an archetype. Everything that makes an alchemist what they are is stripped, and replaced with a scaling SLA and a chance to negate precision damage.

The power curve is the biggest problem. From levels 1-4, it is an Expert with two discoveries (from an extremely limited list), alter self, and mutagen. In other words, it is abjectly terrible. At level 5, it can now get a lot of extra attacks, and some utility in the form of senses and movement speeds. With proper optimization, I think one could be as powerful as a TWF ranger.

At level 9, it suddenly becomes an overwhelming force of destruction. One can be Large and in charge, pumping out a ludicrous number of full BAB attacks, have a versatile array of super-senses and movement types, or simply use any spell-trigger/completion item and every type of armor and weapon proficiently. Every 2 levels from here, the power curve goes even further off the rails, offering a player who has sufficiently studied the Bestiaries’ Monstrous Humanoids virtually any suite of abilities their hearts could desire, including poisons, pounce, fear auras, and free grapple/trip attempts. None of this requires true character customization through resource expenditure, it just comes from the class feature. With Power Attack and some grapple or trip feats/items, it goes from game-breaking to a sick fucking joke. Simply put, this is the worst example of class design I have encountered since 3.5 splats.

Golarion’s Strongest Person

I made a thread on the facebook group for PFS about how high one could get their Lift Over Head weight, and I thought I’d take a crack at it myself here. For posterity, here are the rules:

1. All character options must be PFS legal.

2. Gear can total up to 900k gold.

3. Any active spell effects must come from you, no getting buffed by party members, spellcasting services, scrolls, wands, or potions. Wondrous items (like, say, Muleback cords) are legal, even if they have limited durations.

4. Polymorph effects are not allowed, from any source.

5. Pets of any kind cannot assist.

Okay, so at level 1 we spend 17 attribute points to get to 18, a +2 racial from Half-Orc gets us to 20, the protege boon from Eyes of the Ten gets us to 22, there is a thassilonian tattoo boon to get us to 24, we take the Muscle of Society trait to get to an effective 26 and call that a good start. With gold there are some obvious choices: muleback cords get us to an effective 34, the MW backback takes us to an effective 35, a +6 STR belt gets us to 41, and a wish or tome can get us to 46. As we level up (regardless of class) we will also get another 5, so we’re at a 51. I think the optimal main class is the alchemist (with the Ragechemist archetype), with 16 levels to get a full +10 alchemical bonus to STR from a mutagen and arrive at 61. The remaining four levels should be a dip into any rage granting class to get to 65 through rage (though alchemists can also just make Rage extracts). One could instead (and this is a little tricksy/may not obey rule 5) take 3 levels of Holy Tactician Paladin and a single level of Skald. That would let you grant, say, a tumour familiar and yourself a +6 morale bonus to STR to get to 67. Finally, the alchemist takes an extract of enlarge person (+2 size bonus to STR) and one of ant haul (an effective +8). This takes our effective STR to 77, and our lift load doubles from being Large sized, which is the same as saying our effective STR is 5 higher at 82.

An Overhead Press is just one’s maximum encumbrance, which at 22 is 520 lbs. Every ten multiples by 4, so 520 * 4^6 = 2,129,920 lbs. That is approximately 1,065 tons. This guy could Overhead Press 7 adult blue whales and a WWII tank.

Without boons or the (admittedly cheesy) Amplified Rage, we only get to an effective STR of 76. This is still 942,080 lbs. Only 3 blue whales and a schoolbus.

Language Barrier: What to Speak in PFS

One of the more common questions I hear: What language should I take with Linguistics this level? There are tons of languages on Golarion, but only a few are really worth learning, as most everyone speaks Taldane (Common) for some reason. You either want languages that you frequently find written materials of, or those that are spoken by creatures that actually don’t speak Common. I usually separate them into small categories. Here are, in my opinion, the most valuable languages to know as a Pathfinder.

Dead languages: Ancient Osiriani, Ancient Thassilonian, Ancient Azlanti, Aklo, and Jistkin. Of these, Azlanti comes up quite rarely, and is therefore the least important of the five. Virtually no one speaks these, but adventures often have writings or wall carvings that can be deciphered by those who have learned them through Linguistics.

Elemental languages: Ignan, Terran, Aquan, Auran. These are important for speaking to elementals or other elemental planar residents. Aquan has the side benefit of being intelligible underwater, which can be useful on occasion for spellcasters and the like. Ignan and Terran seem to come up more frequently than Auran.

‘Alignment’ planar languages: Celestial, Abyssal, Infernal. These are mostly for writings, as most outsiders that the PCs could actually talk to speak Common. Writings/inscriptions in these languages are quite common. I would say Infernal comes up most frequently, and Devils are more likely to be reasoned with than Demons. Protean also exists, but virtually never comes up.

 Humanoid languages: Dwarven, Elven, Tian, Iobarian. Writings in ancient forms of these languages occasionally come up, and some Tian NPCs actually don’t speak Taldane. Tian is probably the most important of this group, though Ancient Dwarven is something I’ve seen a fair amount in one particular season.

Others: Undercommon, Sylvan, Goblin, and Draconic. These mostly come up when dealing with certain troublesome NPC types, like Kobolds, or various fey. Sometimes those creatures don’t speak common. Of these three, I would say Sylvan is most important, as numerous sentient plants and other oddball critters are Sylvan-only speakers.


Feats of Fury

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.

I’ve had some requests to address the EDV benefits of Furious Focus, and I feel like it’s pretty easily done here in the Power Attack section. At level 4 (when the affected attack is the only one we have) our baseline+Power Attack’s damage is improved by 18.3% with the addition of Furious Focus. The percentage increase is from a pure improvement to accuracy, so the percent increase will be the same regardless of one-handing or two-handing. By level 8, the percentage increase is from Furious Focus drops to only 8.35%. This is to be expected, as a decent portion of our overall DPR is coming from our iterative attack, which does not benefit from Furious Focus. By level 12, we have two iterative attacks, and our EDV improvement from Furious Focus predictably drops even further to around 7.2%. Characters taking frequent AoOs, leveraging TWF in addition to Power Attack, or just generally attacking many times in a round will be even more disappointed with the overall damage they get out of Furious Focus. 


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.

Butterfly Sting:

So this one is a little weird, as it requires a partner. I’m going to factor it with a TWF using two 15-20 crit weapons (e.g +1 keen kukri) as the one with the feat, and the partner as a two-handed Power Attacker using a x4 crit weapon (like a scythe). I’ll factor at level 8 for the sake of illustration. I might fill in levels 4 and 12 later, but I think one example should suffice to demonstrate this feat’s power mathematically.

First we need to know what the chance is that we confirm at least one critical hit with the level 8 TWF baseline. Each attack has a 30% of needing a confirmation roll. The first two attacks confirm 75% of the time, the second two confirm 50% of the time. So, our odds are (1-(0.3 * 0.75))^2 * (1-(0.3 * 0.5))^2, or 56.6% chance of a confirmed crit from a full attack.

Our scythe wielder does 2d4 + 20 (25 average damage). His crit damage is then a very simple 100 damage. His normal chance of a confirmed crit is (1-(0.05 * 0.7)) * (1-(0.05 * 0.45)) or 5.7%. This means his crit modifier, on average, increases his damage by 4.25, or 17%.

With Butterfly Sting, however, there is 56.6% chance he’ll get an auto-crit should he hit on any given round. This is 42.45 damage, which increases his EDV on an individual hit by a whopping 170%, 153% better damage than without it on a single hit. Essentially, instead of a crit doubling a small amount of damage for the TWFer it quadruples the damage of the party’s big hitter. This is a major EDV increase for the party overall, and even more significant against opponents with DR. If the Butterfly Sting user also had Critical Focus, he would have a 68% chance of confirming (and passing) a critical, increasing his partner’s EDV by 187% instead of 153.

One should note that Butterfly’s Sting gives the crit to the next ally to hit, so whoever is wielding the big crit modifier weapon should Hold or Ready actions to be immediately after the Butterfly Stinger in the initiative order.

Also note that having a 15-20 crit range TWF user combined with a 2H Power Attacker with a x4 crit weapon is pretty much the absolute ideal situation for using this feat. Without designing a party or at least paired characters to leverage the feat, your performance is unlikely to reach these heights.

Vital Strike:

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.


Tell Me No Lies

Why You Should Use Sense Motive More

In my years playing Pathfinder, I have had numerous occasions to receive daggers, rapiers, death effects, and ambushes from scumbag, lying NPCs. What typically angers me more than the betrayal and deception themselves is that I never once rolled Sense Motive on anything they had said. Neither had anyone else. The humble pig farmer gave us a good-natured smile, introduced us to his wife and daughter, and gave us directions to the Old Ruins We’re Looking For. A simple DC 13 check would noticed his hungry eyes, the way he kept asking about our gear. Well, too late now.

As a GM, I am astonished at how many parties will play right into the hands of any +6 Bluff huckster simply because they never thought to roll a Wisdom skill. I’ve seen six seasoned players, Clerics and Monks among them, just blithely follow the ‘local priestess’ into a freaking CATACOMB without a die rolled to discern just why exactly she wants us down there.

So, here’s a guide to when you should use Sense Motive.


You should always use Sense Motive.

Summary of the Guide:

You don’t walk through the ornate gates without rolling Perception for traps, but you might occasionally get caught by a crossbow rigged to the unassuming cellar door. Likewise, Sense Motive is virtually always rolled when speaking to a spymaster, a shady guy in an alley, or with Dragons and Fey. The ones that get you are the people who seem like they’re supposed to be there. I’ve been betrayed by Venture Captains. I’ve seen starving “gnomes” handed biscuits, who then ate the hand. I’ve had Knights in Shining Armor deliver touch death effects, because guess what its a hag.

The point is, always ALWAYS roll Sense Motive. 

If you have a Wisdom of 7 and no ranks in Sense Motive, of course, you should STILL ROLL SENSE MOTIVE. You probably won’t detect anything amiss, but the Cleric and Monk will hear you and realize maybe they should toss a d20 at the conversation as well.

In addition to opposing the Bluff skill, Sense Motive has a few additional usages.

From the PRD:

Hunch (DC 20): This use of the skill involves making a gut assessment of the social situation. You can get the feeling from another’s behavior that something is wrong, such as when you’re talking to an impostor. Alternatively, you can get the feeling that someone is trustworthy.

Sense Enchantment (DC 25 or 15): You can tell that someone’s behavior is being influenced by an enchantment effect even if that person isn’t aware of it. The usual DC is 25, but if the target is dominated (seedominate person), the DC is only 15 because of the limited range of the target’s activities.

Discern Secret Message: You may use Sense Motive to detect that a hidden message is being transmitted via the Bluff skill. In this case, your Sense Motive check is opposed by the Bluff check of the character transmitting the message. For each piece of information relating to the message that you are missing, you take a –2 penalty on your Sense Motive check. If you succeed by 4 or less, you know that something hidden is being communicated, but you can’t learn anything specific about its content. If you beat the DC by 5 or more, you intercept and understand the message. If you fail by 4 or less, you don’t detect any hidden communication. If you fail by 5 or more, you might infer false information.

Hunch: A little used, but quite useful feature of the skill. Say I roll a 23 Sense Motive against a gardener who I think might be a murderer. I’m totally wrong. He’s just a gardener. The GM can flat-out tell me the guy is honest as the day is long, and definitively not lying through the hunch portion of Sense Motive. Now I’m not wasting time badgering a liveried servant while the BBEG rides away in his horse and carriage.

Sense Enchantment: Sometimes the guy leading you into a trap just can’t help themselves. That’s because they’re under a compulsion, and if the party were aware of that, they could cure, question, and recruit the unwitting accomplice before things get out of hand. A flat DC means that no matter how powerful the spellcaster, a mid-level party will most often pick up what’s going on if they invested wisely in Wis.

Discern Secret Message: Okay, this one I’ve legitimately never used as a player. Usually the party is trying to communicate ‘over an NPC’s head’, and as GM I roll to see if they know what’s going on.

To sum, you never know when you’re being lied to. Roll Sense Motive during every single social interaction. 95% of the time you’ll find nothing amiss. The other 5% saves lives.

GM Notes

Sense Motive can be a tricky mistress when GMing Pathfinder. It’s obvious when you should use it, but its less obvious what information to give under what circumstances when PCs are rolling SM against you. Sense Motive challenges you to disseminate appropriate information, without encouraging meta-gaming or giving more information than you should. I’ll give an example to demonstrate how I treat PC rolls for this all important social skill.

Let’s say I am running a bandit pretending to be a local hunstman who will guide them past a few trolls, when he really wants to lead the party towards his buddies at their encampment. He rolls a 21 Bluff, and the Cleric rolls  a 19 Sense Motive against him. I’ll say something either misleading or generic. “He seems eager to help you,” or, “Seems legit.”

The fighter now rolls, and gets a Natural 20. However, he only has 14 Wisdom and no ranks, so he barely makes the DC with a 22. I would describe the bandit keeping his hand on the pommel of his sword, defensive posture, and that he paused before saying ‘trolls’ the way people do when they’re trying to think of a reasonable sounding excuse. This gives all the lines the party needs to read between to see the guy is bluffing, but doesn’t really tell them his whole story.

The Monk rolls to see if he can get anything more. He rolls a 33, utterly blowing our DC out of the water. “He has the mannerisms of a former soldier. He’s eyeing all of your valuables a bit too intently, and seems to appraise all of you as potential threats with his gaze. From his expressions, he seems cowed by all of you, but is probably thinking that he could take you with some help from friends. The troll story is an outright fabrication, an excuse to get you to follow him.”

There are some generic phrases that I stay away from. The biggest is, “You think he’s hiding something.” That doesn’t really give the players much to go on, RP-wise. What can they really say to that? “What are you hiding from us?” Yeah, like they’re going to answer that question honestly. I think it’s better to describe things one might notice about their facial expressions or body language to hint at where PCs should take the conversation, rather than just a binary, “You know they lied,” or “You don’t believe they are lying.” That said, sometimes being blunt can save precious table time.

It is also a bit vague how often a PC can roll Sense Motive in a conversation. If Bluff vs. Perception is rolled after every sentence in a conversation, the PCs figuring out they’re being lied to is pretty much a foregone conclusion. Eventually, you’ll see a party member roll and 18+ when your NPC rolls a 3 or so, and then the jig is up. So, one should limit how many times the PCs can roll. My personal preference is to allow them to roll whenever the subject changes. If they don’t detect a lie on a given topic, they can’t just keep talking about it until the NPC slips up. Their failed roll indicates that they trust the NPC on that matter. However, if an NPC is telling a number of different lies, they might get some of them and decide its best not to take anything that NPC says as actionable intelligence. I wouldn’t consider that meta-gaming, its really meta-cognition. If I’ve caught someone telling me three lies, I wouldn’t believe the lies I didn’t catch. I’d just distrust that person entirely.

I’m gonna keep this article short, as my next one will be one of my useful, but ultimately dry mathematical analyses. This pretty much covers my thoughts on the most under-utilized skill in the game. Don’t be fooled, roll Sense Motive!

Think Tank: How Long Can you Survive?


Inside of a ring or out, ain’t nothing wrong with going down. It’s staying down that’s wrong.

~ Muhammed Ali

In my last post, Bench-Pressing: Character Creation by the Numbers, I outlined some benchmarks for Armor Class (AC). I stand by the benchmarks I outlined, but there are intrinsic problems with using AC as a defensive benchmark. Some characters will sacrifice their AC for more HP or DR. Some will use spells like displacement to levy miss chances against the enemy. Others might use lay on hands to heal themselves and extend their combat mileage. In any case, there are any number of defensive tactics in Pathfinder beyond AC that will effect how long your character survives attacks.

This article will outline a process by which you can evaluate a character’s “survivability” in terms of enemy attacks. AC will be a component of survivability, rather than the whole. I will not examine an exhaustive list of every defensive measure in the game system, but the process I outline should be simple enough to replicate for any given character evaluation, regardless of what defensive measures they employ.

The benchmarks, as I see them, should be measured in how many full-attacks from a typical CR appropriate monster you can take before dying. A Blue rated character can take 4+ full attacks, a Green can take 3, an Orange can take 2, and anything below that is Red.

Blue ratings are extremely hardy, those who find themselves constantly in the thick of battle (melee range, usually) and is the most likely person to be attacked. 4 full attacks means even if they go last, they (and the rest of the party) will have 3 rounds of actions to contend with the threat before retreating or going down. I have rarely seen combats last more than 4 rounds against a single enemy. Basically, a Blue character can survive even the worst possible circumstances against a typical enemy’s attacks.

Green characters are quite well suited to melee as well, though they can’t simply laugh off a few rounds of hits. They are good at absorbing attacks, but if they get isolated from the party/escape routes for too long, they could actually be in danger.

Orange characters generally aren’t trying to weather melee combat, but if something sneaks up behind them and gets a good round in, they should still be on their feet with time to take defensive measures or retreat. This is a perfectly fine benchmark for ranged characters of any kind to aspire towards.

Red should be avoided by anyone, however. A Red character can easily be ‘ganked’, or killed before they even get an action. Surprise rounds, bad positioning, or even just losing initiative are events that occur every so often. Having a minimum of an orange survivability benchmark will drastically reduce the likelihood that any of these events results in an outright character death.

While Average Monster Statistics can give us some useful information, the chart unfortunately lacks the number of attacks an average monster has. For this reason, I’ll simply use one of the more commonly referenced monsters for benchmarking/optimization exercises: the Fire Giant. As such, we will assume our evaluated character to be level 10.

The Fire Giant has three attacks. When Power attacking, his full attack is +18/+13/+8 for 34.5 average damage. We will basically benchmark his EDV against ourselves, giving us an Expected Damage Taken or EDT.

We can now imagine the worst-case scenario in terms of HP: a villager with AC 10, and no spells or special abilities to mitigate the damage. This villager is going to take 108.2 EDT/turn. If he wanted to be Blue rated, he’d need 433 HP. That would be…difficult to achieve.

Now let’s suit the villager up in +4 Full-Plate with a +3 Heavy Steel Shield. His AC is now 28, but he still has no other damage mitigating abilities. Still, the EDT/turn diminished to 35.8 per round, meaning he’d take 107 HP or so in three full attacks. If we had 16 CON, we’d need 92 HP to stay green. A d10 class will be comfortably green in survivability, a d8 can get there by putting their favored class bonuses into HP.

Using a survivability metric rather than raw AC means we can even incorporate more esoteric defenses. The displacement spell, blinding an enemy, a failed save against debilitating portent, or having complete concealment from another source cuts enemy damage in half. Let’s take our villager’s fancy shield away (leaving him with 23 AC) and cast displacement on him.

At AC 23, the Giant’s EDV against our villager jumps up to 62.6 meaning he’d need (188 – CON Score + 1) to get a green rating.  That’s unlikely to work out, but with displacement on top he needs only (94 – CON + 1), as half of the Giant’s successful attacks will now fail outright from the miss chance. Even a d8 class with 14 CON can achieve a green rating in these conditions by putting their favored class bonuses into HP.

Let’s look at DR for a moment. We’ll say our villager is secretly a 10th level earth kineticist, rocking DR 6/adamantine. We’ll take away the displacement, but keep the +4 Full-Plate. DR only helps us when we get hit, so we need to know how many hits we take in an average turn. The giant’s power attack bonuses are +18/+13/+8, meaning we get hit 75% of the first attack, 50% of the second, and 25% of the last. So, we take 1.5 hits per turn on average, meaning we reduce damage by 9 per turn. Over the course of 3 turns, that’s 27 HP, meaning he’ll need (161-CON + 1) HP to remain Green rated. So, DR is a nice little bump to survivability, but compared to miss chances or AC, it isn’t doing much. This shouldn’t surprise us, considering that by this level monsters will not uncommonly possess DR 15 or so. The system simply doesn’t want players to have meaningful DR in their possession.

I’ll wrap up with my favorite defensive measure in the game: mirror image. At 10th level, we’ll have an average of 5.5 images. We’ll say our caster has 14 Dex, shield, and mage armor active for a total of 20 AC. On the first attack, the giant can only miss on a natural 1, meaning his damage output before images is (34.5 x 0.95), or 32.775. This then gets divided by (1 + avg. # of images) to find the EDV against the caster, which is 5.04. The next attack hits 70% of the time, for an average of 24.15 damage pre-images. We divide by 5.5 now (as one of our images broke on the first attack), to get an average damage of 4.4. There is actually a 5% chance that this attack didn’t break an image, meaning our next attack will go against 3.55 images. So, (34.5 x 0.45)/4.55 gives us 3.412 average damage for the third attack. Our total Expected Damage Taken is a mere 12.85, despite having a pretty pathetic AC.

The main issue with mirror image, displacement, and other illusion spells is that true seeing becomes nearly ubiquitous as a constant spell-like or supernatural ability in high level play. I honestly think that is a major flaw with the Pathfinder system, as a huge variety of spells (including the entire illusion school) becomes completely useless after level 12 or so.

In any case, I hope this guide provides you with objective methods for determining how well your character can weather the slings and arrows of outrageous attack rolls.


Tools of the Trade: A Discussion of the Masterwork Tool


Many of my favorite items in Pathfinder are cheap, mundane items that grant a considerable benefit in specific circumstances. Of these, perhaps my most favorite is the Masterwork Tool. The reader’s digest version of the description I linked is that for 50 gp and a pound of encumbrance, you can get a +2 circumstance bonus to any one use of any one skill. According to Jason Bulmahn, it really can be any skill at all. The reason I am so very fond of MW Tools is that the player (even in PFS) can ‘flavor’ them to their own preference. In other words, you can decide what the tool is and how it helps you.

The circumstance bonus stacks with anything else, except another Masterwork Tool. There are some Masterwork Tools that might operate slightly differently, or have different costs and/or weights. These exist because specific versions of them have been published in Paizo materials. Before moving into a list of all the MW Tools I can think of, I’ll list these specific published items. They are: the Alchemist’s Labclimber’s kithealer’s kitdisguise kitmasterwork musical instrument, and masterwork thieves’ tools. Before buying any of these, be sure to read their descriptions, as they have varying costs, rules caveats, limited uses, etc.

Moving on, I’ll make a list of MW Tools for any occasion. If you have a suggestion for more tools, feel free to comment here or anywhere I post a link to this article and I’ll consider adding them in (crediting you, of course). I frequently use books for these, and basically say my character frequently reads books relevant to their skills/professions. Some may occupy the same space as a wondrous item slot, but never fear. As they are mundane items, you can benefit from them and your favorite wondrous knick-knack as well.


Moving across narrow or uneven surfaces – MW Balance Pole There actually are balance poles sold for 8 sp that grant a +1 circumstance bonus. I’d shell out the extra gold for +2 instead.

Moving through threatened/occupied squares – Knee Pads You’re tumbling after all

Jumping and Falling – Custom insoles


Valuate gems – gemcutter’s magnifying glass

I’d be willing to take suggestions here. I don’t think I’ve ever rolled this skill in my life.


Conveying a secret message – A book, Using Subtext, by Suttle Mann.

Deceive/Lie – A shiny piece of jewelry or other shiny bauble, by playing with it you can distract someone you’re speaking to to diminish their ability to sense your true motives.

Feign Harmlessness – a cane. People never expect the old man with a limp to stab them in the face.

Feint in combat – a long cape. By flourishing your cape you can temporarily blind the opponent to what you are doing.


As stated before, there is an official climber’s kit, and that should be used rather than custom tools.


Honestly, there are so many things one could craft that this one skill could go on endlessly. I’ll just list one for the sake of completion.

Woodcarving – Fine sandpaper, makes those cabinets really gleam.


Seeing how powerful this skill is, I typically make the usages a MW Tool can benefit highly specific to a locale or demographic. That isn’t exactly necessary, but I think it helps game balance. I’ll include a few examples.

Gather information in a particular city – a tourist’s guide to the city

Influence attitude of a merchant – a letter of recommendation from a Qadiran trade prince

Make a request from a soldier – a uniform for a low-ranking officer of their military

Disable Device

See: Masterwork Thieves’ Tools


See: Disguise Kit

Escape Artist

Get out of ropes – silk clothing, reduce the friction against the ropes to shimmy out

Escape manacles – bump key, it’s basically a little ‘skeleton key’ you can easily keep hidden in your sleeve cuff.

Move through a tight space – any kind of cooking oil, get nice and lubed up

Escape a grapple – moisturizing body wash, keep your skin slick and smooth


Hover – winged shirt, think of a flying squirrel suit

Turn more than 45 degrees – a feathered tailcoat, you could use it as a rudder

Fly upwards at a greater than 45 degree angle – balloons

Handle Animal

Handle an Animal – a command whistle. This usage is to get animals to do tricks that they know.

Push an animal – a whip, it may be cruel but it gets the job done. This would not be the weapon whip, but a MW tool only. Probably one of those goads that you don’t really hit the beast with, just makes a loud noise.

Teach an animal a trick – tasty treats. I’d probably say you’d get a limited number of uses for this, like the healer’s kit.

There are actually a ton of tools for Handle Animal outside of MW Tools.


See: Healer’s Kit


Improve a creature’s attitude – sheriff’s badge/gang symbol, let them know you mean business and have people backing you up

Demoralize – necklace of severed ears, or implanted devil horns


I made a list of books for identifying each creature type. Here they are:

Aberration (Dungeoneering) – Teeth and Tentacles: A Description of Those Things that Defy It, by Dr. Skwid

Animal (Nature) – Principia Zoologica, published by the Wildwood Lodge

Construct (Arcana) – The Golem’s Gift: A Treatise Upon the Benefits of Mechanical Guardians and Laborers, by Chrysalis Black

Dragon (Arcana) – My Kin and Kind, by Garaudhilyx

Fey (Nature) – Fey Folk and Fauna, by Amalya

Humanoid (Local) – The Many Peoples of Golarion, by Creighton Shane

Magical Beast (Arcana) – Bulfinch’s Bestiary, by Thomas Bulfinch

Monstrous Humanoid (Nature) – Residents of the Uncanny Valley, by Aram Zey

Ooze (Dungeoneering) – Gels, Globs, and Goos, author unknown

Outsider (Planes) – Choirs of the Outer Spheres, by Kyra of Qadira

Plant (Nature) – Botany and Mycology: A Survivor’s Guide, by Dr. Adalbert Tiller

Undead (Religion) – Who Dare Defy Pharasma, by Vae Mortis Blakros

Vermin (Nature) – Dang Varmints, by Jonathram of Tamran

For other uses of Knowledge skills, one can buy various Pathfinder Chronicles.


Create forgeries – MW stationary set, always have the right kind of paper and inks to emulate anyone’s style


Visual – prescription spectacles


A nice set of dancing shoes, or the Masterwork Musical Instrument. It shouldn’t be hard to come up with something.


Like craft, this could go on and on forever. I’ll give one example.

Barrister – Legal texts about contract law


Control mount in battle – A really nice bit and bridle

Guide with the knees – saddle blanket

Cover – well crafted saddle straps

Soft fall – padded clothes

Spur mount – spurs. Kind of obvious, that one.

Fast mount/dismount – specialized stirrups

Stay in saddle – nicer saddle horn

Sense Motive

You know, I can’t really think of anything. I’m willing to take suggestions here.

Sleight of Hand

Stealing stuff unnoticed – silk gloves for smooth entry

Entertain – balanced juggling pins

Hide objects – coat of many hidden pockets


I’d probably resort to books for spellcraft as well.


Go silently if something can’t see you at all – padded shoes

Blend into various backgrounds – camouflaged cloaks for different environments (desert, woodland, urban, etc.)


Avoid getting lost – compasses, maps, and sextants are great for this, and all have specific entries. Hypothetically you could make a MW Tool that stacks with the circumstance bonuses granted by those items, but it seems unnecessary to do so.

Follow tracks – machete, to clear underbrush out of the way. A small brush to make tracks clearer may also help.

Survive in the wilderness – water purifier, finding potable water is one of the most common and constant challenges of surviving outdoors.


Those flippers you can put on your feet. I love those things.

Use Magic Device

Activating blindly – A lucky rabbit’s foot.

Decipher a written spell – special tinted glasses that make reading magic easier somehow.

Use a scroll – a yad makes sense here.

Use a wand – wand polish or a wand coozy make sense to me.

Emulate an alignment – some kind of preserved body part from an outsider of said alignment

Emulate a class feature – a lock of hair from someone of that class

Emulate an ability score – a mezuzah pendant with a writing from someone who exemplifies said ability score inside.

Emulate a race – a disguise prop that makes you look more like that race. Like, a dwarf fake beard, or elf ear tips, or half orc tusk dentures


So, those are some ideas I’ve come up with. What tools do you enjoy using?

Bench-Pressing: Character Creation by the Numbers


People with goals succeed because they know where they’re going.

~Earl Nightingale

Players new and old often ask for help in creating or maintaining their characters. Often those that they have suffer from debilitating vulnerabilities, or simply cannot succeed at their intended strategies as consistently as they would hope. The objective of this guide is to give general purpose advice for character creation that is not specific to any given build type or class.

This guide is not intended to be an ‘optimization guide’, which go in-depth on character options to accomplish specific goals. It is instead a ‘viability guide’, which only provides general purpose insight to create characters that can survive and excel in their adventuring career. I’m now going to qualify what I mean by ‘viable’.

(A) The character should be good (neither merely passable, nor necessarily excellent) in their primary combat tactic. 
(B) The character should have no defensive measure that fails more than half of the time. 
(C) The character should have a secondary combat strategy at a passable level of efficacy for when their primary will be ineffectual (ie, immunity to mind-affecting vs. an enchanter character, swarm traits vs. weapon damage characters) and/or a method of ensuring that their primary strategy works even in those unusual circumstances (such as a swarmbane clasp).
(D) The character should serve some function for the party when not in combat, preferably more than one.

Any character that meets these criteria is at least a viable character. Whether they are ‘good’, ‘optimal’, ‘broken’, etc. is entirely beyond the scope of this guide. This guide is simply meant to ensure that whatever character you build, you will know that they are unlikely to die outright, and will be useful to the party. Going above and beyond the criteria above can be done in a great variety of ways, and exploring these options is both one of the great joys of tabletop gaming systems, and entirely beyond what I can discuss in one blog post.

We will now dive into benchmarks for offensive tactics, then defensive tactics, and a brief glance at skill allocation. I will wrap up with some quick step-by-step examples of a character building process.


I will try to avoid terms like ‘optimal’, and ‘bad’, as they mean different things to different people. Instead I will use a color scheme. The benchmarks we will be using are directly adapted (read: stolen) from the average monster statistics by CR table. This will provide realistic expectations to match with any character. All of these ratings are dependent on comparisons between the statistics of whatever character you benchmark, and the average monster statistics for a creature with a challenge rating equal to the benchmarked character’s level. You know what, lets just make an acronym for brevity’s sake, AMCREL, for Average Monster: Challenge Rating Equals Level.

Derklord, from the paizo forums, has graciously made a table that derives benchmarks from the Average Monster Statistics by CR table. It is a thing of beauty and grace, and makes this whole process a lot faster.

Blue denotes those things that are as good as they reasonably could be against an AMCREL. This is as good as it gets, and might be considered ‘optimal’. Attack rolls are blue if they can only fail on a Natural 1 against AMCREL’s AC. Saves are blue if your character only fails against the AMCREL’s average primary ability DC on a Natural 1. AC is blue if the AMCREL can only hit your character on a Natural 20 with its low attack, and damage is blue if the character’s Expected Damage Value (or EDV, a derived statistic we’ll discuss later) for a full-attack is equal to the AMCREL’s 50% of average HP. In other words, this character and an equally powerful partner would 1-round an AMCREL.

Save DCs  for offensive casters are a bit different, as realistically it is impossible to get a save DC high enough that an AMCREL fails a save when they roll a 19 in their strong save. Also, casters are generally hitting multiple targets with their effects, so even a 60% save rate will disable a decent ratio of enemies within a 20′ radius or so. A good Blue benchmark for Save DCs would be that they must roll a 17 or higher on their weak save to succeed.

Any given statistic could be taken to even greater heights, but this is really the highest category of benchmark we should consider.  Having a Blue rated statistic will not always be possible until high level, and really should not be the goal of character building. One would generally have to pull some pretty serious shenanigans and min/max to achieve a blue rating, at least until level 10 or so. If you do have a Blue rated combat statistic, you might consider re-allocating resources to get some of your other stats higher. Generally well-balanced characters are more satisfying to play, and the character will be more useful overall. It would be unreasonable to expect any character to possess a multitude of Blue rated statistics.

Green denotes those things with a 70-90% chance of a favorable outcome for our character. The math I discussed above remains valid here, except that instead of an AMCREL requiring a Natural 20 to succeed against you or a Natural 1 for you to fail against them, the AMCREL should require a 15 or above to succeed against you with its low attacks, a 13 with its low saves, and you should require a 7 or above to succeed against them. Green damage would be 25% of the creatures HP in a full attack, ie it takes this character and an equally powerful partner 2 rounds to take down their AMCREL.

Every character should really have at least one combat tactic that is at least Green rated. If immunity to that tactic is common (mind-affecting strategies, for example) there should be something else that character can do in combat that is a significant help (summoning or support casting, for example).

Orange is…passable. To qualify as an orange rated statistic, the AMCREL only needs to roll an 11 or higher to succeed against you with its low attacks, and you need an 11 or higher against them. Save DCs aren’t worth considering here any longer. If the average enemy can succeed against a given spell on anything below a 12, that spell isn’t worth casting. Orange damage is 16.5% of the enemy’s HP in a full attack. (It takes two characters three rounds to take it down.)

This isn’t a distinct weakness of your character, but if your primary offensive strategy is only Orange rated, it could really use work. However, this is what I would call the defensive floor. If you are a character that gets attacked frequently, your AC should not fall below orange. As a caster, you would consider your odds of being hit when buffed with effects such as shield, mage armor, and/or mirror image when determining what tier you fall in. If a save requires a 12 or higher to succeed against the AMCREL’s primary ability DC, you need to strengthen that save until it is at least Orange rated.

A quick note about AC: one should consider themselves more with “how many full attacks from a CR appropriate monster can I absorb before death,” rather than AC if they have other defensive measures (miss chances and so forth) to ameliorate incoming damage. Deriving those numbers is simply more complex than I felt was suitable for this guide. I have developed a more complete ‘durability’ benchmarking process in Think Tank: How Long Can you Survive?

This is a perfectly good place to be at with a secondary combat strategy. For example, if I have a character that can inflict the frightened conditon on enemies with a Dazzling Display 70% of the time, it’s okay if my EDV is only in the Orange range. I’m only going for damage when my fear doesn’t work, and I’m at least okay enough at damaging baddies to not waste my turn. Similarly, a character like a Bard might only be Orange in EDV themselves, but by handing out +2 to attack and damage to the rest of the party, he may increase the overall EDV of the party by enough to balance out his less than stellar martial prowess.

Red you are bad at. Most people are bad at most things, so this isn’t a concern for offensive tactics unless you actually plan to use that tactic frequently. For example, if a level 5 archer has a +14 to hit with their bow, but only at a +3 with a longsword, his inept swordsmanship is of little concern. He is green rated in his primary tactic, so we aren’t worried.

Where Red becomes an issue is defensive measures. If at level 5 you had a save at +3 or lower, it would mean adjusting things or making purchases to raise it immediately, as you require a 12 or higher to succeed against the average enemy’s primary ability DC. Likewise, melee combatants should not have an AC of below 20 by level 5. If you do, raise it as soon as is possible to be at least Orange rated.

To summarize, a character should have at the least one offensive ability that is either blue or green rated, a second that is Orange rated or above, and no defensive measure should ever fall below Orange.


Purely baseline stats aren’t necessarily representative of combat reality with your character. For example, if your Warpriest pretty much always uses his first swift action to give himself +3 to attack and damage rolls through divine favor, then those bonuses should be included in your benchmarks.

If you possess strong abilities with limited usages per day (such as challenge, smite, mutagen, bane, etc.) you would want to benchmark both your ‘baseline’ combat metrics as well as when you’re ‘firing on all cylinders’. This will give you a more complete perspective from which to decide if you’re comfortable with your character’s resource allocation.

If Buff/Support is your combat strategy, your benefits are harder to quantify, and somewhat beyond the scope of this guide. Anything you do to numerically benefit your allies’ stats (such as inspire courage, giving out teamwork feats, haste, etc.) will contribute to combat efficacy…just not really in a way I can easily analyze without knowing your party in particular.

This could really be said of defensive spells as well: by negating enemy abilities or attacks (giving out AC, resist energy, life bubble, what have you) you can dramatically  increase your  own/ your party’s combat efficacy. I just can’t write that out in raw numbers, because I’d need very specific information about the situation at hand.

These notes tend to be particularly relevant to ‘gish’ characters (3/4 BAB with 6th level spellcasting), who might be comfortable in Orange baseline combat metrics given their abilities to buff themselves/their allies, and cast troubleshooting spells such as see invisibility, ghostbane dirge, align weapon, etc.

Building Backwards

I think the most common mistake players make when creating a character is creating them at level 1 first. Yes, that is the first level you will likely play at, but it is a poor indicator of what you will be capable of down the line. The first level your character should be built at is the halfway point of the campaign you are going to do. The character should then be built for the maximum level of the campaign. Only after this should the character be built for the beginning of the campaign. This ensures that one always has the tools to build towards their goals, and that one knows which character options should be selected at any given level. 

For example, I play Pathfinder Society, which typically only lasts through level 11. I therefore build characters first at level 5. I then advance that to where I want it at level 11. Only then do I create the level 1 version that I’ll play in the immediate future.

You don’t need to completely fill out a character sheet for the ‘future versions’ of your new characters, just have an idea what class features/feats/and big item purchases you plan to make down the line.

A Build Process Illustrated

Note that while I demonstrate the bench-marking process through de novo character creation, this guide is really intended to evaluate the performance of existing characters.

Now I’ll demonstrate how to use all of this information together. As my first example, I would like to leverage melee attacks as a martial character. I’ll create a Half-Orc Fighter at level 5 with a 20 point stat-buy as a simple example. His name will be Muffins. Before I begin building, let’s figure out what our benchmarks are. As we are a martial, we want to know the AMCREL’s AC to determine our Attack roll benchmarks, their Attack bonus to determine our own AC benchmarks, their Ability DC to determine our saves’ benchmarks, and their HP to determine our damage benchmarks.

Here are the average statistics for a CR 5 monster.


HP AC Attack Ability DC
5 55 18 10 15

For attack rolls our benchmarks are therefore: +16, +11, and +7

Our EDV benchmarks are 27.5, 13.75, and 9.1. This combat metric incorporates both your attack rolls and your damage output. It can also be more readily adjusted to include AoOs you might take, extra attacks from haste, etc. Basically, don’t sweat your attack roll being low if your EDV still falls where you want it. It’s just a more holistic combat metric overall.*


Our AC benchmarks are 27, 22, and 18.

Our saves benchmark is +13, +8, and +4.

Let’s discuss what EDV actually is for a moment. To know expected damage, we first need to know our average damage on a successful strike. For example, 2d6+11 has an average damage of 18. We’ll label this term K for kill. We now need to know our hit percentage. This is derived from attack bonus and AMCREL AC as discussed above, we’ll just go with 60% (+9 against AMCREL 5). Subtract the critical range (let’s say we’re using a greatsword here, so 10% crit range) and multiply by K to get the amount of damage we get when we hit, but don’t roll in our crit range. We’ll call this our Non-Critical Success. So, 60% hit rate – 10% crit range is a 50% non-critical success value. Now we have a 10% remaining, but 60% of that are confirmed crits, and the remaining 40% of 10% are non-confirmed crits. The damage our confirmed crits do is, of course, multiplied by our critical multiplier of x2.

(K x Non-Critical Successes chance) + (K x Non-confirmed crit chance) + (K x Crit Multiplier x Confirmed Crit chance)

So, (18 x .5) + (18 x (0.4*0.1)) +  (18 x 2 x (0.6 x 0.1)) = 11.9 = EDV. This is unsurprisingly in the orange, as our decent damage is hurt badly by a 60% hit rate. If our K remained constant, and we simply brought our attack bonus to the bottom of green:

(18 x .6) + (18 x (0.3*0.1)) +  (18 x 2 x (0.7 x 0.1)) = 13.86. So if you have the minimum green attack roll benchmark, you need about 18 average damage to stay in green at level 5. That assumes a single attack. Multiple attacks will need lower K values to stay competitive if their attack bonus remains constant.

As a 5th level fighter we will have 6 feats, two traits, and 10,500 gp in assets to distribute.

I’ll address the defensive floor first, making sure everything is at least above our Orange benchmark. Let’s begin with AC, as it is simple. I’ll want Muffins’ Dexterity to be at least 12, and have +1 Full-Plate. This only take up 2 points out of my stat-buy (18 points remaining), and leaves Muffins with 8,000 expected gold remaining (I’m using the Character Advancement chart to determine my expected wealth). Just doing that brought me to an AC of 21.

Muffins’ base saves from class levels are +4 Fort, but only a +1 for Reflex and Will saves. That isn’t the easiest thing to fix, but Half-Orcs have a great option here. By taking the Sacred Tattoo alternate racial trait (costing us Orc Ferocity) we get a +1 luck bonus to all of our saves. We can combine this with the Fate’s Favored trait to turn that into a +2 luck bonus. We will also buy a Cloak of Resistance +1, bringing our weak saves up to +4, and our Fortitude to +7. We still have 7,000 gold, a trait, 18 of our point buy, and 6 feats remaining after achieving our defensive floor.

Now let’s focus on offense. As Muffins is a fighter, I’ll be spending a fair amount of resources in my ability to swing a sword well.

Muffins’ base attack bonus is +5, and he gets an additional +1 to attack rolls from Fighter Weapon Training for a total of +6. He will be using STR to damage, and will therefore have a 21 STR at this level (10 points spent in point-buy, +2 racial bonus, +1 at level 4, +2 STR belt for 4,000 gp) which raises him to +11 to hit. I will buy him a +1 greatsword (2320 gp), and take Weapon Focus (greatsword) to reach a +13 attack roll. He now has 1,000 gp remaining, 8 points for stat-buy, a trait, and five feats remaining.

At this point I will already have parts of my damage factored. The average base damage of a Greatsword is 7, Muffins’ 21 STR after buying my belt grants another 7 damage (5*1.5 for two-handed weapons, rounded down), the +1 enhancement is there, and Fighter Weapon Training adds another 1 damage. This is roughly 16 total average damage, which becomes 17.3 once we add our chance for a confirmed critical hit. However, Muffins will miss the average monster on a roll of 1-4, meaning my expected damage value is only 14.08 (17.3 * 80% chance of success against AC 18). 

I have now hit every benchmark I have set for Muffins, and still have 1,000 gold, 5 feats, a trait, and 8 points in his stat-buy. I’ve decided Muffins has a weak personality, and will drop my Charisma to 7, bringing my point buy total to 12. As he’ll be taking a fair number of hits, I’ll bring his Con to 14, bringing our Fortitude save to +9. I’d like my Will saves shored up a bit, so that will also be a 14 (bringing Muffins’ Will save to +6) and as fighters struggle to get skill ranks I’ll put my last 2 points into Intelligence.

My saves are actually looking pretty decent, so I’ll spend my trait on Defender of the Society to increase my AC to 22.

The 1,000 gold will likely go into a wide variety of knick-knacks and potions, so I’ll just leave that alone.

Now Muffins just has five feats remaining. Power attack is an obvious choice. While it puts Muffins attack roll to the bottom of the green benchmark, the +6 damage increases his EDV to 16.94. At level 6, Muffins’ new attack will be a huge boon to his EDV against his CR 6 AMCREL.

I wouldn’t mind getting Muffins’ Will save even higher, but Reflex saves just aren’t something I care about. I’ll give Muffins Iron Will to increase his Will save to +8. I’ll take Ironhide to increase my AC to 23. My initiative really isn’t very good, so I’ll take Improved Initiative as my final feat. I might even buy a Cracked Dusky Rose Ioun Stone to get to a +6 Initiative modifier.

Still got a feat left over we could put into anything from Weapon Specialization, to a Teamwork feat, to Dirty Fighting,  or even Skill Focus (Knowledge: nobility). The benchmarks have been all already been met, so it can go anywhere you want.

By replacing my Darkvision with the Skilled alternate racial trait and using my favored class bonuses for skill ranks, this seemingly simple fighter can take 5 skill ranks each level. This is more than enough to satisfy some out of combat roles, though party face is not going to be one of them.

Muffins now hits an AMCREL 70% of the time, and is well into Green EDV. He only gets hit 40% of the time with high attacks, and 25% of low attacks, and succeeds the average Fort save 75% of the time, Will saves 70%, and Reflex saves 55% of the time. We are offensively capable, defensively pretty good, and skilled enough to be useful outside of combat.

Muffins is by no means an optimized character, but he’s above ‘viable’. I’d probably call him ‘good, but not extraordinary.’ His EDV and attack rolls are green, and all defenses are green except for Reflex, which is widely considered the least important save anyway. This is a decent enough front-line fighter. From here I might think about future feat and equipment choices, where to go with class features, and see if I like where it’s headed by level 11. If I do, I’ll finally build it fully at the level it will begin play at.


Now I’ll demonstrate benchmarking a level 5 battlefield control Wizard against the same AMCREL. His name will be Bagels. There are some differences in which statistics from our AMCREL we view as important, however.

CR: 5 High Attack: +10 Primary Ability DC: 15 Good Save: +8 Poor Save: +4

Notice first what Bagels isn’t paying attention to. He doesn’t care about enemy AC, because he isn’t trying to hit with physical attacks. He doesn’t care about HP, because he isn’t bothering with damage, he’s trying to control the battlefield. He still needs to know the enemy ability DCs and attack rolls, because he still must meet his defensive benchmarks. His offensive benchmarks are now the enemy saves. A Blue save DC by our previously stated standards is 21, and a green is 18. We would never considering having a save DC lower than that in our focused school, as we’ve decided on a very Save vs. X combat strategy. Support/buff casters have a lesser need to invest in their casting stat. First things first, though. He needs to meet his defensive minimum benchmarks.

Elf gets us the stats we need as a Wizard, and it’s iconic enough to be in this sort of quick guide. Bagels can therefore spend a mere 5 points from his stat buy to have 16 Dex, for a +3 to AC and reflex saves. Between mage armor and shield spells, he has already reached our orange AC goal of 21. With some minor illusion spells like mirror imageinvisibility, or displacement, or any of a wealth of other defensive magical tactics Bagels can improve his own defenses on the fly. In other words, he won’t need to focus much on improving his armor class through feats or equipment, and he’ll try to evade or disable enemies more than confront them head to head anyhow.

Our base saves are only +1, +1, +4. Our base save at least takes us to the Orange in Will, and our Dex gets us there for Reflex saves. Fort saves are a bit trickier, as Elves are CON dumped and Wizards Fortitude saves are weak. That’s a good sign to take a trait like Orphan, which will grant as +1 to Fortitude saves. We’ve spent 15 points from our initial point-buy to start with an 18 INT and 16 DEX, because we want those. We could just put the remaining 5 points in Constitution to raise it to 12 (14 with a -2 racial penalty). By spending 1,000 of our gold on a cloak of resistance +1, we get our final save to the orange benchmark. They are still dangerously low at +4/+5/+4, but we have used few resources and can afford to address our offensive strategy before spending resources to reach higher defensive benchmarks.

So far, Bagels has only spent his base-stat point buy, 1 trait, and 1,000 gold. We still have a trait, 4 feats (one of which must be a metamagic feat), and 9,500 gold remaining. Wizards are pretty simple with early feats. Our 3rd level save DCs are 17 so far, but when we take Spell Focus (conjuration) and Greater Spell Focus (conjuration), we get 1 past the minimum of Green at DC 19. With the remaining feat, trait, and metamagic bonus feat there are some options now that all of our benchmarks have been met.

The remaining trait could go into a save, as all of Bagels’ are pretty weak. It could be Reactionary if we’d rather just go first more frequently. It could be magical knack if we plan to multi-class down the road. It could be Magical Lineage if we want to use a low-level spell with a lesser metamagic cost. Since we’ll be doing a lot of AoE control spells, I’ll take Magical Lineage to reduce metamagic level increases to aqueous orb by 1. I’ll then use my metamagic bonus feat to get Focused Spell, which can now be freely applied to any aqueous orb Bagels casts. Spell Penetration and Greater Spell Penetration are good, obvious choices for a save-or-x caster, but I feel they are better left for levels 7 or 9 and up, as SR is uncommonly a real concern until that level range.

His final feat will be more defensive, as I really don’t like having his Fort save this low. I’ll take Great Fortitude to bring my Fort save total to +6. I could instead go for Augment Summons as a more offensive option if I choose. I’ve got some gold left over, maybe take up my cloak of resistance to +2, and buy an INT headband. Keep it simple. We’re now offensively almost blue rated (our highest level conjuration spells have a save DC of 20), within all of our defensive benchmarks, and have a nifty trick with a particular spell. We will be getting 7 skill ranks per level, as our favored class bonuses are likely going into HP.

Again, not optimized, but it has no truly glaring vulnerabilities, and will be more than capable within its specialty. It also has ample skill ranks to fulfill out-of-combat roles, and with Bagels’ high Intelligence he would make a wonderful knowledge-base, and/or translator for the party.


Once the above has been established, you should have a concrete number of skills to distribute (perhaps making a decision or two where Favored Class Bonuses are concerned) and know what your best stats are. Now it’s time to figure what you’re accomplishing when the party isn’t in initiative order.

Our color-coding benchmarks are a bit different here. I’ll give general rules, but skill DCs vary wildly depending on what skill we’re talking about (Ride DCs are mostly easy, UMD tends to be difficult) as well as what usages you intend to put the skill towards. These benchmarks are therefore far more subject to context and interpretation than those discussed in the combat benchmarking section:

Blue is total modifier >= Character Level + 10. If you have a +15 modifier in a skill at level 5, you’re as good as you need to be at it.

Green is >= CL + 5, but < CL + 10. This is something you’ve got a good chance of succeeding outright, but failures will happen with some frequency. This will usually be sufficient to use the aid another action.

Below green, the skill isn’t really a ‘role’ for your character, but distributing a skill rank here and there into your ‘non-specialties’ can be wise. Making sure you can at least attempt Acrobatics, Swim, and Climb is generally a good idea. Maybe at least being able to attempt Sleight of Hand and/or Disable Device. Any character can benefit from at least a touch of Perception. It really depends on how many ranks you have to throw around, and what kinds of things you want to be able to at least attempt.

Muffins has a great STR and decent WIS, and should have 25 skill ranks to distribute. Swim and Climb should be invested in, to offset his considerable Armor Check Penalties at the least. Perception, Sense Motive, and Survival are also good bets for him. He might consider getting lenses of detection down the road, and some ropes and pitons to help the party cross obstacles that he can strip down and accomplish readily. 

Bagels is more likely to focus on skills like Linguistics, Knowledge, and Spellcraft, but will still likely distribute some into Perception, Escape Artist, and Acrobatics. If I prefer to be a face character as well, I might consider trading my Magical Lineage trait for Clever Wordplay and invest in Diplomacy.


To quickly theory-craft a character that will be both offensively and defensively viable, we complete the following steps:

  1. Identification of the concept, and the basic mechanics (race, class, archetype) you will use to bring that concept to life.
  2. Find the strengths and vulnerabilities of the race and class choices you decide upon, as well as which enemy combat stats you should measure yourself against.
  3. Ameliorate vulnerabilities to bring them within your minimum benchmark by spending character resources such as traits, stat-buy, feats, selectable class features, and gold.
  4. Once defensive stats are brought within your desired benchmark, spend character resources to bring your offensive abilities within your desired benchmark.
  5. Any remaining resources can be spent either offensively or defensively, or upon out of combat roles. In general, once combat benchmarks have been met, skill ranks can be easily distributed to find a suitable out-of-combat role. Depending on the importance you place in your skills, you might consider taking some of your resources out of combat viability and reallocate towards skill deftness.

Ruthless Efficiency, or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Math


I’m a dice rollin’ machine, baby!

The aim of this article is to present easily implemented tips that will make performing combat actions faster and easier, and therefore more fun and dramatic. After a brief introduction, there will some general advice, followed by a section for martial characters and another for magic users.


If you’ve played tabletop games for any length of time, you’ve probably had the aggravating experience of watching someone agonize over what to do with their actions, what dice to roll, what to add, and then slowly doing whatever arithmetic is necessary to determine the results of their actions. You’ve likely been that person yourself at one point or another, whether due to fatigue, inexperience, or just complicated character mechanics.

Playing like this feels more like work than a game, and the drag on narrative pacing tends to drop the energy level at a table pretty quickly. In limited time slots, inefficient players can necessitate skipping juicy dialogues and role-play so that the encounters can run in the allotted time. They can even prevent missions from finishing. I play Pathfinder Society organized play in four hour time slots. With a highly efficient group, combats tend to last around 15-30 minutes, but can easily last 45-60 minutes with slow players. With an average of four combats per session, those time differences really add up. Slow tables will wind up in four hour, slow paced combat slogs with intermittent paraphrasings of story, while the efficient players have more than half of their table time to socialize, get creative, and just generally role-play.


    1. Be prepared. Virtually any character in existence has a set list of things that they are likely to do in combat. Have that list written out, and divided into sections according to the action usage (ie, a list of standard actions, swift actions, move actions, etc.). Any calculations required for them should be done before you sit at the table.  Most of this article consists of the various things to know ahead of time, and what should be written down before you roll your first die of the day.

    2. Be present at the table. This doesn’t mean occupying a seat; it means listening to the GM and other players. It means paying attention to the game rather than your phone, computer, TV, whatever. It means trying to really be the person you’ve created as they navigate alien and dangerous realms.

    3. Have a plan by the time initiative order comes around to you. If you’re paying attention to the ‘board state’ during other people’s rounds, you can be formulating your plan of attack before your own turn. This will make your time to shine a lot more efficient than if you’re just tuning in when you need to do something. No more catching up to the game, be ahead of it.
    4. As silly as this sounds, just be careful when you roll your dice not to throw them too far or on the floor. If it happens a lot it can eat into your table-time more than you might expect.


        1. Make a chart of your most common attack options with all modifiers calculated.

Example (Archer)

Attack Type






Deadly Aim



Full Attack


+12 ea.

Full (Rapid)


+12 ea.

Full (Deadly)


+20 ea.

Rapid & Deadly


+20 ea.

This allows you to know what you’re adding on the vast majority of your actions, and prevents you from softly muttering, “…9 on the die, +11 BAB, +4 from [STAT], +4 from [ITEM], +2 from [FEAT], -2 from…”. Don’t be that player. You should still know where your total is coming from so that you can reverse engineer your rolls if necessary, but have the status quo locked down and on paper.

Pro-tip: If you print your character sheets single sided, put this on the back of one of them, or on separate paper. I draw the grid in ink, and fill in the boxes in pencil to make it usable for longer.

        1. Put an empty box/boxes on the side for conditional modifiers. I keep one to the side for things that are conditional but always there like favored enemy bonuses, and a blank box for buffs like haste, inspire courage, etc. You could even have one for positioning effects or enemy debuffs. It might look something like this:

Favored Enemy – +2 to atk/dam v. elves

Haste, inspire courage

Flanking, high ground

Cursed: -4 to atk & saves

        1. Pay attention to what hits or doesn’t. If you roll high, ask about the lowest roll: if it hit, everything hit. If you roll low, ask if your highest roll hit: if it missed, everything did. Otherwise, ask about something in the middle and go for there. The fewer you have to ask about the less table time is spent with a repetitive back and forth between you and the GM. After a few rounds you’ll likely be able to deduce the enemy’s AC, particularly if you’re listening to your allies’ rounds. Once that’s done you can deduce what number you need to roll on the die to hit, and no longer even need to do math to determine success or failure.

        2. Roll to determine success on all of your attacks simultaneously. If you have four attacks, roll four dice at once so that you can move on to damage and roll them together as well. It is faster to roll, for example, 4 d20’s, and when you find out one missed, roll 3d8 and add triple the damage modifier than it is to roll a d20, then a d8, then another d20, another d8, etc. Be sure to know what d20 belongs to which attack; color coded dice (red is highest, purple is first iterative, etc.) make this easier.

          Without feats like Clustered Shot or Pummeling Style, DR can throw a wrench into the math for this technique unless and until you know how much DR they have. As /u/Ph33rDensestsu from reddit put it, “If a creature has DR 10/-, and a character gets 4 attacks that deal damage [12, 8, 12, 8], then applying a blanket DR (40 in this case) means that if they roll all at once and give you a single total, they deal no damage. If damage is rolled individually and applied one at a time, they still actually deal 4 total damage.”

        3. Pre-Roll. If I have five attacks to take, that’s a lot of stuff to do on my turn that others have to sit through. While they’re taking their turns, I can usually roll my attacks and write down the totals. I can then roll damage and assign a damage value to each attack roll, such that it is easy to get the real damage total once I know which attacks hit and which missed. Not all GMs will be comfortable with this technique, as it would be easy to cheat doing this.

        4. Call out what penalties you included in your attack rolls when reporting them to the GM. For example, you might say, “Attack roll of 25, including the -4 penalty for soft cover and -2 for range increment.” This prevents the back and forth asking what was included or not, and just clarifies everything off the bat.
        5. Have a good idea of what equipment you carry. For me this meant making my own inventory sheet that’s easier to read. If you have items with usable abilities, keep those written down in your ‘common action list’. Example: Jingasa of the Fortunate soldier: immediate action, negate crit.

          Bonus: Here’s a link to my inventory tracking sheet.


        1. Know your spells and magical abilities. If possible have a list of the ones you commonly use printed, bookmarked in a physical book, or open on an internet connected device (sometimes I’ll make bookmark folders for mages’ spell lists). The important things to know are casting time, range, duration, school/descriptors, if SR is allowed, and effects.

        2. Know the DC of the spell and what save it requires.

        3. Know the rules for caster level checks, distractions and casting defensively.

        4. Know your inventory, especially scrolls and wands. Tips 1 and 2 apply to scrolls and wands as well.

        5. Prepare as many spells as you can ahead of the session. It’s usually wise to leave some slots open for after the briefing, but your staples should already be ready when you show up. I suggest a short-list of possibilities for the open slots.

        6. Have your dice ready for any damage spells, and use an electronic die roller if allowed once your die count goes past 5 or so. We’re all very impressed that you get to roll 36d6 of holy fire damage, but none of us care to watch you count it all up. (Okay, maybe once a session if it really gets your rocks off.)

        7. If you want to summon, have stats for any summons you might use already with you. Be sure to factor in any feats or abilities you have that might change their baseline statistics before play.


Using these suggestions should considerably streamline the combat process. When the roll-play is swift and painless, the role-play can have its day.

~The Brothers Ducey