Unchained Campaigns

Pathfinder has been unshackled – what now for your campaign?

In recent weeks Paizo released its latest hardcover rulebook, Pathfinder Unchained. If you haven’t heard about it already, Pathfinder Unchained presents a whole host of alternate rules to incorporate into your Pathfinder Roleplaying Game (PFRPG). Actually it does that whether you’ve heard about already or not. The designers’ intentions with this book are varied but the core principle seems to be to provide options to replace existing game mechanics where the current rules no longer fit the need that Paizo or Pathfinder’s players would like them to, without throwing those core rules out completely.

Some of these new rules are designed to fix problems highlighted over the six years since PFRPG was released. Things that seemed like a good idea at the time but have since been seen to be overpowered, underpowered or just not fitting with the general feel of the game. Specific problems have been looked at such as the possibility for players of summoners to design eidolons with vastly enhanced powers from the start of the game – the famous pouncebeast of many Pathfinder tables.

Other parts of the book look more widely at issues that have carried over from earlier versions of Dungeons and Dragons. Issuues that, when PFRPG was first designed, seemed like sacred cows that could not be touched for fear of alienating the D&D fans that they hoped to win over. Things like alignment, hit points or the necessity of certain magic items to all characters. There are alternate subsystems that remove or mitigate the impact of all of these parts of the game and many more.

Pathfinder Unchained is an excellent book. It is thoughtful and honest in its approach to what has worked and what has not in the development of the game over these past years. It is a clever attempt at giving the fans well-conceived options to replace the parts of the game they dislike without mandating change or making previous books or characters obsolete.

Why are rules important?


All this change has got me thinking about how rules interact with the way we play the game. How do rules make determine game-style in a wider sense than just which dice to roll and when?

Almost all roleplaying games have some form of rules-set to determine how our characters interact with the world. Pathfinder’s highly detailed mechanics attempt to formalise rules for every act an individual could take in the world. The rules determine everything from swinging a sword at a dragon to safely delivering a child (a DC 15 Profession Midwife check if you’re interested – DC 20 if there are complications). Games like Savage Worlds take a more broad brush approach to adjudicating actions with players having certain capabilities and the GM determining, often on the fly, whether those capabilities can be applied, and with which modifiers. Exalted gives characters bonuses based on their players’ descriptive flourishes, not just the numbers on the sheet.

The implications for playing the game are great. In Pathfinder players have a very strong idea of what their characters can or cannot do. Especially at higher levels, they are often either excellent at a particular task or useless. The result is highly specialised characters and players who do not attempt actions unless they are experts in them. In Savage Worlds, players know what their characters excel at but the rules set allows them to attempt all sorts of other actions without too much trouble. This leads to a much more varied set of possible actions. Pathfinder’s rules lead to tales of individual excellence while Savage Worlds has far more success and failure across a wider variety of activity.

Fluff, crunch or both


So, we’ve considered how rules affect play styles, but I think rules also affect the way a campaign is viewed and played. A distinction is often drawn between crunch and fluff in games releases – crunch being game mechanics and fluff being setting background, character description and the like. Pathfinder Unchained is undoubtedly a crunch heavy book, so you would not expect it to have much impact on campaign settings, if a distinction is kept between the two types of publication.

However, the interaction between game mechanics and the campaign milieu is much more intertwined and I find this one of the most interesting things about roleplaying games. Over the next few posts I’ll look at some of the rules changes in Pathfinder Unchained and consider how these changes might affect the campaign. This time, we’ll look at the summoner.

The Summoner

The introduction of the summoner is a great example of how rules affect the campaign setting. When Paizo first published the summoner class in the Advanced Player’s Guide they created a huge opportunity for creativity in their players. The vast options for summoners’ eidolons allowed players to conjure up anything from their imaginations and unleash it on the table. I have first-hand experience of play with a flesh-eating giant pink bunny rabbit, a faceless cube with many mechanical devices and probes, a highly moralistic great cat and a silent, floating moon god.

The possibilities for summoners are endless but how do they fit into the world? Paizo added summoners to its game world with the concept of the God-caller – an unusual religion from the devastated region of Sarkoris whose priests called into physical being the local god for their tribe. These unique gods took all manner of weird shapes, allowing any kind of eiodolon the player wished to bring into the game. The world builders at Paizo took the new class and developed a whole culture from it that players could tap into when designing their characters.

How does the new summoner affect this? Well, in order to tone down the power of the eidolon and curtail some of the perceived abuses of the old rules, the new summoner class picks it’s eidolon from a list of concepts that mirror existing outsiders such as devils, archons or psychopomps. This removes much of the variety that was previously open to them, fixing them to a core theme. It means the eidolon’s powers are much narrower, coming from a much smaller list than before. This prevents the cherry picking of the best powers early on, making the eidolon more powerful than other classes could reasonably achieve at an equivalent level.

Many will welcome this as a much needed balancing of the class but it has implications for how the class interacts with the world. Characters are no longer summoning weird and unique individuals but beings from an existing part of the multi-verse with an existing role in the game. If the eidolon takes the form of a devil, what does this imply for the morality of the summoner? Are they a devil-worshipper or do they enslave devils to their will? If either of these statements is true, the character now has a definite place in the world defined by this choice at character creation. In groups that use these rules expect summoners to become highly active in the politics of devils, angels and other outsiders that the old, maverick and unique summoners never were. Maybe cults of diabolist summoners will start cropping up across the campaign world. This rules change affects the world in a way far beyond just the new mechanics of summoning.

The ideas raised in Pathfinder Unchained have great scope for inspiring all sort of new campaign ideas. What new rules are you excited about and how do you see them changing your game? How are you going to play your summoner from now on? Let me know your thoughts in the comments section below. Next time, I’ll look at the changes to alignment.

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