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https://www.d20pfsrd.com/classes/base-classes/witch/hexes/hexes/common-hexes/deathcall-su/

The witch’s presence makes death more likely for wounded foes. Creatures within 120 feet of the witch take a –1 penalty on checks to stabilize when dying. [...]

This sparked from a debate as to the exact definition of the meaning of RAW.

Would this be interpereted to mean that it affects only foes (as per the first sentence), or creatures (as per the second sentence)?

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Pathfinder, like D&D before it, uses a frustrating combination of description (illustrating things, perhaps not exhaustively) and proscription (delineating what you can and cannot do, hopefully exhaustively at least within its context) in its text. This dichotomy is often referred to as “fluff” and “crunch,” respectively, and it is the crunch, the proscription, that the rules-as-written approach typically concerns itself with.

The problem here is, neither D&D nor Pathfinder explicitly marks out which is which most of the time. Spell descriptions do, but that is about it. For the rest, it’s all muddled together—plenty of people insist that there isn’t even any such distinction in the first place.¹ Generally speaking, it’s fairly easy to tell the difference between one or the other; it doesn’t usually cause that many arguments. Each form of text tends to have a very distinct “mode,” and they don’t usually get mixed together, each kept in a separate sentence, or at least a separate clause. Most players seem to intuitively recognize and apply the distinction in most cases.

Here, though, the first sentence is very much that “descriptive mode,” and the second is very much the “proscriptive mode”—and only the former contains an important caveat. One presumes this problem was apparent to you, which is why you asked the question in the first place.

Anyway, the honest answer is, RAW typically ignores—utterly—descriptive statements. Thus, the rule-as-written here is that deathcall affects all creatures within 120 feet, whether the witch wants it to or not. The description that uses the word “foe” is not a rule and doesn’t carry any rules weight, in a RAW analysis.

But it is worth remembering that RAW is not the only way to look at the rules—in fact, of all ways of looking at the rules, it is the one that cares least about the quality of your game. And Paizo, for one, was adamantly opposed to the very concept of the RAW lens, so we cannot necessarily “trust” their authors and editors with being so careful about using one mode or the other so consistently, so intent here is very dubious. And whether they meant it or not is, itself, kind of academic: they certainly intended to produce the highest-quality game, but they were only so good at it,² and in any event, they can’t tailor things to your table.

So in the end, yes, RAW, deathcall affects all creatures. That is worth knowing, I think, but not in and of itself a good reason to rule that way at the table. When actually playing the game, RAW should always take a back seat to maximizing the quality of the game.³

  1. I don’t really find this position plausible, really; there’s just so much that doesn’t work as “rule.” The one that comes to mind for me is the statement in D&D 3.5e’s Player’s Handbook II that as a duskblade “You are the object of envy to sorcerers”—treating that as a rule is, I think, patently absurd. Plus developer commentary has suggested that at least some descriptions are often not really “rules.” But nonetheless, there are those who vehemently disagree with the very notion of any such split.

  2. Honestly, less a knock against Paizo than it is an observation of just how hard it is to get right.

  3. “Keeping to RAW,” can, in and of itself, have value for a table—it can make the rules more predictable, more objective. But even if a table sees value in it, it cannot be absolute, and that value must be weighed against the value of another ruling possibly improving the game in other ways. Deciding to go with RAW, even just because it is RAW, is fine, but it should never be automatic. Each case requires its own consideration, and judgment that it’s the right call in this case. Blindly adhering to RAW without consideration—or even willfully ignoring other considerations—is, in my opinion, an abdication of duty.

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    \$\begingroup\$ An Aside: My favorite fluff/crunch disconnect is from the 3.5 artificer class feature bonus feat that, in part, says, "An artificer gains every item creation feat as a bonus feat at or near the level at which it becomes available to spellcasters" (ECS 32). In truth, artificers actually get only about 10% of the game's item creation feats. (Even if the author assumes only the core rules and the ECS are in use, an artificer must pick—not getting automatically—some item creation feats that appear in the book the class feature bonus feat appears in!) \$\endgroup\$ Dec 11, 2021 at 15:06

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