Saturday, February 28, 2015

Designing for Pathfinder: Searching for the Right Words

After designing just a handful of items and monsters for the Pathfinder RPG, I've noticed that when it comes to rules and mechanics, finding just the right words can be challenging. Not only that, rules and mechanics are exactly what you want to get right when you're writing materials for a game. Of course, you want your creative writing to be polished, too, but you can leave a little to the reader's imagination in an item's or creature's description.
saving throws: against or versus?

Search to improve your writing

Choosing the right words for rules text is less of a challenge for experienced designers with a solid mastery of the rules and a strong familiarity with the game's norms and standards. For the journeymen, myself included, one great way to find the right words is to search Paizo's PRD and for some keywords and phrases that are similar to what you're trying to get across, and then analyze the results.

This is true whether you've already written something and simply want to compare it with existing materials of a similar nature, or are struggling to produce or recall the right words. Even if you don't use what you find, you'll likely come across something in the results that helps you find the right words to say what you want to say. If you have all the books you need, and can quickly locate passages relevant to what you're writing, that's a nice bonus, but nothing beats the speed and filtering capabilities of searching with a computer.

Search to conform

Many rules, mechanics, and effects have already been written clearly and concisely, and appear in standardized fashion across products from Paizo and other publishers. If you're writing rules about an effect that has a radius, there already exists a standardized way of writing about that. Using those words not only saves you the trouble of wondering whether your rule is clear enough, it also helps you conform to the publishers' styles, which is exactly what they want out of you if you work or hope to work for them. If the rule or mechanic you're writing has no precedent whatsoever, a search or two may still help, since it's likely that at least parts of your novel idea have already been addressed, such as the terminology surrounding saving throws.

I'll provide some examples and tips below, but before I do, let me address a couple of questions you might ask:

Search the PRD or

Both are valuable resources, and each has some advantages and disadvantages depending on what you're searching for and why. I'm limiting my discussion here to searching for rules-language and precedents therein. Searches made by players and GMs looking for a rule, either in-game or during preparation, are another matter.

The main advantage of using the PRD, and it's a big one, is that you can be relatively certain that your results will adhere to Paizo's style, without having to check the source. One disadvantage of using the PRD is its smaller volume of material. Another is the fact that many entries, especially items, don't have their own separate pages, which makes it difficult to count your results.

The main advantage of using, and it's a big one, too, is its huge volume of material. If a rules-language precedent has been set in a resource that isn't on the PRD, you can bet it will be on Another advantage is that more entries appear alone on their own page, which makes it easier to count results. While the number of appearances of a phrase is not the sole determinant of the phrase's precedence, it is valuable to have that information. A minor disadvantage of using is that you have to check your sources if you're looking for precedents from a specific publisher, since the search results include materials from a number of publishers. You also have to watch out for edits or the occasional typo, though mistakes are not rampant.

When I search, I switch between the two different sites on a case-by-case basis. When I want to be particularly thorough, which is almost always, I end up searching both.

Search using the site's search box or Google's site command?

When I'm GMing, prepping, or playing, I use the search boxes that the two sites provide. When I'm searching for rules language, I prefer to use Google's "site:" command. This is partly just a personal preference, but I find that I can better control and filter the results using Google's search tools. For those of you who aren't familiar with the "site:" command, it's a command that lets you search only a specific web site when you search using Google.

For the PRD, the syntax looks like this:

  • site: "your phrase" or words (RESULTS: PRD)

For, it looks like this:

That's what goes in Google's search box, not your browser's address bar, unless they happen to be one and the same, as with an iPad. I recommend bookmarking those results—by visiting them, you'll have a good starting point for your search. From there, fill in a two- or three-word phrase (in quotes) related to or copied directly from the rules-language you're working on, for example, saves versus, saves against, saving throws versus, saving throws against. If you don't find anything, try adjusting your phrase little by little, and eventually you'll discover something useful. You can use a handful of single words in addition to your phrase to help narrow your results to a subcategory of entries. For example, including the words aura, CL, weight, and price would do a fairly decent job of limiting results to magic items.

Hypothetical search example 1

Suppose you're designing a monster, a giant cuttlefish that mesmerizes its prey with flashing colors. You know that you want creatures affected by its ability to be fascinated (as in, have the fascinated condition). You also know that you want it to be able to use this ability every round without much effort, that it should work on creatures up to 20 feet away from the cuttlefish, and that there's a saving throw involved. So, you've drafted the first portion of the ability without any trouble:
Mesmerizing Strobe (Ex)
Once per round as a move action, a giant cuttlefish can cause its skin to flash and pulse with bright colors. Creatures within 20 feet of the cuttlefish that can see it flashing must...
But here, you pause. Creatures that can see it flashing must...what? You know there's a saving throw, but how do you word that? (I've included "DC" to limit the results to entries with a save DC)

Here's an interesting tidbit: At the time of writing, the number of results on for each of the last 2 searches at left is exactly 1280.

Also, had you been tempted to write something like, "creatures that are __ feet away", these two searches (here and here), would have shown you that "within X feet" is preferable.

Hypothetical search example 2

After analyzing your results in example 1, you may have ended up with something like this:
Mesmerizing Strobe (Ex)
Once per round as a move action, a giant cuttlefish can cause its skin to flash and pulse with bright colors. Creatures within 20 feet of the cuttlefish that can see it flashing must succeed at a DC 15 Will save...
Here you pause again. Is it "...succeed at a DC 15 Will save to resist gaining the fascinated condition..." or "...succeed at a DC 15 Will save or be fascinated, as the condition..." or  "...or else be fascinated..." ?
  • "to resist gaining": (RESULTS) Nope
  • "or else be" (RESULTS) Nope - only a few, and even less that are applicable
  • "to avoid gaining the": (RESULTS) Nope - not with conditions, anyway
  • "or gain the" condition: (RESULTS) Closer, but not quite (requires a little analysis)
  • "save or become": (RESULT) That's the one!
You could continue in that fashion, checking how durations are typically presented, and you'd end up with something like:
Mesmerizing Strobe (Ex)
Once per round as a move action, a giant cuttlefish can cause its skin to flash and pulse with bright colors. Creatures within 20 feet of the cuttlefish that can see it flashing must succeed at a DC 15 Will save or become fascinated for 1 round.

Hypothetical search example 3

This is a real short one. Suppose you're designing a magic item with a secondary power that protects its owner from poison. You might have started writing something like, "In addition, this gewgaw grants its wearer a +2..."

  • "bonus to resist poison": (RESULTS) Nope
  • "bonus when saving versus poison": (RESULTS) Nope
  • "bonus on saves versus poison": (RESULTS) Nope
  • "bonus on saving throws versus poison": (RESULTS) Hmmm - not much
  • "on saves against poison": (RESULTS) Looks promising
  • "on saving throws against poison": (RESULTS) This is what I'd use!

•  •  •

I'd like to hear from any new or veteran game designers reading this. Do you think it's valuable to search while designing or editing, or do you consider it unnecessary? Are there any pitfalls you can see? If you do find it valuable, how do you approach your search? Finally, do you have any tips to offer?


  1. I do a lot of searches. Certainly some are for wording, but I think most often I'm checking the spell lists to see if there's something that already does an effect I want to create (for example, I was recently working on an item that would make incorporeal creatures more vulnerable to spells; oh, hello ghostbane dirge). Typically I do that by opening up the set of spell lists (I find those are more useful than the spell index as they'll have some key words) from each book in Paizo's PRD and then just do a simple ctrl-F to find various keywords I'll try.

    I was completely unaware of that Google search function. I'll have to give that a try sometime. It certainly seems like it would be of tremendous use!

    1. Jacob, that's a great tip to use crtl-F (or command-F for macs) to find things on longer pages. I use that all the time, especially on the PRD which has pages with long lists of entries.

      Like you, I also search for things that already exist. Just as an example, if I were curious how many existing staves can cast fireball, I'd try a google search like this:

      site: "craft staff" "construction requirements" CL fireball

      The results

  2. Don't forget the excellent Archives of Nethys and to find things specifically in official Paizo-published open content. also collects all of the open Beginner Box content for handy reference.

    Many browsers let you designate search fields and browser search engines that can make searches very easy. For instance, in Firefox you can right-click the PRD search field and select "Add a Keyword for this Search...". You can type any keyword you enter here (for instance, I use "prd") into the address bar, and anything you type after that keyword goes straight into the search. Basically, this lets you search the PRD by keyword without having to go to first.

    For your PDF library, some versions of Acrobat have a feature called Search (Ctrl/Cmd-Shift-F) that lets you search for a term or phrase in all PDFs in a specific folder and subfolders and returns all of the results in a list. One neat trick here to note: once you perform a search on a folder, Acrobat keeps an index of that set, and subsequent searches on that folder are much faster as long as Acrobat stays open.

    1. Thanks for including those links. You're right they're a valuable resource. I'll have to try that Firefox tool you pointed out.

      Regarding the PDF search—thanks for that tip. I use Acrobat all the time at home and at work, and I missed that feature. How nice to be able to search more than one document!

  3. One of the most helpful posts I have ever had the pleasure of reading. Thank you Joe and Swords for Hire!

    1. I'm glad you liked it and found it helpful, and thanks for taking the time to comment.

    2. Joe really should write more posts on my blog. :-)


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