Guidance – Rules 101: Tentacle Nightmare Fuel

Welcome to Guidance, Private Sanctuary’s source for tips and techniques for the Pathfinder Roleplaying Game, written by Everyman Gamer Alexander Augunas. Today, we’re going to be talking about the grapple rules.

Ask any veteran 3.5 or Pathfinder player what the most complicated set of rules in the game are, and chances are you’re going to get one of two answers: differentiation between actions and the grapple rules.

And honestly, the grapple rules are the more difficult of the pair.

What makes grappling such an advanced topic is manifold. For one, the grapple rules are extremely nuanced; they’re riddled with exceptions and minor details that end up blowing up into major differences, depending upon what you want to do and why. Another reason they’re so difficult is that the grapple rules are split up between three or four different sections, one of which isn’t even in the Core Rulebook. And the final reason is that from weapon special qualities to universal special abilities to specific special abilities, the grapple rules are the most heavily modified ruleset in the game. Hands-down.

Given how common of a tactic grappling is for monsters, it goes without saying that the subtle of the grapple rules heavily affect both players and GMs. People who aren’t familiar with the rules tend to make mistakes that skew the power level of their character or NPCs, and many players are outright scared away from grappling because of how complex it is. All of this means that there’s no better topic for me to cover on Guidance, so let’s get started!

The Basics of Grappling

We’re going to take grappling and break it down piece by piece from start to finish. Here we go.

Starting a Grapple

In order to begin grappling an opponent, you make a combat maneuver check against your opponent’s CMD. Doing so is a standard action that CANNOT replace an attack during an attack action or full-attack action and provokes an attack of opportunity. What this means is simple: if you want to grapple, you have to take a dedicated action to do so and baseline, it’s the only thing you can do that round. Also, grappling puts you in harms way what with the grabbing and the holding, so you provoke attacks of opportunity when you start.

If your check succeeds, both you AND your opponent get the grappled condition. A creature with the grappled condition cannot move and takes a –4 penalty to Dexterity (lowering AC by 2) and a –2 penalty on all attack rolls and combat maneuver checks UNLESS you’re trying to escape from the grapple. Furthermore, a grappled creature cannot take any actions that require two hands to perform and must make a concentration check (DC 10 + grappler’s CMB + spell level) in order to cast a spell or spell-like ability. Finally, grappled creatures can’t make attacks of opportunity or use Stealth to hide from a creature grappling it under any circumstances; invisible creatures gain a +2 circumstance bonus to CMD to avoid being grappled, but gain no other benefit.

If you have reach with your grapple, you automatically move the creature into a space that is adjacent to you. If you cannot, the grapple AUTOMATICALLY FAILS. Regardless of however much reach you have, there’s no stretchy tentacles across half of the battlefield in Pathfinder.

So, some quick notes.

  • Grappling is a standard action that provokes attacks of opportunity. You can’t combine the grapple with an attack or full attack action.
  • Grappled creatures take a –2 penalty on attack rolls and combat maneuver checks (except checks made to grapple), as well as a –2 penalty to AC and all Dexterity-based checks. Note that this DOES include Escape Artist checks, so your bonus on Escape Artist checks to grapple is actually 2 lower than whatever your bonuses say.
  • Grappling prevents the use of one of the grappled creature’s hands, so it can’t take actions that need two hands. (Attacking with a two-handed weapon and the kineticist’s gather power ability are the big two.)
  • Grappled creatures have to make a concentration check to cast spells.
  • Grappled creatures can’t hide from one another, and invisibility only grants a +2 circumstance bonus to CMD against grapple attempts against a grappler.
  • A grappled creature that is not adjacent to its grappler is forcibly moved into a space adjacent to it. If no space is available, the grapple FAILS, meaning you get no effect from it at all.

Alright, we all got that? Then moving on!

Maintaining the Grapple

After you grapple someone, you can choose to maintain the grapple (a standard action) or end the grapple (a free action). Only the creature that initiated the grapple can end it, and ending it removes the grappled condition from both creatures. If you begin the turn grappling a creature, you get an extra +5 bonus to your CMB to maintain the grapple. Just like starting a grapple, maintaining a grapple is a standard action. If you succeed, you continue imposing the grappled condition on both yourself and the grappled creature AND you get to perform one of the following actions as part of the standard action used to maintain the grapple:

  • Move: You and the grappled creature move up to half your speed, placing the grappled creature in any square adjacent to you. If you try to place the opponent is a hazardous square (like in a bonfire), it automatically gets a free CMB check to try to break the grapple with a +4 bonus.
  • Damage: You can pick one unarmed strike, natural attack, armor spike, or light or one-handed weapon that you have and deal damage to the opponent equal to the weapon’s damage. You can deal either lethal or nonlethal damage at your decision.
  • Pin: You can give your opponent (but not you) the pinned condition. While you’re pinning someone, you lose your Dexterity bonus to AC.
  • Tie Up: This is a more extreme version of pinned, as the DC to escape is equal to 20 + your CMB and the ropes don’t need to make checks to maintain the pinned condition. During a grapple, tying someone up requires a CMB check made to grapple with a –10 penalty, and an opponent cannot escape if the DC is higher than 20 + its CMB, even if it rolls a natural 20. Also, you can only tie up someone that you’ve already pinned, so the progression looks like this: Round 1–Grapple, Round 2–Pinned, Round 3–Tie Up.

More SparkNotes!

  • You can stop a grapple as a free action, otherwise maintaining it as a standard action.
  • You gain a +5 bonus to your CMB to maintain a grapple against an opponent.
  • When you maintain a grapple, you get to either move, damage, pin, or tie up your opponent as part of the grapple.

Resisting the Grapple

As a standard action, a grappled creature can attempt to break free from the grapple with a CMB check against the grappler’s CMB. Attempting to break free NEVER provokes an attack of opportunity. Alternatively, you can try an Escape Artist check. If you succeed, you break free and can act normally using your move action. Alternatively, you can switch roles; you become the grappler and the original creature becomes the grappled opponent.

Instead of making a check, a grappled creature can attempt any action that does not require two hands to perform. The grappled creature DOES NOT need to make a check to do these things, and they include casting spells, attacking, full-attacking, and pretty much any action that doesn’t involve movement or two hands.

Return of the Spark Notes!

  • A grappled creature can try to break free with either a CMB check or an Escape Artist check against the grappler’s CMD.
  • If you succeed, you can either break the grapple (and take your normal move action) or reverse the grapple (automatically grappling your opponent).
  • Alternatively, you can perform any action you wish while grappled, as long as it doesn’t involve movement or two hands.


The following are relatively obscure rules that involve grappling in some manner, or involve things that people simply don’t think about.


Grab is a common universal monster ability that overrides several of the major rules involving grappling. When a creature hits an opponent with an attack with the grab special attack, it can make a CMB check to grapple the target of the attack as a free action that DOES NOT provoke attacks of opportunity. Grab breaks many of the standard rules involving grappling, as noted below.

  • When maintaining a grapple, a creature with grab can take a –20 penalty to try to maintain the grapple without gaining the grappled condition itself.
  • Creatures with grab gain a +4 bonus on combat maneuver checks to start and maintain a grapple. This stacks with the +5 bonus that you gain on maintaining grapple checks.
  • By default, grab only works on opponents that are the same size as the creature with grab. For example, a human with grab can affect Medium or smaller creatures. Size-altering effects apply here; in that same example, a Large human can use grab on Large creatures. Some creatures have special rules that alter this limitation.

ProTip: Many players and GMs forget that while grab allows you to start a grapple as a free action, it doesn’t allow you to maintain as a free action. This means that you don’ t get to full attack when you use grab to grapple an opponent, even if you take the –20 penalty to your CMB check.

Multiple Creatures

You can effectively dogpile a single creature with grapples. The creature that first initiates the grapple makes the check and gains a +2 bonus for every creature assisting him (using the aid another rules). Multiple creatures can also help break a grapple in a similar fashion; by making aid another checks to help a character escape.

Rake and Constrict

These two special abilities have the same basic effect: they add extra damage to a grapple. That said, they go about it much differently, as you’ll soon see.


Constrict is the simpler of these two abilities, but it is arguably the more lethal one. Whenever a creature with constrict makes a successful grapple check, it deals additional damage to the creature as noted by the constrict ability. Using constrict is in addition to any choice that the grappler makes after choosing to maintain a grapple, and even applies on the FIRST grapple check that the creature makes to start the grapple.

A common (if someone cheesy) tactic that some players and GMs do is called grapple cycling. Basically, they find a way to make multiple grab attacks (such as by taking the form of a giant octopus) and they use grab to make a free grapple check, then use a free action to end the grapple early before making their next natural attack with grab. If you have a good CMB for grapple checks (which most monsters do) this can deal a lot of damage quickly, and as a result its somewhat cheesy. Use at your own risk.


When a creature with rake maintains a grapple, it gets two free claw attacks against the grappled target IN ADDITION TO the choices available. For example, a lion with rake can choose the damage option to attack a creature that it maintained its grapple against with its bite, plus it gets two free claw attacks as per the rake ability. If the lion chose to move its target or pin it, IT STILL GAINS THOSE RAKE ATTACKS. Unlike the damage option described above, rake attacks REQUIRE ATTACK ROLLS. (Think of the CMB check made to maintain the grapple as an attack roll for the bite attack, in this case. The claws aren’t a rider to the CMB check, so they need separate attack rolls.)

And with that, we’ve covered pretty much all of the default rules regarding grappling. What do you think? Have you ever played a grapple-focused character? What have your experiences against grappling monsters been like? Did these rules help you out personally? Leave your comments below, and make sure to check back on Friday when we’re back with an all-new Iconic Design. Take care!

Alexander “Alex” Augunas has been playing roleplaying games since 2007, which isn’t nearly as long as 90% of his colleagues. Alexander is an active freelancer for the Pathfinder Roleplaying Game and is best known as the author of the Pact Magic Unbound series by Radiance House. Alex is the owner of Everyman Gaming, LLC and is often stylized as the Everyman Gamer in honor of Guidance’s original home. Alex also cohosts the Private Sanctuary Podcast, along with fellow blogger Anthony Li, and you can follow their exploits on Facebook in the 3.5 Private Sanctuary Group, or on Alex’s Twitter, @AlJAug.

Alex Augunas

Alexander Augunas lives outside of Philadelphia, USA where he tries to make a living as an educator. When he's not shaping the future leaders of tomorrow, Alex is a freelance writer for esteemed Pathfinder Roleplaying Game publishers such as Paizo, Inc, Radiance House, Raging Swan Press, and more, and also acts as a co-host and blogger on the Know Direction Network, where he has earned the nickname, "The Everyman Gamer." Recently, Alex has forayed into the realm of self-publishing through his company, Everyman Gaming, LLC.

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  1. Eich

    You could muddy the whole thing up by bringing up the grappling feats.
    Improved grapple-+2CMB and CMD v.s. grapple and initiating a grapple doesn’t provoke an AoO.
    Greater grapple- +2CMB with grapple and maintaining a grapple is a move action (allowing you to make 2 grapple checks per round.
    Rapid grapple- When you succeed at a greater grapple, you can make a grapple check as a swift action at -5. Allows up to 3 grapple checks per round.
    Grabbing style- Can grapple a foe one handed without penalty and the grappler doesn’t lose dex to AC while pinning a foe.
    Grabbing drag- When taking the move grapple action, can move a foe their full speed, vice half. Also, after the move grapple action, can move half speed with no further check.
    Grabbing Master-When grappling 2 foes, a single grapple check allows you to move or damage both foes.

    It’s like they took the grapple rules and broke almost all of them with feats. Heck, there are probably more.

    • Alex Augunas

      Yup, I’m planning on doing a Part II that addresses grapple feats soon. (Either next week or in November; I need to see if there’s anything more pressing that I need to talk about in September.)

  2. Ivo D.

    Thanks for the help this will really help me with my large cat animal companion.

  3. Joe

    I’m glad to see you addressing this topic. I have a few clarifications to offer:

    Maintaining the Grapple
    1) Regarding “Tie Up”: Yes this is one of the actions you can take when you successfully maintain a grapple, but only if your opponent is already pinned. In other words, you can’t take opponent from grappled to tied up without going through pinned.

    Resisting the Grapple
    1) Where you say, “Instead of making a check, a grappled creature can attempt any action that does not require two hands to perform. The grappled creature DOES NOT need to make a check to do these things, and they include casting spells…”
    Note that you do have to make a concentration check and can’t take AOOs. From the grappled condition: “A grappled character who attempts to cast a spell or use a spell-like ability must make a concentration check (DC 10 + grappler’s CMB + spell level), or lose the spell. Grappled creatures cannot make attacks of opportunity.

    1) “…grab only works on opponents up to one size category larger.”
    I thought it was up to equal size. From Grab: “Unless otherwise noted, grab can only be used against targets of a size equal to or smaller than the creature with this ability.”

    2) “…it doesn’t allow you to maintain as a free action. This means that you don’ t get to full attack when you use grab to grapple an opponent, even if…”
    I wonder whether this is true when attempting to grapple via grab (not attempting to maintain). I agree that a creature starting its round grappling another creature can’t full-attack and maintain the grapple, since maintaining is a standard action. However, if creature isn’t grappled or grappling, and starts a full attack action, and successfully establishes a grapple with its first attack using the grab ability, could it not make the remainder of its full-attack-action attacks? If it established the grapple on its first attack without taking the -20 penalty for using just the grappling “limb”, it would of course gain the grappled condition and suffer a –2 penalty on its remaining attacks. If it attempted to use only the specific attack to make the grapple (taking the –20 penalty), it can avoid the –2 penalty on its remaining attacks.

    3) Thought experiment: Imagine a creature with grab that took the –20 penalty to establish a grapple, using just the attack it used to grab (and not becoming grappled itself). When it comes around to its turn, even if it has other “limbs” free, it is still a standard action to maintain the single-limb grapple. If it does maintain the grapple using just that limb, again taking the –20 penalty, it can apply one of the grapple-actions, such as dealing damage (using damage of attack that established the grapple). However, it does not have the grappled condition itself, and can thus move up to its full movement (separate from using the grapple-action “move”). This is a weird corner case, I admit, where it seems the “grabbing” creature can maintain and deal damage (even constrict if applicable), and also move its full speed. Or, it could even move 1.5 x its speed (carrying its victim), by applying the grapple-action “move” (as a standard action), and moving its full speed (as a move action). Do you agree with my interpretation of this corner case?

    • Alex Augunas

      I’ve added your comments about tying people up and the fix to grab’s size restriction to the article. Thanks!

      For maintaining grapples and grab, yes. Let’s say you’re an octopus with eight tentacle attacks, all of which have grab. If you make a full-attack and attack eight different creatures, you could attempt a free grapple check against every creature that you hit using the grab ability, because there’s no limit to the number of free actions that a creature can take during a round. Where it gets nasty is if you find a creature with a lot of tentacle attacks, grab, and constrict, because each grapple check that you make with grab will trigger constrict damage.

      For your thought experiment, the answer is yes. If you use the grab ability to not gain the grappled condition yourself AND successfully maintain a grapple, you could move up to your speed using the grapple rules, then move up to your speed again normally with a move action. This is one of the major perks of grappling without becoming grappled yourself.

  4. Rosc

    Hey, thanks for the breakdown on grapple rules. I’m working on a Summoner guide and now I can give tips on Grab focused Eidolons with greater confidence.