Reviewing Pathfinder Unchained is hard because it’s pretty all over the place. If it has a single unifying theme, it’s “Pathfinder does stuff in certain ways, and he’s how to make it do that stuff in different ways”. That’s largely the same theme as the astoundingly good Unearthed Arcana, which is almost start-to-finish good and so important from a game design and DMing perspective I like to call it “the fourth Core rulebook”. So can Unchained clear a bar that high? In short, no, but it’s not bad. There’s a lot to like, but there’s a lot to pointedly ignore.
The best way to go over a book like this is option-by-option, so let’s start at the beginning, with the rebalanced barbarian, monk, rogue, and summoner. The word “rebalanced” bothers me a little because I’m not sure how to take it. Are these optional classes, meaning there are unbalanced versions of these classes out there and that’s perfectly fine, or are these glorified errata to be used in place of the originals? If the former, why not present them as archetypes? If the latter, what about the characters who can no longer exist because they’re been retconned out of existence?
I want to talk about the summoner especially. Of the four eidolons I’ve seen, only one came close to being an member of an established Pathfinder monster group, and from a balance and flavor perspective that eidolon was easily the worst of the lot. Anecdotally, the more an eidolon cleaves to a popular outsider subtype, the less fun its summoner is. In addition, the summoner has a revised spell list, but I still recognize every spell I can recall a summoner casting so I’m not clear on what was removed or how it caused a balance problem. It’s terrifying that my summoners could have been even more broken by leveraging additional spells, but I don’t know that restricting player choice and hard-coding eidolons to traditional Pathfinder lore is the solution.
The rest of the class chapter is fairly disappointing. We’ve already been using fractional bonuses for years on some campaigns, and staggered advancement seems like a great way to increase at-the-tale work and confusion for limited benefit. As I understand it, characters should level during downtime, and when DMs don’t do that it seems strange for a character to gain a whole much of level-up benefits at once. So instead of DMs granting levels in an understandable, easy-to-adjudicate way, they can use this system, which quadruples the number of points at which character stats discretely increase, forces players to remember what their recent changes were (anything that requires memory of past actions is asking for trouble at best and outright bad design at worst), and doesn’t pretend to address the biggest factor in discrete power jump, class abilities. But if that’s your thing, here it is.
I really like the skills chapter. There’s probably no way I’ll use all of these options during my career, but I can see a situation in which I would use each, which is more than I can say for most variants in most books. Background skills are for campaigns where I want to force players to do something in their lives besides adventuring, and they include the much-needed Artistry and Lore skills and alternate uses for Craft and Profession (all of which I’ll probably use independent of the variant). Consolidated skills are for campaigns with new players who don’t want to deal with thirty skill choices and just want to make Indiana Jones without worrying about the difference between nature and dungeoneering. Grouped skills are for campaigns where people want to play 4th Edition or GURPS or another system but don’t want to admit it. Variant Craft and Profession rules are for campaigns where people actually want to use Craft and Profession. Skill unlocks are for all campaigns. They’re in all my Pathfinder games, starting now.
I like the variant multiclassing though I may give each player the option to decide between it and traditional multiclassing. It’s like what I wanted but never got out of 4E multiclassing, where you can advance in two classes instead of getting a single power, training in a single skill, and the opportunity to spend more feats for little benefit. This version lets your second class grow with you, and I’m interested to see what combinations I can pull off. It also helps that this variant reduces a player’s feat pool. I have at least one long-term player for whom D&D without feats is a dream come true (5E’s half-hearted attempt at a featless system notwithstanding).
Variant alignment is dangerous. In the hands of a skilled, conscientious DM and sufficiently narrative players it’s an interesting way to turn traditional alignment on its head and use the change to tell good stories. In the hands of most groups, it’s an unnecessary layer of complexity that encourages DMs to put players in situations where the only result is suffering and encourages players to mise their characters’ personalities for in-game benefit. I much prefer the option for removing alignment because it reminds me of beliefs in Burning Wheel. Your alignment isn’t “Lawful Good”, it’s “God, Family, and the Green Bay Packers”. That strikes me as a lot more fun and flavorful, and it gives me that chance to have NPCs with alignments like “Hungry, Hungry, and Hippos”
The revised action economy is certainly a thing. If I was running it, I’d call acts “AP” to draw on familiarity with turn-based combat video games. But I feel like there are plenty of ways to use it to make the DM angry. For example, attacking costs one AP. Casting a spell costs two. Players have three AP per turn. So if a player chooses not to move, he or she gets an attack and a spell every round. Initiating or mantaining a grapple, casting from a wand or magic item, and taking a total defense also cost 2 AP. There are some combinations for which the game at large was not balanced. I feel mostly the same way about removing iterative attacks. I see the point, but it’s a long way to go and a lot of complexity to change something that wasn’t keeping me up at night.
Boy howdy, does the stamina variant take up a lot of the book. But I think I like it, and I can certainly see players jumping on it. I also like the variant disease and poison because they give the DM more options for providing interesting consequences and effects and they’re a lot less likely to ruin a player after a single unlucky rolls. “1d8 Strength damage” puts players on the edge of their seats for the wrong reasons.
Uuuuuuuugh wound thresholds. Right-click, delete, empty Recycle Bin.
The magic variants are a mixed bag, which isn’t helped by the rapid-fire way the book lists them and how each variant discusses other vaiants like they’re designed to work together but only sometimes. The general layout implies this thought process: “Alright, preparing spells takes too long. Solve it by cutting everybody’s spells per day in half. And you can make it even better by eliminating caster level for…reasons? But it’s okay, because now you can fail in spectacular ways. Wait, that’s too much. Okay, now spells can crit. But also fumble. No, wait, now you can buff spells, but it costs money. Unless you can’t cast unless you have money? Frick, start over.”
In general, simplified spellcasting and limited magic are a great way to upset players. Wild magic is neat, but I think it needs a drastically expanded surge list. Boiling all possible magical failures into thirty-four effects, most of which duplicate existing spells, doesn’t give the “anything can happen” vibe I think it wants. Active spellcasting is neat, though it would take me some time to adjust to doing it on the fly, and spell criticals and fumbles are almost required if you’re doing spells that way. Esoteric material components…I don’t know. I think I see what they were trying to do, but it’s not really a variant system. It’s a way to either give spellcasters more power or reduce their power to something mostly within the DM’s control, which is a rebalance, not a variant.
I do like the automatic bonus progression, because it tries to solve the “if you’re a real character, you have the following required items and ignore anything that prevents you from having those items” problem. A ring of jumping and a ring of invisibility may be nice, but having both means you don’t have a ring of protection and anything that hits you by one (or two or three, depending on your level) is your fault. The game makes certain assumptions about loot and balances monsters around it. This variant lets players keep up with those assumptions while still getting flavorful toys. Innate item bonuses do the same thing in a different way, though one that puts some interesting limits on players, like “there’s no such thing as a +5 flaming sword until you’re level 19.”
I like scaling items so much I own Weapon of Legacy, a full 3.5E book about exactly this. And speaking of fun, flavorful items, I haven’t read anything I don’t like about the dynamic magic item creation section. I haven’t gone over it word-by-word like I intend to, especially with a group of players who love making magic items, but everything I’ve seen, I’ve liked.
The monster-building section looks really, really neat, but let’s not pretend it’s the “simple monster building” its title suggests. There’s a lot going on and it’s very easy to build a monster for which players cannot possibly be prepared. Pathfinder does have its general “sanity-check your monster” phase at the end, but that’s always been there. I can definitely see the utility for a lot of DMs who don’t want to delve into monster and class and magic and so on to build the minotaur dragon shaman they want as an NPC. Still, the more you know about the rules and the more experience you have with building monsters the less this section will help you.
The introduction to Pathfinder Unchained promises both refinements to the rules and “mad experiments that transform it completely.” On the latter the book fails to deliver. Combining skills, reducing magic power, and giving fighters new combat options do not amount to a complete transformation. When Unearthed Arcana made similar promises, it gave us a chapter on subverting (or enhancing) the expectations of race, a variant that did away with classes entirely, rules for character backgrounds most editions relegate to skill choices, an alternative to Vancian magic, and even a way to play d20 games without using a d20. It’s just not comparable.
Pathfinder Unchained is a mostly good book, with some good options. But it’s no fourth Core rulebook.