Grapple, Grab, Constrict!: Pathfinder Grapple Rules Explained

Many a GM, expert and amateur alike, cringe when they hear a player announce, “I want to grapple him.” The grapple rules for the Pathfinder Roleplaying Game are a significant improvement over the 3.5 counterpart, but some legacy mechanical issues still raise many questions, and the phrasing of the grapple and grab rules aren’t always crystal clear, not to mention spread across three different pages in two different books. Good for you! Rather than just ignore this robust combat mechanic, you’ve sought advice and clarification on how grapple (and related abilities) work.

For starters, here’s the grapple action (Core Rulebook pg. 199), here’s the grappled condition (Core Rulebook pg. 567), here’s the pinned condition (Core Rulebook pg. 568), here’s the constrict monster special ability (Bestiary pg. 298), and here’s the grab monster special ability (Bestiary pg. 301). This guide works off those passages, redefining and rephrasing them for clarity. There are also a few Advice sections – those aren’t rules or errata, they’re just my advice for shoring up the grapple rules. The sidebars are extras that are generally self-explanatory, but useful to have all in one place.

The Grapple Action

As a standard action, you can attempt to grapple a foe, hindering his combat options.

Clear, concise, no questions there: the type of action is defined and named, and the result of the action is alluded to.

If you do not have Improved Grapple, grab, or a similar ability, attempting to grapple a foe provokes an attack of opportunity from the target of your maneuver.

Again, quite clear. In this case, “similar ability” includes the grab special ability. “The target of your maneuver” could just as easily say, “…the target of your grapple attempt.”

Humanoid creatures without two free hands attempting to grapple a foe take a –4 penalty on the combat maneuver roll.

No problem. Humanoids, don’t try grappling without two free hands. This penalty applies to maintaining a grapple as well as initiating a grapple.

If successful, both you and the target gain the grappled condition (see the Appendices).

Ok! That’s the grapple action. We have just explored the entirety of the grapple mechanic. Everything else is situational, it may apply, or it may not depending on choices and rolls.

To make explaining these situations easier, I’m going to throw out two terms that the core rules don’t use, but are useful in understanding how grapple works: Primary Grappler and Secondary Grappler. The Primary Grappler is the character (or creature) in the grapple that is dominant, the one that has the option to maintain the grapple and perform grappling actions. The Secondary Grappler is the target of the grapple, the one subject to grapple actions and the one who must make a check to end the grapple.

When You Are the Primary Grappler

Dex, No Dex?

There is one confusing bit that I haven’t been able to reconcile in all of these grappling rules. The grapple condition imparts a -4 penalty to Dex. The armor class modifiers chart (Table 8-6, Core Rulebook pg. 195) states that attacking a creature in a grapple when you are outside the grapple denies the target its Dex bonus to AC.
All that is fine and good, no contradiction there. The contradiction comes when you consider the pin grapple action: Why does it specify that you lose your Dexterity bonus to AC?
It can’t mean with regards to the pinned target, they can’t attack you. If it means with regard to other attackers, outside the grapple, why point it out, it’s already happening because you’re grappled?
Like I said, I can’t reconcile that bit of rules text, but I’m of the opinion that one of those entries is a typo.
If you successfully grapple a creature that is not adjacent to you, move that creature to an adjacent open space (if no space is available, your grapple fails).

Simple enough. You’re an ogre, you grapple a human that’s 10 feet away (which you can do because you have natural reach), so you move him adjacent to you to any open space. Any space, as long as it’s adjacent to you.

Advice: It’s not unreasonable to rule that the space the human moves to must be the closest available space to the ogre, but under a strict reading of the rules, that’s not required. Also, take note of the move grapple action, discussed below, where it talks about moving the target of your grapple into a hazardous space; while this initial move that occurs at the start of a grapple is not exactly a “move grapple action,” that bit of text does provide excellent reference for how to adjudicate this initial move, should questions arise.

Although both creatures have the grappled condition, you can, as the creature that initiated the grapple, release the grapple as a free action, removing the condition from both you and the target.

There’s two important points here. 1) Both creatures in the grapple gain the grappled condition (under normal circumstances), and 2) It is a free action for the Primary Grappler to end the grapple. Remember, free actions can only be performed on your turn, unless the action description says otherwise; this one doesn’t, so the Primary Grappler can only end a grapple on his turn.

If you do not release the grapple, you must continue to make a check each round, as a standard action, to maintain the hold.

Clear enough. This sentence doesn’t specify, but implicit in this situation is that you also do not have to make a check to maintain the hold if the target (Secondary Grappler) breaks the grapple or if you are no longer the Primary Grappler.

If your target does not break the grapple, you get a +5 circumstance bonus on grapple checks made against the same target in subsequent rounds.

So, if the Secondary Grappler doesn’t somehow become un-grappled or become the Primary Grappler, you gain a +5 bonus to maintain the grapple. That’s all this bonus applies to, your CMB check to maintain a grapple.

Once you are grappling an opponent, a successful check allows you to continue grappling the foe, and also allows you to perform one of the following actions (as part of the standard action spent to maintain the grapple).

Once you, the Primary Grappler, begin a round grappling someone (meaning at the start of your turn in the round, you are the Primary Grappler), you can perform some grappling actions. Graptions. The basic grapple actions you can use are move, damage, and pin (tie up is a special case, see below).

Move: You can move both yourself and your target up to half your speed. At the end of your movement, you can place your target in any square adjacent to you. If you attempt to place your foe in a hazardous location, such as in a wall of fire or over a pit, the target receives a free attempt to break your grapple with a +4 bonus.

Certainly very clear, but it does leave some questions unanswered.
  • Does this movement provoke attacks of opportunity? For the Primary Grappler? For the Secondary?
    Yes, in all cases, because, except for the “half speed” clause, this action makes no exceptions to the normal movement rules.
  • What kind of free attempt can the target make to break the grapple? Can the target cast a spell?
    The “free attempt” to break the grapple is either a CMB check or an Escape Artist check (with a DC equal to the opponent’s CMD). You cannot choose to do something in place of this free attempt (as you can with a normal attempt to break a grapple). See, “If you are grappled,” below.


Just for the sake of completeness, here’s how the rake special ability works.
  • A creature can only use rake while grappling.
  • If that creature is the Secondary Grappler, it can make rake all its attacks against the Primary Grappler as a standard action.
  • If that creature is the Primary Grappler, it can deal rake damage automatically, as part of the damage grapple action, when it maintains a grapple. The damage grapple action is just like an attack, but without the attack roll.
Advice: The rules are silent on the issue, but it’s reasonable to assume that the Primary Grappler can deal all rake damage it has access to when it uses the damage grapple action.
Damage: You can inflict damage to your target equal to your unarmed strike, a natural attack, or an attack made with armor spikes or a light or one-handed weapon. This damage can be either lethal or nonlethal.

Easy enough. Remember, you get to do one of these grapple actions (graptions!) automatically when you successfully maintain a grapple; no attack roll required. (Creatures with the constrict ability, remember this!)

Note: For attacks that have added damage effects (such as a scorpion’s stinger, which adds poison), those effects occur when using this grapple action.

Pin: You can give your opponent the pinned condition (see Conditions). Despite pinning your opponent, you still only have the grappled condition, but you lose your Dexterity bonus to AC.

You can give the target of your grapple, the Secondary Grappler, the pinned condition, while you remain grappled. Awesome. Remember though, pinned does not stack with grapple. To keep the target pinned, you must choose the pin grapple action each round that you maintain a grapple, or you can tie them up!

Tie Up: If you have your target pinned, otherwise restrained, or unconscious, you can use rope to tie him up. This works like a pin effect, but the DC to escape the bonds is equal to 20 + your Combat Maneuver Bonus (instead of your CMD). The ropes do not need to make a check every round to maintain the pin. If you are grappling the target, you can attempt to tie him up in ropes, but doing so requires a combat maneuver check at a –10 penalty. If the DC to escape from these bindings is higher than 20 + the target's CMB, the target cannot escape from the bonds, even with a natural 20 on the check.

Once you’ve used tie up, the target is now continuously pinned by some rope (or whatever). The DC is crazy high. If your CMB is higher than the tied up creature’s CMB, it can’t escape.

There’s a sentence in there that’s like a wrench in the clockworks, which is only peripherally related to the sentences surrounding it:

If you are grappling the target, you can attempt to tie him up in ropes, but doing so requires a combat maneuver check at a –10 penalty.

What’s this? So you can tie up a Secondary Grappler straight from a grapple, without pinning first? Yes, but: you don’t get to do it automatically when you maintain the grapple. You (the Primary Grappler) must maintain the grapple, and then you must succeed on another CMB check at a -10 penalty. It’s still all one standard action, but it requires two checks. My group calls this a, “quick tie” or a, “hog tie,” and I’ve got some advice to dole out:

Advice: The -10 penalty to a hog tie should apply to the escape/break DC of the ropes, so instead of 20 + your CMB, it’s 10 + your CMB to determine if a target can even escape from the bondage. But who wants to escape bondage, amirite?

When You Are the Secondary Grappler

Either you’ve just been grabbed by a clingy beasty or a sweaty muscley dude (with armor spikes), or you are one of those things and the chum you just grappled turned out to be feistier than you anticipated. Here’s what the book says are your options:

If You Are Grappled: If you are grappled, you can attempt to break the grapple as a standard action by making a combat maneuver check (DC equal to your opponent's CMD; this does not provoke an attack of opportunity) or Escape Artist check (with a DC equal to your opponent's CMD). If you succeed, you break the grapple and can act normally. Alternatively, if you succeed, you can become the grappler, grappling the other creature (meaning that the other creature cannot freely release the grapple without making a combat maneuver check, while you can). Instead of attempting to break or reverse the grapple, you can take any action that requires only one hand to perform, such as cast a spell or make an attack with a light or one-handed weapon against any creature within your reach, including the creature that is grappling you. See the grappled condition for additional details. If you are pinned, your actions are very limited. See the pinned condition in Conditions for additional details.

Remember also, you’re grappled, so you can’t move and you can’t do anything that requires two hands. (There’s other penalties and hinderances, but nothing else that's barred.) Also note that grappling doesn’t require two hands, it’s just harder to do if you don’t have two free hands.

    So, when you’re grappled, you can still:
  • make an attack (as long as it’s not a two-handed weapon)
  • cast a spell or activate a spell-like ability (as long as you succeed a concentration check)
  • activate a supernatural ability
  • do almost anything else (as long you don’t move or use two hands!)
Again, there are penalties (see the grappled condition), but your options don’t evaporate. In addition to your normal options, you can attempt to Break, Escape, or Reverse the grapple. These are options only the Secondary Grappler has, all are standard actions, and none provoke an attack of opportunity.

Break, Escape, Reverse

The core rules don’t make a distinction between break and escape with regard to the grappling: the terms are synonymous. I’ve capitalized them here for clarity’s sake. The core rules do, however, make a distinction between break/escape and reverse.
It’s probable that this distinction will never come up, but say, for example, your character has a trait that grants a bonus to “CMB checks made to escape a grapple” – that bonus would not apply to CMB checks made to reverse the grapple.
It’s also worth noting that while the core rules uses break and escape interchangeably, the check used to achieve those results differ.
To Break the Grapple: Make a CMB (grapple) check, DC = Primary Grappler’s CMD. If you succeed, the grapple is ended and both you and the Primary Grappler lose the grappled condition.

Note: Not all modifiers that you may have to a grapple check will apply to a Break attempt. For example, a creature’s grab ability imparts a +4 bonus on grapple checks made to start or maintain a grapple, but not all grapple checks. Improved Grapple, however, provides a bonus to all grapple checks, including those made to break a grapple.

Advice: Just use all the grapple modifiers, it’s easier, and creatures with grab are already good at it, if they need to break out, they’re probably going to anyway. I mean, if something specifically says it only applies to CMD versus grapple, then it doesn’t apply, but if you’ve got any CMB bonus to grapple checks, just apply it to Break attempts also.

To Escape the Grapple: Make an Escape Artist check, DC = Primary Grappler’s CMD. If you succeed, the grapple is ended and both you and the Primary Grappler lose the grappled condition.

To Reverse the Grapple: Make a CMB (grapple) check, DC = Primary Grappler’s CMD. If you succeed, the Primary Grappler becomes the Secondary Grappler, and you become the Primary Grappler. Very Nice!

When You Are Pinned

The pinned condition is not part of the grappled condition; they’re two separate conditions, linked only by virtue of being associated with the grapple combat maneuver. The pinned condition is woefully vague on how to escape or break a pin, and what happens when you do.

A pinned creature can always attempt to free itself, usually through a combat maneuver check or Escape Artist check.

Imagine if that sentence instead read: A pinned creature can always attempt to free itself as if attempting to break or escape a grapple with a combat maneuver check or an Escape Artist check. No confusion, right!? Logic dictates that this must be what is implied in the pinned condition, especially since the pinned condition is specifically mentioned in the ‘If You Are Grappled’ section.

Multiple Creatures Grappling

Rugby players call it a scrum, my group calls it a tussle, and junior high kids call it a dogpile. The rules for multiple grapplers are simple. Read ‘em twice and you’ll never sweat again when a player says, “I jump on him too!”

Remember, if the action that you’re attempting to aid normally provokes an attack of opportunity, then the aid attempt also provokes an attack of opportunity. In this case, you’re performing a grapple combat manuever and the aid another action, so you can apply abilities and benefits you may have for both actions.

Grab Your Socks…

Grab is a lethal monster special ability. Grab triggers automatically with a successful natural attack, the type is specified in the monster’s statblock. For simplicity, I’m going to use the giant scorpion as the example creature (CMB +8 (+12 grapple); CMD 18).

Grab (Ex) If a creature with this special attack hits with the indicated attack (usually a claw or bite attack), it deals normal damage and attempts to start a grapple as a free action without provoking an attack of opportunity. Unless otherwise noted, grab works only against opponents at least one size category smaller than the creature.

That’s the whole grab ability. The rest is situational.

In our example, the attack that triggers the grab is the scorpion’s claw. When a claw attack hits (and the size requisite is met), the scorpion makes a CMB (grapple) check (+12) versus the targets CMD. If successful, the scorpion and the target gain the grappled condition, with the scorpion as the Primary Grappler and the target as the Secondary Grappler. That first part is important: as soon as the grab results in a grapple, the scorpion gains the grappled condition.

Say that claw attack that became a grab was the first claw attack the scorpion made this round, as part of its full-attack action. Being grappled doesn’t prevent it from using the rest of its attacks. Being grappled does impart a -2 penalty to a) attack rolls; and b) combat maneuver checks, except checks made to grapple. That means the rest of the scorpion’s full-attack suffers those penalties. Well, unless it chooses to do one of two things:
  1. Before taking the rest of his attacks, the scorpion can end the first grapple (which is a free action). The first grapple ends, both grapplers lose the grappled condition, and the next claw attack proceeds normally.
  2. Or, the scorpion can choose to make its first grapple using this next tidbit:

The creature has the option to conduct the grapple normally, or simply use the part of its body it used in the grab to hold the opponent. If it chooses to do the latter, it takes a –20 penalty on its CMB check to make and maintain the grapple, but does not gain the grappled condition itself.

Tenacious Grapple

The kraken (and any other creature with the tenacious grapple ability) do not gain the grappled condition when grappling with specific appendages. Essentially, the kraken can choose to conduct the grapple with only the appendage used to trigger the grab/grapple, but it does so without the -20 penalty to CMB checks. Bonus!
Naturally, the scorpion has to decide whether or not to take this penalty before rolling the initial grab/grapple check, but if successful, it doesn’t gain the grappled condition, even after a successful grab. The scorpion (and anything else with grab) can gain impart all the negative effects of the grappled condition, without being grappled itself. Awesome.

But assume the scorpion didn’t do 1) or 2) in the first grab/grapple. The scorpion continues its full-attack action (with penalties for the grappled condition) and succeeds on a second claw attack and on the second triggered grab/grapple as well. Now the scorpion is imparting the grappled condition on two targets! Go scorpion!

Unfortunately for the scorpion, when the next round rolls around and it’s time to maintain some grapplage, it has to end one of those grapples. Remember, maintaining a grapple is a standard action, and since the scorpion is grappling two targets, but has only one standard action, one of those grapplers is going free. But, since it has the grab ability, it’s going to deal its claw damage automatically when it maintains a grapple, because of this oddly-placed sentence, that makes perfect sense when read in context:

If the creature does not constrict, each successful grapple check it makes during successive rounds automatically deals the damage indicated for the attack that established the hold.

Note: The scorpion isn’t required to maintain a grapple. The scorpion can end the grapple at the start of its second turn, and start attacking and grabbing all over again, if it so chooses. Note also that the automatic damage for maintaining the grapple is different from the damage grapple action (graption!); the scorpion can maintain a grapple, dealing automatic claw damage, then choose the damage grapple action to deal damage again (maybe stinger this time!).

Now, in the scorpion’s case it doesn’t matter that grab deals damage just for maintaining the grapple, because it also has constrict (and it can’t do both grab damage and constrict damage in the same round). But, this is good news for a squid, who doesn’t have constrict.

Pros and Constrict

The rest of the text of the grab ability deals with the constrict ability, telling you when it applies and how it relates to grab. The constrict ability itself tells you the same information, but contains a single, mighty confusing, parenthetical statement:

A creature with this special attack can crush an opponent, dealing bludgeoning damage, when it makes a successful grapple check (in addition to any other effects caused by a successful check, including additional damage).

Many people get hung up on this, myself included once upon a time. To clear it up, I’m going to define some more terms that the rules don’t use: grab damage and constrict damage. Grab damage is the damage dealt by the grab ability when you successfully maintain a grapple. Constrict damage is damage dealt when you successful make a grapple check.

The grab ability says: maintain a grapple, deal grab damage. The grab ability says: you don’t get grab damage if you’re dealing constrict damage. But the constrict ability has that seemingly contradictory parenthetical statement. Huh?

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Forsooth! My dear reader, you’re forgetting the thing I told you not to forget! That parenthetical statement is referring to the ability of any grappler to perform the damage grapple action (graption!). Grapple damage.

To summarize:
Constrict: Any time you succeed a grapple check, automatically deal constrict damage.
Grab: When you maintain a grapple, deal grab damage, but only if you do not also deal constrict damage.
In both cases you can choose the damage grapple action to inflict grapple damage, but never will you get all three.

Yes it’s unclear, yes it’s poor writing/editing/whatever. But, once you’ve deciphered it, it makes sense. Don't blame Paizo, or at least, don't be too hard on them. Compared to the mess they had to clean up from 3.5 grapple, the CMB mechanic is a breeze.
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