Pathfinder Second Edition (Brent’s Initial Thoughts)

Last year we looked at the Pathfinder 2.0 Playtest, and I gave you my first impressions, and a few deeper dives on aspects of the developing game. This past Gen Con Paizo released the finished Pathfinder 2.0 to the community at large, and the first version of Pathfinder to be (theoretically) wholly independent of its D&D 3.X roots.

So now that the new game is out, what do I think? I’m going to do what I did last year with the Playtest: give you my first impressions in this article, and then revisit specific aspects of the game in future articles. That seems like a good way to capture how the development played out between playtest and the finished version you may (or may not) be holding in your hot little hands. I’ll review the Pathfinder 2.0 Bestiary in a separate article, as I feel it deserves some special attention. I’ll also talk about whether I recommend this game, whether you’re a new or returning Pathfinder player.

Okay, going through my notes, here are some of my first impressions. Buckle up, it’s a long one!

Hooboy, is this one bullet-stopper of a book! Pulling triple duty as a player reference, GM reference, and setting book will do that. At $60US that’s not a bad price if you’re the game master of your group. But that’s a pretty steep price to pay if you’re a player using roughly a third of the book. With no Player’s Guide available, it’s that or stick with a PDF for the lower price.

Cover art is gorgeous, definitely catches your eye. Speaking of catching the eye, what is everybody looking at? There is a red dragon crashing into the scene in the background, but everyone in the foreground seems to be looking at something off the page to the left. At best they seem to be looking back over their shoulders at the dragon; frankly, a pretty blase attitude to take with an angry red dragon. So a bit of a confusing composition there, which now that I have noticed it I can’t unsee. Still, beautiful figure work and eye-catching.

I love the overall layout of the book, they seem to have gone to great pains to make the tome easy to navigate. For a book this size that’s essential, so I like to see the effort made. Specifically, having the chapter order listed at the top corner of every odd page, with the current chapter highlighted, is an excellent touch. That repetition help readers memorize the chapter order, which will speed up ongoing uses of the book. And those markings are visible on the edge of the book as well, acting as a rough guide. If you know where the Spells chapter is, for instance, you can just look at the page edges and then thumb to that section quickly. Other details, like consistent use of symbols and title formatting, make this an easier book to read at a glance than many I have encountered. Again, very important, given how dense the pages are across the entire volume.

The entire Character Creation section is an excellent resource, and I hope Paizo considers breaking that out into a free download on its own. As I mentioned in the playtest review, I was glad to see Paizo get rid of the problematic term “race” in favour of “ancestry”, I think that’s a step in the right direction and should be adopted across the industry (looking at you, D&D). That said, they kept the even more troubling aspect of ability bonuses being tied to ancestry, which still smacks of biological determinism. How difficult would it have been to detach those entirely, making them a function of class or background?

Anyway, this section is extremely well laid out and easy to follow, which is more than I can say for the character sheet. Yikes! I’m not going to get too critical; if you type “Pathfinder 2e character sheet” into your search bar you’ll find links to other folks doing a deep dive on its layout, with suggestions for improvement. But, if you are going to use that sheet, you will need the Character Creation chapter as a guide, maybe even for a few characters.

I will say, I do like that they talk about gender and pronoun usage. I think it’s important to model the behaviour you want from the player base, and this is a small good step in that direction. I won’t dwell on these details too much more throughout the rest of my reviews, except to say it continues a trend of Paizo outwardly modelling behaviour it doesn’t seem to follow internally (but that’s another article).

Onward! Looking at the Ancestries & Backgrounds and Classes chapters, I’m happy to see that they have listed everything you need for a particular character choice with that choice. For instance, if you are an elf, all of your elf ancestral feats are in the Ancestries chapter, instead of being part of the jumble of the Feats chapter. Likewise, if you’re a fighter, all your specific class feats are with your class description. It’s a small touch, but it will make referencing the book much easier as your character levels.

At first glance, I thought they had eliminated the half-orcs and half-elves, and I smiled. Then I remembered those were rolled up under the human ancestry. Big sigh. While the entire ancestry switch can allow the clever player, in concert with their clever GM, to play some very interesting characters (a halfling raised among dwarves, for instance), I am sad to see no explicit rules on how to do this in the book. Seems like a bit of a miss, coming up short of the opportunities an ancestry approach offers for character creation.

And yes, goblins are a playable race. As I said before, if that appeals to you then your wishes have been granted. I’m not opposed to it, but again, it falls short of the possibility to play as any of the “evil” humanoid races. And hey, for all I know there could be a supplement in the works to fill that gap.

Speaking of evil, I’m disappointed Paizo didn’t take this opportunity to do away with the archaic alignment system. It barely serves a purpose any longer, especially with the shift in class from Paladin to Champion. And Pathfinder doesn’t have the tepid excuse of being Dungeons & Dragons to fall back on. Indeed, given their rather strident attempts to distance themselves from 5e comparisons, getting rid of alignment would have seemed like a no brainer. But here we are.

One detail of the Class chapter I quite enjoy are the Sample Class sidebars. These act both as a way to signal new players about possible character builds, but also provide a template for experienced players to try and build specialist characters within the class. It’s a smart move, and I hope it signals a shift away from sourcebooks glutted with specialist character classes. Pathfinder 1e handled the mechanics of that character building well, but it resulted in a swirling mess of character possibilities spread across too many books. It would be nice to see future books offer up new class feats, and then the occasional Sample Class sidebar to suggest builds around those new feats.

Skills and Feats are going to be their own deep dive, but I do like some of the streamlining that has taken place here. At first glance at the Feats chapter it may not seem like there has been any tightening, but that’s only because they have provided a very comprehensive list. Luckily, also a very useful list, in some ways similar lists in 1e were not. But as I say, deeper dive coming.

On to Spells! I do like the simplifying into the four general classes of spell, Arcane, Divine, Occult, and Primal. I think it’s good to shift the spell lists away from specific character classes, and it offers some roleplaying hints as well as making future character class builds easier. And there is enough overlap between these lists that no group will be seriously hampered by the absence of a particular type of caster. This chapter gets a deeper dive as well, but I do like the way the spells in general have been streamlined, especially around the new three-action mechanic.

Interesting choice to put the campaign background chapter before the Playing the Game chapter. Almost as if they decided, “Wow, that was a lot, huh? Okay, rest yourself as we discuss some setting fluff.” And it is 95% fluff, with nary a crunchy rule in site unless you’re a cleric. Given the detailed rules surrounding it, while the chapter is a nice break, if I were a player I might be disappointed that none of the options the chapter presents seem to do anything.

Playing the Game is definitely getting its own deep dive, because only that type of look would do it justice. But there are two things I like at first glance. First, the three action turn mechanic and how this will speed up Pathfinder play, at least in the long run. Second, a more unified rolling mechanic for everything in the game. Gone are the many “minigames” you had to memorize depending on what character class you were playing, or whether you were making an attack versus a combat maneuver check. All of these mechanics have been tightened up, and I think that was a smart move forward for a game which still looks complex on its surface compared to other fantasy RPGs (*cough* D&D *cough* Forbidden Lands *cough* Sorry, must be coming down with something.)

And then we come to the Gamemastering and Crafting & Treasure chapters, and these are pretty standard fare compared to the previous edition. They each support, and are supported by, the previous chapters nicely. If you’re a new GM the Gamemastering chapter is going to be your main toolbox, along with the Appendix. The Crafting & Treasure chapter is probably the best organized one I have seen in any publication, and I am heartened by two things: an absence and a presence. The absence that makes me happy is the dropping of their previous attempt to limit magic item usage by tying it to a Charisma-based limit. Blech! Instead, they seem to have gone with a much more interesting (to my mind) Investment mechanic. Essentially, some magic items will only have full function if properly invested by the character. So your +1 leather armor will work just fine, but it won’t function as the Bulwark of the Gathering Storm unless you take time to invest it. Then the game limits how many investments you can benefit from in a day. This allows some interesting flexibility that their previous proposed system lacked, and I like it much better.

The heartening presence I spoke of is the very robust set of item creation rules. As with most things in TTRPGs, I prefer magic (and other) items to not only be something that happens to the characters, but something they can do as well. Yes, some players will be happy their character was given an awesome sword. But many players also want to make that awesome sword, either for themself or another party member. It only makes sense to give them the path forward on how to do that, even if their ability to create at low levels is necessarily limited.

The Appendix is actually just a Conditions Appendix. This is a reference chapter I expect will be used by player and GM alike during play, so I like its clean, no-nonsense layout. I will say, I am disappointed there isn’t at least a small section with some bestiary information for new GMs. It turns this book from a pick-up-and-play resource into a “good start, here’s what you need next”, which to my mind isn’t the best way to entice new players. Especially new players which may have taking some convincing to lay out $60US for a new game book. The thought of increasing that outlay to $100US+ is a bit disheartening, and seems like a big mistep for Paizo.

So what is my overall impression? Do I think you should buy this book? I think if you have been playing Pathfinder up to now because you still prefer it to D&D 5e (and that’s not a judgement, play what you love), then yes, you should grab this book. It takes the game you love and streamlines it in some very clever and fun-to-play ways. Much of the lore you have from the previous edition will carry over, leaving you to concentrate on learning new mechanics and system details, which should come to you very easily with the help of this tome. Get it, learn it, keep playing the game you love, probably with more goblins at the table.

Would I recommend this book to someone just starting in the hobby? No. No no no. Noooooooooo. If I thought for a second that their barrier to entry was anything related to fear of complexity, I would kick this under the couch (breaking my toe in the process) and then hobble over to show them D&D Essentials, or some very good beginner level OSR material. Anything that would get them to the table and rolling dice quickest. Because if complexity is keeping them out of gaming, this book is going to terrify them. I’ll talk in later articles about why it isn’t as complex as it seems at first glance, but given that a first glance may be the only shot you have of getting a new player into the hobby, I wouldn’t use this book to do it.

That said, apart from the flaws I mentioned earlier, this is a good fantasy TTRPG. Just as good as the predecessor, with some needed improvements, but sadly also carrying some unnecessary problems from the earlier edition. So if you love Pathfinder, it’s for you. If you have never played or are unsure, at most I would suggest getting the PDF version to look it over, because that would be a smaller investment if you decided not to jump in. And then you still have an interesting sourcebook to pillage for the games you do play.

Stay tuned in coming weeks for deeper dives into the sections I mentioned above, as well as a specific look at the new Pathfinder 2e Bestiary. As always, feel free to comment here or on twitter, I’d love to hear your thoughts on this latest edition of Pathfinder.

PathfinderSecondEdition.com has links to everything Pathfinder Second Edition has to offer, including printable resources and a Conversion Guide for your first edition materials.

You can find all things Paizo, online at paizo.com or on Facebook at facebook.com/paizo.

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