Review – Pathfinder Playtest

As selling them has become more of a thing (especially from Fantasy Flight), I’ve written review of a few beta rulebooks for roleplaying games, including Legend of the Five Rings and Star Wars (and Star Wars and Star Wars, because that’s how FFG rolls). I’ve generally approached those reviews much like I would any of my other RPG reviews, because both, while there had been L5R and Star Wars RPGs before, each of those was a brand new system (yeah, I know, the second and third Star Wars beta core books weren’t new at that point, but I just followed my style from the previews one). Pathfinder Playtest, on the other hand, doesn’t seem conducive to that. Yes, Paizo would surely like Pathfinder Playtest to help serve as a push for new players – and when Pathfinder 2E is released is will be covered here from a new player’s perspective as well – but to me it’s hard to look at Pathfinder Playtest outside of the context of the evolution from Pathfinder. So this review is going to come from that perspective, and I’m going to skip trying to lay out the very broad stroke of what Pathfinder is, and jump right into what’s different from a mechanical perspective (the world remains the same). In reading this, there are a couple of things worth keeping in mind, I think. First, Pathfinder Playtest really is a playtest. It is not a locked system with Paizo just using a beta edition to sell more books. So pretty much everything I’m discussing here is open to change (especially anything that’s down in the weeds). Second, Pathfinder is an intricate system, and there are some rules that may seem small, but where changes can reverberate. This is true of the changes from Pathfinder to the beta playtest book, and will be true of changes from the beta book to the finished product. Now, with all that preliminary nonsense out of the way …

There are a lot of changes from Pathfinder to Pathfinder Playtest. Frankly, more than I was expecting. It’s not just some tweaks around the edges, but really rooting around to develop new systems (or incorporate them from elsewhere; those familiar with Starfinder or the SAGA system will see some things imported from there). The end result is that the jump from Pathfinder to Pathfinder Playtest is the biggest one in its direct lineage since AD&D 2nd Edition gave way to D&D 3.0 itself (which begat D&D 3.5 which begat Pathfinder) – because it is a truly new edition, not just an adjustment of what went before.

In all the newness, there are a few things that really stood out to me as making it feel different, including (1) the three-action system; (2) changes to attacks of opportunity; (3) resonance; and (4) how ancestries work. Reactions probably should be on that list as well, but when I’ve played so far I think we engaged in an awful lot of forgetting that we had them (I played a demo at Gen Con, and I’ve played the first Pathfinder Society module and the first part of Doomsday Dawn; so expect this to have a lot of thought about character creation and low level play, and not so much about 7th level spells).

The three-action system is the most omnipresent difference. Gone are standard actions (attacks and anything you do in place of an attack) and move actions. Instead characters get three actions a turn. Attacking is an action (although there are penalties on successive attacks; the default attack action is referred to as ‘striking’). Moving is an action (the generic move action you know and love is referred to as ‘striding’). Casting a spell is at least one action (and can be up to three). The five-foot step (called ‘stepping’) is an action. A lot of combat maneuvers are not generic actions, but instead are housed as actions based on skills or actions granted by a particular class (for example, warrior type are likely to get a charge-like action that lets them move and attack). So the conceptual frameworks of move-and-attack, step-and-full-attack, are step-back-and-cast gone. That doesn’t mean they don’t happen, they just happen differently. For example, moving and attacking is only two of your three actions. If nothing else, you’ll get to attack a second time (at a -5 penalty). But it also opens up the possibility of a lot more variety for that third action, especially where the first two actions are attack/attack. Sure, you can make a third attack at -10, but all of a sudden things like feinting or cowing your enemies with intimidate can seem more useful. In the early games I’ve played so far, figuring out if there was something useful to do with that third action took up a decent amount of time. That will reduce with familiarity, but it would probably behoove characters to have some default third action built in for times when they’re locked in melee and a third attack is pointless.

There are two specialized sorts of action as well. Free actions are basically anything that doesn’t take an action. And characters get one Reaction a turn. This covers a lot of ground, including some mundane tasks. For example, some things that might have been static bonuses in Pathfinder become Reactions. Characters can raise their shield as a Reaction to increase AC. Similarly, Rogues can activate Nimble Dodge to raise AC. Each of these is a solid benefit, but it has to be chosen, rather than there being an always-on effect. The relative multitude of Reactions requires more tracking for the players – as noted above, my groups repeatedly forgot about these during play.

The omnipresent reaction-type effect in Pathfinder has been, of course, the attack of opportunity. You can’t maneuver around a Pathfinder battlefield without taking shots, or using some method to avoid them (typically the ubiquitous five-foot step, but sometimes alternative methods like piles of Acrobatics). Well, attacks of opportunity are kind of gone (of player character classes, only the Fighter gets it at 1st level), and it makes a huge difference. The bold can simply run across the battlefield, largely unimpeded – although the skittish may ponder exactly which monsters have attacks of opportunity, and act like all of them do. The former approach seems more appropriate at the moment, but more attacks of opportunity appear at higher levels (for example, Paladins have the option of learning to make attacks of opportunity at 6th level).

Resonance (or, as I call it, “Death to Wand of Cure Light Wounds”), is the new system for limiting use of magic items. Want to gain the benefits for your magic armor? Invest one of your Resonance Points (RP). Want to drink a potion? Use an RP. Want to activate the aforementioned Wand of Cure Light Wounds? Resonance Point. For continuous use items, this can actually provide flexibility, as it replaces the ‘slot’ system. Want to use up all of your RP going full Thanos with a hand full of magical rings? No problem. But it (quite deliberately) does limit the heavy use of one-shot and charged items. Also, the number of RP a character has is based on level and Charisma, which means that Charisma isn’t really a dump stat anymore (unless you’re an Alchemist, since they have a class feature that bases their RP on Intelligence, thus making them pound-for-pound the least pleasant people in Pathfinder Playtest).

Our final point of emphasis – Ancestries – will also serve as a nice segue into character creation. Ancestry is the new iteration of race. Ironically, it is now so much more Pathfinder and yet so not Pathfinder. It’s very Pathfinder in that Pathfinder has always been about giving players lots of options as they level up. But it feels really different because race/ancestry no longer does nearly as much mechanically up front. Ancestry give the character their starting stat bonuses and a penalty, starting languages, vision, speed and (Starfinder-style) some hit points. But it doesn’t come with that laundry list of minor abilities you’re used to – stonecunning dwarves, elven immunities, lucky halflings, and so on. Instead, all of these various abilities become Ancestry Feats. You get one of them at first level, and some more later on. So there’s just a lot less up front front from the character’s species. Goblins are now a playable ancestry up front, while half-elves and half-orcs are no longer freestanding, but instead variants of the human ancestry.

Indeed, you’ll find the term “Feat” thrown around a lot more in Pathfinder Playtest. Over the levels, characters will get Ancestry Feats, General Feats, Skill Feats, and Class Feats. Ancestry feats are your race, spread out and customized. Class Feats are essentially a universalized replacement for all of those class ability lists (e.g., you get rogue feats instead of rogue talents). Most of the things that fall into the Skill Feat category are things that would have just been normal feats in Pathfinder, but they relate to expanding use of a skill in some way. General Feats are basically everything else (and you don’t get one at first level).

You’ll also notice that many of the numerical aspects of the classes are flatter than they once were (although, oddly, probably not as flat as they feel). There are no longer skill ranks, but instead levels of training. Indeed, levels of training apply to pretty much everything – attacks, saves, spell saving throws, perception (which is not a skill anymore). If you’re trained, the bonus is equal to your level. If you’re untrained, the bonus is level -2. That’s not an enormous deal at first level – for skills the variance is 3 instead of 4 (1 rank + the Pathfinder +3 trained bonus). But at higher levels the difference remains at 3, instead of expanding as more and more ranks are poured into the skill (plus whatever feats or abilities modified it; the absence of a lot of random +2 to this or that skill early on helps keep things flatter). Instead, skills can be further trained – to expert, master, and then legendary. Each of these bonuses inherently comes with only a +1 bonus, but the different training levels serve to ‘gate’ certain functions of that skill. For example, even if you’re trained in Thievery, and your Thievery bonus is only a couple points behind the Master rogue’s, some locks or traps may not be overcome by anyone with less than a master level ability.

This is also true of base attack bonus. Rather, there’s no such thing as a base attack bonus. Instead, characters are either trained or not with a given attack. Just like with skills, trained means a bonus equal to level, while untrained means a -2 penalty (although a character can start expert, such as the fighter with martial weapons). Again, there’s no inherent spreading as the characters level up.

Another noteworthy universal addition is Background (to form a nice A-B-C when paired with Ancestry and Class). There are only a limited number of backgrounds, but I imagine they will explode in number once Pathfinder second gets going (more already added in the Doomsday Dawn playtest adventure). Each background partially defines one of the +2 boosts to an ability the character receives (for example, the Acrobat can choose Strength or Dexterity), grants a skill feat (for example, the Noble receives the Courtly Graces skill feat), and provides training in one narrow (possibly very narrow) Lore skill (for example, the Barkeep is trained in the Alcohol Lore skill).

Speaking of boosts to abilities, this is largely how stats are handled, with some obvious importation from Starfinder. Characters start with a 10 in everything, and (mostly) have a defined flaw (-2) from their Ancestry, two defined +2 boosts from their Ancestry, one partially-defined boost from Background, one defined boost from character class, and six unrestricted boosts. At 5th level (and 10th) the character will get another package of ability boosts. Like Starfinder, there is an incentive to cap at a 16 at character creation because the boosts do less once an ability is an 18. However, unlike Starfinder, there’s a real incentive to have a maximized key skill. So, while I tend to avoid starting with anything at 18 in Starfinder, at the moment I feel like an 18 in the key skill is still the right call for Pathfinder Playtest (from a min-maxing point of view, anyway).

Class write-ups look a lot different, but some of that is just presentation and terminology. For example, there’s no table with a base attack bonus progression, but that’s because everyone is effectively +1 BAB from being trained in the weapons they would previously have been identified as proficient with (and the Fighter gets an extra +1 for being Expert with weapons). Similarly, there’s no table with saving throws because every class is either Trained (+1) or Expert (+2) in each kind of saving throw. And then the future increases are baked in by level (and any additional training).

The usual collection of classes are joined by the alchemist (which combines with the newly-added goblin ancestry in the form of the Fimbus iconic character). Barbarians rage and have a totem of choice. Bards are now full casters with spells up to 9th level (and they are occult casters now), while still having a lot of skills. Clerics remain fonts of healing, and the addition of class feats makes them much more customizable. Druids (now labeled as primal casters) pick a druidic order, and are then defined by their class feat selection. As noted above, Fighters can still control the battlefield with attacks of opportunity, unlike all of the other classes, and have the best starting attack bonuses. Starting monks get more attacks a round, and extra training to help their unarmored AC. Paladins technically still cast spells, but don’t really feel like it – they get spell points, not spells per day, and unless they take an applicable class feat, they only ‘champion power’ they can use is old standbye lay on hands. Rangers don’t cast spells at all – while fighters get attack of opportunity, Rangers can use the hunt target action to reduce the penalties to making repeated attacks against that foe. Rogues are skill monsters, trained in more than anyone else and getting a new skill feat every single level (instead of every other level) – and all rogues now from first level get to use Dexterity instead of Strength for both attack and damage rolls with finesse weapons (in addition to sneak attack damage, which doesn’t increase as fast as it used to). Sorcerers are changed up by the no longer necessarily being arcane casters – depending on the bloodline, sorcerers may be arcane, divine, primal, or occult, with the varied spell lists that accompany those sources. Wizards regain their title as the only base class dedicated exclusively to arcane spells, with the usual choice between being a specialist or universalist – a big difference is that, like the cleric, the wizard now gets in on the class feat action, allowing more customization.

Something called archetypes are still in the game, but they are much changed (repeat the chorus – “reminiscent of Starfinder …”). Archetypes are no longer restricted by class, but instead can be picked up by any class, replacing the class feats gained at various levels. Even within this, there is still choice, as the player has the option of spending the class feat slots on the archetype feats or not, and there are choices in which archetype feats to take. Archetypes fall into two categories – multiclass and prestige. Multiclass archetypes do what you might expect – make the character more like the other class. For example, the Cleric archetype feats slowly add divine spellcasting. Prestige archetypes are more specialized (the one is the book is the Gray Maiden).

Of course, there are other rules that are different. The most notable thing not mentioned so far is probably criticals. Natural 20s tend to be critical successes. Natural 1s tend to be critical failures. That’s not just on attack rolls. You can critical succeed or fail at things like saving throws as well. For example, what used to be a ‘save for half damage’ spell in the past might now eliminate all damage on a critical success on the saving throw, or do double damage for a critical failure. You also critically succeed if the roll succeeds by more than 10, and critically fail if the roll fails by more than 10. So there’s a lot more space for criticals when the bonuses and/or DCs involved are high.

The death/dying rules are somewhat confusing and caused some controversy in one of the groups I’ve played with. Characters don’t go below zero when knocked out, but instead gain the Dying 1 condition. Take more damage while unconscious and the Dying condition increases. Get to Dying 4 and you’re dead. After getting knocked out, every round characters make a recovery (fortitude) save – failure increases the dying condition, while success restores the character to 1HP (but still unconscious). Regaining consciousness requires making a recovery save while already at 1HP. The aspect that caused some consternation was that healing doesn’t wake the character up (at least so far as we could tell). For example, my character got knocked out (Dying 1), then took a critical while down (jump to Dying 3). Then magic was used to restore the character to full HP … but, as far as we could read it, that still left the character unconscious and at Dying 3 and, therefore, one burning hands away from death. Well, not really, since they also added hero points, which give you one ‘get out of jail free’ card per session, but you know what I mean. I think that the idea was to stop characters from just popping back up and into battle after they’ve been dropped, but it did feel odd that even magical healing couldn’t protect from the Dying condition.

A few other minor observations:

  • sign language is supported, either for characters who use the sign version of the language instead of the spoken version, or for characters who wish to expend a feat to learn sign language in addition to the spoken version;
  • there are now different rarities of spells, with characters mostly only getting to pick ‘common’ spells automatically as they level up;
  • reminiscent of Starfinder, some spells have specific ‘heightened’ versions – there’s only one ‘Heal’ spell, it’s just prepared at different levels;
  • size matters not. Or, at least, not the way it used to. Gone are the days of tracking what the modifiers are for your halfling (bonus to this, penalty to that, which pieces of gear have which modifications to weight?); small or medium is essentially the same; and
  • there is no longer a generic initiative roll, although Perception can serve that function – instead the initiative roll is dependent on what the character was doing as battle commenced (for example, a character sneaking up would roll Stealth to determine initiative).

Of course, the little tidbits that stood out to me might not be the little tidbits that stood out to you. And only you can judge that ‘modern innovation’ vs. ‘classic feel’ for yourself. Luckily, however, you can head over to the Pathfinder Playtest website and download everything for free – the playtest rulebook, the playtest bestiary, the playtest adventure, and the playtest commemorative beer stein (OK, I made that last one up). If you play some of the adventure, you can also provide feedback through the playtest surveys. I love Pathfinder as it is, but it’s really exciting to get to participate in figuring out where it’s going.



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