This week, Pathfinder Second Edition finally makes its official debut, as Paizo is set to release the game to the public at Gen Con 2019 (Ars is in attendance so keep your eyes peeled). That means, as players count down these last playtesting days, it’s time to share some observations and impressions from weeks upon weeks of Pathfinder Second Edition exploration.
Around Ars, we generally wait until the full release of any game before formally reviewing it. But given the hype and interest built around Pathfinder over the last decade—and this extended near-year of playtesting—we can’t help ourselves. If you’re looking for a detailed catalog and analysis of every single mechanical difference between the first edition of Pathfinder and this recent playtest, however, this isn’t the overview for you. Paizo’s design team touched nearly every aspect of the game from my perspective. An in-depth breakdown of that company’s undertaking would be massive (and would require a much, much longer piece).
Instead, these are the thoughts of a longtime Pathfinder player based on extensive playtesting—plus my hopes for what I’d love to see when I sit down at a table in the Sagamore Ballroom of the Indiana Convention Center on the opening morning of Gen Con to play my first official Pathfinder Second Edition game.
When faced with any kind of sequel (especially for something as beloved as the original Pathfinder), the name of the game becomes expectations. Is a new release “good” if it essentially mirrors its predecessor? What if it changes everything entirely? The ideal answer probably lies somewhere in between, right?
Luckily, Pathfinder players don’t need to engage in any deep soul searching to set the table for this Second Edition. Back in October 2018, Paizo came out publicly and laid out its own hopes and dreams for a Pathfinder sequel. Designer Jason Bulmahn shared five goals for what Paizo hoped to accomplish, and here there are paraphrased a bit:
- Create a new edition of Pathfinder that’s simpler to learn and play while remaining true to the game’s spirit of customization and flexibility, and reward of system mastery.
- Make sure the new edition allows for the same kind of storytelling as the first edition, while making room for new stories and worldbuilding.
- Incorporate innovations and lessons learned over the 10+ years the team has worked with the first edition.
- Create a play environment where every character has an opportunity to contribute and every player has some time in the spotlight.
- Ensure that Pathfinder continues to be a game that’s welcoming to all players, regardless of their background or their experience.
Paizo’s publicly stated aspirations provide some context for how to interpret this lengthy playtest, and they make it a bit simpler to evaluate how successfully Paizo did or didn’t execute. While each of those goals have undoubtedly shaped the development of Second Edition, during the playtest I especially felt the influence of the first and fourth goals—make the game easier while still catering to players who love the “crunch” (robust game mechanics for complex and highly customized characters or adventures); and reward specialization (both mechanically and narratively) with a system that lends itself to sharing the spotlight at the table.
Both of these goals seemed to be directly addressed in the playtest’s ruleset. Going in-depth on every single new rule would require a much longer piece, but it’s worth highlighting the changes that I felt were put in place to meet those goals.
Easy to play, not “simple”
One of the ways in which Paizo seems to have attempted to make the game easier to learn and play is to “flatten” a lot of the math—reducing the number of calculations required to determine the success or failure of any given player character action. In keeping with the spirit of its Dungeons & Dragons 3rd Edition DNA, first edition Pathfinder can sometimes require the addition of a whole string of modifiers to a die roll. But in the playtest ruleset, under most circumstances a player will rarely be stacking more than four modifiers onto a roll of the ol’ icosahedron: perhaps their character’s level, their character’s proficiency bonus, any relevant ability score bonus, and then a possible fourth miscellaneous bonus (something like an item bonus or a circumstantial bonus).
One other major way in which the game was simplified during this playtest was the streamlining of action economy during the “encounter” phase. Gone were the myriad descriptive action types (e.g. free, standard, move, attack, etc.), and Paizo replaced those instead with a three-action turn for each participant in an encounter round (player characters and baddies alike). Some activities take a single action, such as “striding” (moving up to your character’s movement speed) or “striking” (making a single attack). Casting most spells and readying an action to react to a specific trigger are examples of activities which consume two of your three actions. And although a single weapon attack is only one action, any character can make iterative attacks with their remaining actions (at successively steeper penalties, although various character specialization options can help reduce those penalties).
The playtest rulebook, and one assumes the same will be true of the Second Edition core rulebook, clearly labeled every activity it described with helpful arrow icons to indicate how many actions that activity took if carried out in the encounter phase. And during my playtesting, once everyone was used to this streamlined system, it greatly reduced the amount of time spent looking up whether casting a particular spell was a standard action or a full round action, or trying to recall if retrieving an item from a backpack was a standard action or a move action. Those sorts of things have long been the little details that even veteran Pathfinder players can forget, and in the past it would add up and inevitably slow down combat.
So in some foundational ways, Paizo truly did streamline play in a way that sped things up and was fairly easy to learn with this playtest. Some of us veteran players naturally fell back on old habits and had to stop ourselves briefly, but any change inevitably comes with a period of adjustment. For newer players at our table without almost two decades of Dungeons & Dragons 3rd Edition and first edition Pathfinder rules ingrained in them, these streamlined rules seemed relatively easy to pick up.
In other ways, however, the playtest made changes to roleplaying game core concepts that had gone largely unchanged since the introduction of the standardized d20 System back in 2000 with Dungeons & Dragons 3rd Edition. Paizo undertook relatively significant changes to the skill system, how initiative order is determined, and the iconic critical success and critical failure criteria.
Whereas most d20-based games treat a “natural” (i.e. before any modifiers are applied) result of 20 or 1 on a 20-sided die as a critical success or critical failure, for instance, the Pathfinder playtest introduced a sliding scale. Any result that beat the target number (e.g. an opponent’s armor class, or a difficult class for a skill check or saving throw) by 10 or more is now a critical success—with all of the perks that might entail. Likewise, any result that misses the target number by 10 or more is now a critical failure. In my experience, this made a lot of encounters more dynamic. With a moving range for critical successes and failures, it increased the uncertainty with every attack and every saving throw. Both the heroes and the baddies were seeing more critical results in both directions, and it was often less-obvious when that critical moment was about to happen. Things simply got more exciting more often.