Roll Initiative #6: Combat!


Welcome back to Roll Initiative… it’s KOMBAT TIME!

Last time, we talked about how a typical session of Pathfinder tends to go down. We left off with our intrepid unnamed adventurers stumbling upon a creepy ritual in the tunnels beneath the local graveyard. Surely nothing bad could come of this!

Naah. It’s time for those two magical words that every RPGer knows so well: “Roll Initiative!”

Let’s rejoin the Rogue, the Cleric, and the Barbarian as the battle is about to begin. Let’s also assume that another player has shown up for this session (maybe he got called in to work or something last time…), playing a Sorcerer. Such things do happen. Sometimes you do need to press forward and play a session without all your players there; I’ve found that it’s usually best to just keep playing, but have the missing player’s character just kind of stay out of focus. They’re there, just not speaking up or making big decisions.

Anyway, back to the fightin’! “Roll Initiative!” says the GM, and the players grab their d20s. Rolling Initiative is as simple as rolling that d20 and adding the Initiative bonus on your character sheet- this is usually just your Dexterity modifier, but there are Feats (such as Improved Initiative, which adds a +4 bonus) and other factors that can give your character an extra leg up. Initiative order determines the order the characters act in battle, and usually the advantage goes to whoever ends up at the top of said order. In this case, the Rogue ended up with a 22, meaning she goes first, followed by the Barbarian (16), the Sorcerer (12), and the Cleric, whose character is not very dextrous at all, got a cruddy 6. The GM rolls for the enemies- usually, the GM will roll one Initiative to represent an entire group of enemies, only doing another roll if there’s a different sort of enemy also involved. In this case, the enemies are made up of three acolytes and a scarlet-robed leader. The GM rolls twice here: the acolytes get a 14, and the Leader gets an 8. The final Initiative Order looks like this:

1. Rogue

2. Barbarian

3. Acolytes A, B, and C

4. Sorcerer

5. Cult Leader

6. Cleric

The GM takes a moment to draw out the room on his battlemat (one of the most common RPG accessories), then places tokens representing the Leader and the trio of Acolytes in the appropriate squares, and puts the players’ tokens at the entrance of the room, based on their marching order from earlier from last time. He also draws in a few key features of the room, namely the altar the cultists were gathered around last time.


So now that the map’s drawn up and the Initiative has been determined, it’s time to start the first round of combat! One “round” ends when the last character in Initiative Order has acted and the cycle restarts. Sometimes there’s a “Surprise Round” at the start of combat, when the GM determines that some of the participants are not aware of one another when the fighting starts, but in this case, thanks to the Barbarian’s awful Stealth check last session, the cultists are already aware of the party’s presence.

The Rogue is up first. There are different types of actions one can take in combat- Move Actions (generally that means moving, but it can also be used to draw a weapon, load a light crossbow, et cetera), Standard Actions (such as attacking or casting a spell), and others- but Move and Standard Actions are the most commonly seen. The Rogue takes a look at the map and gauges the distance between her token and the Leader- six squares, or about thirty feet. “Okay,” she says, “I’m going to use my Move Action to draw one of my daggers and then throw it at the leader.” Throwing the dagger is a Standard Action. A dagger can be thrown or used in melee, but the range isn’t so hot- 10 feet is as far as it can go without a negative. The GM warns: “Okay, you can reach him, but it’s going to be a -6 to your attack roll.” The Rogue agrees- it’s worth a shot. She rolls her d20 and adds her attack bonus- for a thrown weapon, that’s her Base Attack Bonus plus her Dexterity modifier. But don’t forget- last time on Roll Initiative, the Cleric cast Bless on the party in anticipation of a fight, netting everyone an extra +1 to the roll. The final result? She rolls a 14, adds her +4 attack bonus and the +1 from bless for a 19, then subtracts the -6 for the range penalty for a final total of 13. A number like that could go either way.

Luckily, the GM checks his notes and sees that this hits the Cult Leader’s AC of 13 right on the money! The Rogue then rolls for damage- for a dagger, that’s a d4, and adds her Strength modifier to the damage, ending up doing 4 damage total to the Cult Leader. “You throw the dagger across the room, and it strikes the cultist right in the arm. He growls in pain and clutches at the wound, but doesn’t go down.” The Rogue, having used up her Move and Standard Actions, is done for this round. “Okay, our Barbarian is up.”

The Barbarian’s player grins. “I’m gonna charge at the boss man. Maybe we can take him down before he can act.” Charging is a type of special action you can do in combat called a Full-Round Action. Basically, the character is using his entire turn to barrel toward the enemy and deliver an attack, and it’s pretty bread-and-butter for a Barbarian. It lets you move up to twice your movement speed (so long as you have a clear path to the target) and grants a +2 bonus to attack, but due to the reckless nature of the action, it lowers the user’s AC by 2 until the start of the user’s next turn. The GM makes sure there’s nothing that would cause the Barbarian’s charge to be impeded and gives the OK. The Barbarian’s token is moved next to the Leader’s, and the Barb rolls an attack. “I run at him screaming bloody murder, and heft my greatsword overhead.” His d20 roll lands on a 9, but with his +5 attack bonus, the +1 from Bless, and the +2 from charging, his final result is a 17, more than enough to hit the leader. He then rolls his damage- a Greatsword is 2d6, plus the Barbarian’s +4 Strength bonus, plus another 2 for wielding two-handed (which allows you to add 1 and a half times your Strength bonus, making two-handed weapons a great choice for players looking to do a lot of damage). His final total is 12 points of damage, meaning the Leader has taken 16 points of damage already this turn.

“You hack into him with such force that he nearly loses his footing, and his blood splatters across the floor,” the GM says. “His eyes go wide with shock, and it looks like he’s barely standing. Fortunately for him, his Acolytes are up.” Indeed, it’s not the Acolytes’ turn to act, and the GM thinks briefly on what they should do. “You’re clearly the biggest immediate threat,” the GM says, looking at the Barbarian. “So two of them are going to approach you and attack with their daggers.” He moves two of the Acolytes up, and now the Barbarian has enemies on three sides of him. Caught between enemies, the Barbarian is now “flanked.” This basically means that because he’s having to defend himself against several directions at once, his enemies will have an easier time hitting him- thus, the flanking opponents will get a +2 to hit. This is why getting surrounded in combat is so dangerous, and the Barbarian has just put himself into a dangerous situation. The GM rolls for the two Acolytes’ attacks; one of them, who is directly behind the Barbarian and thus flanking him with the Leader, gets the +2 flanking bonus, but the one standing adjacent to him does not. In any case, with the Barb’s AC lowered by 2 thanks to his charge, both attacks hit him, and the Barbarian takes 6 damage from one and 3 from the other. “The cultists are on you in a heartbeat, and slash at you with their ceremonial daggers. You’re getting carved up pretty good.” The Barbarian notes that he has 5 hit points left, so he isn’t done for yet, but another round caught between enemies like this could finish him off. The third Acolyte, the one who didn’t attack the Barbarian, moves away from the party and casts a spell, Ray of Frost, at the Rogue. The GM rolls a ranged attack (1d20+his dexterity modifier+his base attack bonus) against the rogue’s “touch” AC (meaning she does not get her armor bonus; this is used for attacks that only have to touch the target to be effective), and it hits. The Rogue takes 2 points of damage. Considering the 3 damage she took from the poisoned dart last session, she’s down to 4 hit points from her maximum of 9. “A bolt of icy magic strikes you, and you feel a deep chill wash through your body,” the GM says. “And that’s all three Acolytes. Sorcerer’s up.”

The Sorcerer, eager to get into the action since he missed the last session, asks: “Any way I can position myself to cast Burning Hands and catch those two Acolytes”- he points out the two that are pummeling the Barbarian- “in the blast radius, but not burn up my friend?” The GM looks at the situation and replies that he can if he moves to this square. Burning Hands is a spell that projects magical fire in a fifteen-foot spread. The Sorcerer doesn’t have to make an attack roll for this spell, since anything in that area of effect is getting burned, but the Acolytes do get to make a Reflex save to try and take half damage from it. The GM rolls their saves, but neither makes it- and they both take 3 points of fire damage. “Your spell lights their cloaks on fire, and they begin crying out in pain. Unfortunately, it seems like you’ve gotten their attention, and now the Cult Leader’s turn is up.”


The GM is aware that the Barbarian is still being flanked by the Leader and one of the Acolytes, so he makes the obvious choice and has the Leader attack him using his dagger. He easily beats the Barbarian’s diminished AC thanks to the flanking bonus, and the Leader deals a mean 6 points of damage, reducing the Barbarian’s hit points to -1. That doesn’t mean the Barb is dead- a character in Pathfinder doesn’t die unless their hit points are reduced to a number equal to their Constitution score in the negative, so unless the Barb takes another fifteen points of damage, he’ll live- but he’s in great danger, as he’s now unconscious and will have to make a Stabilization check (1d20+Constitution) each time his turn comes around to keep from losing another hit point every round. “The Leader snarls and stabs you in the gut with his dagger, and it’s one wound too much. You collapse to the ground in a heap.”  The Leader then moves toward the back of the room, keeping his Acolytes between himself and the rest of the party.

Finally, it’s the Cleric’s turn. Clerics are often (but not always) healers, and seeing the Barbarian go down so quickly, realizes he has to do something to keep his team from dying. “I’m going to move here and Channel Energy,” he says. Channel Energy is a class feature for Clerics that allows them to call upon the power of their deity to heal (or harm) targets within a 30-foot radius centered on the user. Luckily, the Cleric has the “Selective Channeling” Feat, so he is able to pick a number of targets equal to his Intelligence modifier and keep them from being affected; here, that lets him keep the two injured Acolytes from receiving any healing, and as the Leader has moved out of range, he can only do good here. He rolls a d6 to determine how many hit points the party gets back and lands a 3, which heals both the Barbarian and the Rogue. Now that the Barbarian is no longer in negative hit points, he’s conscious again.

“All right,” the GM says, “that’s the first round. Back to the top of the order! Rogue, you’re up.”

And that’s how a typical round of combat in Pathfinder might go. Let’s say that the party is able to rally and finish off the Acolytes and their leader- the game would shift back into the exploration or role-playing phase as the players react to what just happened, look around the chamber, search the cultists’ bodies for clues (or useful items), and finally press on.

That will conclude our look at the basics of Combat in Pathfinder. When Roll Initiative returns, we’ll be looking at some advanced aspects of the game, and begin moving into the fine art (and science) of GMing!