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The Douchey DM » Adventure Design, Alternate Views, General Gaming » JiB on GM’ing: Pathfinder Variant Rules, Character Advancement

JiB on GM’ing: Pathfinder Variant Rules, Character Advancement

Our final exploration of the variant rules for Pathfinder found in the Ultimate Combat Guide discusses character advancement, the effect of magic and magic items, and takes a look at creatures and how to convert them to use the variant rules as well.

Several people have raised some very valid thoughts, questions and even concerns about the variant rules and their impact on game play. Based on the test combats that I have run it seems to me that combat in Pathfinder is a bit more dangerous for the player characters now and the game ends up being a little bit grittier. There are lots of ways to measure the effect of a rule on combat but the one I use is, “How long does a creature stay in play in a combat.” eg. How many rounds does a creature stay in the fight? By that measure the variant rules are pretty much a an even exchange with AC and hit points, but the flavor of the fight is grittier and more dangerous. I think the effect on players would be an increased level of caution on the part of the player characters. Also, depending on the physical mechanics of rolling a round of combat can take longer to resolve than with hit points and armor class. Author’s Note: My rule of thumb is that combat should resolve for each character/creature’s action in less than 1 minute.

Our Hero … Bobs Uruncle

We will use the same character we have used as our example all along. Bobs Uruncle started his career as a 1st level fighter and progressed through to 20th level. Along the way he learned some things and acquired new equipment. The following table demonstrates how Bobs might have advanced.


FTR 1 ½ 17 12 14 13 10 8 13 5 9 10 28 Chainmail (5), Heavy Shield (2)
FTR 5 4 18 12 14 13 10 8 15 9 13 39 28 Average hp at each level, +1 STR (4th level), +1 Breastplate, +1 Heavy Shield, Amulet of Nat Armor +1
FTR 10 9 21 12 16 13 10 8 16 15 19 74 32 Average hp at each level, +1 STR (8th level), +2 Mithril Full Plate, Amulet of Nat Armor +2, Belt of Physical Might +2 (STR, CON), Cloak of Resistance +2
FTR 15 14 24 12 18 13 10 8 17 18 23 109 36 Average hp at each level, +1 STR (12th level), Amulet of Nat Armor +4, Belt of Physical Might +4 STR, CON
FTR 20 19 27 12 20 13 10 8 23 28 36 144 40 Average hp at each level, +1 STR (16th level), Full Plate +5 (5/dr mag), +5 Heavy Shield, Amulet of Nat Armor +5, Belt of Physical Might +5 STR, Con

By comparison the same character at 20th level with the same equipment has an AC of 37 and 240 hit points.

A couple of notes about this information.

  • I did not include information about his Critical DC which I should have. I gave Bobs several Feats that caused his critical dc to go up dramatically.
  • There are ways that Bobs could have been optimized and made stronger, but the point here was to illustrate how the numbers advance rather than how to optimize a character for Pathfinder using these rules.
  • As with any game system there is always an Uber Stat (Tappyism). With these rules it seems to me that there are two, Dexterity and Constitution because those two more than anything else affect the character’s defensive abilities. Dexterity impacts defense and constitution impacts Wounds.
  • A wizard REALLY doesn’t want to get into melee combat now. Because their defensive values and their vigor and wounds are low which is more impactive than having a lower ac and fewer hit points.
  • Having armor even at high levels is valuable.

One thing to note about the variant rules, it’s still a game of attrition. Now you’re trying to attrit vigor points rather than hit points but the overall nature of the fight is one that is grittier and more hard hitting than before. There are also attacks that bypass vigor alltogether and the effect on wounds is much more telling. There are game impacts on the creature as their wounds points are eaten away.

The Effect of Magic

Defensive magic items and magical effects basically fall into 3 categories. Those that impact defense, those that impact damage reduction and those that impact statistics which in turn effect vigor and or wounds. It seems to me (somewhat anecdotally) that improving damage reduction and vigor are the most bang for the buck investments. From an offensive standpoint magic that bypasses damage reduction and vigor would be the most valuable.

This would tend to create all manner of possibility for new magics and new magical effects.

Our example character started life with a 14 constitution which gave him 28 wound points. By the time he finished his career we had magically elevated his constitution to 20 which increases his wounds to 40 which represents a 30% increase. However, his Vigor went from 10 to 144 and his damage reduction went from 5 to 28. These represent a 93% increase and an 82% increase resepectively.

Converting Creatures to Use DR

Converting any creature to use damage reduction instead of AC and vigor/wounds instead of hit points is the same process as converting a character:

  1. Calculate defense – (Defense = 10 + shield bonus + Dexterity modifier + other modifiers (including armor’s enhancement bonus but not armor bonus or natural armor bonus))
  2. Calculate damage reduction – (DR = Armor Bonus + Natural Armor Bonus)
  3. Calculate vigor – (Vigor = Hit Points – Constitution Bonus)
  4. Calculate wounds – (Wounds = 2 * Constitution)

So, an adult red dragon (CR 14 creature) has the following:

  1. Defense 10
  2. Damage Reduction 29
  3. Vigor 212
  4. Wounds 46

This does not take into account any magical protections that an individual dragon may have access to.

Some things to remember when converting creatures, damage reduction stacks with other forms of damage reduction, and allowances may need to be made for special cases. I recommend consulting the Paizo forums for recommendations and assistance.

Conclusions and Parting Shots

I have enjoyed exploring the variant rules for the Pathfinder game found in the Ultimate Combat Guide. The authors at Paizo have done a wonderful job of blending the variant rules seamlessly into the existing game without altering the power or impact of any single item. I do not make any value judgements as to whether the variant rules as written are any better or worse than the core rules. I will say that I plan to use the variant rules in the Pathfinder games that I run in the future. Individual gm’s and groups will decide for themselves what works best for their game and gives them the flavor of game that they’re after.

I hope that this exploration has provided some useful information or at least some food for thought.




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Software developer, gamer, ice hockey player, sometime musician.

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One Response to "JiB on GM’ing: Pathfinder Variant Rules, Character Advancement"

  1. Grumpy DwarfNo Gravatar says:

    Thanks, I’m not a fan of the hit point system and that have been trying to determine how well balance this variant is. This was very helpful in giving me some figures to go on.

    Im not sure that I agree that constitution is an Uber Stat though. If I am reading the rules right (might not be!) half of a characters wound pint total is below his wound threshold. When a characters wound points drop below this he is staggered (similar but not as bad as being in negative hp in the standard rules). Therefor if my interpretation is right, the total amount of damage a character can soak up before feeling the effects of the damage is his vigor point plus half of his wound points. Looking at it like that, Increasing a characters constitution doesn’t look to provide much benefit. Using Bob as an example again: at 1st level with con 14, Bob has 14 wound points + his vigor points of total points of damage he can take before becoming staggered. At 20 th level with an enhanced constitution score of 20 he has 20 wound points + his vigor points of total points of damage he can take before becoming staggered. That’s only an increase of 6 points (with 6 more when he is already staggered) not enough to get exited about. To put it in perspective the regular HP fighter at level 20 would have picked up 60 hp from the six point rise in his constitution. If anything constitution is devalued and become less important as you rise in level.

    Look out! The elves are going to come out of retirement and take over the world again.

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