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I played 3.5 a long time ago, but my memory of how the martial characters actually handled in practice is pretty hazy. I have a few related questions about how the "meta" of martial (non-spell) combat played out, for anyone whose memory is fresher than mine.

  1. Am I right that being effective at dealing damage in melee combat largely revolved around applying the power attack feat or the two weapon fighting feats?

  2. How did ranged characters go about staying effective past the first couple of levels?

  3. Did full attacks / iterative attacks end up being useful in practice? Or was the iterative -5 penalty for subsequent attacks such that those attacks are rarely hitting, and it was best to focus on the first attack?

  4. Some "martial" classes, like the rogue and if I remember rightly the scout, had a 2/3 base attack bonus progression. Was that a major hindrance to ability to hit, or in practice did it just mean less power attack?

  5. What were the main sources of bonuses on to hit rolls and damage? In addition to the character's natural ability scores and BAB, I recall a lot more items that boost abilities and attack rolls, but I'm curious if I'm missing some key thing other than +x weapons and items of +y strength that really affected hit and damage rolls at the mid levels especially.

I'd be interested in other comments about how martial combat in 3.5 handled as well, even things that don't directly address my numbered questions above.

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    \$\begingroup\$ Per Meta consensus (on at least some topics, I believe there are some that would apply here), broad overview type questions are valid here. While there are 5 questions, they are highly inter-related and would not work nearly as well as separate Questions \$\endgroup\$
    – KRyan
    Commented Dec 30, 2023 at 1:37
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    \$\begingroup\$ @KRyan Would you mind pointing us to the meta discussion you’re referring to? \$\endgroup\$ Commented Dec 30, 2023 at 1:41
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    \$\begingroup\$ @ThomasMarkov Honestly, I would. Closing a question is supposed to be the exceptional case; burden of proof should be on those closing. This question is patently answerable (read: I have answered it), which is, by itself, a very strong reason to believe it should remain open. Good enough for me, certainly. If people feel otherwise, that’s their case to make. Otherwise I am happy to let the facts stand and feel the question should be re-opened as-is. \$\endgroup\$
    – KRyan
    Commented Dec 30, 2023 at 1:55
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    \$\begingroup\$ @ThomasMarkov Off the top of my head, though, discussions of optimization best practices as general overviews, and Meta discussions on edition-comparison questions, touch on similar issues. This is, in a sense, very similar to edition comparison, except that the comparison is between the OP’s initial impression of the edition vs. how the meta turned out after a lot of time working through the rules. I believe there are more-pertinent discussions, too, but per my previous response, I do not care to go digging at this time. \$\endgroup\$
    – KRyan
    Commented Dec 30, 2023 at 2:00

2 Answers 2

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  1. Am I right that being effective at dealing damage in melee combat largely revolved around applying the power attack feat or the two weapon fighting feats?

No; even in the core game, there are at least a couple of different ways you can go that would not necessarily want either feat (archery, trip-lockdown). Beyond core, there are many, many options that might not use those feats.

But a huge proportion of martial characters will take those, and make them central part of their combat style. In general, though, that’s not really saying much: most feats are taken in order to be a central part of someone’s combat style, especially martial feats. If a feat isn’t doing that, it’s usually not worth taking. (Exceptions, of course, abound.)

  1. How did ranged characters go about staying effective past the first couple of levels?

That’s going to vary quite a bit, but ranged attacks and the relevant feats tend to be amenable to making many, many attacks. Most of the focus, then, will be about maximizing the number of attacks while applying some damage bonus (sneak attack, favored enemy, Dexterity, etc.) over and over.

There are fewer options for doing things differently for ranged characters: while there are a few options for doing combat maneuvers or something similar at range, they are both costly and limited, and tend to be regarded as poor. Also, weirdly, archery has less support than you’d think it would: throwing builds weirdly tend to have more options (though splitting goes a long way towards making archery worthwhile).

  1. Did full attacks / iterative attacks end up being useful in practice? Or was the iterative -5 penalty for subsequent attacks such that those attacks are rarely hitting, and it was best to focus on the first attack?

They are absolutely critical. Turns without a full attack are often seen as completely wasted for mid-to-high-level martial characters. Building a way to move and still full attack is often considered necessary to a true martial build.

The penalties, of course, do matter. That last −15 attack may not be worth very much to a lot of people. But that depends on build—there are definitely ways to continue to have a strong likelihood of achieving a hit even while using Power Attack and making one’s −15 iterative. AC just doesn’t scale very well, so high-level warriors often have very-high accuracy needed to make things like Power Attack and iteratives very valuable.

  1. Some "martial" classes, like the rogue and if I remember rightly the scout, had a 2/3 base attack bonus progression. Was that a major hindrance to ability to hit, or in practice did it just mean less power attack?

The progression is ¾, not ⅔.

Anyway, such classes rarely take Power Attack, both because of accuracy issues and because Power Attack’s penalty (and thus bonus) is limited by one’s BAB.

Those classes are also often interested in dual-wielding, or ranged attacks. Power Attack doesn’t work well with those most of the time, since light weapons (other than unarmed strikes) and ranged attacks don’t benefit from the damage bonus but do take the attack penalty. Dual-wielding has some exceptions—a two-hander and an unarmed strike is a pretty good combo that gets good returns on Two-Weapon Fighting + Power Attack—but most ranged attacks are pretty much out of luck. There’s at least one magical bow (Hank’s energy bow from the cartoon box set booklet) that has a Power Attack-like feature, which is a very nice feature since it’s a solid damage bonus (on a combat style that already tends to have lots of attacks), but that’s not the actual Power Attack feat per se, just a special magic ability that works similarly.

As for accuracy, it counts, it’s not insignificant, but lower BAB tends to be less of a problem than, say, “multiple ability dependency.” For instance, monks often have accuracy problems, and their ¾ BAB is definitely part of that—but the fact that they really need Strength, Dexterity, Constitution, and Wisdom, and there’s just no way to keep all of those scores competitive, is a much bigger problem.

Lower BAB is much more significant for delaying iteratives, and feats and prestige classes that require BAB (of which there are many).

  1. What were the main sources of bonuses on to hit rolls and damage? In addition to the character's natural ability scores and BAB, I recall a lot more items that boost abilities and attack rolls, but I'm curious if I'm missing some key thing other than +x weapons and items of +y strength that really affected hit and damage rolls at the mid levels especially.

That depends massively on the build, in a way that I struggle to encompass in a reasonable manner as an overview. Ability scores—particularly for two-handers which get 1½ Str to damage—are big, as is Power Attack, for many builds. Charging, taking advantage of things like lances, Spirited Charge, and pounce, is one of the most effective strategies, thanks to access to damage multipliers. So-called “übercharger” builds are thus a staple, and can be built to plausibly one-shot anything they can reach (though, especially at higher levels, that qualification becomes a huge problem: as devastating as a charge can be, spellcasters are near-universally seen as vastly more powerful in part because they can prevent the charger from reaching them in the first place).

For accuracy, chargers also benefit massively from the Shock Trooper feat from Complete Warrior—that allows you, on a charge, to apply Power Attack’s penalty to your AC, rather than your attack. That means your attack bonus will be enormous, and since you’re pretty much deleting whatever you’re attacking, the AC penalty may not matter much.

But outside of a massively strong charger pouncing with a lance in two hands with Power Attack et al., there are so many other options that also work (perhaps not quite as well on paper but then the übercharger is overkill anyway so in practice they end up being just as good), that it is difficult to generalize. I would point to trip-lockdown, grappling, and Tome of Battle initiating as three approaches worth looking at that do things quite differently, but those are just examples. In those cases, their accuracy requirements tend to be much lower: trips and grapples start with very-easy touch attacks, and Tome of Battle maneuvers rarely involve iterative attacks and the associated penalties.

Ultimately, though, there are just so many different ways to build a martial character in 3.5e. However, there are even more ways to fail to build one—the system is often unforgiving and there are so many awful-in-practice options that sound good on paper that avoiding all the traps takes a ton of knowledge of the system and in a reverse what is often naively assumed, effective martial characters are much harder to build than magical ones.

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  • \$\begingroup\$ I personally feel like AC-boosting could still be a good trade in pre-epic campaigns. I have fought a monster with high AB and low AC in Age of Worms (in Lv.14) and I realise that investing in missing chance (e.g. Cloak of Major Displacement) would make enemy's hitting rate at about 25% (and its damage is pretty high when it hits, with 5 attacks per round), while putting that money in AC can reduce it to 5% and I can still maintain my hitting rate at 50%-ish. I would say AC scaling won't be a problem before you hit Lv.18+ in most cases. \$\endgroup\$ Commented Jan 13 at 21:13
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    \$\begingroup\$ @TerryWindwalker Relevant levels of AC are not impossible, no: but they are rare, in published foes, and inefficient, in those built off of wealth guidelines. You can get there but you won’t have much of anything left for other concerns. In any event, building to counter such things is probably unwise since they come rarely come up. \$\endgroup\$
    – KRyan
    Commented Jan 13 at 22:19
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One thing I haven't seen talked about yet is Precision Damage. That's Sneak Attack, Skirmish, and a few others like Sudden Strike that the odd prestige class will give you. Additionally, the skill Iaijutsu Focus isn't precision damage, but works kind of similarly to Sneak Attack so I'll talk about it as well. Precision damage builds are one of the three main martial archetypes, alongside Power Attackers and lockdown builds (mainly trip or grapple). Here's a wide analysis of the key points, with the note that there are lot of options and variety that I simply can't summarize.

Dice instead of flat bonus: These are all bonus dice that get conditionally added to your damage. Because they're dice instead of a flat bonus, they aren't multiplied by critical hits, unlike Power Attack and your Strength bonus.

Weapons: Unlike Power Attack, they don't care how big your weapon is (light/one-handed/two-handed), so this is where Two-Weapon Fighting will shine, with two light weapons or one each of one-handed/light. Natural weapons, if you can get them, are also a great addition to your attack routine, since you get them in addition to your iteratives and TWF. Getting these to work with ranged attacks tends to be awkward, because it's commonly hard to activate the condition that gives you your bonus damage from range and still full attack, and because most forms of precision damage won't work beyond 30ft from the target anyway.

Increasing your bonus damage: Craven is a feat that gives you a flat bonus to Sneak Attack equal to your character level; this is very helpful for keeping your damage up to snuff, especially if you're multiclassing, and as a bonus is multiplied by critical hits. Improved Skirmish adds extra dice if you move 20ft in a round instead of just 10ft. Swift Ambusher lets you progress Sneak Attack and Skirmish at the same time; a tricky build to pull off but one that can do ludicrous damage. As a skill, Iaijutsu Focus can be added to a precision damage build that was already planning to draw lots of weapons (e.g., using thrown weapons) as an additional damage source, and can be boosted by magic items and feats that help skills; Iaijutsu Master is a prestige class that will eventually let you add your Charisma bonus to every single Iaijutsu Focus damage die (which, like Craven, also gets multiplied by critical hits).

Improving Consistency: Rogue has the easiest time here, with lots of Alternate Class features and feats existing to mitigate their weaknesses. The Penetrating Strike ACF that lets them do half SA even against immune foes, and the feat Daring Outlaw lets Swashbuckler progress a Rogue/Swashbuckler's Sneak Attack, giving them significantly better attack and HP to make flanking safer. Swift Hunter does the same thing for Scout/Rangers. Also for Scouts (and Halfling Monks that traded away their Flurry of Blows for Skirmish), a Monk's Belt will let them activate Skirmish with their 5-ft-step, and multiclassing into a Tome of Battle class or spending feats on Martial Study/Martial Stance can give access to numerous movement options.

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