Welcome to Combat Maneuvers 101 1

Master of Swords, Marcos Farabellus

Master of Swords, Marcos Farabellus

Welcome to Combat Maneuvers 101! Since you’re in this class, I assume you’ve learned the basics of melee fighting, and you’re looking for some tricks to keep up your sleeve when your basic swordplay isn’t quite cutting it. You can’t always depend on your wizard friend to set you up, nor should you; a true Pathfinder creates his or her own opportunities. I’ll be showing you how.

Now keep in mind that this is just a survey class. Unless you do some intensive training and pick up the Improved feat for your chosen maneuver, you’re liable to open yourself up to attacks of opportunity. And that damage doesn’t just hurt you, it hurts your attack roll. Smart tactics can work around that, such as catching your opponent flat-footed, but if you’re only dabbling, save these maneuvers for the scrawny types who can’t hit back.

These maneuvers tend to rely on muscle, but you nimble folk who are interested can learn to leverage your dexterity instead with some extra training, a.k.a. Agile Maneuvers. And most of them are standard actions, so you don’t get to use them with full attacks and you can’t use them as part of a charge (but there are exceptions).

Lastly, make sure you pick on somebody your own size. As monsters get bigger, their ability to withstand these attacks goes up fast [Combat Maneuver Defence or CMD, which is basically their Armor class against these attacks scales with size]. And maneuvers that move your opponents around or knock them prone just flat out won’t work on anything more than one size category larger than you. But a potion of enlarge person is a cheap way to fix that.


This maneuver is in a class all its own. Need to take a prisoner for interrogation? Grapple him. A spellcaster is ruining your day? It’s next to impossible to concentrate on a spell when you’re in a wrist-lock. One of your teammates got dominated, and you need to take them out of the fight without killing them? This and a good stout rope will make sure you’re still friends afterward.

Now, you’ve got to know something about throwing a punch to do this well, but if you’ve learned Improved Unarmed Strike, studying Improved Grapple is a no-brainer. Once you’ve got an opponent grappled, you can maintain the grapple on your next turn with a +5 bonus, plus you can pin him, damage him, or start dragging him around. Once you’ve got him pinned, you can tie him up if you have a rope. Not many people can escape an experienced grappler.

What do you do if you’re grappled yourself? Good question. Hopefully, you’ve got the brute strength to break free or the agility to make an Escape Artist check and wriggle your way out. You can even the odds a bit with some alchemical grease for a +5 on either check, or a grease spell from an ally or your own wand (which doesn’t require concentration) can give you a +10. More experienced Pathfinders might try a potion of gaseous form (like the vial of alchemical grease, your opponent is too busy grappling to take his free swing at you for using it), or an ally with spells like liberating command or freedom of movement.

Power Maneuvers

You all do know how to hit hard, right? If you’ve learned Power Attack, you’re already half of the way to learning how to use these maneuvers. Don’t have the muscle for that? You’re out of luck, but stick around, because I’ve got some other tricks you may be interested in.

Bull Rush

Got somebody in your way? Move him. Bull rushing is one of three maneuvers that move your opponents around, and it’s the only one you can pull off with sheer brute force. It pushes people away from you, which is great for knocking people into pits, off boats, or through walls of fire, or just opening up some breathing room if you’ve got a polearm and your back to the wall. Unless you’re really good though, you’re not likely to move your opponent more than five feet, so don’t expect miracles if you don’t train hard. One last point: you can make a bull rush as your attack at the end of a charge, if you need a little extra juice.


Basically, this is bull rush, but backward. You can only drag people to places you’ve already been, so unless you’re airborne, it’s less useful for maneuvering people into hazards. It can be handy for pulling people away from walls to open them up to flanks, but generally there are better maneuvers to focus your training on.


Have you ever been jealous of your more agile teammates, watching them dance around their foes to set up for flanks while you just stand there in your full plate armor? Try taking the direct route instead. Overrun lets you move through your opponent’s space and get to the other side. Good for setting up flanks, or breaking out of a pack of enemies that has you surrounded. It also comes in handy as a substitute for tripping, because if you beat your opponent’s CMD by 5 or more, you knock them prone. Watch out for those giant spiders though; the more legs a creature has, the harder it is to overrun them.


I know you all like to brag about who has the biggest sword or the shiniest armor. How would you feel if they got broken? For you Rovagugians out there—put your hand down!—the sunder maneuver lets you put the hurt on your opponent’s equipment. Breaking a weapon gives it a -2 on attacks and makes it harder to score critical hits (keep that in mind if someone is ruining your day with a keen rapier). Destroying it takes it out of play entirely. Sundering armor can crack open that tin can fighter so your teammates can get to the meat inside.

Obviously, this isn’t much use against monsters who don’t carry equipment. Even fiends that use weapons might be just as happy cutting you open with claws if you break their weapons. But this maneuver really shines against spellcasters. Sunder a cleric’s holy symbol, and they’ve lost half their spells. Rip open a wizard’s component pouch, and leave them scrambling to pick up the right bits off the floor. It’s good for magical items too. If someone pulls out a potion within your reach, use your attack of opportunity to smash that vial before it gets to their lips. The same goes for scrolls or wands; the more fragile, the better.

Now this maneuver relies on doing damage, so even if you have the strength to learn it, you rogues and swashbucklers are out of luck. That precious precision damage you love so much is no good on items with no vital organs. And if you want to make a career of cutting through hardened steel, for the love of Gorum get an adamantine weapon!

Expert Maneuvers

This set of maneuvers is a little trickier to use. You’ve got to train in Combat Expertise to learn to use them well, and Combat Expertise is… well, it’s necessary. Let’s just leave it at that. They also require just a little bit of brain power, but if you weren’t blessed with the sense that Gozreh gave geese, there are some ways around that: check out the Brawler class, or study a bit at the monastery (pay particular attention to the Flowing Monk and Maneuver Master archetypes) to bypass that requirement.


Tripping is the best move of this list. Once you’ve got a warrior on his back, he’s as good as done. Losing your mobility and -4 to attacks and AC isn’t something you come back from easily. The trouble is that it loses its effectiveness on the most freakish of opponents. Too many legs, and it’s hard to take them all out. Too few legs, and you’ve got nothing to trip up. Fighting something airborne? Forget about it.

Normally, if you fail to trip by 5 or more, you fall prone. But if you’re using a weapon with the “trip” feature, you can drop the weapon instead. That reminds me: you do have a back-up weapon, right?


This is another of those maneuvers you probably don’t want to specialize in. It lets you knock away your opponent’s weapon, but lots of your opponents don’t even need weapons. Keep it in your back pocket for those humanoid warrior types you run into, but if you want to specialize in something, keep looking.


Did any of you sneaky types have your heart broken when I warned you away from sundering? Well check out this maneuver. Stealing is similar to disarming, but for everything else. Everything I said about sundering holy symbols and component pouches? You can do that with stealing, all without worrying about damage or hardness. Plus, you now have whatever you took, so keep an eye out for wands or other magic items you can turn against your opponents.


This is the more nuanced cousin of bull rush and drag. Instead of moving your opponent directly away or directly toward you, you can move them anywhere in your reach, or just outside of it for the last square of movement. It’s good for moving opponents into just the right spot for flanking or so your barbarian friend can get a full attack, but you’ll never move anybody into hazards like pits with it, so don’t even try.

Dirty Trick

Here’s where you can get creative. Dirty trick is a catch-all maneuver for anything I haven’t listed here. You can spit in someone’s eyes to blind them (rogues and ninjas will love you for that), kick them in the unmentionables to sicken them, or just about anything else you can think of. I won’t go over the details here, but you can read up on dirty tricks to see what kind of effects you can expect out of it. It’s useful, but don’t expect miracles; that’s what your spellcaster friends are there for.

Final Notes

Remember that combat maneuver checks are attack rolls, so anything that boosts your attacks boosts combat maneuvers. Being inspired by a bard? Add that in. Flanking? That too. But this applies to penalties as well. Did you just use Power Attack, then follow up with a trip? You’re still taking that penalty to your roll, and getting nothing to show for it. So remember: combat maneuver, then Power Attack!

What’s that? Yes, I said maneuvers are standard actions, so you can’t use them in a full attack, or as attacks of opportunity or charges, but there are exceptions. Trip, disarm, and sunder maneuvers are special, because you use your weapon to perform them. So you can perform those maneuvers any time you could make a weapon attack, which includes full attacks, charges, and attacks of opportunity. On top of that, you get to include any weapon-specific bonuses to your roll. Got an enchantment, or Weapon Focus, or anything else that boosts attacks with your weapons? You get to add that in. Also, weapons with the “trip” feature get to add their bonuses to drag and reposition maneuvers as well, so keep that in mind when arming yourself.

All of the other maneuvers except overrun and grapple can be done quickly too, with the right training. Many of the more advanced maneuver feats let you force opponents to provoke attacks of opportunity when you move them or knock them prone. Check out Ultimate Combat for those feats and others that can take your maneuver game to the next level.

Further Study

So, you want to make maneuvers a career? There are some areas of study I recommend:

Fighter archetypes such as the Cad and the Lore Warden can really boost your maneuvers. The Lore Warden in particular will give you Combat Expertise for free so you can qualify for many of the Improved feats, plus flat bonuses to CMB and CMD. I highly recommend it, but it comes at the cost of your heavier armors, so plan accordingly.

Monks are great for maneuvers, especially trip and grapple, and they have archetypes to specialize in them as well. The Flowing Monk can get in free maneuvers when people attack him, while the Maneuver Master can use maneuvers that normally take a standard action as part of his flurry. The Wildcat gets a boost to dirty tricks, and the Tetori is the best grappler around. If any of my Halfling students haven’t been scared off yet, the Underfoot Adept is worth looking into as well.

Lots of other classes have tricks up their sleeves to boost one maneuver or another, and some spells can amplify or reproduce these moves as well. I recommend checking with those instructors for more details.

I hope you’ve all learned something today. Remember: Explore! Report! Cooperate!

About Joseph Kellogg

Joseph Kellogg is the Venture-Lieutenant of the Kingsport, TN area. When not running or playing Pathfinder Society, he works as an environmental chemist and writes science fiction and fantasy stories.

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