One of the more controversial ability combinations in Savage Worlds is reach and First Strike. When withdrawing from close combat, you provoke a free attack - but you're only considered to be "withdrawing" when you move beyond the reach of your own weapon, not that of your enemy. [Reference]
This means a character with reach and First Strike can withdraw each round, then get a free attack when their foe closes with them again.[Reference]
Some people claim that this tactic is "broken", others suggest that the attacker should use alternative tactics instead of chasing the First Strike character. However I don't agree with either view - I consider the tactic both viable and balanced when compared with other Combat Edges that grant an additional attack. And if it's worth attacking someone who has Improved Frenzy or Two-Fisted, then it's also worth chasing and attacking someone who has First Strike and reach.
To back up my claim, I'll compare four different warriors. They all have Strength d8, Vigor d8, Fighting d8, and all other traits d6. They wear chainmail hauberks, and are armed with longswords and rapiers (although only the two-weapon fighter uses it to attack, the others just use the rapier for the Parry bonus, which is the same as a small or medium shield).
Each warrior also has two Edges which grant them an additional attack without penalty: the first has Frenzy and Improved Frenzy, the second has Lunge (grants 1" reach, explained later) and First Strike, the third has Ambidextrous and Two-Fisted, and the fourth has Counterattack and Improved Counterattack.
Their Combat Simulator statblocks are as follows:
Running them through my Combat Simulator, with each warrior fighting each of the other warriors 100,000 times, gives the following results:
- Improved Frenzy won 51494 fights, Lunge and First Strike won 48506 fights.
- Improved Frenzy won 50090 fights, Ambidextrous and Two-Fisted won 49910 fights.
- Improved Frenzy won 53766 fights, Improved Counterattack won 46234 fights.
- Lunge and First Strike won 40239 fights, Ambidextrous and Two-Fisted won 59761 fights.
- Lunge and First Strike won 44536 fights, Improved Counterattack won 55464 fights.
- Ambidextrous and Two-Fisted won 49128 fights, Improved Counterattack won 50872 fights.
Which averages out as follows (listed in order of effectiveness):
- Ambidextrous and Two-Fisted: 52.9% win rate.
- Improved Frenzy: 51.8% win rate.
- Improved Counterattack: 50.9% win rate.
- Lunge and First Strike: 44.4% win rate.
Running them through my Build Comparison tool pits each of the warriors against 29 monsters from the core rules bestiary, and gives the following results (listed in order of effectiveness):
- Improved Frenzy: 78.7% win rate.
- Ambidextrous and Two-Fisted: 78.1% win rate.
- Improved Counterattack: 77.1% win rate.
- Lunge and First Strike: 76.6% win rate.
As you can see, they're all fairly closely matched. The results vary slightly with different builds, but I've found all four Edge combinations to be very comparable with each other.
Of course there are many other factors to consider. Both Improved Frenzy and Two-Fisted perform even better when combined with Wild Attack (as it applies to both of their attacks), while First Strike doesn't do quite as well (as free attacks don't benefit from Wild Attack), and Improved Counterattack does particularly poorly (the reduced Parry also lowers the chance of a free attack).
Improved Frenzy's main drawback is that both attacks share a single Wild Die, although on the plus side this means both attacks can be rerolled with a single benny if they miss. Against a foe with Counterattack, the Improved Frenzy character will trigger a Counterattack if even one attack misses, although if the other attack hits and the foe is Shaken it will prevent the Counterattack from working.[Reference]
Two-Fisted can later take the potent Florentine Edge, although this is offset by Trademark Weapon (and Improved Trademark Weapon) only applying to one of their attacks rather than both. This build is the only one of the four that doesn't have the option of replacing its rapier with a large shield (for +2 Parry) if strong enough to carry that much weight, nor upgrade the Str+d4 damage of its second attack without also lowering its Parry (at least with the core weapons).
Lunge and First Strike can later take Improved First Strike, allowing them to make free attacks against multiple opponents each round. However they can also be pinned down by multiple opponents who attack them from different directions, preventing them from moving without provoking a free attack. Worse still, if their opponents also have reach weapons, they will never need to move adjacent, negating the build entirely! One of the big advantages of this build is that (barring unexpected circumstances or a foe with reach) it always gets the first attack in melee combat - if the above warriors had no armour, then this build would actually slightly fare better than all the others, due to the advantage of a possible high-damage first blow. However this build also has to be careful about initiative order; if your opponent acts after you on one round but before you on the next, they'll be able to act twice before you can withdraw.
Improved Counterattack works best for high Parry builds, but as Fighting is one of the best investments that any melee character can make [Reference], most people who invest in Improved Counterattack will also have a decent Parry. Some characters might even take the concept a step further and use the Defend maneuver, relying on Improved Counterattack to make passive attacks.
One final point to note about free attacks is that if the character is Shaken, and they only get a success (rather than a raise) on their Spirit roll to recover, they can still make free attacks even if they can't perform regular attacks. This opens up some interesting possibilities for characters who combine Combat Reflexes with Improved Counterattack, First Strike and reach.
Lunge isn't a core Edge!
While it's true that Lunge isn't a core Edge, it's one that many people like to use (perhaps inspired by the Pathfinder Feat of the same name), and makes the earlier comparisons easier to understand. Even if you don't use Lunge, the exact same principle applies to other sources of reach (such as polearms).
But some weapons give reach for free!
Some weapons do indeed grant reach as a free ability, but those weapons are always two-handed (at least in the core rules). The warrior I used in the earlier examples might swap his longsword for a halberd, which would give him reach and therefore free up the Edge slot allocated to Lunge - but as the halberd requires two hands, he'd also lose the +1 Parry from his rapier. He could take Block to restore the +1 Parry bonus, but then he'd be back to using two Edges. He could instead use a spear for both reach and +1 Parry, but the spear inflicts less damage than the longsword or halberd. It's all about tradeoffs.
Even a character with Strength d6 (who wouldn't be able to use a longsword) has to make sacrifices for the spear. They could instead use a flail (ignoring their foes shields) or warhammer (AP 1 vs rigid armour), or even wield a rapier and shield (the +1 Parry of the rapier more than compensates for the reduced damage).