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I have been toying with running Red Hand of Doom again (I last ran it about eight years ago).

One thing I found unsatisfying then was that the hobgoblin foot soldiers are described as professional soldiers, part of a regular army. Their stats don’t match this though; they’re built as regular mooky warriors. So, because I can’t leave well enough alone, I’m trying to rebuild them more like a shield wall with spears. A lot of the set pieces have them starting separate, and I think it will add nice tactical depth if they get more dangerous if they can group up.

I also don’t want the mooks to turn into an existential threat every time.

I am looking at changing them all to fighters (level 2 ideally, level 3 is also good), and giving them tower shields and longspears. That makes them individually more survivable and gives them some tricks with reach, but not actually much more dangerous. If they group up, they’ll have a little block of threatened squares which will make direct assaults more difficult.

The problem is, I can’t find any way to make it work. You need two hands to get reach. There was a Dragon magazine feat which allows use of a longspear with a small shield, but that’s not quite the same. I could step down to a shortspear, but that loses reach. Spinning swords are almost right, but that’s a weird thing for an army of hobgoblins to all use, and it’s difficult to just re-skin as a spear (you can wear this spear as a belt? What?). I’m also aware of the Inhuman Reach feat, but I don’t want to introduce aberration blood as a backstory part of a whole army of hobgoblins.

I think the answer is probably feats, but I haven’t found any that solve this. Fighter 3 plus one flaw (weak-willed) is five feats to play with, and all of them can go to this spear-and shield concept.

Anything first-party is fine. Outside that, I don’t see a difference from just using DM-fiat to say it works.

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  • \$\begingroup\$ Possible also of interest. \$\endgroup\$ Jun 17, 2022 at 19:58
  • \$\begingroup\$ @HeyICanChan very much of interest, thanks! If you want to write an answer around “use small longspears”, I would definitely upvote and it’s the best plan yet! \$\endgroup\$
    – fectin
    Jun 17, 2022 at 20:11
  • \$\begingroup\$ will answer with the solution I end up with, once I arrive atone that's actually legal. \$\endgroup\$
    – fectin
    Jun 19, 2022 at 22:39

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The big problem here is that the tower shield’s cover maneuver doesn’t let you cover for anyone else. That was the entire trick of a phalanx, and if the rules don’t support it, you can’t really do a phalanx. You’re still fundamentally looking at individual warriors basically looking out for themselves, rather than a formation.

The other problem is that standing all together is a really poor strategy against a lot of magic, and locking your shields together does nothing to help against magic. The tower shield cover thing can block some magic, but it leaves you very vulnerable to touch attacks, and in any event that doesn’t protect anyone else. Since magic is already rather dominant in D&D 3.5e, a set-piece battle that foils mundanes but serves itself up on a platter to magicians might not be the best plan.

Making the Most of a Few Exceptions

There are, so far as I can tell, only 5 feats in the entire game that let you really leverage a phalanx-like formation: Formation Expert and Phalanx Fighting in Complete Warrior, and Shieldmate, Improved Shieldmate, and Shield Wall in Heroes of Battle. All are fighter bonus feats, and a 1st-level fighter automatically meets all the requirements for all but Formation Expert and Improved Shieldmate (which require more BAB than your hobgoblins will have).

  • Formation Expert is a tactical feat that has 3 benefits, all of which are relevant and appropriate, but kinda weak. Doesn’t matter since it requires BAB +6.

  • Phalanx Fighting grants a +1 bonus to AC if you have a heavy shield and a light weapon, or +3 AC and +1 Reflex if you are adjacent to an ally who is also using the feat.

  • Shieldmate: adjacent allies get a +1 shield bonus to AC, +2 if you’re using a tower shield. Note that this would be instead of other shield bonuses.

  • Improved Shieldmate: increases the bonus from Shieldmate by 1. Requires BAB +4, so probably irrelevant to you.

  • Shield Wall: increases your shield bonus to AC by 2 when both you and at least one adjacent ally are wielding a shield. Note that this is an increase to your shield bonus: that means it can add on to the shield bonus from Shieldmate.

Because Phalanx Fighting requires everyone be using a heavy shield, there’s no point to Shieldmate when using it. Shield Wall is always valid.

In addition to this, Tome of Battle has a fair few things that benefit allies, even adjacent allies. They don’t really have the same fluff, but they’re fairly good:

  • Iron guard’s glare (Devoted Spirit stance; 1st): Give all enemies you threaten a −4 penalty to attack anyone but you. That −4 is considerably bigger than the +2 or +3 we see on Phalanx Fighting or Shield Wall.

  • Island of blades (Shadow Hand stance; 1st): As long as you and an ally are both adjacent to the same creature, you both count as flanking that creature. Amazing for this formation, though you basically need to dip swordsage to get it and you’d really want sneak attack to leverage it.

  • Defensive rebuke (Devoted Spirit boost; 2nd): Swift action, and then any enemy you strike on your turn, provokes an attack of opportunity from you if they attack an adjacent ally on their turn. Normally garbage because there are just too many conditions (you have to hit them and then they have to hit one of the correct allies), but in this formation all your allies might be adjacent. Still, as a 2nd-level maneuver, requires 3 levels in crusader to get at the levels you’re looking at.

  • Ironheart Aura (feat; requires 1 Iron Heart stance): While in an Iron Heart stance, grant a +2 morale bonus to all saving throws to all adjacent allies. This is amazing, particularly at this level. Dipping warblade to get punishing stance in order to qualify is probably fitting, even if that stance’s −2 AC is somewhat contrary to the rest of the theme (all the shield bonuses we’re getting make it easy to swallow that penalty, at least). Fittingly, the Iron Heart discipline was developed by hobgoblins, according to Tome of Battle.

Finally, Shining South has Allied Defense, as HeyICanChan pointed out for a related question. This allows you to share your Combat Expertise bonus with an adjacent ally. This is strictly worse than Phalanx Fighting or Shieldmate in this situation, but it stacks with those, and it also might be more flexible. To wit: if multiple people use Allied Defense to share their AC bonus with the same person, is each person a separate “source” of AC bonus, or are all of these bonuses considered to be from Allied Defense, and thus the same source? If they are separate, they stack, which means you could potentially throw a ton of AC on one member of the phalanx, as necessary. That’s pretty useful.

The homogenous group: Phalanx Fighting

Phalanx Fighting is better than Shieldmate if you have a homogenous group: everyone has a heavy shield and a light weapon, everyone has Phalanx Fighting and Shield Wall, everyone is looking at +7 AC (including from the heavy shields themselves) and +1 Reflex for fighting in this formation. The “formation” probably ends up being just a single line, because light weapons make it impossible to reach foes from further back unless you use the ridiculous kusari-gama (Dungeon Master’s Guide pg. 144-145; not in the SRD).

The exoticist fighter from Dragon vol. 310 makes that kusari-gama rather appealing, however. That comes with free proficiency with four exotic weapons instead of proficiency with all martial weapons. With the free proficiency, you have feats to spare to take Combat Reflexes, Combat Expertise, and Improved Trip. That’s quite significant. Note, however, that the exoticist changes the bonus feat list that the fighter uses: non-core fighter bonus feats, like Shield Wall or Phalanx Fighting, would be up to the DM to include or not. A moot point since you could just take them with your regular feats and use the exoticist bonus feats to get Combat Expertise and Combat Reflexes, which are on the list.

Anyway, this is basically a fancy trip-lockdown build that leverages multiple characters. Because they can reach into each other’s threatened areas, it’s fairly effective. Tripping people also goes a long way towards negating the cover enemies get when you’re attacking past your allies. HeyICanChan did help me find Child of Shadow, a feat from Savage Tide Player’s Guide,¹ but that prevents us from completing the combo and thus doesn’t quite seem worth it. Maybe if you can get a bonus feat instead of the dead level at fighter 3rd. But if you’re multiclassing, a dip in crusader for iron guard’s glare seems better than that anyway. Another thing to consider some multiclassing for is warblade and Ironheart Aura, which goes a long way towards shoring up this group’s vulnerability to magic—but note that giving everyone Ironheart Aura is a waste, since it applies to adjacent allies. You probably only need one or two copies of it. That’s important because you definitely won’t be getting another bonus feat if you dip warblade and so Ironheart Aura is coming at the cost of one of the feats in the combo—probably Combat Reflexes. So a group of 2nd-level exoticists, most with a third level in crusader for iron guard’s glare, but one with the third level as warblade for Ironheart Aura instead of Combat Reflexes.

Mixed tactics: Shieldmate + Shield and Pike Style

While you dismiss the Shield and Pike Style feat from Dragon vol. 338, which allows you to use a light shield and “a two-handed piercing polearm with reach” at the same time, I think this is a mistake. Having any shield—including a light shield—qualifies you for Shield Wall. And with Shieldmate, your own shield matters less.

Particularly since—as Groody the Hobgoblin also points out—you can have two lines. Have a front line with tower shields and Shieldmate, and a back line using Shield and Pike Style. Everyone has Shield Wall. That yields a front line with a +6 shield bonus (and a −2 attack penalty), and a back line with a +4 shield bonus, the same as if they’d had a tower shield (except they also have reach, and no attack penalty, and a big two-hander). While that’s lower than you’d get with Phalanx Fighting, you get the big advantage of big two-handed weapons instead of being forced to use light weapons.

Combat Reflexes goes a long way in general. Along with Shield Wall and either Shieldmate or Shield and Pike Style, that’s 3 of the 5 feats you’re expecting.

For the back line, Power Attack and Groody’s suggestion of Hold the Line are probably the best options, since they have a two-handed weapon and can deal serious damage. However, since enemies gain cover from the back line because of the front line, it may be worth considering the extraordinarily-obscure Child of Shadow feat that HeyICanChan found for me in Savage Tide Player’s Guide.¹ That feat allows the back line to ignore cover short of total cover, which is excellent. Since you’re only looking at BAB +2 or +3, there’s a good chance your expected damage would go up (swapping Power Attack for Child of Shadow is effectively +6 attack for −6 damage).

For the front line, I’m gonna stick with Combat Expertise and Improved Trip, however. Every time a foe has to get up from prone, they provoke again—from everyone who can reach them. That’s devastating. And if they stay prone, that’s arguably even more devastating, for the same reasons it was for the Phalanx Fighting group. The alternative for the front line is to also take Hold the Line, and then take Parrying Shield from Lords of Madness, which makes their shield bonus (+6) also apply against touch attacks.

Also, since your front line now has tower shields, they can use the total cover trick. This is... largely mediocre, honestly, but if it comes down to it, it’s better than letting enemies punch a hole in your front line.

If you’re OK with one of your hobgoblins dipping warblade, grabbing Ironheart Aura on a central hobgoblin seems like a strong move. It will go a long way towards limiting how glaringly vulnerable this formation is to magic. If you have both Ironheart Aura and Parrying Shield, your formation will be quite strong against magic, too, which is quite an achievement.

And if you’re OK with several of your hobgoblins dipping crusader, you could get iron guard’s glare on a bunch of them. You might even go back to the exoticist and kusari-gama on your front line, just so they can threaten more spaces with −4 attack penalties.

  1. Savage Tide Player’s Guide is by Paizo, not Wizards of the Coast, but was a licensed D&D product rather than just a strictly-third-party d20 System product.
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    \$\begingroup\$ +1 much better depth of rules and options than I could come up with. \$\endgroup\$ Jun 17, 2022 at 19:23
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    \$\begingroup\$ Of note is that the Shield and Pike Style feat allows the use of the ridiculous awl pike (Dragon Compendium Volume 1 110, 111) (10 gp; 10 lbs) that has reach 15 ft. Enjoy your third line. (Another line of great crossbowmen with the Coordinated Shot and Rapid Reload feats remains optional.) \$\endgroup\$ Jun 19, 2022 at 16:01
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Take advantage of known formations

The advantage of a formation is that you can assume a set environment. Even though the rules of 3.5e (and most other versions of D&D) are ill suited to model this kind of combat, you can try and take advantage of that.

The first rank can have tower shields and shortspears. They will be worse at attacking (-2 malus), but have better AC (18) to absorb attacks. The second rank can have longspears, doubling the number of attacks on each square in front of the battle line. My 3e is a bit rusty, I think the soft cover the first rank creates will give targets +4 AC against to the reach attacks (treated like ranged). How useful this is depends thus on the AC of the opposition. This makes sense against ACs where two attacks with these mali are better than one without.

Normal armies often did not have much better armor than padded and a shield for the rank-and-file due to cost considerations. This would maybe give AC 14 for a normal warrior with padded armor, shield and Dex, and with the Hobgoblins' +2 attack bonus, after mods the phalanx would have 2 attacks with d8+1 at 35% and 25% probability to connect, for 3.3 expected damage, while a single attack at 45% chance has only 2.5 expected damage, so an improvement of over 30%. (It is another question if this would be wise against heavily armored PCs...)

For feats, it might be useful to have the Hold the Line feat. They would need to be at least second level Fighter as it requires Combat Relexes and BAB 2. This would give them an additional opportunity attack when others enter their reach, quadrupling the number of attacks in total on the first round versus no longspears and feats.

I'm not sure if this is good, compared to other options ignoring a phalanx, but it would use standard rules to try and build a Phalanx effect. (I think the major reason why it is hard to replicate a real-world phalanx in the game is that the formation in reality was more densely packed than the 5x5 grid allows for. A typcial solider in a phalanx occupied about 3x3 feet of space, which would mean you could stack three rows of combatants rather than two, and likewise more at the front.)

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Frame challenge: "professional soldiers, part of a regular army" is one of the things that the NPC class warrior represents. It has proficiency in weapons and armour, full bab and a d8 hit die. Creatures with PC class levels are meant to be rare.

Similarly reach is almost entirely gated behind two-handed or exotic weapons.

What I would suggest, if you want to emphasise them working together is in each encounter have some with longspears and others with tower shields and whatever one handed weapon you think is appropriate.

The other suggestion I have is to borrow from later editions, and just fiat give them either (or both) of

Phalanx Training: When adjacent to an allied hobgoblin, this creature gets +2 to AC.

Martial Advantage: When adjacent to an allied hobgoblin, this creature deals d6 more damage when it attacks with a spear.

The former emphasises the shieldwall protecting each other, while the latter is a pseudo-reach

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  • \$\begingroup\$ Don't forget about SRD equipment. Giving the Phalanx tower shields and polearms completely changes their mechanics. \$\endgroup\$
    – tuskiomi
    Jun 17, 2022 at 16:31

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