PF1 Essentials, Spell Redesign Goals (and Hold Person)

Obviously if I am doing a redesign of elements of the Pathfinder Roleplaying Game (and this Index suggests I might be…), one of the things I need to tackle is spells. It’s extremely easy for spellcasters to dominate spotlight time in a campaign, because they have a powerful, flexible toolset that can be applied to nearly any problem. “Fixing” that is a narrow line to walk, since it’s one of the things that appeals to people who love spellcasters, and it’s easy to go too far in the opposite direction, or make spellcasters and other classes so similar they lose their distinctive play experience.

Some of the fix can be done by looking at broader options for other classes. But some spells just need to be reconsidered. They may be overpowered, or underpowered, but most importantly, they may lead to less fun in play. So let’s talk about the most frustrating and swingy spell in the Pathfinder Roleplaying Game– hold person.

If your target makes their saving throw, you accomplish nothing that round. Nothing at all. Sure, when a fighter swings his sword and misses he may accomplish nothing, but the fighter doesn’t have a daily limit on how often they can swing a sword. Plus, it’s much easier for a fighter to get multiple attacks per round than for a spellcaster to get multiple spells per round. Ignoring balance, it’s just not FUN when you burn a resource for an iconic spell and nothing-at-all happens.

On the flip side, if your target fails their saving throw, odds are they’re out of the fight. Yes, they could save on their next turn–but while paralyzed they are subject to sneak attacks and coup de grace, and at minimum they lose a full round of action. I’ve been watching hold person get used for 20 years, and 75% of the time if the target fails their save, their dead before they ever get to act again. This is particularly worrying since so much of PF1 encounter design assumes a group of multiple heroes face off against one monster. The action economy already favors the PCs, and if they take a full round of actions from the foe, it’s generally game over. Which, to be honest, is often less fun for everyone else, especially if the spellcaster refuses to risk encounters if they don’t have this spell available.

Rather than these two extreme factors being balanced, they create two different but equally extreme unbalances.

So we need a spell that always has some effect, sometimes has lots of effect, but rarely has an encounter-ending effect.

While we are at it, I foresee breaking spells into three categories — arcane, divine, and psychic, to match the three kinds of spellcaster. Spells will also be broken into common, uncommon, and rare. Classes get spells of a given school(s) and rarity. So a wizard might get common, uncommon, and rare arcane spells, while a witch gets common and uncommon arcane spells, and common psychic spells. We can add a few class-specific spells in each category, like oracle’s burden is an oracle-only spell on the cleric spell list in standard PF1. (This system has oodles of advantages over each class having its own lit, which I’ll discuss in another post).

(Art by Lunstream) (I assume this guy got held in that stupid pose)

Hold Person
School enchantment (compulsion) [mind-affecting]; Level arcane 2 (common), divine 2 (common), psychic 2 (common)
Casting Time 1 standard action
Components V, S, F/DF
Range medium (100 ft. + 10 ft./level)
Target one humanoid creature
Duration 1 round/level (D); see text
Saving Throw Will partial; Spell Resistance yes

The subject is staggered. A target that makes its saving throw is staggered for just 1 round. A target that fails its saving throw by 5 or more is dazed for 1 round, then staggered for the spell’s duration. A target with a CR greater that double this spell’s spell level is never effected for more than 1 round. A target with a CR greater that double this spell’s spell level that makes its save by 5 or more is not affected at all.
A winged creature staggered by this spell must land, and must take 1 action to do so each round while flying.

Hold Person, Mass
School enchantment (compulsion) [mind-affecting]; Level arcane 7 (rare), psychic 7 (uncommon)
Targets one or more humanoid creatures all within a 20-foot-radius

This spell functions like hold person, except as noted above.

I have a Patreon. It supports the time I take to do all my blog posts. If you’d like to see more Pathfinder 1st edition options (or more rules for other game systems, fiction, game industry essays, game design articles, worldbuilding tips, whatever!), try joining for just a few bucks and month and letting me know!

About Owen K.C. Stephens

Owen K.C. Stephens Owen Kirker Clifford Stephens is a full-time ttRPG Writer, designer, developer, publisher, and consultant. He's the publisher for Rogue Genius Games, and has served as the Starfinder Design Lead for Paizo Publishing, the Freeport and Pathfinder RPG developer for Green Ronin, a developer for Rite Publishing, and the Editor-in-Chief for Evil Genius Games. Owen has written game material for numerous other companies, including Wizards of the Coast, Kobold Press, White Wolf, Steve Jackson Games and Upper Deck. He also consults, freelances, and in the off season, sleeps. He has a Pateon which supports his online work. You can find it at

Posted on October 22, 2020, in Game Design, Pathfinder Development and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 1 Comment.

  1. >>Did you mean Caster level on Hold Person? Otherwise it affects nothing above CR 4.<<

    Unless you use Heighten Spell. So, no, I meant Spell Level.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: