When Playing by the Rules is a Dick Move

There’s a lot to be said for running a Pathfinder game by the (Core Rule)book. While supplements and house rules can add a lot to a game, there’s a simplicity to running things by the Core Rules only that can be refreshing, both for the ease that comes from sticking to the rules that everyone (presumably) already knows, and for the fun that comes from working with a limited set of tools (which tends to heighten creativity). As they say, “simple is best.”

And yet for all of that, there are several areas of the Core Rules that are routinely ignored in many, if not most, Pathfinder games.

Now, that statement has likely left you scratching your head and wondering just what the hell I’m talking about. Surely there aren’t entire sections of the rules that are ignored by everyone, are there?

Well actually, yes. Yes there are.

You're Not Just Wrong. The Rules Also Say You're A Dick!

Because I couldn't find one where it had the rules saying you're actually right, but also a dick.

These are the parts of the game that tend to get ignored because players don’t want to be subject to them, and GM’s are wary of pulling them out, since they tend to be upsetting to the point of killing the fun. In fact, it seems to have gotten to the point where there’s an unconscious-but-understood “social contract” between the players and the GM that these things won’t be used in the game at all. That’s an overstatement, of course, but these rules do seem to be generally ignored.

Today, we’re going to shine a spotlight on these oft-ignored parts of the game and examine them in more detail. We’ll also cover why they shouldn’t be so readily dismissed, and hopefully make a good argument for why they deserve to be used as much as any other parts of the game.

Say hello to the dick moves of the Pathfinder Role-Playing Game.

Broken Gear

This one is a classic among the things you’re Not Supposed To Do To The PCs. Character death is tragic, even after leveling to where you can be reliably raised from the dead. But destroying a character’s items (both magic and mundane)? That’s just mean.

The above sentiment is fairly pervasive among Pathfinder players, despite the fact that destroying gear is built into the rules at myriad points. Beyond even the rules on item hit points and hardness scores, we have example upon example of the rules giving characters ways to break stuff. From the sunder combat maneuver (and Improved Sunder) to the shatter, disintegrate, and mage’s disjunction spells (despite the latter being neutered in Pathfinder) to the rust monster, it’s pretty clear that this is a very viable tactic.

It’s also a tactic that no PC is ever willing to use themselves. After all, notwithstanding experience points, treasure is the reward they get at the end of the adventure, and a significant portion of that comes from the gear that enemies are using. When you’re 3rd level, that masterwork longsword that the villain’s wielding is too valuable to be shattered. And who in their right mind sunders the enemy’s metamagic rod of quicken? Just kill him instead and take it!

Spellfire - Mordenkainen's Disjunction

The greatest and most feared of spells.

The problem is that, as mentioned above, a lot of players seem to think that because they don’t engage in this tactic, they don’t deserve to have it pulled on them. Unfortunately, that line of reasoning applies meta-game logic to decisions that are made in-game. It might make sense for a demon to disintegrate the party’s cubic gate so that they can’t escape a fight that’s going badly, but the players will still likely be ticked (and that’s a utility item – heavens help you if it happens to weapons and armor!) and likely will be upset with the GM for doing it, even though it made sense for the NPC.

It’s here that we need to talk about a subset of this particular dick move – one that’s extreme enough that it needs to be talked about specifically: targeting the wizard’s spellbook.

You can lose material components, or (divine) foci, but nothing seems to say “@#$% you, buddy” like having something happen to the wizard’s spellbook. Right?

But even this seems to be implicitly acknowledged within the game itself. Traveling spellbooks are still on the equipment list (albeit kicked over to the Advanced Player’s Guide). There are clear rules on the monetary and time costs of copying spells. Scribe Scroll is a 1st-level bonus feat for wizards (all the better to copy those backup scrolls you made into a new spellbook). And of course, there’s the Spell Mastery feat. All of this functions as backup for a wizard should their spellbook be lost or destroyed.

And yet, should that happen, the wizard’s player will often act like you just crumpled up their character sheet.

This is another one of those areas where players feel like they should have “script immunity”; that is, where something like this simply shouldn’t be in the cards. Enemies will never even think of going for the wizard’s spellbook, let alone do so if they have the opportunity. It’s just expected.

The problem with all of these assumptions is that they rest upon the more fundamental assumption that the PCs shouldn’t ever be crippled – that is, nothing should happen that puts a damper longer than a few rounds on their ability to function.

This assumption is flawed. Deeply, heavily flawed. The PCs enemies – the ones with the intelligence, means, and mindset to do so – should go for whatever means of winning they have, and if that means taking away the PCs tools, then that’s what they’ll do. After all, if you’re willing to kill someone, is it really worse to break their toys?

Alignment/Ethos Violations

Of all of the Pathfinder no-no’s listed here, this one is perhaps the most personal. Ironically, it’s also the one with the least in-game penalty (sometimes; see below).

Virtually everything else on this list is an in-game interaction between characters that creates a point of friction. But the GM telling someone that they’re not acting like their listed alignment is basically the same as pointing at them and saying

Calling someone out on alignment violations isn’t that far off from calling them out as a bad role-player, in other words. It doesn’t help that alignment is probably one of the most contentious parts of the game (hence why I prefer to play without it).

For what it’s worth, the Core Rules do broach this topic:

In the end, the Game Master is the one who gets to decide if something’s in accordance with its indicated alignment, based on the descriptions given previously and his own opinion and interpretation—the only thing the GM needs to strive for is to be consistent as to what constitutes the difference between alignments like chaotic neutral and chaotic evil. There’s no hard and fast mechanic by which you can measure alignment—unlike hit points or skill ranks or Armor Class, alignment is solely a label the GM controls.

It’s best to let players play their characters as they want. If a player is roleplaying in a way that you, as the GM, think doesn’t fit his alignment, let him know that he’s acting out of alignment and tell him why—but do so in a friendly manner.

The GameMastery Guide goes into this a little further, but really, that’s about all you can say. Given that alignment changes don’t carry a penalty, however, there’s little reason that – so long as the GM doesn’t do so nicely – an alignment change can’t be mandated.

Of course, this is a much bigger problem when the alignment change takes a character out of the acceptable alignment for his class (e.g. a barbarian acting lawful). In that case, the GM is essentially levying a penalty, one that ranges from not being able to take further levels in that class to losing all of that class’s powers.

Things are pretty well the same in regards to an ethos or code of conduct. These tend to be expressly called out for paladins, druids, and some other classes, and most divine spellcasting classes have an implicit set of religious tenets that they’re supposed to follow too. Breaking this ethos tends to be similar to having your alignment change to one that’s out of bounds for your class, in that there are tangible penalties.

These can be pretty hefty, but there’s still no reason to necessarily avoid them if they’re warranted. After all, the player knew about those restriction when he had his PC take that class, and how the character acts is (mind-affecting effects notwithstanding) completely under the player’s control. Hence, there shouldn’t be any hesitation on the GM’s part to go there if it’s necessary.

Besides, repentance is only one atonement away anyway.

Independent Hench-NPCs

You’ll have to forgive the imprecise terminology here. “Hench-NPCs” are those NPCs whom the PCs get as part of a class feature, feat, or other game mechanic. I’m talking about familiars, animal companions, cohorts, etc.

It's better than a red shirt...I guess.

There’s been a long-running debate over who gets to actually run these characters, the player or the GM. Honestly, both sides have some merit, but here at Intelligence Check we tend to side with the idea that the GM should control NPCs, including those that are gained because of a game mechanic.

The reason for this is that players have a tendency to treat these characters as being extensions of their PCs. Now, in some cases (e.g. familiars) that’s true, and the NPC’s primary motivation may be “obey the PC and work towards his/her best interests.” But for most other characters, that won’t be true – they’ll follow a PC for the in-game reason given in the mechanic, but it’s not some sort of absolute.

Take, for example, animal companions. These are actually a LOT more limited than most players give them credit for. I like to look at this article over on the Emergence Campaign Weblog that points out a little item that was in the 3.0 SRD (adjusted for readability), and was in the 3.5 DMG (but, oddly enough, not the 3.5 SRD) that seems to have vanished entirely in Pathfinder:

The lists of possible animal companions assume that the character spends most of her time in the animals’ home territory and treats it well. If she spends most of her time at sea, in cities, or otherwise in places that her companion doesn’t like, her companion will soon desert. Remember, animal companions are loyal friends but not pets or servants. They won’t remain loyal if being the character’s friend becomes too onerous.

The animal is still an animal. It’s not a magical beast, as a familiar or a paladin’s mount is. While it may have learned some tricks, it’s still no more intelligent than any other animal of its kind, and it retains all its bestial instincts. Unlike intelligent followers or cohorts, animals can’t follow complex instructions, such as “Attack the gnoll with the wand.” A character can give a simple verbal command, such as “Attack” or “Come,” as a free action, provided such a command is among the tricks the animal has learned. A more complex instruction, such as telling an animal to attack and pointing out a specific target, is a standard action. Animals are ill-equipped to handle unusual situations, such as combats with invisible opponents, and they typically hesitate to attack weird and unnatural creatures, such as beholders and oozes.

Left to its own judgment, an animal follows a character and attacks creatures that attack her (or that attack the animal itself). To do more than that, it needs to learn tricks. An animal with an Intelligence of two can learn six tricks.

So yeah, druids and rangers, along with cavaliers, samurai, and even paladins are likely to have a bit of a more difficult time than they thought with their animal companion.

Similarly, the Leadership feat says you gain a cohort and a number of followers, but fails to say why you gain them; there’s an implication that they’re following you just because you’re that cool that they’re hoping some of your greatness just sort of saturates into them, though that’s iffy. But far more iffy is if you need to pay them, if they automatically replenish when some of them are killed, through what hardship they’ll follow you (“No, I really meant it. Tonight, once we go through this portal, we will literally dine in Hell.”), etc.

The problem here isn’t with the game rules, per se. Pathfinder may be utterly silent on these issues where older editions were more forthcoming, but the silence isn’t the issue. The issue is that, in absence of any guidance on this, there’s become a general assumption that hench-NPCs just sort of accept that their lot in life is to serve their master’s (the PC’s) will, which they automatically know and faithfully execute.

Now, even this is usually underscored with the understanding that the PC will at least try not to put them in harm’s way. But even that tends to be undercut when these characters are gained as a result of a class feature or feat, simply because if they’re lost if leads to the complaint that “this is something I earned via levels/feat slots, and you [the GM] are making my character function at sub-optimal strength.” Remember what we said above about how PCs hate having their characters take long-term penalties? It’s that syndrome all over again.


A bit of a misnomer here, this actually refers to when an NPC focuses on killing a particular PC in combat. Now, on the surface, that sounds like a nonsensical statement. After all, aren’t all the enemies that the PCs engage in combat with trying to kill them? Yes, but they’re trying to kill the PCs as a group, rather than focusing on a particular individual.

To put it another way, when the PCs engage with enemies, they tend to expect that the enemies will vary their targets over the course of the combat. A single enemy (or smaller group than the PCs) will tend to switch up their targets every round or two, never concentrating on one character to the exclusion of the others. Groups of enemies will split up, dividing themselves evenly against the PCs rather than ganging up on a single character or two.

The rationale here is that no one likes feeling picked on, and that’s what it feels like when the monsters tend to single you out. Now, that’s a justifiable response if there’s no reason for it…but there’s usually a reason for the monsters to do that. Sometimes it’s for a reason that the PCs can understand, e.g. the horde of ghouls knows that the cleric can do the most damage to them. But it could be for something more arbitrary, such as knowing that it’s just smart tactics to reduce the number of enemies you face as a whole, rather than gradually trying to wear down the entire group at once.

And besides, these are the tactics that the PCs use all the time, so why shouldn’t the bad guys play by the same rules?

That about sums it up.

It’s worth noting that this section also covers how, a lot of the time, monsters don’t seem to finish a downed character off. A PC that falls below 0 hit points but hasn’t yet died all too often gets ignored by the enemy that just dropped it, giving the character an opportunity to receive healing from another party member. This is usually justified by saying “with the immediate threat down, the monsters turn to the next one.” That’s plausible, but so is saying “the monsters knew to make sure a downed character stays down.”

Some GMs don’t want their NPCs to make a coup-de-grace, in the above situation (AoO’s, after all), and have that be the reason why the creature that was trying to kill the character mere moments ago is now not delivering the death blow. This ignores that the monster can still make a normal attack against a downed character (which will almost certainly hit, due to the PC being prone and having massive Dex penalties from being helpless) which will likely finish them off.

All of this isn’t to say that the GM should try to wipe out the party; just that there’s good reason for the deadly foes the PCs face actually be…well, deadly.

Attacks of Inopportunity

A regrettable pun it may be, this section’s title refers to those attacks that happen when the PCs aren’t expecting them, with a particular emphasis on when they’ve made camp for the night.

Now, it’s not hard to see why this one gets frowned on by the PCs. After all, a sleeping character is the very definition of helpless (literally, where the game rules are concerned), and even if they don’t just get coup-de-grace’d by their enemies, the PCs are still in a very disadvantageous positions. Most defensive spells will have run out, and it can take a long time to get armor on (not to mention the actions just spent grabbing gear).

Attacked in the middle of the night by the forces of Hell? Put on the Armor of God! It only takes four minutes and two helpers to don.

Again, though, using this tactic isn’t going out of bounds. There’s a plethora of defensive spells in the Core Rules, from alarm to dimensional lock, so that attackers can’t get the drop on the PCs. If they don’t use them – or any other basic tactics, such as posting a guard on duty or taking Endurance to sleep in medium armor (and then buying some mithral heavy armor) – then they’re once again asking for script immunity to anything unpleasant happening. If the PCs think that the whole “scry/buff/teleport” combo takes the fun out of things, then let them be on the receiving end for a change.

As a bonus, here’s a new rule for characters who are concerned about staying safe when roughing it on their adventures.

New Rule: Sleeping in Trees

A character may wish to sleep in a tree in hope of remaining out of reach should enemies find him while he’s asleep. A character that settles down to sleep must make a Reflex save (DC 10), with success meaning that he stays in place all night. On a failure, the character falls out of the tree at some point during the night, taking appropriate falling damage.

And Finally…

None of the situations that we’ve talked about here are inherently unfair, or beyond the spirit of the game. Some of them do place the PCs at a disadvantage, and may even result in some character deaths, but that’s part and parcel of playing Pathfinder, as it is with almost any other RPG. Using themselves, using these rules doesn’t constitute a dick move.

What does constitute that is if you, the GM, are using them to punish the players. Not the PCs, but the players. The characters may not know why something’s happening, but if the players can understand the reason why bad things are happening to their players – even if it’s something like “yeah, that archmage really hates you” to “bad luck” – then it’s nothing personal, it’s just how the game goes. But if you’re using these to try and steer the players in a certain direction, or let them know that they’re not gaming “the right way,” then they’re going to get pissed, and rightly so.

In short, using the rules is never a dick move if you’re not a dick.


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22 Responses to “When Playing by the Rules is a Dick Move”

  1. Commander Shepard Says:

    Once again, Inteligence Check does NOT dissapoint with their quality articles, great stuff Alzrius!

    However, I have to admit, the previous was, and still is, my favorite article on the Internet.

    • alzrius Says:

      Thanks again for the kind words Commander! I’ll keep trying my best to make sure that future articles surpass the previous one in quality!

  2. Will Says:

    Your second image is broken, looks like you linked to an outside domain that doesn’t like being linked to.

  3. blue_the_wolf Says:

    I always find strict adherence to the initiative loss = flat footed rule something of a dick move.

    Not that its overwhelmingly game changing but as a player I always find it stupid that I can be standing there looking at a hostile enemy or monster 50 feet away but because i lost initiative he can charge at me running across 50 feet of space with the clear intention of harming me but for some reason I am surprised and flat footed.

    • alzrius Says:

      We tend to forget about that one a lot in our game. As it is, it’s certainly one of those areas where they could do a better job of explaining just what it is that particular rule is supposed to be conveying in-game.

    • Intrexa Says:

      I realize this article is like 4 years old and you’ll probably never read this, but it does make sense. You use the 50ft example, I’m going to throw in a grizzly bear to just make an actual example. A round is 6 seconds, and grizzly bear moves 40ft a round. Double on a charge. That means it takes 3.5 seconds to get there.

      Not quite. A grizzly can run 4x his speed, and I don’t know why a charge would be done slower than a full tilt run up until the last second when he actually attacks, especially when you can’t turn during it which you can do in a normal 4x speed run. At 160ft/6seconds, that’s just shy of 2 seconds to cover the 50 feet. We can presume the rest of the time is spent doing the actual bite, and attempting to regain a proper footing.

      So you are walking along, you are talking to your bros, crest a hill, and lock eyes with a grizzly. You are both aware of each other, combat starts. He beats you on the initiative, and in under 2 seconds you went from discussing why that barmaid won’t sleep with you, to a bear in your face trying to bite you. As heroic as I’m sure you roleplay, the brave Galliad locked up for 2 seconds trying to gather his senses when the fight started. Even if the bear charges his max distance, 80ft, that’s still 3 seconds if we compare it to a full run, which really isn’t a long time if we think of low initiative of just having a second of indecisveness.

      For 2 other scenarios where you might fight the bear, the bear is further away than max charge, or you are staring down the bear for at least several seconds, neither side immediatly leaping into action. For the past max charge range, you get your turn before the bear can attack, because it takes too long (more than 3 seconds) to reach you, enough time for you to get over that initial shock of a bear charging you. For the other scenario, where there’s at least several seconds, looking at each other from within charge distance, I agree with you. It could still be argued that the 2 seconds is still the time it takes you to react, like a deer in headlights. The deer knows the car is there, yet it still stands right in the path.

      • Richard Says:

        If you’re surprised by it, that’s one thing. But as far as I’m aware, your being aware of, say, the likelihood that a room is has enemies in it doesn’t affect whether or not you are able to beat their initiative score once the door is opened and you see them and they see you. Combat begins, you lose initiative, and despite being the one to open the door knowing you’d be facing swords in your face in a moment, you still can’t dodge? A person who is familiar with combat does not do this if they are good at what they do. This happens in real life, but not typically when the person freezing up was also the one to intentionally seek it out and get things started. I’d vote that, if surprised, then lower initiative means no dex bonus. If you’re ready for a fight and a fight starts, then you’re exactly that: ready. You still might have a lower initiative, but you keep your dex bonus. That’s just my opinion. I agree with your point if and only if you’re surprised.

  4. alzrius Says:

    Okay, I manually saved and uploaded the picture in question, so everyone should be able to view it without any problems now!

  5. Swordgleam Says:

    Agree with everything but the last one. Who doesn’t have rotating shifts of guards on their camp? I don’t think I’ve ever been in a campaign where that wasn’t considered standard – and two guards per shift if the group was big enough.

    Now, the “sleeping in armor penalizes your sleep and armor takes 5 minutes (ie an entire combat) to put on” rule might be considered a dick move, but usually people are okay with it.

    • alzrius Says:

      Swordgleam, you’re right about having a rotating watch when the party beds down for the night. It’s not that I didn’t consider that – it’s just that I don’t think it’s a terribly effective method of guarding against nighttime attacks. I probably should have addressed that in the body of the article itself.

      Having one party member on guard duty is good, but if they fail their Perception check against a creature’s Stealth check, that can be a fatal failure for sleeping party members (e.g. the Stealth user slips by the guard and performs coup-de-graces on their sleeping fellows). Or they use a weapon with oil of taggit (causing unconsciousness) on the guard. Or use invisibility to get past him. Or dimension door. Or something else.

      The last section is meant to highlight that sleeping characters are, compared to when they’re up and about, exceptionally vulnerable. And this vulnerability isn’t usually something that can be corrected for quickly, whether by heavy armor that needs minutes to don or by a suite of defensive spells that takes several rounds to cast.

      Having someone on watch helps to mitigate the worst of the defenselessness of the situation, but it’s by no means a cure-all for the fact that the PCs are pretty wide open to attack during that time.

      • Will Says:

        Most of the games i’ve been in the players set up far more than just a single rotating watch. There is a wide array of magical wards available to the savvy player, most of which are often employed.

        Also consider that the guard needs to fail a lot more than one Perception check (or equivilant). A guard on watch is using his standard action to make a Perception check every round and barring an -extremely- specialised enemy odds are he’s going to get at least a half-dozen checks before said enemy can get into position to do any harm. Using 3.5 as an example unless the creature has the right combination of feats and\or class abilities he’s going to be stuck moving at half speed or taking some very hefty penalties to his move silently check. AND he has to make sure he has cover or concealment for the entire trip or else he’s going to fail the hide check automatically. If the person on watch has darkvision then keeping cover or concealment is going to be extremely difficult, and if he has tremorsense or blindsight as well (granted by some items and spells) then it’s just flat out impossible to sneak up at all.

        People often underestimate just how hard it is to effectively use stealth in D&D and many other pen and paper RPG’s. PC’s have to dedicate basically their entire class concept to stealth if they want to have any hope of sneaking up on any even marginally alert creatures and there is a whole host of spells that most intelligent beings have easy access to that render effectively all attempts at stealth futile.

        That’s not to say it’s impossible, but it is REALLY hard to sneak up on someone who doesn’t want to be snuck up on in D&D. Sneaking up on someone who isn’t paying attention is easy, but sneaking past someone on watch, especially if that someone has access to some basic spells or rituals, is a massive undertaking beyond the reach of most monster groups.

      • Will Says:

        Note that while sneaking past the person on watch to murder all the PC’s without raising an alarm is incredibly difficult, it’s quite easy for a war party of Orcs to sneak into a relatively close position and get a surprise round on a sleeping party unless they were very careful. This is probably deliberate, as the latter is much more fun than the former.

      • Will Says:

        Oh, and i forgot Rope Trick, which at Caster Level 8 solves all your camping needs.

  6. Law, Disorder, and Player Characters « Emergence Campaign Weblog Says:

    […] When Playing by the Rules is a Dick Move from Intelligence Check (alzrius.wordpress.com) Share this:StumbleUponDiggRedditLike this:LikeBe the first to like this post. […]

  7. Yong Kyosunim Says:

    Great post.

    As a GM, I like to use the rules as much as possible; however, I do have a “gentleman’s agreement” with the players in regard to power combos and sundering. If they don’t take it or do it, I won’t use it on them unless it’s built into a monster’s ability (i.e. the rust monster).

    I don’t get into too many alignment violations other than with the player playing the paladin and that’s about it for a campaign.

    I allow henchmen, mercenaries, and laborers to tag along with the adventuring groups. I control them because henchmen will only take risks that they are seeing players are taking, mercs will only fight but not do anything stupid and will run away if they feel the fight is going against them, and laborers will not fight. If I let the players run them, all these characters would be up at the front lines ready to throw down their lives for the PC’s. Haha…nice try.

    My players are not blood-thirsty types so they don’t commit coup-de-grace and I don’t follow up similar attacks on the PC’s.

    I use attacks of inopportunity when the players are being lazy and expect that they can just rest in a dungeon or in the middle of a haunt-infested wood. I equate it to climbing a tree and waving a longsword in the middle of a thunderstorm. I get annoyed when the players feel they are entitled to their 8 hours of uninterrupted rest.

    • Alzrius Says:

      A lot of people tend to treat these areas as a sort of unspoken “I won’t draw my gun if you don’t” agreement – hence why I took to posting about why I thought that was a shame, since there’s really no reason NOT to use these rules.

      Certainly, henchmen shouldn’t be fanatically loyal, and PCs shouldn’t expect to be safe whenever they camp for the night. So why assume that their weapons won’t be broken, that they won’t violate their alignment, or that monsters won’t try to finish a downed foe?

  8. Jernukv Says:

    GMs should only use the rules that they would like that doesn’t complicate things for them selves, player’s happiness aside. If catering to a player helps to keep players, that is wholly up to the GM. I think they shouldn’t do said catering and should find real players that know the system or open to learning/reading system. To many a session have I had knew players or even veteran players whom refused to read details that they should have know for the character they played. Like goodies without the treasure map…

    • Jernukv Says:

      Auto correct GOONIES

      • alzrius Says:

        Oh autocorrect, you make everything elephant.

        I agree with you that the best thing is for everyone to have fun, but likewise think that there’s a lot of fun to be had with running the game as-is, rather than smoothing things over to try and make victory more conducive for the players. But then, I’ve never felt that failure – whether the possibility of it or actually encountering it – in a game is a deterrent to fun. Quite the contrary, I find the real risk of defeat is what makes victory all the sweeter.

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