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Review: Pathfinder 2e (part one)

Part one of a two parter, we’re going to be talking about why Pathfinder exists.

I am an eternal DM, so it’s worth bearing in mind that this whole thing is going to be coming from the perspective of someone who hasn’t played this as a player. I’ve run PF2e from levels one to five, with three campaigns in a mix of in person and online. I tend to go through campaigns like I go through milk so it’s more like 1.5 or 1.75 campaigns in terms of length. Another important caveat, I’m talking about my experience with the system from only the first five levels. If it completely falls apart when the players reach level six, I don’t know about that. I tend to enjoy systems at the low levels anyway, and there’s a few people that point out things like D&D5e aren’t really meant to be played at level 15+ anyway. Last caveat, I usually don’t play prewrittens, and I haven’t done so here – if the prewritten campaigns are bad (and I’ve not seen glowing reviews), I couldn’t tell you. I have looked over Age of Ashes a bit just to get a feel for what Paizo intended. With all of that out of the way, let’s begin.

As I’m not an engagement seeking parasite, I’ll give you a summary immediately. I’ll then talk about what the system is, strengths and weaknesses, and some closing thoughts.

Summary

Pathfinder 2e offers a more playable experience than the first edition, and more mechanically sound gameplay compared to Dungeons and Dragons 5e, but finds itself sat on the fence between two worlds of crunch and fluff. If you’re looking for a fantasy combat-focused RPG with a bit more to it than D&D5e, but were intimidated by older systems, then it’s worth giving PF2e a go. The core rulebook can be an absolute nightmare to use, due to its size and complexity. In addition, it’s an open question as to whether it’ll enjoy a long life, as later content from Paizo has been a bit questionable. As for the DM experience, no major headaches there, with the Gamemasters Guide (GMG) filling in a lot of the gaps left from the core rulebook. NPC generation is handled particularly well with a slew of tables for doing it quickly and easily. There’s some great additional rules included in the GMG, alongside some poor ones.

I’ll likely keep playing it, but it’s going to be a divisive system for most, just because of its positioning between PF1e and D&D5e.

What & Why

Pathfinder Second Edition is a d20 based, combat-focused, character-based roleplaying game with an interesting pedigree which I will get into later. The system primarily supports fighting monsters, acquiring treasure, and exploring dungeons, but not without a good portion of rules for doing other activities like earning gold from working, crafting items, and other actions that the system groups into “downtime”. The journey that the system wants to portray is a story of your characters becoming more powerful as they achieve great deeds and victories, with the scope of problems faced growing alongside them. Is this a system that to tell a tale of subterfuge, diplomacy and investigation? No. There is an extensive skill system (more on that later), but all of this is very much geared towards moving adventurers to dungeons – not having those skills be the bread and butter of the game.

Your average session of PF2e will look something like this (if you’re not playing a sandbox game). The player characters are exposed to/provided a hook which angles them towards some greater unknown or mystery. They might engage with people from settlements to learn more, or perform their downtime actions – but this is primarily done to improve the player’s ability to adventure, or learn where they might do so. After acquiring the requisite information or preparation, they then go to the location, and are challenged with a dungeon; it might not literally be a dungeon, but it will be somewhere with traps, monsters, NPCs and treasure. If they succeed, they are awarded with treasure, XP (if not using the milestone system) and perhaps further information that points them in the direction of another dungeon. Repeat.

While this might sound like a negative description, it really is the core gameplay loop that the system wants you to perform as the DM. I’m actually a big fan of simple loops like the above, so any negativity is coming from my nascent crassness. Worth mentioning that the loop above, is also the core gameplay loop of D&D 5e (despite how many homebrewed settlement management systems might try to tell you otherwise). This is a tried and tested gameplay loop, and I think it’s stood the test of time. Dungeon -> Downtime -> Improvement -> Dungeon.

So why does Pathfinder Second Edition exist? To answer that question, we really have to look at why the Pathfinder series exists at all. If you’re looking for the precise history, the wikipedia article will give you that in detail, but I can give you the abridged version. Paizo, the company that makes Pathfinder, started out as a publisher of D&D 3rd Edition magazines in 2002. This continued until 2007, when Wizards of the Coast (the new publishers of D&D at that time), decided to end that contract. Later that year, WoTC would announce D&D 4th Edition, published under a more restrictive game license (too much to talk about here, but check out the OGL and GSL pages). The latter would come to foreshadow the kind of company that WoTC would become, and the former made a lot of people very angry, and was widely regarded as a bad move.

To continue the “spirit” of the D&D Revised 3rd Edition (D&D 3.5 as people call it), Paizo decided to create their own backwards-compatible system under the OGL called Pathfinder, which kept large chunks of the D&D 3.5 ruleset, but also had a variety of changes. While this might seem utterly unbelievable to someone more new to the RPG scene, Pathfinder was the most popular system for a considerable amount of time, holding the top spot in terms of sales until the release of D&D 5th Edition. Now, that factoid might be a bit deceptive, as I wouldn’t be surprised if the RPG scene had grown ten-fold in the last three years, but I think we can quite comfortably say that Pathfinder has played a significant role in RPG history, and would have been a system that a lot of older RPG players engaged with. So what sort of system was Pathfinder 1st Edition then?

Pathfinder 1e’s Grapple Rules. Oh yes.

If we’re being generous, I’d use the term involved. It’s interesting that, the history of D&D looks something like a bell curve in terms of complexity, with the earliest editions and 5e being relatively simplistic, and the middle editions the most complex. Pathfinder 1e inherited that complexity. This is not a pick-up-and-play RPG, this is not an RPG that you suggest to your parents over Christmas. This is an RPG that required time, effort, and sometimes software intervention to run properly. Note, I’m not saying that the rules are good or bad; I have some extremely fond memories of PF1e campaigns – what I’m saying, is that there was a gigantic barrier to entry. In combination with all the additional content, sourcebooks, I’m quite confident in saying that I couldn’t make a PF1e character now without access to something like Hero Lab, and I played the system for a good couple of years.

So what’s my point here?

The biggest accomplishment of D&D 5e is accessibility. The system is filled with things that rely on DM fiat (which is easier than having hard-cast rules), simplifications, and greater homogeneity. The corners have been rounded off, and the system is far more approachable as a result. It is not a coincidence that D&D 5e is nearly a household name after this change, and while it’s impossible to concretely prove that it was accessibility that drove popularity, there’s a strong argument for it. Pathfinder 1st Edition on the other hand, sat on a throne of splatbooks, founded on a ruleset that was over a decade old. With a core fanbase that loved the system, if you weren’t already playing it, or you didn’t know someone who was playing it, you weren’t likely to start.

When looked at through the historical lens, Pathfinder Second Edition starts to make sense. A chance to blow out the cobwebs of an aging foundation, to sand off some of the sharp corners that were making the system hard to approach, and also a chance to sell some new rulebooks I suppose. However, Paizo sat in a very difficult and risky position. If they made too many changes to the system, they risked alienating a core fanbase that had stuck with their products for years, whom had (partially) moved over due to a dislike of D&D’s direction. However, if they threw a coat of paint over the first edition, they risked simply splitting their existing base between the two systems, with no influx of new blood to keep the machine going; a wasted endeavour. If you’ve ever googled or looked into PF2e, you probably already know the direction Paizo took.

PF2e is not backwards compatible, meaning that Paizo have left behind nearly two decades worth of material, which was an incredibly brave decision. If I was being extremely reductionist here, I’d say something along the lines of “Paizo thought that the direction WoTC took was the correct one” when it came to simplification and accessibility. I think there’s a lot of nuance that gets left behind with that take, not least that Pathfinder Second Edition is still a more complex game than D&D 5e. However, the sentiment of that sentence smells correct to me – the second edition exists to solve the problem that an aged, monolithic first edition could not; ease of play. I can only imagine that there were dozens of things that Paizo wanted to do with Pathfinder, but weren’t able to because they felt shackled to backwards compatibility. If there wasn’t, I doubt they would have made 2e at all.

While a lot of the above is my reading between the lines somewhat, a great picture of why Pathfinder Second Edition exists is an interview with the lead game designer at Paizo, Jason Bulmahn.

QueueTimes interview with Jason

At 8:55, Jason says the following:

It’s more art than science. First Edition was science, this [Second Edition] is more art.

Pathfinder 2E Interview – Jason Bulmahn – The Creator of Pathfinder

Now, full disclosure, they’re talking about monster design, but I feel like it represents a big motivation for the system, and for TTRPG system design direction in general. Systems are more willing to rely on the DM as a source of reality, in place of a fully codified ruleset. Sentences like “the DM may award a…” have become more and more commonplace. PF2e is very much a product of that environment.

This has, again, positioned Pathfinder Second Edition in a very strange place. It is much less rules heavy than the first edition, but is a fair bit heavier than D&D 5e, and there’s a real risk that this is a game that was made for…nobody. Veterans of the Pathfinder series stick with first edition for the mechanical depth and control, people more familiar with D&D 5e stick with it as they find the depth of Second Edition intimidating. Is this the case? I’ve got a bit of anecdotal evidence that this is happening on some level, but I think the ultimate arbiter will be sales figures and engagement moving forwards. As this is a review, I’ll give you my personal perspective: I think Second Edition offers an experience that First Edition and D&D5e do not, and consequently, I don’t necessarily see it as a replacement. I’ll talk about this later in part two, but there’s nuance to the system that is worth exploring, with elements that Paizo clearly thought they couldn’t do in the first outing of the system.

Something I find quite interesting is that another RPG released by Paizo called Starfinder, “Pathfinder in space”, is meant to be mechanically closer to 1st Edition than second. If I was being cynical, I’d see this as Paizo somewhat hedging their bets by offering Starfinder as an alternative to jaded 1e veterans. I don’t think this is the case, but it’s food for thought. It’s far more likely that some of the mechanical changes that were mid-development for PF2e, made their way into Starfinder, and were field-tested there.

Anyway, I hope this short post has gone somewhere towards answering the “why” of “why does Second Edition exist”. Next time, I’m going to be talking over what I like about the system, what I dislike, and what I’ll give it in terms of a grade.

Catch you next time.

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