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Review: Pathfinder 2e (part two)

This post we’re going to get onto actually reviewing PF2e. What the system does well, to start.

Now that we’ve got an understanding of why Pathfinder exists, it’s time for me to get into the system and talk about what I think works, and what I think doesn’t work. Let’s be positive and start with strengths.

Ten Up Ten Down

Bet you thought I was going to talk about the action economy didn’t you? It’s coming, but one of my favourite features of the system is how criticals work. Let’s start with an example of play.

Ko'Rosh the Obliterator, a level 17 Fighter wielding a sword and shield is locked in deadly combat with three kobolds. It's Ko'Rosh's turn, and they elect to strike at the nearest kobold. They roll a natural 20, a critical hit. This automatically hits, and doubles the damage of Ko'Rosh's blow, sending the kobold into the afterlife with a brutal slash. They use their second action to perform another strike, and they roll a 18 on the d20. When combined with their formidable attack bonuses, the value exceeds the kobold's AC by 10 or more, which upgrades the strike to a critical hit; another kobold sent straight to kobold hell. For their last action, Ko'Rosh raises their shield, adding +2 to their AC.

The remaining kobold decides to thrust their spear at Ko'Rosh with all their strength, and also rolls a natural 20. However, Ko'Rosh is adorned with the mightiest plate armour in all of Heimeletar, wielding the biggest shield in all the land. This puts Ko'Rosh's AC at over 10 above the kobold's attack, even with the natural 20. While the kobold does get the hit, it is downgraded to a regular success as a result, doing meagre damage.

I’ve used the simplest example here of strikes in combat, but this system of +10 or -10 upgrading and downgrading dice results is an excellent addition for a few reasons.

  • Rules that interact with criticals are no longer mostly wasted space, as we can expect them to occur much more frequently than the normal 5% on a d20. (PF2e makes extensive use of this, more on that later)
  • Players now have a degree of control over criticals – using AC modifying effects, they can cause them to happen more or less frequently.
  • Results like 19 on the dice are no longer an “aw that was almost a natural 20, but now it’s just another result”. Extremely high rolls of the dice are rewarded (and the inverse is also true).
  • Large level differences are exemplified – if you’re a living god, then no matter how hard they try, a kobold cannot crit you (but can hit you, a rule normally played out by ‘confirming criticals’ in older systems).

This is a very low weight mechanic (in terms of explanation and literal text), that punches far above its weight in terms of impact and excellence. I enjoy it so much that I would even be tempted to homebrew it into systems that don’t have it, provided that their critical rules aren’t completely outrageous. Point 2 in the list above is something that I think is very important to stress. I have an ongoing memory from a game of Shadowrun Fifth Edition, wherein a player managed to sneak behind a security guard that was manning some camera screens. They drew their pistol, without being noticed, and shot them in the back of the head. However, because they didn’t roll critical damage, they only did about half the guard’s health; oof. However, in the Pathfinder 2e world, we’re increasing the chance of critical damage as well – so enemies that are flat footed (from being unaware, for instance) are also more likely to eat a fat crit. Neat!

Another element of this, which is a positive or negative depending on your viewpoint, is that Pathfinder 2e can also feel much more lethal than D&D 5e. Damage numbers have remained mostly comparable, with d6s/d8s plus bonuses remaining common, but the amount of crits flying around has increased considerably. This can make encounter design a bit more challenging, as an enemy that was intended to be a minor speedbump might turn into a critting machine. Of course, the inverse is true, with players occasionally mowing their way through enemies that you may have expected to last longer. I tend to be more of a “watch the world burn” sort of DM, so the fact that combat can occasionally be incredibly swift and brutal is perfectly fine with me. A common complaint of these systems is that encounters can feel gruelling and slow – for levels 1-5 at the very least, I can say I have not found this to be the case for Pathfinder 2e.

Action Economy

Alright, let’s talk about it. This is the most commonly lauded part of Pathfinder 2e, if you’re looking for a reason to try PF2e, this is probably it. There is a scourge that afflicts RPG systems, a scourge by the name of action types. If we look at Pathfinder 1st Edition, we have six kinds of action…

  • Standard
  • Move
  • Full-round
  • Swift
  • Immediate
  • Free

I tend to believe that if you have keywords that are so close that they’re nearly synonyms, you shouldn’t use them. Could you tell me the difference between an Immediate action and a Swift action, without knowing anything about PF1e? The PFSRD page for the action economy in first edition is an absolute atrocity. So what about D&D 5e?

  • Actions
  • Reactions
  • Bonus Actions
  • Free Actions
  • Movement

While these will be more familiar to most than the Pathfinder 1e terminology, we still have some ambiguity with what exactly a bonus action entails. I’m sure this won’t be a problem for someone who’s a career D&D 5e player, who doesn’t play anything else, but for someone who swaps systems frequently, this can become incredibly tedious; especially when those systems will often use the same terms for different mechanics, or the same mechanic with different terms. So what do we have in Pathfinder 2e?

  • Actions (Costing 1-3 Actions)
  • Free Actions
  • Reactions

Full disclosure, the rulebook specifies a fourth type called “Activity”, which is the term they use for things that cost more than one action to do; but I find that categorisation actually makes the rules more confusing. The reality: you have three actions, and one reaction by default. The vast majority of things are in the 1-2 action cost range. Let’s have an example of play.

Ko'Rosh the Obliterator is locked in combat with four town guard, having successfully stolen three kegs of ale from a local tavern. Ko'Rosh moves to the nearest guard, clocks them in the face with a mighty punch, and then raises their shield expecting retaliation.

One of the guards moves in with cudgel in hand and attempts to sock Ko'Rosh in the head. They roll high enough to hit Ko'Rosh, but they block with their shield in response - mitigating the damage.

Moving was an action, striking the guard was an action, and raising their shield was an action for Ko’Rosh. Blocking the hit from the guard with their shield cost a reaction. So not only do we have a system that enables a character like a Fighter to indulge in activities that aren’t just moving forwards and swinging a sword, due to the flexibility of having three actions, but we have clear costs for performing those things. If Ko’Rosh had decided to draw their sword, that would have cost an action, which is fine because we have three to play around with. In D&D 5e, having an action cost for drawing a weapon would be extremely punishing, so you have a bizarre situation where doing so is free in the rules (for the first thing drawn). This means that D&D 5e has a bizarre edge case rule for this, (see stackexchange) which Pathfinder 2e does not need.

This follows onto a lot of other activities beyond just drawing a sword. As PF2e is able to divide your turn into thirds, we can have a much smaller delineation of actions, rather than having actions just be “a part of your move”, which is a very mechanically unsatisfying answer.

Image result for legolas running up falling rocks gif

Movement

I’m having this be a subcomponent of the action economy, but the decision to have movement cost an action is one of the best decisions they made with the system. To ask a philosophical question, what is the purpose of space and movement within an RPG system? There’s lots of simulation-y answers here, but in gameplay terms, we have them because they create interesting choices and situations. By having distance, and by requiring effort to cover distance, we enable characters and classes that aren’t fantastic up-close, but excel at longer range, to exist. Pathfinder 2e has an established cost for moving up to your movement speed – one action. That action is fungible, which is to say, it could have been drawing a sword, making an attack, recalling knowledge on an enemy, opening a door, etc. By doing this, movement and positioning becomes important – being stood in the right place means getting an extra attack next turn, it means being able to draw the two handed battleaxe on your back for the final blow.

If we have the movement cost be non-fungible, ala D&D 5e, we no longer need to make that choice. While there might be circumstances like terrain that change that, my character being here, and my character being 25ft away are identical situations in a world where I can move 25ft for free (broadly speaking). Naturally this consistutes a problem, because a game in which everyone can move for free every round, means that characters which want to fight at longer range can essentially guarantee that. This is where attacks of opportunity come in, to try and dissuade you from taking that free move, because it now has the cost of potentially eating a chunk of damage. So we’ve gone from movement being free, to movement having a variable cost mostly based on a dice roll – a cost that few are willing to pay, so they don’t. The irony of this situation being that a game where movement is free, frequently involves people standing still because they don’t want to trigger attacks of opportunity.

Pathfinder 2e has thrown that out. Attacks of opportunity are very rare among monsters and NPCs, and are the property of a specific set of classes. If you are a Wizard, you are not going to be stabbing someone with a dagger as they move away from you. The cost of movement is (usually) well defined, and the decision to move is one that is (usually) well informed. Example of play time.

Ko'Rosh the Obliterator and his travelling companion, Maralanor of the Big Owl, have attempted to capture a renowned bandit with a hefty price on their head. After several rounds of brutal combat in a warehouse, a broken oil lantern has led to the area that Maralanor is stood on being ablaze, and their quarry making a hasty run for the door. With two actions remaining having drawn their spellbook, Maralanor has a choice: do they move out of the fire and avoid possibly fatal burns, or do they remain in it and attempt to cast Paralyze on their fleeing foe?

In a system where movement is free, the question of “do you move out of the fire” is a pretty simple one, outside of some extremely edge-case scenarios. However, in a world where movement means and costs something, we can create scenarios where that question is much harder to answer. In this instance above, there’s a good argument for Maralanor staying in the fire and casting the spell in a PF2e world. In a D&D5e world, there’s absolutely no reason (in the setup above) that Maralanor wouldn’t use their move action to extricate themselves from the fire, then cast Hold Person with their action. I want to believe that combat RPGs are more than just swinging a sword at a goblin – they’re about making decisions in high intensity scenarios. While there’s a limit on the number of choices that people can reasonably pick from, I think movement is something that people should need to consider carefully before doing it. This is something that Pathfinder 2e has managed to do, and I think it’s a much better system for it.

Shields

I am a shieldman. I love shields, I love the aesthetics of shields, I love the physicality of shields, I love it all. If a game gives me a chance to have a shield, I’ll normally take it. This is why my heart bleeds for the implementation of shields in D&D 5e. What an absolute waste! Here’s the roll20 version.

Yawnsville, Tennessee

Is that it? +2 AC? Look at what they did to my boy. Now to be fair, there’s a feat called Shield Master, which allows you to shove as a bonus action, add that +2 to your dexterity saving throws, and avoid all damage instead of half for effects that’s relevant for; but it’s still not enough. So what have we got for Pathfinder 2e? A lot more.

Different kinds of basic shield? Oh my!

I feel that shields are a great example of where the streamlining of D&D 5e took a little bit too much out. A shield is more than just the AC bonus it provides, and Paizo realised that. So there’s a whole slew of ways that shields have better mechanical depth and more rewarding gameplay – let’s go through some of them.

Shielding as an Active Thing

In Pathfinder 2e, you don’t simply strap a shield to your arm and call it a day – the act of shielding requires an action called Raise a Shield, which grants you the AC bonus until the start of your next turn. While this might seem like a painful requirement at first, it’s worth bearing in mind that in the early levels, you will frequently have actions to spare. As a result of strike actions scaling such that your second strike in a round is at -5, and your third at -10, it’s usually a waste to use actions on them. At later levels, there are feats that either mitigate, or outright remove the need for the action. But, right from the off, shielding is something that is done, not something that just happens – this is a step in the right direction.

Combine this with a level 1 general feat called Shield Block. Shield block is fantastic because it combines the theme of deflection (increasing AC) with the theme of mitigation (damage absorption) that shields have. Instead of the interaction with a shield being purely your opponent needing to get past it, you can now choose to let your shield take some of the pounding. It’s worth mentioning that on the deflection side – AC improvements are valuable in PF2e because not only do they reduce your chance of getting hit, but they reduce your chance of being crit; so characters with low to middling AC still find value in increasing it, even if most enemies will still hit them in a fight. Let’s go to an example of play.

Aremie Riddlesworth, the level 1 paladin is locked in combat with two street thugs, one wielding a pair of daggers, the other wielding a two handed club. She can hear the footsteps of the town guard on their way, so she only needs to hold out for a round despite her wounds. She's up first so she elects to trip one of the street thugs, move backwards 20ft, and raise her shield. By tripping the street thug, she forces it to spend an action standing up (an action that could have been spent attacking) - between standing up and moving after her, the street thug only has one action left for an attack, which misses.

However, the second thug moves after her, and has two attacks. The first attack hits, and threatens to knock Aremie unconscious with 7 damage, more than her remaining 5 health. She uses shield block to mitigate the damage. Her steel shield eats five of the damage with hardness, and the remaining damage bleeds through into her health and shield. The second attack from the thug misses due to the -5 (from multiple attacks) and the +2 AC from Aremie's steel shield. The round ends, and four town guard round the corner, making for a much more even fight...

In this instance, Aremie used the shield in two different ways at level 1 – increasing her AC and also mitigating damage. If we wanted a more trite example, she could have used it to Shield Bash (which is a supported weapon in the system, requiring no homebrew).

Shields as Something to be Specialized In

If Aremie was wielding a shield with Shield Spikes, then it would start to do more reasonable damage. If she had the level 6 feat Shield Warden, and there was an ally stood adjacent to her, she could use the shield to block damage to them. If she had the level 1 feat Reactive Shield, and the blow from the thug would have been prevented by the additional shield AC, then she could have raised her shield in reaction rather than as an action. This is a subset of the available feats that we could have, and the complexity increases with levels. This is also not including complexity added by magical shields! This one thing, largely a footnote in D&D5e has been given a new lease on life.

This is not least because the Champion class makes extensive use of shields, and has several class elements that interact directly with them. They’re now an item that is worth looking at in depth, and helps bring a shielding character concept to life.

Downtime

A not-inconsiderable amount of the Core Rulebook is dedicated to a pillar of the game that Paizo has called “Downtime“. Downtime is a tricky thing, because it’s something that a large group of players will simply never interact with. If you’re an adventuring party that goes from dungeon to dungeon, slaying and looting from dusk till dawn, you might never need to use them. However, if you’re running a campaign where the characters have something more akin to a life, then at some point you’re going to run into the question of “what does my character do when they’re not plunging a dagger into the back of a cultist”. I think that the downtime rules provided have given substance to that need, and made clear to the players what their options are. There are a set of downtime actions that are available to everybody (long term rest, retraining, buying and selling goods etc), and then there’s downtime actions that are given to us by the skill system (more on that later). Time for the example of play.

Aremie, having just avoided a unsightly end in the alleyway, retreats to her tavern room to recover for the night. The following morning, she resolves to earn some coin to repair her shield and sleep in a better bed, so she chooses the Earn Income activity for the day. Using her formidable knowledge of Religion, she elects to be an acolyte at the local temple. The DM sets the "task level" of this at level 1, with a DC of 15, as it's an entry level job with little risk of skill required, in a middling part of town. She rolls her religion, and beats the DC. Looking at the Earn Income chart, as she is Trained in religion with a task level of 1, she earns 2sp from the day.

If Aremie desired, she could continue to work the job for the rest of the week, keeping that amount of money - which in 4 more days, would leave her with 1gp to spend. Not a huge amount, but a start.
The Mighty Earn Income Table

As the Earn Income rules are so extensible, they act as a great catch-all for when the players just need a little bit of extra money to do something. Furthermore, because almost anything can be used as part of an Earn Income activity, it means there’s always something to do for a player with spare time on their hands. While some might see this as unnecessary mechanisation, and were happy for this to be decided on the fly by the DM, I am not one of those people. I’ve made good use of this ruleset already, and I consider downtime to be an important part of any adventure. You cannot have hot without cold, and I feel like you need to have some normalcy to make the dungeoneering feel more exciting and meaningful.

If I had a criticism of these rules, it’d be that the craft times for mundane items seem incredibly extreme, with a minimum of four days. They can also be a bit hard to wrap your head around at first, with some players being more happy for the DM to just decide this all for them with hand waving. I consider them a good opportunity for the DM to introduce “clocks“, which I think are a fantastic RPG system. If your players are looking to build something themselves over an amount of time, like a bridge or a house, then the earn income/craft rules give us a great shorthand to achieve that. Set the value of the bridge to some value (500gp for example), and then have them do an Earn Income (Craft) check to determine how long it takes them.

Travel

To be dramatic, I don’t think there’s anything that makes a DM scratch their head more than travel in a combat-y fantasy RPG. It is the white whale of this genre of RPG, a beast that will spawn infinite stack exchange posts with questions like “How do I run overland travel in [system]”. A beast that will birth infinite subsystems and homebrew concoctions, each with a thousand rollable tables, each requiring new forms of mathematics to determine how far the party can walk. A beast that threatens to grind any session to a halt, with the rulebooks hitting the table, and the “lord of the rings travel playlist xxBongRipZxx” running out of songs.

It represents the fly in the ointment. In combat-focused RPGs, encounter-mode is the quantum world, and overland travel is classical physics, with no system describing both of them to a satisfying degree. Until now. Ah, that’s not true, it’s still somewhat painful – however, PF2e gives us a toolset for handling play that primarily involves moving from A to B, which they’ve wrapped up into the pillar of the “Exploration Mode“. The same concepts of movement speed and actions are present here, but a glaze of vagueness has been applied to enable more narrative gameplay. Again, an example of play.

Clamwater Belchkins, Trudy Grobbsnobbler, Price Snaggleport and Roger Vergie are travelling from their local village to the magical city in the hills. With a minimum speed in their party of 25ft, they're capable of travelling 20 miles per day at 2.5 miles an hour (8 hours of travel). At this rate, they expect to arrive at the city in three days, as it is 60 miles away. They set forth, and the DM asks them how they're intending to travel.

Clamwater says that they're going to keep a sharp lookout in case they're ambushed. The DM translates this to the Scout activity, and adds the bonus to their initiative in the event of combat. Trudy says that she's intending to look for traps or items on the ground. The DM equates this to the Search activity, and will roll her Perception in secret if the party stumbles across something. Price says that he's going to be looking for magical auras using Detect Magic, and so the DM will let them know if they stumble across any auras. Roger intends to keep their shield up in case they're ambushed, so the DM goes to the Defend action.

With all of this settled, the travel speed is adjusted as these actions reduce their speed by half. The Magical City in the Hills is now six days away, but they'll be all the more prepared if anything comes up along the way. Which it does.

While this ruleset doesn’t tell us how characters travel over a map (you’ll have to look at the bad hexploration rules for that, more on that later), it does give us a really nice package for the more narrative-y travel sequences. If characters know where they’re going, and you know the route they’re taking, these rules provide an excellent framework to solve that problem. The trickiness arises when those things aren’t the case. The highest level (of abstraction) solution to this problem is for the players to succeed on a Sense Direction check, modified with bonuses from any information they’ve gleamed, with a DC determined by the sort of terrain. However, it doesn’t give you much for what happens when they fail, beyond “they don’t know what direction they’re going”, so there is still a fair bit of DM work to be done here. The “fail forwards” answer to this would be to have failure cost time, which is a potential solution.

It’s worth mentioning that these travel rules are embedded alongside everything else that PF2e considers ‘exploration‘. There is a lot to unpack here, and I do wonder if it would have been better for there to be a specific ‘Travel’ trait, but I also see the argument for keeping it bundled together. Exploration encompasses literally everything that isn’t combat, or specifically defined in the downtime section, so you’ll see rules for travelling over great distances knocking against rules for identifying magic. As I said, a lot to unpack, but I think that the travel rules are a boon for the system in the main.

Strengths Summary

I like to believe that I’m someone who straddles the crunch – fluff axis. I enjoyed playing Pathfinder 1e, and I enjoyed playing Monster of the Week. This is to say, I’m not someone wedded to the idea of having rules exist for every possible interaction or decision in a roleplaying game if the players and DM have a good framework to arrive at a sensible solution. In Monster of the Week, you don’t need to have specific rules to handle a character kicking someone, versus punching them. The game provides you with an abstraction (Kick Some Ass) which handles both those scenarios perfectly well for the type of game that MotW is, and the experience it wants to provide. Conversely, Pathfinder 1e and 2e are tactical combat games first. Encounters are a puzzle to be solved, and the players have everything on their character sheet available as a solution. As such, we want a certain level of definition and mechanisation, to allow the players to meaningfully work within those options, and solve a given problem. If I tried to summarise it in a one or two sentences, Monster of the Week gives you mechanics and rules to act as abstractions for what you (the player and the DM) want to happen narratively. Pathfinder (mainly) gives you mechanics and rules to act as tools to achieve what you want to happen narratively.

As an example, in Monster of the Week, you describe narratively how you’re going to punch the clown in the face, which we translate to the Kick Some Ass action and roll appropriately. In Pathfinder, you punching the clown in the face narratively is given by you using the mechanisms that the system provides (striding 15ft to the clown, using the strike action with fists to hit them). While these two scenarios could be altered to reflect the opposing view, I think the intention of the two systems is the key (rules as an enabler vs rules as a descriptor).

I don’t see crunch as an inherently negative thing. If the rules serve the sort of story and experience that the system wants to provide, then it’s grand. For some, having a well codified ruleset for governing many interactions makes the experience of DMing easier, because they don’t need to come up with options on the fly. Almost all of the strengths I have listed above are areas where I think having better codification has pushed Pathfinder 2e ahead of other fantasy RPGs. With more mechanical depth to shields, common questions like “can I hit them with the shield” now have a mechanical answer. With more mechanical depth to travel, questions like “how can I look out for traps while travelling through this forest” can now be answered within the language of the rules. These enable players to have expectations for how these decisions play out, which enables planning, and payoff. If a player gets an amazing result on an Earn Income roll, they don’t have to rely so heavily on the DM making a call in their favour: the rules provide that.

Similarly, with the ten up ten down system, we now have a mechanical framework to reward players for rolling close to but not quite criticals, rather than DMs having to fiat something for when players roll a 19 on a Performance check. For some, this is unnecessary legwork, and they’d be happier with dictating it as the DM. For me, I enjoy not having to think about those things in a fantasy combat RPG, because it gives me more time to think about what actually matters (encounter design, magic items, etc). This does however, make for a fat rulebook and an unappealing first impression. This is not a system I would DM as my first outing, or my second, but we’ll get onto that.

While this isn’t an all encompassing list of everything I like about the system, I think it covers a good portion of what I enjoy. If I wanted this post to be a million miles long, I’d also cover how I think the monster generation tables are excellent, and how the rune system for weapons is pretty good when you get your head around it. Next post will be about what I think the system is really weak at, and then considering it all in totality, so stay tuned.

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