Shaking up Assumptions: Creating a Setting by Tweaking Race and Class Lists

Dwarf Earth PriestIn the five years since its release, Pathfinder has grown into quite a big game. It has seven hardcover rulebooks covering player options, four bestiaries, and ten full adventure paths. That’s a lot of options – so why should every campaign setting contain forest-loving elves, mountain-dwelling dwarves, and knights who wear full plate mail?  By embracing some of the new options and barring some others, you can plant the seeds of an interesting new setting in a few minutes.

Race + Class = A Lot of Flavor

One of the first things most players do when creating a character is to determine the race/class combination they want to play. Some regard these options as nothing more than packages of stats, but each option says something about the world. Dwarves by default hate orcs, goblinoids, and giants. Halflings are lucky and brave. Wizards learn their spells through intense study, while clerics and paladins represent the will of the gods themselves. So if you create a world where dwarves don’t exist or bards are the only spellcasters, you’ve changed things in quite a big way. Those packages of stats determine a lot more about the setting’s story than many think.

Using the Core Rulebook as the default, the typical Pathfinder campaign has the following options open to players:

Races: dwarves, elves, gnomes, half-elves, halflings, half-orcs, humans

Classes: barbarian, bard, cleric, druid, fighter, monk, paladin, ranger, rogue, sorcerer, wizard

Somebody who has never played Pathfinder knows what to expect based on that lineup. They’re looking at a setting that draws a lot of inspiration from Tolkien (all races but the gnome are roughly equivalent to something found in Middle Earth), where warriors wield big weapons and heavy armor, and where spellcasting is not uncommon (only the fighter never gets access to spellcasting or supernatural abilities).

Here’s a couple of examples where tweaking those two lists results in wholly different campaign world.

#1: Mechanics First, then Setting

In my first example, I’m just going to throw together a couple of lists based on what I personally like and see what kind of setting that results in.

For starters, I’m going to toss out all the core races except for humans. It’s not that I don’t like those races, but I’ve seen plenty of them in my years of gaming and want to encourage some new options.

For the sake of keeping the options reasonable, I’m going to stick to the Core Rulebook’s baseline of seven races and eleven classes. This is more or less an arbitrary decision on my part and is not something a GM needs to feel beholden to. Going through the Featured and Uncommon Races lists in the Advanced Race Guide, I come up with my six favorite alternate races:

Call it my love of the 2011 Thundercats remake, but I like anthropomorphic animal people, as the list indicates. Of the six non-human races I chose, four of them are animal-people. Additionally, the vishkanya, while looking human, has a lot of serpentine qualities. That leaves only changelings as the odd race out. Based on this list, I’m given an image of a setting where humans and animal-folk are fairly well integrated. However, the existence of changelings and kitsune implies some mischief going on at the fringes of society, meaning that there is probably a sizeable wilderness area that remains unexplored. Maybe it’s just a single haunted forest, or maybe humanity is new to the area and just starting to settle a dangerous and potentially haunted continent full of strange beasts that walk like men.

Moving on to classes, I’m doing the same thing of just picking 11 classes that I like the best. Classes like the fighter and rogue make the cut because they’re easy baselines that can fit into virtually any society. Other classes, such as the wizard, wind up getting the axe because I’m not a big fan of certain mechanics, such as fire-and-forget spellcasting.

Drawing from the options in the PRD, my class list is as follows:

This list says quite a bit about the setting. There are only two full caster classes: the arcanist and the oracle. That means that spells of 7th, 8th, and 9th level will be pretty rare. The arcane casting classes include the alchemist, arcanist, bard, and skald – all classes that earn their spells through a combination of natural talent and study. The divine casters include the oracle and inquisitor – casters who are given innate spell abilities by specific deities. Oracles are chosen by the gods, while inquisitors devote themselves to a specific religious cause. Neither of these classes requires the gods to be named beings – they definitely exist, but they might be mysterious and aloof. Oracles might have no idea who gives them their power, while inquisitors might be granted their power because the cause they serve happens to align with an unknown divine power.

Of the eleven classes chosen, five of them don’t have spellcasting power at all. Four of those have a full base attack progression. The brawler is a person who focuses on unarmed and improvised combat, the gunslinger focuses on firearms, and the swashbuckler is all about using agility and speed in battle. The fighter is more of a generalist, capable of handling multiple fighting styles. The rogue is the only class that doesn’t have fighting prowess or spells to fall back on. In order to make rogue characters more relevant to the setting, there should be a lot of noncombat hazards and opportunities for role-playing challenges that play to the rogue’s strengths.

The existence of the gunslinger on the list is automatically a big setting describer because it establishes that gunpowder is a thing in this setting. Additionally, the alchemist and swashbuckler both tend to be at home in higher-tech settings.

Given the race and class selections here, I’m getting a vision of a sort of “new world” campaign setting. A distant empire has recently established a foothold in a far-off continent. Beyond the relative safety of the main city and its handful of holdings lies a wild land with animals that walk like men, mischievous kitsune, and cunning hags that seduce men to create changeling daughters. The gods themselves are distant if they are named at all, but religious orders led by holy inquisitors clash often, with some wanting to eradicate the animal-things in the land and others seeking to protect it.

Given the theme of nature clashing with technology that I’ve described above, there might be a couple other classes worth adding as well, such as the barbarian and the bloodrager. Regardless of how I tweak things, though, I have effectively set the groundwork for an interesting campaign setting by just going through the race and class lists and picking a new default.

Dark Sun

Adaran pulls a bit of inspiration from D&D’s Dark Sun setting.

#2: Setting First, then Mechanics

If you already have an idea for a setting, changing the base races and classes available can help you customize it and provide your players with an immediate feel for what the campaign will be like. A world where tieflings are commonplace or where druids don’t exist is already a marked change from the default assumptions in Pathfinder and thus helps to set your players’ expectations.

In this example, I’ll provide some rough details of the setting before I start to determine the race and class roster. As before, I’ll stick to seven races and eleven classes for simplicity’s sake, although there’s no reason that number couldn’t expand if I thought it appropriate.

The continent of Adaran was once a lush region with vibrant jungles and impressive cities. Unfortunately, an ill-fated attempt lead by a clan of serpentfolk caused a magical cataclysm that destroyed much of civilization and left the continent a vast arid desert. The handful of oases scattered through the desert are ruled by tyrannical leaders called the Barons. These individuals care only about their personal wealth and power, doing everything they can to keep the citizenry cowed and subservient. In most cities, this includes a ban on written language, for magical texts and holy writings carry great secrets that could potentially unseat the barons. A desert society that has people capable of casting create water at will, for example, is one that no longer needs to pay the Barons’ exorbitant prices for simple drinking water.

This setting is a rough one where expansive deserts are the most common terrain and where natural magic is difficult to come by. With that in mind, here’s my core race roster:

  • Humans: Because they serve as a good baseline in almost any setting.
  • Elves: A race that calls back to the old days of Adaran, with some members who can recall the wonders that once were. Most elves have adapted to the harsh environment, and thus receive the desert runner alternate racial trait instead of elven magic.
  • Half-Elves: If there are humans and elves, it makes sense that half-elves would also exist.
  • Half-Orcs: An ideal group of creatures to serve as bodyguards and mercenaries for the Barons.
  • Hobgoblins: The Barons need slaves, and what better race to procure them from than the hobgoblins? Hated by the majority of the population, they would nonetheless be favored by the Barons, who value the quality of product that these militaristic goblinoids procure among the desert sands.
  • Ifrits: The burning deserts of Adaran would sometimes attract creatures from the Elemental Plane of Fire, leading to the creation of the occasional ifrit. With innate magic, their best bet would be to side with the Barons or hide their identities.
  • Nagaji: Serpentine humanoids that aren’t quite as monstrous as serpentfolk. They would be mistrusted, believed to be minions of the monsters who caused the cataclysm.

Those seven races represent the most common PC races available. Many of them do come with some role-playing challenges, which establishes that Adaran is a place where prejudice and discrimination is very common.

In terms of classes, magic would be kept rare and should be tied more to learning than something that is inherited naturally – a world with a lot of oracles and sorcerers in it would be hard for the Barons to control. Thus, my roster of classes looks like this:

  • Barbarians: Deadly berserkers and people of the sands who shun the protected civilizations offered by the Barons.
  • Clerics: Worshippers of gods who have to choose between serving the Barons directly or being jailed for practicing magic. The cleric spell list includes such spells as create water and create food and water, thus making them key to survival in the desert.
  • Druids: Spellcasters who either see the beauty in the desert and seek to preserve it or who long to return nature to the balance it once possessed. As with clerics, their spell list, including the create water orision, makes them a threat to the Barons. This campaign could make extensive use of the Desert Druid archetype.
  • Fighters: Mercenaries, warriors, and masters of arms. Basically unchanged from the Core Rulebook.
  • Hunters: Wild warriors who, like the druid and ranger, know their way around the desert but who have also mastered the wildlife of the region.
  • Magi: Deadly individuals who combine fighting skill with magic use, thus making them double threats to the Barons.
  • Rangers: The harsh desert environment needs tough people who can face the perils of the wild, and rangers are those people.
  • Rogues: Thieves, scouts, performers, and spies. Next to the fighter, the rogue is probably the most common PC class.
  • Samurai: Kind of an oddball addition given the setting, but one that works because of the importance of Barons to the setting. Each samurai would serve a Baron or act as ronin.
  • Slayers: Individuals who would primarily serve as servants of the Barons who track down enemies of the state but who may also turn their deadly abilities against the law of the land.
  • Wizards: Individuals who go against the will of the Barons and learn the secrets of forgotten lore that was once common knowledge.

That roster of classes includes six non-spellcasters. Of the five caster classes, three of them are full casters, meaning that they are trading off the stigma of being hunted for access to very high power later on. Two of them are partial casters, combining some pretty strong magic with martial skill. Those individuals might want to rely on their weapons in the city but might feel themselves capable of letting loose when they’re in the wild.

So given that race and class lineup, what does a completely new player know about the setting? There’s a desert theme, a lot of prejudice, and that magic is rarer than in the default Pathfinder setting. Those who wish to learn magic must do so through years of study and/or worship, with very few ever getting innate magical power. Martial prowess seems to be highly valued, and monstrous races such as hobgoblins and nagaji are not uncommon sights at the marketplace. All of these options exist in default Pathfinder, but by changing their focus and frequency it has been made clear that things are different even before the players are done rolling up their characters.

Moving Forward

Rasputin Must Die

This is a game where anything is possible.

The above examples provide only the bare-bones basics of a campaign setting, but they’re enough to get a game started. How much you flesh out the setting from there depends largely on what kind of GM you are. Some just want a thin veneer of a setting so they can jump right into adventures, while others want to detail the history behind every tree, hill, and building. Regardless of your style, there are two main points I’m trying to get across here.

First, it’s not that hard to lay out the basics of a campaign setting. Not every fantasy world needs to draw from Tolkien and Gygax, and differentiating your world from others that have come before it can sometimes be as easy as just coming up with a new list of PC races and classes.

Second, Pathfinder is a big game with a lot of options, and it’s pretty easy to use those options to customize the game to your style of play. The races and classes are entirely modular – you can remove one and plug another in with very little effect to the overall game. As stated in “The Most Important Rule” section of the Core Rulebook, “Remember that these rules are yours. You can change them to fit your needs.”

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