Pathfinder Unchained: 5 different ways to remix your tabletop game


The release of Pathfinder Unchained earlier this month has given everyone here at Ten Copper a lot to talk about. We’re in the middle of a long-running Pathfinder campaign ourselves (game on this weekend!) and we’ve been feverishly pawing through our copy of Unchained to see exactly what we can use.

None of that matters to you, however — what you want to know is what you can use, and whether or not you should buy the book! So instead of talking about ourselves, let’s talk about what Unchained offers.

Unchained classes, skills, magic and more

Let’s get one thing out of the way first: Unchained may contain rules that would help beginners playing Pathfinder for the first time, but Unchained itself is not a book for beginners. In many ways, Unchained is an Advanced-Advanced book, a hacker’s guide for people who want to tear the system apart and replace it piece by piece.

As such, Unchained is very rule-heavy. If you’re looking for flavour or storyline inspiration, you won’t really find it here. This is a text-heavy tome, and it’s dense reading! Deliciously, deliciously dense. Like a mudcake. A Pathfinder mudcake.

Anyway, here’s what’s in the cake:

  • Rebalanced classes: New rules for the Barbarian, Monk, Rogue and Summoner, as well as different ways to level up
  • Skill changes: Options for different ways to represent, simplify and expand skills
  • Gameplay tweaks: Rules to handle removing alignments, change the way combat actions work, and offer martial character more options
  • Magical tricks: Simplified spellcasting, changes to material component rules, item bonuses, scaling items
  • Monsters galore: New rules for simpler monster creation

The final section of simpler monster creation is supremely in-depth and very comprehensive, but it doesn’t really offer a way for you to change your Pathfinder game in a way that the other four chapters do. It’s going to be a great resource for imaginative GMs, however, and if the numerous Bestiary books don’t give you what you want for your game, I encourage you to pick it up!

But when it comes to me as a GM, to be honest, I’ve always been satisfied with what’s in the books. One of Pathfinder’s greatest strengths is that not only its backwards-compatibility with the nearly endless library of D&D 3.5 material, but the Bestiary books themselves and Paizo’s published adventures are full of nearly every combination of limbs, claws and hissing teeth under the sun. This has been a great boon to me as a DM in my current campaign, which is designed around finding and slaying the most ridiculous, obscure monsters possible.

So, monsters aside — what I’m going to do today is look at ways that you can mix-and-match rules from the first four chapters of Unchained to create the Pathfinder game of your dreams (or your player’s nightmares).


1. Pathfinder, But Better

You’ll need:

  • Revised Classes (page 6)
  • Skill Unlocks (page 82)
  • Scaling Items (page 160)

The objective with Pathfinder, But Better is very simple — new rules that either wholly replace, or don’t overlap with existing material, without any conflict. The revised classes really are superb, with the Monk and the Barbarian must-have replacements in my opinion for the versions from the core rulebook (one of the characters in our game just rolled up a Monk several games ago, and on the weekend we converted him over to an Unchained Monk — quick and painless, and now much more balanced).

Pathfinder, like D&D 3.5 before it, has always been a numbers-intensive game. With the revised Monk and Barbarian, Paizo have taken a machete to the math involved, and it’s much for the better. The revised Summoner is a huge change, introducing the idea of eidolon ‘subtypes’ that make creating your summoned creature much easier and less brain-destroying, and the revised Rogue brings this core class up to scratch with others by introducing ways to debilitate opponents.

They’re all great, and if you’re starting a new game then you’d be crazy not to choose them over their regular counterparts.

The other must-haves for Pathfinder, But Better are Skill Unlocks and Scaling Items. No special reasoning here, other than that as a DM I feel that players should get rewarded for having lots of skill points by being given new and inventive ways to use them, and players are bound to really enjoy having a signature magic item that grows and levels with them. Both these Unchained ‘plug-ins’ are very simple in nature and easy to implement, with big gains for players who stick with them.


2. We Need To Roleplay Deeper

You’ll need:

  • Background Skills (page 46)
  • Skill Unlocks (page 82)
  • Variant Multiclassing (page 88)
  • Removing Alignment (page 100)

Unchained offers more than a few options to improve your roleplaying experience at the table. We’ve discussed Skill Unlocks in the previous segment, but there’s more you can do with skills in Unchained. One of the best new additions to the game for people who really like to flesh out their character’s personalities is Background Skills.

This system divides the skills into two tiers: Adventuring Skills, which are largely unchanged from what you’re used to, and Background Skills, which are things like Appraise, Craft, Perform and so on. With these rules, you get points to spend on Background Skills specifically, which is a neat way to give more flavour without sacrificing your in-dungeon effectiveness.

Variant Multiclassing is a great new feature that is really going to reward those who want to multiclass for the flavour rather than the min-maxing. Under this system, players can choose a secondary class and gain some of its special features when they level up, instead of just picking feats. This leads to great combinations, like a Ranger with a Wizard Familiar, or maybe a Paladin with Barbarian Rage. Very cool stuff — but you need to make these choices at 1st level, so it’s probably not something you’d want to tweak partway through a long-running game (although it would be possible).

Finally, you’ll want to look at Removing Alignment. Not everybody will agree with me on this, but I think the alignment system, while super neat, can be restrictive on roleplaying and discourage character from being as flavourful as possible. The rules in this section explain how to surgically remove the Alignment model from Pathfinder, because it’s heavily enmeshed in the rules as well as the theme.


3. Crunchy Combat Edition

You’ll need:

  • Stamina and Combat Tricks (page 112)
  • Limited Magic (page 146)

Despite the best efforts of Paizo over the years, the legacy of 3.5-designed spellcasters quickly becoming (and staying) more useful than melee fighters lingers on in Pathfinder. I personally rarely, if ever, have to deal with this on the tabletop — I run a very fast and loose game where none of the players are too concerned about crunching the numbers.

But as it says in our guide on how to be a pretty okay Game Master, rule number one is to know what your players want. If they want crunchy, more balanced combat where spellcasters and fighters have a more even playing field, this is for you.

Stamina and Combat Tricks is the bread and butter of this operation. With these neat rules, the Combat Feats that melee classes pick up now have additional options that can be activated by paying a Stamina cost from a pool of Stamina points. This section of the book is deliciously detailed, with additional tricks for basically every Combat Feat in all of Paizo’s main Pathfinder line.

But as well as buffing your fighters, you’ll probably also want to nerf your wizards. Flip to page 146 and look at Limited Magic, which tightens the power tiers on spells to “reduce the amount by which a caster’s power level escalates”. This won’t be for everyone, but then Paizo are just here to provide options, not to tell you how to play. Enjoy your new crunchier combat!


4. Pathfinder Lite

You’ll need:

  • Consolidated Skills (54)
  • Revised Action Economy (102)

Pathfinder already streamlines the hell out of Dungeons & Dragons, but as the newest Fifth Edition of D&D demonstrates, it’s possible to streamline even further. If you love Pathfinder and you want to see it go in the same direction, Unchained offers some great ways for you to do that.

Let’s start with Consolidated Skills. This system slashes the amount of skills in play by nearly two-thirds, bringing it down from 35 to 12. As a result of this, a lot of skills have been combined (or consolidated, if you will) into larger categories — Jumping, Escape Artist, Fly, Ride and Acrobatics are now all just “Acrobatics”, for example.

This section gives full rules for the new 12 skills and what you can do with them, so make sure to read them through. Some of the less adventuring-specific skills like Craft and Appraise have been dropped entirely, but Paizo recommends adding them back using the Background Skills system we discussed earlier.

The Revised Action Economy is one of the more complex systems in Unchained, but it essentially boils down to allowing players to ‘act’ three times in each round, with various actions costing more than others. A ‘Simple Action’ like ‘Aid Another’ or ‘Attack’ for example, only uses one action, whereas a ‘Charge’ might use two, or delivering a coup de grace might use three. There’s also free actions and reactions, too.

It sounds complicated on paper, but the system is actually very simple and easy to understand, and would probably serve as a good way to introduce new players to the game as well.

Pathfinder Occult Adventures

5. Grimdark Pathfinder

You’ll need:

  • Removing Alignment (page 100)
  • Wound Thresholds (page 136)
  • Diseases and Poisons (page 138)

Pathfinder not dark enough for you? Let’s fix that. We’ll start by Removing Alignment so that nobody is bound by petty considerations of morality anymore, enabling you as the GM to force people into horrible choices.

Then we’ll add Wound Thresholds, so that players get feebler and feebler as they take more and more damage. Currently, Pathfinder (and nearly every other tabletop roleplaying game) abstracts wounds so that you go from “feeling fine!” to “dead!” instantly, but with this system you’ll stack up more and more penalties as you pass from 100%, to 75%, to 50% and so-on.

Paizo even recommends a “Gritty Mode” at the bottom of page 137 which doubles the penalties. “Use this mode carefully, since it can cause a serious death spiral,” they warn. “In other words, the side that starts losing has tremendous disadvantages and is far more likely to die or need to escape.” Still, if that’s what the players want, then give it to them!

The new rules for Diseases and Poisons will also be great here, offering a much more detailed tracking of the onset and progression of these conditions so that you’re not either “feeling fine!” or “poisoned!”. Together with Wound Thresholds, this could make for a ridiculously brutal game — something I’m strongly considering for a “fantasy world zombie apocalypse” game I intend to run some day.

Off the chain

There you have it folks — five fresh spins on Pathfinder, all in one book. And there’s plenty more where that came from that I didn’t get around to covering, plus you can mix and match to your heart’s content.

I’m a huge fan of Unchained, and I think it’s a really good toolkit for GMs to work with players to give them the type of game they want — and as far as I’m concerned, that’s what a good GM is all about.

Our review copy of Pathfinder Unchained supplied by Paizo.

Before you leave, why not listen to our interview with Pathfinder Unchained’s lead designer, Jason Bulmahn?

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