Pathfinder Unchained Review: Chapters 4 and 5

Here we are dear friends, at the end of our long and arduous journey.  I got stuck into the Pathfinder Unchained magic chapter and found that it was just a hop skip and a jump away from the end so I finished the fifth chapter too and decided to wrap it all up into one final review piece.  Let us not tarry and leap directly into…

Chapter 4: Magic

The magic chapter is the longest in the book and has in it some interesting snippets that I wanted to consider for the game.  This chapter covers simplified spellcasting, spell alterations, esoteric material components, automatic bonus progression, innate item bonuses, scaling items and dynamic item creation.

Simplified Spellcasting

The justification for this system is to reduce the time that a magic user, almost specifically magic users that must choose their spells, takes to do exactly that.  They make the point that this restriction often results in players ready to go on an adventure for the day having to wait for the Wizard to choose their spells.

Their solution to this is to have the Wizard (or spell caster that needs to select the spells) select only their three most powerful spell levels (so this does not come into effect until 4th level spells are available) and have a pool to cast all other lower level spells.  It sounds like a pretty good system until you scratch the surface.  In essence, let us look at the example of a 20th level Universalist Wizard with 19 intelligence.  In the basic rules the Wizard would have 44 spells at their disposal.  4 at each level apart from 1st to 4th where they would have 5 and 4 cantrips.  That is a lot of spells.  Now in this system, the Wizard now has 4 cantrips, 6 spells of 1st to 6th level they can cast and 12 other spells.  Precisely half of what they would normally have.

Pathfinder Unchained
This is shaping up to being a great addition to the library

I am not sure about you but if I were a mage and my GM came to me and said “I have a great new system that halves your spells and reduces the time you need to prepare because you are slowing us all down” I would hit them.  So, no, this system will not be seeing the light of day.

Spell Alterations

This section confused me a bit.  They have an option for limiting magic for some reason because apparently people have trouble working out varying effects by caster level so they prefer to make the spells more like they appear at the level of the spell.  It is a strange system and one laden with an unnecessary table that confuses the issue.

The next thing they tackle in here is Wild Magic.  Now, from memory, and I may be wrong, I think this is the Pathfinder’s second attempt to get Wild Magic into Pathfinder and this system is bound for the same place as the first option.  Forgotten.  Wild Magic came as an optional build on Wizards in 2nd Edition AD&D and they were fun, and funny to play.  Every system that I have seen since seems to want toconstrain the effects of Wild Magic and provide only the smallest array of possible occurences from it.  Get with the program, people want to play an unpredictable mage – make it so.  Do not try to limit it.

The final part to this section is even more bizarre.  It rests on the premise that the player of a Wizard has rolling envy of other classes as they get to roll to hit where the targets of their spells get to roll to save.  It is aimed at putting the dice back in the players hand and giving them a to hit roll rather than the GM rolling a save.  It is awkward and I cannot say that I have ever seen this envy at a table of mine.  Some spells do have an attack roll so get over it.  I do like the idea of overclocking spells here though, but not likely enough to use it!  Overclocking is weaving more magical power into a spell but with a chance of failure…

Esoteric Materials

Now, I like the idea of making material components more of a focus than I currently apply in a game and this idea sounded good.  It also makes the quality of the component that is used matter and sometime provide additional effects.  They provide new types of components that can be used as a replacement for a spell (so if you did not have the feather for feather fall you could use a geode).

The problem with this (and for people that love playing Traveller merchants this is going to be no problem) is the amount of bookkeeping they overlay over the top of this new system.  I like the components but wow, there is a massive table that now means an average Wizard is going to go broke before third level.  There are tables and rules on how to include this stuff in treasure and how to reduce treasure and well rules about rules about rules.

Needless to say, I might steal some of the flavour here, but none of the overhead.

Automatic Bonus Progression

Pathfinder has an expectation that your statistics will rise in a certain way as you level up.  The idea here is to do away with items that give you straight bonuses (i.e. no more +2 weapons) and just give you the bonuses instead.  They even have a nice table going from 1st to 22nd level telling you what to receive and when.

I can’t even.

I don’t even.


Should this not be the choice of the player how they want to advance their character.  Did I mention Nope?  thankfully this section is only two pages long which means you can glue them together and pretend they don’t exist.  You can do it – there is no pretty art on those pages!

Innate Item Bonuses

Hmmm… I am detecting a trend here.  Now it says a GM obviously gets annoyed when a player has to go seeking an item that gives them a particular bonus.  Instead, if they have an item already in that slot let us just give them the bonus.  Hang on a minute while I cut and paste…

I can’t even.

I don’t even.


What the hell is this?  D&D or something?  Make them find the damn item – some good role playing could happen.  This again is only two pages but it has a pretty picture so no gluing OK?

Scaling Items

Wow, the magic chapter has pretty much sucked so far.  But then this option is here.  The idea of an item that scales as the player levels is one that is solid and I expected a lot from this section.  I kind of got what I wanted to see too, but once I got it I wished there was more.

This section covers a lot of new items that are created and gain powers at varying levels which is great.  No need to trade in an old item to get a marginally better item anymore.  But the problem is not with the items themselves, it is more to do with the why of it all.  Why do these items level up?  In game it is so the player can have an item that grows with it but to me levels are such a subjective thing so why do the items just randomly level at the same time?

To me, a system  that allows for items to level with a character needs some kind of mechanic or reason for it.  Earthdawn does this perfectly by providing research or deeds that the player needs to undertake which in essence underlies the reason for the empowerment of the item.  Earthdawn also has a system where the character bonds itself to its magical item which is missing from Pathfinder.  Magical items are too disposable in Pathfinder and I thought this would fix it but it doesn’t.

Dynamic Item Creation

This section looks at a different focus on creating magic items that involves preparing the item for the magic, getting what you need in a couple of random ways and then bringing it all together.  This is a really good try at a different, more organic version of magic item creation which again misses the point.

This style of system should occur dynamically but Paizo have set it down into a measured set of stages and rather than really promoting role playing in the creation of these items they have boiled down every situation to a simple skill roll.  Every situation.  Look, the idea here is brilliant and has the potential of bringing real personality to items that would have players selling treasure found in battles so they can develop their own, but it just takes it all away from the role playing and you could sit and use it just as an alternate item system rolling dice by yourself in a dark corner of your room.

I get the fact that the people of Pathfinder are all tied up in balance but really is that necessary?  I have people that are screaming at me while they are reading these words telling me there is no such thing as balance.  If a warrior who is third level runs up, gets a lucky blow and kills the harried Pit Fiend shouldn’t his weapon transform into some kind of dynamically created +1 flaming weapon – or a Lawful +2 blade?  Come on – make it happen when it matters, not when I roll a die.

Chapter 5: Monsters

This chapter has no mini sections and is one giant chapter designed to give you, the GM, the tools to create creatures quickly, without the need of a mathematics degree or a psychiatrist.

woman looking at soup of mosters
Creating monsters is an art! Image under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Licence from

In reality I came to this chapter thinking that they were insane.  There is already a well developed method of creating creatures that works and works well.  So why recreate this I scoffed.  Well, the secret is in the fact that it does really speed up the process.  It may not do as good a job as the full system does but it does it quickly.  From the size of the chapter though this is a very counter-intuitive leap to make.

The system breaks down into 8 steps the creation of a creature.  In a lot of developments though you may only use 4 of these steps and they are quick steps.  The usage of this is so the GM, who just unwisely told the players about the Monster of Crag Rock off the cuff and instead of chasing after the kidnapped prince they decide to go monster hunting, the GM can grab this and have something usable in 5 minutes.  You are not going to see Bestiaries coming out that the people of Paizo have used this system to create the creatures with.  It is a tool, and a good one that provides numerous examples at the end of the chapter to show you how it is done.

This system will likely see use, knowing that my players tend to act like cats and move toward anything shiny rather than things that are meaningful and well developed 😉


Chapter 4 is a wasted attempt at making magic matter.  There are points of interest among it but I think that the opportunities are really lost here.  They had a chance to build some great role playing in here, they grabbed that opportunity, beat it to death with tables and rules.  That makes me sad for this chapter but I also can see why they did it, and I think it may be the start of problems with the future direction of the system.  Chapter 5 on the other side of the coin is a really nice little system that evens out the book as a whole into a usable piece of kit that is now well and truly in my GM bag.

So, now a final word about the whole book.  It is a roller coaster of ideas.  It hits high highs and low lows.  There is very little middle flat track, always heading up or down for the reader.  They knew this was going to be the case and in the introduction they tell you that is exactly what you are going to get.  I am not disappointed that I got this book.  I will probably use a lot more of the rules from this book than I do from say Ultimate Combat.  Should you buy it?  Yes, but know you are not going to like it all, and you may love the bits that I don’t and hate the bits I love.  That is all good too.  Get it, use it, love the game and the game will love you.  Keep rolling!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.