Readers of Strange Assembly may know that I’ve been doing some Pathfinder reviews for a couple years now. But while I’ve produced some lengthy core book reviews for other games, I haven’t for Pathfinder – because, unlike the current iteration of almost every other RPG I write about, Pathfinder has been around longer than this website. Now, Paizo has released a new version of the Pathfinder Core Rulebook, and here I am writing a review, but it’s really two reviews.
See, the Pathfinder Core Rulebook Pocket Edition is exactly the same book as the latest printing of the normal Pathfinder Core Rulebook (all 575 pages of it), except smaller, softcover, and half the price. So one review is for someone who is familiar with Pathfinder, and maybe owns the Core Rulebook (and would be buying the pocket edition to supplement the full-size hardcover), or doesn’t own a Pathfinder Core Rulebook, and is deciding whether to get the normal or the pocket version. The second review is for someone who doesn’t know Pathfinder, or has maybe heard of it but doesn’t know what it is. That review is a lot longer, but much different from what I would have written if I was reviewing Pathfinder when it was first released (a precise breakdown of the difference between Pathfinder and D&D 3.5, for example, is not really pertinent anymore). I’ll cover the pocket edition specifically first, and then tackle Pathfinder generally after that (if you’re familiar with Pathfinder already, feel free to skip that part).
Pocket Edition As Alternative or Supplement to Traditional Core Rulebook
The nature of the pocket edition of the Core Rulebook is pretty straightforward because it’s the same content, but smaller. There are no omissions or abridgments, all of the art is still present, and it’s still full color. The book still looks great. A traditional hardcover Pathfinder Core Rulebook is about 8.6” x 11” by 1.3.” The pocket edition is about 6.5” x 8.3” x 1.1”. So the pocket edition is about 60% of the size of a standard Core Rulebook. It’s also half the price, which could be a pretty big deal if you’re just looking to try out Pathfinder (I know I always like getting games 50% off). The softcover pocket edition is also pretty sturdy, so it should serve well as a “travel edition” of the Core Rulebook, making it easier to carry around, or letting you look something up mid-session without thumping that big hardcover onto a tightly-packed tabletop. Note that the text is smaller than the standard Core Rulebook (same content + smaller page = smaller font), so I personally find it a bit hard to read if I’ve got the pocket edition sitting in my lap and I’m leaning back (which I can do without any issue with the larger book), instead of up on the table and leaning forward. The pocket edition might be a little rough on someone who is visually impaired. The pocket edition is also not going to lay flat on the table (not great if you are trying to read character information out of the book and record it on a sheet). So you are giving up some amount of usability and readability for that lower price point and higher portability. I don’t think I can say one or the other is “better,” because it’s going to depend on what you’re using it for, and how much that significant price reduction matters.
OK, now you can stop reading if you already know all about Pathfinder. If not, here we go …
What Is Pathfinder Anyway?
Pathfinder is a classic sword-and-sorcery, high fantasy roleplaying game. There is a lot of room in Pathfinder to do different sorts of adventures, but the classic is still a small party of fighters, wizards, rogues, clerics, and such (humans, elves, dwarves, or other races) venturing into a dungeon, castle, town, or other fairly enclosed space and defeating enemies (characters or monsters) in combat, thus winning riches and better stuff, which will be used to defeat more powerful enemies later on.
I said earlier I’m not going to do a detailed comparison of D&D 3.5 to Pathfinder, but there’s a reason that description above sounds a lot like Dungeons & Dragons, so I think some reference to D&D is helpful.
Once upon a time, there was Dungeons & Dragons, and lo, it was wondrous to behold. I know that there’s a lot of nostalgia, and there are those who would declare this heresy, but I believe that D&D kept getting better through its third edition, which begat D&D 3.5, which was just third edition but cleaned up and refined. Along with the third edition ruleset, Wizards of the Coast (the publisher of D&D) created the Open Gaming License (OGL), which let other companies make D&D compatible products. Paizo, the publisher of Pathfinder, began making OGL material for D&D 3E. Eventually, Dungeons & Dragons moved on to fourth edition, which was a big step in the wrong direction (fifth edition is much better, but that’s a tale for another review).
As the granddaddy of the fantasy roleplaying games was going off the rail (by my estimation – I know 4E had its fans, but I was not one of them), Paizo stepped into the breach with Pathfinder. Pathfinder is, in practical terms, D&D 3.75. Despite the spacing of the numbers, Pathfinder represents a bigger change than the 3.0 to 3.5 revision, and it’s pretty much all for the better. Again, I’m not going to break down those differences, because I think it’s unlikely anyone is just now coming to Pathfinder from D&D 3.5 or is deciding between Pathfinder and D&D 3.5, but there’s a reason why Pathfinder shares a lot in common with Dungeons & Dragons.
Art and World
I might usually throw this section lower in the review, but I think it’s important to note that, although the core mechanics of Pathfinder are drawn from Dungeons & Dragons, Pathfinder also has a distinctive flavor all of its own. The art (cover and interior) is outstanding, and follows its own definite style guide, which really conveys a unified world, rather than a hodge-podge of generic fantasy art styles. Additionally, although the bestiary is the only thing not included in the Core Rulebook (unlike D&D, there is no separate Player’s Handbook and Dungeon Master’s Guide that are required purchases; all of that is in this book – the separate Bestiary is now also available in a pocket edition), Pathfinder has its own distinctive take on many monsters, most famously the goblins. This flavor will be conveyed in any Pathfinder game, but for those who wish to use it, Pathfinder also has its own world, known as Golarian (indeed, Golarian predates the Pathfinder Roleplaying Game, since it existed when Pathfinder was just a series of D&D modules).
Success or failure of an action in Pathfinder hinges on the roll of a twenty-sided die (d20). Tasks, whether trying to hit something in combat, try to make a saving throw to avoid the worst effects of a spell, climbing a rain-slicked tower wall, or bluffing past town guards, have an assigned difficulty. The character’s d20 roll will be modified by a broadly applicable ability modifier (strength, charisma, etc.), a more specific proficiency modifier (a skill, or attack bonus), and possibly other situational modifiers.
Character Creation (~120 pages)
There are a lot of choices to be made in creating a Pathfinder character, but the two most basic are race and class. Although there are many, many, many more options to be found in supplements, characters in the Pathfinder Core Rulebook can come from seven races (human, dwarf, elf, halfling, gnome, half-elf, and half-orc) and eleven classes (barbarian, bard, cleric, druid, fighter, monk, paladin, ranger, rogue, sorcerer, wizard). Each race provides a lot of mechanical modifiers to make them more distinct, some of them broad, some of them more narrow and flavorful. For example, the dwarf is tougher, more perceptive, less charismatic, doesn’t have movement limited by weight carried, can see in the dark, is better at valuing gems, gets bonuses against goblins and orcs, is resistant to poison and spells, are more difficult to knock down, are knowledgeable about stonework, have bonus weapon proficiencies, and start the game knowing dwarven (in addition to other languages).
Class defines the core concept of the character – whether and what sort of spells they have, weapons available, armor available, attack bonuses, saving throws, hit points, the most significant powers, and much more. The core classes cover all of the standard fantasy RPG fare. There are also a wide array of choices to be made within a given class, both at character creation and as the character gains levels. And characters gain something new and almost every level – there are no expanses of levels where the only gain is incremental attack, saving throw, and hit point bonuses (ok, the wizard’s level advancement table looks like that, but the wizard gets the most spells and gets to choose new spells every level).
Characters’ ability scores are also defined at character creation, although they slowly increase as the character gains levels. They are the well-known six – strength, dexterity, constitution, intelligence, wisdom, and charisma. The official default is rolling four six-sided dice (4d6) (keeping the highest three) six times, then assigning these values. But IMHO the real default is a point buy (because having radically stronger or weaker characters because of dice during character creation has a lot of history, but is hella lame – there’s a reason organized play uses point buy). Values below 10 result in a penalty, and values above 11 produce a bonus (given the costs and trigger points, expect to see a lot of 12s for players who like well-rounded characters, with more 14s/8s for players who like more imbalance, and something like a 16 only in a character’s primary stat, since it gets prohibitively expensive at that level).
Each character also gets a feat (and will get another every even-numbered level). Feats are discrete bonuses that further customize a character. Some of these are tied to a particular class (for example, feats that require channeling energy are useless to non-clerics), but many can be used for character concept purposes that go beyond anything class-specific (such as skill bonuses or improve initiative). The Core Rulebook includes around 175 feats.
This section of the book also describes the skills available, and how they are used. Options include acrobatics, bluff, climb, diplomacy, disable device (aka, disarming traps), heal, intimidate, perception, perform, ride, sense motive, stealth, survival, swim, and a plethora of crafts, knowledges, and professions. Finally, every character has an alignment, from Law to Chaos on one axis, and from Good to Evil on the other. In addition to being a roleplaying guide for a character, it can be mechanically relevant for some magical effects.
Combat (~25 pages)
As with many fantasy RPGs, combat is a big focus in Pathfinder. This is the sort of game where combat can (and often is) managed with miniatures on a grid, rather than relying only on narrative description. I was kind of surprised by how relatively little space the combat chapter takes up, given the level of detail involved. On each combat round, each character gets one standard action and one move action (or can cash those both in for one full-round action). Characters can perform any number of free actions, which tend to be trivial things (for example, dropping a held object, or speaking). The rules also support swift actions, which are “free,” but are limited to one per round (swift actions are typically used for things like feats or spells that let a character act more quickly, and the restriction stops these sort of effects from being stacked). There is also the concept of an immediate action, which is like a swift action but can also be taken on an opponent’s turn (as with swift actions, these are typically introduced through a specific effect, such as being able to cast feather fall to stop yourself from falling even when it isn’t your turn). Attacks are, like other challenges, resolved with a d20 roll, in this instance against the target’s defense value (which may be different for standard attacks as compared to more exotic combat maneuvers). The combat chapter covers a large gamut of possible actions and subjects, including attacks of opportunity, total defense, damage/hit points, healing, difficult terrain, size differences, concealment, flanking, aiding another, charging, bull rushes, disarm, grappling, sunder (breaking objects), overrun, feinting, mounted combat, splash damage, two-weapon fighting, and special initiative actions like delaying or readying an action. Pathfinder doesn’t just have all of these options covered, it makes them work together really well. It’s just an excellent RPG combat system.
Magic and Spells (~165 pages)
This chapter is maybe 15 pages of rules and then 150 pages of spells – so, yeah, your spellcasters have a lot of options (the spells are sorted alphabetically, with a listing up front that sorts the spells by class and level, with a very brief description). Every spell has a specific level, although there is some scaling in power as the character levels up (for example, damage may be locked at 1d8, but with +1 per caster level). Much of how exactly spells work depends on the character class, but most spellcasters have a number of “spells known” (per spell level) that is set by their class and then a number of spells they can cast per day (per spell level) that is set by their class. Some classes have to choose which spells to memorize for a particular spell slot, and some classes can cast whatever spell they want for each slot, without having to choose in advance (limited by spells known, of course). Wizards are different in that there is no limit on the number of spells they can know, although they are (unlike the rest of the classes) tied to a spell book. Regardless, spell slots that are used up are restored after a night’s sleep.
Gear (~25 pages)
As one might expect, most of this material is devoted to weapons and armor. Classic adventuring gear is also covered (always bring that 50 feet of rope!), as are supplies for using some skills (thieves’ tools, healer’s kit, etc.), as well as food, lodging, and transport.
GameMastery (~60 pages)
The GM sections in Pathfinder are almost exclusively mechanical, with little content advice on how to be a GM (although Paizo does sell that sort of book, for those who are interested). Personally, I’m fine with that, as this sort of advice often isn’t that helpful (shout-out to Numenera for actually having a great section of this sort of advice). What is covered is subjects like how to hand out experience and treasure, how to design an encounter, and how to structure an adventure. The majority of this part of the Core Rulebook is labeled as Environment, which includes dungeon construction, traps, wilderness travel of various sorts, urban environments, weather, the planes, and specific environmental hazards (darkness, extreme cold, falling, water, etc.). Finally, there are rules for NPC creation, for those NPCs not sufficiently important/potent enough to have normal PC character classes (which are much more complex than the NPC classes).
Magic Items (~95 pages)
You can’t be a classic fantasy RPG without magic items, and even in the Core Rulebook Pathfinder has piles of them. All of the usual suspects are here, with each character able to wear up to 15 different magic items in various slots, plus weaponry. In addition to the wearable items, there are also the usual assortment of potions, rods, scrolls, staves, wands, and assorted wondrous items.
Pathfinder is an amazing roleplaying game, and that starts with the Core Rulebook, whatever size the pages in it may be. The Core Rulebook covers all the standards of fantasy roleplaying (without needing to buy a separate game master book), and it does it very, very well. Characters get lots of options, so there is a lot of customizability. And most new levels come with some new ability (and possibly a choice of abilities), so every level up is really fun. The combat systems are tight and smooth. Non-combat rules for travel, dungeoneering, and other aspects of fantasy adventuring are solid. There are a lot of options in the Core Rulebook itself, but there are also truly vast set of options available in supplements, including a plethora of new base character classes. These supplements can be used to enhance the core experience, add in more distinctive concepts like technology or downtime advancement, or add new playstyles (such as horror or ongoing urban adventures). If you find this style of roleplaying game is appealing, it’s really hard to go wrong with Pathfinder.
Promotional consideration was provided in the form of a review copy.