3
\$\begingroup\$

We're playing using the D&D 3.5 rules. In the rulebook for "Combat Expertise" it states that

When you use the attack or full attack action in melee, you can take a penalty of -5 on your attack roll.

Does this penalty to attack bonus apply to all attacks?

I've recently leveled to level 6 fighter and now have a +6 and +1 BAB, making me have two attacks.

As I interpret combat expertise, using this ability will cause all my attacks to have a -3 penalty, and I will only get +3 AC for that. So I'm losing 6AR and only gaining 3AC, making it a 0.5 to 1 where it would be 1 to 1 when I was only having one attack per round.

If I compare it to Power Attack I can understand that having the penalty apply to all attacks as the bonus damage also applies to all attacks, but for combat expertise I found that I would take a -3 penalty to all attacks while only gaining a +3AC.

If it does not apply to all attack rolls but only one, can I use combat expertise on every attack to a max of -5? As such, can I get +6 AC by taking -5 on my first attack and -1 on my second?

\$\endgroup\$
1
\$\begingroup\$

Yes, Combat Expertise applies its penalty to all attacks

Well, you are correct that the penalty applies to all attacks:

The changes to attack rolls and Armor Class last until your next action.[1]

(Combat Expertise, footnote mine)

If you have a BAB of +6/−1, and no other bonuses,2 and you use Combat Expertise with a penalty of −3, you would gain +3 AC and your attacks for the round would be +3 and −2. Realistically, anyone who is attacking, particularly anyone who already has BAB +6, should have a fairly-high ability score for attacking (+4 or +5 at a minimum), at least a +1 weapon, and so on, so it would really be more like +9 and +4. Still, yes, −3 penalty on all attacks is a hefty penalty and a big deal. Note that this same penalty for +3 damage on all attacks, from Power Attack with a weapon in one hand, is also generally seen as a poor trade—Power Attack is favored for two-handed attacks, where you would get +6 in this instance.

No, it doesn’t make sense to call the benefit “half” the penalty if you make two attacks

Your analysis is flawed in that the AC bonus applies against all attacks others make against you, which could be many attacks if, say, you are surrounded. Even if you aren’t surrounded, if you face a single foe of the same skills that you have, they are going to be making the same number of attacks as you are. In a perfect mirror match, the use of Combat Expertise will be perfectly canceled out. So you cannot determine its value assuming you will only be attacked once—I doubt anyone would recommend the feat in that instance.

But yes, Combat Expertise is a poor choice for feat

Combat Expertise is widely considered a useless feat. Not, necessarily, because of the size of the bonus or the size of the penalty, but because AC is a flawed defense. There are so many other ways for a character to be threatened that giving up their offense to improve just one factor of their defense is not a very wise idea.

Moreover, 3.5 tends to play at many levels—certainly at 1st, and then again by about 7th or so—as “rocket tag,” where a successful offensive action usually eliminates a threat. This means defenses need to be absolute wherever possible. And if they are not, eliminating threats is going to ordinarily be the safest option—the best defense is a good offense.

This isn’t to say that there aren’t situations where Combat Expertise wouldn’t be nice. The real problem is that those situations are—or certainly should be, if you are making decent decisions in combat—rare. And even fighters get far too few feats to spend them on situational options. Feats can be extraordinarily powerful, and can build upon one another in synergistic ways, and for the most part, it is extremely wasteful to take a feat you’ll be using seldom. You don’t get enough feats to do that.

Another way to look at this is to compare feats against spells. Spellcasters get massively more spells than anyone gets feats. A 20th-level fighter gets 18 feats, while a wizard prepares 18 spells as early as 7th. Spells are also vastly more powerful when you use them; there is no feat that will end a fight as a standard action, while there are a lot of spells that will do that. The only advantage feats have is that they can be used all day.3 As such, it really behooves a warrior to make sure their feats are things they are going to want to do all day. Combat Expertise is not that.

Add on to this the fact that Combat Expertise cannot be used in a rage, and a level or two of barbarian is extremely popular for almost all warrior types thanks to the lion spirit totem option in Complete Champion.4 One rage per day means at least one fight where you cannot use Combat Expertise at all, and rage is vastly better than Combat Expertise. That just lowers its value further.

So the only reason most people ever take Combat Expertise is because something—usually an Improved combat maneuver feat, usually Improved Trip—requires it.5 They generally then forget they have it. And since the second level of barbarian can be used to get Improved Trip without needing Combat Expertise,6 a lot of people avoid it altogether that way.


  1. Note that “your next action” here refers to your next turn—early on 3.5e used the word “action” this way, and it was really confusing and they stopped doing it, but Combat Expertise was in the original book.

  2. I.e. Strength of 10 for a +0 bonus, no masterwork or magical weapon, etc.

  3. Note that the ability to use feats “all day” isn’t really that big a deal, in comparison to spells, and that spells still have all the major advantages here. Spellcasters above the lowest levels should have little difficulty with their spells per day so long as they are choosing good spells. There is a reason why magic dominates the game, and a class’s relative power is directly correlated to how much magic they get.

  4. Complete Champion offers a number of “spirit totems” as alternate options to the barbarian’s usual fast movement at 1st level. The lion spirit totem grants pounce, the ability to full-attack at the end of a charge. This makes it one of the few efficient ways to retain offensive capacity while moving.

  5. In core, feats that require Combat Expertise are Improved Disarm, Improved Feint, Improved Trip, and Whirlwind Attack. Feinting doesn’t work well for anyone but invisible blades. Disarming doesn’t work well for anyone, since so many targets have no weapons, and those who do likely use both hands and/or use a locked gauntlet on them. Whirlwind Attack is a bad, bad joke.

    Unlike these, Improved Trip is one of the best feats in the game because tripping is a remarkably effective tactic, at least at low-to-mid levels. We have a lot of questions and answers about it here. There’s even a comic about it. Tripping is good stuff in D&D 3.5e, good enough to be worth wasting a feat on Combat Expertise.

  6. This would be the “wolf totem” option from Unearthed Arcana, or in the SRD here. Yes, someone can have the lion spirit totem and the wolf totem—they don’t mechanically conflict, and the spirit totem is a personal thing while the Unearthed Arcana totems are about what tribe you come from, so they don’t really conflict in their descriptions either.

\$\endgroup\$
  • \$\begingroup\$ How does it apply to my +1.. does it go down to -2 when I use 3 combat expertice? \$\endgroup\$ – Theun Arbeider Jun 25 at 12:27
  • \$\begingroup\$ Comparing Feats to Spells per day is almost if not more of a flawed analysis than counting all of your attacks vs one enemy attack to quantify the benefit. There is almost no common ground except that they help the character accomplish something (Feats are, mostly, always-on and non-magical whereas spells last minutes or only rounds per level with some exceptions, etc) You point this out then promptly ignore it. Furthermore, I don't think a question about how Combat Expertise works is a good place to explain Quadratic Wizards. \$\endgroup\$ – Ifusaso Jun 25 at 12:32
  • \$\begingroup\$ @TheunArbeider Correct, if you have BAB +6/−1 and Strength 10 (i.e. bonus of +0), when you use Combat Expertise for a penalty of −3, you would roll 1d20−2 (+1+0−3). Most characters shouldn’t be attacking with a +0 bonus from ability scores, so you would be better off than that, but it’s still a fairly substantial penalty. \$\endgroup\$ – KRyan Jun 25 at 13:39
  • 1
    \$\begingroup\$ @Ifusaso No, it isn’t: the entire point of that analysis is to highlight that the one advantage of feats over spells is that feats are always-on, which directly contributes towards the strong preference for feats that are always doing things, as opposed to niche, situational feats you use occasionally. As for whether this is the time or place to explain “quadratic wizards,” I think it plays directly into how and why it is important to be concerned about the potency of your feat selection. \$\endgroup\$ – KRyan Jun 25 at 13:41
3
\$\begingroup\$

The penalty from Combat Expertise applies to all attacks for 1 round starting when the standard attack action or full attack action is taken

Because the benefit of the feat Combat Expertise (Player's Handbook 92) applies when the standard attack or full attack action is taken—not, in the latter case, when each iterative attack during the full attack is made—, the feat's benefit can typically apply only once per round. (For more on the feat's language, see this question.)

Example A

A fighter 6 takes a standard action to make a standard attack and uses the feat Combat Expertise to penalize his attack rolls by −2. He gains until the start of his next turn a +2 dodge bonus to AC, and he suffers a −2 penalty on that standard attack's attack rolls and a −2 penalty on any other attack rolls he makes until the start of his next turn (these other attacks are usually attacks of opportunity).

Example B

A fighter 6 takes a full-round action to make a full attack and uses the feat Combat Expertise to penalize his attack rolls by −5. He gains until the start of his next turn a +5 dodge bonus to AC and he suffers a −5 penalty on each attack roll he makes during that full attack and a −5 penalty on any other attack rolls he makes until the start of his next turn (such attacks are usually attacks of opportunity).

To be clear, the fighter can't, for example, take the full attack action, employ the feat Combat Expertise to suffer a −1 penalty on his first attack roll to gain for 1 round a +1 dodge bonus to AC then on his second attack roll opt to suffer a −4 penalty to gain for 1 round a +4 dodge bonus to AC. The entire penalty is assessed (and the entire corresponding bonus gained) when the fighter initially opts to gain the benefit of the feat Combat Expertise—when the fighter takes the standard attack or full attack. The penalty can't be meted out separately so as to spread it out among the fighter's attacks. (That would be awesome, though, were the fighter able to make a full attack and be able to suffer the penalty for the feat Combat Expertise on his last attack—an attack that probably wasn't going to hit anyway—and gain for 1 round the dodge bonus from the feat! But that's not how the feat works.)

Combat Expertise versus Power Attack

The feat Combat Expertise does, indeed, pale in comparison to the feat Power Attack (PH 98), but that's not because of when, how often, and to what degree the feats' users can apply the feats' benefits but because the feat Power Attack is almost always used, and the feat Combat Expertise is used sparingly.

The feat Power Attack is often used on every attack because more damage means a quicker end to a threat, and dead foes stop trying to make the attacker dead. However, the Combat Expertise feat's benefit is typically dependent on the circumstances: when this longtime DM's seen it used, the user's been in situations that are either desperate or already in the user's favor. In short, typically, the feat Power Attack is for when you're winning, and the feat Combat Expertise is for when you're losing, and, because of the way the game's structured, most of the time, PCs will be winning.

That's not to say the feat Combat Expertise is always bad. The feat is, as this fine answer mentions, a sometimes-prerequisite for the feat Improved Trip (PH 96), a cornerstone of one of only 2–4 mundane combat styles that can serve a PC well throughout his adventuring career. Further, as a DM, I've had smart, cash-poor high-Hit Dice monsters take the feat Combat Expertise and use it consistently—every round—because that +5 dodge bonus to AC is often significant against equally challenging foes. However, to give you an idea of its rarity among PCs, in the past three campaigns that I ran that went from character level 1 to the mid- to high teens, of the 20 or so PCs who saw regular play none had the feat Combat Expertise, and that includes those PCs whose primary lifestyle choice was toppling foes and beating them when they tried to stand.

Thus, generally, this DM and player recommends that if there's a way to avoid having a character take the feat Combat Expertise—like by getting the feat Improved Trip from the wolf totem barbarian variant (Unearthed Arcana 49) or as a monk bonus feat not at level 6 but, by mixing and matching fighting styles, at level 2 (UA 52)—then the character should avoid taking the feat Combat Expertise.

Forcing Combat Expertise to have some value

When a warrior specializes in the feat Combat Expertise, the feat is capable of providing an unmatched degree of mundane defense. For example, by also taking the feats Allied Defense (Shining South 19), either Superior Expertise (Deities & Demigods 51) or Improved Combat Expertise (Complete Warrior 100), and by spending at level 1 6 skill points to acquire the special ability Bishamon's Blessing (the Wizards of the Coast-licensed Fortunes and Winds 77), a level 10 character with a full base attack bonus can opt to suffer for 1 round a −10 penalty on his attack rolls to grant for 1 round himself and allies adjacent to him a +15 dodge bonus to AC.

To be fair, though, the feats Allied Defense and Superior Expertise aren't fighter bonus feats so they must be taken upon leveling up, and such feats are extremely valuable to a fighter. Further, I suspect that over 90% of readers haven't heard of Fortunes and Winds, much less Bishamon's Blessing. Also—and probably a greater concern—, is that it's unlikely the character will hit with his attacks without further resources devoted to this tactic, like the arcane duelist (Random Encounters Web column "Way of the Sword") prestige class's extraordinary ability dexterous attack or one of the feats listed in this question, the ability to cast a spell like the 2nd-level Sor/Wiz spell wraithstrike [trans] (Spell Compendium 243), or a magic item or magic weapon that has an effect like the heartseeking amulet (Magic Item Compendium 110) (3,000 gp; 0 lbs.). (Note also how magic is still largely necessary to make this character at all effective!)

Even if he never deals damage and probably isn't that much fun to actually play, a character who can grant adjacent allies a +15 dodge bonus to AC will be, at least among his allies, popular.

\$\endgroup\$

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service, privacy policy and cookie policy

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.