Fighting with Size Issues

Welcome to the Gibbering Mouth article for March 5th, 2014. Today’s article is a Wednesday Rant; the topic is the size mechanic as it pertains to Pathfinder.

 Its not often that I find a series of rules that are mind-bogglingly bad in the Pathfinder Roleplaying Game. Nine times of ten, these rules are hand-me-downs from 3.5 Edition, and that certainly holds true with today’s topic. But it always grinds my gears that these horrible logical fallacies are never fixed or addressed! If time was taken to create combat maneuvers, why wasn’t the same addition given elsewhere?

 Today I’m going to rant about my issues with the size category mechanic: specifically, with flanking and 5-foot steps.

The Problem with Flanking

Flanking is a mechanic by which you (and your partner) receive a bonus on attack rolls for essentially “cornering” an opponent. By locking the enemy between you in a vice grip of death, you make it more difficult for the enemy to dodge your attacks, resulting in a +2 bonus on attack rolls for both characters. Flanking is also the easiest way for a rogue to deal sneak attack damage to an opponent because all it requires is positioning.

 So, what’s the problem with flanking? There’s a rule in the Core Rulebook that states that creatures with a reach of 0 feet cannot flank opponents because they don’t threaten any spaces. Specifically, this rule applies to Tiny or smaller creatures. I assume this restriction is in place because it seems preposterous for anything as small as a fox to effectively flank a creature as large as a human. Except, you know, they can because in essence flanking is what happens when you are distracted by two very threatening creatures that want to rip you into bite-sized chunks. But, nah, Tiny things are too SMALL to threaten us big Medium-sized folk! Tiny creatures are two whole size categories smaller than us; its not like humans can flank Huge creatures.

Oh wait.

The problem lies in the “threaten” mechanic. As written, the reason a Tiny creature can’t flank an opponent is that these creatures do not “threaten” spaces, which doesn’t make sense. If I share my space with an angry fox and I go to move into a new space, the game says that I don’t provoke an attack of opportunity because Tiny creatures don’t “threaten” squares. Likewise, four foxes can fit into a single 5-foot square, yet they can’t work together and flank my opponent because they don’t “threaten” opponents. As anyone who has ever gotten bitten by an animal ever could tell you, that’s a load of crap right there.

 A Solution

Here is a quick house rule that’ll fix this problem:

 Threatened Area: A creature threatens a square if it can make a melee attack into that square. A creature threatens all squares that comprise its space (minimum one 5-foot square), plus squares adjacent to its space depending upon its natural reach. For example, a Medium human has a reach of 5 feet, so a human PC threatens the 5-foot square that comprises its space plus all 5-foot squares directly adjacent to its space. A Tiny fox, on the other hand, has a reach of 0 feet, so a fox familiar threatens the 5-foot square that comprises its space, but nothing more.

 Flanked: Any creature that is threatened by two or more enemies receives the flanked condition, granting those enemies a +2 flanking bonus on melee attack rolls against it. In order to flank a creature, both enemies must be on opposite borders or corners from one another or at least one of the enemies must be within the flanked creature’s space. If both enemies are within the creature’s space, however, their positioning does not matter. A creature cannot flank an opponent that is three or more size categories larger than itself and creatures without Intelligence scores cannot flank opponents. A creature can be flanked by multiple groups of opponents.

 Let’s look at the rule and chat about it:

  • First, it seems silly to me that something the size of a housecat couldn’t flank you. It may not be terribly threatening (i.e. it has a low damage die) but that doesn’t mean that a suitably intelligence house cat shouldn’t be able to flank you.
  • Second, this rule irons out one of the major inconsistencies/gray spots of the current rules: as written, creatures don’t threaten their space, only squares adjacent to their space. That’s awkward at best.
  • Third, this system redefines “flanking” as a condition, which it honestly should be.
  • Fourth, this system acknowledges that some size pairings are simply too large/small to be effective. A human (Medium) should not be able to flank a rune giant (Gargantuan) for the same reasons that a mouse (Diminutive) should not be able to flank a human (Medium).
  • With the nod about Intelligence scores, you make sure that swarms still can’t flank opponents while making it impossible for zombies to flank you too, which I feel is more realistic; mindless zombies don’t flank in the movies anyway, they swarm.

The Problem with 5-Foot Steps

Like flanking, 5-foot steps have a problem with scaling size categories beyond the intended PC size (Medium and Small). Unlike flanking, however, were the problem is mostly an inconvenience; 5-foot steps are just plain silly the larger (or smaller) you get from standard PC size. Here’s an example:

  • Rob the Human is a Medium creature. He has a reach of 5 feet and is about 5 feet tall. He can move a distance equal to his reach without much effort or provoking attacks of opportunity.
  • Tinkerbell the Fairy is a Fine creature. She has a reach of 0 feet and is about one inch tall. She can effectively move a distance that is 60 times her height without much effort or provoking attacks of opportunity even though she has no reach.
  • Great Cthulhu is a Colossal creature. He has a reach of 40 feet and is about 180 feet tall. He can effectively move a distance equal to one-sixteenth his height even though he has a 40 foot reach.

Doesn’t that look absolutely bonkers to you? 5 feet for Great Cthulhu has to be, like, his toenail. He can move a distance equal to his toenail without provoking attacks of opportunity.

The Solution

The solution to this one is easy: drop the 5-foot step mechanic and make a new mechanic in its place: I’m going to call it shifting step.

 Shifting Step: You can adjust your position during any round that you don’t perform any other kind of movement. When taking a shifting step, you can move into any square within your reach without provoking an attack of opportunity. You can’t make more than one shifting step in a round and you can’t take a shifting step in the same round you move any distance. Effects and conditions that improve your reach, such as using a reach weapon or the Lunge feat, do not increase the distance that you move when making a shifting step.

You can take a shifting step before, during, or after your other actions in the round. You can only take a shifting step if your movement isn’t hampered by difficult terrain or darkness. Any creature with a speed of 5-feet or less, since moving even 5 feet requires a move action for such a slow creature. Likewise, any creature without reach can’t take a 5-foot step as it is too small to effectively move into the new area.

You may not take a 5-foot step using a form of movement for which you do not have a listed speed.

 Again, let’s look at this house rule and chat about it:

  • This house rule restricts the movement of smaller creatures, which should be more cumbersome, and boosts the movement of larger creatures, which should be better-paced.
  • This rule uses an established metric of size (reach) to determine how far a creature can travel.

And that about wraps up my thoughts on 5-foot steps and flanking for this installment of the Wednesday Rave. What do you think? Are these good house rules or are they needlessly complex? Do the discrepancies I pointed out bother you too, or do you ignore them for the sake of fantasy? Is this a rule that you’d try in your home games? Leave your answers and comments below, and I’ll see you next week!

 Alexander “Alex” Augunas has been playing roleplaying games since 2007, which isn’t nearly as long over 90% of his colleagues. Affectionately called a “budding game designer” by his partner at Radiance House, Alexander is the author of the Pact Magic Unbound series (Radiance House) and a handful of other Third-Party Products. Before founding the Everyman Gaming blog, Alexander gained notoriety for writing the GM’s Guide to Challenging Encounters, which remains accessible to this day. His favorite color is blue, his favorite Pathfinder Race/Class combination is kitsune technician and his favorite pastime is slyly promoting upcoming products he is working on!  

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7 thoughts on “Fighting with Size Issues

  1. I’ve never had a problem with the flanking squares. For me, it seemed reasonable that tiny creatures couldn’t flank, not because they were 2 size categories smaller, but because the natural reach of the creature wasn’t great enough to attack a creature 5-feet away. Think about a cat; if you were fighting a cat and wielding something like a baseball bat, the reach of your arms plus the length of the bat allows you to attack anything within ~5 feet of yourself. Where as the cat, with it’s claws, can only reach out and claw something that is within ~1 ft of itself.

    I also disagree on the idea creatures without an intelligence score can’t flank. Flanking has nothing to do with the intelligence of the creature, it has everything to do with the person being flanked. The reason you get +2 to hit is because it’s hard to divide your attention between people on two opposite sides of you. So whether the creature is intelligent or not, defending against opposing zombies is harder than defending against 2 zombies coming from the front, or the front and the side etc. I will admit zombies would not know to flank, because they are intelligent, but if they happen to be in flanking position, they should benefit.

    The 5-ft step thing has always kind of bugged me and your solution works well, but I would add one addendum: Creatures who’s natural move speed is less than their reach can only make a shifting step up to the extent of their move speed.

    I can’t recall any specific examples at the moment, but I know their are creatures that have something like 30 ft. reach, but only 20 ft. move speed. So, for them, it would be ‘better’ to make a shifting step each round instead of moving, because the shifting step is faster than their move speed.

  2. I can see these making it into my house rules. Although I agree with Darrell about the intelligence issue (flanking is definitely with the defender not the attacker) I don’t agree that small creatures shouldn’t be able to flank. In the example given I’d much rather fight a two cats using a baseball bat (not a sentence I ever thought I’d type) able to face both of them, if you put one of them behind me I’d definitely be at a disadvantage regardless of whether I knew they were both there. The reach of the opponents is already taken into account in the normal combat rules.

    • Oh, I don’t think cats, shouldn’t be able to flank, I just don’t think they can flank unless they can hit you. It makes sense to me that creatures that have to enter your square (like cats) provide flanking in all directions.

  3. To continue the “cat & the bat” example, it would be very distracting to try to fight someone if I had an angry cat on me, or at my feet and trying to get at my hide. I think your revision of flanking would work just fine. The zero-Intelligence rule doesn’t fit, though, as Darrell pointed out. You might specify that swarms can’t flank, or state that creatures that don’t make attack rolls can’t flank. (Are there any non-swarm creatures that use a similar attack method?)

    Regarding Shifting Step, I made a similar rule, except I used a creature’s space to determine the distance it can step. It’s easier to use, because you’re using the size of the miniature or counter as a guideline.

  4. I like the shifting step idea but I would limit it to half of your speed. Threatening your own square makes sense and if you share a square then it should flank with any one. Not sure on the medium creatures not threatening a gargantuan one. Maybe one the the creatures must share the space with it to do so.

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