Alternate-Rules Campaign

The Pathfinder Roleplaying Game has an immense amount of content.

I know. I publish PDFs that were originally created as research documents for various topics and character classes. Believe me, there’s a huge amount of content.

Many people use only the core subset, others kitchen-sink it and allow basically anything (possibly sticking to ‘hardcovers only’ or ‘Society content only’, but I suspect most start with the core set and gradually allow more.

In this series, I propose to do something else. I have long maintained that the best use of this huge volume of options is to treat it as a palette and build a campaign around a selected subset of those options. This includes both constraining character choices, and breaking out some lesser-used rules options.

Campaign Ground Rules

By the time this series is done, there will be quite a bit of information gathered and made ready for use. To get started, I need to set some ground rules and guidelines.

First, I think I’d like to keep this setting relative gritty, and possibly bleak. Not grimdark, everything-is-bad, I’m thinking more of a Mythos, ‘there-is-alien-out-there’. There should be opportunity for heroic actions, but within the framework of the setting, PCs should be generally ‘fairly realistic’. To me, this means keeping PC levels relatively low. The E6 (or P6 or P8) variation, where character levels are gained only up to level 6 (or 8) and then other non-level gains made after that, is probably a good fit.

Second, I’d like ‘safe, controllable’ magic to be very constrained. Removing the full (‘nine-level’) casters will do that, especially with the level caps I’ve put in place. ‘P6’ with full casters would allow up to third-level spells, but ‘P8’ with ‘six-level’ casters allows for up to third-level spells also, and ‘four-level’ casters to get second-level spells. Magic is still here, but controllable magic is greatly limited.

Third, I’d like to allow more powerful magic that is neither reliable nor safe. The ritual magic system presented in Pathfinder Roleplaying Game: Occult Adventures looks like a great fit. It starts with ‘level 4 effects’, has backlash that affects the caster, requires skill checks to successfully complete the ritual, and can have failure effects when not successful. It also takes quite a bit longer (ten minutes per level of effect), giving it limited combat utility. Just about spot on what I want.

Fourth, I’d really like to get away from the common fantasy races. Dwarves, elves, halflings, gnomes, half-orcs, and half-elves are out. On the other hand, I’ve always wanted a setting where there are creatures with greater attachment to the elements… the geniekin (oreads, sylphs, undine, and ifrit) could fill these roles well. I might like to see some other less-common races such as tengu and catfolk, but I’m not sure yet.

Fifth, limiting characters to a maximum of sixth or eighth level really cuts into the amount of customization possible. I might not require the use of archetypes, but I will certain accept and probably encourage them. The level limitation also really cuts into prestige class possibilities, so I’m certainly open to Purple Duck Games ‘prestige archetypes’ (custom base classes modeled on prestige classes).

Sixth, I want to expand skill use. Almost certainly I’d want to expand on the unchained ‘skill unlocks’, and might want to accelerate them a little (allow at 3 and 6 ranks if P6, or 4 and 8 ranks if P8). I might also want to look into consolidated or grouped skills.

Summary of PC Options So Far

Races

Human. Ifrit, oread, sylphs, and undine are in the setting, but I am not sure if they should be PC options.

Classes

Assuming only the limitations mentioned, and looking only at the PRD.

  • Core Rulebook: bard, fighter, paladin, ranger.
    • Out: barbarian (use unchained, cleric, druid, monk (use unchained), sorcerer, wizard.
  • Advanced Player’s Guide: alchemist, cavalier, inquisitor (good! I wanted to keep domains!), summoner (but use unchained).
    • Out: oracle, witch. I wanted to use them because the oracle’s mysteries and curses are totally thematic, and the witch hexes… but they are both nine-level casters, and those were the second thing on the list to change or remove.
  • Ultimate Combat: gunslinger, ninja, samurai. The latter two are basically subclasses, almost archetypes, of rogue and cavalier respectively. I might do something about that.
  • Ultimate Magic: magus.
  • Occult Adventures: kineticist, medium, mesmerist, occultist, spiritualist.
    • Out: psychic. I might, might make an exception here because it’s thematically appropriate, but I probably won’t.
  • Advanced Class Guide: bloodrager, brawler, hunter, investigator, skald, slayer, swashbuckler, warpriest.
    • Out: arcanist.
  • Unchained: unchained barbarian, unchained monk, unchained rogue, unchained summoner.

I see classes here that might still not be a good fit (summoner especially… summoning feels like it should be more dangerous)… but it does fit in the guidelines so far, so it’s in for the moment.

In fact, there are so many classes here that I might want to look into ways to merge them. I’m basically down to ‘good BAB and medium BAB’, then ‘stuff that goes with that’.

I’ll certainly want to look into the unchained ‘variant multiclassing’ rules, though they’re mostly only meaningful if using P8 (two class abilities and levels 3 and 7 rather than just the one available at level 3 in P6). But the variant multiclass options for the full casters look very promising to me.

Closing Comments

I don’t normally start designing a setting around the mechanics that will be used, but that’s largely because I tend to stick to the tried and true. This time I’m deliberately not doing this, limiting the PCs to lower levels of advancement, restricting races (heavily!) and classes. I will need to think about what effect these decisions will have on the setting.

For that matter, I also need to put some thought into what era to assume for this setting. ‘Standard fantasy medieval’ is a common baseline, but

  • Victorian/Gaslamp fantasy could be a good era to consider. I might want to also restrict the ‘full BAB’ classes in this case (medium BAB could still have iterative attacks at level 8… and I think almost all the classes would be medium BAB, which is itself kind of appealing) because it is ‘civilized’. The foggy streets of London could be a fascinating option.
  • Near the turn of the 20th century, when many of the Mythos stories were set, could be appropriate as well.
  • Or go back to the time of Achmed the Mad (“I just get these headaches!“) in ancient Araby, where many dark secrets were uncovered, could be a good fit.
  • The Dark Ages, with the Church being elbow-deep in the mysteries… though whether for gain or to protect the innocent is unclear.
  • On the other hand, Conan and Hyperborea were deemed part of the Mythos setting (Howard and Lovecraft being contemporaries and correspondents, they shared setting information).
  • (Suggestion from Gennifer Bone) “The 60s. The drugs were just a cover up, that shit was actually happening… and nobody talks about what the soldiers found in the jungles of Vietnam.”

There is much left to explore here. I’m tempted to run a Microscope session, with some of the above options preloaded.

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