Pathfinder Review: Pathfinder Unchained
This year’s spring hardcover release for the Pathfinder Roleplaying game line is Pathfinder Unchained where the game supposedly sheds its pretences of backwards compatibility with the 3.5 Edition of “the world’s oldest roleplaying game” (aka Dungeons & Dragons) and lets the designers cut loose.
Pathfinder Unchained is a 256-page hardcover book for the Pathfinder Roleplaying game. When Pathfinder was launched almost six years ago, it was advertised as being backwards compatible with 3.5e, so the wealth of books already owed by fans of that game would still be useful. And Pathfinder was, more or less, compatible. However, this backwards compatibility has proven to be somewhat of a liability and a lot of the problems with Pathfinder can be traced back to mechanics people knew were problematic but didn’t want to change because that would break books.
This book was pitched as breaking the backwards compatibility and doing things Pathfinder could have done if it had not tied itself to an established ruleset. It’s a big book of optional and variant rules evoking thoughts of Unearthed Arcana for D&D. There are changes to classes, multiclassing, skills, and the like along with new subsystems designed to change how the game is played in varying degrees. Or, as one of the designers put it:
This book is not a second edition of Pathfinder. Nor is it intended to be a “rules light” or “essentials” version of Pathfinder.
This book is designed to let the design team play with the rules in a way that we have not been able to before, revisiting some old designs and tinkering with parts of the game that are otherwise considered “sacred” parts of the system.
At the forefront of the book are four revised classes, three being updated for balance reasons and one for playability. Because the new classes are the big selling point of the book I’ve reviewing them each individually.
Barbarian: The biggest changes to the barbarian is how rage works. Rather than changing ability scores (which adjust a lot of the character’s math) the barbarian just gains a bonus to attacks, damage, and Will saves, and gains temporary hit points. Many of the barbarian’s rage powers are also revised, being on for the duration for a rage once activated rather than requiring more resource management and tracking.
It’s an okay change but it does potentially weaken the barbarian. Because their extra hit points are temporary, barbarians no longer risk death when dropping out of rage cannot benefit from healing during their rage. And the unchained barbarian isn’t better at using Strength-based skills or making Fortitude saves.
It seems odd to have an entirely different presentation for the class when they could have just had a half-dozen rage powers and an alternate form of rage over a two-page spread. There’s honestly fewer changes between this barbarian and the core barbarian than there were between the 3.5e and Pathfinder barbarian. They could have easily had a few variant class features for other classes in space it took to reprint the entire barbarian and all its unaffected abilities. Perhaps such as a tweaked cleric or fighter.
Monk: The monk has often been considered a weak class. They’re meant to be the best at fighting unarmed but have a medium Base Attack Bonus and their signature ability further reduces their ability to hit. They’re also a melee class with poorish AC that has a d8 Hit Dice making them very squishy. They also suffered from “mutual attribute dependency” (or MAD because gamers love silly acronyms), which means monks needed lots of high ability scores: a good Strength, Dexterity, Constitution, and Wisdom.
Unlike the barbarian, the unchained monk has a lot of changes. It now has d10 Hit Dice, full BAB, and their signature move – flurry of blows – is just an extra attack. Monks are now super accurate. Many of the common monk powers are now folded into Ki powers, giving monks more choices each level and different monks will have different abilities. But it’s easy to build a monk with familiar powers at familiar levels. There’s also the addition of style strike, which are a straight up bonus power to add onto attacks.
Unfortunately, to balance with the better hitpoints, accuracy, and new powers the monk loses its good Will save. This doesn’t hurt too much as the monk should still have a decent Wisdom score. However, nothing in the new monk makes them less MAD as heck. Its pool of ki points is still low and there’s no way to replenish them during the day (like gunslinger grit), and its fast movement power still doesn’t stack with haste, arguably one of the most common buff spells in the game. And because of the changes to the class it doesn’t mesh well with existing archetypes, unlike the rogue and the barbarian.
This monk still feels weaker than the brawler and the improvements didn’t always go far enough.
Rogue: Another weak class, the rogue has two major changes. The first is the addition of finesse training that basically gives the rogue the weapon finesse feat for free and allows them to use their Dexterity in place of the Strength for damage. I like this change because using rapiers and daggers made sense for rogues and requiring a feat to do so was just a feat tax. The rogue also gains the debilitating injury power, which lets them stack a condition atop their sneak damage.
The problem with the unchained rogue is that it possesses the same weakness as a normal rogue: when it can’t deal sneak damage it’s not very effective or useful in combat. The unchained rogue isn’t given any more tools to gain sneak attack damage. And the rogue is still ineffective at range have virtually no baked-in methods of reliably gaining sneak damage with a bow or thrown weapon.
Summoner: The core summoner was what I like to describe as “OMFGWTF broken”. Monster summoning spells are among the best in the game for its versatility, allowing damage mitigation, offence, crowd control, and utility. And the summoner’s eidolon is a potent force all on its own being comparable to an entire melee PC in terms of power. The unchained summoner is meant to weaken the class and bring it in line with other classes.
The unchained summoner does get nerfed. But it’s only nerfed to broketastic. Very little about the summoner actually changes, just the eidolon. It seems odd to reprint the entire class when just printing the pre-built eidolon types would have worked. But the eidolons are only somewhat reduced in power, losing the ability to pick and choose all its evolutions. But the base powers are still pretty potent and while they removed options like extra arms it’s still easy to give an eidolon multiple attacks at first level. The eidolon is merely comparable to a druid’s animal companion. Which just means the summoner is probably closer to being in line with the curve setting classes like the druid and hunter.
However, the summoner retains its potent spell-like ability to cast summon monster as a standard action 3+Cha times per day, and keep the summoned monster around for minutes. This alone makes the class potent even if its eidolon is built as a non-combat skill user. It means the summoner is always walking around with 6+ extra spells of their highest level, albeit ones limited to a spell they’re focused on casting anyway.
Also, given the summoner is fixing poor quality content released by Paizo it’s annoying that we need to pay for it. Having it printed here while also offering a free summoner PDF for anyone who just owns the Advanced Player’s Guide would be nice, especially since they likely want to encourage Pathfinder Society players to switch over and mandating people buy a $40 book is not easy.
There’s an option for fractional attack bonuses from classes. This is mostly useful for multiclass characters who might suffer from accuracy problems when taking multiple classes with lower accuracy. While not useful for all characters there are some builds and archetypes that benefit from the slight boost to base attack bonuses, such as arcane trickster types that mix magic users with rogues.
There’s a neat option for staggered advancement, which breaks up the benefits for gaining a level into smaller packages. This allows characters to have regular advancement without gaining levels at a crazed rate. It’d be very possible to advance after every session. Dividing things into quarters seems a little much when standard advancement is closer to a level every three sessions, so thirds might have worked better. As it is there’s a lot of sub-levels where nothing is gained.
The book includes quite a few changes to the skill systems. One option divides skills into adventuring and background skills. It’s very true that not all skills are equally useful while adventuring and I’ve had a few DMs grant bonus skill ranks for a background occupation. This seems to be an extension of this, codifying which skills are essentially for flavour and granting additional ranks to be spent on those skills. It certainly makes characters more rounded and less focused on being a murderhobo. This option even includes a couple new skills: artistry and lore. I’m a sucker for giving characters more, well, character.
While fighters and most other melee characters don’t receive an update, the book includes a new mechanic: stamina pool. This is your standard fatigue based resource that allows you to use special attacks at a cost. And if you expend all your stamina you become fatigued. The implementation of this is excellent and there are options for adding it to your game. Stamina is effectively gained via a feat which can be taken normally, granted free to some or all classes, or be restricted to fighters. Stamina is also tied to existing combat feats, so it’s effortlessly added to existing games with new stamina tricks being learned when combat feats are taken. It’s really slick. And it’s a nice little option for people who want fighters to be able to do things other than just attack.
There’s a few interesting ways of altering magic included in the book. Limited magic is a workable method for making spells less potent, removing the automatic scaling for spells. It also pairs nicely with the overclocking option later in the book where spellcasters can make a check to improve their magical power. I do find the name “overclocking” to be unfortunately anachronistic and would have liked something more flavourful, such as what they might call the option in-world.
The absence of a conversion guide for the classes is frustrating. It would have been nice to having something pointing out the small changes that might be missed (like the changes to the monk’s proficiencies). This might have included advice on converting archetypes to the new class.
The art in the book is mostly uninspired. Most of the artwork is just people, the standard body shots of the iconic characters in somewhat relevant poses. It’s a little bland and becomes samey. I’m much more fond of larger pieces of art with backgrounds and scenery, implying a story of events unfolding. In most of the class sections the art is sparse with just the typical shot of the iconic character and then page after page of text. The later sections are less bland as they often give the random iconic something to do other than just striking a pose, but there’s a lot of truly generic pieces.
I’m less fond of the consolidated skills option, which lumps several skills together. This creates the same flaw as 4th Edition D&D where all Dexterity or Strength actions can almost be considered part of a skill (Acrobatics and Athletics respectively). This pretty much removes ability checks from the game as there’s practically nothing you can do with a Strength check that you cannot justify Athletic skill improving. With the exception of Intelligence, it’s a little too easy to just take all the skills that use your key ability score and throw bonuses at that like a game of mathematic horseshoes. The consolidated skills option also makes some curious choices, such as grouping Perception and Sense Motive, which were already almost must-have skills. Grouping them makes a skill so useful it’s almost foolish not to take.
There are a number of options that play with magic items. One is inherent bonuses, which replaces some of the wealth gained each level with static bonuses. This is basically a math patch that replaces the six mandatory items all PCs must have (cloak of resistance, ring of protection, amulet of natural armour, a magic weapon and armour, and a item that boosts your key stat). I tried this in one of my games and my players found it lacking, as the bonuses were set and there were no choices. After all, lots of characters (especially ones who stay out of melee) might choose to forego one of the defensive items or delay its purchase. The chart also and favours spellcasters, prioritizing mental stats over physical, so all fighters and barbarians get to boost their Intelligence or Wisdom before their Strength. There are also no bonuses to skills, metamagic rods, pearls of power, etc. These items are equally “bland” but often seen as just as mandatory. While the section advises you to halve treasure awarded when using the table it also says you can skip magic items altogether and award bonuses from the chart as if the characters were two levels higher, it doesn’t give advice on how much gold should be awarded in this situation. The later levels of the chart also just throw out bonuses to character like they were candy, emphasising just how ridiculous the wealth gained at the end game is. It’s extremely unsatisfying and problematic for a fix to one of the most controversial and unpopular elements of the 3.X game system: assumed wealth-by-level and the magic item Christmas Tree.
There are a few options for tweaking alignment, which feel very much like an overlap with Ultimate Campaign, which handled that option better and in more detail. This bit just feels like content that didn’t make it into that product and was added here as filler.
The name of this book is just terrible. The hook is that this is what Pathfinder could be if “unchained” from the legacy of D&D, but that requires you knowing the history of Pathfinder and legacy of 3.5 as well as the intent of the book. Any time you need to explain the title you’ve failed. Plus, the full title (Pathfinder Roleplaying Game: Pathfinder Unchained) is super awkward. It really feels like a committee name where they couldn’t settle on a simpler name and this was the only one everyone objected to the least. “How about Pathfinder Unleashed'” “No, sounds to fetishy. Pathfinder Unlocked?” “That seems a little rogue-centric. Pathfinder Unchained?” “It’s 4am. Good enough.”
The Pathfinder action economy is tricky with its three types of action (standard, move, and swift) and players often seeking to use all three to avoid “wasting” their swift action. There’s a revised action economy that replaces these with three actions, each of which can be used to attack, move, or perform other acts. It doesn’t particularly simplify things, being a lateral change in complexity: instead of having to remember what was a swift or standard action or what replaced an attack or not, the player will need to remember how many acts an action takes. This effectively makes things even *more* slow since characters will be even more hesitant to leave an action unused. This would be fine if things were balanced but the system is full of holes. The Vital Strike feat becomes much more appealing, and feinting in combat is suddenly much easier allowing rogues to feint and attack at level 1.
There are a couple of options tied to removing iterative attacks. Iteratives are a clunky part of the game, being slow (as a character makes multiple attacks and a player adds many dice together using different numbers). And there are diminishing returns as later iteratives just have too low of bonuses to be of use. However, this replacement option seem unnecessarily complex, requiring math not only to calculate if an attacked hits but then math to figure out how many attacks. A player is less likely to be able to just say they hit (based on a high roll) and rattle out damage but instead waits on the DM. This option also favours monsters whose base attack bonus goes up faster than their CR. The total number of monster attacks are also capped, but this requires some funky math to calculate.
There are variants for diseases and poison, which mirror the disease tracks of 4th Edition D&D. It’s an interesting bit of parallel design. (Especially curious since 5th edition moved away from those changes.) Instead of impacting stats or having specific effects the disease progress along a set track that imposes penalties. Only this option feels worse than the 4e implementation as they use the same tracks for all disease and poisons, making them all feel rather samey. Poison also feels less frightening regardless of a character’s dump stats. Because poisons only last for a set duration, it’s much, much harder to die from poison, even if it requires consecutive saves to shake off the poison. If you can save a couple times it’s not possible to reach the final stage and die. This alternate system also doesn’t fix the problem of poison becoming useless at high levels as creatures outlevel the save DC.
The book ends with the chapter on simple monster design. Pathfinder monsters are complex, using many of the same rules as PCs for gaining feats, ability scores, and the like. This new “simple” monster creation fills 47-pages of the book, opposed to the roughly 30 in the Bestiary for more complicated monster design (and much of those 30-pages also include the glossary of abilities which are used in the simple monsters as well). The simple monster design has the same problems as 4e monsters, in that it makes all monsters of the same challenge have roughly the same numbers. Only it’s worse since there’s three varieties for each challenge rather than six. It makes monsters rather samey. You no longer need lots of monsters or additional Bestiaries, you just need one statblock of each type from CR ½ to 30 for 93 monsters in total and adjust a couple scores on the fly and add a couple special abilities. It’s super bland, especially for a combat heavy game like Pathfinder.
I say monsters are “samey” but there is some variability, but it is not handled well. There’s a few suggestions for adjusting the numbers to reflect the monsters powers but it is not consistent or universally applied. For example, incorporeal creatures take half damage from most attacks and should have reduced hit points to account for this, but don’t so they effectively have twice the hit points of other creatures of their CR.
The simple monster creation also equates HD with CR, which seems off as the later increases much more quickly. Saving throws are also curiously high; these monsters are unlikely to fail many saves and don’t have the poor saving throw of most monsters. It also drops the ability scores in favour of just the modifiers, which has always seemed like a good idea for a change, but is something D&D couldn’t get away with (due to it being a familiar sacred cow). It’s certainly something a revised edition of Pathfinder could do.
There’s a lot of subsystems and variant rules I would have like to seen that this book doesn’t cover. A variant on Bluff and Diplomacy would have been nice. There’s no variants on critical hits or addition of fumble rules. While the simple monsters remove 1-18+ ability scores there’s no option for doing that for PCs and how to roll or buy stats. While this book is Pathfinder’s Unearthed Arcana, that book was open content and there are lots of options from that book which were not included and remain unconverted to Pathfinder. Including such gems as spell points, core classes as prestige classes (prestige bard and prestige paladin), facing or hex grids, complex skill checks, and the options of gestalt & generic classes. Or even classless play.
Lastly, most of the options in the book only add complexity to Pathfinder, which is already a heavily complex game. It would have been nice to have options designed to speed up play or build characters. There’s only a couple (like simplified spellcasting) that make it easier to play, and only for certain characters.
The skill unlocks subsystem is neat. This grants little extra abilities after gaining a set number of ranks in a skill. It’s a fun way to encourage gaining ranks in certain skills and grant little mechanical perks outside of feats and class features.
I rather like the variant multiclassing rules. In this subsystem you forgo every other feat and instead gain a class feature from your alternate class. This is a handy little option for players that want to mix different classes but where the mechanics are less compatible or a full dip is undesirable. It’s also nice for players who just want fewer feats. Pathfinder has a lot of feats and picking through the list can be a chore, and this provides a nice alternative.
I had a GM who would have loved the wound thresholds system, which applies penalties after you lose a certain amount of hit points. It’s often been said that hp is weird in that you’re always fighting at 100% capacity even when near death. The system doesn’t work well at low levels (the thresholds of a level 2 cleric might be 15/11/7/3 so it it after just 5 damage the characters has -1 penalties to a bunch of things) and I wonder if the penalties might have been better starting at 1/2 and 1/4 hp than at 3/4. But that’s an easy house rule.
The simplified spellcasting optional rule is handy for high level play. Full casters can be a bear with dozens of prepared spells and slots to track. This reduces the number of low level spell slots to worry about, so the player just has to focus on their high level spells. It might also mitigate the waves of buffing high level casters can perform before combats.
The book also has wild magic. This is always cool.
I’m curious about dynamic magic item creation, which seems like an interesting little minigame. I’m intrigued by the idea and think it’s rather cool, but I’d really have to see it in play first before I decide if it works or is just a neat idea. Magic item creation in Pathfinder can be a bit rote, so anything that shakes it up and makes things interesting is fun. Although, I do worry that this minigame will focus too much on a single character. And it works best in lower magic game, otherwise the tasks will be done over and over again as the player creates their twenty-fourth magic item to complete the Christmas Tree set.
Related to the dynamic magic item creation are magic item perks, quirks, and flaws. These are just darn fun and easy to implement even if the dynamic system isn’t used.
Pathfinder Unchained is the book that breaks the chains connecting Pathfinder to the game systems that came before! Or not. Honestly, there’s not much that seems to veer away from backwards compatibility more than any other optional ruleset. And when you compare the Unchained monk and barbarian with the variants featured in Unearthed Arcana they seem positively safe in their compatibility. Other than the simple monster creation, very little really seems to be “unchained” and very few sacred cows of D&D are slaughtered. Most of the optional rules in this book fell, well, safe. I was much more impressed by the creativity that went into Unearthed Arcana, with options that really felt like they were presenting a very different take on the game that was still compatible with the d20.
I’m also uncertain how much use people will get use out of a book changing the Pathfinder rules. The edition is fairly old now, which adds a couple complications. First, there’s fewer and fewer people starting new campaigns and established games are unlikely to implement game-changing house rules. And after so long players comfortable with changing the rules have done so long ago. The 3e ruleset is now 14 years old, and many people are pretty darn proficient at hacking the system. These people don’t really *need* a book of optional rules. Very little of the book is legal for Pathfinder Society organized play, even the bits that would be of great use and easily implemented (fractional attack bonuses, skill unlocks, feat multiclassing, simplified spellcasting, and the stamina pool).
Books of optional rules are tricky to recommend at best. You’re very unlikely to use more than two or three of these optional rule systems at a single time, so the book is expensive for the amount of content in it being consumed. Realistically speaking though, outside of the Core Rulebook the amount of content actually used in a given accessory might not be that much more; I’ve probably used all of two pages from Ultimate Magic.
What I find most interesting – and rather unnerving – is the number of rules in this book that evoke feelings of 4th Edition D&D, the game Pathfinder was created as an alternative towards. The multiclassing and compiled skill variants resemble 4e, as do the simplified monster rules and disease tracks. It’s interesting to think that Pathfinder might be evolving into a very similar game as 4e, albeit years later, with the designers trying to fix the same problems in the same ways, and it will be interesting to see how this book informs the probably Pathfinder Revised Edition.