Dungeons and Dragons has a long and storied history, but like all long and storied histories there are some bumpy parts. When Third Edition (3e, and then 3.5e) came out, the first version of the game produced by Wizards of the Coast, many of the old guard were less than pleased. It was this reaction that planted the seeds for the OSR movement, in addition to the Open Gaming License (OGL), which made it easier to use the basic mechanics of existing D&D rulesets. Despite having detractors, 3e was wildly successful, so successful that it too inspired a wave of dissatisfaction when it was replaced by the significantly revised Fourth Edition (4e). The shift in design and the decision to discontinue the OGL at the end of the 3.5e product run not only alienated some players, but left many content producers hung out to dry. One of these was Paizo Publishing, a well-regarded outfit who had made a name for themselves publishing Dungeon and Dragon magazines. When this license expired in 2007, the entire company was in jeopardy. It was then that Paizo made a bold move and developed its own OGL-based game, Pathfinder.
Pathfinder was an immediate hit among gamers, notably the vocal crowd of D&D players who didn’t like the direction that 4e took. Pathfinder cleaned up 3.5e, added more options, and supported the game with a steady stream of published splatbooks and adventure paths for the game’s setting, Golarion. While Pathfinder never eclipsed D&D, it was nipping on its heels in a way no other game had in a very long time, and had a brief moment as the top seller in the shoulder period between the end of the 4e product line and the premiere of Fifth Edition (5e). 5e was a bit of a problem for a game affectionately called “3.75e”; the new edition was more accessible and more popular than any edition before it, and Wizards had opened their licensing terms back up in a manner that was fair to creators but not as anarchic as the original OGL. Paizo could no longer position themselves as an alternative to a controversial edition, so they began to execute a broader product strategy. First came Starfinder, an ambitious science fiction game using similar rules and setting as Pathfinder. And now, ten years after the original Pathfinder Playtest was released, Pathfinder Second Edition (Pathfinder 2e) is available in playtest form. The game has made some solid changes intended to increase accessibility without sacrificing the wide range of player options that the original game became known for. How easily, though, can you change a game championed by gamers who didn’t like change?
The Pathfinder 2e Playtest is available for free in PDF form from Paizo, or in book form at game stores and on the Paizo website. The Playtest package includes three books and several other documents like tracking sheets and a map pack; the books are the core rules, the bestiary, and an introductory adventure, Doomsday Dawn. For the sake of focus and length, I’m going to discuss the core rulebook in this preview. When looking through the book, there are a couple design decisions that make this document stand out. First, there is a section sidebar on every right-hand page that makes flipping to a reference easier (and flipping through in-game is a primary use case for rule books). Second, there is more extensive use of in-line symbols in the book, both highlighted numbers for level referencing as well as new symbols for actions, reactions, free actions, and activities. Fantasy Flight is the leader in this sort of typography (when selling games with unique dice you kind of have to be), and Paizo is following in an excellent way here. Finally is the use of the template for ingame actions and items. The template looks like this:
Virtually every rules-facing item in the book, be it a class ability, feat, spell, or magic item, uses this template. It’s wonderful. The boxes are set off so you can tell where one item stops and the next one begins, the level and action type are easy to find, and everything is written in plain English, but using rules text instead of natural language. From a formatting perspective this is truly excellent, and 5e, with a comparative lack of internal consistency, is much harder to read.
Unsurprisingly, Pathfinder 2e is still d20 at its heart, and still looks like a revision of D&D 3.5e. That said, there are some noticeable changes. Let’s start with character creation. Pathfinder 1e used a point-buy as the default mode of character creation which was similar to the point-buy/array method in 3.5. This has changed a bit. Instead of point-buy, each character has a number of ability boosts, worth +2 to an ability score (or +1 if that score is already 18 or higher). There are also ability flaws, though a typical character only has one. The boosts are divvied out based on ancestry, background, and class, and there’s one flaw based on ancestry. The boosts and flaws in each ancestry, background, and class are assigned to a given ability; there are also four free ability boosts which can be used on any ability. Overall this results in fairly powerful characters; both of the example characters in the chapter had an 18 and a 16 from the start, not possible with the original 3.5 array and difficult to get with point-buy.
As noted, Pathfinder has adopted Backgrounds, a set of character generation choices first used in 5e. It’s just as good for flavor here as it is in 5e, and gives you access to a skill and a feat, which is a similar degree of impact to the 5e version.
Classes are broken out much like they were in 3.5e: Each class defines your key ability and hit die, and then gives you a number of proficiencies, a combination of skills, weapons and armor use, and saving throws. The meat of the class comes from class abilities and feats. In Pathfinder second edition, anything that all members of the class get is termed a class ability, while the broad range of options that members of the class can choose from are all feats. Feats in Pathfinder 2e are delineated into a number of categories, including class feats, skill feats, and ancestry feats. This does enable a smaller amount of rules to cover a broader number of abilities, and it also makes great use of the handy template above. Still, calling all of these things feats can sometimes be confusing, especially when classes have three separate abilities which are all “gain a certain type of feat every x number of levels”. Feats are also used to dramatically change a few core rules, but that will be discussed in more detail later.
Skills are changed from Pathfinder 1e in a couple core ways. First, skill ranks are gone, replaced by five proficiency levels: untrained, trained, expert, master, and legendary. This is a solid compromise between the granularity of skill ranks and the binary of how 5e uses proficiency. The other main change is how skills are defined. There are 17 skills, a similar list to 3.5e, but each skill then has further delineated actions beneath it. This has a couple benefits: first, untrained skill use is no longer a yes/no question, there’s granularity. Second, a number of maneuvers are broken out for skills, making skill use in combat less free-form and more structured. And finally, skill checks in general are more structured, with “can I do the thing” type questions often having a clear answer.
Magic options are broadened compared to Pathfinder 1e, with Arcane and Divine magic being supplemented by Primal, which is how the druid is defined. Additionally, Occult magic is making a comeback, though the supplemental classes which used Occult magic in 1e are not currently in the playtest document. There is also alchemy, the purview of the Alchemist, the only new class in the book compared to the original core class list.
As noted, the class list is the same as Pathfinder 1e core (which is the same as D&D 3e and 3.5e), excepting the addition of the Alchemist. The ancestry choices (referred to as race choices in earlier games) are Dwarf, Elf, Gnome, Goblin, Halfling and Human. Goblin is a new one, but there are some notable absences from the original list. Where are the half-elf and half-orc? They’re available as feats…yes, half-orc and half-elf are special feats (called heritage feats) which confer certain abilities to human characters. It’s somewhat of an odd choice, though it does lend itself to broader and maybe more fair treatment of other hybrid ancestries in the future.
Speaking of hybrids. 3e/3.5e and Pathfinder both leaned into character build logic, using alternate classes and prestige classes to allow for very specific builds with very specific synergies. Some d20 games like d20 Modern and Aberrant leaned into this, using classes as templates to confer very specific abilities or all but requiring that you dip into prestige classes to make the character interesting. Multi-classing in this way is arguably a defining trait of 3e/3.5e, Pathfinder, and most of the d20 corpus. This makes it quite intriguing that Pathfinder 2e has gotten rid of traditional multi-classing. Instead, Pathfinder borrows a rule from 4e where instead of taking a level of another class, you take a feat which gives you access to a subset of that class’s abilities. This goes for prestige classes too…prestige classes like the Cavalier are a bundle of feats which characters can gain access to, but not a different class that is leveled into. Also interesting is that in the Playtest version, there are only multiclass feats for the basic classes: fighter, rogue, cleric, and wizard. This may very well be simply because it’s a playtest version, but the notion of restricting multiclassing to that extent is intriguing, as it changes the calculus behind broad classes like ranger and bard. While I think this could be an interesting rules decision (and it worked well enough in 4e), if I had to choose one thing in this book that would piss off Pathfinder players, this is it. Changes to character advancement are going to force people to think about character progression completely differently, while the core rules changes end up being much more transparent.
Pathfinder 2e divides game time into three distinct modes: conflict, exploration, and downtime. Conflict and exploration is a divide that’s existed for a long time: either you’re in turn-based combat or you aren’t. The main change here is that there’s much more rules clarity around skill uses in combat, with relevant skill uses defined much in the same way as other combat abilities (and also using the ability template). Downtime is similarly defined as it is in 5e, with characters able to do things like practice a trade or craft an item. Of note, especially for Pathfinder, is that downtime rules include a number of respec options…there are now in-game ways to shift your character build if you find that a particular feat or skill ends up being useless. It’s a little thing, but immensely relieving in a game that is known for demanding system mastery.
As is typical for any D&D derivative, most of the rules are built around combat time. Characters now get three actions and one reaction in every turn, a split that actually reminds me of the AP economy in WFRP more than any D&D game. While most actions take one, ahem, action, some are defined as “activities” that take up either two or three actions. While I’d imagine that uttering “at-will, encounter, daily” would incite a riot, Pathfinder 2e has borrowed some mechanical choices from 4e, mostly defining maneuvers much more strictly. Where Pathfinder greatly improves over 4e is that these maneuvers give a range of options that 4e, even when taking utility powers into consideration, never could. Pathfinder’s skill delineation looks much better than 4e’s skill challenges, and still has the backend wiggle room of the broader skills to let players try stuff outside of the defined maneuvers.
A big thing about the rules (and about the “stuff” that I’ll talk about next) is how little has really changed. Once you get the three actions one reaction turn in your head, everything kind of plays like D&D. The stats are the same, the skills are barely changed, you’re still using Fortitude/Reflex/Will saves. The big difference, though I hesitate to say this is a difference from 1e to 2e, is that the volume of stuff you can do and choices you can make is much higher. I’m actually a pretty big fan of the new skill system, it keeps a palette of maneuvers available to everyone that can help stave off battle-mat mundanity. That said, there’s nothing in here to indicate that Pathfinder 2e has solved the superiority collapse issue; as you get to higher levels and become more powerful, all of your actions collapse into a couple ideal choices and a bunch of useless ones. Pathfinder is not using any result bounding like 5e (as an example, Proficiency is based on character level, so the range is +1 tp +20), so there’s no indication that this is going to get better.
You all know what the “stuff” is in any version of D&D: The actual feats list, the spells, the magic items, all that “good stuff”. I’m not going to get into it in a huge amount of detail, except to say that there is a lot of it, and from a cursory read, there is everything you expect in there. You’re going to get your bags of holding and rods of wonder, you’re going to be able to cast magic missile and fireball, and there are loads of feats. I said offhand during my first read that there are more categories of feats in Pathfinder 2e than there are actual feats in D&D 5e, though I haven’t gone back to count.
The thing that I keep harping on is that template! If you get a copy of the Pathfinder Playtest, go to the spell chapter and take a look at all those lovely, easy to read rectangles. Now open up your 5e Player’s Handbook, and read that. Which one is clearer? Which one takes longer to figure out what level a spell is? Now turn to the magic items section in the Pathfinder Playtest, and then pull out your 5e Dungeon Master’s Guide. Which is easier to read? The difference is incredible. I know I’ve now spent two paragraphs on what is little more than typesetting, but it makes a huge difference. And with the sheer volume of options in Pathfinder 2e, having this format both makes it easier for players to learn and for content creators to expand.
In reading the Pathfinder Playtest, you come away with the feeling that you’ve read another edition of D&D. The core gameplay loop is as it was in 3.5e, with characters that start feeble (though a little less feeble than before) then grow into powerhouses, gaining ever larger bonuses and modifiers as they accumulate new abilities, crazy items, and simply larger numbers for their hit points and proficiency bonuses. Where Pathfinder has improved is mostly in making that vast library of player options more accessible, both by expanding where needed (i.e. skills) and making the whole book more usable (through templating). The one choice I think will be controversial is multiclassing. While feats are fairly flexible, both limiting multiclassing to a feat sequence and making it impossible to do character “dips” (once you take a multiclass or prestige archetype feat, you can’t take another one until you fulfill certain requirements) may rankle some Pathfinder die-hards. That all said, the Pathfinder 2e Playtest is, even in its current form, a greatly improved and more accessible approach to what started, nearly twenty years ago as D&D 3e. While the Paizo team has done their best to limit the complexity of the system, it’s still there, and will still inevitably balloon into the embarrassment of riches for character builds that Pathfinder 1e is known for. This does stand in contrast to 5e’s current strategy, though, and Pathfinder will pull a different crowd of players than D&D currently does. Whether Pathfinder is successful ultimately depends on whether Paizo product planners can craft a clear identity for the broader product line. Adventure Paths are a great product to hang your hat on, but maybe not a differentiator when Wizards is starting to bring more and more interesting settings out into the marketplace, like Eberron and Ravnica. If it were me, I’d turn more to unique gameplay modes like Kingmaker to establish an identity. Pathfinder 2e represents a great opportunity, but the game can no longer be sold on “it’s not Fourth Edition”. I think Paizo is up to the challenge, and I look forward to what they come up with.
The Pathfinder Playtest is available for free at the Paizo website.