Gaming Advice: The Top 10 Pathfinder Arguments

Attacks of opportunity. Cover. Grapple. Three rules that can strike fear into the hearts of Pathfinder players and GMs alike and often result in a “spirited discussion.”


By Bradley K. McDevitt
By Bradley K. McDevitt


Pathfinder is a complicated game and rules disagreements are inevitable. Interpreting some rules can be tricky. Such interpretations can cause tempers to flair, particularly when a character’s life is on the line. It’s been my experience, though, that if a GM knows in advance what likely arguments (or “spirited discussions”) will emerge he can revise those particular rules so he can offer clear, quick and decisive rulings.

In no particular order, here are the top ten causes of arguments I’ve observed in Pathfinder  games.

  • Cover: Does the target have cover? How do we determine cover? Is it soft cover?
  • Attacks of Opportunity: Did that action trigger an attack of opportunity? Did the PC’s movement provoke an attack? Given we often fight mobile battles this comes up a lot.
  • Realism vs. Rules: This old chestnut normally rears its ugly head when a player wants to do something important and the rules are not to his liking.
  • Spell Effects: Unless the spell is very basic – say magic missile for example – the player should have the spell description readily available. Even if his interpretation is correct, taking the time to confirm that fact if someone disagrees is wasted time.
  • Unfair GM Tactics: I once played under a GM who  liked to coup de grace fallen PCs even if the battle was still raging and the villain making the attack was under attack from other opponents. This caused a lot of bad feeling at the table. Monsters should always use appropriate combat tactics for their intelligence, objectives and tactical situation.
  • Combat Manoeuvres: For some reason, bull rush, trip etc. still slows the game down. I know the process got simplified in Pathfinder, but it still causes us trouble. Don’t get me started on grapple.
  • Squeezing: In natural caverns, squeezing or not is often a pain. If the GM has taken the time to draw the map accurately the cavern walls wanders through squares sometimes making it unclear what is a full square and what isn’t.
  • Treasure Distribution: (Shockingly) players care about treasure and unless everyone gets their first choice item from the haul things can get heated. I still haven’t tied down a fair method of distributing treasure. One of my players likes to sell everything and then divide the amount of gold equally among the PCs.  I’m not a fan of this method as it reduces the wonder of magic items to mere commodities.
  • My Character Would Do That: I’ve touched on this before, but basically if you put the feelings of your pretend character above those of an actual person sitting at the table you need to reappraise your priorities (or leave).
  • Alignment: It’s very rare two gamers agree completely on exactly what constitutes lawful good (or any alignment’s) behaviour. Most of these discussions can be fun, but they can really suck time out of the game. Given there is no right answer (except whatever the GM rules) there’s not much point discussing alignment at the table if you actually want to get any gaming done.

Help Fellow Gamers!

Do you play Pathfinder and end up arguing about different rules to the ones I’ve outlined above? Let us know what they are in the comments below and help other gamers avoid such flashpoints!

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Creighton is the publisher at Raging Swan Press and the designer of the award winning adventure Madness at Gardmore Abbey. He has designed many critically acclaimed modules such as Retribution and Shadowed Keep on the Borderlands and worked with Wizards of the Coast, Paizo, Expeditious Retreat Press, Rite Publishing and Kobold Press.

36 thoughts on “Gaming Advice: The Top 10 Pathfinder Arguments”

  1. We don’t use the battlemat when we play to speed things up. Unfortunately, this often leads to discussion about where people and things are positioned. It’s led to some testy arguments over whether or not a party member was in the area of the fireball. Right now, we’re trying out a white board to give relative positions.

  2. Re: treasure. I’m partial to simply saying X item works best for X character and divvy that way. Another way to do it, though, is determine the material worth of everything and divide that evenly between all the characters. Then if a character wants item X its value is removed from the character’s share.

    1. I read somewhere an interesting approach to this, in cases where there is one item that is clearly best and is usable by multiple characters. The player would submit blind bids for what they would be willing to offer, and the highest value gets the item and the bid (items, property, money, future magic item picks, etc.) is given to the party. Ensures that the person who wants it most gets it, while giving back to the rest of the characters.

  3. I think AoO isn’t as big of a deal (at least in PF), since you can just go to the Actions table and get the answer. A big one in my group is Metagaming, where out-of-game knowledge is used (allegedly) to perform actions that don’t necessarily make sense from the character POV. An adventure could have a rare creature unknown to the characters (and the players), but one player may have come across it somewhere and acts with specific tactics that work against it.

    We find Metagaming comes up (jokingly) when someone does the “AoO dance” when moving their figure along the perimeter of threatened squares.

    1. Metagaming is a huge one. I’m not sure how I missed it. One thing that always gets me is when spellcasters perfectly place their fireballs and so on. I’m thinking an attack rolls against AC 5 to hit a certain intersection would be “fun.” Deviation die roll would be even more fun!

      1. Totally agree about perfectly placed fireballs/precision targeting. It’ll be interesting to see how GMs handle gridless combat in 5e as we had a LOT of arguments about who was/wasn’t caught in the fireball back in the AD&D days…

        1. I’ve been considering a ranged attack roll to hit a certain certain grid insersection. AC 5 – like for splash weapons – seems about right. After all with cover and combat the modified AC will probably be 13. If you miss, it deviates like a thrown weapon

          1. There is no point to that, most wizards at 5th lvl (the lvl you get fireball) or higher can hit a 5 AC with anything but a 1. Cover would not add to the AC of the square he is aiming for because he needs to be able to have LOS to that spot anyway and cover already provides a benefit to the people caught in a fireball (they gain evasion)

          2. Since I posted my comment, I’ve pondered this a bit more. I’ll be posting a short article later in the week – once I’ve had a chance to mull it over and to proof it again.

          3. I usually do not have too many arguments at my table when ruling the effect of a Fireball. I use the part of the spell’s description where it says that the pea-sized bead detonates if it hits anything solid. So, unless they have a clear line of sight, I usually rule that there is a good chance they will not hit their target and the bead will detonate early. This prevents firing through a melee or too close to an ally’s square. Since most creatures threaten an area of 5 feet around them, it is safe to assume that they can also move an arm in that area and are not perfectly still in their square, increasing the chance of a mishap.

        2. I’ve not run into this yet myself, however, reading various complaints about it, I’d be tempted to ask the player if his mage PC could tell by sight exactly how many centimeters it was from the apex of his outstretched hands to the point on the far wall he’s trying to hit, what the angle of elevation is between that apex and the aiming point, and so on. Since he or she obviously can’t do so (even with a decent grid map) then they’ll have to guess.

      2. A Spellcraft check might be more appropriate; placing a Fireball spell accurately wouldn’t be a matter of reflexes, but rather knowing the behavior of the spell itself.

        In fact, it might not hurt to require a Spellcraft check when placing ANY area-effect spell. You could set the DC to start with the area’s radius, plus twice the spell’s level (so a Fireball would be DC 26). Failure would make the targeted spot move — use the chart for a missed splash weapon, with the target wandering 1 square for every 5 points the check failed.

  4. There are sadly quite a few arguments over treasure among my players.

    What about “take backs”? There is a fair bit of “I wouldn’t have done X if I’d known Y was going to happen” at our table(s) although I tend to give them the benefit of the doubt usually to avoid an argument and keep the game moving.

    1. I get that alot in my group as well, so what I started doing as a DM was one of two things. One, I would state this is what is going on, what do you do… Are you Sure… Are you really Sure, because this is what I am going to state you do. THen when they try to give me that line “I woulda..” I state that I just checked with them 3 times to make sure they stick with the same action.
      I have the NPC villains do the same thing, “OH… you were gonna cast Gust of Wind when he was by the edge of the Cliff? He wouldnt have gone that way then! ”

      When they say that is not fair, I tell them to remember that the next time they do it.

    2. Your nicer then I am if this is an issue lol. My rule is “you say it, you did it”, I do NOT care if you were joking or if you wouldnt have done that if you understood the situation I just clearly explained, you character obviously didnt either then”

  5. When it comes to having an issue with a ruling or how the interpretation of a spell or special ability should actually work, we will usually say that the DM has final say on how that action resolves in that moment and say look up the spell/ability and I will read it after game and we can go from there.

    That way the Rules Lawyers will not disrupt the flow of the game and if we discern something different should have been done, we change it after that point when we can vote on what we, as a group, believe the correct interpretation should be.

    As for treasure, I feel pretty fortunate, because my players have a clear understanding of what items will work better for which players than others. Occasionally, we get into a difficult decision and it boils down who actually uses that type of function more often than the others.

    Sometimes the rest of the group agrees that the biggest and best items seem to need to go to specific PC’s and it seems like they are getting everything, but they make it up to the group in other ways.

    Now, this is also with a group of players that have been playing D&D in some form for over 25 years. Besides that, we have also been gaming with each other for 15 years, so we can work alot of the kind of thing out.

    But I do have a “newbie” group that almost every single one of them are greedy little buggers, some stealing from the rest of the group. THAT has been fun to deal with!

    But as adults and in the spirit of having fun, it should be understood that squabbles need to be put aside until after game, especially if it is an OoC issue.

    1. Exactly! I feel like a curmudgeon, complaining about it, but it’s true, young players are very much into stealing from each other, grabbing greedily for items first! I truly wish I had some old groups back together so I don’t have to deal with that. I can’t change these kids behavior if this how they were raised!

      Yeah, I’m sounding like an old man now… “these kids these days!”

  6. AoO. One of the main reasons I don’t play 3/3.5/Pathfinder (That and ascending AC – Basic and 2E are my meat and drink – shame you don’t publish more stuff for those editions).

    Ranting aside, I rewally enjoy your articles and I find the GM Advice useful. Keep it up

    DM Glen.

  7. Thank you for including “My character would do that” in the list.

    At some point there really has to be an acknowledgement that the character in question doesn’t exist except as an extension of the player’s imagination. “My character would do that.” is essentially saying “I want my character to do that.” but I don’t want to take responsibility for being a jerk so I blame it on an imaginary person.

    I’m not being judgemental here. I’ve done this. I hope that I’ve matured enough though to never, ever do it again.

    1. “My character would do that.” is essentially saying “I want my character to do that.” but I don’t want to take responsibility for being a jerk so I blame it on an imaginary person.

      Wise words. Andrew. Wise words – and very well put.

    2. There are times when what “what my character would do” is not what I would want my character to do, expect that making them do something else would break character and thus spoil my fun.

      Note that I almost always play Good characters, usually Lawful Good, so acting to save another chracter’s life is almost always in character.

    3. Well said! — I know this is an ancient thread, but I want to share an on-topic story of using this truth for the good of all.

      I introduced my kids (ages 9-14) to Pathfinder. In real life there is often a long lag between action and consequence. Not so much in game.

      So, when my son (fighter) was mean (as usual) to his youngest kid sister (cleric), she told him “Just so you know. I don’t heal jerks.” While he laughed it off, I swear, my daughter looked over at me and smiled! About an hour later, being a good GM (and Dad), I had my son roll for the next random encounter…. cue mountain lion… cue raking claws… cue bleed damage… cue fighter down to 3HP and a cleric who responds with “I don’t heal jerks! You need to apologize! Apologize or die.”

      We picked up a non-family GM (good move) and have been playing a year now. Everyone looks forward to the weekend games. My son has died four times. Usually because he still harbors an ornery streak. But on the plus side, he is now playing an alchemist that actually gets along with the priest. He gets along better with his sister IRL too.

  8. I agree, combat manoeuvres seem to be problematic still. Personally I have no problem as I love the subsystem and have abou 5 characters in PFS that specialise in one or two of them. As a result I have spent the time reading the rules. Now people come to me with their question, just like I go to others for another part of the rules.

  9. I have always liked your stance on the “My character would do that” argument. Frankly I feel that it is often used as an excuse for bad behavior. And with Treasure Distribution, no matter how fair you try to be there is always someone who feels slighted, sometimes even if they were the ones who came up with the distribution system in the first place. Occasionally we found a player who wants to take an item they could not possibly use just because there was nothing left that they wanted so they wanted to take it out on someone else. So we usually try to set a parameter that you cannot take something unless you can use it (the “I can always sell it” argument is ruled invalid). Hopefully by being as fair & consistent as possible smooths out any ruffled feathers.

  10. Realism vs. Rules
    I typically play more to realism, but based more on the rules of the world I have created. I think the problem is the players *expect* their actions to be successful based on real world experience. But as a counter argument, in the real world, we rarely do things 100% of our success. “I know I can make a raft out of bamboo hemp rope, my character should be able to as well.” The response being “Did you know you could do it the very first time without failure? Neither can your character.”

    Spell Effects
    Make the players keep their spell descriptions on 3 x 5 cards.

    Unfair GM Tactics
    Some GM’s are just plain jerks. There is no debate. There is just walking away.
    As GM, if you think your tactics might be perceived badly, make sure you back them up in advance. The enemy with dozen of freshly cut scalps has a a justification for the coup de grace.

    Treasure Distribution
    1. Tell them to grow up and play nice. It’s a freakin’ game.
    2. Generate your treasure in advance pre-balancing to the characters’ desires.

    No one likes a tattletell. But if you think the GM is ignoring a glaring issue, mention it out of game. They either don’t care, will address it, or there might be something you don’t know about.

    Personally, I remove alignment from all my games. You don’t have to be evil to do the wrong thing. You don’t have to be good to do the right thing. You don’t have to be neutral to be indifferent.

  11. Treasure: It’s the GM’s job to create troves that contain goodies for everyone. I also create adventures where the locale/enemy etc. would entice characters who are hoping to get stuff for their characters.

    AoO: Remind people BEFORE an AoO is going to happen is ALSO the GM’s job. “Yes you can shoot your bow, but it provokes an Opportunity Attack from the goblin on your left.” At no time would I spring an AoO on a PC as a ‘gotcha’ moment. You are not advocate or adversary – unless the tiebreaker would be “Is this going to be fun for everyone?” — then I advocate for PCs.

    These are just my tenets of Pathfinder. Old school grognards believe ‘Ignorance of the rules is no excuse’ — and thus was the Rules Lawyer born. I avoid that by saying up front that it is never my intention to kill a character unless they’re ready for that character to die — then we come up with an end for the character that fits.

    Hope this gives you a good POV for this. 🙂

  12. From what i have seen in this article, most of the causes are rule based which leads to metagaming. In my opinion, Pathfinder system (along with 3.5ed) are systems that encourage metagaming, which is why these arguments occur often. I think groups consisting of more mature people tend to avoid such stuff.

    Cover is debatable depending on description or place on a battle mat (whichever some people prefer), the main issue with this is that people are either not listening well or they are too lazy or shy to ask GM to describe the layout again. Which can also be said about AoO’s, however, basic knowledge of how AoO’s work is not so esoteric as people constantly complain about it.

    Realism vs Rules greatly depends on how creative players are. If someone poorly describes an advanced non-realistic action easily gets rejected by the GM, but, if someone more experienced or eloquent describes it, GM will allow it.

    Spells tend to be unclear, but it is always better to work with the entire group do decipher what the text means than to argue. At the end of the day, someone else from the group might find it interesting to use the same spell.

    I am usually GM, and i have to admit, i am guilty on this point. On a couple of occasions i have been harsh. At a certain point, specifically in Pathfinder campaign, it felt needed to kill some PCs and punish them hard mainly because of the amount of PC metagaming at the table. What happened was they outplayed each obstacle i gave them. I wasn’t pissed off about them “winning”, but it derailed so much from what was originally intended, that they became jerks without any sense of fun. At some point they just went berserk, only caring about loot and killing “bosses”. In the end i realized that it was diminishing return, one thing led to another and it all turned to ash because i was somewhat disappointed for not being able to present them with all these cool backstories… ah… the sadness… Now i have learned how to deal with it and i cannot wait for another campaign 🙂

    Combat maneuvers have been dumbed down with CMB and CMD, i don’t see a problem with it. Roll d20, add CMB, see if it is the same or more than opponent’s CMD and that’s it. The problem are the tiny bonuses that Pathfinder, for whatever reason, managed to keep in the system… +1 from magic ring, +2 from racial bonus, +2 from my aunt from Iowa… etc. This is what causes confusion imo. There are already things to track, why bother with so much numbers. Same for squeezing, it is unnecessary weight to an already numerically complicated system. In the end this is a ROLE PLAYING GAME, and people seem to forget that all the time.

    Treasure distribution greatly depends on mutual cooperation, talking to the players of what characters they want to create, what stories they have, goals etc can spark a lot of imagination for a GM. It is a great thing to know what they want. But, everything within lines of reason 🙂

    On “My character would do that” i have nothing to say, your article says it all!

    I never use alignments, because they bring only arguments. Alignment is a good thing for someone who is new to RPG-s but never for more advanced players.

    There, i wanted to take a look at the article, but my coffee was so hot so i took some time to write down some of my impressions. Great article btw, you touched most of the stuff. Keep it up!

  13. For loot division we convert everything to gold, distribute that gold to the party and then allow party members to buy items from the loot list for the price we sold them for. (In game we essentially never sold the item, we just kept it). If multiple people want the same item they can either each agree to pay half the price of buying a second copy plus the price we sold it for or not get it at all.

  14. Treasure Distribution:
    I started playing D&D the summer of 1980, we rolled for treasure picks. Highest roller picks first.

  15. COMBAT: I tend to be a bit abstract in combat. I use 1st edition rules (1 minute melee rounds) with no battlemat or grid. I also generally eschew the use of a bunch of modifiers with the justification that the reason you roll a d20 in the first place is to account for all of the myriad conditions that are too numerous to calculate. The only modifiers I allow are personal ones – high strength, proficiency, etc. – things that represent your character’s actual skill.

    Basically, if you roll high, you’ve managed to use tactics and terrain in your favor – if you roll low, then your opponent(s) have managed to use tactics and terrain in their favor.

  16. Addendum:

    Regarding Alignment – at the beginning of my games I explain alignments in the following way:
    Good vs Evil is all about INTENDED PURPOSE. Good is concerned with human/creature rights, Evil is concerned with personal gain. Just because a character has an Evil alignment does not mean that they are out and out murderers (though they might be).

    Law vs Chaos is all about Collectivism vs Individualism. A Lawful character usually thinks in terms of groups and the “greater good”, likely to join a group or organization of like-minded folks. Chaotic characters generally care about individual rights and individual actions. They are less likely to join groups, unless those groups focus on individuality.

  17. Great article! If/When I play again….here are things I would do… Simplify! Simplify! I would come up with homebrew rules, or just strip out rules that slow down play, especially Grapple, AOO, etc. I did a little test run with my daughters on some homebrew rules, and they took to the combat very well. We even tested grapple and bull rush.

    I have a solution for the magic item divvying….again, it’s homebrew: nobody can take whatever they want, if I want a particular magic item to go to a particular person, ONLY that person can pick it up. Yeah, it borders on intelligent items, but it keeps the peace. Otherwise, I have them roll for initiative, and go down the list to pick from lesser items, and then there, they can trade if they want.

    For the alignment thing, if a GM says what he thinks is good or evil, then that is it. There has been a great lack of respect for GM’s lately, I’ve noticed. I’ve seen more games break up from lack of agreeing to the GM’s rules, but…. maybe some of them are out of line. Too many are TPK GM’s, and I refuse to play in games like that. Spend 2 hours to make a character and he kills it in the first game. There should be like seminars or classes for GM’s, I think… AND players!

  18. I’ve dealt with people who fall into the My character would do that and people who bring their feelings into the game. I’d rather deal with honest character actions than player grudges. Especially when you have a spotlight wanting snowflake.

  19. Nicely done! I’ll admit I’ve had my share of go-arounds with my players but I’ve always tried to run my games with this simple philosophy: If it’s not fun, why are we (everyone including the DM) doing it? It works because I realize my players COULD be doing just about anything but they choose to get in my games. As far as magic items that the party can use, I usually make it a point to pick magic items before hand that the party CAN use but of course, the bad guys have and ARE using them on the PCs for now. As far as metagaming (or power-gaming as I call it), I simply don’t allow it. I’ve had a trio of power-gamers practically ruin my games & campaign for over a year before I finally grew a spine & stopped them from doing that. Silly me!! On placement, I ALWAYS use a game-mat & miniatures because it negates the whol “I wasn’t there” argument. Additionally, I find it makes it MUCH easier for players to visualize exactly what’s going on. On game realism, if I don’t like certain rules, I let the player know about CSRs or common sense rules. For instance, if you’re flying & then you Teleport right next to someone to make an attack, you’re STILL moving in the direction & speed you were before unless you clearly state otherwise BEFORE you T-port. On alignments, I don’t usually have problems with that issue. I just make damned sure the players have read their alignment & clearly understand it while also providing NPCs from time to time who ARE of a certain alignment. On magical proficiency, I USUALLY make sure the PCs have clearly stated what they are going to do with their spells, asking them if they’re sure they want to do that. Once they say yes, then it happens, for better or worse. I use a mano system instead of the ‘fire & forget’ magical system most games use so players get quite a bit more leeway with their magic but can still screw up from time to time. Thanks for the advice.

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