A thoughtful and personal exploration of games

Discussion – My role as a Rules Lawyer


Hi, I’m Elorfin and I’m a rules lawyer. (Admission is the first step to a cure, right?)

I’ve been playing Dungeons & Dragons and similarly constructed tabletop role playing games for the last 11 years or so and I’ve become a bit of what we call a “rules lawyer”. Let me explain a bit here… a rules lawyer is someone who argues the case for the “rules as written” without, necessarily, an eye towards the spirit of the rules or even, possibly, the flow of the game. I’m not the only rules lawyer in my group (there’s three of us actually and one of us is usually the Dungeon Master depending on the game or the campaign). Now, with this said, allow me to set the stage for you.

The party has just entered a lighthouse. There is a door. The Barbarian goes to the door and opens it, discovering two enemies on the other side. One enemy approaches the Barbarian immediately and they are both blocking anyone from getting by. As a Fighter with a penchant for rapid fire crossbows, I am behind the Barbarian and I am attempting to shoot the enemies on the other side of her. The other enemy (the one not in the doorway fighting the Barbarian) is throwing javelins from behind his comrade at me and the Barbarian. These are the relevant players in their positions for this situation.

There is a mechanic in the game called “cover”. This is something I believe everyone is familiar with, but I’m going to discuss it a bit first. Cover is available in stages (well, sort of) and they are as follows: Partial Cover, Cover, Improved Cover, and Total Cover. There are also two other TYPES of cover: low cover and soft cover. Cover tends to give a bonus to the defenses (Armor Class or AC) of the creature being targeted. Here are the rules as written in the Pathfinder SRD that determine cover.

To determine whether your target has cover from your ranged attack, choose a corner of your square. If any line from this corner to any corner of the target’s square passes through a square or border that blocks line of effect or provides cover, or through a square occupied by a creature, the target has cover (+4 to AC).

When making a melee attack against an adjacent target, your target has cover if any line from any corner of your square to the target’s square goes through a wall (including a low wall). When making a melee attack against a target that isn’t adjacent to you (such as with a reach weapon), use the rules for determining cover from ranged attacks.

For our purposes, we’re going to ignore cover from melee attacks and focus on cover from ranged attacks (I was playing a crossbowman after all). Here’s the rules for soft cover (seeing as I was shooting through my Barbarian friend and the enemy was throwing javelins through his friend):

Creatures, even your enemies, can provide you with cover against ranged attacks, giving you a +4 bonus to AC. However, such soft cover provides no bonus on Reflex saves, nor does soft cover allow you to make a Stealth check.

With the rules I have presented, basically, the enemy the Barbarian is fighting has soft cover with regards to my attacks and the Barbarian has soft cover with regards to the javelin thrower’s attacks. Now, there is another rule that concerns the shooting or throwing of weapons into a melee:

If you shoot or throw a ranged weapon at a target engaged in melee with a friendly character, you take a –4 penalty on your attack roll. Two characters are engaged in melee if they are enemies of each other and either threatens the other. (An unconscious or otherwise immobilized character is not considered engaged unless he is actually being attacked.)

If your target (or the part of your target you’re aiming at, if it’s a big target) is at least 10 feet away from the nearest friendly character, you can avoid the –4 penalty, even if the creature you’re aiming at is engaged in melee with a friendly character.

If your target is two size categories larger than the friendly characters it is engaged with, this penalty is reduced to –2. There is no penalty for firing at a creature that is three size categories larger than the friendly characters it is engaged with.

Precise Shot: If you have the Precise Shot feat, you don’t take this penalty.

So, essentially, if I were to attack the enemy the Barbarian is fighting, this enemy would have a +4 bonus to his armor class (making him harder to hit due to the soft cover) and I would have a -4 to my attack (because I’m shooting into a melee) and these issues would be the same with regards to the javelin thrower attacking my Barbarian ally.

There’s a way to avoid the -4 penalty for shooting/throwing into a melee and it’s called the Precise Shot feat. I have this special ability. Therefore, for me to attack the enemy in front of the Barbarian, he’s only harder to hit due to the soft cover.

Okay, that’s the whole situation. What brought this all up was the Barbarian got hit by the javelin thrower for 10 damage. I mentioned “Hey, what about soft cover? Doesn’t that make her harder to hit? Does the javelin thrower have Precise Shot?” The Dungeon Master (hereafter the DM) stated that because of the Precise Shot ability, soft cover doesn’t matter, but then I had to go and open my big mouth and state that soft cover is a different mechanic from the penalty associated with shooting or throwing into a melee. This immediately earned me a dark look from the DM who then declared that we rarely (if at all) have used such things as soft cover whereupon I stated that I didn’t believe him. Mind, we have been playing D&D together for over 10 years now (not just Pathfinder D&D, but D&D 3rd Edition, D&D 3.5, D&D 4th Edition, Star Wars Role Playing Game, Star Wars Revised Role Playing Game, and the Star Wars Saga Edition Role Playing Game) and therefore soft cover HAS been a mechanic that has been discussed and used. Admittedly, we have rarely had a lot of ranged combat via projectiles in our games (it features prominently in Star Wars and therefore soft cover is an important mechanic to be aware of there… hell, there are entire abilities and feats that exist for the sole reason of dealing with soft cover in some form). Therefore, the soft cover ruling does not often arise in our D&D game, but so blatantly saying that we just don’t use it and it never comes up? I think it really irked me at that moment and I fear I felt I had to stand up for myself somehow (I’m not entirely sure what was going on, but I went with my gut on this).

The DM invoked Rule Zero (“The DM is always right”) and attempted to end the argument right there, but for some reason he still gave me the stink eye until I felt compelled to cite rulings from the book. After such readings and more (heated) discussion, another player piped up (the Rogue, and coincidentally, the DM’s wife though I have faith this did not impact her perspective in any way here) mentioning that not having Precise Shot (which most characters will not have unless they intend to attack by range a lot of the time) and dealing with soft cover at the same time is crippling to ranged attacks and she wanted nothing to do with it if she could help it. This led to the DM making the executive decision of eventually creating this house rule: if you wish to take advantage of soft cover, you must announce that you are using your enemy for soft cover (this applies to enemies as well). Internally, I’m still dissatisfied with this because I believe that this ruling defeats the spirit of soft cover, but as the DM has mentioned, he thinks that essentially giving someone a -8 to hit someone in combat just because the target is in melee and on the other side of a friend or an enemy is stupid. I let the argument end and the game continued with no further incident.

I mean, really in this fight and in all the fights thereon, soft cover really would’ve only applied to me and when our Alchemist was throwing bombs on people in combat (seeing as he’s a ranged combatant as well, he really should have precise shot if he doesn’t already and as he deals in touch attacks a +4 to the enemy’s defense isn’t going to harm him at all). On the RARE occasion that the Rogue or the Oracle or the Barbarian was throwing objects into a melee where soft cover applied, it makes perfect sense that such a task would be difficult to accomplish. Plus, if the Barbarian is throwing into a melee, where the hell is the Barbarian that she feels she needs to THROW SOMETHING? A similar yet lesser argument applies to the Rogue and the Oracle (our oracle can only see 60 feet, so he really shouldn’t be dealing in ranged combat that often). Plus, my character (and the Alchemist) is a specialized ranged fighter. I’m SUPPOSED to be BETTER at ranged combat than my compatriots. If it were easy, there wouldn’t be stacking penalties associated with things like cover (which typically only applies to strange melee circumstances and ranged attacks) and shooting or throwing into a melee. Hell, in the Star Wars Saga Edition RPG, they have a feat called “Sniper” which literally allows the player to ignore the enemy’s defensive bonuses related to soft cover and you can’t get this benefit normally unless you AIM (which is a special mechanic that allows you to spend part of your turn to aim in order to negate all of a target’s cover bonus).

With some additional research, soft cover is tackled by a couple of more items in the Pathfinder rules:

Low Profile (Combat)

Your small stature helps you avoid ranged attacks.

Prerequisites: Dex 13, Small size or smaller.

Benefit: You gain a +1 dodge bonus to AC against ranged attacks. In addition, you do not provide soft cover to creatures when ranged attacks pass through your square.

and:

Trick Shot (Ex): As a standard action, the Ranger can make a ranged attack that ignores concealment (but not total concealment), soft cover, and partial cover.

These specific citations actually originate in the Advanced Player’s Guide and therefore are not a part of the CORE rules, but seeing as we are using things in the APG, these are also valid. Essentially, the house rule changing the circumstances of soft cover changes the meanings of these abilities a bit.

Again, allow me to reiterate that I’m pretty much the main guy who gets screwed by the use of soft cover, but I have countering abilities to the addition of this mechanic:

1) I’m a Fighter (this means I have a typically easy time of hitting things)

2) I have a high dexterity score (which helps me hit things at range)

3) I have abilities that increase my ranged attack rating

4) Typically the Barbarian does not need ranged assistance while in melee combat. My job is to keep other targets from swamping the party by picking them off at range and the Rogue and Barbarian’s jobs are to handle them in melee combat. In rare circumstance will I need to deal with soft cover (like fighting in doorways or narrow halls where such a mechanic is designed to apply).

It’s an odd feeling to earn the ire of your DM. Seriously, I think he took it as a personal affront to his ability to run the game that I managed to cite a ruling or something. That was not my intent. My intention every time I sit down to play a tabletop RPG is to use the rules as completely and as honestly as possible. If I am the player, I certainly want the rules to benefit me and my party, but that is not always possible (I’m always scrabbling to find another +1 or +2 to my attack or my armor class to hit or deny a hit at the last second and my DM does the same thing when he is the player, trust me on that one). If I am the DM, I do not stop my players from bringing these things up and I do not chastise them in the attempt. Typically if such things are brought up, I mention how it might slow the game down if it really will, but hey, we’re all playing the same game and we’re all there to keep each other honest with regards to the rules. I expect my players to keep me honest and I expect my DM to tell me when I can’t do something.

I will not apologize for my abilities (flaws?) as a rules lawyer. How was I supposed to know that we weren’t playing with soft cover rules if it never came up? I still feel like I was wronged in being yelled at for bringing the mechanic up, but I’m over it. If I didn’t ask the question, we would’ve been none the wiser and with this opportunity for research, introspection, and thoughtful consideration I can only be grateful.

Until next time, try not to give your DM a hard time (well, if you can help it).

– Elorfin

P.S. “As a lawyer I am before and above all things for the supremacy of law.” – Lord Coleridge, C.J., The Queen v. Bishop of London (1889), L. R. 23 Q. B. 452.

P.P.S. “There is no jewel in the world comparable to learning; no learning so excellent as knowledge of laws.” – Edward Coke

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