Ultimate Campaign is a curious book. It almost doesn’t feel like a book at all, but rather a bunch of small books all put together with the only unifying theme being “these things are kind of neat, but fully optional”. This makes it both disjointed and expansive, such that there’s something for everyone but it’s hard to argue that everything in the book is useful to any single person.
I guess what it most feels like is Unearthed Arcana, high praise indeed, but that book flowed from option to option in a logical way. The chapters in Ultimate Campaign mostly escalate from the small-scale to the large, but it’s not always clear how things fit within a given chapter; Chapter 3 is especially egregious given Paizo’s tendency to list options alphabetically rather than logically, which makes it slightly easier to reference but much harder to actually read. Interestingly, Unearthed Arcana feels more organized, but Ultimate Campaign is more organized. I’m not convinced I like it more.
Since it’s really four books, I think it makes the most sense to discuss it as four books.
Chapter 1: Character Background
There’s a lot of the Hero Builder’s Guidebook in here (note: this will become a running theme), but it’s a lot more expansive. It starts with a description of how to go about creating a character backstory, though much of the chapter is table after table of potential background information: homeland, family, childhood events, class background, and so forth. There’s another very large section with new traits, which will excite people who like traits, and story feats, which are awesome.
At first glance I saw all the tables the same way I saw them in the HBG, which has something of a bad reputation in our gaming circle: a crutch for players who can’t come up with a history on their own. But Paizo has this covered:
Use this tool to inspire creativity rather than as hard-and-fast rules to mandate rigid and seamless character backgrounds. Though the generator provides many foundational details of a character’s background, it takes some creative thought to massage the specifics together.
When read as a play-by-play for character backstories, it’s neat if overblown and it’s awfully helpful to players just getting started. When read as a series of seeds for potential character ideas, it’s a lot more interesting and helpful for players of all experience levels.
Chapter 2: Downtime
There’s a lot of the Stronghold Builder’s Guidebook in here, with a healthy dash of the downtime mechanic some of you may recognize. Most of the chapter is downtime, with activities ranging from “craft mundane items” and “rest” to “lead your kingdom” or “recruit for your own organization”. There are risks and rewards for each action and events that make life more interesting than rolling a d20 once a month.
I’m a little torn on this chapter. I like the idea of downtime on its face because it encourages players to be active in the world rather than sitting around waiting for adventures and it gives them challenges that can’t be overcome by judicious application of fire and shouting. In my reading of it, though, I found more than one way to game the downtime system to get myself a fairly startling amount of return on investment. In the hands of a clever and/or unscrupulous player, there’s a lot of opportunity to mise out reward beyond what the game really expects. But that’s largely true of anything in Pathfinder that a player approaches with gusto, so I don’t think that kills the chapter. In fact, it’s probably why most random events are detrimental rather than beneficial.
The part of the chapter that resembles the Stronghold Builder’s Guidebook gets a pass, mostly because that book is awesome but partly because this version does away with stronghold spaces and allows room size to be within a range. Turns out not all bedrooms are exactly two hundred feet square. Who knew?
Chapter 3: Campaign Systems
There’s a lot of Unearthed Arcana in here, with a focus less on changing magic, classes, races, and other core parts of the game and more on adding pieces that weren’t there before. It’s largely about giving optional rules to things that are usually done freeform: bargaining, forced alignment changes, exploration, playing young people, and so forth. Only a few things really warrant standout mention.
First, retraining. For some reason this mechanic had to wait until Player’s Handbook 2 to be introduced into 3.5E while 4E was sensible enough to make it part of the Core rules. It means that a player isn’t married to a choice for their entire character life, which subtly encourages them to try new things rather than taking the most mechanically advantageous option at all times. If you’re one of those players who does take the most mechanically advantageous option, you can switch out something good at low levels in exchange for something better at high levels (also, if you’re that type of player, maybe this isn’t the blog for you).
Second, reputation (and I guess honor, which is like reputation with an alignment restriction). This is a great idea, applicable to most campaigns, with real actionable causes and usable rewards. There’s even a piece of action points (the 3.5E version) where players spent prestige to do things ordinary characters can’t do. Think about that: it lets you trade in past awesome for present awesome! It’s something like the best optional rule Paizo can fit on six pages. And it should never, ever, be read by players. It’s a fantastic tool for DMs that should be done entirely behind the scenes, with players only partially aware of the neat things they can do once they’re famous enough. If you’re not planning on running a campaign, do me a favor and skip pages 180 to 185.
Chapter 4: Kingdoms and War
There’s a lot of Heroes of Battle in here, at least in the second half of the chapter. Mass combat is something we’ve been messing around with for a while now, and we’ve come up with three or four different ways to handle is. Paizo’s mechanic is about as good as any (and not just because it’s real close to mine), though it seems to need a lot of setup and math before a session to make things run smoothly at the table.
The mass combat feels a little like “We didn’t know where else to publish this”, because the chapter itself is about founding, managing, expanding, and defending a kingdom. This isn’t about being an agent for royalty locally or abroad; this is about being the ruler of your own kingdom and all the problems, limitations, and opportunities that provides. The rules are startlingly thorough given the amount of leeway they allow, and there isn’t a lot I wanted that they didn’t cover (there’s even a small bit on building your own capital city.) I feel this chapter actually works best when it’s in the player’s hands since so little of it requires the DM’s direct intervention, but there’s a ton of room for discussion and decision making, typically done without an ounce of rolling.
I don’t think Ultimate Campaign is a book that every player should have. I do think it’s a book every gaming group should have, probably in the DM’s hands. There’s a lot of great stuff it it, but it’s not something I see players perusing on their off time or referencing too much mid-game.