Every year we record a pre-Gen Con episode of the Strange Assembly podcast where we talk about our most anticipated games for the coming convention. This year, it was easy for me to pick Pathfinder Second Edition as my most anticipated game. And then make it my #1 “Game to Take Home From Gen Con 2019.” There’s just a certain level of excitement at a new version of a great game that you’ve gotten many, many hours of fun out of over the years. So I was pretty excited to delve into my review copy of the new core book. And there is a lot of core book – it weighs in at an impressive 638 pages (Paizo does not scrimp on the page count).
Pathfinder Second Edition does not disappoint. It preserves the style and feel of the original (although existing players will have to get used to the new action economy and lack of attacks of opportunity), while polishing rough edges and making a broader array of tactical options viable. Character creation and advancement remains loaded with options – just reading the book makes me want to engage in the (admittedly silly) exercise of sitting down and planning out all the cool things to take with a character up through level 20. At the same time, there’s a standardization of approach and phraseology that makes it easier to grok how leveling up works, while still preserving the distinctiveness of what each class actually does.
This review is aimed both and newer players, and at those who are already familiar with the first edition of Pathfinder. There will be some foundational material, but it will also call out many of the particular changes as they come up. There will be a lot of section headings, if you want to skip around to the particular parts you want to check in on.
If You’ve Never Played Pathfinder
Pathfinder is a fantasy roleplaying game, with the basic paradigm of assembling a party of dwarven clerics, human fighters, elven wizards, gnomish rogues, and so forth; adventuring for glory and justice; leveling up and getting better gear; and then doing it again next week. There are obvious parallels to that other fantasy roleplaying game, and there’s a reason – the original Pathfinder arose out of a prior iteration of Dungeons & Dragons. Mechanically, the current Dungeons & Dragons (5E) is a more streamlined experience, while Pathfinder excels at providing lots of options and the ability to customize (both are great, great games; just different takes on the genre). So the Pathfinder 2E core book has about 250 pages of character options (not counting equipment and spells). From a narrative and storytelling standpoint, Pathfinder’s very first products were some really great campaigns (such as Rise of the Runelords and my favorite, Curse of the Crimson Throne), and I think that this really contributes to the why Paizo has done such a good job of infusing flavor and specificity into the world of Golarion (that’s the name of the world; the setting as it exists now is labeled the Age of Lost Omens). You can see the generic fantasy underpinnings, but the final result is never generic – the nations, the gods, the classes, and the monsters all have a place in the world and their own flair.
The Basic Mechanics
The fundamental mechanic for Pathfinder 2E is at it has always been – roll a twenty-sided die (d20), apply modifiers, see if that’s good enough to meet or exceed a target number (referred to as a Difficulty Class, or DC). A natural 20 is a critical success. A natural 1 might be a critical failure (depending on the roll). That’s standard, but in Pathfinder 2E you can also get a critical success (or failure) if you exceed the target number by 10 or more (or fail by 10 or more). Most spells and actions have specified effects for critical results.
The most common modifier that will be applied to the d20 roll is proficiency. Proficiency is a very broad concept that sweeps up a variety of notions that used to be distinct – skill modifiers, base attack bonus, saving throw bonuses, armor class bonuses, etc. If a character is untrained at a roll, their proficiency bonus is +0. If a character is trained at all, then they get to add in their level. So for anything a character is at least trained at, they automatically improve at every time they level up. Additionally, a character can exceed just being trained, and can be an expert, master, or legendary at …. well, anything, really. There’s a +2 bonus for each level of training, so at 1st level there’s a +3 difference between trained and untrained, but that gap widens.
The more detailed mechanical framework to be applied varies between the fairly formally divided downtime, exploration, and encounter modes. The formality of the labeling is greater than usual, but this is mostly the usual concepts of not adventuring, adventuring but not in combat, and in combat. One change is an increased focus on downtime activities, which are handled is a fairly defined way.
Of course, encounters have the most detailed rules. Once in combat, characters get three actions a round (this replaces the previous one ‘move’ action and one ‘attack’ action). The standard actions will seem familiar – Move (a normal move), Step (5-foot step, but less vulnerable), and Strike (standard attack). Note that Strike can be taken multiple times, at a penalty, effectively replacing the concept of full-round attacks. Another common thing to do, Cast a Spell, usually takes more than one action. Things that take more than one action are called activities – so there can be a two-action activity or a three-action activity. There are also free actions, which are generally what they sound like – actions that don’t use an action. Each character is also allotted one reaction per round – actions that can be taken on other character’s turns. Note that the most ubiquitous of reactions from first edition, the attack of opportunity, is now only available to the fighter.
Character Creation and Advancement
Character creation is given the snappy initialism A-B-C: ancestry-background-class (although, as always, there’s a good chance that players will usually decide on a class first). Characters have the traditional fantasy RPG attributes (called abilities) – Strength, Dexterity, Constitution, Intelligence, Wisdom, and Charisma. These all start at 10, and are then modified by choices during creation (by default there is no dice rolling and no point buy).
Ancestry options mostly are the typical fantasy options – dwarf, elf, gnome, halfling, human (half-elf and half-orc are housed within the human option). Newly-added is the option of playing a goblin (Pathfinder has a distinctive take on goblins, making them something of a mascot for the game; PC goblins will presumably deviate from the destructive and comedic portrayal of the typical NPC goblin). On a personal note, am I the only one who wonders how we ended up with a collection of fantasy ancestry options that are all before “human” in the alphabet and almost all shorter than humans?
While the choices are mostly standard, the effects of that choice are not. Some characteristics are shared by members of an ancestry – two ability boosts (+2), one ability flaws (-2), language options, size, speed, hit points, vision. But ancestries don’t automatically come with the variety of small boosts they often have in the past. Instead, in keeping with the “lots of options” theme, players pick a heritage within the ancestry and then a first-level ancestry feat. So, for example, if you want to play a dwarf who is resistant to poison and is familiar with stonework, you’d take the Strong-Blooded heritage and the Stonecunning feat.
Backgrounds are the most straightforward of the three – each provides a skill feat, two ability boosts, training in a “real” skill, and training in a specialized Lore skill that’s mostly for flavor. For example, the barkeep background provides training in Diplomacy, Alcohol Lore, and the Hobnobber skill feat (more on skill feats in a moment).
Classes are, of course, where the most action is, and also where the harmonization of approach really shows itself. Every class provides a boost to its key ability and hit points (after character creation, class is the only source of hit points, not ancestry). Each then provides an array of proficiencies. Every class starts out at least trained in saving throws, some attacks, some defenses, perception, and their class DC. That reveals some differences. Perception is not a skill – everyone can perceive. Armor class scales with level (because characters are trained in some sort of defense). Proficiencies still act as a gatekeeper on weapons and armor – if a character is only trained in unarmored defense and light armor, they can wear whatever armor they want, but without the proficiency bonus this will quickly prove ineffective.
The level and breadth of these proficiencies replace the traditional multitude of modifiers to define some aspects of the classes. There’s no distinct chart of saving throw bonuses – characters classes that might once have had a higher Fortitude save bonus now start as experts in fortitude saving throws. A class, like the rogue, that’s a traditional scouting class can start as an expert in perception. Spellcasters start out trained in their spell attacks, so they can be as good with those as a fighter is with a sword.
At first level, each class gets a couple of standard things for every member of the class. They usually make some sort of conceptual choice – the wizard picks a school, the sorcerer a bloodline, the barbarian an instinct. After that, the advancement charts all look pretty similar (and are much thinner, without the base attack bonus and saving throw sections). Class feat at first level, second level, and every two levels after. Skill feat every two levels. General feat every four levels. Ability boosts every five levels. Most of the other entries are training increases – raising Perception to expert, Fortitude to master, any skill to legendary, that sort of thing.
Beyond spells, the distinctiveness comes heavily from class feats. In the past, these would all have been given their own names and worked in slightly different ways. Now, there are still all the options, but there’s a standard way of thinking about them. Class feats are where the fighter can specialize in a fighting style, where a rogue can get better against traps, where a sorcerer can unlock bloodline powers.
The most common sort of feat that everyone has access to is the skill feat. Relatively few feats are just general feats – weapon and armor proficiencies, toughness, speed. Skill feats are, as one might guess, tied to skills – and especially training levels in skills. Improving skill training may only be a +2 on its own, but it can unlock a lot of feat options. A lot of these might in the past lacked prerequisites, or had ability-based requirements.
Regarding spells, there are two distinct sorts of spells. The first are the more traditional sort – the ones that produce the tables of spells known, spell slots, etc. Within this category there is more ease of use than there used to be, while also adding some flavor. There was always the arcane/divine divide before, and every single spellcasting class had its own spell list. Now there are four types – arcane, divine, primal, and occult. The identification of an entirely different type of spell source gives the druid (primal) and bard (occult) a more emphatic spellcasting distinctiveness in the core book, while also making it easier to integrate additional classes in later books (and also how the sorcerer works now).
Then there are focus spells. Focus spells provide a unified way of handling a variety of abilities, while preserving the full array of options (do I sound like a broken record yet?). If a class had any sort of mystical ability that could be used once or a few times a day, it’s now a focus spell (whether or not it was conceived of as a spell before). This includes a clerics domain abilities, a paladin’s lay on hands ability, or a monk’s ki-based powers. Characters with such abilities get a focus pool (which is 1 at character creation) and spend points from that pool to cast the focus spell.
But, you might ask, what are the classes? With the addition of the alchemist, Pathfinder is up to 12(!) core classes:
Alchemist – The alchemist is a master of fantasy chemistry, able to create single-use items in the way a wizard might cast spells. Alchemists can focus on bomb-throwing, or on drinking mutagens to enhance themselves. These are two of their ‘research fields,’ with a third option to focus on healing.
Barbarian – Lightly armored but traditionally wielding a massive blade, barbarians rage into battle. Their central intinct can be a traditional fury, but can channel animals, dragons, giants, or spirits.
Bard – The bard still has their performance and their flourishes, but takes on a distinctive tone as the masters of occult spellcasting (they are full casters like wizards and clerics). Bards choose a muse at character creation – enigma, maestro, or polymath.
Champion – A broader concept than the traditional paladin, a champion fights (usually in heavy armor) for a cause (often a deity). In the core book, they must be good, but I’m sure the evil options will follow. A lawful good champion is a paladin, but there are also neutral good redeemers and chaotic good liberators.
Cleric – The iconic divine spellcasters are still here, now choosing to focus on their connection to their deity and their domain spellcasting or having fuller martial options (although this is one place where one of the options seems quite a bit better than the other). And they still get a big helping of healing magic on top of their other spells.
Druid – As noted above, druid’s are the primal spellcasters of the core classes, wielding the power of nature. Druids choose an order that refines their connection to nature – animal, plant, storm, or wild.
Fighters – When what you want to do is have lots of combat options, the fighter is still there. They are also the only class that can still make attacks of opportunity, which is a Big Deal.
Monks – Masters of fighting unarmed and unarmored, all monks can attack with a flurry of blows and will perfect their bodies as they level up. Further options, like monk weapons or ki strikes, are housed in the class feats.
Ranger – Rangers are martial combatants who also have nature skills and perception. They use the Hunt Prey action to focus on a specific target, and get to choose a hunter’s edge to add even more bonuses against that target (more attacks, more damage, or social benefits).
Rogue – Rogues are skill masters – they get more starting proficiencies than anyone else, and they get skill a skill feat every single level. Their chosen ‘racket’ and feats can push them towards a traditional Dexterity-based trapfinder, or they can emphasize social skills (the scoundrel) or brute force (the ruffian).
Sorcerer – From a high enough point of view, sorcerers haven’t changed much – pick a bloodline, get a few spells, cast those spells a bunch. But focus in on the bloodlines, and the sorcerer has changed a lot, because depending on the bloodline chosen the sorcerer might be an arcane, divine, occult, or primal spellcaster. Dragon blood? Arcane. Fey blood? Primal. Angelic blood? Divine. Old One From Beyond the Stars blood? Occult.
Wizard – Wizards are the core arcane spellcaster, learning magic through study and dedication. They have the traditional spellbook and thus the possibility to know far more spells than most spellcasters, but they have to actually find and learn the spells, and then choose what to prepare each day. Wizards can specialize in a school of magic (evocation, divination, etc.) or be a universalist.
After choosing a class, characters get some free ability boosts, gear up, and head out. Experience ultimately works in the traditional way – get a certain amount of xp, level up, repeat. Except now the amount you need is always 1000 xp, due to the way the game has changed how the GM designs encounters.
No adventurer would go out unprepared, and pathfinders are no exception. Armor comes in different weights, defining which classes are (relatively) lightly armored and which can eek out a few extra points of defense. Shields work quite a bit differently now, as they provide their protection only if the character uses the Raise a Shield reaction, which lets the shield provide its bonus (and possibly be smashed). Weapons are plentiful, defined by a variety of traits – agile weapons take fewer penalties on multiple Strikes, finesse melee weapons can use Dexterity, and so on.
A significant difference is the way that magical weapons and armor work. Both types of item can be crafted up as characters level, through the use of runes (which can also be freely crafted to transfer to another item). Armor has runes that increase the armor class bonus or provide a saving throw bonus (no need for a ring of resistance). Weapons have runes that provide an attack bonus or a damage bonus. Both types have runes that provide other effects, such as making the weapon flaming. So, for example, a normal sword could be crafted to provide +1 to hit, then an extra die of damage, then +2 to hit, then a second die of damage, then +3 to hit, then a third die of damage. Each of those costs more and more for the rune and improving the quality off the sword, of course. The attack bonus (or defense bonus for armor) is capped at +3, and the ability to add other runes is limited by the attack bonus. So a maximized item would have three levels of the fundamental rune and then three other runes.
There are also a plethora of consumable magic items (potions, alchemical bombs, wands, staves, rods, scrolls, talismans, snares; yes that’s more categories than there used to be), unique weapons and armor, and permanent items. While the permanent items are still rings of this or cloaks of that, there ‘body slot’ system isn’t a thing. Characters can attune 10 magic items a day, so you can go full Thanos if you own enough rings.
I’ve covered lot of the broad rule concepts going through the above, but a couple more are worth noting. The possibility of death has changed significantly from first edition (and the 2E playtest). Characters drop when they get to zero. If they are magically healed they can readily get back up. Or they can be treated and stabilized. If not, then they will make saves to get closes or further from death. Ultimately, however, a first death is likely to be avoided because everyone starts each session with a hero point, and not dying is one use of a point. However, getting dropped and closer to dying inflicts the Wounded condition. And when a Wounded character gets dropped again, they will die much more easily. So it’s relatively easy to avoid dying from one unlucky set of attacks – but very easy to die if characters try to keep starting fights after they’ve been knocked down and haven’t rested up.
Initiative is another difference that will come up a lot. There’s no longer a distinct sort of roll. Instead, the type of roll made depends on what the character was doing. If they were sneaking, for example, then their skill check could serve for initiative. But the default is perception (which is valuable to everyone anyway).
I’m really excited about Pathfinder Second Edition. Any time there’s a change to something that’s great, there’s the possibility of messing things up, and Paizo has taken their great thing and made it better. To be sure, existing Pathfinder players will have to adjust tactics to account for things like the different action structure (indeed, I suspect that the complexity reduction in the system is probably less apparent to existing players, because the elimination of various nuances is invisible to a new player, but requires us to keep track of what quirks aren’t there anymore), but that learning curve will quickly fade. Overall, the game continues to deliver an excellent fantasy adventure experience with tons of character options. And it does it while standardizing phraseology and gettingn all the definitions clear. There’s no denying that Pathfinder has its complexities – but the system now goes further in eliminating ambiguities and making it easier to find exactly what you need when a question comes up (and speaking of finding things, thank you for the colored ‘tabs’ on the edges of the pages to make it easier to fliip the book open to the right section).