Behind the Screens – Definitions Vs Rules

Recently my friend Will told me about his Hell’s Rebels game. Our friend Stone is a player in that game, and his PC recently died to his chagrin. They are high enough level that he could afford a resurrection, but he didn’t think his character could keep up with two permanent negative levels.

I asked if he and Stone understood that a negative level is a stackable condition that mostly just applies a few -1s and not that he actually loses a level. Will said they did not. I followed up by asking if they understood that a permanent condition is ongoing, and that there are solutions to permanent problems. Again, not how they understood it.  Instead, they both assumed those words in that order meant, y’know, the meanings of those words.

Unfortunately, in a game where rules are with a narrative slant, the dictionary and the rulebook don’t always get along, which can lead to problems.

In Behind The Screens, Ryan Costello offers advice, ideas, and insight for the Pathfinder GM. He deconstructs popular GMing advice to account for different styles and motivations of Game Masters and players. Afterall, everyone games in different ways for different reasons.

1e Clarity Problems

Here are a few additional examples of rules with meanings that don’t always line up with the expectations the definitions of the words create.

Distraction and Fascinate: The bard is frontloaded with situational abilities that sound extremely useful. Distraction and fascinate sound like the bard can use its thematic ability to draw attention and be annoying to goad a target into paying attention to them, or be a diversion, possibly catching a target flatfooted. Instead, the distraction in question is a distraction to distract an ally from an illusion that has their attention. It’s more like a counter-distraction. And fascinate does make targets fascinated, but it’s so tenuously fascinating that combat breaks the effect, meaning bards do not use this ability nearly as often as the label implies they will.

Knowledge (local): There is nothing in the rules that says Knowledge (local) is limited geographically. If you are from Qadira, currently in Tian Xia, and have a question about the customs of the Land of the Linnorm Kings, that’s a Knowledge (local) roll.

Throw Anything: Maybe it’s just me, but while making my first several Pathfinder characters I would come across this feat, say ooh, and then read it and remember it doesn’t make me any better at throwing things that are already meant to be thrown, only making me able to throw non-aerodynamic objects as though they were aerodynamic.

Attack: When is an attack the attack action described in the Combat chapter and when it is aggressive focus? If a wizard is confused and rolls “attack nearest creature,” does that mean they can drop a fireball, or must they draw their crossbow or swing their quarterstaff?

If you’ve listened to the PaizoCon 2019 seminars, especially the 2e design panels, you’ve heard the design team bring up that last example a few times. One of their design goals was to avoid having one term bear the load of multiple rules. A noble goal, but there is only so much the designers can separate how rules will be interpreted; the more specifically a broad word is redefined as a rule, the more room there is for interpretation.


Avoiding 2e Clarity Problems

We are on the cusp of a new edition, and that comes with it new risks of misreading rules. Trust me, as someone who combs through rulebooks for review purposes, I understand the desire to skim when your information processor needs a break but your enthusiasm still wants more. Here are a few pitfalls to watch out for to hopefully minimize potential misunderstanding.

Learn the New Format: We are used to 1e rules following certain formatting: feat and skill names are capitalized, spell names are italicized, etc. The rules format rules are changing in 2e. More words are being capitalized, which means it is easier to pick out rules text from flavor text, but you’ll need to remember/research which rules the capitalization indicates.

Rules (Mostly) Aren’t Words: It maybe be the designers’ goal to use the best word to define a rule, but how well that goal is accomplished is the player’s burden. When you come across a rule that feels like it should have more or different application, there’s nothing you can do but adapt. Think of it like learning how to pronounce an irregular word. Like, look, we all know Stephen should be pronounced “Stefen” with a heavy emphasis on the obvious F noise in the middle, but that does not stop  all the Stephens I know from pretending PH is pronounced V. I could take a stand, just like I could insist Xavier should be able to distract foes because he’s a 1e bard, but that’s not doing anyone any favours. Stephen is pronounced with a V. A 1e bard can only distract distracted allies from their distractions. The dictionary and a rulebook can have different definitions for the same rule.

Don’t Trust the Familiar: Furthering the previous point, the 2e rulebook can have different definitions from the 1e rulebook. You might be reading the rulebook and come across something familiar like Power Attack and think “I can save precious seconds by skipping Power Attack, a rule I’m familiar with, decreasing the total amount of time it will take to digest this 642 page tome,” that’s the wrong thought! You may know how a Power Attack works, but you don’t know how this Power Attack works. Treat the familiar as the least familiar of all or you risk never fully understanding 2e because you understand 1e too well.



Now I’m not adjudicating that designers should be free to corrupt meanings with poor or ill-intended word choice. I love words too much and I don’t have the authority to do so. What I’m saying is that a rulebook is like a dictionary for a practical dialect. It is easier to learn because of the similarity to an existing language, but familiarity with that existing language can lead to confusion. Just remember to take Captain America’s advice and watch your language!

Ryan Costello

What started as one gamer wanting to talk about his love of a game has turned into an empire of gamers talking about their games. Ryan founded what would become the Know Direction Podcast network with Jason "Jay" Dubsky, his friend and fellow 3.5 enthusiast. They and their game group moved on to Pathfinder, and the Know Direction podcast network was born. Now married and a father, Ryan continues to serve the network as a co-host of the flagship podcast, Know Direction. You can find out more about Ryan and the history of the network in this episode of Presenting: