Friday 14 June 2013

Ultimate Campaign

I’ve commented before that one of the things I really like about Paizo’s approach to Pathfinder is their willingness to do something different. Of course, the usual stuff is still there, too. In the hardcover rulebook line, the Advanced Player’s Guide, Ultimate Magic, and Ultimate Combat all serve to provide players with their fix of new classes, archetypes, feats, and spells. For gamemasters, there’s the plethora of Bestiaries with Bestiary 4 now announced for this fall. But amidst those, there are also books like the GameMastery Guide and the NPC Codex, all of which take a break from the usual style and offer up something new or a twist on something old. Even those books I mentioned as delivering the usual stuff still have a number of new options in them. Archetypes, for example, while appearing everywhere now, were new in the Advanced Player’s Guide.

The latest hardcover rulebook from Paizo is Ultimate Campaign, a book dedicated to an aspect of roleplaying that most books completely gloss over, something some people even gloss over in actual play: non-adventuring time. The vast majority of the rules in Pathfinder (and indeed, most roleplaying games) cover adventuring—fighting monsters, disarming traps, casting spells, travelling through dungeons and wilderness, etc.—and pay very little attention, if any, to what players’ characters get up to between adventures. But for many people, downtime is as much part of the game as the adventuring side is. Where do these characters live? What do they do when they’re not adventuring? What happens if characters try to run a business? What about ruling a nation? How about their families and other relationships? The answers to these questions and more help to define fully fleshed-out and believable characters. They add an additional dimension to the game and provide character motivations beyond just loot. Ultimate Campaign helps players provide answers to these questions and more. Is it a necessary book? No, of course not—no book is really necessary other than the Core Rulebook and maybe the first Bestiarybut it is a very different and useful book. It’s also a very good book and has quickly catapulted itself to one of my favourite books in the hardcover line.

There are only four chapters in Ultimate Campaign, but don’t let this fool you into thinking there’s not much in the book. There is a lot of material packed into those four chapters, providing Pathfinder players and GMs a wealth of options for their games. It’s actually quite impressive that Paizo fit as much as they did into the book’s 256 pages. This book is practically bursting at the seams with material.

Of course, not all of that material is going to be appropriate for every game. This is a book of optional rules, and like most such books, few people will use everything from it. I have my own personal preferences—things that I like more than other things, or things that I feel just don’t work with my own campaigns—and other people will have theirs. But while I can say that I won’t use everything from this book, what I do use will likely see considerably more use than material from books like Ultimate Magic and Ultimate Combat. Not that those books aren’t any good; it’s just that when there are hundreds of feats and spells already in the game, there’s a limit to how often new ones can see use.

There are no new classes, prestige classes, or archetypes in Ultimate Campaign, no new spells or racial abilities. There are a few new feats, but all of them are of a specific new kind of feat (story feats). There is also an expanded selection of traits (an optional system first introduced in the Pathfinder Adventure Paths and later added to the rulebook line in the Advanced Player’s Guide). Beyond that, everything in this book is on material almost entirely ignored by other books.

Chapter One is on “Character Background”. It provides advice on how to come up with the details of your character’s life before he or she began adventuring. It even contains random background generating tables. Roleplayers have a strange love affair with random tables. This is something that’s always intrigued me as I really like them too, even though I never actually use them (or rather never roll on them). And that’s the bizarre part really. I’d be curious to know how many people actually roll on these tables as opposed to just choosing something from them that they like. Still, these tables serve a very useful purpose in providing ideas for people stuck for them. Developing backgrounds for my characters, PCs and NPCs alike, has never been a problem for me. But for some people, this can be a difficult task. Some people get stuck in a rut with all their characters being a variation on just one or two basic templates and have difficulty coming up with something that breaks the mould. These tables offer new options that people might not have thought of before, whether you roll them randomly or just choose them. And of course, it’s always fun to roll on the tables just to see what you come up with and what bizarre mixtures result. It’s even possible for your character to die during background generation. Long-time gamers may be familiar with the old science fiction rpg, Traveller. That game’s character creation system involved random background generation and one possibility was that your character died, at which point you would have to start over. The inclusion of “Died” on the Major Childhood Event table in Ultimate Campaign is very likely a nod to the Traveller game. The difference here, however, is your character is assumed to have been raised following this traumatic event and you don’t need to start your character over again.

Following the random background tables, the chapter presents an expanded selection of traits. One interesting optional addition, however, is that if you use the background tables, the various events that form your character’s history are what provide you with access to the various traits. When you choose your two starting traits, they come from the ones your background has provided you access to. I kind of like this addition, as it reinforces the original idea of traits—things that flesh out your background while giving a minor mechanical ability. I find that too many people treat traits the same way they treat feats. They choose them for the mechanical benefits and not for the background they impart to the character.

This section also introduces drawbacks, essentially the opposite of traits. They provide minor penalties for your character. Taking a drawback allows you to take an additional trait that you have access to. I must admit, I’ve always been wary of systems that use drawbacks (or flaws or whatever the particular system happens to call them). They provide additional opportunities for players to “min/max”. While they are generally intended as ways to flesh out characters with more roleplaying options, they can end up backfiring and actually achieving the opposite, with characters who are walking masses of contradictions whilst simultaneously being ridiculously powerful. Still, the list of drawbacks here is small and the addition of a single extra trait for taking a drawback doesn’t increase character power a great deal, so they might work well for some games. I don’t think I’ll use them for my own games, but I can understand why some people would want to.

Chapter One concludes with the introduction of story feats. The idea of these feats first appeared in the Legacy of Fire Player’s Guide, where they were called achievement feats. Achievement feats required that specific game events (such as dying and coming back to life) occurred before you could select them. The big problem with achievement feats was that working towards them put a constraint on the character before you actually gained any benefit from them. Story feats are a revision and improvement on this idea. Story feats contain a prerequisite event or condition from your character’s background, but also come with a goal. When you select the feat, you gain a standard benefit immediately, but if you later complete the goal of the feat, the feat’s benefit increases. Story feats allow you to gain something right away while still saving the full reward for completion, making them more attractive than achievement feats were. There’s also a somewhat larger selection of story feats than there were achievement feats (since no other book since the Legacy of Fire Player’s Guide has ever used or made mention of them).

While adventuring is the focus of the game, characters do have lives beyond their adventures. The backgrounds of Chapter One help define what they did before they started adventuring. Chapter Two helps with what they do between adventures. This chapter presents a detailed system for handling “Downtime” activities, including gaining capital, running a business, buying goods and handling workers, and so on. Of course, Pathfinder (and the Dungeons and Dragons game it developed from) has never had a very realistic economic system. In fact, it has always had an incredibly unrealistic system. Prices have always been balanced with adventurers in mind, with little care or attention paid to whether or not the rest of the world economy made any sense. The downtime system in Ultimate Campaign has to necessarily work around this fact. It needs to make it possible for character to actually make a little money while not making so much that their adventuring careers become overshadowed to the point where nobody wants to adventure anymore because they can become rich staying at home. And the system does this remarkably well. Of course, I (and other people) will have to play games using the system for a while before I can truly say how well it works, but on an initial read-through, I’m rather impressed.

It works by introducing capital to the game. There are four kinds of capital: goods, influence, labour, and magic. Capital can be gained either by purchasing it, earning it, or a combination of the two. You can use capital to accomplish various activities or tasks during downtime, which is split up into four phases per day: upkeep, activity, income, and event. After describing the phases, the bulk of the chapter provides detailed stats for the specific things you can do during downtime, from building buildings to running businesses and organizations to the unexpected events that can happen during the event phase. There are even random tables to roll on to determine these events!

While overall, I like what I see of the downtime system, I can see one significant drawback: it adds a fair amount of paperwork to the game, something that some players may not want. Keeping track of character abilities already requires a lot of bookkeeping and the idea of adding more in order to keep track of off hours is not the most appealing thing. Page 130 of the book contains a Downtime Tracking Sheet, and I can see a lot of players baulking at the idea of adding yet another page to character sheets that are already several pages long. On top of that, groups that already play out their characters downtime activities but are used to just winging it (such as my own games) may have a hard time adjusting to having to add codified rules to something that previously didn’t have any. In an odd sort of way, I suspect that the downtime rules will work better with groups who previously have always skipped over downtime but would now like to add it in rather than groups who already cover that aspect of their characters’ lives.

Chapter Three, on “Campaign Systems”, is probably my favourite chapter of the book, even though there are a number of things in it I know I won’t be using. It contains many small additions for campaigns—little things that augment specific aspects of play. Whereas Chapter Two contained one large system that is pretty much an all-or-nothing deal, Chapter Three’s rules can be mixed and matched as gamemasters desire. Each one works alone and can be used or discarded as desired.

The chapter opens with a discussion of alignment, looking at each of the nine alignments more closely than the Core Rulebook does. This more in-depth look isn’t likely to end the many passionate arguments on how to define alignments, but it does do an excellent job of showing the variety of characters still possible with each alignment, demonstrating how not all lawful good characters are alike, for example. There is then a method for handling alignment change. Each alignment axis has a 9-point scale on which to keep track of characters’ current standings. Various actions can move characters in either direction on this scale. To be honest, I think alignment is an out-of-date relic that I would love to see removed from future editions (although I doubt it will be). In my view, this system puts too much importance on a pair of words written on the character sheet. After nicely demonstrating the variety possible in a single alignment, it then reinforces the old idea that not behaving in a very specific way moves you out of your alignment. It doesn’t go as far as the old 1st AD&D method of docking experience points for out-of-alignment actions, but it does impart temporary mechanical penalties for fully shifting to a new alignment, and I don’t like that one bit. There should never be mechanical penalties for developing a character’s personality (and people really do change over time). People don’t become less competent simply because they have a new outlook on life, especially when alignment shifts in this system are gradual. This system feels like a major step backwards for the game, and it’s not something I will be using or recommending.

Other things in Chapter Three include rules for bargaining, acquiring and managing contacts, making investments, and paying taxes. The section on companions (covering animal companions, bonded mounts, familiars, eidolons, followers and cohorts) takes a somewhat different approach to who controls the companions (players or GMs) than I have generally used. In fact, it’s almost completely opposite (I allow players complete control of animal companions and familiars, but take control of other sentient companions like followers and cohorts), so it makes for an interesting read. Obviously, I don’t fully agree with the reasoning given, but I do understand it. Some people can have a hard time remembering their companions are there until they need them for something, so this section also contains some tips on how not to forget the companions are around.

Several of the systems in Chapter Three are adapted from rules that originally appeared in various other supplements. The rules on exploration (which originally appeared in the Kingmaker adventure path) provide a useful method for handling travel through uncharted wilderness. It’s even possible to use this system when even the gamemaster doesn’t have a map of the wilderness by using the random map generation tables—yes, more random tables to roll on! The honour rules are based on the reputation system from Lands of the Linnorm Kings, but expanded to cover multiple kinds of honour (not just viking-style) from the chivalric code to samurai and even to criminal honour. In campaigns set in areas where honour is important, these rules add a wonderful extra dimension to the game without adding excessive bookkeeping. The reputation and fame system is very similar to the honour system and allows characters to earn prestige points with which they can “buy” awards, which include various kinds of favours and minor abilities.

The relationship rules from the Jade Regent adventure path also make an appearance in this book. In my review of The Brinewall Legacy, I mentioned that groups that already roleplay relationships will likely find these rules too constraining. Since writing that review, I have attempted to use the rules in a play-by-post Jade Regent game and have confirmed my suspicions. They are very constraining and can result in very unrealistic character development. Again, they’ll probably work well with groups who don’t normally roleplay these kinds of details, but for others, they have little use. The rules have not been noticeably changed or revised for Ultimate Campaign apart from the addition of several example relationship types (parent, sibling, childhood rival, and spouse).

There’s a very useful section on magic item creation. This section mostly just clarifies the existing rules from the Core Rulebook rather than adding new ones (although it does add one new thing). It discusses pricing new items, cooperative casting, and upgrading, recharging, and altering items. It also talks about how item creation feats (particularly Craft Wondrous Item) interact with the Wealth by Level rules. For players and gamemasters who don’t like the abstract method of item creation in the core rules and would prefer to actually know what kinds of ingredients they are using to make their magic items, this section includes “talismanic components”. These are things like dragon bone, elemental spirit, ethereal essence, and vampire dust. Talismanic components can be found as part of treasures, as the rewards of quests, or sometimes bought. They have gold-piece values that count towards the price of making magic items in the core rules. I’m very intrigued by talismanic components as they add a flavour to magic that has mostly been missing in D&D and Pathfinder without adding any great complexity to the game. The system is just a minor adaptation of the core magic item creation system and GMs can adjudicate it quite easily.

Chapter Three also contains rules for retraining, something that can be a bit of a contentious add-on. I have to admit, I’ve always been wary of systems that allow characters to drop a previously acquired ability and acquire a new one in its place. It’s not that I find it particularly unrealistic. Real people are quite capable of letting skills atrophy while learning new ones. It’s more that it’s often easy for players to abuse these systems. Still, in principle, I like the idea that characters have the option to change one or more of their skills or abilities. It just shouldn’t be too easy to do. And thankfully, in this system, it’s not all that easy. It takes an investment of time and money, and if you retrain something that is a prerequisite for other things, you also lose those other things until you can retrain them as well. It’s possible to retrain just about every aspect of your character, from ability score increases to feats to hit points. You can even retrain entire class levels. Overall, I doubt these retraining rules will see a lot of use in my games, but I’m willing to give them a try once in a while.

Many fantasy stories involve child characters and heroes, but until now, it has been difficult to include such characters in a Pathfinder game as the core rules have all characters starting at adulthood. In the past, I have used the young template in the Bestiary to create child characters in the rare occasions that I’ve needed stats for them as NPCs, but the template isn’t really good enough to make a child PC from. The final section of Chapter Three contains rules for young characters. They’re simple and straight-forward and work better than the young template. At first, I was a bit disappointed that the rules only allow young characters to start as NPC classes. They can only progress to PC classes by ageing to adulthood or by GM reward—but at least the PC option is there. Indeed, it makes a certain sense really. Young characters haven’t had the opportunity to learn as much as adult characters, and in concert with the retraining rules, you have the opportunity to have young characters grow and learn and eventually convert their NPC class levels into PC class levels. The one downside to the rules for young characters, however, is the large discrepancy in the length of childhood for different races. A group of young characters of different races will have some characters “advancing” to adulthood much sooner. Of course, since the GM does have the option to allow young characters to gain PC classes anyway, this problem can be easily worked around.

Many fantasy stories have their protagonists rise up to become rulers of entire nations, and many players like to play out similar stories for their characters. Chapter Four, “Kingdoms and War”, allows players to accomplish just this and possibly even go to war against other countries. The chapter incorporates the kingdom building and mass combat rules that originally appeared in the Kingmaker adventure path, revising and expanding on those rules. There is some overlap between the downtime system and the kingdom building rules (particularly when it comes to building buildings), and the two systems conflict a little in this regard. A sidebar in Chapter Two addresses this fact. Despite the small conflict, it is still quite possible to use both systems in the same campaign.

Mass combat rules have been sorely lacking in the game. Although it’s rare that games will involve battles between opposing armies, it can happen sometimes and it’s nice to have a way to resolve such battles without either an arbitrary decision or the ridiculous route of rolling for hundreds, maybe thousands, of individual combatants. I’m glad to see the mass combat rules here. What I like most about these rules is their simplicity. They are quick and easy to use. They allow for a certain amount of strategic and tactical planning without bogging the game down with long stat blocks and endless die rolls. They do sacrifice some realism in favour of simplicity, which some people may be less pleased with, but I feel the sacrifices are in the right places. Combats between armies should be dramatic when they occur, and spending too much time dealing with every minute detail robs the battle of its drama. These are rules that I will definitely be using the next time armies go to war in my game.

Overall, Ultimate Campaign is a remarkable book. It manages to take an area of the game that most books so often ignore and flesh that area out in new and exciting ways. Not everything in the book is great, but there’s something in there for all players and gamemasters who want to give their characters lives beyond their adventurers, and make them into fully realized individuals with histories, families, friends, hopes, and goals. In this way, it’s very different from other Ultimate books. But in many ways, it deserves the Ultimate name more than Ultimate Combat or Ultimate Magic, in that it really does present gamers with a selection of options to make the ultimate campaign experience.


  1. I had this book in my hands yesterday and decided to put it down. We tend to play adventure paths almost exclusively and I just wasn't sure this book would add much to those. I'll see if anyone in my gaming group picked it up and maybe give it a good read. Seems like it might be useful after all.

    1. Some of the adventure paths don't have a lot of available downtime, it's true. However, the amount of use you could get out of Ultimate Campaign with an AP depends on the AP. I'd love to make use of the downtime and revised kingdom building rules in a Kingmaker game one day, for example. The downtime rules could also really help flesh out a Council of Thieves game, allowing the PCs to develop their characters' lives in the city.

      For APs with less available downtime (for example, Reign of Winter so far has had virtually none at all), there's definitely less use for this book. Still, some of the systems in Chapter Three could prove useful. The fame and reputation system, for example, could be used in just about any AP (except maybe Reign of Winter, which just doesn't stick around in any one location long enough to gain any reputation).

      In the end, you need to make the decision based on your campaign's needs.

  2. I can't see us playing through either Kingmaker or CoT again. We're currently working our way through RotRL AE. Lots of traveling in this one although we keep finding ourselves heading back to Sandpoint. Not so much downtime either. We're about half way through book 5 so because everything takes so long at high levels we're probably good until the end of the year. We tend to rotate GMs so its hard to say who will take over and what we'll be playing. If its me it will likely be CotCT or Way of the Wicked if people want to go evil again (which always seems to happen when I'm the GM).

  3. Currently using this in RotRL, have to say the background generator has really bought out the details in the characters and REALLY helps people to get into the head space of the PC's. Plus we got one of the pc's who generated a paranoid inquisitor which has lead to no end of amusement on its own. All in all , if you are interested in role playing this book is great, if you prefer a minature combat game then this is really not for you.

  4. I love this book, for me this and the DMG are the Biz. But, it really depends on your DM style. I tend to sand box in the Elder Scroll style, or I like to say open old First Edt DND style. I also find simple & effective character builds for backgrounds a good allround thing to do and helps GMs find possible plug in points for side quests.

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