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For example, undead "use their Charisma score in place of their Constitution score when calculating ... any special ability that relies on Constitution". The special abilities section describes several types of special abilities, but does not appear to actually say what counts as a special ability. Are spells special abilities? Is the ability to cast spells a special ability?

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  • \$\begingroup\$ Determining what kind of ability—and if it is one at all—spellcasting is in 3.5e in particular is extremely controversial and worth it's own question. (I thought such a question had been posed already, but, if it has, I can't locate it.) \$\endgroup\$ – Hey I Can Chan Aug 3 '17 at 22:18
  • \$\begingroup\$ @HeyICanChan Wouldn't you like to make it a question? At least one source lists Spells as (Su) ability. Not if I think this should be concidered correct, but still. \$\endgroup\$ – annoying imp Aug 8 '17 at 17:36
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There is no real definition, but Special Abilities are listed as such

Pathfinder

According to this passage in d20PFSRD, there are four types of Special Abilities, four lower level headers under the "Special Abilities" header:

  • Extraordinary Abilities (Ex)
  • Spell-Like Abilities (Sp)
  • Supernatural Abilities (Su)
  • Natural Abilities (No acronym provided)

Hence, if an ability is an (Ex), (Sp), (Su), or a Natural Ability, it is not a Special Ability. Perhaps some other books have other ability types that are specifically listed as Special Abilities, then they also belong to the class.

Unfortunately, there is no definition such as "Special Abilities are...": Pathfinder frequently defines an in-game term by listing all of the objects that belong to said class (if it is an object class), or saying how to calculate it (like in case of Caster Level) without giving an actual definition. It might hence be hard to understand what is what sometimes. Especially given how many terms are there that mean different things in D&D but almost the same things in real-life language.

Moreover, "Natural abilities are those not otherwise designated as extraordinary, supernatural, or spell-like" means that sometimes it can be really hard to understand that something is a special ability at all if it is a Natural ability, since there is no special marking. RAW, you have to guess if something is a Natural Ability based on context, formatting, etc. As usual in Pathfinder.

D&D 3.5e

According to d20srd, the situation is different in 3.5e. While using the same or almost the same wording, it doesn't say that Natural Abilities are Special Abilities.

Natural Abilities

Natural abilities are those not otherwise designated as extraordinary, supernatural, or spell-like.

Special Abilities

A special ability is either extraordinary, spell-like, or supernatural in nature.

Since something that is not "designated as extraordinary, supernatural, or spell-like" clearly is not "either extraordinary, spell-like, or supernatural in nature", and since nothing can belong to one of the three said classes and belong to none of them at any moment of time, Natural Abilities are never Special Abilities in 3.5e.

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  • \$\begingroup\$ @HeyICanChan Oh, wow! So, not only does Pathfinder lack normal definitions of things, it also defines lists in a bit different way in different places. Cool! Fixed my answer a bit, thank you. \$\endgroup\$ – Baskakov_Dmitriy Aug 3 '17 at 9:17
  • \$\begingroup\$ I like the research that went into this answer. However, the linked section of d20pfsrd does not appear to support your assertion that natural abilities are not special abilities. \$\endgroup\$ – Eagle0600 Sep 17 '17 at 0:51
  • \$\begingroup\$ @Eagle0600 Wow. Yes. Thanks for your attention. I edited the answer to better address the Pathfinder situation. That's actually why it is a good idea to two questions if you ask about a situation in two games. \$\endgroup\$ – Baskakov_Dmitriy Sep 17 '17 at 10:20
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    \$\begingroup\$ While incomplete, this looks like as complete an answer as may be possible without developer FAQs. As such, I am marking this question as answered. \$\endgroup\$ – Eagle0600 Sep 25 '17 at 3:00
  • \$\begingroup\$ @Eagle0600 Thanks! And just for your information: you can always unmark this as answered and accept another answer if something better appears. \$\endgroup\$ – Baskakov_Dmitriy Sep 25 '17 at 16:11

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