The first thing I noticed upon opening Melee Tactics Toolbox is the inside front cover, containing a list of schools teaching mêlée tactics that can be found in the Inner Sea Region. Four schools are listed: the Aldori Academy, the Crusader War College, the Grand Coliseum, and the Tempering Hall. A bit of the Inner Sea map accompanies each description and shows the rough location of the school. This immediately made me a little better predisposed to the book, as it's not one I was particularly looking forward to. I was expecting something that wasn't going to particularly stand out, much like Ranged Tactics Toolbox, which this book is an obvious companion to. World flavour is something I really wish Ranged Tactics Toolbox had more of, so seeing that flavour right from the start in Melee Tactics Toolbox raised my hopes a little.
Turns out, there's not a whole lot more world flavour beyond this, but there is a bit more. Like Ranged Tactics Toolbox, Melee Tactics Toolbox is primarily a book of character options, this time focusing on mêlée combat. Like its companion, it doesn't actually spend a great deal of time on the tactics of its title, but does have scores of new feats, weapons, magic items, and more. Also like its companion, it seems to be desperately trying to create new things for something that doesn't really need any new things added to it. By itself or in conjunction with Ranged Tactics Toolbox, Melee Tactics Toolbox will likely be a useful resource for players, but in conjunction with the scores of other books out there, it will likely be mostly forgettable. It's not a bad book; it just doesn't really stand out.
Melee Tactics Toolbox is organized in the same way as Ranged Tactics Toolbox, with the first half of the book focusing on tactics, feats, archetypes, and so on, while the second half of the book focuses on equipment. The introduction gives an overview of the different types of mêlée combat based on the number of combatants. Specifically, the types are one against one, one against many, many against one, and many against many. There is also a sidebar summarising all the different types of feats in the game, such as combat feats, metamagic feats, style feats, etc., along with a brief description of each type of feat. It is quite useful to have all these listed in one place since there are so many now (16 total) from numerous different sources.
The remainder of the first half of the book is divided into two-page chapters covering different approaches to mêlée combat (though categorized differently than the types in the introduction, which is perhaps a touch confusing). Each section begins with some general and specific or advanced tactics, and then provides a selection of new character options, such as feats or archetypes. The general tactics are fairly basic, while specific tactics mostly offer suggested feats for building characters for specific tasks. Advanced tactics seem to be more specific suggestions for what to do during mêlée combat, although the distinction between “specific tactics” and “advanced tactics” isn't entirely clear. Some specific tactics offer suggestions on things to do in combat and some advanced tactics offer feat suggestion, and no chapter contains both specific and advanced tactics (it's one or the other). It may be possible that they weren't intended to be different things and the different names got missed in editing. None of the equivalent chapters in Ranged Tactics Toolbox have advanced tactics (only general and specific) so that would seem to point to “advanced” being an error.
The first of these chapters is “Up Close and Personal”. The general tactics here focus on weapon choices, while the specific tactics look at the different ways to engage a foe and deal with environment. There are also several new feats for close combat, one of which is Artful Dodge, which is similar to the Dodge feat, except it has Intelligence as a prerequisite and only works against an opponent that you are threatening but no one else is. However, it has the additional benefit of allowing you to substitute Intelligence for feats with Dexterity as a prerequisite.
The next chapter is “On the Defensive”, which, as the name suggests, focuses on ways you can keep from dying during mêlée combat. There are three new feats in this chapter and a cavalier archetype, the castellan. This archetype substitutes several defensive abilities for the cavalier's mount and charge abilities.
The next chapter, “Mass Melee”, focuses on combats with multiple people on each side. This chapter has one of the shortest tactics sections (half a page compared to the previous chapters having nearly a full page), but it does have several new feats, a new bardic masterpiece, and a new fighter archetype, the drill sergeant. Of the five new feats, three are teamwork feats that give additional benefits to using the aid another action in mêlée. While they are somewhat interesting, they seem quite limited in how often they'll actually be useful. The remaining two feats are more interesting. Phalanx Formation makes your allies not provide soft cover when you use a reach weapon. Stick Together is another teamwork feat that allows you to move as an immediate action when an ally with the feat also moves.
The next chapter, “Unarmed and Dangerous” focuses on unarmed combat. The tactics primarily offer advice to help avoid being disarmed and what to do if you are disarmed (such as recovering your weapon and investing in armour spikes). It also has six new style feats for two new styles: cudgeler syle and kraken style. The first focuses on dealing nonlethal damage with weapons and the second uses grappling to apply crushing holds to your enemies. There is also a bloodrager archetype, the bloody-knuckled rowdy.
The first half of the book concludes with “Melee in a Pinch”, which focuses on how to handle combats you're not prepared for. This chapter has nine new feats (the largest selection of feats in the book), though a couple of them are quite situational, reducing their usefulness. Aquatic Combatant and Aquatic Spell could be quite useful in an aquatic campaign, but Grappled Caster (which provides a +4 bonus to concentration checks to cast spells while grappled) will really only be useful if you play a caster who happens to get grappled frequently. The chapter also has a new rogue archetype, the makeshift scrapper.
The centre two pages of the book cover the “Anatomy of Melee Weapons”. The first page shows the relative sizes of different kinds of swords, while the second page has diagrams of an axe, a mace, and a sword. These two pages are similar in style to the centre two pages of Ranged Tactics Toolbox, except they are considerably more detailed. They add a nice flavourful touch to the game.
The second half of the book contains several chapters on equipment. There are new weapons, tools, and armour—some magical and some not—and new armour and weapon special abilities. There are also some new wondrous items that aid in mêlée combat, as well as a selection of new spells. Overall, there is a lot to choose from in these fourteen pages, some of it useful, some of it less so. A few items add some nice colour to the game. I doubt a whole lot of PCs will rush out to purchase an acrobat's pillar (a device for honing your Acrobatics skill), but its existence makes for a nice touch of flavour that GMs can place in the background of training rooms. I think my favourite item in the book is the pirate's arm, which appears to be a stone arm broken off a statue. It works like a +1 seaborne greatclub, but also provides bonuses for escaping grapples. I like it for its just plain utter bizarreness.
The inside back cover of the book contains an overview of the actions you can take during combat, including a table showing what type of action (standard, swift, free, etc.) each one is. It makes a useful resource for players during the game.
On the whole, Melee Tactics Toolbox, is a decent book. It has quite a few things in it that will be useful for mêlée-oriented characters. However, much like its companion, Ranged Tactics Toolbox, there's not much about these options that stand out amidst the sea of options already available in the game. I do find it particularly telling that almost none of the feats suggested in the tactics sections are feats from this book. So while this book does have its uses, it's also mostly skippable.