Pathfinder Second Edition Playtest – Initial Review

This will serve as my initial “I read through the rulebook twice” review of the Pathfinder Second Edition Playtest rules. I’ll be offering additional thoughts after running playtest sessions but I want to get some of this out of my head while it’s fresh.

Dragonman Warrior miniature from Reaper Bones with golden scales, black armor, and red highlights.The Three Sentence Review

The short review is that I love the approach that Paizo is taking with Pathfinder Second Edition. It’s streamlined for faster/easier play and has much better balance while supporting an even greater depth of character options. There are some missteps but it’s an impressive leap forward from the increasingly dated d20 System.

Background for The Longer Review

I’ve roleplayed using a myriad of systems over the years – freeform, GURPS, Fate Core, White Wolf, various homebrew, Mouseguard, etc – but the “d20 System” has definitely seen the most action. In my mind, this includes Dungeons & Dragons Third Edition, Dungeons & Dragons 3.5, d20 Modern, d20 Future, Pathfinder, and Starfinder. There are a lot of strengths to this family of systems but, as decades passed, they’ve started to feel dated. A skilled Game Master can easily counterbalance the weaknesses inherit to the system but wouldn’t it be nice if they didn’t have to?  Enter the Pathfinder Second Edition Playtest.

What’s so bad about the d20 system

I’ve played a lot of Dungeons & Dragons 3.5 and Pathfinder over the years. Since I’m looking to upgrade from Pathfinder First Edition to Pathfinder Second Edition it makes sense to outline why I’d switch from a system I’ve enjoyed and know inside/out.

  • Action Economy: The action economy in the d20 System is increasingly complicated,  unbalanced in favor of casters, and unwieldy for new players. Standard, Move, Full Round, Swift, Attack, and Free somehow end up a lot more complicated than they need to be.
  • Overwhelmed Infrastructure: The d20 System was not designed for the wealth of material that was created for it. It’s not a modular system – it’s like a software package without an API – things are connected randomly wherever they fit.  It’s lead to a system rich with options but overly complicated, poorly balanced, and generally inconsistent.
  • Poor Balance: The d20 System in general is tilted too far in favor of certain character options over other character options. Almost every aspect of character development and, thus, encounter building are affected by the system’s poor balance.
  • Broken Skill System: Most skills are situationally useful at best with only a few being useful across the board. Players, as they learn the game, soon gravitate towards into stacking bonuses to obtain stratospheric modifiers in the few universal skills (never want to fail a Perception) and overspecializing with one character dominating all other skill checks.
  • New Players: Over the last three years I’ve introduced six new to TTRPG players to Pathfinder. They’ve all enjoyed it. But let’s face it – Pathfinder could do better. A lot of time was spent explaining overly complicated systems, inconsistent rules, or pointing towards “better” character options that would have been better spent roleplaying.

Again – a good Game Master can mitigate or eliminate most of the problems outlined above. But wouldn’t it be nice if they didn’t have to?

What’s so Great About Pathfinder

So, if things are that bad why haven’t I switched to Fifth Edition, Fate Core, Dungeon Fantasy, or any number of other systems?

  • Depth: Pathfinder has a wealth of material. It’s publisher, Paizo, has done a great job of adding more material to the system and supporting third party publishers in doing the same. It’s a very healthy ecosystem with high quality sourcebooks, adventure paths, reference books, and so on.
  • Strategy: While rules lite systems and freeform roleplaying have their place, I like the wargaming elements that Pathfinder inherited from the d20 System. I like to challenge my players with interesting scenarios and see how they work their way out of them with finite resources/concrete rules. Pathfinder has given me the tools to develop almost any scenario I can think of – which is fantastic.
  • Modability: This is one is all on me; my familiarity with the d20 System means that I can modify it with ease. This is not something that I’ll be able to do as easily with Pathfinder Second Edition. However, the redesign seems to be designed with modability as a feature.
  • Crunch: Rules heavy systems have a bad reputation – I’ve had plenty of bad experiences with “rules lawyers” myself – but I’d argue that they’re actually more friendly to a certain demographic of new players than rules lite systems. The positives of having concrete rules to encourage a new player with low self confidence to try something daring are underestimated. Basically, there are players who feel more comfortable with a system that can be mastered with effort, not social skills or force of personality.
What do I like about the Pathfinder Playtest?

Enough background! Let’s talk about what I like about the Pathfinder Second Edition Playtest!

  • Action Economy: The most important change from First Edition, in my opinion. Paizo did away with the bloated action economy and replaced it with a simple yet rich system. Three actions and one reaction. Every action in the game has a symbol that identifies if it’s a reaction or takes one, two, or three actions. This streamlines the system while opening up a mountain of new character options. Characters can attack (one action), move (one action), and attack again at a penalty (one action). Most spells are two actions – fundamentally balancing casters against other character types.
  • Ancestries: I once created a homebrew Racial Features Progression system for Dungeons & Dragons 3.5 so… Yeah. I’m thrilled that they decided to take this route. I’m especially excited about the move to make Half Orcs and Half Elves ancestry options. Provided the Game Master waives the nonsensical Human requirement, this immediately allows more character options like Half Orc/Half Goblins and Half Elves/Half Dwarves (Kili should be happy)… Excited to see Gnome Tieflings or Halfling Aasimars.
  • New Class Structure: I once ran a campaign using a homebrew system that completely removed classes in favor of feat chains so again…  I love that Paizo made classes more feat based (without removing them entirely) and opened up a higher level of customization. The downside here is that a lot of combat options or feats that were previously open are now locked to a class – for instance, Attacks of Opportunity are locked to Fighters/Paladins(!) – but I actually like this. It makes the classes feel both special and more easily customizable.
  • Multiclassing as Archetype: I’m a huge fan of multiclassing thematically but it’s usually awkward mechanically. I think multiclassing as archetype is a fantastic design choice that simplifies an overly complicated process and offers clear boundaries. My old favorite – Fighter Rogue – is looking great in this new system and hybrid classes like Magnus or Investigator (as well as new combos) are instantly on the table here. I’m really looking forward to seeing what new combos my players come up with.
  • A-B-C Character Generation: Starting attributes are now determined by Ancestry, Background, Class. This is simple, straightforward, and tied to roleplaying. There are rules for rolling if a group wants to go old school – which has it’s appeal – but this is a great replacement for point buy or static spreads.
  • Hardcap on Level 1 Ability Scores: Characters cannot have ability scores higher than 18 at level 1. No matter what. Ability boosts down the road are half as effective if used to push an ability score above 18. It’s bad news for minmaxers but great news for balance.
  • Skills & Proficiency: This is a big one that I’m still mulling over…but I think I’m a fan. There are far fewer skills and no more skill ranks. Instead characters have proficiency ranks/tiers in skill (and many other things) that grant a small bonus (base modifier is character level) and unlock new skill uses. This results in a much smaller numeric difference between a master in a skill and someone else on their level – a huge boon for Game Masters – while still allowing the master in the skill to do incredible things. For instance, a Wizard can roll Athletics to climb up a ledge decently well and the Fighter can climb a bit better…but only the Fighter who is trained in Athletics can use it to disarm an opponent! Which leads to…
  • Combat Maneuvers as Skills: I don’t know why I never thought of this myself but it’s a brilliant change. It simplifies combat maneuvers – no more CMB/CMD – while making skills much more useful! Disarm, for example, is a “Trained” use of the Athletics skill that goes up against the target’s Reflex DC.
  • The Ogre Guard miniature from Reaper Bones viewed from the frontCritical Success/Critical Failure: The critical system has been revamped and broadened to encompass almost any action. Critical Success occurs when surpassing a DC by 10 or more – for an attack this deals Critical Damage – while Critical Failure occurs when failing a DC by 10 or more. I’m nervous that this might add more bookkeeping but I’m excited to see more criticals in the game. Especially as they’ve been broadened to occur for Spells and Skills. This actually strengthens Spells in a great way for casters – most have an effect even if the target succeeds and only have no effect if the target critically succeeds. No more saving that special spell only to see it fizzle uselessly away!
  • Four Spell Lists: There are now four spell lists – Primal, Arcane, Occult, and Divine. Druids use the Primal list, Wizards the Arcane list, Bards the Occult list, Clerics the Divine list, and Sorcerers use the spell list determined by their bloodline. This is a small change but a good one.
  • Lower Numbers/More Cool Options: In general, the classes seem “weaker” in that they have lower potential for stacking numeric modifiers but are “cooler” in that they have many more options. This is a good change in my book.
  • So Many Feat Types: I was initially overwhelmed by the number of feat types but they’re all locked down to specific users and make a lot more sense. The skill feats locked to Master or Legendary tiers are amazing! I could go on and on, but these all seem just great.
  • Bulk: Almost forgot to note this – like Starfinder weight is no longer calculated per item but instead a simple bulk rating is assigned for each item. This still forces player to manage their inventories (which I like) but makes it much more manageable (which everyone likes).
What Do I dislike about the Pathfinder Playtest?

Well… There are a few things that I hope they change before the official release of Pathfinder Second Edition.

  • Resonance: Charisma is no longer a safe dump stat as it provides a character with “Resonance”. This mystical trait powers magical items and they are – generally – useless without it. It’s more complicated than that and that complication is really the problem. I like the concept of resonance but the implementation seems unwieldy and involves too much bookkeeping. Especially since consumable magic items and those with uses per day still need resonance? Seems like a missed opportunity.
  • Core Classes: Alchemist was added as a core class… That’s fine, I suppose, but I’m missing my favorite – The Mystic. I hope Paizo brings this one back despite Sorcerers now being able to cast spontaneously from the divine spell list. Their curses made for great roleplaying. I don’t really think this will change for the core rulebook but I’m going to complain anyway!
  • Only Half Human: As noted above, the Ancestry system is fantastic! But it would be nice if other races ancestries could be Half Orc/Elf. It’s the first homebrew rule I’ll make if not – definitely want to see some Half Orc/Half Goblins. I’m hoping that Half Dragon, Aasimar, Tiefling, and so on will be open to any ancestry.
  • How do I calculate X: In general, the Pathfinder Playtest is well laid out but there are a few weird exclusions. Like how to calculate Spell DC? It’s on the third page of the character sheet…but isn’t explained in the book. These are small things but I’d like to see them corrected for the official release.

Pathfinder Second Edition Playtest Initial Review

So What’s Next?

Playtest sessions, of course! I had to fight off the impulse to switch my current Pathfinder campaign over to the Playtest rules! But I intend to get a group around a table to play this as soon as possible.

How about you? What do you think of Pathfinder 2.0? Any changes you feel strongly about?

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