The Occult 7 rules variant is still very much Pathfinder you know and love, but with some unique and distinct changes.
Only Seven Levels of Play
First, O7 focuses on the first seven levels of play, with each character gaining a capstone ability at level 7. After that, PCs stop leveling in the traditional way, instead gaining a Feat each time they complete four additional episodes. How players spend these Feats are completely up to them, but they are designed in such a way as to allow players to customize their characters in the areas they feel are best suited for them. One player might spend a Feat to advance their career, while another might spend a Feat to gain a unique bonus, advance an ability score, or to otherwise unlock a particular class skill (from a higher level).
The idea behind this development is actually two-fold.
First, it is intended to slow leveling considerably, keeping PCs in that "sweet spot" for as long as possible. In a modern setting like Bloodlines & Black Magic, this means most characters who finally reach 7th level play like the legends they've become, but without becoming completely untouchable by lower level threats. Boomer explains the idea here rather succinctly. For O7, the levels of play break down like this:
Noob - "Get out of the way, noob."
1st-2nd level characters in the 07 system are relatively new, but slowly awakening heroes. They enjoy a small hit point boost, an extra trait, and an extra starting Feat. Most of Season One will play at this level. 1st level characters need to complete at least 8 episodes before advancing to level 3.
Expert - "Everyone's an expert these days..."
3rd-4th level characters in the 07 system are far more resilient at this level of play. They gain a +1 ability score bonus at 3rd level and extra BP (bloodline points) at 4th level, allowing them to unlock additional bloodline abilities (players using the O7 system in a more traditional fantasy game could easily substitute bloodline points for racial build points). Experts need to complete at least 16 episodes before advancing to level 5.
Veteran - "Don't mess with vets."
5th-6th level characters in the O7 system have seen a lot of action. While not legends, these characters have seen more than most. At both of these levels, these characters gain both a bonus Feat (instead of just one at 5th level). Veterans need to complete at least 24 episodes before advancing to level 7.
Legends - "She's a legend, mate."
7th+ level characters have become legends at this point. No one is quite sure just how powerful these characters truly are, although almost all of them remain mortals. At 7th level, characters gain more BP (bloodline points), a bonus Feat, their capstone class ability, and a +2 bonus to a single ability score. Each level after this, they gain a Feat in place of a level. Each time a legend completes 4 additional episodes, she gains one of several universal class packages.
This brings me to my second point and one of the things that we think makes O7 awesome. Once you hit 7th level, you have no real idea how powerful another "legend" is. You can't look at The Great Charles Christiansen and say, for sure, just how powerful he really is anymore than another legend can say, "yeah, she's 7th level with twelve additional Feats, so she's definitely 19th level" because you don't know. That NPC may have spent all those Feats advancing their career, buying additional class powers, or even boosting their combat abilities, but may have avoided boosting their hit point totals. In short, every 7th level character is generally going to have 7 hit dice, regardless of what level they "really are."
In short, at 7th level, PCs and NPCs represent threats that are not so easily gauged by players using the standard metrics for power, which means they have to rely more on the GM, as well as their own research in game to determine their course of action.
(GMs will still have a metric by which to gauge encounter strength, however, so to avoid outright destroying PCs).
Bloodlines & Black Magic is, by default, a low magic setting when held next to standard Pathfinder, but that's intentional. We want magic to feel special, dangerous, and scary. Of course, reducing magic in the world also means fewer magical resources for players, which directly effects encounters, player resources (used to overcome those challenges), and demands a new approach to balancing the two. In effect, we've added additional traits and Feats to the game that offset the lack of expected magical resources, which keeps those resources special, in addition to keeping the feel of finding these items very, very special. How do we do this?
Occult 7 uses more Feats
O7 makes regular use of Feats to offset some of the roles that magic items normally fill in character development. So, instead of a player getting a cloak of resistance, a player might unlock an occult secret, represented as a Feat, that does the same thing. This lets players rely less on acquiring "loot" (although there certainly is unique magical items to be had in the setting) and more focused on the story itself. We also use Feats to let characters develop career paths, and even learn fighting styles.
Now before you say, "But Jaye, you only have X amount of Feats. By 7th level..." We know. In fact, to balance some of this out, we've adjusted starting Feats, as well as at what levels characters built for O7 get Feats. In most cases, a standard human in Pathfinder would have roughly five Feats at 7th level (two at 1st level, one at 3rd level, one at 5th level, and another at 7th level). In Bloodlines & Black Magic, a blooded human has seven Feats at 7th level (gaining a bonus Feat at 1st and a bonus Feat at 6th). In Bloodlines & Black Magic, a standard human would have 8 Feats. That might sounds a little "Feat heavy," but when you combine the scarcity of magical items with a below average AC (most folks - Brian Suskind notwithstanding - are not wearing plate mail) around town. Hell, most folks aren't wearing light tactical vests, either. So, it balances out, while also giving the player more room to customize their character. In fact, you could even use Feats to adjust your ability scores!
Ability Training You have spent extraordinary time honing one of your core Abilities. Prerequisites 5th level
Benefit Choose one of the following: Strength, Dexterity, Constitution, Intelligence, Wisdom, or Charisma. You gain a permanent +1 to that Ability Score, just as if you had reached the appropriate level. Special You can only gain this feat twice. Its effects stack.
By using Feats in this way, players can do a lot, including bump up their ability scores. Generally speaking, using a Feat in this manner would be no different than a player buying a headband of wisdom or a belt of giant strength +2, with one exception - characters in O7 cannot raise any ability score above 21 without magical aid.
Keeping Ability Scores Average
One of the things Clinton Boomer brought to this project (besides his gregarious demeanor and innovative nature) was his longstanding love of the old e6 system. In fact, if you follow his Tumblr (and if you don't, it comes highly recommended), you probably have seen some of his extensive work on the e6 front. This work has led to many, many discussions on how to represent common (and uncommon) humans in the real world, and the problem with trying to use ability scores to represent actual humans. To keep things inside of a somewhat realistic range (but still keep that supernatural feel), O7 places a cap on all ability scores, regardless of your level.
That cap is 21.
While scores in the 18-21 range are highly unlikely, they are still humanly possible. For example, Ryan Kennelly holds the Guinness World Record for pressing 1075.0 lb (487.6 kg) on November 8, 2008. While Strength scores like his are going to be rare, they are possible. In Pathfinder, ability scores are an approximation of measurable human qualities. Some of those (like Strength or Intelligence) are easy to measure. Others (like Wisdom or Constitution) are much harder to measure.
Most games set in Bloodlines & Black Magic are going to use either grim fantasy (7 point buy), low fantasy (10 point buy), or standard fantasy (14 point buy in Bloodlines & Black Magic) for their ability score arrays, which means on average, these scores are going to start in the lower ranges (12-14), with the occasional modified score hitting 16 or 17. Are folks going to roll dice to generate stats or to build super humans? Sure. We have no doubt of that. But on average, we're designing with the assumption that most of you want a balanced, challenging game.