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Pathfinder - Practical Guide to Fighting Defensively

Last Updated: Octobr 4th, 2019


I support a limited subset of Pathfinder's rules content. If you would like help with Pathfinder player options not covered here, please email me and I am happy to provide additional assistance.

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.

  • Red: Bad, useless options, or options which are extremely situational.
  • Orange: OK options, or useful options that only apply in rare circumstances
  • Green: Good options.
  • Blue: Fantastic options, often essential to the function of your character.


Fighting Defensively is a rarely-used which allows you to temporarily handicap your attacks for a modest increase to your AC. It doesn't see a lot of use because it's a poor trade. -4 to hit in exchange for +2 to AC is rarely going to be your best choice in combat. Characters who like this option typically pick up Combat Expertise, which works in the same way, but offers a 1-for-1 trade.

But with a long list of character options which modify Fight Defensively, there's some room to improve it. In fact, improving Fight Defensively can quickly make Fight Defensively provide a larger bonus than Combat Expertise with a smaller penalty.


Three ranks in Acrobatics improves your Dodge bonus from Fight Defensively by 1, which is an easy improvement that almost any character can afford.


  • Crane Style: The requirements are steep, but it reduces the penalty for Fight Defensively from -4 to -2 and improves the AC bonus by +1, and the whole feat chain is worthwhile.
    • Crane Wing: +4 is a huge amount of AC. You'll need to track how close attacks come to hitting you, which is an annoying addition to an already crunchy game, but +4 to AC is great. Of course, you need to keep a hand free, so this appeals most to brawlers or monks who fight unarmed or with one-handed weapons and to magi, swashbucklers, and specific builds which frequently have an empty hand. If you take this, try to pick up a weapon with the Blocking special property since you won't be using a shield.
      • Crane Riposte: Reduce the penalty for Fight Defensively from -2 to -1, and sometimes you'll get an attack of opportunity when someone almost hits you.
  • Exotic Weapon Proficiency: Mostly useful for Madu, but there are some other useful options.
  • Two-Weapon Defense: Not a great feat on its own, and adding Fight Defensively penalties to two-weapon fighting may saddle you with a lot of penalties which are difficult to offset.

Halfling Racial Feats

Halflings get several feats pertaining to Fighting Defensively.

  • Cautious Fighter: A flat +2 bonus to Fight Defensively. If you Fight Defensively every turn, this is twice as good as Dodge.
    • Blundering Defense: If you're really good at fighting defensively, this could be a useful buff for your allies.
    • Desperate Swing: Once per day is not nearly good enough, especially with the -4 attack penalty.
      • Surprise Strike: Once per day is not good enough.
    • Uncanny Defense: I would only take this if your Fight Defensively bonus is really good and your Reflex saves were a problem.


Any weapon with the Blocking property adds a +1 Shield bonus to AC. This obviously won't stack with an actual shield, but it's very helpful for characters who don't or can't use shields.

  • Madu: Reduces the penalty for fighting defensively from -4 to -2, making Fight Defensively an even trade. You'll need exotic weapon proficiency, unfortunately, and since it's a shield it won't work for monks.


This guide turned out to be less interesting than I had hoped.

The best build I can think of to capitalize on Fight Defensively is a Halfling Brawler. You can pick up the Crane Style feat tree and use a madu without giving up class features. With 3 ranks in Acrobats, equipped with a Madu, and with the feats Exotic Weapon Proficiency, Dodge, Crane Style, Crane Wing, and Cautious Fighter, you have a -1 penalty for Fight Defensively and get a total dodge bonus to AC of +11, plus whatever shield bonus you get from your Madu. 6 feats is a lot, but your AC is going to be absurdly high.