2022 Guide: How Combat Expertise Works in Pathfinder

Combat Expertise is one of the more…controversial feats in Pathfinder and Dungeons and Dragons.

Arguments have been made all over the internet as to its usefulness. Oceans of Mountain Dew have been spilled and so much cheeto dust has been spread into dense clouds at every table.

There is contention in the gaming community about its place because it can be seen as redundant with some other options. 

I’m here to tell you Combat Expertise has its place at the table like any other feat, and it deserves another good look from everyone. 

What is Combat Expertise?

The Combat Expertise Feat is equal and opposite mechanically to the iconic Power Attack Feat.

From the Pathfinder 1st Edition SRD:

Combat Expertise (Combat)

You can increase your defense at the expense of your accuracy.

Prerequisite: Int 13.

Benefit: You can choose to take a –1 penalty on melee attack rolls and combat maneuver checks to gain a +1 dodge bonus to your Armor Class. When your base attack bonus reaches +4, and every +4 thereafter, the penalty increases by –1 and the dodge bonus increases by +1.

You can only choose to use this feat when you declare that you are making an attack or a full-attack action with a melee weapon. The effects of this feat last until your next turn.

Whereas Power Attack trades attack accuracy for extra damage, Combat Expertise trades attack accuracy for heightened defense. Also like Power Attack, it scales as your Base Attack Bonus increases.

The Bonus lasts until your next turn, making you much harder to hit for the entirety of the enemy’s next turn.

Fun Fact: Dodge bonuses are amazing because they can stack, and there are many options for more Dodge bonuses to make yourself untouchable.

How Does Combat Expertise Work?

Let’s give a good example of how this feat works.

Aeden is a 4rth level Fighter with the Combat Expertise feat. He is holding the door against an onslaught of goblins attempting to get into the room where his party is.

Aeden gets ready to attack and decides to drop his attack roll down by -2 in order to give himself an additional +2 dodge bonus on top of any other bonuses he has to his AC.

That Bonus will last against anyone who comes at him until the top of his next turn, when it is his choice to use the Feat again or truly go on the offensive.

Who Does Combat Expertise Help?

There is an argument in tabletop gaming that goes like this:

“He Who Hits First, Wins.”

This isn’t strictly wrong, and this is also true in real-world combat. Initiative and momentum are definitely subtle mechanics in the game that reinforce this outlook, and how a true fight would probably go. Dealing more damage is the most straightforward of advantages in any physical combat. 

But just like it isn’t strictly wrong, it isn’t also strictly right. The Gods’ honest truth is actually:

“He Who Hits Last, Wins.”

In essence, it doesn’t really matter who went first. In the end, it’s all about who is left standing after taking less damage. The Best way to stay standing is to not be hit at all. You can have all the HP in the world, but your Armor Class or AC is always your first line of defense. 

Combat Expertise allows a combatant to control the pace of the battle, making it move the way they want rather than having to worry about seizing the initiative right away.

A Tank-based character can use Combat Expertise to augment their AC, and become the mountain on which the enemy wastes their most powerful abilities while he barely breaks a sweat dancing around each and every blow.

The AC bump isn’t just a flat increase either. It is specifically a Dodge Bonus to the character’s AC. This means it is deliberately augmenting the AC versus Touch Attacks

To Define Touch Attacks as per the SRD:

Touch Attacks

Some attacks completely disregard armor, including shields and natural armor—the aggressor need only touch a foe for such an attack to take full effect. In these cases, the attacker makes a touch attack roll (either ranged or melee).

When you are the target of a touch attack, your AC doesn’t include any armor bonus, shield bonus, or natural armor bonus. All other modifiers, such as your size modifier, Dexterity modifier, and deflection bonus (if any) apply normally.

Some creatures have the ability to make incorporeal touch attacks. These attacks bypass solid objects, such as armor and shields, by passing through them. Incorporeal touch attacks work similarly to normal touch attacks except that they also ignore cover bonuses.

Incorporeal touch attacks do not ignore armor bonuses granted by force effects, such as mage armor and bracers of armor.

This makes Combat Expertise invaluable when fighting against monsters or opponents who do not care about the character’s armor. Examples of touch attacks are things like an arcane spell caster’s Shocking Grasp spell, or a Ghost’s Corrupting Touch ability. 

Character Builds That Use Combat Expertise

The most common builds Combat Expertise benefits are characters based on being untouchable.

Dexterity-Based Tanks, Swashbucklers, or Rogues are all on the list. Combat Expertise is designed to give you just the edge to not get hit. Characters who rely on tricks and Combat Maneuvers like Bull Rush, Dirty Trick, Disarm, Grapple, Reposition, Sunder, and Trip

Combat Expertise is also useful for those building into Attacks of Opportunity with feats like Combat Reflexes. A character who can take multiple Attacks of Opportunity can easily place themselves into harm’s way to threaten a great deal of enemies, use Combat Expertise to bump their AC, and then force others to either try to attack their higher AC or have to go around them and potentially provoke multiple attacks.

From a Tiny Seed, a Mighty Oak Grows

One of the most potent aspects of Combat Expertise is the options it opens up for a character who takes it. Plenty of feats use Combat Expertise or a later feat as a prerequisite.

In fact, a quick CTRL+F on the Combat Feats page on the Pathfinder SRD shows (and I counted this manually) 53 feats that use Combat Expertise as a prerequisite!

Like Power Attack and its later Feat “Tree,” the “Combat Expertise Tree” of feats unlocks extra or improved combat maneuvers as you follow through it. The later feats allow for extra mobility, dodge bonuses, and better tricks to employ against foes.

Some of these feats include:

Improved Dirty Trick Benefit: You do not provoke an attack of opportunity when performing a dirty trick combat maneuver. In addition, you receive a +2 bonus on checks made to attempt a dirty trick. You also receive a +2 bonus to your Combat Maneuver Defense when an opponent tries a dirty trick on you.
Improved DisarmBenefit: You do not provoke an attack of opportunity when performing a disarm combat maneuver. In addition, you receive a +2 bonus on checks made to disarm a foe. You also receive a +2 bonus to your Combat Maneuver Defense whenever an opponent tries to disarm you.
Directed DisarmBenefit(s): Whenever you successfully use a combat maneuver to disarm an opponent, the disarmed weapon lands up to 15 feet away from its wielder, in the direction you choose. Alternatively, you can make a ranged attack as an immediate action with the disarmed weapon against another opponent, as long as the disarmed weapon is a light or one-handed weapon. If the weapon is not a thrown weapon, you take a –4 penalty on the attack roll. You take a –4 penalty on your attack roll if you do not have a free hand.
Improved FeintBenefit: You can make a Bluff check to feint in combat as a move action.
Gang UpBenefit: You are considered to be flanking an opponent if at least two of your allies are threatening that opponent, regardless of your actual positioning.
Improved ParryBenefit(s) When you successfully parry a foe’s melee attack (with a dueling parry or the parry class feature), your next melee attack against the target does not allow the enemy to apply its Dexterity bonus to AC (if any). This attack must be made before the end of your next turn.
Quick Dirty TrickBenefit: On your turn, you can perform a single dirty trick combat maneuver in place of one of your melee attacks. You must choose the melee attack with the highest base attack bonus to make the dirty trick combat maneuver.
Improved RepositionBenefit: You do not provoke an attack of opportunity when performing a reposition combat maneuver. In addition, you receive a +2 bonus on checks made to reposition a foe. You also receive a +2 bonus to your Combat Maneuver Defense when an opponent tries to reposition you.
Second ChanceBenefit: When making a full attack, if you miss on your first attack, you can forgo making any other attacks for the rest of your turn to reroll that attack at your highest base attack bonus.
Improved StealBenefit: You do not provoke an attack of opportunity when performing a steal combat maneuver. In addition, you receive a +2 bonus on checks made to steal an item from a foe. You also receive a +2 bonus to your Combat Maneuver Defense when an opponent tries to steal an item from you.
Tactical RepositionBenefit: When making a reposition combat maneuver, you can move an enemy into a trap or other hazardous area, such as a pit, wall scythe, or blade barrier. When you do so, the moved enemy is treated as though it had activated the trap or triggered the hazard, and it takes a –2 penalty to AC and on saving throws to mitigate the trap or hazard’s effects.

And that is just a small sample!

Combat Expertise is the foundation on which trick fighters can build their careers.

Good Luck and Good Hunting Pathfinders!