Pathfinder – 2nd Ed.

Step back into the world of Golarion – if indeed you ever left – as Pathfinder steps into its lauded second edition. Get ready for a whole world of adventure!

Publisher:Paizo Publishing
Authors/Artists:Jason Bulmahn, Logan Bonner, Stephen Radney-MacFarland, Mark Seifter etc
Genre:Fantasy, Adventure
Type of game:Tabletop RPG

Concepts: Pathfinder is a game about finding paths – except that the paths will usually lead to dungeons. You control a hearty adventurer (who may or may not be a member of the titular Pathfinder society) and set out to right wrongs across the land – or, more likely, derail the GM’s carefully constructed adventures with wanton madness. Pathfinder is perhaps the world’s second biggest fantasy tabletop RPG, and in 2019 we saw the release of the second edition. Look, you know the concept behind this game, it’s one that’s as old as the hobby itself – while Pathfinder cannot be said to have invented the wheel, it has certainly aided in polishing it to a smooth round surface suitable for travelling down any road at great speed. That’s… not really a good analogy, is it?

Writing: Pathfinder is set in Golarion, an ancient planet that has existed since 2008 and will continue to do so until it mysteriously vanishes in Starfinder. Okay okay, you want a serious summary? Whilst I try to typically include a detail of a game’s setting in the ‘writing’ part of my reviews, Pathfinder makes that difficult due to the vast amount of detailed work that Paizo have crafted over the last decade. Almost every month (and occasionally more) a new supplement has been released, each one adding more and more to this game’s setting, ranging from vast underworlds and far-flung foreign cultures to lands under the thumb of gothic horror nightmares and long-lost Atlantean-like people who definitely didn’t go off into space and form their own intergalactic empire… okay, I’ll stop. Oh, and did I mention the aliens? Yeah, there’s a campaign with them, too – check out Iron Gods.

What I’m getting at here is that Pathfinder is a setting which feels very, very alive. It has been meticulously crafted in what is very much a labour of love, and that shows no sign of slowing down. This rulebook launches alongside several new books that allow the players to get stuck in with adventures, The Fall of Plaguestone and the first part of Age of Ashes – I really hope that Paizo aren’t placing their employees under crunch to get all of these out! But looking specifically at this rulebook itself, there is a wealth of information available here. Even though the main focus of this hefty tome is on character creation, feats and powers and spells and items, the pages still manage to include chunky double-page spreads on many of the important venues around the lands of Golarion, with more than enough to inspire the GM and excite the players.

Mechanics: It feels almost reductive to discuss the mechanics of Pathfinder – the vast majority of RPG players on the planet are at least familiar with the d20 system to the point where explaining it would be all but pointless. Grab a dice, roll it, add your modifier, get over a target number. What more is there to be said? Everything else atop that are, at heart, the nuts and bolts that create an RPG as we know it.

There are, by now, any number of different summaries on what the differences between first and second edition Pathfinder are. Yes, character creation is more similar to that found in Starfinder. Yes, some skills have been combined together. And yes, Paladins are now called Champions. There are perhaps several hundred tweaks, changes and alterations that have been performed to Pathfinder, giving the impression of a very enthusiastic overhaul. Perhaps one of my favorite changes is the amendments to a character’s ‘race’, now retitled ‘ancestry’. These are far less cut-and-dry, and this has proved controversial to some, but it is a change that I am firmly behind. Allow me to explain why.

In a typical fantasy RPG, the choice that the player makes when selecting their character’s ‘race’ is one that is made at the start of the creation process. Characters share identical traits within their racial groups – all dwarves have darkvision and a bonus to history checks to examine stonework, for example, even if they themselves have never looked at a brick in their entire life. Often players will select a character’s race that will directly benefit their class – “you will want to be an elf if you’re playing a wizard, get that bonus” . Between all of these we are left with one issue that has plagued fantasy RPGs since time immemorial – homogenization of racial groups. Pathfinder 2e attempts to tackle that by creating a system in which a character’s ancestry is less structured around their race, with the aim being that no two dwarves or elves will be alike and that it is their experiences – not their bloodlines – that will define them. Outside of the philosophical discussion of ‘nature vs nurture’ and the lovely way that this choice goes out of its way to dismiss racial stereotypes that are held over from the real world, it also serves to provide the players with far, far more choice on how they wish to develop their characters as they progress – and really, who could ever say that having more choice is a bad thing?

Of the other changes, there are several that have a drastic impact on gameplay. The economy of combat turns has been amended – during each turn, your character can take up to three actions. All available options (movement, casting a spell, striking with a sword, aiming a crossbow) cost either one, two or three actions. If this seems familiar, it probably should – I’m sure that others with far more of a mathematical bent have written extensively about the implications of this action economy. But that’s enough crunch – let’s look at the book itself.

Design: The artwork in Pathfinder 2e core book is fantastic. Depicting the game’s established iconic characters who are instantly recognizable to existing players, much of the artwork consists of large splash pages showcasing kinetic battle scenes. Although the aesthetic style to Pathfinder’s artwork may not be for everybody, the vibrant dynamic nature of the colours and the lively characters stand out to me as particularly eye-pleasing. There’s no other way to put it, I have a fondness for Pathfinder’s style of fantasy characters.

The book’s layout is simple and very smooth, without much in the way of flicking backwards and forwards through pages. This is a bit of a bonus, especially considering that this is a very large tome! Because a vast amount of the game’s powers have been condensed into Feats, chapters like that one are as large as most small RPG supplements in their own right, meaning that this book is, well, it’s certainly adding to my suspicion that more and more RPG books are secretly trying to beat each other out for the most number of pages! In all seriousness though, the binding on my copy is pretty sturdy – thankfully.

Playability: Pathfinder inhabits a curious place in the RPG gaming industry, with its roots as an inheritor to D&D 3.5e. When I first started playing, it was during the days of D&D 2e, the much-beloved Advanced Dungeons and Dragons 2nd ed, I did so with the understanding that it was a game that incorporated a gameplay system that was complex to say the least. Over the years I have watched as the game has been progressively streamlined into the revered 3.5e, the spiritual successor to Pathfinder 1e. Both 3.5 and Pathfinder were a trimmed-down and refined reflection of their predecessors, and eventually D&D continued to refine itself into the current 5e that exists at the time of writing.

Taking that into account, Pathfinder has found itself in the curious position of being seen as a bulkier, crunchier alternative to the current edition of D&D. This left the game needing to choose if it would attempt to compete with the streamlining of its ancestors or not. In the end, Pathfinder 2e has settled on simply refining itself – polishing the nuts and bolts on what was already a strongly-oiled machine. Make no mistake, Pathfinder 2e is a more ‘complex’ game than you’ll find in D&D 5e, and seems very happy with its place in the hobby. And remember, of course, that the Pathfinder system all but exists to embrace the production of their high-quality Adventure Paths line – serialised campaigns that ensure that as long as you keep wanting to play, there will be adventures to be had!

Conclusion: So as you can no doubt tell by my lower-than-normal level of snark, Pathfinder’s second edition is a pretty strong contender for one of my best fantasy games. The one thing that hold this back from earning my fullest grades is perhaps the thing that would be the biggest barrier that a new player might have – this is a pretty huge tome. For a game system that is already somewhat crunchy, it’s rather hard to describe the modifications that have been made to this game as legitimately streamlining – not when you have quite so many rules upon rules upon rules. And placing as many of them as there are here into this one huge 600-plus page book is, at very least, bound to scare off quite a few potential new players.

If you enjoy fantasy games, and are willing to tackle this one, Pathfinder’s second edition is a powerful contender for one of the best games in the genre. It’s phenomenally fun to play, with a combat system that feels impactful and enjoyable. It provides you with a wealth of content and ideas, and so much variety of choice that players could easily get lost in it for years. Overall I do recommend this book, especially if you are an existing long-time player of the Pathfinder game, although I would suggest that new players perhaps steer towards one of Paizo’s beginner boxes instead.


FINAL THOUGHTS: A strong evolution on an already enjoyable game.

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