(analysis / theory) action economy, multiple attacks, and low success rates

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tl; dr: PF2's much-maligned low success rate for level-appropriate challenges is a direct consequence of the action economy as it applies to multiple attacks. Therefore, raising success rates to a healthy 75-80% would require extensively reworking fundamental aspects of the system. This is an important conversation, because player success rates are crucial to the experience of this kind of game. As they revise PF2 after the playtest, the devs need to know what we as players want, and what's required to give us what we want.


Most special combat options in the playtest rules are balanced around the assumption that in challenging encounters, the player's third and subsequent attacks will not have more than a 10-15% chance to hit in the absence of special circumstances. This is why it makes sense to spend actions on activating Rage or Hunt Target, raising a shield (or why it would make sense to do this, if shields were better), or multiple-action attacks. Otherwise, the opportunity cost of using these options would be too high. It would be better to ignore them and spend the actions you save just making more attacks.

However, if the player's third and subsequent attacks can't have more than a 10-15% success rate, and the multiple attack penalty is –5, then their best attacks can't have more than a 60-65% success rate. As many people have observed (and complained about), this is indeed how things are. And since PF2 is designed for attacks, defenses, saving throws, and skills to all use the same scale (so that it's possible to make a skill check against a target's AC or Will save, for instance), this requires defenses, saving throws, and skills to optimally succeed at the same rate. And again, as many people have observed (and complained about), this is indeed how things are.

Like the many people who complain about this, I think this is too low. Speaking for myself, I think it's too low by about 15%. In challenging encounters, I like to have a 75-80% chance of hitting with my best attack or making my best save. This hits the sweet spot for me. If the odds were better, challenging encounters wouldn't feel risky or therefore exciting enough. But if the odds were worse, I would too often feel like I didn't get to do anything with my turn, or that my choice to emphasize one type of saving throw over another wasn't meaningful. Plus, I wouldn't feel like the character I was playing was a gifted and heroic person, which is key for me in this kind of game. Frankly, my experiences with PF2 thus far confirms this to me. For the success rates to stay where they are would be a dealbreaker. If I wanted to feel like I'm constantly fighting an uphill battle, I'd just play Warhammer FRP or the like. That way, my frequent failures and ostensibly superior opponents would at least feel thematic.

The many, many forum posts about overturned monsters, excessive skill check DCs, etc., strongly suggest my preferences are common. My point in this post is just that because low player success rates are tightly intertwined with basic features of the game, the devs will not be able to fix this problem simply by tweaking some numbers. Again, because most special combat options always trade off against extra attacks, the player's extra attacks need to be relatively ineffective for these special options to be worth using. And because other abilities are designed to interact with attacks in a way that requires them to have similar numbers, the resulting low success rates for attacks extends to and infects the whole system.

So, raising success rates in combat would require either (a) significantly improving most special combat options (so that they were worth using even if you had a substantial chance to hit when attacking at a –10 MAP), (b) substantially increasing the MAP, or (c) fundamentally reworking the action economy (perhaps by capping the number of attacks players could normally make in a round). Personally, I think (c) is probably going to be the best bet, but I care more about getting clear about the problem than about pushing any given solution.

Dammit I solved this three months ago.

Most/ all martial classes oughta have a unique combat option that adds a secondary ability to hit/damage. It costs an action, and thus eats into your ability to make more attacks and do more damage.

You can do this and leave the Bestiary numbers exactly where they are, as it is actually perfectly balanced against them.

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