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The wording of the combat expertise feat states...


A character without the Combat Expertise feat can fight defensively while using the attack or full attack action to take a -4 penalty on attack rolls and gain a +2 dodge bonus to Armor Class.

Since the bonus granted for combat expertise changes that instead to a 1/1 tradeoff, does the use of this feat count as fighting defensively for the purposes of class features?

Examples include the thief acrobat's agile fighting and the duelist's elaborate parry.

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up vote 11 down vote accepted

No, by the RAW it does not.

You can actually both fight defensively and use Combat Expertise at the same time, if you wish. While very similar in effect, they are treated as fundamentally different by the rules.

Fighting defensively is a special combat action, and you don't need to use that action to use Combat Expertise. If you did, the wording of the feat would be very different. This interpretation is also backed up by the official FAQ, bottom of p.36, as well as the wording of the Total Defense action.


I personally think this is a little silly, and think these sorts of mechanics should really have been unified. If you houserule it, allowing the bonuses to trigger if you take a -4 to attack would be playing it safe. (Though probably not necessary unless it seems overpowered in play.)

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+1 agreed that it's a bit silly, but thank you for the link! -4 does seem like a good trigger since that's what they'd be taking anyway. – LitheOhm Aug 16 '13 at 20:23
A possible design reason: Prestige class features often exist to make underpowered combat options a viable option. Fighting defensively is rather weak, so these prestige classes improve it. Similarly, you might see PrCs based around unarmed combat, sub-optimal weapons, or grappling. – Joe Dovahkiin Aug 16 '13 at 20:25
Well, that's not exactly a design reason -- it's a natural consequence of the original design. It does make it harder to houserule. – starwed Aug 16 '13 at 20:38
I agree, there are a few Feats (e.g. "Deadly Defence" from Complete Scoundrel) that trigger for either "Fighting Defensively" or Combat Expertise of at least -2. So, that's what I would do for those other abilities as well. – James J. Regan IV Aug 16 '13 at 21:04
Yeah, I almost always see things that trigger "when Fighting Defensively or using Combat Expertise," sometimes with a minimum penalty/bonus from Combat Expertise. It's so common that I suspect anything that doesn't have it was an oversight because the author thought Combat Expertise counted as Fighting Defensively. – KRyan Aug 17 '13 at 13:55

Yes, it does.

Combat expertise reflects the character becoming better at fighting defensively while attacking (hence the improved trade-off) so use of the feat falls under the term "fighting defensively."

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Sorry, I guess I misread the description of the feat.. I just think your answer downplays the importance of "fighting defensively" as an actual game term. – dlras2 Aug 16 '13 at 20:19
@DanRasmussen please answer then. That's why I posted both Q+A at the same time - I want to find dissenting opinions and understand them. – LitheOhm Aug 16 '13 at 20:21

Starwed has a point. But, if you look at it under the guise of virtual feats, if you use CE for at least 2 points you are simulating the effects of Defensive Fighting. So, I would have to say if you use Combat Expertise for 2 points, then yes, you meet the condition of Defensive Fighting

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Yeah, like @KRyan's comment on Starwed's answer. It seems like it should just be there. – LitheOhm Aug 17 '13 at 18:54

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