Indeed, I've always been impressed by Paizo's willingness to take Pathfinder in new directions. Not every idea works out perfectly, but that's okay. Without innovation, the game will only stagnate. Yet as much as Pathfinder has gained its own identity, there are many aspects of the rules that keep it cemented to its 3rd Edition D&D roots. The core d20 mechanics are still there, and many of the decisions made during the initial development of Pathfinder were made to maintain “backwards compatibility”. This was absolutely the right route to take. After all, the initial audience for Pathfinder was made up of 3rd Edition players who wanted to continue to use their 3rd Edition books, which the large changes to 4th Edition D&D had made impossible. The intent behind Pathfinder was that those books could be used with only minimal adjustments.
Yet these legacy aspects of the game can come under a certain degree of scrutiny. Do they help define the identity of the game, or do they actually hinder it in some way? There are limits to how much the 3rd Edition classes could be changed without giving up that backwards compatibility, leading to complaints that some classes, such as rogue, are just not up to par with the others. Then there the mechanics of how the game-play itself works. What might have happened to those if backwards compatibility had not been necessary?
Pathfinder Unchained takes the opportunity to explore these questions. If the shackles of backwards compatibility are removed, what can happen? While this is a book full of rules options, it's not a book like the aforementioned Advanced Player's Guide or Ultimate Combat. Whereas those books mostly add new options to the game, Pathfinder Unchained changes the options that already exist with alternative versions of several classes and new ways of handling skills, alignments, combat, and more. Some of these are ideas that have been explored before in books like 3rd Edition's Unearthed Arcana, while others are entirely new. It's not possible to use everything in Pathfinder Unchained the way it is with a book like the Advanced Player's Guide, as the book often provides multiple alternatives for the same thing. For example, there are several alternative ways of handling skills, some of which are in complete opposition to each other. The intent with Pathfinder Unchained is to pick and choose the rules alternatives that will work best for the style of game your particular group is trying to run, or to experiment with different options until you find the ones that work best for you.
The first chapter provides revised versions of four classes: barbarian, monk, rogue, and summoner. Although all four classes are still recognisably the same classes they were before, there are some significant changes. In the case of the barbarian, the new version makes the bookkeeping somewhat simpler. Instead of modifying the barbarian's ability scores (which then have the cascading effect of modifying numerous other things), the revised barbarian's rage ability simply provides a bonus to attack, damage, and Will saves, a penalty to AC, and temporary hit points. The particularly nice thing about receiving temporary hit points instead of changing hit points due to a changed Constitution is that barbarians no longer have to worry about losing hit points and dying as soon as they go unconscious during a rage. Several rage powers have also been revised. Overall, this new version of the barbarian does a very good job of looking exactly like the old while making it easier to run.
The Core Rulebook monk (and the 3.5 monk before it) is a class that has received a lot of criticism. Monks are often viewed as underpowered and not particularly good at one of their principal jobs: being a mobile combatant (given that their main attack ability, flurry of blows, requires them to stand still and not use their enhanced speed). As a result, many people have offered many suggestions on how to modify monks, and several revised versions of monks can be found on the internet and in third party books (see Monk Unfettered for one such revision). The monk in Pathfinder Unchained is the most changed of all the revised classes (although it is still recognisably the same class). The new monk now has a full base attack bonus progression and flurry of blows has been changed to be simply an extra attack at the monk's highest attack bonus (and then later another extra attack). These changes are presumably to address the “flurry of misses” criticism often flung at the core monk. Another significant change is to ki powers. The revised monk can select ki powers from a list similar to the way a barbarian selects rage powers or a rogue selects talents. This gives the monk much more customisability. Many of the ki powers are familiar core monk powers (like diamond body), while others are completely new (such as ki mount, which lets the monk grant temporary hit points to his mount). I haven't seen this new version of the monk in play, so it's hard to comment on how successful it is in boosting the class's power to bring it more in line with other classes. However, I do like the greater customisability it offers, and I would be very interested to see it in play.
Rogue is another class that has been heavily criticised for its lack of power compared to other classes, and Pathfinder Unchained's rogue attempts to address this issue. Unlike the new monk, I have seen the Unchained rogue in play and can say that the changes do have a tangible effect. I have no doubt that there will still be many arguments as to whether or not the changes are large enough, but at the very least, the Unchained rogue moves in the right direction. One of the principal changes to the class is the addition of finesse training. This ability grants Weapon Finesse as a bonus feat and later allows rogues to use their Dexterity modifiers to adjust damage as well. For many rogues, this will be a huge benefit, although it has the side effect of making it more difficult to create a rogue that is not based on Dexterity. Another major change is the addition of rogue's edge. This ability grants the rogue access to skill unlocks and makes the rogue the only class capable of gaining more than one skill unlock. Skill unlocks (which are described in Chapter 2 of the book) are generally only available by taking a feat (which can only be taken once). They allow characters to access new ways of using skills as they gain additional ranks. They are one of the few things in Pathfinder Unchained that are rule add-ons instead of alternative rules and so can be easily added to any game (even existing ones). As I really like skill unlocks, I find this a very positive benefit to the new rogue.
The summoner is a class with the opposite problem to rogues and monks. It is often seen as being overpowered, and my own experiences with summoners support this. Their eidolons can also be somewhat complicated to design. However, one of my personal biggest problems with the summoner is the spell list, which contains many spells at lower levels than they are for other classes. Now, it's not unusual for classes to have some spells at lower spell levels when those spells fit the theme and specialisation of the class, but the summoner has a much larger number of these, many of which don't really fit the theme of the class. The argument in support of this is that, because summoners have slower access to higher-level spells than wizards do, they still gain access to these spells at the same time as a wizard. However, I have never accepted that argument. If the desire is for the class to gain spells at the same time as wizards, then you shouldn't create a class that has slower spell acquisition than a wizard. From a flavour perspective, it doesn't make sense that teleport is a 4th-level spell (instead of 5th) just so summoners can access it at about the same time as wizards. From a game balance perspective, it opens up a huge can of worms with the possibility of things like wands of teleport.
Thankfully, one of the changes to the Unchained summoner is a complete revision of the class's spell list, moving spells like teleport and other spells like it back to their standard levels. Also, the method for determining the summoner's eidolon's stats has been completely revised. Eidolons now have subtypes equivalent to standard outsider subtypes (such as azata or demon). These subtypes determine the eidolon's base evolutions. There is still room for customisation though, as eidolons still have an evolution pool that can be spent on additional evolutions. I have not yet seen the new summoner in play, so I can't say for certain that it's an improvement on the old, but based on first impressions, I'd say that it is. I'm certainly interested in seeing one in actual play.
Chapter 1 also offers a fractional base attack bonus system for multiclass characters. In the core rules, the attack bonuses for each class are rounded off on the class charts. Multiclass characters use these rounded bonuses to determine their base attack bonuses. In the system here, multiclass characters use the unrounded bonuses from each of their classes, adding them together first and then rounding to find the final bonus. While this system is a little more math intensive, it has the advantage of removing some of attack bonus stalls in the core system. For example, a core rogue 1/wizard 1 would have a base attack bonus of +0, but with fractional bonuses the same character would gain +3/4 from rogue and +1/2 from wizard, giving a total of +1¼, which rounds to a final bonus of +1, which is more in line with other 2nd-level characters.
Finally, Chapter 1 offers an option for staggered level advancement. The idea is that when characters go up levels, they can gain lots of new abilities seemingly overnight. Staggered advancement is meant to allow them to gain abilities more gradually. It breaks each level up into four steps. At each step, characters gain either an increase in BAB, some additional hit points, or an increase in saves (with skill points always at the halfway point). Remaining hit points and other abilities are gained when the full new level is reaches. Unfortunately, I really don't think this system achieves its goals. All the incremental gains are in mechanical details that aren't really noticeable to the characters themselves. A gain of +1 to BAB does make you fight better on average, but it's only something noticed over the long term. Indeed, it's even possible to have a streak of bad luck immediately after increasing your BAB and have it appear that your character is fighting more poorly (I think everybody has had one of those days when all you seem to roll is natural ones)! As the class abilities (like new spells, rogue talents, bardic performances, etc.) that are actually noticeable to the characters themselves still all come together at the next level, the characters still appear to gain abilities overnight. On top of that, players have a lot more bookkeeping to keep track of which “universal abilities” (BAB, hp, saves, skills) are gained when (if, indeed, they are gained at all). In the end, I don't think this system is an improvement, and you might as well just keep using the core method for levelling characters.
Chapter 2 contains all sorts of new options for skills in the game. These run the gamut from the aforementioned skill unlocks, to alternative rules for the Craft and Profession skills, to ways to consolidate the number of skills in the game. First up are background skills. In this system, several skills (such as Appraise, Craft, Profession, and some Knowledge skills) are redefined as background skills, and every character gains an additional 2 skill ranks per level that can only be spent on background skills. Additionally, there are two entirely new skills (Artistry and Lore) introduced that are background skills. The main purpose of the system is to give characters more breadth of ability and to help encourage the use of skills that aren't taken as frequently. My only concern with the system is that a couple of the background skills are actually key skills for some character classes. Perform, for example, may not be that beneficial to most classes, but it is key to bards. Making it a background skill provides a significant boost to bards, especially when abilities like versatile performance are taken into account. Otherwise, this is an interesting system and I rather like the two new skills (Artistry is like a Craft skill for the arts, and Lore is a more focused form of Knowledge).
The Pathfinder core rules consolidated several 3.5 skills together (such as Hide and Move Silently became Stealth) in order to make a smaller skills list and to allow a character's skill ranks to go further. Pathfinder Unchained includes an option to consolidate skills even further. For example, Bluff, Diplomacy, and Intimidate become a single skill, Influence. The total number of skills is reduced from 35 to 12. Characters gain half as many skill ranks each level in this system, but those skill ranks do still go further. I've never really had a problem with the number of skills in Pathfinder, but for people who prefer fewer to keep track of, this could be a good system.
There is also a system for grouping skills into categories. Characters gain training in groups of skills and can gain specialties within a skill group. This system also contains a sidebar describing how to combine grouped skills with the background skills system and the consolidated skills system.
I find the alternate Craft and Profession rules particularly interesting. The system for crafting items in the Core Rulebook can result in some bizarre situations brought on by the game's unrealistic economic system. In particular, it can result in some fairly simple items taking incredibly long to craft simply because they have a high gold piece value. The new system uses a combination of complexity and value to determine crafting time. It can still result in some oddities, but nonetheless, I'd say it's a huge improvement on the core rules. The new Profession rules allow characters to actually set up and run businesses. These rules are not identical to the downtime rules in Ultimate Campaign, which are somewhat more in-depth. However, I think they make a simpler alternative for people who want the option to run businesses in their games, but don't want the high level of bookkeeping required by the downtime system.
As well as the skill unlocks, which I have already discussed, Chapter 2 includes a variant multiclassing system. In this system, characters choose a secondary class at 1st level and, by giving up some feats, they gain some of the abilities of the other class. On the whole, I not fond of this system. It has the benefit of being somewhat simpler, but also has the downside of being all-or-nothing. Once a secondary class is chosen, you gain exactly the abilities that are given at exactly the times they are given. No more. No less. You can't choose to stop advancement in your secondary class (or your primary one); nor can you add an additional class later on. In short, it loses a lot of versatility. Still, for groups that don't like the core multiclass rules, these rules may well provide a workable alternative.
Chapter 3 looks at the rules for actual game play and offers a variety of alternative options for things like alignment and combat. The options in this part of the book bring about some of the largest changes in the feel of the game, and thus should probably be carefully considered before adopting any of them. However, there are some very interesting options here, and I think that some of them might just improve game play significantly once the players and GM have adjusted to them.
The first option in the chapter is to increase the effects of alignment. I've never really been a fan of alignment, so this option is a bit of a turn-off for me personally. However, people who want a means to more precisely track a character's exact alignment will find these rules useful and interesting. In this system, each axis of alignment (law-chaos and good-evil) is tracked on a nine-point scale: 1 to 3 is law/good, 4 to 6 neutral, and 7 to 9 chaos/evil. Two options are offered: “relative alignment” and “standard alignment”. With relative alignment, all characters start as close to true neutral as their classes will allow. Their actions during the game then determine where their final alignment ends up. With standard alignment, players choose their characters' starting alignment normally but are positioned as close to the border with true neutral as possible. For example, a chaotic good character will start with a score of 7 on the law-chaos axis and 3 on the good-evil axis. GMs then provide moral challenges during the game that can result in a character gaining “shifts” or “aspirations”. Shifts are changes in alignment due to changing position on one or both axes. Aspirations are received for reaffirming a character's alignment. They can be spent to gain various one-time bonuses. This section also introduces a new feat category: alignment feats. There are 9 such feats, one for each alignment. These feats give characters additional ways to use their affirmations.
The next section goes to the opposite extreme: removing alignment. The section doesn't so much provide new rules as it does guidelines, since removing alignment can result in far-reaching changes. There are suggestions for several different ways to reduce the impact of alignment or to remove it from the game entirely. For people who are up to it, there is some good advice here. As someone who has run campaigns without alignment in the past, I can say from experience that it can be quite rewarding to run games where morality is a little more ambiguous.
One of the biggest changes in the book comes from the revised action economy. This system changes combat drastically. In short, in this system, every character gets 3 acts and 1 reaction per combat round. Every action is divided up into simple actions (which take a single act to perform) and advanced actions (which take 2 or more acts). Characters no longer gain additional attacks based on BAB, but instead any character can take multiple attacks per round as a single attack is a simple action. However, successive attacks take a cumulative -5 penalty. This means low-level characters can attack multiple times per round and that high-level characters are limited to 3 attacks per round (although there are special rules for two-weapon fighting and flurry of blows). The system adds quite a bit of mobility to characters as they can potentially take three move acts per round or even attack twice and still move. Indeed, I suspect (having not actually seen it in play) that this system could improve combat significantly. On the downside, though, it does require a steep learning curve to relearn what kinds of actions can be combined since two actions that are equivalent in the core rules are not necessarily equivalent in this system. For example, a single attack and a standard-action spell are both standard actions in the core rules. In this system, a single attack is 1 act and a standard-action spell is 2 acts. That said, it is no steeper a curve than what a new player has to go through to learn the combat rules in the first place. One criticism I have of this section, though, is that there is no summary table listing the different actions and how many acts they require. This means a lot of page turning to find an action's description while people are still learning the new rules. Ultimately though, if it weren't for the fact that I have players who would probably balk at having to relearn the combat rules, I'd be seriously tempted to give these rules a try.
Fighter is another class that is frequently criticised for being underpowered and so, some people may be surprised that there is no revised fighter in Chapter 1. This is because Chapter 3 offers a new add-on system that can significantly boost a fighter's abilities: stamina and combat tricks. By taking the Combat Stamina feat (and there is an option to make this feat free to fighters), a character gains access to a stamina pool. By spending points from this pool, characters can then perform special actions with their combat feats (so even if GMs don't allow fighters to get Combat Stamina for free, fighters who take the feat will have considerably more combat feats affected by it than other classes). This section of the book is quite lengthy—almost like a feat chapter in other hardcover books—as it gives descriptions for the special abilities of every combat feat published in a hardcover Pathfinder rulebook up to the time of Pathfinder Unchained's publication. Characters can also use their stamina pools to gain bonuses to hit in combat.
I really like the combat tricks. Most of them are quite visually descriptive as well as providing some mechanical benefit and can serve to make combat much more interesting. I've opened up access to combat tricks in one of my groups, but so far none of the players have been interested in it (no one's playing a fighter and no one's taken the feat). However, I have designed a few NPCs with combat tricks and have found them fun to use. Unfortunately, it can be difficult to remember what every feat is capable of (especially when, as a GM, I have a lot of other things to remember as well), and having to look them up during combat can really slow down game-play.
Perhaps one of the least realistic parts of core Pathfinder combat is that characters all function at full strength if they have positive hit points, even if they only have 1 hp left out of 200. Then, suddenly, at 0 hp, they are staggered, and at -1 hp, they are unconscious and dying. The wound threshold system provides an alternative to this by having characters become progressively more penalized until they eventually fall unconscious. For example, a character is “grazed” at three quarters of maximum hit points, taking a -1 penalty on various rolls, including attack rolls. Characters don't necessarily fall unconscious at -1 hp, but rather when they go lower than their negative Constitution bonus. While this system adds a touch more realism to the game, it has the downside of being somewhat deadlier since the penalties get worse the closer a character gets to 0 hp. It may not be for every group, but it does have the distinct advantage of being fairly simple to adopt.
Chapter 3 concludes with new rules for handling diseases and poisons. Disease and poison have had an interesting history in D&D and Pathfinder. Back in 1st Edition AD&D, poisons generally killed characters outright. One failed save and they were dead. It was a deadly system and not very realistic either, seeing as most real poisons are slower-acting than instantaneous. Over the years, it has become easier to resist poisons and diseases. Third Edition changed the rules so that both caused ability damage (or sometimes drain). This added a bit more realism, but also made it fairly easy to survive (people may disagree on whether this was a good or bad thing). Pathfinder has continued with basically the 3rd Edition system. Pathfinder Unchained offers a system very different to anything used before. Rather than causing ability damage or hit point damage, diseases and poisons follow specific tracks of changing conditions. Each failed save moves a character one step further along the track until eventually the character reaches the end condition—which may well be death.
It's an interesting system and quite flavourful. It adds a great deal of realism, but at the expense of also adding complexity. This system requires more bookkeeping than the core system. It is also quite a bit deadlier (once again, whether that is a good or bad thing will be a matter of individual opinion) as achieving the “cure” conditions for a disease or poison merely moves a character one step earlier on the track. A character who is far along the track may well have to meet the cure conditions multiple times in order to recover.
Chapter 4 looks at magic in the game and offers several systems that modify spellcasting or magic items. Some are designed to simplify the game; others change the flavour. The chapter begins with simplified spellcasting. In this system prepared casters only choose their prepared spells from the three highest spell levels they can cast. They gain a points pool from which they can cast lower-level spells essentially spontaneously. It's certainly true that high-level casters have a lot of spells to prepare each day and choosing these spells can take a lot of time. This system shortens that time significantly, which is a definite plus. However, I also feel that it loses a lot of the distinction between spontaneous and prepared casters.
The next section offers several small alterations to spellcasting. Limited magic limits all spells to being cast at their minimum caster level unless modified by the Heighten Spell feat. Wild magic is an old concept for the game and this section offers some rules for handling it. Active spell casting has the player characters making spell attack rolls against opponents' static save DCs rather than the opponents rolling save throws. There are also options for spell criticals and fumbles in this system. Each of these systems requires only minimal alterations to the way the game runs, but can change the feel of the game (particularly limited spellcasting which reduces the power of spellcasters quite significantly).
Esoteric material components are an alternative way to handle spell components in the game. There are four principal types of components, each one representing two schools of magic, and a rarer fifth type which represents all schools of magic. Using greater quantities of spell components can increase the potency of a spellcaster's spells. This system can be used as either optional (in which casters can choose to use either standard material components or esoteric components) or mandatory (in which any spell that requires a material component requires an esoteric component as well). It's an interesting system that adds a bit more flavour to spellcasting, but it does require significantly more bookkeeping (especially the mandatory version), as players will need to track components for every spell that requires a material component, even the ones that normally have a negligible value and are normally covered by a spell component pouch. This means that a fireball spell requires 18 gp worth of its associated esoteric component (“entropic resin”) to cast. With spellcasters already requiring a lot of bookkeeping (especially prepared casters like wizards), I'm not sure it's worth it. That said, the greater expenditure of resources required does pull back a bit on the power levels of casters, so some people might find the system worth it.
After this, Pathfinder Unchained offers two alternatives to handle characters' ever-growing need to acquire magic items with higher and higher bonuses. This aspect of the game often means that characters will pass over many magic items in order to get the ones with the bonuses (for example, ignoring any magical belts other than ones that grant enhancement bonuses to one or more ability scores, or any magical cloaks other than cloaks of resistance). The two systems presented here offer ways to mitigate this problem. The first is an automatic bonus progression, in which characters naturally gain these bonuses as they progress in level, rather than through magic items. For example, all 3rd level characters gain a +1 resistance bonus to saves. Wealth by level is adjusted downwards in this system to account for this. The second system gives innate bonuses to magic items. In this system, there are no belts of giant strength, but rather the properties of such a belt can exist in other items. For example, a belt of dwarvenkind might give a +2 bonus to Strength on top of its regular abilities. This system alters the item slots a character has to account for the changes. Both systems add more variety and interest to magic items in general, making them less generic and more unique.
Another issue that occurs as characters reach higher and higher levels is that they must keep trading out their magic items for more powerful ones. It becomes difficult to tell stories about a character who wields her beloved family heirloom sword when that sword quickly becomes far too underpowered to be of use. An alternative offered here is to allow for magic items that scale with their owner's level. As a character becomes more powerful, so do that character's items. In this way, that family heirloom sword can continue to be used indefinitely. On the downside, this creates difficulties for pricing such items and affects the character's total wealth. This is taken into account with this system, which provides rules for determining the value of specific items. It then offers a significant selection of example scaled magic items of all different types.
Chapter 4 concludes with an alternative method for creating magic items called dynamic magic item creation. In this system, characters do more than just make Spellcraft checks and pay an appropriate amount of money. The characters must face challenges during the construction time as well. These challenges can come in various different forms, such as a distracting visitor or an energy overload. Overcoming these challenges requires succeeding at further skill checks. The big advantage to this system is that other characters can become involved in the process, assisting with some of those challenges. In this way, the party wizard doesn't hide away for several days or even weeks. It can also add more interest to the final items created as, depending on how characters perform during challenges, items might gain “perks”, “quirks”, or “flaws”. Perks are minor beneficial adjustments, while quirks are oddities (usually neither negative nor positive) that make an item a little unusual in some way. Flaws are detrimental to an item, and accumulating too many flaws can result in an item becoming cursed. I really like this system, but how well it will work with any particular group will depend on how interested the players are in playing out downtime-type situations and how impatient they are to get back to adventuring. Dynamic magic item creation cannot be glossed over as easily as standard magic item creation.
Chapter 5, the final chapter, consists entirely of an alternative method of monster creation, one intended to simplify the process and speed it up. It uses baselines to start with that gamemasters can then build upon to get a final monster. The chapter ends with several example monsters from the Bestiary redone in this system to demonstrate how similar they end up to monsters created using the core rules. The rules given here are actually surprisingly in-depth and detailed—much more so than the core rules for creating monsters—and I'm not sure that they really simplify the process all that much. There are a lot of tables to reference, and then numerous “grafts” that modify the results from the tables in small ways. These grafts are listed over numerous pages and thus require a lot of page-flipping to reference and then choose the ones wanted. And after the grafts, there are still “options” to further specialize monsters. Altogether, the simple monster creation process takes up to nine steps (though not every monster will use every step). This may not seem like a lot, but with several of them being somewhat involved, I'm not convinced the system will really save a lot of time. My own attempt at creating a monster with this system took just as long as with the core system. Now, this can certainly be partly explained by lack of experience on my part. After getting used to the system, I would no doubt get faster with it, so it will save some time. I'm just not sure it'll be enough to make a significant difference.
As you can see, Pathfinder Unchained offers a plethora of alternatives to modify the core Pathfinder rules in different ways, including possible solutions to various criticisms of the game. Some of the alternatives result in only minor changes to game-play, while others result in much more drastic changes. It's quite a remarkable book and I like it a great deal. If there's something about the Pathfinder rules that you really don't like, or you just feel like tinkering with the rules a bit, Pathfinder Unchained may just have what you're looking for.