Complexity versus Depth in Pathfinder Playtest

[Editor’s Note: Here in The Rat Hole we love our Roleplaying Games. With our regular reviews, you may have noticed a distinct lack of big games like Pathfinder, 13th Age, Dungeons & Dragons, etc. The main reason for that has been that there is just too much out there. Starfinder gave us the opportunity to jump in on the ground floor of that game, and the advent of the Pathfinder Second Edition Playtest gives us a similar opportunity. The best part about the Pathfinder Playtest materials is that the digital editions are completely FREE to anyone wanting to download them. You can visit to get those materials and make sure you fill out a survey about the game to help Paizo make Pathfinder 2E the best it can be. -dc] 

Brent’s Thoughts

Next article we’ll start a deep dive into sections of the Pathfinder Playtest book, focusing on specific chapters or aspects of the playtest rules. But I wanted to quickly touch on a concern I’ve heard from a lot of folks. There seems to be an opinion floating about the playtest forums that Pathfinder 2.0 is “watering down” or “dumbing down” the Pathfinder game. While I agree that the rules as presented in Pathfinder 2.0 are cleaner and simpler, I don’t think the game has been dumbed down, nor do I think the new version deprives the player of choice when it comes to their character.

One of the stated aims of the design team for Pathfinder Playtest is to, “…make the game easier to learn and simpler to play, while maintaining the depth of character and adventure options that has always defined Pathfinder.” Where I think many of the dissenting opinions stem is confusion over the difference between complexity and depth in a game. Simply put, depth is represented by how many experientially different possibilities or choices can come from playing the game. Complexity is measured by how easy or difficult it is to learn the actual mechanics of the game. If a game has several different small rules systems inside, or a metric tonne of things the player has to track in order to play, the game would be considered more complex. Sometimes that complexity is necessary, but a lot of the time it’s the result of poor or lazy design. A good example of complexity with no payoff would be Advanced Dungeons & Dragons and the use of the “To Hit Armor Class Zero” mechanic. “THAC0” forced players to keep a small chart on their character sheet so they knew what number they needed to roll to hit every AC between 10 and -10 (yes, negative integers!) *shudder*

Current Pathfinder is not nearly as bad, but still has different mini-systems for calculating and tracking Skills, Spell DCs, Attacks, and Saving Throws, among others. Besides requiring the player to learn all the different mini-games involved in playing their character, these systems are listed in different sections of the rules, involving the flipping of many pages to find necessary rules, wasting valuable time at the table.

But in the Pathfinder Playtest, these separate mini-games are replaced by the use of the same proficiency system mechanic. You can be of Untrained, Trained, Expert, Master, or Legendary proficiency in a Skill, Saving Throw, Weapon Attack, Spell DC, and so on. Simply add the modifier for your degree of proficiency (-2 for Untrained, 0 for Trained, up to +3 for Legendary) to your relevant ability modifier, plus your level, and you have the relevant modifier. While that may still seem complex on the face of it, the fact that it is the same process for just about everything means that the overall complexity of the rules system goes down. This is exciting not only for introducing new players to the game, but it lessens the learning curve when a player wants to try a new type of character. They may still have some details to figure out, but the mechanics of how to play the new character will already be familiar.

And this is the best example of how the Pathfinder Playtest reduces complexity without sacrificing depth. All of your choices from the previous version of the game remain intact; you still have Saving Throws, Skills, Armor Class, Melee and Ranged to-hit rolls, Spell DCs and so on. But they are all governed by a single mechanic as opposed to several different ones, making the entire game simpler to play. We’ll take a more in-depth look in a future article focused on Feats, but the new feat system supports and enhances this unified mechanic, arguably adding even more depth to a greatly simplified game.

Another great example of reduced complexity resulting in equal or greater depth is the interplay between feats and how the classes level up. I’ll save the detailed look at that for the aforementioned article on feats, but in a nutshell it is possible to take feats which grant abilities normally associated with another class. So it is possible to advance as a fighter but add aspects of a cleric or wizard to your character, without having to take levels in those classes as you have to do in current Pathfinder.

So don’t despair, lovers of depth and crunch! Not only has the depth remained, but it arguably even deeper than before and easier to plumb. You may have to figure out new ways to build your favourite character types, but you’ll really only have to learn how once.

Next week we’ll walk through rolling up a character, and what that tells us about the new rules.

Remember, you can participate in the Pathfinder Playtest for FREE at

You can read all of our coverage about the Playtest HERE.