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Getting a Grip: Pinning Down Pathfinder’s Grappling Rules

Getting a Grip: Pinning Down Pathfinder’s Grappling Rules

Wrestlers. Attic Late Geometric oinochoe, ca. 715-700 BC. From Thebes. (Marie-Lan Nguyen / Wikimedia Commons)We’ve all been there. Your party is advancing on the huge, slavering beast that’s roaring and coming right at you. Your paladin is calling on his god of the sword, your wizard is summoning eldritch powers, and your barbarian is readying to charge with a hideous grin on her face. And then, due to a fluke of high initiative or a surprise round, the beast goes first. It snatches up one party member after another, crushing them in its grip and lifting them off the ground, rendering all the party’s deadliest tactics completely useless. Grapple has, once again, thoroughly buggered your strategy.

Grappling in “Pathfinder Chronicles” is one of those optional rules that all players know about, but which they rarely see. Part of it is the bad rep that the grapple maneuver is still carrying around from 3.5, and part of it is that grappling is not a big, flashy, damaging maneuver. It’s a walking status condition. As much as players might thumb their noses at grapple, everyone who’s been on the receiving end of it knows just how tide-turning it can be as a strategy. So, why not build a canny wrestler to give the DM a taste of his or her own medicine?

Starting Off: What to Look For

When you’re building a grappler, there are certain things you need to take into consideration. For instance, you will need:

–      A high Strength and a high Dexterity score. The first is for your Combat Maneuver Bonus (CMB), and both of them for your Combat Maneuver Defense (CMD). Nothing is more embarrassing than the grappler being grappled.

–      A high base attack bonus. Your BAB figures into your CMB as well, and it will be a deciding factor.

–      Special class abilities. Some classes offer you abilities that make grappling easier for you. Look for class abilities that grant bonus grappling feats (monks and fighters) or which allow you to perform special attacks that impact grappling (barbarian and fighter variants; see the relevant sections in this article series).

Next Step: Best Base Classes

Once you know what you’re looking for, you need to see which base classes offer you the best options for what you want to do. Some of them are better than others, but the following classes all allow you get up close and personal with the baddies you’ll be facing.


Monks are the obvious choice for a grappler. They’re fierce unarmed combatants. Their unarmed damage will go up over levels, which means that when you choose to crush grappled or pinned opponents, you can do more damage to them. Monks can choose Improved Grapple at level one, making them dangerous in close combat from the get-go.

There are also specific monk variants that are even more attuned to grappling than the standard monk. Those variants are the maneuver master (Ultimate Combat, page 58) and tetori (Ultimate Combat, page 61).

The maneuver master offers monks the ability to perform extra combat maneuvers as part of a flurry of blows (regardless of whether they would normally take a standard action—a valuable ability), it allows them to use their monk level instead of their BAB on CMB checks, and at higher levels it allows these monks to take attacks of opportunity against opponents that try to grapple them first. Very versatile.

The tetori is a monk that focuses purely on grabbing an enemy and holding on tightly until that enemy is crushed. A tetori can negate penalties from the grappled condition, use the monk’s level instead of BAB on CMB and CMD checks, and, as he advances in level, hold on to creatures despite freedom of movement or even negate polymorph effects. Tetori can even grapple incorporeal creatures at the higher levels.


Barbarians, with their battle fury, rage powers, and sheer brute strength, make very effective grapplers with the right feats. No barbarian build can match the brutal pugilist, though. (See the Advanced Player’s Guide, page 78.)

The brutal pugilist gains abilities in two directions; the first is to negate negatives on herself when gaining the grappled condition, and the second is to gain attacks of opportunity when other creatures attempt to grapple her. Additionally, by level 5, the brutal pugilist is considered a size category larger when determining whether she can grapple or be grappled by another creature. That’s quite a feat, and it can even up the scales when fighting bigger creatures. Any and all abilities that modify your CMB or CMD, such as the strength surge rage power, are a great boon to this build.

6 thoughts on “Getting a Grip: Pinning Down Pathfinder’s Grappling Rules”

  1. Morgan Boehringer

    Neal, I am loving this! I am incredibly fond of the *idea* of grappling, trips, pins etc, but find the mechanics (even “simplified” with CMB and CMD) difficult to understand and my players are not as imaginative tactically as they could be – heck mostly they try to avoid melee by using bows!!! (Ambushes and the old “foes springing out of the ground” trick usually brings on the biff)
    I’m now sure if I run one of these archetypes and utilise their innate uber-grapple that merely by repetition I’ll “get a grip” and my players will learn about the power of “in your face”…

    There seem to be so many options (feats, abilities and powers either taking advantage of or imparting conditions) it seems almost criminal just to say “I swing my axe”! ;)
    I love tactical combat – grappling your opponent seems to kill two birds with one blow as it were – it brings them in close to you and your allies and can incapacitate and kill them….

    Nice article Neal, looking forward to the series and hope to see trip and pin somewhere down the line…;)

  2. This is great info, and something I’d like to see my players get into as well, but I have one problem with the article: the tetori archetype — when last I heard — was unfinished, and literally unplayable as written. Perhaps that’s changed since I looked at Ultimate Combat last?

  3. I currently playing a grapple-focused Dwarven Monk of the Sacred Mountain named Trip Stone. I’ve hit 5th level and have just picked up the last of the Snapping Turtle Style feats.

    Trip isn’t a solo operator, but he can easily penetrate the enemy line and tie up (often literally) a spellcaster or large beast with little difficulty. however, he has no ranged capability to speak of and grappling can turn him into a target if he doesn’t have the support of the party.

    Fortunately, it seems as though Grappling is something that you have to dedicate a character’s entire sheet too. It appears as though I’ve pretty much hit the limit for this build and I’m looking forward to broadening his capabilities from here on out.

  4. Grappling can be so irritating, especially when it comes out of left field. I’ve had two different players bring down my encounters with characters I severely underestimated. A Druid wildshaping into a giant octopus, 8 attacks plus grab, and another’s Monk/Sorcerer with the Aberrant Bloodline was especially nasty.

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