Rules Index | GM Screen | Player's Guide

Chapter 2: Building Games

Variant Rules

Source GM Core pg. 82
While the rules presented in Player Core and the rest of this book are designed to give you and your group a baseline experience that's easy to learn and fun to play, sometimes you're looking for more customizable options. That's where variant rules come in: options to alter the game's rules to fit your needs. This section adds a collection of variant rules to your toolbox, often with additional options for how to use them.

The variants included in this chapter are divided into the following sections.
  • Automatic Bonus Progression (page 83) presents a variant for playing the game without relying on fundamental runes to enhance damage and accuracy.
  • Free Archetype (page 84) presents a method of character generation that adds an archetype to a character's advancement without requiring them to spend their standard class feats.
  • Level 0 Characters (page 84) can play through the characters' adventures before they take on character classes.
  • Proficiency without Level (page 85) changes the math of the proficiency system to tell stories where being outnumbered by weaker foes remains a challenge and high-level characters are less superhuman.

Choosing Variant Rules

Source GM Core pg. 82
When you and your group are deciding which variant rules to use, think about the types of stories you want to tell together, including the genre, themes, and characters, to choose which variant rules might be the best fit.

If you're not sure about a variant rule, take a chance! Make sure everyone in your group understands that this is a trial run and that you might need to adjust or remove the variant rules later on if they're causing unexpected side effects or not working as you intended. When you're playing with variant rules, be sure to let any new players who join the group know about the variant rules your group has chosen. This helps them set their expectations, which is important for making sure there is a feeling of fairness among your players.

If your group is playing a game with themes that call for it, you might wind up combining multiple variant rules together, possibly applying several options at the same time. For instance, in a gritty, low-magic, survival-horror game, you might start the PCs as 0-level characters and alter the proficiency bonus progression to remove level at the same time. In general, the variant options in this chapter are sufficiently self-contained, with explanations of how they change the game, that you should be able to combine them without trouble. When you design your own variant rules, be on the lookout for places where new rules might have unexpected overlapping effects on each other and the game.

Automatic Bonus Progression

Source GM Core pg. 83
This variant removes the item bonus to rolls and DCs usually provided by magic items (with the exception of armor’s item bonus) and replaces it with a new kind of bonus—potency—to reflect a character’s innate ability. In this variant, magic items, if they exist at all, can provide unique special abilities rather than numerical increases.

Special Class Features

Source GM Core pg. 83
Every character automatically gains the class features on the Automatic Bonus Progression table.

Table 4-11: Automatic Bonus Progression

2Attack potency +1
3Skill potency (one at +1)
4Devastating attacks (two dice)
5Defense potency +1
6Skill potency (two at +1 each)
7Perception potency +1
8Saving throw potency +1
9Skill potency (one at +2, one at +1)
10Attack potency +2
11Defense potency +2
12Devastating attacks (three dice)
13Perception potency +2; skill potency (two at +2 each, one at +1)
14Saving throw potency +2
15Skill potency (three at +2 each, one at +1)
16Attack potency +3
17Ability apex; skill potency (one at +3, two at +2 each, two at +1 each)
18Defense potency +3
19Devastating attacks (four dice), Perception potency +3
20Saving throw potency +3; skill potency (two at +3 each, two at +2 each, two at +1 each)

Attack Potency

Source GM Core pg. 83
Starting at 2nd level, you gain a +1 potency bonus to attack rolls with all weapons and unarmed attacks. This increases to +2 at 10th level, and +3 at 16th level.

Skill Potency

Source GM Core pg. 83
At 3rd level, choose a single skill. You gain a +1 potency bonus with that skill. At 6th level, choose a second skill to gain a +1 potency bonus. At 9th level, choose one of those skills and increase its potency bonus to +2. At 13th level, increase the potency bonus of your second skill to +2 and choose a third skill to gain a +1 potency bonus. At 15th level, increase the third skill’s potency bonus to +2 and choose a fourth skill to gain a +1 potency bonus. At 17th level, choose one of your three skills with a +2 potency bonus to increase to +3, and choose a fifth skill to gain a +1 potency bonus. Finally, at 20th level, choose one of the two skills with a +2 potency bonus to increase to +3, choose one of the three skills at a +1 potency bonus to increase to +2, and choose one new skill to gain a +1 potency bonus. You can spend 1 week to retrain one of these assignments at any time.

Devastating Attacks

Source GM Core pg. 83
At 4th level, your weapon and unarmed Strikes deal two damage dice instead of one. This increases to three at 12th level and to four at 19th level.

Defense Potency

Source GM Core pg. 83
At 5th level, you gain a +1 potency bonus to AC. At 11th level, this bonus increases to +2, and at 18th level, to +3.

Perception Potency

Source GM Core pg. 83
At 7th level, you gain a +1 potency bonus to Perception, increasing to +2 at level 13 and +3 at level 19.

Saving Throw Potency

Source GM Core pg. 83
At 8th level, you gain a +1 potency bonus to saves, increasing to +2 at level 14 and +3 at level 20.

Ability Apex

Source GM Core pg. 83
At 17th level, choose one attribute score to either increase by 2 or increase to 18 (whichever grants the higher score).

Adjusting Items and Treasure

Source GM Core pg. 83
With this variant, you can ignore as much of the Party Treasure by Level table on page 59 as you want, though you'll usually want to provide consistent currency. The main area your choice will impact is in spellcasting items, such as scrolls and wands.

Remove all potency runes, striking runes, and resilient runes. Items that normally grant an item bonus to statistics or damage dice no longer do, other than the base item bonus to AC from armor. Apex items do not increase attribute modifiers. If your world still includes magic items, a safe bet is to continue to give out consumable items at roughly the rate on page 59.

If you choose to eliminate runes entirely, this can reduce the PCs' damage since they won't have runes like flaming or holy. If you've removed nearly all treasure, challenges might become more difficult, even with automatic bonuses.

Free Archetype

Source GM Core pg. 84
Sometimes the story of your game calls for a group where everyone is a pirate or an apprentice at a magic school. The free archetype variant introduces a shared aspect to every character without taking away any of that character’s existing choices.

Building a Character

Source GM Core pg. 84
The only difference between a normal character and a free archetype character is that the character receives an extra class feat at 2nd level and every even level thereafter that they can use only for archetype feats. You might restrict the free feats to those of a single archetype each character in the group has (for a shared backstory), those of archetypes fitting a certain theme (such as only ones from magical archetypes in a game set in a magic school), or entirely unrestricted if you just want a higher-powered game.

If the group all has the same archetype or draws from a limited list, you might want to ignore the free archetype's normal restriction of selecting a certain number of feats before taking a new archetype. That way a character can still pursue another archetype that also fits their character.

Playing with Free Archetypes

Source GM Core pg. 84
Free-archetype characters are a bit more versatile and powerful than normal, but usually not so much that they unbalance your game. However, due to the characters’ increased access to archetype feats, you should place a limit on the number of feats that scale based on a character’s number of archetype feats (mainly multiclass Resiliency feats). Allowing a character to benefit from a number of these feats equal to half their level is appropriate.

Level 0 Characters

Source GM Core pg. 84
Before they were heroes, every PC came from somewhere, whether they worked on a farm like Valeros or picked pockets on the streets like Seelah. Sometimes, it can be a lot of fun to play a prequel game set years before the PCs’ first adventure as heroes, or you may have an idea for a low-powered adventure that calls for commoners and apprentices. The rules below provide ways to build and use level 0 PCs.

Building Characters

Source GM Core pg. 84
Building a level 0 character is similar to building a 1st-level character, but you stop after choosing your ancestry and background. A level 0 character still gets the four free attribute boosts from Step 6 of the normal character creation process, but not the class attribute boost.

Initial Proficiencies

Source GM Core pg. 84
A level 0 character is trained in Perception, all saving throws, unarmed attacks, unarmored defense, and one simple weapon of their choice. Additionally, they are trained in a number of skills equal to 2 + their Intelligence modifier. The proficiency bonus for a level 0 character works the same way as normal, but since the level is 0, the total proficiency bonus for being trained is +2.

Hit Points

Source GM Core pg. 84
A level 0 character adds their Constitution modifier to their ancestry Hit Points to determine their starting Hit Points.

Starting Money

Source GM Core pg. 84
A level 0 character starts with 5 gp (50 sp) for equipment.

Apprentice Option

Source GM Core pg. 84
If the story you want to tell is about characters who have started training to become a particular class, you can grant them a small number of additional abilities. An apprentice character is trained in the skill or skills specified for their chosen class (such as Occultism and Performance for a bard) in addition to the skills they gain through their initial proficiencies. They also gain benefits based on the class.

Alchemist: An apprentice alchemist gains the advanced alchemy portion of the alchemy class feature. Their advanced alchemy level is 1, and they have one batch of infused reagents each day. They can make only infused alchemical items.
Monk: An apprentice monk gains the powerful fist class feature.
Other Martial Class: An apprentice of another martial class (fighter, ranger, or rogue, for example) is trained in light armor, all simple weapons, and one martial weapon listed in the class's initial proficiencies. If a martial class not listed here lacks light armor or martial weapon training (as the monk does), give it a different ability as well.
Spellcaster: An apprentice spellcaster is trained in the appropriate magic tradition and gains two cantrips from their class. A prepared caster can't change these cantrips each day.


Source GM Core pg. 84
Combat can be especially dangerous for level 0 characters. For safety’s sake, you might treat the characters as level –1 when determining what combat encounters are appropriate. For skill checks, they can still accomplish tasks with a simple trained DC using their trained skills, but success is less certain. Since they have fewer skills, the party might not have anyone trained for a given task. If you’re playing these characters for more than a few sessions, consider advancing them to 1st level using the fast advancement speed (800 XP). If your group wants a longer experience at level 0, start the group without the apprentice benefits, then level up to apprentice (gaining those benefits and the apprentice adjustments for their class), and then level up to 1st level.


Source GM Core pg. 85
As the characters start with 5 gp, their adventures up to 1st level should account for the rest of a 1st-level character’s starting money. That means you’ll distribute treasure worth 10 gp × the number of PCs, a large percentage of which should be in currency.

Proficiency without Level

Source GM Core pg. 85
This variant removes a character's level from their proficiency bonus, scaling it differently for a style of game that's outside the norm. This is a significant change to the system. The proficiency rank progression in Player Core is designed for heroic fantasy games where heroes rise from humble origins to world-shattering strength. For some games, this narrative arc doesn't fit. Such games are about hedging bets in an uncertain and gritty world, in which even the world's best fighter can't guarantee a win against a large group of moderately skilled brigands.

The initial implementation is fairly straightforward: the proficiency bonus just becomes +2 for trained, +4 for expert, +6 for master, and +8 for legendary. It's best to give an untrained character a –2 proficiency modifier instead of a +0 proficiency bonus.

Additionally, for creatures, hazards, magic items, and so on, reduce each statistic that would include a proficiency bonus by the level of the creature or other rules element. These statistics are typically modifiers and DCs for attacks, ACs, saving throws, Perception, skills, and spells.

Finally, decrease the skill DCs of most tasks. You can just subtract the level from the DC tables on page 53, or you can reference the Simple Skill DCs (No Level) table for a set of DCs that's easier to remember. The new DCs make it a little harder for high-level characters to succeed than it would be when using the default numbers, in keeping with the theme mentioned earlier. Combat outcomes will tend to flatten out, with critical successes and critical failures being less likely across the game. This is particularly notable in spells, where you're less likely to see the extreme effects of critical failures on saves.

Table 4-17: Simple Skill DCs (No Level)

Proficiency RankDC

Adjusting Encounters

Source GM Core pg. 85
Telling stories where a large group of low-level monsters can still be a significant threat to a high-level PC (and conversely, where a single higher-level monster is not much of a threat to a group of PCs) requires some significant shifts in encounter building, including shifts in the PCs' rewards.

Under the default math, two monsters of a certain level are roughly as challenging as a single monster 2 levels higher. However, with level removed from proficiency, this assumption is no longer true. The XP budget for creatures uses a different scale, as shown in the Creature XP (No Level) table. You'll still use the same XP budget for a given threat level as shown on the Encounter Budget table on page 75 (80 XP for a moderate-threat encounter, 120 for a severe-threat encounter, and so on).

Table 4-18: Creature XP (No Level)

Creature’s LevelXP
Party level – 79
Party level – 612
Party level – 514
Party level – 418
Party level – 321
Party level – 226
Party level – 132
Party level40
Party level + 148
Party level + 260
Party level + 372
Party level + 490
Party level + 5108
Party level + 6135
Party level + 7160

While the XP values in the Creature XP (No Level) table work well in most cases, sometimes they might not account for the effects of creatures' special abilities when facing a party of a drastically different level. For instance, a ghost mage could prove too much for 5th-level PCs with its incorporeality, flight, and high-rank spells, even though it's outnumbered.

Adjusting Treasure

Source GM Core pg. 85
Items on standard creatures are chosen to avoid giving out too much treasure for the level at which PCs will typically fight them. However, using this variant, PCs might defeat a creature 5 levels higher than they are, or even more! Too many encounters with higher-level foes can wind up giving the PCs more treasure than you expected, or vice versa if they’re fighting weaker foes that put up more of a fight but still have poor treasure. You can make periodic adjustments if the PCs’ treasure drifts too far from expectations. Making it so they can’t easily sell or buy magic items will mean it’s harder for them to exploit treasure they gain. To sidestep the issue entirely, you can use automatic bonus progression (page 83).