Player Advice: How to Make An Old School Character Using the Pathfinder Roleplaying Game

If you want an Old School feel to your Pathfinder game you’ve got to go back to the very beginning…

By William  McAusland (Outland Arts)
By William McAusland (Outland Arts)


I’ve talked a lot recently about the Old School style of play and my desire to marry it with the Pathfinder ruleset in my design of Gloamhold. One thing it’s important to remember about Old School play is that the experience starts way before party’s first dungeon. If you are going to do Old School properly, you’ve got to start with character generation.

With that in mind, I’ve roughed out some Old School guidelines for use in Pathfinder (and Gloamhold). These rules in no way support optimisation or min/maxing — to a certain degree you are at the mercy of the dice. This has some upsides, and it has some downsides:

  • Upside: Character generation is quicker, as players have fewer choices to make.
  • Downside: Characters are not optimised;  they are less effective than those created using more modern methods. A GM should keep this in mind when crafting adventures.
  • Upside: Characters are mechanically similar; thus their personas becomes much more important in differentiating them from their fellows. This promotes roleplaying.
  • Downside: Characters develop more organically and are not as designed as with other methods. This can lead to an unbalanced party, as it removes some of the choices from the generation process.
  • Upside: Characters are more rounded because the player isn’t assigning scores to attributes. With this method, there is no such things as a dump stat.

For this method of character generation, use only the options presented in the Pathfinder Roleplaying Game Core Rulebook. A close reading of the rules below will undoubtably show I have done away with certain aspects of Old School character generation. In particular, I don’t include class restrictions for demi-humans or racial prerequisites; I wasn’t wildly keen on those in the Good Old Days and I’m still not wildly keen on them now!

Stat Generation

Point buy is not Old School. In Old School you roll your stats and you assign them in the order you rolled. You’ve got two options:

  • Old School: 4d6 drop the lowest, in order.
  • Hardcore Old School: 3d6, in order.

If your character has an overall negative stat modifier, discard the character and re-roll (unless you don’t want to).

Choose Class and Race

Choose your race and class as normal, and apply the relevant racial modifiers.

Hardcore Old School: If you want a hardcore Old School experience, use the following class prerequisites:

  • Barbarian: Str 13, Dex 13, Con 13
  • Bard: Dex 12, Int 10, Cha 15
  • Cleric: Wis 10
  • Druid: Wis 12, Cha 15
  • Fighter: Str 9
  • Monk: Str 15, Dex 15, Con 11, Wis 15
  • Paladin: Str 12, Con 9, Wis 13, Cha 17
  • Ranger: Str 13, Dex 13, Con 14, Wis 14
  • Rogue: Dex 9
  • Sorcerer: Cha 12
  • Wizard: Int 10 (universalist), Int 13 (abjurer, conjurer et al) 

These prerequisite limit your choices somewhat, and result in most adventurers becoming clerics, fighters, rogues or wizards. This it turn means characters qualifying for classes such as barbarian, paladin, monk and so on are exceptional folk. Even sorcerers, rangers and druids are special people. I personally like this approach, because when everyone is special no one is special. However, it removes even more choice from character generation, which may not be to everyone’s taste.

Halfway House: Alternatively, you could tweak the above prerequisites slightly. Bonuses for high abilities scores start much lower in 3rd edition et al, than in earlier versions of the game. For example a Strength score of 17 gives a +1 to hit in 1st edition, but a +3 in Pathfinder. With this in mind, some of the higher prerequisites could be reduced by 2 or 4 points (depending on your preference).


Your character probably had a job or trade before he became an adventurer. Perhaps he worked with his family in the fields or was apprenticed to a craftsman. To simulate this, spend a free skill point on a Craft or Profession skill to account for his early training.

  • Hardcore Old School: If you’d rather, you can randomly determine which background skill your character knows. Roll a d20:
  1. Craft (armour)
  2. Craft (weapons)
  3. Profession (farmer, fisherman or miller)
  4. Profession (architect, engineer or scribe)
  5. Craft (jewellery)
  6. Craft (baker, brewer or butcher)
  7. Craft (carpentry or stonemasonry)
  8. Profession (miner)
  9. Profession (sailor)
  10. Profession (merchant/trader)
  11. Profession (carter)
  12. Craft (tailor, leatherworker or cobbler)
  13. Craft (artist: paintings or sculptor)
  14. Handle Animal
  15. Heal
  16. Perform (choose any one)
  17. Craft (choose any one)
  18. Profession (choose any one)
  19. No skill of measurable worth
  20. Roll twice on this table; ignore this result hereafter

Knowing what your character did before he became an adventurer might give you an insight into why he took up such a danger-filled life. Perhaps a gambler adventures to clear his debts while a merchant or trader could have become fascinated with foreign cultures and travelling. Similarly, your character could have hated his profession or trade so much he became an adventurer to escape it. Alternatively, he could have been so bad at his previous job his master threw him out onto the streets; with no other options the life of an adventurer beckoned.

Starting Wealth and Gear

Roll your starting gold as normal. To add depth and detail to this facet of character generation consider how he came into these funds.

When buying gear:

  • Don’t buy anything from the Special Substances and Items table.
  • Don’t buy any cold iron, mithral or adamantine items.
  • Be sure to buy the staples of dungeoning equipment: rope, pitons, flasks of oil, a light source and so on. If you’d rather skip this step, buy one of these equipment bundles.
  • Keep 10% of your wealth back for in-game expenses. This money could be spent on bribes, fines and taxes and (of course) paying your hirelings’ or specialist’s wages and fees.

Example Adventuring Parties

Just for fun, I’ve rolled up two starting adventuring parties using this system. I haven’t fully fleshed out these characters, but they still give you a sense of the kind of group you could expect to see adventuring in Gloamhold. I picked a group size of six for these groups as I have six players in my home campaign.

Group 1: Hardcore Old School

  • Etune Lightstep (NG female halfling rogue 1; Str 9, Dex 14, Con 9, Int 7, Wis 12, Cha 16; Profession [gambler])
  • Aldal Garsten (NG male dwarf fighter; Str 15, Dex 13, Con 12, Int 10, Wis 12, Cha 8; Profession [miner])
  • Ylermi Rantanen (LG male human wizard [evoker] 1; Str 9, Dex 12, Con 7, Int 16, Wis 10, Cha 10; Craft [jewellery])
  • Firatis Natityrr (CG female half-elf bard 1; Str 8, Dex 15, Con 7, Int 12, Wis 11, Cha 15; Profession [carter])
  • Ilari Eskola (LG male human cleric [Darlen] 1; Str 14, Dex 8, Con 15, Int 9, Wis 17, Cha 13; Profession [architect])
  • Aune Pasanen (CG female wizard [universalist] 1; Str 5, Dex 11, Con 10, Int 16, Wis 12, Cha 8; Craft [tailor])

Group 2: Old School

  • Amallaemar Uthliavar (NG female half-elf wizard; Str 9, Dex 10, Con 8, Int 15, Wis 11, Cha 11; Craft [sculptor])
  • Elgal Torsten (NG male dwarf rogue 1; Str 8, Dex 16, Con 13, Int 13, Wis 16, Cha 10; Profession [engineer])
  • Urmas Lankinen (LG male human cleric [Darlen] 1; Str 12, Dex 13, Con 11, Int 13, Wis 18, Cha 16; Craft [armour])
  • Ogan (NG female half-orc cleric [Kalron] 1; Str 14, Dex 10, Con 11, Int 8, Wis 15, Cha 11; Perform [wind])
  • Valto Itkonen (CG male human barbarian 1; Str 18, Dex 14, Con 14, Int 14, Wis 13, Cha 11; Profession [merchant])
  • Leneal Ningel (NG female gnome druid 1; Str 9, Dex 9, Con 17, Int 13, Wis 14, Cha 16; [Craft [leather])]

What Do You Think?

What do you think — does this method give characters an Old School feel? Did I miss something? Let me know in the comments below.

Do you want to learn more about the characters above? Should I use them as my Gloamhold iconics? If so, which party should I use?

Finally — why not make a character using one of these methods and post his details in the comments below. Who knows — they might end up in Gloamhold!


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Creighton is the publisher at Raging Swan Press and the designer of the award winning adventure Madness at Gardmore Abbey. He has designed many critically acclaimed modules such as Retribution and Shadowed Keep on the Borderlands and worked with Wizards of the Coast, Paizo, Expeditious Retreat Press, Rite Publishing and Kobold Press.

22 thoughts on “Player Advice: How to Make An Old School Character Using the Pathfinder Roleplaying Game”

  1. A fun exercise!

    Stat array: 8 12 11 14(16) 12 5

    I’m assuming we are sticking to the Pathfinder Core Rulebook for this exercise.

    Hurell, N male wizard(evocation) 1

    With this Hardcore Old School line, Human Wizard (Evocation.) So the +2 racial bumps Int to 16.
    Profession: Scribe (rolled the d20)
    Opposed School: Necromancy
    Gear: dagger, spellbook, spell component pouch, pen, ink, chalk, sack, pet rock (see below)

    Pet rock- Her name is Graggles, she is a shiny zinc-granite unbroken geode. About the size of an orange, can be used as an improvised thrown weapon. Graggles is Hurell’s friend. (this could stand-in for a familiar or bonded object) Graggles is a recoverable thrown weapon.

    Hurell survived a terrible explosion in his master’s laboratory when an alchemical experiment went awry, creating a flesh-eating vapor that permanently scarred his face into a twisted visage of green horror. Hurell’s lips peeled away from the gums but he can still recite the verbal components of spells as his teeth have slid to the left side of his face, occupying that cheek as a verbal font. Where one would assume a human’s mouth is a patch of scarred skin.

    Hurell is a loner, but desires companionship. Ergo, Graggles serves as a kind of warped companion for the evoker. As long as Graggles is in company, Hurell is confidant. He knows his magical aptitude is enough to overcome his physical deformities, yet he is always researching methods to reverse his horrible disfigurement.

  2. I would be more worried about whether Pathfinder gives an old school *gameplay*. IMO a lot of basic PF assumptions will have to be swept off the table for that to work, fx. wealth pr level, CoDZilla, wands of cure light wounds, magic item crafting, Fighters absolutely sucking at saves and many more.

    1. Wealth by level actually is pretty much a thing in most old school games. It’s a consequence of most of the XP coming from treasure — combat-gained XP is a relatively small part of advancement.

      CoDZilla is less prevalent, but still there. However, you’re right that the healing stick goes, item crafting sort of (as much as it was a pain, you could create magic items in old school games), and fighters sucking at saves is totally not on, they had great saves back in the day.

      1. White Dwarf ran an awesome series of article back in the mid-50s about magic item creation called, I think “Eye of Newt. It added a tremendous amount of flavour back into the creation of magic items. Thanks for reminding me of it, I think I’ll have to dig my copies out of storage!

  3. While I was taking a brief hiatus from the GM duties a couple years ago, our fill-in GM had us create characters in the hardcore old school fashion for the adventures he ran. I still have a copy of the character here… we rolled 3d6 and placed them in order. No discarding the stats regardless of how dreadful they may be.

    Artov Kerenesky Human Alchemist Lvl 2 (at time of death)
    Str: 8 Dex: 5 Con: 10 Int: 12 (14) Wis: 11 Cha:10

    Poor weak, clumsy Artov had a rough go of it, though he did last through seven of the eight nights of that mini-campaign; he was devoured by a pair of ghouls in the second to last session. His Jekyll/Hyde aspirations were never to bear fruit.

    I recall having fun, though in the end it really made me crave some first or second edition AD&D. When I resumed GMing, during an expedition into the dread domains of Ravenloft, I retro-converted all of the characters from Pathfinder to second edition. The wtf looks on my players’ faces when I handed out their converted characters were hilarious.

  4. How would rogue skills be handled, likewise those of the monk and ranger (who gets traking, animal empathy as well as stealth?). Would rogues and rangers get bonuses to stealth?

    Would clerics, monks and paladins get the knowledge: religeon skill automatically? What about wizards and sorcerers? Do they get Knowledge: Arcana?

    Many aspects of Pathfinder classes are ties up in the skill system, should your article list what classes get which skills?

    In the old school editions, a cleric need only have the requisite experience level to cast a spell, is this boon removed? What about arcane casters? Can they cast spells higher than 10+ability score, level spells?

    Do we include feats in Old School play?

  5. I think if you want more oldschool, play D&D 5E. I don’t believe Pathfinder will manage to support this style in the long run, it wasn’t designed for it.

    1. You got it!!!

      If you want to play old school, JUST TAKE OFF THE DUST FROM THE AD&D HANDBOOKS.

    2. Actually, I’m running a FGG campaign which is quite healthy, two groups going simultaneously and the players are scared to death that every rolled die means that something horrible is afoot. They had to actually make third level to unlock a 4d6-drop low die as an option. The party average is just now cresting 4th level, and the parties involved are notorious about quibbling for an hour how the party funds should be spent.

      The slow campaign is why it is working. That and my steadfast adherence to a mindset that would make Bill Webb and Gary Gygax chortle with glee. When one of the friendly NPC wizards made the statement, “Yeah, from what the word is from Old School street, the Circle of Sequestered Magicks has issued a decree that all Words of Power magicians are to be slaughtered on sight. They had a real issue with Sorcerors coming about, and because it is something that is widespread, they can’t put the lid on that. The draconic words, though, they can go send sappers everywhere, collapse them. They can find the users of this simplified style of magic, and animate their corpses to follow them back to their towers, and be mules the rest of our tangental timeline.”

      My players just sat there, the Dragon-bloodline sorc player nodded, while she was playing the thief in the opposite game…understanding that this was meant as audience information, not for her other character…and she is scared to death about it.

  6. We always uses either roll 4d6 drop lowest, or roll 3d6 re-roll ones. Roll in order went out the window before second edition. Interesting, but I would have a mutiny if I tried to force this on my group. Lately we have tried point buy and 15, 14, 13, 12, 11, 10 before racial mods, assign as you like.

  7. You’re right in something: There’s no dump stat.
    But there’s gonna be some dump CHARACTERS.

    And Also… if I force my characters to keep with this method, I would have to use the same method to create the monsters. And having an evil sorceror with CHA-14, unable to make anything really scary…

    You can say a ton of times “What Stats don’t give, you can make it with good narration”. But I’d rather preffer to have good stats (And a better gaming experience) AND good narration.

  8. It’s a fun exercise, but honestly, why not just play some old school, either AD&D 1st or 2nd Edition or one of the free old school retros?

    Also, I’ve been playing AD&D since 1981 and even then we didn’t do the “in order” deal. Most common was 3D6 or 4D6(drop the lowest), in any order. Most groups tended to have you roll three sets of scores and choose one of them to be your character.

    One of the more interesting methods was to roll 6 sets of stats, stacked making a 6×6 grid. Then you could choose your stats by picking a row (left to right)or a column(top to bottom) or diagonally (top left to bottom right or top right to bottom left.) BUT, using this method, you had to keep them in order.

  9. What do I think? I think you included a bunch of classes that aren’t old school at all. 🙂

    There are 4 classes (7 if you count non-humans):
    Fighter, Cleric, Wizard, Thief.

    You can be an Elf, but you must 50/50 multiclass as Fighter/Wizard. Dwarves are Fighters. Halflings are Thieves.

    That’s old school 🙂

    (Though, I honestly prefer the way non-humans are handled since they were separated from being classes; but I otherwise don’t see a need for more than the core 4 classes; especially not when you have 3e or 5e style multiclassing, or with 5e class options)

  10. I would definitely like to try this, but I’m pretty sure the rest of my group would be less likely to want to.

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