Sidebar Wednesday: Aptitudes

This is the third in a new series of weekly blog posts where we'll be making free our Sidebar product line for the Pathfinder Roleplaying Game.


When players level their characters, they make decisions regarding the new feats and skills they will select. These are conscious choices made by the players, usually to enhance their characters. Even unoptimal choices in a feat or skill are the players’ choice. Some players even select to advance in a different class. Often, the reasons behind these choices are hand waved as happening behind the scenes during the downtime between adventuring—the rogue somehow gains a level of wizard while the fighter learns the discipline to be a monk. It is easy to explain that the players were practicing all this time, and it gives players choices in making their characters. Aptitudes, on the other hand, are the GM’s decision to create and give out based on what players do in game.

What are Aptitudes?

Essentially, aptitudes are personalized special abilities geared toward a specific player based on the actions of the player’s character. Aptitudes are created organically from game play. They not only reward role-play but also sometimes roll-play as well, acknowledging the quirks and chances of circumstance of an individual player’s character.

Creating Aptitudes

Creating an appropriate aptitude for a character takes several sessions of observing your players’ characters and how they handle the events presented to them. It helps to ask these questions to get started.

  • Is there one particular skill, ability, or attack a player seems to consistently roll well on?
  • Is the player using a particular class ability or skill in a new and interesting way to achieve positive results?
  • When role-playing a character, is the player displaying a particular quirk, habit, activity, etc.?
  • When placed in situation X, is the player consistently doing Y to come out on top?
  • For whatever reason, is there a random element or situation that keeps occurring to a particular player?

If you can answer “yes” to one or more of the above questions, then you have an aptitude in the making. When thinking about what the aptitude should be, you want it to derive from the questions above. The aptitude should then give players an edge to succeed at whichever of the above questions applies to them.
Once you have an idea for an aptitude, creating it is relatively easy—you don’t have to be an accomplished game designer because they do not have to be complicated.
Here are the guidelines I use when creating aptitudes for my games.

  • First and foremost, it must be unique and original to the character.
  • Must provide a tangible, useful benefit based on play.
  • Power level should be around the benefits of a feat or slightly less.
  • I cap most aptitudes at a usage of three times per day unless it’s something that applies to a specific attack.

For example, you have a player that always rolls a natural 20 on Bluff checks when your players need it the most to get out of trouble. You decide this would make a good aptitude for the player and that now when the player rolls a natural 20 on Bluff checks, the player can implant a minor suggestion into the target’s mind because the player is so believable. It’s unique to the character, has a tangible benefit, and is relatively balanced since it works off a natural 20. If you didn’t want to use a natural 20, then you can make the condition that the player exceeds the check by X amount. Aptitudes should always have a purpose.

Assigning Aptitudes

When aptitudes come into play depends on the length of your campaign. I have assigned aptitudes to players as early as 4th level and as late as 7th. Here are a few tips to keep in mind when assigning aptitudes.

  • Aptitudes need to come from play, so it will be several sessions before you start assigning them.
  • Assign aptitudes to the whole group and instead of one at a time (no player wants to see another player get a shiny new toy). The aptitudes should be relatively balanced against one another.
  • Assign aptitudes when the players level up their characters.
  • Assign aptitudes when you need to inject a little excitement into a campaign. Little extra perks are a great way to get you and your players reinvested.

How many aptitudes you assign is up to you and the needs of your campaign. You may decide to do it every 4 levels or just once. Sometimes you may be able to scale the aptitude, slightly increasing its benefit as players gain more levels.

More Examples

The following aptitudes were created for a campaign I’m currently running. I am including the aptitude, its description, and how it came about in play.

Strength Surge (Ex): Three times per day as an immediate action, whenever you make a Strength roll, a Skill check roll that uses Strength, or one attack roll, you gain a +4 morale bonus to Strength.
How it came about: One of my players runs an oracle with an 18 Strength (at the time, the highest in the party). This particular player usually has terrible luck with rolls; However, multiple times during the campaign at especially cinematic moments, he rolled a natural 20 on his Strength roll like when he lifted up a portcullis while arrows rained down on him and his allies.

Flash of Insight (Ex): Three times per day, you may make a Knowledge check in any untrained Knowledge skill with a bonus equal to 3 + your Intelligence modifier.
How it came about: The fighter in the group decided to be the magister in the players’ kingdom. He took it upon himself to liaise with scholarly types and studied at the library during his downtime. This ability represents him recalling bits and pieces he read in books.

Defender’s Shield (Su): Three times per day as an immediate action, you may apply your shield bonus to an adjacent ally for one single attack.

How it came about: The holy vindicator in the party loves his vindicator’s shield ability. He often swings back in forth in fights between a melee fighter and a healer. This ability represents him being able to use his faith and melee process to protect his allies.

Finishing Bite (Ex): Your bite attack is treated as a magical weapon for the purposes of bypassing damage reduction.
*Note: I often scale this one, starting with magic and then moving onto other materials (like silver) depending on the nature of the enemies the player fought.
How it came about: I’ve used this ability in two different campaigns. For some reason, whenever I have a player with a bite attack, it is always that couple of hit points of damage that finishes of an enemy—usually a big one and all the players cheer. This ability keeps players’ bite attacks relevant without the expenditure of magic items as well as the excitement of finishing off a foe with a well-placed bite.

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Sidebar- Aptitudes © Fat Goblin Games 2015; Author John Bennett