I had hoped to do an overall review of Pathfinder Unchained but with the content in it this is an incredibly hard thing to do. I had no idea really what this book was about when I bought it (a marketing failure on Paizo’s part again) so I was flying in the dark. When I got it though it became a lot clearer with the contents, the introduction and the blurb clarifying what it would hold for me. The blurb on the back of the book has this to say:
Get ready to shake up your game! Within these pages, the designers of the Pathfinder Roleplaying Game unleash their wildest ideas, and nothing is safe.
The introduction backs this up. This book is the basis of a group of optional systems that really shake up your game and I am taking a careful read of it. Also, to review this book with broad strokes would be a bit of a crime as there are ideas in these pages that people want to know if it is worth buying based on it. So I have decided to review this book a chapter at a time for that reason and also because I have a huge amount of life to fit in over the next few months and it may take me that long to finish the contained five chapters!
My overall view of this book is this is the designers saying “If I had the time over the game probably would have looked different in one of these possible ways” and that is a good thing. Add in systems that you like and leave that which you don’t. But it is also good because to me this is kind of saying “We gave you a game you love and we do not want to bring out another edition, but we do want to give you options.” That is a fantastic approach for me and I hope I am right in saying that (even with the bitter pill of the Strategy Guide fresh in my mouth).
Chapter 1: Classes
Apparently, there are four classes (three core and one from the Advanced Players Guide) that have been troubling some of the designers and so they have gone to the drawing board and tried to fix either some form of imbalance, or just tried to make it less complex than it needed to be. Those classes are the Barbarian, Monk, Rogue and Summoner. I look at each of the builds in turn below and actually find three of them great ideas and I think they really missed the mark on the fourth. If you know anything about myself and my relationship with the above four classes I am pretty sure you can guess which I am going to have a problem with…
I was always a bit bewildered at Barbarians. I came from a 2nd Edition first contact with AD&D and Barbarians were not even a class. There are Grognards out there that will remember the class from 1E and feel that 2E was a traitor to that tradition. Really, I could take or leave them as you can pretty much make a Fighter build almost like a Barbarian. That said, the other thing that I noted about a Barbarian in Pathfinder was the complexity of the build and the powers when they were applied in play for what is meant to be one of the simplest idea – warrior gets mad, warrior hits things with great strength and thinks little. After all, it is meant to be the fantasy Hulk kind of idea.
But the old Barbarian had a lot of off the top of the head maths involved. Hit Points coming on, but does the loss of Con at the end render you unconscious or worse. There were a lot of rage powers that were once per day efforts for little reason in my book or a limited number of times. You know what though, these are exactly the things that this build targets!
I read through this class build and I found that I focussed on all of the rage powers and the new idea of the additional hit points becoming temporary hit points and it was in that moment that I got them. I just thought that this was a refreshing class. On the whole the build does not change the feel of the Barbarian (HULK SMASH) but it makes it a nice, tight, simple class to play. Some of the rage powers got rebuilt to make their once a day effects a constant through rage and there is a nice little text box that tells us the rage powers that weren’t changed and can still be used as they are in all of the books.
You may think that I am just being nice Pathfinder blinded Mark and a bit tense in giving a bad review straight after the Strategy Guide debacle but the first words I used after reading the Barbarian build were with my daughter. She plays a barbarian in our Skulls & Shackles campaign. Those words were:
You have to read this. Paizo rebuilt the Barbarian and I think you are going to love it.
This class is not one of my favourites to GM and while Paizo’s work here is not going to change that overly I do think that they have really sharpened up the class and allowed players to better choose the type of monk that they would like to play. After all, there are so many types of “monk” in popular culture it is so very hard to be able to fit all of that into a single class.
The reason that I do not like GM’ing a Monk is largely due to my experience running the Serpent Skull adventure path and one of my players created a Monk. But because he could not get the Monk that he wanted from the core rulebook he scoured the other books I had (Advanced Players Guide and Ultimate Combat largely but anything that had a monk in it) and chose two archetypes that he wanted to add to the monk build (I think it was Quiggong and Ghost something or other) and that began the six module terror of having to check the rules all the time as he was great on ideas but knew more about ever one else’s characters than his own (sorry Scott if you read this but I have mentioned this).
So how does the new Paizo build compare. Well, for the first thing it made sense. I can remember having to read Flurry of Blows about ten times before I got it – this time just one read through. Also, some of the class features are now Ki powers and that allows a good deal of customisation just with a base build monk. I may not have to go through a bunch of the rules the next time that the monk is chosen! The deadliness of the monk is still there. There is no escaping the fact that well built monk character may still be one of the most powerful classes that you will ever see, and an average built monk is still a force to be reckoned with. Hell, even a badly built 8th level monk can be the stuff of nightmares.
Overall I thought this was a good build. I spoke to Scott about the pros of this build a couple of days ago and of course (even though he is playing an Necromancer/Oracle of the Bones Drow Elf at the moment) he is very keen to take a look at it.
Now, I am sure this is not true of every game, in my game people are loathe to play a rogue. I was talking to a player about this and he was very up front in saying that to get any play as a rogue you have to leave the rest of the party behind (stealth) and act alone and that puts him off playing one. I disagreed with the point of view but gained an insight into some of the rogue-less parties I have GM’d. If I see a trap I just plan for how it is going to play out when they spring it these days.
You may be wondering about where the rogue can be improved though and there are specifically two areas that this build makes a shining argument for why the old rogue should remain as the old rogue. Firstly, they have changed it so that the new rogue now gets weapon finesse as a free feat at level 1. Wow, that is perfect. I spoke to a friend about this change and he stated:
It sucked as a rogue, after all it is not the rogue’s fault that the fighter is all about strength and that is the only way they look at damage.
Wiser words have probably been spoken but I was all like – hell yeah. Rogue on! So this change allowing rogue’s to take the benefit of having a high dexterity and being able to use it as an addition to damage with light weapons is brilliant. For free. Bonus feat – two thumbs up.
The second provisional thumbs up (because I have to read the second chapter to understand the full benefit) is that the rogue class now links into the idea of being able to do more than your average person with skills! One of the concepts with skills in this book is apparently skill unlocks that you bring about at certain ranks. A rogue being a utility skill based class now has a core ability to feed into the idea that they can do more with selected skills than other characters can because they push those skills harder than almost any other class. This is a really nice idea, and I hope that the corresponding section in the second chapter really takes my fancy because without that the new build could fall completely flat. But again, I really enjoyed this build.
The one thing that I had heard about this book turned out to be a load of rubbish. I had heard that Paizo felt the Summoner class was way too unbalanced and that once you buy this supplement that Paizo were like:
Now you have the book you can’t use the old class. No take backsies or the RPG police will get you.
I don’t know why I believed this when I heard it but it may contribute to why it took me so long to tackle the Paizo website and wrestle this book out of my side-cart and into boxes to be posted. You see, the only game of Pathfinder that I have ever been a player in I played a Summoner called Coltyn and his Eidolon called Grellyk. From that link you will realise that I talk about them here on the blog from time to time and I do this because they are probably my favourite characters that I have played in a long time.
What made this unusual pairing my favourite when I played them because I thought I would not like them is the fact that they are so weird. Eidolon’s from the Advanced Players Guide were so alien and weird to me. They are spirits that came from some unknown plane that fit into one of three (base) and one extra category. They were biped, quadraped, serpentine or later aquatic as a base form. And that was part of the beauty of them. These creatures, these spirits that became an extension of your character were just weird, unknowable and brilliant.
And Unchained wants to break this beauty. It actively seeks to find this beauty in your character and strangle it by the throat until dead. The focus of this build is changing the Eidolon from some unknown spirit into a knowable spirit of a form. No longer can the spirit just be part of the weirdness of the greater multi verse, it has to fit into a category. You still choose the form of the Eidolon (though it looks like they have thrown away aquatic as they do not mention it anywhere) but you must also now categorise it. Is the spirit a demon, or angel, or archon or daemon or devil? You have to choose one of the established race sets to apply to the Eidolon so they become understandable and have certain evolutions thrust on them.
I really think, from my perspective and I am very protective of Coltyn and Grell, that they completely missed the reason that people play summoners. Sure, the other players in my group (that has now faltered and failed due to the GM dropping out) felt that Grell is an overpowered munchkin – and he is powerful in combat – but the memories they have of him are more likely the conflicts that he had with Coltyn than the battles he fought. I had always been against people running two characters but here was I running a halfling that controlled an Eidolon and the role playing was phenomenal. I loved the to and fro between the pair and the way that I could explore the coupling from that perspective.
As far as numbers go and evolutions they seemed reasonable to me but to make sure (and to do it the lazy way) I bought Unchained content for my Hero Lab installation and ran it through the blender. Let us just say that the Coltyn half of the duo pretty much made it through unscathed but when it came to Grellyk he was extremely limited. The number of evolution points are greatly restricted and I got nowhere near the four attack (bite, claws, gore) lightning damage, magical attacks, flying with skill focus on intimidate like I did before. In fact, some of the creatures I could summon from the summon monster tables began to look much better.
If you are not quite up to speed, I did not like this build in the least. It really has a smattering of too little imagination and complexity to it.
Multi-classing and Incremental Advancement
At the end of the classes they have two other concepts to offer up. Both of these, in principle, are good ideas. I will not be implementing either though.
The first idea is that the multi-classing of the core rule book is a little broken. That in fact the advancement of classes is based on hit die is not new but that the calculation of base attack bonuses and saves are actually built off of a fractional basis. This is a really small system and it makes a powerful argument for inclusion into the core game but I look for simplicity in my game. I can totally see that this might be the best thing that some of you have seen or would like to see in a game but it just does not do it for me. If it is not perfectly simple then I don’t want it but it is a fantastic idea so check it out if you feel you have been losing out in your multi-classing.
The second is an idea that I became familiar with in every game that does not use a class system (bit of a poke) but 13th Age for a class based game. That is the idea of incremental advancement where the character improves over time rather than all at once for the new class. I get that this gives people the illusion of gradual advancement BUT in reality I have no problem with my players all getting advancement hit, points, skill points, feats and the like all at the same time. If that feels alien to you though this bears looking at. The player that I spoke to about it from my game likes the idea but the thing I do not like about it is the extra book keeping that is required to make this work well. If it adds to my work I am unlikely to add it into a Pathfinder game which is loaded with rules already unless the addition makes the game brilliant.
These two additions are really good. They just add to the complexity of the game for me and the incremental advancement is in no way revolutionary but they may tickle your game needs so consider them.
The first chapter of this book is a really good read and offers up some nice character builds (three out of four ain’t bad) and a couple of robust rules that you may add to your game. I have started into the second chapter already and it looks very promising. In fact I have read complete sections of it and there is at least one of the variant skills ideas that I am already considering adding into my game. So stay tuned and wait for the next incremental review of Pathfinder Unchained! And keep rolling…