Why do combat maneuvers "suck" at higher levels?


Pathfinder First Edition General Discussion


I see a general concensus that CMs often suck especially after a certain level. What I am wondering is why? What changes in the game that causes this. More larger and non-humanoid enemies is two common examples. Are there others? Numbers and math would of course be helpful.

The reason I am so curious about this is because of two of the new classes. Both the brawler and swashbuckler want to be good at at least certain CMs. I want to suggest some new abilities for those classes to future that goal. The better understanding of why CMs 'dont work' the better any fix will be.

Thanks in advance.


Monster BAB scales, and sometimes they have more HD than CR. That's why many monsters just don't miss. BAB applies to CMB and CMD. So does Strength and size.

Monster AC just doesn't scale the way CMD does.


Also, the perceived effect of most combat maneuvers doesn't change - trip still just knocks someone prone, bull rush still just pushes people around, and so on - while the amount of damage that a normal attack deals is perceived to grow significantly as a character increases in level.


They don't universally suck (sometimes it is hard to tell from out-of-context forum quotes...also, there is a lot of table-variance at high levels, so what happens in one high level game may be completely irrelevant to another).

They do tend to run into issues. The main reasons, as you say, include an increased abundance of large monsters and nonhumanoids.
Another big one is that as you advance in levels, the investment you need to be good at a particular combat maneuver apply less and less to other maneuvers, so that you end up having to specialize in only one or two. Unfortunately for maneuver-users, combat maneuvers are by their very nature situationally awesome, and situationally useless. That's the design intention, but it makes specializing in just one combat maneuver a lot weaker. If, for example, the "Improved <maneuver>" feats were combined into one feat that helped you with all combat maneuvers (and similarly for other such bonuses), combat maneuvers would stay powerful a lot longer.

The other big thing that hurts combat maneuvers is something that applies specifically to trip. If you are going to specialize in combat maneuvers, trip seems like a great option at low levels, and it is. At high levels, though, almost every legitimate threat can fly (there are a few high level monsters that can't--however, these tend to have issues of their own, as non-flying monsters pitted against flying PCs doesn't present much of a threat to the fliers). In 3.5, flying creatures could be "tripped", where it was understood that 'tripping' a flying creature amounts to knocking it off balance so it has trouble going where it wants until it regains balance (akin to standing up from a trip). In the 3.5->PF conversion, however, the designers decided that flying creatures never lose their balance, so flight makes you completely immune to tripping. This means, unfortunately, that one of the best maneuvers becomes unusable, even against medium humanoids.

Once again, every combat maneuver remains situationally useful throughout the entire game. The reason the are considered weak is that making the most of them requires a lot of specialization in something that is only periodically useful at all. So they are still good, but they aren't good as a specialty.


It all comes down to Bestiary Tables 1-2, 1-3, and 1-4.

Look down the right edge of Table 1-2. All those numbers are greater than 20. All but one are greater than 30. In combination with the BAB progressions in 1-4 the only type to have less than 20 BAB at CR 20 is fey with 17. The second lowest is vermin at 24. Most common major adversaries are things like dragons (29), outsiders (31), monstrous humanoids (31), and possibly aberrations (25). While not hard and fast rules Paizo's monsters tend to follow the HD guidelines. Note that the relationship between CR and HD is nonlinear. For everything except Fey the ratio of HD to CR increases as face higher CRs.

Then you look at table 1-3. While not noted in the guidelines there are few medium or smaller high level monsters. Based on table 1-3, which I believe is closely followed, large creatures have 6 CMD more than medium creatures from base stats alone. Add the actual size bonus to CMD and the increased stats from having far more HD than CR and things get even uglier.


Atarlost wrote:

It all comes down to Bestiary Tables 1-2, 1-3, and 1-4.

Look down the right edge of Table 1-2. All those numbers are greater than 20. All but one are greater than 30. In combination with the BAB progressions in 1-4 the only type to have less than 20 BAB at CR 20 is fey with 17. The second lowest is vermin at 24. Most common major adversaries are things like dragons (29), outsiders (31), monstrous humanoids (31), and possibly aberrations (25). While not hard and fast rules Paizo's monsters tend to follow the HD guidelines. Note that the relationship between CR and HD is nonlinear. For everything except Fey the ratio of HD to CR increases as face higher CRs.

Then you look at table 1-3. While not noted in the guidelines there are few medium or smaller high level monsters. Based on table 1-3, which I believe is closely followed, large creatures have 6 CMD more than medium creatures from base stats alone. Add the actual size bonus to CMD and the increased stats from having far more HD than CR and things get even uglier.

Yes. I would primarily fault Table:-Size, which I think is Table 1-4 in the book.

The setting assumes that "harder" equals "bigger".

Many high-level foes are low-level foes with templates added that made them bigger. Very few foes are high-level foes that remain physically big while being templated into a low-level challenge.


Another factor is that most campaigns start off the low levels with humanoid creatures as enemies and at higher levels your opponents are usually creatures that are huge. Often with the high level creatures, you can't disarm them (natural weapons or spells), or trip/bullrush them (flying, too big, too many legs).

And as others have mentioned, the CMD is usually very high, which makes it harder, not impossible.


What level would you say cms become useless, I'm currently playing a game where we just leveled to 7 and we have a CM specialist who does nothing else. I'm just wondering when we will no longer be able to rely on the character.


It's hard to say; I'M currently playing around level 9 (started at 5) and combat maneuvers have been largely useless (even for one who tried to specialize)... because 90% of what we face isnt humanoid/is large/is alien. THe table variation for the usefullness of combat maneuvers is tremendous.

Shadow Lodge

Hogeyhead wrote:
What level would you say cms become useless, I'm currently playing a game where we just leveled to 7 and we have a CM specialist who does nothing else. I'm just wondering when we will no longer be able to rely on the character.

What CMs does the specialist use? To increase the usefulness of trip you need to be able to enlarge so you can trip hugh opponents, same with bull rush. Dirty trick and grapple can useful longest I think. Also get fly for your specialist.

My Lore Warden was still using trip at 12th level, even tripped a hugh dragon, when we faced tripable opponents. It all depends on what you face.


I think CM's are often underrated and worth investment in if you have the right combination of abilities. People sometimes misremember that buffs to attack rolls also affect CM's. Meaning that things like Heroism and Inspire Courage can also help you in these cases.


it all depends on the adventure 2nd darkness is a mostly humanoid vs humanoid even at higher levels, it is useful so it all depends on what you encounter, size becomes the problems as davidvs have stated the problem is bigger = harder and stronger and hardier. it is a bad concept but it is what we have to work with. This is a side effect of giving monsters ablity scores.

I have always been a fan of Ad&d monsters because some monsters even smaller was where always a threat. Bulette was a good example of this it used to be only large and was a nasty thing to fight from level 1-20. now they are huge and not even a threat past level 9. Scorpions where super nasty and they were small back then and a threat at any level. Biggest one no bigger than a man, now they are almost colossal in size and not really a threat. Also because they are so big now it makes it hard to use more then one of these creatures to really make pc shake in there boots because they are too big and take up to much room on the map.

Liberty's Edge

If the campaign features lots of humanoids at higher levels, they're fine.

There tend to be a lot fewer.


If it's not an AP, then combat maneuvers probably get worse. Why? Making high-level NPCs is hard work. There's the NPC Codex to help with that, but it's new.


The reason is not CMB. At least not for full BAB classess like fighter, ranger and barbarian.

I think I have to say it againg. The reason is not CMB., at leas tnot in most cases.

I think in the last "Combat maneuvers suck" thread I posted a 15 level fighter that (with trip maneuver) can beat the CMD of most CR 15-18 creatures.

The problem is that monster just get outright inmune to a lot of maneuvers. For example trip, my fighter can beat the CMD but trip will do nothing against flying enemis and against huge+ enemis because some bad rules.

5+ feat expended in a manever just to see 60%+ of the (high CR) bestiary be inmune against the manuever just sucks.


CMD scales quickly with monsters. Their size and the inherent strength bonus that comes with it scales pretty quickly, and many creatures are just outright immune to the effect. They also require a good investment, and with that can come overspecialization. Sucks when that thing you just threw 3 feats into has a 0% chance to work because darn near everything is a flurry of natural attacks and flies.


137ben wrote:


Another big one is that as you advance in levels, the investment you need to be good at a particular combat maneuver apply less and less to other maneuvers, so that you end up having to specialize in only one or two. Unfortunately for maneuver-users, combat maneuvers are by their very nature situationally awesome, and situationally useless. That's the design intention, but it makes specializing in just one combat maneuver a lot weaker. If, for example, the "Improved <maneuver>" feats were combined into one feat that helped you with all combat maneuvers (and similarly for other such bonuses), combat maneuvers would stay powerful a lot longer.

You know that's an excellent point? I really like the idea of just pooling the combat maneuver feats, or setting it up so that when you get an advanced combat maneuver feat you get two free combat maneuver feats of one level lower. So that you could keep up, you know? Who ever heard of a martial art style that requires years of study but only teaches tackling?

I like combat maneuvers a lot. I like the idea of having non-magical means of battlefield control and having non-lethal or less lethal ways of resolving fights. I like the idea of people and creatures throwing each other around rooms, wrestling, ground fighting, and so on. So generally speaking anything that makes combat maneuvers viable is Okay in my book. I mean Gilgamesh wrestled the Bull of Heaven. He didn't hit it with a sword.

RE: Fliers and Trip - Instant house rule. If you successfully trip a flier then it is knocked prone and has to get up next round. In game this represents hitting or grappling the flier in such a way that it is not able to maintain flight and falls to the ground. Basically you're tackling the Harpy and knocking it down. It has to get back on it's feet before it can take to the air again.


FrankManic wrote:


RE: Fliers and Trip - Instant house rule. If you successfully trip a flier then it is knocked prone and has to get up next round. In game this represents hitting or grappling the flier in such a way that it is not able to maintain flight and falls to the ground. Basically you're tackling the Harpy and knocking it down. It has to get back on it's feet before it can take to the air again.

In Alluria Publishing's Cerulean Seas book which covers mechanics, content and rules for undersea adventures they introduce the Disoriented condition as a replacement for the Prone condition, which becomes of limited use in a 3D environment. Since flight is fairly similar, something akin to the underwater Disoriented could be used. It might work slightly better than the one you've proposed which only works if the combat takes place close to the ground.

Cerulean Seas - Combat Chapter wrote:

Disoriented (condition): The character has lost track of which way is up and therefore cannot account for buoyancy and is terribly off-balance. In addition to not being able to sacrifice swim speed to battle the effects of buoyancy or water currents, the character gains a -4 penalty on melee attack rolls and cannot use any ranged weapon. A spinning and flopping disoriented defender gains a +4 bonus to Armor Class against ranged attacks, but takes a -4 penalty to AC against melee attacks. Righting oneself is a move-equivalent action that provokes an attack of opportunity.

A character can, as a free action, choose to flop around so erratically that he causes himself to become disoriented. This would be a good way to avoid ranged attacks, as the target becomes harder to hit as its movement becomes chaotic and unpredictable.

Remove the swim speed and buoyancy references and replace them with one appropriate for flyers and you have something that could work quite well.


Having run campaigns where monstrous creatures come out early and others where humanoids face high-level PCs, I agree it has mostly to do with the nature of the enemy.
Lots of the low CR monstrous creatures were immune not only to maneuvers, but to all sorts of tricks: Sneak Attack, Mind-Affecting, Flanking, etc.
So the spiked-chain wielder (3.x) who had, in previous incarnations, stomped EVERYTHING! actually gained little traction vs. the oozes, stirges, swarms, incorporeal, etc. of the nearby dungeon.
I always advised new players to have more than one schtick.
And I had no pity on him. :O

On the other hand, BBEG humanoids would get stomped. Had to give all of the martial NPCs, even giants, at least two weapons because they'd lose them to Disarm so easily. (Still surprised at how many Paizo BBEGs have only one martial melee weapon.)

You can see some adjustments in more modern high-level monsters, or conversions to PF, especially the (bipedal) demons & devils. Ex. Vrock loses 4 CR (if I recall), but gets big power boost.
Compare Bestiaries 2-4 to Bestiary 1 for high CR creatures.
Dex goes up, susceptibility to one shot maneuvers & spells goes down,
Fast Healing becomes commonplace to counter guerrilla tactics
Or, my favorite, that creature that TPs to follow your TP!
No 15-minute adventuring there.
Even the low-mid levels gain more options, or use maneuvers back.

Compare Bestiary 1 to 3.x's Monster Manual.
Trip lost a lot of ground because trip=dead in many cases, so legless creatures become immune, flyers become immune, and multiple legs gives bonus to defense.
More creatures damage grapplers with barbs, poison, etc.
Each stage moves closer to the mid-high CR monsters needing more teamwork or flexibility from the PCs.

And I think a Fighter can have that flexibility. Even some of the others that get bonus feats.

But humanoids? They'll always suck.
Well, unless they do the same back. :)
(I'm looking at you, Dennis Baker!)

Also note, there's a point where positioning on the battlefield means less and less because the threat radius of the monster is greater, the options it has are greater, and the monster still hits you at -4 while prone.
Overrun is good from breaking through cordons, but so are Dim Door & Fly which cost only a slot, not a feat.
A lot of the tricks get overshadowed by magic the higher one goes.
A lot of monsters remain comparably dangerous even after your maneuver.

So, yeah, you invest in one schtick, and it becomes less usable, you get sad, just like a caster who specializes in fire or mind spells. Invest in two schticks which complement the range of foes you may face, and you're good to go.

Cheers, JMK


137ben wrote:
Another big one is that as you advance in levels, the investment you need to be good at a particular combat maneuver apply less and less to other maneuvers, so that you end up having to specialize in only one or two. Unfortunately for maneuver-users, combat maneuvers are by their very nature situationally awesome, and situationally useless. That's the design intention, but it makes specializing in just one combat maneuver a lot weaker. If, for example, the "Improved <maneuver>" feats were combined into one feat that helped you with all combat maneuvers (and similarly for other such bonuses), combat maneuvers would stay powerful a lot longer.

I agree. I really wonder why PF introduced the "Greater <maneuver>" feats on top of the "Improved <maneuver>" feats. I too have toyed with the idea of creating a single "Improved" feat to function as the "+2 bonus and prereq for Greater" as opposed to the current two-feats-per-maneuver system, as that, in my opinion, seems like a better way to introduce the more powerful effects of the "Greater" feats without simultaneously inviting over-specialization.

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