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The Player's Handbook describes the bolas as

two or three heavy wooden spheres connected by lengths of cord. Because the bolas can wrap around an enemy’s leg or other limb, you can use this weapon to make a ranged trip attack against an opponent. You can’t be tripped during your own trip attempt when using a set of bolas. (115)

But the weapon is also listed as dealing 1d3 points of nonlethal bludgeoning damage on Table 7–5: Weapons (116-7).

Is the ability of a bolas-thrower to make a trip attack at range a separate and distinct feature of the bolas that must be picked when a set of bolas is thrown or, instead, a feature the bolas-thrower can opt to use in addition each time a set of bolas is thrown? That is, when a creature proficient with the bolas hurls the bolas at a foe, what happens? Below are two possible scenarios.

  • The creature picks either to make a normal attack roll with success meaning that the weapon deals 1d3 points of nonlethal bludgeoning damage or to make, like an otherwise normal trip attempt, a touch attack roll yet at range then, if successful, an opposed check (the attack's Strength check versus the better of the foe's Strength check or Dexterity check) with the attacker's victory tripping the foe.
  • The creature makes a normal attack roll with success meaning that the weapon deals 1d3 points of nonlethal bludgeoning damage and then makes an opposed check (the attack's Strength check versus the better of the foe's Strength check or Dexterity check) with the attacker's victory tripping the foe.

Answers should feel free to develop additional scenarios beyond these suggestions. I'd prefer hewing as close as possible to the printed rules, but, absent any printed rules (or if they're nonsense or utterly unclear), house rules are fine.

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No

…but it's probably fine if you let them.

From a strict reading, bolas can be chucked at an enemy like an overly-elaborate rock to do 1d4 damage, or can be used to make a ranged trip attack.

Since the wording just says "you can use this weapon to make a ranged trip attack", nothing suggests it should operate like the Trip(ex) ability and trigger a trip off a normal attack.

This also matches how e.g. a spiked chain is described: it has a listed damage, and can be used for tripping, but these facts are not directly related.

I would tend toward running it as written. Exotic weapon proficiencies tend to be a high cost for a low return though; if you wanted to soften that cost it might be reasonable to say bolas have a ranged version of Trip (Ex) instead of their ability as written.

On how a "ranged trip attack" works: good question. The trip attack section on tripping with a weapon says "In this case, you make a melee touch attack with the weapon…." However, I would read "ranged" as the more specific rule. Since "make a ranged touch attack with the weapon" parses without any particular difficulty, I would go with that. From there, I would apply tripping exactly as written:

If your attack succeeds, make a Strength check opposed by the defender’s Dexterity or Strength check (whichever ability score has the higher modifier). A combatant gets a +4 bonus for every size category he is larger than Medium or a -4 penalty for every size category he is smaller than Medium. The defender gets a +4 bonus on his check if he has more than two legs or is otherwise more stable than a normal humanoid. If you win, you trip the defender.

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  • \$\begingroup\$ It'd also be useful if you weighed in on—if using the bolas to trip—whether the bolas require a standard ranged attack or a ranged touch attack. (I thought I'd implied that; should I make that more explicit?) \$\endgroup\$ – Hey I Can Chan Jul 24 '16 at 5:13
  • \$\begingroup\$ I missed that. No problem. \$\endgroup\$ – fectin - free Monica Jul 24 '16 at 5:21
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No, they cannot do both.

Your first situation is the correct one. In the Actions in Combat section of the SRD, Disarm, Grapple, and Trip are given a footnote that reads (emphasis mine):

These attack forms substitute for a melee attack, not an action. As melee attacks, they can be used once in an attack or charge action, one or more times in a full attack action, or even as an attack of opportunity.

A "Trip Attack" is an attack that substitutes damage for applying the prone condition to the opponent after a contested roll. I would assume that you would carry the standard rules for Trip into this attempt, which would result in you making a ranged touch attack against the target, and then making an opposed STR vs the higher of the opponent's STR or DEX. Though a generous GM might handwave it to a DEX vs opponent, since ranged attacks use DEX instead of STR to hit.

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  • \$\begingroup\$ Doesn't that get a little weird with the bolas, though, comparing them to a melee attack? For example, a creature with a set of bolas in one hand and a dagger in the other that threatens a foe who provokes an attack of opportunity could hurl the bolas at the dude. (Which, now that I think about it, may be technically possible anyway.) \$\endgroup\$ – Hey I Can Chan Jul 24 '16 at 5:09
  • \$\begingroup\$ It certainly does! The SRD doesn't specify in the Trip rules that you can trip with a ranged attack . When you use bolas to trip, because they give you a ranged trip attack, most people make the jump to "Oh, that means it must replace a ranged attack action," but the SRD never bothers to clarify that. \$\endgroup\$ – Reibello Jul 24 '16 at 5:12

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