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Pathfinder - The Area Control Defender Handbook

Disclaimer

I will use content from the core rules, but will intentionally omit any content not published on the official Pathfinder SRD due to the unmanageable volume of non-SRD content, and the wildly varying quality of non-SRD content. If you would like me to write handbooks for specific content not published on the official SRD, please email me and I will consider it on a case-by-case basis. I will use the color coding scheme which has become common among Pathfinder build handbooks. Also note that many colored items are also links to the Paizo SRD.

Temporary Note: Pathfinder Unchained and Occult Adventures were both recently added to the SRD. I'm excited to explore them, and I am actively working on adding their contents to my collection of handbooks. I appreciate your patience while I make these changes.

Introduction

"Area Control Defender" is a term that I invented largely in a vaccuum, so in the case that it's meaning isn't immediately clear:

Area Control Defender: A character built to separate enemies from their allies by strategically controlling an area on the battlefield.

Experienced players will probably have a basic understanding of this concept. Using a reach weapon, Combat Reflexes, tripping, etc. are all parts of the equation. However, there is much more to the concept than just a couple of feats and guisarme. There are a dizzying number of options available to you, and there are some rules minutae to be discussed which will clarify exactly how and why this strategy works, and why it is so popular.

Rules

There are some complicated (and sometimes poorly written) rules concepts which you need to grasp in order to fully take advantage of the options available. Once we've got our heads around the rules, we'll dig into build options.

Before proceeding, read the rules on Attacks of Opportunity. AoO's will feature prominently in this guide. So prominently, in fact, that I'm abbreviating them to AoO's, though I generally try to avoid doing so in my other articles.

Reach Weapons and Diagonals

There is a serious error in the original Pathfinder combat text for reach weapons. 3.5's version of the same rule includes the following text:

Note: Small and Medium creatures wielding reach weapons threaten all squares 10 feet (2 squares) away, even diagonally. (This is an exception to the rule that 2 squares of diagonal distance is measured as 15 feet.)

Pathfinder's Combat rules omit that note. Without this note, a medium creature with a reach weapon can't attack any space directly at a diagonal to them, thereby allowing enemies to walk totally unimpeded in and out of your reach.

This was clarified/fixed in this FAQ from 2014, promising that the fix would be added to the next round of errata. However, the fix never made it onto the SRD. Make absolutely certain to explain this to your DM. Without this clarification, the entire Area Control Defender concept falls apart unless you make yourself large.

Charging Against Reach Weapons

I've had this debate with my own games, so let me settle it here: Charging through a creature's reach does provoke an attack of opportunity. In the Actions in Combat table, "Charge" says "No" in the "Attack of Opportunity" column because no part of the Charge action provokes an attack of opportunity beyond the parts of the action that already do so. The important clarification is in the footnotes:

1 Regardless of the action, if you move out of a threatened square, you usually provoke an attack of opportunity. This column indicates whether the action itself, not moving, provokes an attack of opportunity.

And yes, that footnote also existed in the 3.5 rules if you're curious.

This has some extremely important implications:

  1. The footnote makes the most important part of are control defense functional. If enemies could charge you and get inside your reach for free, the entire strategy would only work if enemies were actively trying to get past you. If they were happy to focus on you (which is a success by some measures), most of your build falls apart and you're left hugely vulnerable.
  2. You can get two attacks against charging enemies if you prepare an action. This means that you can get double damage with weapons with the Brace property from the prepared action and use your attack of opportunity to trip them or something.

Remember that the AC penalty from charging applies as soon as the charge is declared, so your attacks of opportunity benefit from the AC penalty. Also remember that Combat Reflexes doesn't allow you to get multiple attacks of opportunity against the same target for leaving one of your threatened squares, so even if you've got massive reach you'll probably only get one AoO per target per turn unless you also trip them.

5-Foot Steps and Their Implications

At medium size without anything beyond a reach weapon, 5-foot steps present a serious problem. Enemies can move into your reach and stop (or be stopped), then on the following turn take a 5-foot step inside your reach, preventing you from hitting them with your fancy polearm. This then forces you to stap away to attack them, putting you in a perpetual retreat until one of you dies. At low levels this will be a major problem, but as you pick up feats (see the "Feats" section, below) you can collect some options which will prevent or mitigate this problem.

You can also use difficult to prevents 5-foot steps, but most area control defenders won't have easy access to effects which create it, so you'll need to depend on feats instead.

Reach Diagrams

Wile the official SRD omits them, d20PFSRD.com provides some excellent reach diagrams (you'll need to scroll half-way down the page). Humanoids and other creatures with humanoid-like anatomy use the "Tall" sizes, while quadrupeds like horses and other short, broad creatures like dragons and snakes use the "Long" sizes.

In case it's not immediately clear what those diagrams are portraying: the white area is the space that you occupy. The green area is your "natural" reach (the stuff you could punch). The red area is what you can reach with a reach weapon. If you are using a reach weapon, you can attack stuff in the red area but not in the green area.

Whips Above Medium Size

The whip weapon description includes the following text:

The whip is treated as a melee weapon with a 15-foot reach

At medium size, that's fine. At small size, that's probably still fine. Outside of that narrow band of sizes, it starts to fall apart. There are three possible interpretations of the how reach works with a whip, each of which we'll examine. If you care about rules minutae or need to explain this to your DM, read on. If you just want to know the answer, skip to "So what's the answer", below.

Strict RAW

All creatures have 15-foot reach with whips.

While this is the answer best supported by the rules text, it falls apart almost immediately when you begin to think about its implications. A colossal creature using a whip wouldn't be able to hit creatures which it could reach with its bare hands. Tiny and smaller creatures could use a whip that's clearly too long for them to weild effectively. If we somehow for a fine sized creature (as big as a fly) to use a whip, they would still have 15-foot reach. Imagine a fly whipping you from across a room.

+10 Method

All creatures extend their natural reach by 10 feet with whips.

This method is supported by exactly one piece of evidence: Balors. Balors are large, and have a whip with 20-foot reach. This means that at large size, whips give you as much reach as a polearm. This negates much of the usefulness of a whip, but one could argue that it makes sense if you consider the tensile strength of the weapon as you make it gradually larger. The idea of a whip large enough for a collosal creature like a giant which uses whole trees as weapons seems a bit far-fetched, but in a world where that giant exists it's hard to argue such strict adherence to real-world physics. Maybe collosal giants use whips made of dragon leather or something.

As we extend beyond the small to large size band, this interpretation faces the same issues as the Strict RAW interpretation. Flies still get to whip you from across the room, and colossal giants still can't reach the ends of their own arms.

x3 Method

All creatures triple their natural reach with whips.

This interpretation has no basis in the official rules text. However, it has the closest thing we have ever gotten to an official FAQ/Errata answer. According to Paizo Creative Direction James Jacobs, whips triple the creatures natural reach. Tiny and smaller creatures are still a weird case, and Jacobs suggest 10-foot whip reach for tiny creatures, which might still mean that flies can whip you from across a room.

Notably, this also makes the balor stats incorrect. Personally I think that this is fine. It's one bit of text in exactly one monster, and could be easily erratad if Paizo ever chose to officialy clarify whips.

So what's the answer?

Unclear, but I think the x3 method makes the most sense based on the evidence cited above.

Traits

Few traits cater to Area Control Defenders, and the few available are poor. Fortunately, that leaves you room to put your traits toward other aspects of your build like compensating for poor saving throws or skills.

Classes and Archetypes

Nearly any class can play an area control defender since almost every class gets proficiency with the longspear (druids and wizards are the exceptions). I won't go into detail on every class and archetype here, but I'll cover those classes which are well suited to the role, and any archetypes which specifically contribute to the concept.

Feats

Weapons

Reach is an absolute must, so only reach weapons are mentioned here (with the exception of Armor Spikes).

Martial Weapons

Exotic Weapons

Few exotic weapons are worth the feat, but if you have spare feats in your build you might find something interesting.

Armor

Your choice of armor doesn't matter much beyond the usual balance between Dexterity and base AC bonus. However, getting something which supports armor spikes can provide a useful fallback option if enemies get inside your reach.

Spells

This section won't address every spell on your spell list, but it will point out some especially notable options.

1st-Level Spells

4th-Level Spells

6th-Level Spells

Magic Items

Most of your magic items will depend on your choice of blass, but a few especially useful items and enchantments cater very well to area control defenders.

Weapons

Wondrous Items

Permanent Spells