One of the most difficult things to chart in a role-playing game with as rich a history as Pathfinder (since I see it as having a direct connection to previous editions of D&D) is a shift in attitude that gamers as a whole seem to have toward the game…and indeed, the attitude that the game seems to have about itself.
That such a shift has happened at all is fairly self-evident; the existence of the Old-School Renaissance is proof enough of that. However, identifying exactly what values and characteristics these differing attitudes have is something that no one really seems to be able to agree on. Some say that it’s about the mechanics, while others say it’s the play-style of the GM and/or the players. Others say it’s both to some degree. Still others have some other definition altogether.
Were I to guess, I’d say that everyone’s right to some degree. Likely, the change in rules changed how people looked at the game over time, though in ways that are difficult to articulate. However, I think that one of those changes was perhaps more fundamental than anyone’s given it credit for – the method of generating character attributes.
From Rolling Dice to Counting Beans
Back in the days of Second Edition (when I started playing the game) you rolled your ability scores. Now, my memory of 2E is largely fogged by over a decade of not looking at that edition’s Player’s Handbook, but I don’t recall there being a point-buy option presented there; even if there was, it was pretty clearly de-emphasized. You just rolled 3d6 and assigned them to your ability scores.
This attitude – that you randomly determined your attributes and had to make do with what the dice gave you – is one that I think set the tone for the whole game. You certainly had an idea for who you wanted your character to be, but that idea was then modified by your attributes (and, since this was in the day when classes had ability score requirements to take levels in them, you could very well need to radically change your character concept if you didn’t get the scores necessary to joining a given class), and you re-shaped your character accordingly.
It was rare, from what I remember, that this forced a player to completely abandon a given idea for a character. Being able to assign the numbers you generated to your ability scores meant that you could put your highest score towards a given class’s prime requisite (the attribute most directly tied to the class, and usually with a minimum score to take levels in it). However, it did require some fine-tuning – if you described your character as being exceptionally cunning (Wisdom), very personable (Charisma), and quick on his feat (Dexterity; all traits a good rogue would have), but then found you only had two good ability scores, you’d have to rethink your character a bit, since he wouldn’t be all three of those.
This had broader repercussions, in the form of the sort of thinking it encouraged about your character. PCs were shaped by the events of the game, and didn’t always get to pick-and-choose everything about them as they leveled up. Your ability scores, for example, were pretty much set at the time of character creation – there were extremely few ways to raise them. Magic item shops didn’t exist, and crafting magic items was difficult and draining (the one making them permanently lost points of Constitution in doing so), so you pretty much had only what you’d earned in dungeon delves.
It’s also important to remember what wasn’t there. Feats hadn’t been thought up yet, and the closest things to skills were “proficiencies” which were much more binary – you either had them or you didn’t.
All of this added up to the idea of your character as being – from a mechanical standpoint – a fairly static creation. Hit points and saves went up, as did your ability to hit things and prepare spells, but by and large your character defined him- or herself through what happened in the context of the game world. Your plans for your character consisted of the things he wanted to do, rather than the mechanics you wanted to take.
That doesn’t seem to be quite as true now. In an era where sourcebooks have proliferated wildly via the OGL, where there’s a robust point-buy system for character creation, and where the mechanics of building PCs have taken front-and-center, the mentality of the game has changed as well. Not being able to play a particular character concept to a “T” has changed from being seen as part of the game to being a flaw. Before, the adversity in developing who you wanted your PC to be was part of the fun – now it’s seen as something that takes away from said fun.
At this point, fans of Pathfinder might think I’m picking on it. After all, the Core Rulebook describes many different methods of character generation, with the point-buy method being just one among many. Similarly, issues of magic item shops and magic item creation feats are fairly easily solved house-ruled at the game table. The issue isn’t that Pathfinder itself is bad in any way, just that it lends itself to a certain style of gaming. Other styles require some tweaking.
So how then would you go about tweaking the game to give it more of an “old-school” feeling? I’m no member of the OSR, but I’d recommend the following list of changes.
- Roll for ability scores – the exact method of dice-generated ability scores is less important than using it at all, and allows for degrees of freedom here. From 3d6 to 4d6-and-drop-the-lowest to a pool of 24d6 and assign a number of dice to each ability score before rolling, there are a lot of ways to let fate determine just who your character will be.
- Close off easy access to magic items – Eliminate magic item shops in the game world. PCs may still buy and sell magic items, but that’ll be on an individual basis with NPCs they meet, rather than being perfunctory shopping. Likewise, remove item creation feats from the game. This essentially makes every magic item a minor artifact (and requires some in-game explanation for how these magic items were made in the first place), and similarly requires the GM to think much more carefully about what magic items are placed where (alternately, just use randomly-generated magic items if you really want to let the dice fall where they may).
- Eliminate ability score boosters – Buffs that inflate ability scores are one of the easiest ways to power-up characters. There’s nothing wrong with this, but it tends to devalue other things – like a barbarian’s rage or the ability point gained every four levels – that provide bonuses at greater cost. Eliminate the ability score buffing spells like cat’s grace, owl’s wisdom, and magic items that grant similar bonuses.
- Assign ability score prerequisites to character classes – this one is likely to be somewhat controversial, as it has the possibility of closing off class choices a player may want. The list of ability score prerequisites below is entirely generated by me, and also includes two other rules. First, a character’s favored class is always the class they take at 1st level. Second, if a character wants to multiclass into another class, they must have ability scores at least 2 points higher than that class’s ability score prerequisites…splitting your focus takes incredible dedication, and is not easily done. (e.g. a fighter under this system who wants to multiclass into wizard would need an Intelligence of at least 14, rather than 12.)
Ability Score Prerequisites by Class
Alchemist: Intelligence 14. Requiring not only insight into arcane forces but also blending them into physical concoctions, an alchemist must have intelligence without peer.
Barbarian: Strength 14, Wisdom 12. Barbarians are powerhouses, but at the same time have a strong will that allows them to contain or unleash an overpowering rage as they desire.
Bard: Charisma 14. Bards are well-known for being exceptionally outgoing and personable.
Cavalier: Strength 12, Charisma 14. A leader of men, the cavalier requires the personal appeal to lead men into battle, and the muscle to fight alongside them.
Cleric: Wisdom 12. Those who would serve the gods need the insight necessary to understand their will.
Druid: Wisdom 14. Serving the inscrutable forces of nature, an abstract force rather than a sentient deity, requires a greater understanding of both one’s self and the world.
Fighter: Strength 12. Fighters need to be tougher – albeit not too much tougher – than ordinary people in order to be effective combatants.
Inquisitor: Wisdom 14, Charisma 12. Inquisitors must have a deeper understanding of their religion to be able to spot heretics, and require a degree of personal insight to find hidden corruptions of the spirit.
Magus: Strength 12, Intelligence 14. A magus must have a strong arm to be a proficient martial master, and and even greater intellect to not only learn spellcasting with a split focus, but also blend their magic into their swordplay.
Monk: Dexterity 12, Wisdom 12. Monks are fleet of foot and strong in spirit to follow a life of personal asceticism and discipline.
Oracle: Charisma 14. Unlike clerics, oracles are picked by the gods to be their servant, and made to suffer a curse for their power. They must have a strong personality to endure their curse and understand why they were chosen.
Paladin: Strength 12, Wisdom 14, Charisma 14. Paladins are paragons among men, having not only strength of arms, but great wisdom so as to better understand the will of their god, and great personal magnetism to let them better serve as a shining example among their fellow man.
Ranger: Strength 12, Wisdom 14. Rangers mix the martial prowess of the fighter with the druid’s insight of nature, blending them into a deadly whole.
Rogue: Dexterity 12. Among those who’d make their living in a questionable manner, those who aren’t quick tend to be among the dead.
Sorcerer: Charisma 12. Being able to tap into the power of one’s bloodline first requires that you have the strength of personality to know yourself.
Summoner: Charisma 14. A strong personality is necessary to have one’s best friend be a conjured monster.
Witch: Intelligence 14. Few are those who can understand the secrets taught by a familiar on behalf of an unknown patron, and learn the ways of ill-understood hexes and curses.
Wizard: Intelligence 12. Being able to study and master eldritch forces demands an intellect above that of the common man.
One question that might come up is what about the people in the game world who don’t meet any of these class prerequisites – after all, none of these have a score lower than 12, but the average ability scores are 10 and 11. The answer is simple: those people take levels in NPC classes, as those have no prerequisites.
In the event that a player happens to roll so low that they can’t take any class (that is, they don’t get a score higher than 11), allow them to discard that character and roll up a new one. You can have the previous attempt be an NPC they knew or something similar.
Finally, in the event that something happens to a PC’s ability scores (e.g. ability damage or ability drain), nothing happens to their class abilities. It’d be too difficult, and too punitive, to have them lose access to their class abilities in the event that their ability scores were reduced.
Virtually all of this article has focused around eliminating ways for PCs to inflate their ability scores. That isn’t meant to imply that higher attributes are the source of problems with the game, just that they tend to suggest a focus on power-building rather than letting the character’s experiences shape who they are (a focus that many good gamers can and do ignore, for what it’s worth).
By making these changes, hopefully you’ll be able to take some of the spotlight off of how powerful your character is, and instead help to encourage just what they can do. They say that heroes are made, not born…but at the game table, heroes aren’t made by mix-maxed ability scores and careful magic item purchases – they’re made from adventures.