GamerZone – ‘PATHFINDER UNCHAINED’ (TTRPG/Expansion) – REVIEW

Paizo Publishing returns with PATHFINDER: UNCHAINED, a new alternate rules set to the PATHFINDER RPG. out now everywhere TTRPGs are sold.

Pathfinder-Unchained

(image courtesy of Paizo Publishing)

Before we begin, Full Disclosure: I love alternate rules sets. I’m a GM, and a systems guy. Not only do alternate rules give a GM new options for running their games, they also give systems guys and gals insights into what problems inspired the designers to make new decisions on their game system, and by virtue of this, why they made their original decisions. These books are great for breaking down system designs and identifying exactly where problems occur, so I can avoid those problems when I design a new system myself. Maybe a few of you would like to take a look through these books in your collection again in this light.

That being said, I’m not going to bore the majority of you by discussing ad nauseam Pathfinder’s merits and flaws (okay, maybe a little). It’s a book of new options, so let’s talk about whether those options are worth shelling out hard cash. First, let’s make one thing clear: alternate rules books are not just for GMs, they are for players, too. I don’t understand why I find such a consensus to the contrary when I see these books discussed online. Yes, they are nothing but rules. Yes, the GM is the adjudicator of the rules. But the new options presented in these books are almost always directly dealing with the player experience. As such, while they are about new ways of running the game, the players are just as invested in what rules are used. Players should use these books the same way they use any player resource outside the core rules: find what they want, and ask the GM’s permission to use it.

I would love to give my opinion on every option presented in Pathfinder Unchained, but there are a lot, and some are pretty involved. We’ll just discuss the highlights by chapter:

Chapter 1 – Classes

I love this and the next chapter the most. Though I loved the 3.5 version of Unearthed Arcana, it’s primary approach to classes was offering a bunch of options that could have been presented in other classes in other resources. Paizo decided to do something much more useful: fix problematic core classes.

The Barbarian first gets a cosmetic change to rage. The benefits of rage are essentially the same, but the rules wording has been changed to make the math less involved, such as changing the hit points gained to temporary HP. Rage cycling has been eliminated, too. Rage cycling is when a Barbarian enters a rage to use a “once per rage”, leaving the rage, then entering the rage again once no longer fatigued to use that power as much as possible. “Once per rage” has been eliminated from the wording, meaning this tedious strategy is no longer necessary. Also, the book has introduced “stance rage powers”. These powers may be used one at a time to change the overall character of the rage. For example, the “Calm Stance” allows you to take the rage’s temporary HP, while using none of the other benefits or penalties of rage, and the “Elemental Stance” adds elemental damage to the rager’s attacks.

As a GM, I don’t like the Monk. Her evasive abilities, vast immunities, and good saves across the board are frustrating in average-to-large groups. Sure, she is MAD (Multiple Ability Dependent, needing good scores in several abilities to excel in all class functions), she can’t take as much of a beating, and depending on the situation, doesn’t dole out as much damage as other combat classes. But when there’s a tank hogging enemy attention, the monk doesn’t need to worry so much about getting hit, while being able to provide a healthy amount of help. All that said, I foresee monk fans disliking some of the changes. The base attack bonus has been changed to a good progression, rather than medium, which relieves pressure on the Monk’s need for a high Strength score. Flurry of Blows has been changed, just granting one extra high-bonus attack, then another later, with no penalty to hit anymore. Combining the nixed penalty with the higher BAB gives her much higher Flurry attack bonuses than before. This will let the monk hit targets with high Armor Class more, but leaves them with one less attack, so they won’t score as many hits on low AC targets. Overall, it’s a plus. I’ll bet Monk players are going to hate the Will save progression’s downgrade from good to poor. As a GM, I like it. So the Monk is less MAD (if slightly), and along with some new Ki Powers and Style Strike, which allows the Monk to do something interesting during a Flurry, I’d say that they successfully addressed some Monk issues without augmenting (and in one case, decreasing) the things that give me a headache. I’d say it’s a good change, some Monk players will be unsatisfied.

The Rogue is one of the classes I was very interested in seeing changed. Both the Rogue and the Fighter suffer from what I call “creeping irrelevance”: a class design whose functions are slowly picked up by other core classes or surpassed by more specialized classes and prestige classes until they are left very wanting at later levels. These problems are addressed for the fighter next chapter. Here, the Rogue gets Weapon Finesse as a bonus feat and adding Dexterity to damage with one Finesse Weapon, making most Rogue builds a little more effective in combat without Sneak Attack, allowing her to compete with the other finesse-based combat classes. She also automatically gets skill unlocks (we’ll talk about that later). These will increase her advantage in the skills department, as a well-designed party otherwise could do many things this skill-based class specialized in without her. I’m super happy with this.

The Summoner is a much-maligned class for being overpowered. Even the game designers have admitted it. I’ve never played one, and I’ve never had a player who did, but I love the idea of a class whose signature power is highly customizable via a point-buy system. The eidolon was a great idea in concept, but problematic in execution, with system-savvy players min-maxing to gross overpower, and others left with sloppy, under-effective builds. Paizo’s designers addressed this problem by decreasing the evolution pool, and replacing its value with subtypes for the eidolon with built in evolutions that focus its theme. This decreases min-max potential while helping the less system-inclined build an effective eidolon. I believe this is an excellent example of how Paizo’s designers address consumer input, then take their time to solve the problem without compromising the concept’s core strengths, a virtue I have found lacking in a certain other major RPG publisher’s approach. I’m extremely pleased. Outside of that, evolutions and spells have been adjusted to their appropriate costs and level availability, when a few were much cheaper and available sooner than they should be.

Chapter 2 – Skills and Options

Skills help do more than define what a character can do: they illustrate what that character’s interests and background are. With skill points being a limited commodity that can’t be bought in place of something else, this can leave some players feeling that, skill-wise, their characters are not developed enough to fully embody their concepts. Those concepts don’t need to be overblown for this to be the case. For example, some people are extremely talented when it comes to hand-eye coordination. These people often excel at a wide variety of dexterity-based skills, and they don’t need to be extremely intelligent to do so. However, in Pathfinder, a high-dexterity character still also needs high intelligence to represent this. Since skills are rarely the things that break a character, boosting them doesn’t really result in significant power creep. With that in mind, Paizo provided two solutions.

The first is Background Skills. In short, certain skills are designated as background skills, everything else is designated as an adventuring skill, and the character receives two extra skill points a level that may be spent only on background skills. Since the most character-breaking skills are adventuring skills, this is an extremely balanced solution.

Consolidated Skills are a little riskier. Basically, multiple skills are now grouped under one broad skill. Even though fewer skill points are given with this rule, the increase in a skill point’s value is worth more than the decrease in total skill points. That’s ok: that’s the idea. If you as a GM have a hard time handling too many skill checks being passed, this is not for you. It’s a great idea for smaller parties. It’s a fine idea if you’re comfortable with players being a little more powerful so they can feel much more powerful. But it’s not for all of us. Also of note is that there are a few instances where characters lose in-class skills that strongly match their classes’ theme. Most notable, the Barbarian and Fighter lose the benefits of Intimidate as an in-class skill. Personally, I create Intimidate using Strength instead of Charisma as a separate skill, and make it in-class for combat classes that lost Intimidate otherwise.

It should be noted that background skills and consolidated skills are not compatible as written, as there are several places where background skills and adventuring skills. I find it strange that two options not necessarily meant to be mutually exclusive are presented without a way to bring them together. It’s definite that people will want to use them together. One way or the other, it’s not rocket science to put them together. The ways to address this issue are varied and simple, and a decision that is less than ideal won’t really be a big deal.

Grouped Skills are a simplified skill system simplifies the point-buy system, while eliminating the concept of in-class skills. All the individual skills are retained, and the character picks a predetermined number of “skill groups” to get bonuses in, while also picking specialties in specific skills. These choices are used to decide bonuses in any specific skill. This is a wonderful choice for those who favor simplicity. Those who favor customization or realism will not want it.

Skill Unlocks are an option that allows one to use a feat to get more out of one particular skill by decreasing penalties or the time it takes to do something, being able to do more with the skill, and the like. The Unchained Rogue freely receives this in one skill. Since the Rogue is quickly overshadowed in later levels and by alternate options, the increase in skill relevance and utility is a welcome edge for rogue players. And the rogue deserves our love people, see we all should welcome such a thing. I really like this rule set.

Variant Multiclassing is a system where you can sacrifice a fixed number of feat to receive powers related to the abilities of another class, so that you don’t need to give up levels in your primary class to dip into other powers. The lack of customizable options is a turn off for those who like 3.5 and Pathfinder’s multiclassing flexibility, but there are players whose character builds that aren’t really dependent of lots of feats. This is great for them.

The chapter also includes rules to simplify the use of the crafting and profession skills. Suffice to say that they will work fine. The rules are no worse of an abstract than the standard rules, so it’s hard to see a reason not to use them unless you are so familiar with the normal crafting rules that it would be more difficult to learn anything new. For many of you, that may be the case.

Chapter 3 – Gameplay

This chapter opens up with several alternate takes on alignment. This may be the least useful part of the book. Finding methods of ignoring alignment is fairly easy and low maintenance, so introducing multiple approaches to dealing with problem people have with alignment seems like filler. That being said, it’s good filler. There are rules for systematizing alignments shits, which is a very mild relief. You don’t have to deal with it much, but when you do, it’s nice to have a streamlined method to avoid more alignment debates. This system also includes “Affirmations” and Alignment Feats. These give players little boosts based on their alignment. There is also advice for removing alignment, which is great for GMs that have problems with the alignment system, but don’t want to think too hard about it. Nothing spectacular, though.

The Revised Action Economy rules are a great way of streamlining how actions are taken. This is great for people who haven’t completely learned how actions work in the core rules, but most people have been using the original action rules for more that one version, and won’t be interested in learning a new way of approaching it.

The rules for Removing Iterative Attacks will absolutely speed up gameplay, which many of us will find invaluable. In this rule set, all hits are decided by one attack roll, the degree of success setting the amount of hits. In my humble opinion, this is better than the core rule, and you should seriously think about replacing it with this new idea.

Stamina and Combat Tricks introduces a system that allows you to spend stamina points to do special things based on the combat feats you possess. This may be an independent ability, or an enhancement of the feat itself. Fighters will benefit from this worlds more than any other class, and they so dearly need that edge in later levels. The fighter has been a core class since day one, and people that respect that will love the utility of these options. It doesn’t fix the problem, but it sure helps.

Wound Thresholds is a realism rule that gives penalties to characters based on how damaged they are. If realism is your thing, this is a fine rule. For most of us, however, we should remember that if characters have serious penalties because they only have 3 hit points, dramatic turnarounds and heroic moments of apotheosis will be much more difficult to achieve. There’s a reason that D&D never made a standard rule like this in it’s whole history.

Most games don’t get heavily involved in Diseases and Poisons, but these rules make how they work slower and more dramatic. It leaves more to keep track of, but helps worlds for description, making the two afflictions potentially far more interesting.

Chapter 4 – Magic

Simplified Spellcasting streamlines the process of preparing spells and casting for dedicated spellcasting classes. Players take a break on spell management and increase flexibility by only needing to prepare their highest-level spells, and casting their lower level spells using a point pool. Spontaneous and partial spellcasters don’t need to worry about these things, and a lot of wizard players really like micromanaging their spells, but their fellow players usually don’t enjoy it one bit. A GM might want to consider using these rules for the sake of everyone else in the party.

There is a whole section on Spell Alterations, and with a few really good ideas for people that dislike how spells work as they are. Limited Spells helps adjust qualification to try and keep spells closer to appropriate power levels. It won’t change much, and while there is nothing wrong with the rule, it’s not a winner. Wild Magic is a rule set to make spells riskier by allowing unexpected results to happen upon casting. It’s not a new idea in the slightest, and it’s unclear whether it is difficult enough to manage that it really needed game designers, but once again, there’s nothing wrong with the rule.

For those of you that like making magic items, Esoteric Components allow you to boost your magic item by spending a little extra money, while Dynamic Item Creation allows you to make the magic item creation process more dramatic, providing opportunities for more details in the process and allowing you to include more people. This is a welcome improvement, though it may not be as needed. Scaling Items are no new idea, but it certainly has its fans, and they won’t be disappointed, especially since far more scaling items are presented than I would have expected.

I must admit, I was upset with the Automatic Bonus Progression. Full unprofessional disclosure, I created a rule set to remove the Wealth by Level (WBL) table altogether, allowing no-magic gaming in Pathfinder through all twenty levels. These rules are very similar to mine. They don’t go as far (they would have to be much more involved), and they do not allow as much character customization, but they are the same basic idea. The decrease the average WBL, allowing for fewer magic items, and compensate by giving more bonuses to the character as she levels. I understand this idea so intimately that I know it will work if you are using it right. Just remember, if you ever come across a guide for low magic gaming I wrote, I thought it up first, and my stuff is even cooler.

Chapter 5 – Monsters

There’s not much to say about this chapter. It details a faster, streamlined method for monster creation. It’s great for GMs who don’t always plan ahead (of which I am one), but won’t appeal to the in-depth world builders among us (of which… I am also one).

PathfinderUnchained022

(image courtesy of Paizo Publishing)

The Bottom Line:
The most important thing about this book is that all the rules will work. They don’t open doors for large amounts of power creep, and if you use two different options together, it will be very clear if you need to change things to make it work. None of these will unexpectedly run your game out of control, if you are using them right. Another major good decision: their options may only be great for specific people, but their alternate rules will at least not be offensive to the majority of players. That means that standard and variant multiclassing can exist in the same game, so nobody need be upset about being stuck with an option they don’t like. At the same time, consolidated and grouped skills both replace the original skill set, but most people won’t gripe about using one of these rules over the other. This is a rulebook that should enhance most game tables, without dividing it.

Tough to score this one without breaking it down a little…
Art: 10
Print Quality: 9
Price for Content: 7.5
Clarity: 7.5
Quality of Content: 8.5

Total Score: 8.5/10

-Benjamin Harter
Staff Writer: Nerd Nation Magazine

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