It’s officially time to start getting excited about the new edition of Pathfinder. I, like many of you, wanted to remain healthily skeptical until we had seen more of Paizo’s direction with its flagship line. While we had reason to hold that skepticism, the playtest documents I have received, consisting of the core book and first adventure, have left me in a state of proud optimism I have not felt in a long time. Paizo, I hope you’re proud too, because this looks to be a labor of serious work, intelligence, and passion that we haven’t seen in a while.
Now I don’t want to get too far ahead of myself, so let me start with a brief disclaimer: this article is nothing more than a first impressions piece. I have read conducted a first readthrough of the book, and that means a few things: I have not been able to play it extensively enough to wrap my head around the game’s flow, and I have not caught a lot of the nuances that I will when I conduct a more thorough review. I am sure to notice details later that will elevate or detract from the quality of this game, and I may get a few details wrong with this preview. That said, the look I have has left me with almost completely positive feelings. I have a few quibbles with the direction, but ironing out these details is the entire purpose of a playtest, and I know Paizo is taking this release seriously. In a time when Wizards of the Coast has returned to market dominance, it has to.
The Philosophy: the Best of the Best
Much though I have praised Pathfinder in the past, I always had misgivings about the game. It was a tactical combat experience where the math never seemed to work right. It was about building the maximum number of incremental bonuses, and seemed to lack a central focus to bring cohesion to its mechanics. The game line existed on making 3.5 into a Frankenstein’s monster of new abilities and mechanics, and in many ways that was always its charm. Second edition has no such limitations. It looks built purposefully, from the ground up, to serve as the basis for a customizable, tactical experience.
While Paizo has chosen to adopt a few quality of life changes from 5th Edition, such as backgrounds and a proficiency-like skill system (I’ll get into those details later on), its smartest choice is its most surprising: taking beats from 4th edition instead. Yes, much like Radiance, a little known rebuild of 3.5, Pathfinder 2nd edition makes character generation easier, but no less customizable, by breaking things down into a few key abilities that you choose at certain intervals. These have a uniform language, making them easy to understand, and making a character is easy: you choose a number of abilities from race, class, and background and you are ready to jump in. These choices allow for intense customization as you learn to mix and match them together, but making a character no longer involves delving into strange, unintuitive design space to break the game. Your choices are meaningful and still let you create a beast with the right combination, but those decisions are now easier to make. You get a few discrete, easy to understand abilities are tasked with finding a way to build the best character from among them.
Attributes, for instance, are more interesting than I have ever seen from a d20 game. You no longer roll these randomly or generate them via point buy. Rather, everything starts at 10. You then modify them via Boosts and Flaws. You will get a Flaw from your ancestry (the new name for race), as well three Boosts. Two Boosts are for specific attributes and one is free. You receive additional Boosts from your class, and eight through character creation, and more every five levels. A Boost increases an attribute by two points, up until that attribute hits 18, at which point it only increases by one point.
This is a great design choice for a number of reasons: it’s another series of decisions which are simple but allow for deep decision-making. A race with less viable attributes is still usable, but with a little more investment to get going. You can make a min-maxed monster with 22 in an attribute, but maybe you want to generalize a little more and not make use of diminishing returns. It also quietly gets rid of how odd attribute values have always been pointless, until you get to higher levels and have to make some tough decisions. The amount of thought that comes from this one decision is astounding. Merely choosing your starting attributes went from a predetermined formality from a deep question of priorities and efficiency. If the rest of the game proceeds with this elegance, Paizo will have turned me into a lifetime devotee.
The changes in combat are similarly encouraging. Where Pathfinder before felt a little unfocussed, the decision to base combat around action economy has made every turn a tactical challenge that I am happy to face. For those of you who have not read the prior announcements or my previous write-up, Pathfinder combat is now all about how you use your turn. Everyone has three actions per turn, and every maneuver uses up a different number of those actions. You can decide to make many small maneuvers, which might change the battlefield in small yet significant ways, or take the opportunity for a definitive attack which leaves you without other options. The same is true of spells: for every component a spell requires (e.g. somatic, verbal) the spell takes up an additional action slot. We now, after many years, have a reason not to completely ignore spell components. Bravo.
One of the most important changes this focus brings to the table is the boost that it gives to martial classes. Their maneuvers create openings for other characters, change the course of the battlefield, create more defensive options, and far more. Paizo’s go to example has been the fighter, who can burn an action to raise his or her shield, granting a bonus to AC for the next round. Another basic fighter move is Grab, a feat available at first level. This allows the fighter to use a single action to make an attack. This attack deals no damage, but if successful makes the opponent Flat-Footed, reducing their defense. Now that opponent is less effective with a lowered Armor Class and opened up for a sneak attack from your party rogue. Its use depends not on the fighter’s build, but that of the rest of the team. I’m so excited to see players weigh this versus other abilities in combat.
Can I say that caster supremacy has finally been dealt its fatal blow? No…not quite yet. I will need to look more into the nature of their abilities and how they scale as compared to other classes. What I can say is that we now have a good reason to play martials, and it’s their access to combat abilities. Wizards may be able to fly and throw fireballs, but only the fighter can adapt to an evolving situation with every action, buffing his defenses and creating openings in opponent’s defenses. You feel like a warrior, using superior physical prowess to change the battlefield to your liking, instead of just full attacking every round.
Now I mention maneuvers a lot, so let me be clear: the old system of maneuver bonuses and defenses is no more, and I think it’s for the better. It used to be that things like trips, disarms, and unusual attacks had a separate system of feats and bonuses and penalties that I don’t think ever really worked as advertised. It was a source of complexity that bogged the game down, even if it did create interesting build opportunities. Now your abilities are tied much more closely to class and feats, rather than having a separate attack or defense bonus.
Skills are…on the right track. I don’t think Paizo is there completely, but I like the direction. Gone is the skill point system of old. Instead, you gain a number of proficiencies from ancestry, class and backgrounds to put into skills. These allow you to raise them from a few discrete levels: untrained, trained, expert, master, and legendary. Untrained will give you a skill bonus of your level-2. Trained is your level, expert level+1, master level+2, and legendary is level+3.
The benefit here is that skills will scale on predictably to your level. However, I’m not sure that the method makes complete mathematical sense. Even at level-2, a level 8 wizard with 8 strength will have a +5 on all athletics checks, which is a pretty substantial bonus. At the same time, those skills may threaten to scale as you level up. The d20 is a notoriously swingy die and 3.5/Pathfinder’s biggest issue was always keeping things contained to a reasonable power level. Under the current skill system, characters might be wildly overpowered in many skills at relatively low levels. I prefer 5e’s method, whereby you are bound to a few specific ranges that keep things within certain ranges. For instance, what if the levels were flat bonuses or penalties, such as the following: Untrained -4, trained +1, expert+3, legendary +6, and get rid of master? This is completely off the top of my head and not the proper solution, but something to make this choice more impactful would be appreciated.
Not Everything is Perfect…Yet
It goes without saying that I noticed some flaws with my first readthrough, but nothing so glaring that I don’t believe they can be fixed. I’m certain there are balance issues and unclear writing, but such is the nature of a playtest.
While very likely to be improved by the final release, layout is currently a minor problem. Because of the number of keywords and new rules necessary to understanding second edition, there are times when you will find yourself lost while trying to create a character. Things are broken up into different sections of the book, and you really need to conduct a thorough readthrough before you set down to make your character. For instance, a basic ability might reference Strikes, which are specialized forms of attacks. Those are on page 308, far away from the section of the book outlining character creation. A random spell I happened to glance at referenced Hardness and Dents, two terms I had not come across before. Making characters and understanding their capabilities will ask some investment of you.
It’s for this reason, as well as the granularity of the combat, that this game stands a solid few steps above Fifth Edition D&D in complexity. That game, designed first and foremost to be an accessible, marketable product, is much easier to learn in comparison. I applaud Paizo for taking the risk of catering to a different sort of taste: this game asks some things of you, but my hope is that you will be rewarded for delving into it and cresting the top of its learning curve. As much as I enjoy 5e, I am not alone in finding the game lacking in character options, and not just in terms of builds. Combats often devolve into two sides attacking one another until one team runs out of hit points, going on past the point of enjoyment.
It may be that Pathfinder second edition ends up asking too much, relegating itself to a select few people and bogging down combat with constant book references. I won’t be able to speak to this until I have run more test combats with players who possess a functional understanding of the rules. The nature of the combat does require (or at least heavily encourage) using a grid as opposed to theater of the mind, but this is nothing new for Pathfinder fans.
One thing which will turn many people off is that that this is first and foremost a tactical combat game. Pathfinder 2e doesn’t really bother with elements to help you roleplay, and I mean at all. You have a few interesting features from backgrounds and ancestry, but your character’s abilities are, besides a few choice spells, geared solely towards combat efficiency. Do I think you should care about this? I am of mixed opinions. On the one hand, 3.5, 4th edition, and even 5th are all built around combat, whatever pretensions they have to anything else (or does any gaming group actually grant inspiration for playing up flaws like 5e suggests? Do you remember that inspiration is a part of the game at all?). Rules are not necessary to roleplay. On the other hand, those wanting more support for getting into their characters’ heads might be disappointed. The “roll-play versus roleplay” debate may return in force as this game picks up steam.
Outside of combat this might not be an issue. Inside I am less sure. See, everything is clean and well delineated in Pathfinder Second Edition, but that warrants that it is prescribed. Every action is accounted for and written out, giving you what amounts to a list of possible actions. All of this is necessary for the tactics of the game. I am excited to give that a try. The abilities seem to work together to supplement each other, making a challenging and rewarding experience (again, theoretically, because I have not played this extensively yet). However, that eliminates some creativity from the experience. Why make use of creative roleplay opportunities in combat, such as pushing over a pillar or lighting a bridge on fire, when you have a clean list of more efficient options? While those options and their interactions are exciting, I hope not this can live as more than a board game with light roleplay elements.
In conclusion, Pathfinder fans will probably be very happy, once they get over the fact that their massive collection does not interact with this game. I don’t know if they plan to offer some sort of conversion, but I have no idea how such a thing would work. As much as they appear to be similar, this is a very alien product to old Pathfinder, and to me therein lies much of its strength.
I was afraid that Pathfinder would stick too close to its clunky, cobbled together roots, but right now this looks to be a tight, incredibly well-crafted experience. I am looking forward to delving into it, and answering all of your questions.
To that end, feel free to ask! In the comments below and in the forums, I will keep an eye on your feedback and help provide more information about what we know so far. Keep an eye out, because I will be covering this book in more depth, as well as the playtest’s adventure path.