Review – Pathfinder Unchained

PZO1131            Primarily presented as a toolbox of alternate rules, the content of Pathfinder Unchained serves a somewhat broader set of functions than a straight-up Arcana Unearthed set of rules adjustment options. There certainly is a lot of that, but Unchained also includes a simplified (but certainly not simple) new creation system for monsters and new versions of several base character classes that are presented not for the sake of variety, but in order to balance out classes seen as too weak or too strong.

  • Vital Statistics: 253-page, full-color hardcover; retails for about $40

Contents and Opinions

As broken down in the book, Pathfinder Unchained provides 26 different rules variants over four chapters (Classes, Skills and Options, Gameplay, and Magic) and one chapter on monster creation. I will break them down slightly differently below. I will also mix more opinions into this section of the review that I usually would, as each bit of content is very discrete and would make it a pain to drop my opinions about each one at the end of the review.

Game Balance Content

As I noted above, several of the “options” introduced in Unchained are introduced in order to provide more balance between the character classes. In every case but one, these changes make the character class more powerful. Four are direct changes to character classes that should, in my opinion, basically be automatic changes to any Pathfinder campaign (although players with Summoners may object). If I am not mistaken, all of these new base class variations are accepted for use in Pathfinder organized play (and, in the case of the Summoner, renders the original illegal).

Monk: One of two character classes widely considered to be very weak when compared to other base classes, and also fairly restrictive, the Monk gets a significant makeover, including changes to base attack bonus, hit points, saves, and a much more ability to customize the character with a wider array of ki powers (including replacement of some previously-mandatory powers with player selections).

Rogue/Skill Unlocks: The other of the two character classes considered to be significantly imbalanced on the weak side, the Rogue also gets a significant upgrade here. There are three primary components of this. First, the Rogue gets Weapon Finesse for free and gets to use it to add extra damage. Second, the Rogue gains a feature (debilitating injury) that inflicts an additional penalty (such as a penalty to AC or attack) on a victim of the Rogue’s sneak attack. Third, the Rogue’s lack of achievement in the skills department is addressed with the Rogue’s edge class feature, which requires incorporating Skill Unlocks (which are presented in the Skills and Options chapter). An “unlocked” skill grant extra bonuses for every 5 ranks the character has in that skill. For example, an unlocked Stealth skill will (successively) reduce the penalty imposed by sniping, reduce the penalties for moving quickly, impose a penalty on targets hit while being stealthy, and then impose additional penalties. The Rogue gets to unlock skills for free (one per five levels). The default rules for everyone else are that it takes a feat to unlock a skill (one feat slot per skill). Alternatively, skill unlocks could be limited to only Rogues, or (if you want to benefit other highly-skilled classes while keeping the Rogue lousy) all skills can just unlock automatically. Since I’ve said that Pathfinder campaigns should switch to the new Rogue, this necessarily means using the skill unlocks, but that can be kept Rogue-only if desired. I think it would be a matter of preference whether to let other classes access it through a Feat (do you want the Rogue to feel more unique?). Just giving it to everyone for free doesn’t seem like a great idea.

Summoner: The one class getting a power-level downgrade, the Summoner sees its spell list reduced. Their eidolons also get a bit more flavorful, with a subtype (angel, devil, elemental, psychopomp, etc.) that shapes the options available for the eidolon.

amiri_by_madadman-d83v0vzBarbarian: In contrast with the Rogue and the Monk, the Barbarian’s changes are not all about balance between the base classes (although the class does gain benefits), but also manage to remove some bookkeeping problems along the way. The changes to the barbarian focus on rage (often considered to be a weak aspect of the class). Rage no longer changes ability scores, but rather provides temporary hit points and static attack/damage bonuses, avoiding the need to recalculate other parts of the character sheet during rage. The number of rage powers that are once/rage has been reduced, in favor of more static abilities (thus eliminating the need to track exactly which powers were used this rage). Finally, the rage abilities are generally just better.

Stamina and Combat Tricks: Located in the Gameplay chapter, I am including the stamina system here because (I think) a significant part of its function is to strengthen martial characters, especially Fighters. This system grants a pool of stamina points to applicable characters (size of the pool based on base attack bonus and Constitution). By default, stamina points can only be spent on increasing attack bonus. However, every Combat feat that the character has provides a new use for those stamina points (the list of what combat tricks each Combat feat grants takes up over 20 pages). Exactly how much this increases the power level of Fighters and/or other martial character depends on how it is implemented. The stamina pool is granted by a feat (Combat Stamina), and this can be a normal feat, can be granted for free to fighters (additionally, the ability to do combat tricks can be specifically limited to bonus feats gained from the Fighter class), or can be granted for free to everyone (or free to only martial characters). As martial characters generally are considered weaker than spellcasters, adding this system is a positive on the balance front. I don’t give it my unqualified endorsement, however, because it adds yet another thing that needs to be tracked, and I think it will vary from group to group whether it is ‘worth’ the hassle (I would definitely not want to implement ‘free for everyone’).

Toolbox Options

“Classes” Variants:

Fractional Base Bonuses – Under the standard rules, multiclass characters can have some pretty odd sets of base attack and save bonuses. Most notably, multiclass characters in non-martial classes can end up with even worse base attack bonuses than usual, and anyone can end up with some terrible and some amazing saves. This is because each level in any class effectively gives a fraction of a bonus to saves and attack, but it doesn’t show up until it reaches a whole number. This system explicitly breaks those out, so, for example, a character who is a first level Rogue/first level Wizard will have a base attack bonus of +1 (+1/2 from each class) instead of a plus zero. Dungeons & Dragons 3rd Edition has a very similar system in Unearthed Arcana, and (as then) I think that this is a mandatory change to avoid statistical silliness.

Staggered Advancement: This system spreads out some of the benefits of level advancement, rather than handing everything to the character at once. I generally agree with the sentiment of this system, as it lets players get a little jolt of fun from advancing more frequently, although I am not sure how pertinent it is at lower level where (in my experience) most adventuring takes places and where level increases are pretty brisk anyway. But there is not a lot of downside, as the small extra complexity increase takes place entirely outside of gameplay.

Variant Multiclassing: OK, this is actually in the “Skills and Options” chapter, but it seems more like a classes variant, so I’m going to put it here. This system, technically compatible with the existing multi-classing rules, but really designed to be a replacement option, eliminates formal multiclassing into other base classes with the option to have a secondary class. Having a secondary class uses give of the character’s feats gained from leveling up, replacing each with an ability (or improvement of a prior ability) from the secondary class. So, for example, a character who is secondary in Rogue will gain trapfinding, then a sneak attack, then evasion, then uncanny dodge, then improved uncanny dodge. My initial response was “no thank you, I’ll take my traditional multiclassing,” then I thought about it a bit more and I wondered if this is one of those situations where you produce a better result by having more straightforward, cleaner options. This might be the case, although it also might beg the question of why a group looking for more straightforward, less customizable character options is playing Pathfinder in the first place. J

“Skills and Options” Variants:

Background Skills: This system encourages players to flesh out a character with skills that are not necessarily as useful (so-called background skills) by granting a separate pool of points to acquire things like Profession and some Knowledge skills. Since I fall into the pool of people who have a really hard time with the notion of taking a Craft skill instead of Athletics or Perception, and think this is a good addition.

Consolidated Skills: Drops the number of available skills down to a dozen or so, with almost all skills covering a lot more ground (sorry, Stealth, you’re still useful enough as just Stealth). So, for example, Athletics, Swim and Climb get lumped together, as to Bluff, Diplomacy, and Intimidate. Characters get fewer skill ranks to assign, of course, but the overall effect is slightly more powerful characters. Overall I think this is a good option to have, striking a different (but neither better nor worse) pose than the standard system.

PZO1131-JirelleGrouped Skills: Similar to consolidated skills, skills here are grouped together (although a smaller number of groups), but they also maintain their independent existence. Instead, a character is either trained or untrained in a group of skills, and then either specialized or not specialized in a particular skill. There are no individual ranks, and bonuses on skill rolls automatically scale with level (half level if trained or specialized, full level if both). This system is presented as simplifying the skill selection rules, but as a practical matter my experience is that players just select X skills and then max them out, so this system just presents different options, not more straightforward ones. With that in mind, however, one of the arguable benefits of this system is that if forces diversification – instead of having to decide exactly which random physical skill her character will be really good at (while being awful at the others), the player can simply choose for the character to have some general competence in all physical skills.

Alternate Crafting and Profession Rules: These rules primarily serve to permit the use of Craft or Profession skills in smaller chunks, rather than requiring entire weeks at a time, which makes them more suitable for possible use during something other than downtime.

“Gameplay” Variants:

Alignment: This alignment variant keeps the Law/Chaos and Good/Evil axes, but gives numerical values to them, adds moral challenges to determine if a character should move one way or the other on an axis, and then provides mechanical benefits for characters who get all of the way to one end of an axis but keep doing the ‘correct’ thing when faced with challenges. Moral dilemmas are not intended to be particularly common – to use an example from the book, accepting a quest to take down some bad guys probably doesn’t shift you on either axis if you’re expecting a fat payday for a job well done. This variant ultimately ends up feeling to me like it requires too much work for what the GM gets out of it. If the GM doesn’t focus on providing moral challenges, I think it will not come up much. If the GM does go to the work of crafting these challenges, then the mechanical effects are not all that big a deal. It feels like, if the GM cares that much about alignment (enough to want to go beyond just doing things like enforcing alignment shifts when PCs aren’t behaving in accordance with the words on their character sheets), then this system will not add as much as they want. At the same time, this will be way too much work for the GM who doesn’t care that much.

Removing Alignment: This one is pretty straightforward – if you want to remove alignment entirely, this section provides guidance on how to adjust classes, spells, and other mechanical bits to accommodate that. Not of use to me. May be of use to someone, but I feel like groups that care enough and want to remove alignment have probably already kit-bashed something together. Still, this only takes up 2 pages, so not a big deal.

Revised Action Economy: This “simplified” action system reduces the game to only three-ish kinds of actions. You get three actions a round. Plus a reaction between rounds. Plus free actions. But for the normal stuff, everything you do costs X actions (including the possibility of taking more actions than you get in a round), which actions being simple or advanced depending on whether they take only one, or more than one, action. The biggest practical change from this system is that iterative attacks are gone, with any character being able to attack as many times (at full BAB) as he has actions to spare.

Removing Iterative Attacks: Since the last system involved removing iterative attacks, maybe this one should have been called something different? Maybe “removing multiple attack rolls?” The core notion is that, instead of rolling over and over again for iterative attacks (including two weapon fighting and flurry of blows), you make one roll, and the degree by which you miss or hit will determine how many ‘hits’ your land. The overall damage is supposed to work out to be something similar, although I’m not going to pretend like I’ve done the math to check. Seems like a handy system to avoid having to wait 3 minutes while Johnny Two-Swords makes 7 attack rolls.

Wound Thresholds: The wound threshold system applies blanket penalties to character as they lose more of their hit points. This does not seem intended to provide any particular mechanical benefit to the game, but rather a ‘realism’ benefit in that characters’ effectiveness is reduced as they are injured, rather than going from perfect to out in one hit point. Indeed, it comes with a significant mechanical drawback in that it makes it harder for someone to ‘come back’ in a fight and, in general, makes it hard for anyone to ‘fight up’ – your PCs who are trying to barely hang on to defeat that high-level monster are much more likely to slip. Personally, I don’t want damage ‘realism’ (even in this vague form) in my Pathfinder games (or most any RPG, really), so I am happy to give this one a pass.

Diseases and Poisons: This system provides more variety in how diseases and poisons work, especially those that attack something other than Constitution. Instead of ability damage, each targeted ability has its own scale of effects as the poison/disease progresses – and each ends with the character dead, which is only possible for Constitution-attacking poisons/diseases in the normal system. This one is not much more complexity, and I think makes poisons and diseases significantly more flavorful.

“Magic” Variants:

Simplified Spellcasting: The simplification here is in removing the hordes of lower-level spells that spellcasters can accumulate, and the need to spend time figuring out which ones to memorize. For each character, her highest three levels of spells work as normal. For everything below that, the character instead gets a pool of spell slots that can be used to cast any of those lower level spells. So, for example, an 11-th level wizard would cast 4th, 5th, and 6th level spells as normal, but would have a common pool of spell slots for use in casting 1st, 2nd, and 3rd level spells. This pool is about one larger than the number of 3rd level spells the character would have been able to memorize under the usual rules. I have to admit that I don’t see a lot of upside here, unless you just don’t want spellcasters to have stacks of spells available.

Spell Alterations 1 – Limited Magic: This is really three different variants lumped into one (presumably because each one takes up less than two pages each), so I’ll break them out. Limited magic is pretty straight-forward power-down of spellcasters. Spell effects no longer scale with caster level (or ability score) – your Fireball is the same at 15th level as it was at 5th.

Spell Alterations 2 – Wild Magic: This is basically just a wild magic table with a few ideas on when to use it.

Spell Alterations 3 – Active Spellcasting: A collection within a collection, these variants give spellcasters more ways to make decisions or throw dice when doing their thing. For example, the Spell “Attack Roll” variant replaces NPC spell saving throws with PC die rolls that amount to the same thing. I’ll single that one out because I like it best – all other things being equal, always better to have the PCs throwing dice than the DM.

Esoteric Material Components: Although it does not go back to anywhere near the complexity and apothecary-shop stylings of “old school” spellcasting, this variant is for those who yearn at least a little for the days before the advent of the comprehensive spell component pouch. There are a handful of magically potent substances in the world, most linked with specific schools, and these substances can be consumed to power spells. It’s still fairly abstracted because there are only a small number of substances, and they exist entirely in chunks defined by their gp value (for example, it costs 6gp of esoteric components for a 3rd level spell). There are two variants in here. One is that the components are optional, but when used will super-charge the spell. The other is that the components are mandatory, and serve as a drag on spellcaster power. Personally, I adore the spell component pouch, but I can see groups being interested in this sort of thing.

Automatic Bonus Progression: This variant provides a system for replacing magic item bonuses with automatic bonuses to stats usually boosted by magic items (resistance, attack, AC, ability scores, etc.), allowing a game to play without lots of magic items being handed out (they are still handy for all those nifty effects that usually get overshadowed by stat bonuses. I like this system, because I’m fond of accumulating lots of handy little effects, but it also removes cool moments of finding that awesome sword (or what have you), so it is not without its drawbacks.


Innate Item Bonuses: Something of a variation on a theme, in this system magic items still provide the stat bonuses, but they do so in a more general and uniform way. They still scale with item power level, but the player also gets to choose which ability scores get buffed for the applicable slots. So, for example, all rings provide a deflection bonus to AC, while all head slot items provide bonuses to mental stats. This makes all magic items much more expensive, because they provide a stat bonus and their normal effect. As with the automatic bonus progression, it lets magic items focus on more distinctive abilities instead of the bonuses. And the players get to look forward to exciting ‘loot drops’ without having to worry whether the item is exactly the sort of bonus they were looking for.

Scaling Items: This variant is an interesting flavor/mechanics concept, because in my experience having magical items that scale with level is usually accomplished by something like the “automatic bonus progression” method – something like your family sort just automatically getting stronger as you level up, adding stat bonuses or powers as you choose. This system still has items automatically scaling, but is focused on specific items that scale in specific ways. I think that having items around long enough to build stories (or because the item has a connection with the character’s past) is a very good thing, although being implemented through the item itself, rather than something like a feat or class ability means that the GM has to constantly adjust treasure to account for the fact that the powering-up item is effectively a portion of that PC’s ‘treasure’ each level.

Dramatic Magic Item Creation: This system adds variability to the magic item creation process and some degree of flavor. Creation of a magic item is now broken up into a series of challenges (the more expensive the item, the more plentiful the challenges). By default, each challenge is a skill check (pick one of two options), and success or failure can make the item cheaper/quicker to build, or more expensive/longer to construct – or more exotic results. For example, your item might experience an energy overload during creation, requiring you to either channel the energy into your body (Fortitude save) or channel it into some other object (Craft skill check). A critical success means the item will be cheaper, get in two days ahead of schedule, and gain a perk. Normal success means the item will gain a quirk. Failure increases the cost and the time involved. And a critical failure? Well, you don’t want to know. Even if just rolled out, these challenges make a crafted magic item distinctive. They can also be fully roleplayed out, but some of them would seem difficult to do meaningful roleplay on (for example, that energy overload), and others would work best if the item creation is woven into other gameplay (for example, if you’re using the alternate crafting rules). As you may have noticed above, this process can also result in more distinctive items, with perks (sacred), quirks (slimy), and flaws (addictive).

150423-Blog-PZO1131-FlumphLazorsMonster Creation

Stretching the final 50 pages of Pathfinder Unchained, the monster creation system presented is both simplified, and still quite complex (Pathfinder characters/monsters, after all, have a lot of moving parts). Although most monsters will skip some steps, this is still a nine-step process: identify applicable monster array (combat, spellcaster, other), apply creature type or class graft, apply subtype graft (optional), apply template graft (optional), apply size graft (optional), add spells (optional), add monster options, add skills, and determine damage. It actually looks like a fairly fun process, although one that my time-limited self is sadly unlikely to be able to take advantage of.


Because of the do-overs on several of the characters classes, Pathfinder Unchained is probably more essential than Unearthed Arcana ever was. And, while I do not have the ability to make much use of it, the monster creation process seems pretty handy for those GMs who want to dig into that sort of thing. The remaining options are not all hits for me, of course, but then no book like this is made with the idea that every reader will like every option. There’s enough of interest in here to make it a worthy book for me, and hopefully the descriptions above will help you figure out if that is true for you as well.

2 thoughts on “Review – Pathfinder Unchained

  1. Thanks for this. I’m leaning toward picking it up and this is another data point in the book’s favor.

  2. The first time through the Monster Creation process does take some time. The second took significantly less for me. I would try it a couple of times just for fun and see what you think then. Right now I think it is my favorite part of the book. Easy, flexible, and much faster than creation from scratch.

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