Guidance — Rules 101: Zero Allowances and You

Zero Allowances. It’s a very finite term that tends to get people really riled up whenever I talk about it. Yet whether we want to admit it or not, this concept sits at the direct center of the Pathfinder Roleplaying Game, as well as most ‘modern’ iterations of Dungeons and Dragons. Today, I want to talk a little bit about what zero allowances means and how it affects the role of the player versus the role of the Game Master in Pathfinder.

 If you’re a fan of Know Direction the podcast, you might remember a few months ago where Ryan and I got into an argument about the Shield Slam feat, whose text I have included below:

Shield Slam (Combat)

In the right position, your shield can be used to send opponents flying.

Prerequisites: Improved Shield Bash, Shield Proficiency, Two-Weapon Fighting, base attack bonus +6.

Benefit: Any opponents hit by your shield bash are also hit with a free bull rush attack, substituting your attack roll for the combat maneuver check (see Combat). This bull rush does not provoke an attack of opportunity. Opponents who cannot move back due to a wall or other surface are knocked prone after moving the maximum possible distance. You may choose to move with your target if you are able to take a 5-foot step or to spend an action to move this turn.

After a listener question, Ryan and I were debating the intent of the benefit like, “Any opponents hit by your shield bash are also hit with a free bull rush attack.” After a designer comment, the Pathfinder community went aflame with this idea that according to the feat, you cannot choose whether or not to use the Shield Slam feat—should you take it, the free bull rush attack happens every time you hit a foe with your shield regardless of whether or not bull rushing an opponent is convenient for you.

Ryan took the stance of, “Yes, that’s what it says so that’s what it does.” I, on the other hand, took the stance of, “No, because a feat should always be a choice.” Yet no matter how long I debated this to Ryan, I couldn’t win. Why? Because unknowingly, I had stumbled upon a core element of Pathfinder as a game system—something that sits at the heart of how designers and developers present Pathfinder’s rules. This core element is something I like to call zero allowances

What is Zero Allowances?

Before I answer this question, I want you to think about the way that good freelancers, designers, and developers write text in the Pathfinder Roleplaying Game. Knowing how things are written and published is a crucial element to being an effective designer.

I’m going to put a few different lines of text from various feats and class features below—there’s a reason for this, so bear with me.

  • Benefit: As a full-round action, you can move up to your speed and make a single ranged attack at any point during your movement.
  • Benefit: When running, you move five times your normal speed
  • Benefit: When making a full-attack action with a ranged weapon, you can fire one additional time this round at your highest bonus.
  • Starting at 1st level, a barbarian can rage for a number of rounds per day equal to 4 + her Constitution modifier.
  • The rogue’s attack deals extra damage anytime her target would be denied a Dexterity bonus to AC (whether the target actually has a Dexterity bonus or not), or when the rogue flanks her target.

Take a look at all of these effects. Read them two or three times, then answer the following question.

Which ones are optional? (Don’t worry, there is a correct answer to this.)

The answer is actually pretty straight-forward—the first, third, and fourth effects are optional, while the second and fifth effects are mandatory. How can we tell?

Because the first, third, and fourth effects give you an option, while the second and fifth ones don’t. And the secret, my friends, is in the word “can.”

The word “can” in Pathfinder is indicative. It states something that you have the ability to do, implying that since you can do it, you can also choose not to do it. If the word “can” or “may” isn’t present, then the rule isn’t a choice. Its mandatory. This, my friends, is the heart of zero allowances—the idea that you are not allowed to do anything that the rules do not tell you that you can do.

Let’s start by looking at the first effect, a snippet from the Shot on the Run feat. Normally the rules do not allow a character to make an attack during movement—they require a character to either move, then attack or attack, then move. Actions have to be separate; no mingling. Shot on the Run, however, is a new rule that changes this—it allows you to do something you couldn’t normally do. No experienced player would claim that you could replicate the effects of Shot on the Run without that feat, because without the feat you effectively don’t have the rule.

Zero Allowances and GM Fiat

So when we’re talking zero allowances and the idea that players can’t do anything that a rule they have access to doesn’t allow, let’s talk about GM fiat.

GM fiat, as many of my readers will likely know, is basically the Golden Rule of Pathfinder and Dungeons and Dragons. It’s the idea that the GM can make any rule she wants in the spirit of making the game fun. Its an important part of the game, but sometimes its misinterpreted as proof that Pathfinder isn’t a zero allowances game, that players can do anything they want as long as their GM says its okay.

Well, the proof is really in the pudding there, isn’t?

Ultimately, the power of GM fiat lies with your GM, not with you as a player. If the GM wants to give you the freedom to implement whatever rules you want in the spirit of “rule of cool,” then that’s fine. But don’t confuse that decision for the game being something that it isn’t. Ultimately, the GM using the rules (perhaps the greatest rule of all) to the benefit of the player.

And ultimately, that’s what makes Pathfinder as a rules system so great. The rules are grounded and concrete, but they have flexibility built right into them for the GM’s convenience!

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 Alexs 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.

Burst of Insight

3 Comments

  1. There’s only one problem with your argument on “allowances”: Paizo’s notoriously bad proofing, especially in the Player Companion line.

    We end up with feats that make no sense, archetypes that are broken from the start (I’m looking at you, Beast Rider Cavalier from Advanced Combat), and complete contradictions from designer intentions (Alchemists having no spell level!) It doesn’t help that Paizo’s statements after the fact are often “play it as written” (in the case of Beast Rider) or just downright unhelpful.

    I’ve played with strict GMs who insist on allowances as you write, but when taken with Paizo’s terrible, no-good copyediting, some leniency has to be applied. I am a huge fan of Pathfinder, but their quality control is severely lacking.

    • Alex Augunas Reply to Alex

      Correct me if I’m wrong, but are you insinuating that you should be able to tell your GM how rules work because you don’t like Paizo’s rules design?

      • No, I am definitely not saying I don’t like Paizo’s rules design.

        I’m saying that there are clear designers intentions (RAI) that break because the copyediting in the text failed to catch major mistakes.

        For example, the Beast Rider archetype gives additional mount types to a medium-sized character at level 4 *that he cannot ride or use as they are too small to be his mount*. Clearly this was never intended to be so broken as to give a boon that the character cannot even use. This has never been addressed in errata for the Ultimate Combat.

        First version of the Advanced Class Guide left out several paragraphs for the Ecclesitheurge archetype. Fortunately this was corrected by errata.

        This isn’t even taking account the goofy (and broken) stuff that was brought in from 3.5 wholesale. For example, we didn’t get sane mundane crafting rules until Unchained.

        I *like* Paizo’s rule design. But enough errors in rules, design, and simple copyediting stretch the ‘allowances’ system to the breaking point.

        I’ll leave you with one last example: that there is even a debate over how the Ring of Invisibility works shows how ambiguous language means you are solely at the mercy of whichever GM you have. This is despite having SKR on record of saying how he intended it to work.

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