The term "Special Attack" describes a group of Attack Types, all of which have one thing in common: Special Attacks can only be performed alongside conventional attacks.
There are four main types of Special Attacks in the game. Three of these (Thrown Attacks, Breath Attacks, and Gaze Attacks) are short range attacks that can only be executed as part of the Melee Attack sequence. The fourth type of Special Attack, called Touch Attacks, are essentially added effects that can be attached to other Attack Types that a unit makes, including Ranged Attacks, and even short range Special Attacks! Furthermore, Fear Attacks are considered a fifth, "unofficial" type of Special Attack, although they are not actually offensive in nature.
During the Melee Attack process, a unit will deliver as many Special Attacks as it is allowed to make. These are executed in a strict sequence: the attacker's short range ability occurs first, followed by the defender's Gaze Attack(s), if any (other short range abilities may not be used when Counter Attacking), and finally the exchange of Melee Damage between the attacker and defender. Fear Attacks occur just before the opposing unit would deliver its Melee Damage, while Touch Attacks are simultaneous with both short range attacks and Melee Damage (and may thus be performed more than once during the sequence).
The timing of a Special Attack within this sequence has a lot of bearing on its potential tactical usefulness: the sooner it occurs, the more it reduces the risk of damage to the unit performing it.
A unit can only make a Special Attack if it possesses an appropriate Unit Ability, Unit Enchantment, or Magical Item. The source of a Special Attack also defines which Damage Type(s) it delivers - and thus what kind of effect the attack will have on the target. For example, the Stoning Gaze ability allows the unit to make a Gaze Attack delivering Stoning Damage, which forces the target to Resist or be turned to stone (i.e. die). The source of the Special Attack also defines either its Attack Strength, or its Resistance penalty.
When a unit is making a Melee Attack against an opponent, it first approaches that opponent with the intent of making physical contact. However, before this contact can be established, some units are capable of executing various short-ranged attacks that do not involve hand-to-hand weaponry. These "additional" attacks, called Special Attacks, may precede hand-to-hand combat, and can involve such things as throwing short-range weapons the target, or breathing a blast of fire at it.
Furthermore, while charging at its target the attacker also opens itself to Special Attacks made by that target. In other words, the close proximity of Melee combat also allows the defender to use some of its own Special Attacks against its assailant. While the defender can not use thrown weapons or breath-based attacks, it may still use any other kind of Special Attack to try and harm the assailant before or during physical contact.
Special Attacks and Melee Attacks are inextricably tied together: the only opportunity to use most Special Attacks is during Melee combat - they cannot be used in any other circumstance. Furthermore, it is not possible for a unit to execute a Melee Attack without also executing all of its available Special Attacks.
Despite this close relationship, each Special Attack is essentially considered to be a separate entity (both to other Special Attacks and the Melee Attack itself); and they all occur either just before the delivery of Melee Damage, or concurrently with it. Because both the attacker and defender are allowed to strike each other with Special Attacks and/or Melee Damage, the timing of each Special Attack is of great importance: an "earlier" attack that hurts the opponent may weaken that opponent's "later" attacks.
For the most part, Special Attacks can be quite deadly - and potentially much more deadly than the unit's Melee Attack itself. They can often hurt the opponent to a much greater degree than the Melee Attack alone could, and often completely ignore the target's combat skill or armor values. Units possessing certain types of Special Attacks are therefore extremely dangerous to engage in Melee combat, and should be avoided on the battlefield if at all possible. The only way to prevent such units from executing their deadly Special Attacks is to prevent them from engaging in Melee combat.
Special Attack Types Edit
The game contains either four or five different Special Attack types, depending on whether the manual is to be taken at face value. Each of these is decidedly different from the others, based primarily on its timing within the Melee Attack sequence (see below). However they all share one common property: they are always executed as part of a Melee Attack, Ranged Attack, or Counter Attack. It is not possible to execute a Special Attack on its own.
The three short range Special Attacks (Thrown, Breath, and Gaze) are mutually exclusive with both each other and all types of Ranged Attacks, meaning that a unit can only ever have one of these attack types. This makes the melee sequence somewhat easier to understand, as there is no real need to remember the actual order in which these would take place. Any short range attacks available to a defending unit also always come after those of an attacker.
Thrown Attacks Edit
One of the three short range types of Special Attacks is the Thrown Attack. This is an attack performed with short-ranged weapons, such as balanced axes, throwing-spears, and so forth.
A Thrown Attack is executed at the very beginning of a Melee Attack, which gives it a strong advantage: if it can kill one or more of the Figures in the target unit, it will reduce the enemy's strength for later stages of the Melee combat process, including the actual exchange of Melee Damage.
A unit can only use a Thrown Attack when it is voluntarily initiating a Melee Attack against a target. It cannot use a Thrown Attack when Counter Attacking to an enemy's assault. Thus, units with Thrown Attacks need to try to keep the initiative, and should constantly maneuver to prevent enemies from voluntarily attacking them.
For a unit to deliver a Thrown Attack, it must possess the Thrown ability. The value of this ability indicates its Attack Strength. Note that Multi-Figure units deliver one such attack per each live Figure they contain.
All Thrown Attacks deliver simple Physical Damage, which involves To Hit and To Block rolls, and unblocked hits will result in actual Damage Points applied to the target.
Breath Attacks Edit
Breath Attacks are somewhat rare, and are very similar to Thrown Attacks. In this attack type, the unit breathes a blast of energy (whether fire or lightning) at its target from a safe distance, before proceeding to charge that target for physical contact.
Breath Attacks are executed at the very beginning of a Melee Attack, giving them the same advantage that Thrown Attacks have: any Figure killed by a Breath Attack cannot retaliate - giving the attacker more safety as it proceeds to charge the target.
A unit can only use a Breath Attack when it is voluntarily initiating a Melee Attack against a target. It cannot use a Breath Attack when Counter Attacking to an enemy's assault. Thus, units with Breath Attacks need to try to keep the initiative, and should constantly maneuver to prevent enemies from voluntarily attacking them.
There are two types of Breath Attacks in the game, and they differ from one another only by the type(s) of damage they deliver. In both cases however, it is still Physical Damage, which involves To Hit and To Block rolls, and unblocked hits will result in Damage Points applied to the target.
For a unit to deliver a Breath Attack, it must possess either the Fire Breath or Lightning Breath ability. The value of this ability indicates its Attack Strength. As with Thrown Attacks, Multi-Figure units deliver one Breath Attack for each live Figure they contain.
Gaze Attacks Edit
Gaze Attacks involve a metaphysical property of a unit: it only has to make eye-contact with its target, and this magically causes damage to that target. The process still requires both units to be within close proximity to each other ("staring distance").
Gaze Attacks differ from other short range Special Attacks in that they can also be used during a Counter Attack. For an attacking unit, they are executed at the beginning of the Melee sequence, while a defending unit has to wait until after the attacker's short range attacks, if any. In both cases however, the attack takes place before the actual exchange of Melee Damage.
There are three types of Gaze Attacks in the game, differing from each other only by the type(s) of damage they deliver. In all cases, this involves very powerful Special Damage, and is quite likely to severely hurt or even completely destroy the target. Thus, Gaze Attackers make very dangerous opponents in Melee combat, and are often countered by striking at them from a long distance away via Ranged Attacks or combat spells.
As mentioned earlier, a unit can use its Gaze Attacks both when attacking voluntarily and when defending. Thus, it is dangerous even when the enemy retains the initiative. However, when both attacker and defender possess a Gaze Attack, the attacker still has a significant advantage (see above).
For a unit to deliver a Gaze Attack, it must possess either the Stoning Gaze, Death Gaze or Doom Gaze abilities. The value of the ability indicates either its Attack Strength (for Doom Gaze), or the Resistance penalty it inflicts on the target (for Stoning and Death Gazes).
Touch Attacks Edit
Touch Attacks, as their name would indicate, should take place only once physical contact has been established between both combatants. As they strike each other with their physical weapons, the Touch Attacker would deliver additional damage, in one form or another, against the opponent. However, this is not actually the case. Instead, Touch Attacks are affixed to all (or most, in the case of Heroes) Attack Types that the combatants make, including both short range Special Attacks and the exchange of Melee Damage. This makes it possible for them to be used during Ranged Attacks as well.
Touch Attacks are executed simultaneously with the attacks that they are "attached to". Furthermore, if both the attacker and defender possess Touch Attacks, they will exchange them simultaneously during the exchange of Melee Damage - hurting each other at the same exact timing. This is very important, and means that neither combatant has a tactical advantage. This can be changed, however: if the attacker possesses the First Strike ability, it wins an advantage here (delivering Melee Damage and Touch Attacks first), and may end up weakening the opponent before retaliation occurs.
Touch Attacks are the most varied of all Special Attack types - delivering a wide variety of Damage Types. Some Touch Attacks are more deadly than others, but in all cases they pose a significant threat to the opponent. Units with a more deadly Touch Attack are best engaged at a long distance, i.e. with Ranged Attacks and combat spells. Units with a weaker Touch Attack can be engaged in Melee combat, particularly by units with Breath Attacks, Thrown Attacks, or Gaze Attacks, since these are executed first in the sequence (see below).
For a unit to deliver a Touch Attack, it must possess one of five different Unit Abilities: Stoning Touch, Poison Touch, Immolation, Life Steal, or Dispel Evil. Where applicable, the strength of the ability indicates either how much damage the attack delivers, or what sort of penalty is inflicted on the target while it is defending itself from the attack. Heroes wielding powerful Magical Weapons may also be able to spread Death and Destruction with but a Touch.
Multi-figure units perform their Touch Attacks once for every remaining figure they have at the time of execution. The only exception is Immolation, which instead attacks each target figure individually, but occurs only once regardless of the amount of initiating figures.
Fear Attacks Edit
Although not mentioned in the original game manual, it seems that the Cause Fear ability gives the unit a Special Attack that does not match any of the other categories. This wiki refers to this as a Fear Attack.
Fear Attacks are executed immediately before the exchange of Melee Damage between the two combatants. It delivers Fear Damage, the sole purpose of which is to prevent a number of enemy Figures (or all of them) from delivering any of their Melee Damage or related Touch Attacks. It effectively reduces the strength of the enemy's retaliation, though it doesn't cause any actual harm to the target.
Both the attacker and defender in Melee combat may use their Fear Attacks, if they have any. If both units possess a Fear Attack, they will exchange these attacks simultaneously. Therefore, it is quite possible for both units to completely shut each other down - resulting in no Melee Damage or Touch Attacks being exchanged.
Melee Attack Sequence Edit
As repeatedly mentioned above, no Special Attack can be executed on its own. To perform nearly all Special Attacks, a unit must either make a Melee Attack or come under a Melee Attack. The exact situation will determine which Special Attacks (if any) the unit is allowed to make - but they will always happen as part of the overall Melee Attack process.
As a result, the Melee Attack process can be quite complex - especially when both units possess a wide variety of Special Attacks each (for example, two Chaos Spawns fighting each other...). However there is a strict sequence that can be followed to tell the order in which all of these Special Attacks are executed - and it matters a lot.
Normally (see below for exceptions), the Melee sequence has 3 distinct stages:
|1||Thrown Attack / Breath Attack / Gaze Attack||--|
|3||Melee Damage||Melee Damage|
At each stage, the game will process each and every relevant attack, whether made by the attacker, the defender, or both. At the end of each stage, the game applies any injuries, casualties, and effects resulting from these attacks, and only then does it move to the next stage. If at any stage one of the combatants is completely destroyed, it will not be able to deal any more damage or use any abilities. However, it can still take damage, which may be important for the concepts of Irreversible- and Create Undead damage.
Furthermore, it's important to note that the strength of a Multi-Figure unit's attack often relies greatly on the number of Figures it has remaining. Therefore, when either combatant is a Multi-Figure unit, it hopes to retain as many Figures as possible from each stage to the next. The more Figures survive each stage, the more damage potential the unit has. In particular, Melee Damage (at the very bottom of the list!) relies greatly on the number of surviving Figures. It is possible to weaken a Multi-Figure opponent earlier in the process to limit the amount of Melee Damage it will deliver at the very end of it.
This gives a clear advantage to an attacking unit that has a short range attack. Since these are executed at the very start of the process (at stage 1), they have a good chance of weakening the defender, and thus minimizing or eliminating any damage to the attacker, at any of the stages that follow.
For the defender, a Gaze Attack is a little less advantageous tactically - it can only prevent the attacking unit (or its figures) from delivering their Melee Damage - or at least weaken the enemy somewhat before those are delivered (at stage 3). However, this is still very important against an attacking Multi-Figure unit, since the potential strength of Melee Damage (and many Melee Touch Attacks) relies heavily on the number of Figures the unit has left.
At stage 3 of the process, each of the two combatants deliver their Melee Damage at the opponent, combined with any Special Damage or Touch Attacks they may have. The effects of all of these (potentially many) attacks are processed and recorded in memory, so injuries and casualties to either combatant apply only after the game is done processing. This prevents Touch Attacks and Melee Damage from weakening either combatant any further before, at the very end of the combat process, they both suffer the effects and the entire attack is concluded.
The process is strictly organized (with one exception, detailed below). In order to determine whether a unit with a Special Attack will win in combat against another unit, this sequence must be followed precisely. Any casualties inflicted on either unit between each of the stages in the list above can have serious consequences on the results of the combat round.
First Strike Edit
There is exactly one situation where Special Attacks are performed out of the sequence explained above: when a unit with First Strike makes a voluntary Melee Attack against a unit without Negate First Strike.
So with First Strike in effect, the table looks like this:
|1||Thrown Attack / Breath Attack / Gaze Attack||--|
Note how the defender's Melee Damage was moved down to a new stage (stage 4). This means that the attacker may deliver this first, and most importantly, that the implications of his Melee Damage is applied on the target before it can react.
As a result, the attacker gets a very big advantage: when stage 3 concludes, the defender may have lost some or all of its Figures. Therefore, its own Melee Damage and Touch Attacks may have reduced in strength, or the defender could even be completely destroyed.
Again, this only occurs when the attacking unit is the one possessing First Strike. A defender may not use its own First Strike ability, even if it has one. Furthermore, if the defender possesses the Negate First Strike ability, then the above condition is not met and First Strike will not take effect this combat round.
Tactically speaking, this is a very good reason why First Strike units often possess good maneuvering properties - they need to be able to make as many voluntary Melee Attacks against their targets as they can, ideally without ever being voluntarily attacked by the enemy. If they allow the enemy to attack voluntarily, they don't get to use First Strike, and thus lose a great advantage.
This is also why First Strike can be extremely useful against enemy Multi-Figure units. By pushing the enemy's Melee Damage and related Touch Attacks to stage 4, there's a good chance of weakening the enemy (and hence those retaliatory attacks) beforehand. Remember again that both Melee Damage, and most Touch Attacks delivered by a unit, may rely greatly on the number of Figures it has remaining!
Fear Attacks Edit
Note that neither of the tables above mentions Fear Attacks. This is an "un-official" attack type which is granted by only one single ability, called Cause Fear. Essentially, Fear Attacks are executed immediately preceding the opponent's Melee Damage, and may be utilized by both an attacking or defending unit if they possess it.
The only purpose of a Fear Attack (and the "Fear Damage" associated with it) is to prevent one or more enemy Figures from participating in stages 3 or 4, as applicable - preventing those figures from delivering any Melee Damage or Touch Attacks of their own. Other than this, Fear Damage causes no harm to its target whatsoever.
If the Fear Attack is particularly successful, it can prevent all enemy figures from participating in stages 3 or 4, which reduces the risk to the Fear Attacker considerably. In the case of both units having a Fear Attack, it is quite possible for both attacks to be successful - thus neutralizing both the attacker and the defender simultaneously.
Bear in mind, however, that Cause Fear has major bugs in game version 1.31, and it requires at least the unofficial Insecticide patch to get any practical use out of Fear Attacks. Without this, it will generally work against the unit possessing it (or have no effect at all).
Multiple Special Attacks Edit
Several units possess a variety of Special Attacks by default. Unit Enchantments and/or Magical Items can also add certain Special Attacks to a unit. A good example is the Chaos Spawn, which possesses 3 different Gaze Attacks, a Touch Attack, and a Fear Attack by default.
When a unit has a variety of Special Attacks, it will deliver as many of them as are allowed by the attack it is making. Returning to the Chaos Spawn example, this unit will deliver all three of its Gaze Attacks, as well as its Touch Attack and Fear Attack, whenever it enters Melee combat. It will even execute its Touch Attack twice if it is not destroyed before the Melee Damage stage.
As noted already, while a unit may possess multiple types of Gaze Attacks and/or Touch Attacks, short range attacks (Thrown, Breath, and Gaze) are otherwise mutually exclusive. They are also mutually exclusive with any kind of Ranged Attack. This is especially important when talking about the Chaos Channels spell, which can add a Breath Attack to a unit that does not already have it: if the unit had a Thrown Attack before the spell was cast on it, it will be replaced by the Breath Attack (which is somewhat inferior for several reasons, as explained in the Chaos Channels article, and has prompted this behaviour to be changed in the unofficial patches).
When multiple Gaze Attacks or multiple Touch Attacks are delivered by the same unit, they are processed simultaneously. This means that the game first calculates the effects that each attack will have on the target (that is, it makes all the necessary rolls to determine what harm will be done to the target), and only once all of these attacks have been processed will it apply any damage or kill any enemy Figures. For example, with multiple Gaze Attacks, the game first calculates each Gaze Attack to see what harm it will do to the target, and only once done processing all of these attacks will it actually inflict that harm.
This means that the sequence in which these attacks are processed is largely irrelevant. For example, if a unit delivers both an Immolation Damage Touch Attack and a Poison Damage Touch Attack, the order in which they are processed does not affect the outcome - both are processed as though they were stand-alone attacks, and only when the game is done with all that processing does it apply the accumulated total damage to the target unit.
Almost all Special Attacks will trigger the Magic Immunity of a target, if it possesses that effect from any source. The only ones that do not are Thrown, Doom Gaze, and Poison Touch. When this happens, the target's defensive attributes are improved temporarily: Defense is raised to 50, and Resistance is increased by 30; for the purposes of resolving the effect of the attack. In most cases, this is equivalent with total immunity, but very strong attacks (e.g. the Breath Attack of a Great Drake) may still inflict some damage.
Thrown Attacks will trigger no immunity whatsoever. This makes them more reliable against a very wide variety of targets. Of course, since all Thrown Attacks deliver simple Physical Damage, they can in turn be stopped by a target with heavy Armor, but that isn't (strictly speaking) an "immunity".
Doom Gaze also triggers no immunities, and its damage can not be reduced by any means either (apart from reducing the actual Attack Strength of the Chaos Spawn making it). This makes it similarly useful, however, this ability is only possessed by a single unit in the game.
Other than these, most Breath, Gaze, and Touch Attacks have a specific immunity that they trigger, such as Poison Immunity, Stoning Immunity, or Fire Immunity. This always depends on the Type of Damage delivered by the attack: Stoning Gaze (delivering Stoning Damage) will trigger a target's Stoning Immunity, but not its Death Immunity. Conversely, Poison Immunity will be triggered by Poison Touch, but not by Immolation.
Therefore, when trying to determine whether a unit's Special Attacks will be effective against a target, it is important to know what Damage Type it delivers, and what immunities the opponent possesses. If the target has any of the immunities corresponding to that damage type, it will likely not suffer any harm from the Special Attack.
There are also some conditional effects, such as those conferred by the spells Bless or Elemental Armor, that, while not technically immunities, can push a target's Resistance to levels where they will no longer be able to fail their rolls with respect to Special Attacks that belong to the Realm of magic these effects protect against.