Pathfinder Unchained presents a variety of alternative systems for existing rules. It’s probably as close as we’ll get to a new edition of Pathfinder for the foreseeable future, but it goes a long way towards improving or changing things that may have bothered game masters or players. I’ve broken it down by chapter, highlighting some things that caught my eye.
Chapter 1: Classes
I can’t say too much about the Unchained barbarian, as I haven’t used barbarians much in my games. However, the simplified rage bonuses are very appealing to me, since the reason I’ve shied away from the class is all the extra stuff I needed to keep track of. This was probably okay for players but I found them too much to include barbarians as NPCs. I look forward to making use of this version at some point.
I love the concept of the Unchained monk. The additional flexibility of ki powers and style strike gives players more options to fit the concept they have in mind. Having more uses for ki points also opens up some nice possibilities. The additional hit points and base attack bonus should also make them even more formidable combatants.
The Unchained rogue seems to have been improved, though I’m not sure if it will beat the ninja. Free Weapon Finesse and Dex to damage are certainly attractive options. The Unchained summoner has had its eidolon changed quite significantly by providing a number of eidolon subtypes that determine many of the abilities of the eidolon. The summoner spell list has also been changed quite a bit. The fact that the Unchained summoner is replacing the original summoner in Pathfinder Society suggests that the new version of the class is a bit more balanced, but only time will tell as people try out various builds.
There are also a few other options like fractional base bonuses, which are useful for multiclass characters in preventing them from having overly-low save and attack bonuses due to said multiclassing. It definitely makes multiclassing a little bit more attractive and viable. The chapter ends with staggered advancement, which gives the option of gaining class abilities, skill ranks, hit points and so on as characters gain certain levels of XP, rather than getting everything when they reach the next level. This could potentially create a more realistic simulation of character advancement, instead of characters gaining more health, new feats and more seemingly overnight. I’m not sure I’d make use of this unless my players felt it would increase their immersion in the game.
Chapter 2: Skills and Options
The next chapter focuses on skills. There are several alternate skill systems presented. I particularly like the background skill system, which allows characters to use their skill point on combat-related skills and still take a few ‘flavour’ skills like professions and crafting. It also introduces several new background skills, including Artistry, which deals with creative arts, and Lore, which represent specialised knowledge areas like a specific deity or monster. This section further provides more uses for the Craft, Perform and Profession skills, including expanding on the lists of which skills are appropriate for crafting certain items or performing certain tasks.
There are also consolidated skills, which combine several skills into one, for example, Climb, Swim and Acrobatics (jump) are combined into Athletics. This makes a lot of sense to me as a strong character is probably going to be pretty good at all three of those. This rather lengthy section details how the consolidated skills can be used, and how to adapt existing rules, such as class skills and feats to fit the system. This system feels very logical to me, much the way the combination of the Spot and Listen skills from D&D into Perception in Pathfinder made sense. This feels like the next step in that refinement process and I will likely implement it in my next campaign. Some skills have been removed rather than consolidated, making it a perfect fit to go along with the background skill system.
Grouped skills is another variation on the normal skill system (though there are explanations on how to combine them with the other new systems in the chapter) that does away with individual skill ranks, instead letting characters train groups of skills and select a small number of skill specialties, using character level and the relevant ability score bonus to calculate score bonuses. Classes with lots of skill points still have the edge here, as they can train more groups of skills. Using this alternate system, characters will end up pretty good at a range of skills, and really good at their specialties. This seems like a good option for players who aren’t interested in assigning piles of skill ranks every level.
Next up are alternate crafting and profession rules, with simplified rules for creating items meant to be used in conjunction with the downtime system from Ultimate Campaign. There are also rules for setting up and running your own business using the profession skill. After this we have skill unlocks, a system that gives characters new abilities that rewards putting maximum ranks into a skill. I think these are intended to give the Unchained rogue an edge over other classes so that they really shine at skill use, but a GM can open up the Signature Skill feat to anyone. Skill unlocks have the potential to really boost a character’s use of a given skill, granting bonuses like lowered DCs for hearing sounds while sleeping or reduced time to create a disguise.
Variant multiclassing is a really interesting system. Essentially, a character can trade out half their feats and instead gain a feature of a secondary class at the levels they would normally gain those feats. This means you don’t have to slow down your advancement in your main class just to get a few abilities or the flavour of another class. Want an oracle curse and a couple of revelations, or a familiar and a few witch hexes, or the ability to rage, without having to leave your main class? This is the system for you. I can see this appealing to players wanting to create unique character concepts without reducing their usefulness in the game by putting them behind everyone else.
Chapter 3: Gameplay
This chapter presents a number of different options, starting with a new way of tracking alignment, followed by a system to remove alignment entirely. I’ve not delved into these systems much yet, but it’s nice to know there are options waiting if alignment becomes a significant force in my games.
The option that really caught my eye in this chapter was the revised action economy. The revised action economy ditches standard actions and move actions and so on in favour of ‘acts’, which a character receives three of per round (under normal circumstances). Most actions use up one act, so a character could make three attacks (a penalty is imposed for using more than one attack, simulating iterative attacks), or move and take two attacks, and so on. Complex actions like casting spells generally use two acts, leaving room for one more act such as moving, while some things consume all three acts. A character also has one reaction per turn (for immediate actions or attacks of opportunities), though they may have more if they have the Combat Reflexes feat, for instance.
The revised action economy system gives lower level characters a few more options in combat, and reduces the unnecessary complexity of the many different action types in the normal action economy. For higher-level characters, it does reduce the number of attacks a character might have, though it gives more versatility as a character can now move, using one act, and attack twice, using their other two acts, instead of sacrificing all but one attack just to move. If my current campaign wasn’t already well into 15th level and approaching the big finale, I would have implemented this system right away. As it stands, I’ll almost definitely be using it in my next game.
The next system is stamina and combat tricks, which is intended to boost martial characters, with a particular focus on fighters. Like the skill unlock system, it’s up to the GM to decide if stamina is something that only fighters can use, or if any class can access it. The Combat Stamina feat gives a character a stamina pool, which can be used to boost attack rolls, or to access special combat tricks associated with combat feats. Just about every existing combat feat has been given an associated combat trick. These tricks let you spend stamina points to do all sorts of things, ranging from gaining a second attack of opportunity for the same provoking action (albeit at a -5 penalty) with the Combat Reflexes feat, to being able to declare your use of Stunning Fist after you’ve hit with the attack, to temporarily reducing the two-weapon fighting penalty. This seems like a great way to make martial characters feel like they’re still relevant, even in a party with a spellcaster tossing out huge fireballs every turn.
There’s also a wound threshold system that imposes penalties to attack rolls, saves, armour and even caster level, based on how much damage a character or monster has taken. This makes sense in terms of presenting more realistic combat scenarios: a monster with 2 hit points remaining is going to be impeded by all the gaping wounds he’s likely covered in. There’s a lot of potential for this system, though it does increase the number of things players and GMs have to keep track of.
A few pages on diseases and poisons round out the gameplay chapter. It offers progression tracks for diseases and poisons that are a better (and more interesting) representation of how these conditions would affect a person over time, getting progressively worse until the point of death. The sample poisons and diseases given have pitifully low save DCs, making them interesting and potentially deadly at lower levels, but inconsequential at higher character levels.
Chapter 4: Magic
This chapter also presents a variety of different systems, including simplified spellcasting, which is designed to reduce the time prepared casters need to choose all the spells they prepare daily by only tracking the top three spell levels and using a spell pool for the lower level spells. The spell alterations section includes limited magic, which seems to be intended, as the name suggests, to limit spell power, to wild magic, which gives a table of strange effects that could happen when casting spells in unusual situations or locations. The standout in this section for me is the active spellcasting, which puts the dice back into the hands of the players, so the caster would roll an ‘attack’ for a spell that normally gives a save. The chance of ‘hitting’ works out about the same, but I think it’s a nice way to involve players a little bit more. There are also options for spell critical hits and fumbles, which could certainly make spellcasting more interesting (and dangerous).
Next are esoteric material components, a way of making spell components interesting and relevant again by affecting spells cast with them in various ways, generally increasing DCs or caster levels. Next up is the automatic bonus progression system, which removes all those essential but boring ‘+6 to stat/save/armour’ items in favour of giving a choice of bonuses to the characters themselves as they level up. This is definitely something I’d be interested in testing out with players to see how it actually functions in practice. Following this is the intriguing innate item bonus system, which again ditches items like belts of giant strength and combines these bonuses into other items. This does in crease the price of the items, but like the automatic bonus progression system, it also opens up magic item slots that would normally be taken up with those boring +stat items. This could well mean that players might start paying attention to other magic items that are a bit more interesting.
There is also a section on scaling magic items that grow in power (and value) as the character gains levels. This makes the concept of heirloom items and such more functionally viable, and prevents characters from ending up with high-powered items at first level because their grandfather left them a mighty sword. It also keeps that mighty sword relevant at later levels, instead of it becoming an obsolete trinket. A variety of scaling magic items have been included to help GMs add them to their game immediately. Finally, the magic chapter ends with the dynamic magic item creation system, which aims to make the process of crafting magic items more interesting and more interactive by presenting challenges that the creator has to deal with during the creation process. This could be a good way to involve players in the crafting process a bit more, and even presents story-telling opportunities as items can gain perks, quirks or flaws during this creation process.
Chapter 5: Monsters
This chapter features some of my favourite art in a book that is full of great art. This entire chapter is dedicated to a simplified system for creating monsters by eliminating some of the more time-consuming steps like choosing first-level spells for a CR 15 monster. The stat blocks it produces, as seen in the numerous examples provided, are wonderfully short and re-organised, only containing those things that really matter, grouped together for convenience.
The system provides numerous arrays to allow you to select stats based on the type of creature that you want to create, followed by several grafts that modify the abilities of said creature – things like size, creature type, class and abilities. It even provides spell lists to aid in the speedy choosing of relevant spells for your creations. I can’t wait to experiment with this system.
Pathfinder Unchained is be well-edited: I’m used to spotting more errors in Paizo products. The art is top-notch as you’d expect from a Paizo hardcover. There are only one or two pieces of art that didn’t particularly appeal to me.
All in all, Pathfinder Unchained is a fantastic book, assuming you are interested in what it has to offer. As a game master, this feels like the book I’ve been waiting for, as it is filled with heaps of ideas for improving or changing my games. The revised action economy and simplified monster creation system are highlights for me. Players may not find as much value, as there isn’t much directly for players beyond the updated monk, barbarian, rogue and summoner classes.