Proper Skirmishing Procedure


Pathfinder First Edition General Discussion


Suppose you're a rogue or a bard. A magus or an investigator. You've got light armor, a d8 hit die, and some solid melee damage potential. In other words, you're a bit of a glass cannon. How do you go in for the stabs without receiving them in turn?

We tend not to talk about basic strategy too often, but I find myself with a table full of low-level squishy melee PCs, and I'd like to give them solid advice. Is the answer purely "let the big guy go first?" Is it more about spending the first round buffing? How do you ply the skirmisher's trade at low level without getting your face gnawed off by a dire rat?

In other words, if you happen to be a glass cannon, how do you contribute without shattering?

Comic for illustrative purposes.


Pathfinder Adventure Path, Companion, Lost Omens, Rulebook Subscriber

From my experience, the basic premise is fairly inaccurate. 'Skirmish' fighters as you call them tend to have comparable AC to most others since their DEX usually makes up for the armor points that they are missing and many have other means of defenses that more martial characters lack. The real question on focusing on AC or not is usually to use a shield or not use a shield, but that is a question for most of the heavy armor types just as much as it is for most skirmishers.

The difference between a d8 and a d10 isn't all that huge in terms of hit points either. Of course if you don't invest in any CON that can make quite a difference, but if you do that with a melee character it is, in my opinion, just a bad build, not a problem with certain types of classes. Sure some times the few points of difference will matter, and you might have to go defensive or withdraw if you get into trouble, but most of the time having 10 or 11 HP vs having 13 or 14 isn't going to be all that significant.

In Pathfinder the skirmishers you mention are generally quite capable of surviving at low levels just fine. And at low levels, where a single hit is probably going to down a foe, doing unto them before they can do unto you is a quite viable strategy.

Of course there are tons of other good tactical rules out there that apply to a party as a whole, and how to implement them varies from party to party (having control, support and strikers each doing their jobs is a big one) but they are general and group focused, not 'glass cannons should fight like this' sort of things.


The easiest way to go about the skirmish tactic is Vital Striked ranged attacks while moving away (preferably on a mount). The goal literally being to dwindle their HP by the time they reach melee.

For melee skirmishers there are 2 mayor tactics: Night stealth raids and spring attack/mounted charge hyper speed shenanigans.

1: Use high stealth and slight of hand to take provisions from the enemy, poison their supplies, and overall make them have horrible nights.

2a: Use Spring Heeled Sprint with high speed bonus (50+ base move speed). Then attack the enemies, feint them, etc. Warrior Poet is great for this.

2b: Use Wheeling Charge/Ride-By Attack and a Charger archetype mount (possibly with mount speed trait/archetype) and lance tactics to deal tons of damage while quickly retreat into cover. Bonus points for using a flying mount to benefit from Death from Above and (the usually high fly speed).

Dark Archive

The trick to playing a "skirmisher" is high, sustainable, bursts of damage and making sure any opponent you end up next to is dead before its turn. Either hit 2nd and finish them, or have another group member around to finish their last few hp


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Dave Justus wrote:
From my experience, the basic premise is fairly inaccurate. 'Skirmish' fighters as you call them tend to have comparable AC to most others since their DEX usually makes up for the armor points that they are missing and many have other means of defenses that more martial characters lack. The real question on focusing on AC or not is usually to use a shield or not use a shield, but that is a question for most of the heavy armor types just as much as it is for most skirmishers.

True, a high-Dex character can manage a high AC. However, I remember a contributing factor from my Rise of the Rulelords campaign. The rogue wanted a flank for his sneak attacks. The fighter was inexperienced and could not plan a good position opposite her for a flank, so the rogue moved into the resulting bad position right behind the enemy's front line. If the enemy had a second line, they chose to beat on the rogue rather than move forward. The weakness of positioning for sneak attack is that the position is not good for defense. Look at the rogue in the comic--she is right out in the open for the dragon to attack.

Later, the fighter died in a heroic self-sacrifice, the fighter's player switched to a spellcasting druid, and fortunately, another player joined to play a battle oracle. However, the battle oracle's first action was always to cast a buff spell. We also soon gained a second rogue. The two rogues would advance forward for high-initiative sneak attacks on the first turn and flanking for each other on the second turn. They became the main targets during those two turns, so the rogues took enough damage that they retreated. Fortunately, the battle oracle was well-buffed by then and she stepped forward as an unstoppable fighting machine. It worked.

Years later, in my Iron Gods campaign, I had an entire party of skirmishers. They were half-elf magus, strix skald, dwarf gunslinger, human bloodrager, and human fighter/investigator. No-one had low AC. No-one needed to be protected by a stationary meat shield. The fighter preferred a glaive. The skald and bloodrager preferred to charge (Death from Above feat for the flying skald). Everyone except the fighter had a ranged attack immediately available, such as a spell or firearm. The entire party kept in motion, keeping away from the counterattacks of their less mobile enemies. I learned a lot about skirmishing from that campaign.

The key to skirmishing is moving away from the counterattacks. Spring Attack is a classic. A 5-foot-step after a raging bloodrager commandeers the attention of one's opponent is often enough. A little battlefield control from the skald or the gunslinger with a grapple gun goes a long way. And as Name Violation and the caption on the comic pointed out, a dead opponent makes no counterattacks. Freely switching between ranged and melee attacks based on opportunity increases the skirmishing damage. The party does damage continuously and their opponent doesn't. That gives them the advantage.


If you're a Magus, bard or other 2/3 spellcaster you can generally expect access to some form of defensive support spell, whether it be shield, mirror image, blur/displacement, invisibility(or vanish, I could see a magus/rogue arcane trickster build going with vanish spam via spell recall) or offensive-defensive tools such as Vampiric Touch.

For a Rogue or (chained)Monk or other semi-martial, look toward either specc less squishy or find ways you can turn the surroundings to your advantage (it's also partially on the GM to make engageable environments for such purposes).

In particular, if you're not very martial or control caster heavy as group, make sure the players feel like they can control the fight in other ways than simply rushing the enemy down, retreating or luring the enemy into less favourable positions and circumstances or outflanking and separating the enemy.

As a GM, such semi-martials also fare better against several slightly weaker opponents than they do against huge monsters and solo bosses. So take scope of your group's composition and make encounters that fit them.


Oh I just want to remind people, skirmishing =/= high burst assault. By definition, a skirmish is: irregular, indesisive, and small. It's not so much a tactic and more of an event in the war/pre-battle stages.

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Also other good tactic is to use cover, the terrain, and weather (weather prediction spell can be useful at times). There is no reason why you have to be in the middle of the road when you can hide in the forest, for example.

Deception can also work, for example: laying traps, replacing bullets for blanks (or the classic replace food for horrible things), and using make shift areas (illusions for the win).

If this sounds like guerrilla tactics, it's because guerrilla tactics are skirmishing tactics vs a larger army.


Skirmishers are tricky to work in Pathfinder because its tough to move swiftly in and out of combat. Most opponents can keep up with the PCs, and thanks to attacks of opportunity once combat has been entered it usually ends up grinding to a halt. The best results are Monks or Horsemen with Spring Attack/Shot on the Run/Ride By Attack who can either go in/out or break past the enemy without getting mauled/tripped.


And what's the other thing Monk's or Horsemen/Cavalry have in common that help enable skirmishing tactics. Mobility, often in the form of a greater base speed though it may take a couple levels to kick in in the case of a Monk.

Look for ways to combine move/attack/move with a greater base speed. A Bard for instance can cast Expeditious Retreat or Rangers use Longstrider. Both can be had on Wands. Later Haste comes along. Consider taking Fleet (which is not an enhancement bonus to move speed) then retraining out of it later when you can access Spring Attack. That extra 5 ft can put one out of melee range more readily against early, often M or S sized foes as they can no longer actually match you in speed. Similarly use a reach weapon combined with the extra 5ft to strike while minimizing return attacks or AoO attacks. Similar to Fleet, Run can be useful allowing you to retain you Dex to AC while moving more than double your base speed. Overall you may have to get used to striking then breaking contact as a group tactic particularly if there is no heavy armor melee type in the group. Over all it's slower to take down foes but it can be vastly more suited to survival.

I once had a Barbarian character who had both Fleet and Run (partially as an experiment to see how bad that might actually be). He also had Improved Initiative and in the occasional instance it was quite worth it for the looks I'd get when in an outdoor open terrain encounter he'd move upwards of 200+ft (surprise -> move (45ft)+winning initiative -> Run (another 225ft) right off the bat and get up in the foes faces long before the "foes" (i.e. DM) expected to be having to deal with a melee opponent (and risk free move into their rear line squishies). Poor mans Dimension Door.


ShroudedInLight wrote:

Skirmishers are tricky to work in Pathfinder because its tough to move swiftly in and out of combat. Most opponents can keep up with the PCs, and thanks to attacks of opportunity once combat has been entered it usually ends up grinding to a halt. The best results are Monks or Horsemen with Spring Attack/Shot on the Run/Ride By Attack who can either go in/out or break past the enemy without getting mauled/tripped.

Figure out a wording to let the vital strike chain work with feats like spring attack/shot on the run and skirmishing's stock will go way up.


Temperans wrote:
Oh I just want to remind people, skirmishing =/= high burst assault. By definition, a skirmish is: irregular, indesisive, and small. It's not so much a tactic and more of an event in the war/pre-battle stages.

In war, a skirmish is light, relatively indecisive combat. It serves to harass the enemy rather than defeat them.

That does not work in Pathfinder. Skirmish with an enemy force, and the next day both sides will be back to normal. Kill 5 soldiers in an army of 100, and it will be back to the full 100 again if the GM is not keeping detailed records.

We still use the word "skirmisher" in Pathfinder. It means the character who engages with the enemy in light, relatively indecisive combat. The skirmisher harasses the enemy, often to keep the heavy hitters from being overwhelmed until the heavy hitters finish with their current opponents and take on the enemies softened up by the skirmisher. Any character who intends to retreat from combat before his first opponent is dead or unconscious is a skirmisher, even if that retreat is the backstep of a Spring Attack or stepping behind a tree to reload a crossbow.

Likewise, dropping one minion at a time, when the minions are a threat only in large numbers, is like retreating from all counterattacks and counts as skirmishing. I viewed Name Violation's high-burst damage as that, but perhaps I was mistaken.

"Skirmisher" can also mean a character who fights in melee but is not strong at it. The bard steps up to the front line because that line needs another body to protect the squishy wizard behind the line.

The Handbook for Heroes Sneak Attack comic is far from skirmishing or guerrilla warfare. The rogue Thief is managing a sneak attack while being blatantly exposed and vulnerable. Colin's text calls her a "glass cannon" and elaborates, "Rogues and bards and magi can make some crazy cool characters, but you’ve got to remember: if you’re built like a skirmisher, you need to skirmish."

Temperans wrote:

Also other good tactic is to use cover, the terrain, and weather (weather prediction spell can be useful at times). There is no reason why you have to be in the middle of the road when you can hide in the forest, for example.

Deception can also work, for example: laying traps, replacing bullets for blanks (or the classic replace food for horrible things), and using make shift areas (illusions for the win).

If this sounds like guerrilla tactics, it's because guerrilla tactics are skirmishing tactics vs a larger army.

The entire party has to use the guerrilla tactics, or the one fellow in clanky armor standing in the middle of the road becomes the obvious target. (Which might make a good future Handbook for Heroes comic--or is there one like that already?)

I played an elf cleric archer in a long-running D&D game where the entire party would sneak through the dungeon. My cleric managed the Move Silently checks due to the high Dexterity I gave him for the archery. We pooled our cash and bought Boots of Elven Kind for the fighter. Even that party switched to frontline-protects-the-squishies tactics when combat began.

The Iron Gods party was different. No particular use of cover, because battlefield control was more flexible. The use of terrain was that the strix could fly. Pre-combat sabotage did not fit the circumstances until the 5th and 6th modules. Nevertheless, the tactics were constant harassment of the enemy rather than stationary frontline combat. If the enemy converged on the least mobile party members--the dwarf gunslinger and the human fighter--then they were attacking the two people with the best AC. If the enemy retreated from the harassment, then perhaps the skald could negotiate a truce.


Mathmuse wrote:

In war, a skirmish is light, relatively indecisive combat. It serves to harass the enemy rather than defeat them.

That does not work in Pathfinder. Skirmish with an enemy force, and the next day both sides will be back to normal. Kill 5 soldiers in an army of 100, and it will be back to the full 100 again if the GM is not keeping detailed records.

The harass tactics work well, specially when you immediately capitalize on it. Also yes, a GM that doesn't reward strategy and just ignores any effort besides complete wipes do make skirmishing worse.

Mathmuse wrote:
We still use the word "skirmisher" in Pathfinder. It means the character who engages with the enemy in light, relatively indecisive combat. The skirmisher harasses the enemy, often to keep the heavy hitters from being overwhelmed until the heavy hitters finish with their current opponents and take on the enemies softened up by the skirmisher. Any character who intends to retreat from combat before his first opponent is dead or unconscious is a skirmisher, even if that retreat is the backstep of a Spring Attack or stepping behind a tree to reload a crossbow.

Yes we agree that is skirmishing. Things like thrown weapons, alchemical items, hindering items, and bleed (to a point) help.

Mathmuse wrote:
Likewise, dropping one minion at a time, when the minions are a threat only in large numbers, is like retreating from all counterattacks and counts as skirmishing. I viewed Name Violation's high-burst damage as that, but perhaps I was mistaken.

I know that killing enemies is good, less enemies == less problems. The way I saw/read it reminded me of the common thinking of, "got to burst everything, anything else is bad": Its also something the comic kind of called out, "the choice of run in and burst or stay safe and wait". I just felt it would be good to preemptively call out high burst to get kills not what skirmishing is.

Mathmuse wrote:

"Skirmisher" can also mean a character who fights in melee but is not strong at it. The bard steps up to the front line because that line needs another body to protect the squishy wizard behind the line.

The Handbook for Heroes Sneak Attack comic is far from skirmishing or guerrilla warfare. The rogue Thief is managing a sneak attack while being blatantly exposed and vulnerable. Colin's text calls her a "glass cannon" and elaborates, "Rogues and bards and magi can make some crazy cool characters, but you’ve got to remember: if you’re built like a...

Yeah I can see that, although I probably would say the bard is more of a support unit (can fight but not really what he's there for). Rogue sneak is weird it fits the "stab you in the back" effect, but people see it as a mechanic and want to use it everywhere to ultra murder in spectacular fashion.

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Yeah the tactical approach is not for every party. But even the armor clad fighter can serve as a diversion while the rest surround the enemy, within reason of course. Remember, that is also the stereotypical bandit tactic of choice.

For the kingsmaker campaign I played we started using teleport and dimension door to harass the enemy (steal their gold), and used invisibility to make them think the place was hunted (for at least a minute). They got pretty annoyed even adding anti teleport to important areas.


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The trickiest part for GMing with PCs that are in to trying to be melee skirmishers is that the nature of dungeons and battlefield set up can be extremely limiting for characters wanting to invest resources in being fast enough to hit and run from combat. How much resources are the party putting into getting the upperhand/choosing where the fight takes place?

The average party tends to walk into rooms and then react to what they see there. Skirmishing is nearly impossible in this scenario, or quickly turns into the rogue going first, moving in too far to get off an early sneak attack and then getting overwhelmed. But if they don't move in first, then the enemy clogs the choke point before the fighter can move the front line into a more advantageous position and the skirmisher is trapped in the back line feeling useless, especially if they don't have the feat support to make ranged attacks past allies feasible. Mobility in PF is far more than your movement speed, especially in a crowded dungeon.

Casting becomes the easiest way to accomplish this, especially beyond 4th level, even if it is not one character doing both the casting and the skirmishing. Use Magic Device can function as a work around, but it burns through character resources, which can be fine, but might frustrate the rest of the party if they were built around wanting to save every coin to improve their big six items as fast as possible.

Basically, skirmishing pretty much requires cooperation of party members and is a great way to get a group working together and feeling like a team when a plan works out and everyone plays their part, but will quickly start to have characters drop when they don't include recon and emergency withdrawl factored in to their general combat strategies.

I also strongly agree with and echo many posters above that point out that the real tactics of combat skirmishing are problematic when trying to apply directly to a fantasy setting where injuries can be healed almost instantly and resources recovered much more quickly than in real life. Magic changes both the goal of skirmishing and the way it is countered.


Mathmuse wrote:
Dave Justus wrote:
The key to skirmishing is moving away from the counterattacks. Spring Attack is a classic. A 5-foot-step after a raging bloodrager commandeers the attention of one's opponent is often enough.

It's my buddy's first character, and she's running a halfling investigator with a longspear and a Con of 10. I'm trying to help her survive long enough to overcome the build's inherent weaknesses, and something as simple as this might just help her out. Cheers!

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