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There are a lot of situations in D&D combat where characters seem to be left without anything to do that round. For example, a bard out of inspires and without slashing weapons beset by zombies, or a melee fighter trapped behind a rank of party members and not able to reach your opponents, or a very weak wizard being out of spells, where you just end up saying "I pass."

What actions are available when a character cannot make any effective physical attacks, has nowhere to move for any tactical advantage, and has no more spells to cast?

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8 Answers

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Seeing as the combat is in hand the bard could focus on doing something non combat related. Some suggestions are:

  1. Start searching the room (you never know when you might turn up a secret door)
  2. Search/loot the fallen opponents if any
  3. Peer into the next room

Otherwise as others have said Ready an Action, Delay etc and hope the situation changes. In our party if the bard had nothing to do he would start singing of our great achievements and how we are going to win this battle or some other roleplaying colour.

Sometimes you just need to accept that there is nothing constructive this turn you can do, try and set yourself up for a better position next time, think about what would have been useful to have with you now and make sure that you have it with next time. In 3.5 sometimes the best thing you can do in a combat is pass your turn so that the combat gets finished faster and you can move on to something more interesting.

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Don't go trigger other encounters, though. –  Zachiel Jan 15 '13 at 20:14
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In general, you have a number of options - some need more preplanning however.

Doctor, It Hurts When I Do That

If characters are frequently getting caught in situations where they don't have anything to do, they are not playing the long game very smart. They should consider these times in builds, when purchasing magic items, etc. "Oh I'm a melee guy if someone's in the air I'm borked" or "Oh I am a rogue I'm useless against undead" aren't things to try to fix while they're happening, they are things to plan for and say "how can I be maximally effective in a fight when these things come up?" The action economy is the most valuable thing in D&D combat, and losing actions is like having a -4 penalty to all actions on yourself. Just buying a couple tanglefoot bags takes many combats from "I am standing here in the back rank touching myself" to "aha, zombie entangled!" Keep a spare weapon of a different type, buy a couple potions, etc. If you don't bother planning ahead, this'll happen to you a lot. Incorporeal, flying, DR'ed enemies... Sometime it's as easy as "take a damn throwing axe off a corpse sometime and keep it around."

GMs, you can try drops and/or advice for noob players getting caught in this trap. Sadly in D&D 3e+ they are tempted to sell of "nonoptimized" items to put all their money into further minmaxing their set of "optimized" items. Happened last week in my game, I said like 10 times "you're sure you want to sell those unique weapons you got from sunken Azlant just to put another plus on your armor? Really? Really? Everyone else agree with that?" Sometimes players are immune to help from the GM though.

Check the Rules

3.5e has a lot of built in options you can use. Improvised weapons, aid another, etc. Check your skills. Can you use Knowledge skills to determine things about your foes and inform your teammates? Can you climb above the guy? Can you search for weapons/magic/clues/his phylactery while the fight's going on? Intimidate or taunt him? Remember you don't have to have ranks in most skills to try it.

If your build is such that this happens a lot, look for options to grant actions to others - there's various spells, class abilities, etc. that let you do something to basically exchange your action for others doing something.

Also, be smart. Sometimes a player will get frustrated "because they just can't hit" the enemy - and then upon review they are flurrying blows and power attacking. Well, no s*it Sherlock, drop those negatives off yourself. Sometimes people plain overlook options that are "suboptimal"/dufferent from ehat they use every round of every normal fight - like you're used to doing huge damage with your sword, so then when skeletons attack you cry about how you can't hurt them through their DR and don't realize you could just punch them. (Players often translate "I can't do 30 points of damage to them this round" as "I am useless and can do nothing," but every hp helps.) Take cover, use full defense, delay and interrupt spellcasters, grapple and trip even if you don't have the feats - use all the options the rules present you with.

Screw the Rules

Tactics go beyond rules. If positioning is the problem, your team tactics suck. This is the single largest cause of this complaint. Some overeager charge-fighter will get foes in a corner where others can't get to them, or no one bothers to step to help the rogue set up sneak attacks, or the wizard decides to just pop fireballs instead of casting fly on the fighter.

But also, feeling constrained to the ruleset is a problem. Some folks who have come to RPGs from computer gaming think that all they can do is whatever their palette of rules options present to them. Using the environment like swinging from the chandelier or knocking a pillar down on someone, stunts, whatever. "How do I come up with cool things to try during combat" is the topic of a whole other question, but to get started try "watch action movies and take notes." D&D 3e+ kinda promotes this mindset by trying to have a rule for everything, but you should understand that's "a corrosive effect they've had on the hobby" and not "the way the game should work."

Punt

If the combat's well in hand, then roleplay or loot or play a stirring theme song. Or go bind the wounds of a downed enemy for later interrogation. Or heal a friend. There's a lot more to do in the game than "spam the kill button."

Heck, we were in one combat where we were down to one hobgoblin fighting the whole party. He just would not surrender, out of the general bullheadedness only D&D monsters have. I was so annoyed at his "poor AI" that rather have my samurai just kill him, I let the blind gnomish oracle kill him with his morningstar (I stood by and aided the gnome's AC so he wouldn't get hurt). "Surrender or you will die in shame and face your god having been slain by a blind gnome!!!" I yelled at him, over like 10 rounds until he succumbed to the death of a thousand cuts. If there's not a lot of threat left over (turned zombies, for example) - have some fun with it.

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+1 for the 'Screw the Rules' part, D&D is one of those games that could use some improvisation. –  Eldebryn Jan 12 '13 at 19:33
    
Yup. You should always have SOMETHING you can do. I recall one battle long ago that probably would have been a TPK if I hadn't been plinking away with my crossbow. Nobody else was doing anything because of the huge range penalties. My plinking got one guy to come charging over, leaving behind the ones that couldn't run. It thus split the battle into two separate battles, both of which were tough. –  Loren Pechtel Jan 13 '13 at 21:41
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+1 million for the bit about some gamers thinking they are constrained by a set of limited actions! Creativity is key in RPGs. Without it, you might as well be playing monopoly. –  GrandmasterB Jan 15 '13 at 17:45
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If we take this as the literal case, where there is absolutely nothing else, the Aid Another combat option is always available, and always fairly useful. Try to get into flanking position, use Aid Another, and allow the Rogue to hit more with his Sneak Attack or the Barbarian to safely use more Power Attack.

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note: This answer was to a rather differently worded question.

Here are a few RAW ways the bard could help:

  • You only need to be able to make a melee attack on the creature to use the aid another action in combat. Use an improvised reach weapon -- a long pole, or perhaps even a rock tied to a piece of rope. You could even just use a plain piece of rope; obviously it would be a terrible weapon for dealing damage, but you could describe the aiding action as trying to entangle the zombies limb. You'd be -4 on the attack roll, but that DC 10 is pretty easy to hit.
  • You could also use various combat maneuvers with an improvised reach weapon. You'd have a much lower chance of success, though.
  • Double-check the bard's cantrips to see if any of them are useful after all. I guess several of the more offensive ones don't work on undead, but maybe there's some way to combine one of them with the terrain that could give a circumstance bonus to your allies.
  • If nothing else works, and you really want to try to contribute, you could attempt the climb checks to cling to the wall above the zombie and threaten them that way. Bracing yourself in the corner above the zombie might actually make the check possible, at DC 15. I... don't really recommend this.

The first would probably be most useful in this particular case (the bard does have rope, right?) but the general answer is that the bard should pick up some more backup weapons! A whip would be absolutely perfect in this situation. It won't do any damage, but has 15' reach and can be used for combat maneuvers and aid another.

Some alchemical weapons would also work very well, and go well with the whole gnome thing.

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+1 for aid another, throw rocks, hobbits, anything! –  Rob Jan 13 '13 at 11:29
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Roleplay.

What would you do if you were the characters in a situation like these? I think a common party would simply runaway and flee. Back in the city or headquarters, you can prepare yourself and come back later

Maybe the GM are putting you purposly in these scenario so you can look for a cleric/paladin/magic item in the surroundings, etc

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The party is in no danger of losing the fight, but we've run into this situation enough times to warrant needing an answer to this. –  Garan Jan 11 '13 at 19:47
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Movement is Key

Did you know that all you really have to do to flank is be on the opposite side of an enemy? A lot of folks assume that you have to engage that enemy but, really, you don't. Have the party form up in the center of the room, and when the zombies go lurching at you break off into flanking pairs. Even a dagger (1d3 slashing or piercing for gnomes) will let him contribute to the combat in terms of damage and all he needs to do is stand on the other side of a zombie for a fellow party member to gain the flank.

Oh, and when the group forms up you might want to take advantage of Readied Actions; make your movements and then ready an action to attack the first zombie that steps into melee range. For more on Readied Actions, consult the SRD or the Player's Handbook.

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First of all, Delay. He can wait for a more opportune time to act.

He cannot get anywhere for flanking, aiding another, or any useful actions.

He should encourage the other players to move so that the places to take those useful actions are created and then take advantage of them.

At the very worst, he should be able to use Aid Another by throwing rocks or other debris off the floor (won't do any damage, but it's another sensory input which should distract the zombies a little bit). This isn't exactly RAW, but at least it means he can do something.

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For me, the biggest improvement Pathfinder added over D&D3.5 is Combat Maneuvers. It seems a minor change at first, but it can add a hell of a lot of tactical options that make combat more fun, even for support characters.

As Simon Gill said in his answer, the key to this is to be where you can act. If you say the character is too far, that's your mistake right there. Of course you can't do anything if you aren't in a position to act. First thing is get to where you can do things.

Second part is to use those awesome combat maneuvers. Your bard isnt much of a fighter, but chances are he has a decent dexterity. There's a Pathfinder feat to add your DEX to the Combat Maneuver score, which will allow the bard to cause some serious help - Trip attacks, Bull Rush, Disarm, Reposition and anything that's cool in combat, since any DM worth his salt will reward cool actions in combat.

All this is Pathfinder, of course, and you're playing D&D3.5 where combat maneuvers don't officially exist, but there's no reason not to talk to your DM about house-ruling some of this in. Why? Because it's fun. Because it makes combat more than swinging a sword and popping your spell slots one by one. It makes combat dynamic and swashbucklery and enjoyable.

I'm currently playing an Oracle (sort of like a Favored Soul), and I previously played a Bard. Both classes with relatively little spells and slots and very medium combat abilities, so I started using maneuvers. My bard used his rope (and his Animate Rope) to good effect for trip attacks, so the melee monk could jump them. My Oracle... well, is a bit worthless, that's true, but I try to do what I can. It's fun. :)

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Just throwing in- most combat maneuvers exist in 3.5, they just aren't as unified and there aren't as many of them. I think my current character has made more trip attacks than regular attacks. –  IgneusJotunn Feb 11 '13 at 16:38
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