This article is the first part of a series reviewing the core rule set for Pathfinder second edition. The Core Rulebook released alongside several other products including the Pathfinder Bestiary, a starter adventure called The Fall of Plaguestone, part 1 of the first second edition adventure path Age of Ashes, and the final adventure path for first edition called Midwives to Death which covers the events leading into the new era. These products can also be found at your friendly local game store.
Thus we begin our series, examining the triumphant introduction to Pathfinder Second Edition.
What is Pathfinder 2e?
Pathfinder is a tabletop RPG that branched off from D&D in 2009. The second edition of Pathfinder launched in August 2019 and marks a new beginning for the game with some streamlined and revised mechanics. Pathfinder 2e and D&D 5e share much of the same DNA, so if you're familiar with one, it's not terribly difficult to transition to the other, but Pathfinder has much that makes it unique. While it certainly has its own very expansive lore and different takes on common creatures such as elves, dwarves, and goblins, what really sets it apart from D&D is that it allows much more flexibility in character design with many choices to make when determining abilities and skills. To accommodate this flexibility, there are more rules governing the actions you can take. This review series will explore what makes Pathfinder 2e unique and hopefully provide you enough information to know if it's a game you and the prospective adventurers in your life would enjoy.
My first real experience with the Pathfinder universe was the Pathfinder Adventure Card Game. If you glanced at the shelves behind me in any of my videos, you may have ascertained that I was a "Board Gamer". It wasn't until a couple of years ago that I was taken by the hand and marched into the promised land of tabletop RPGs. Like many folks, my introductory game was D&D fifth edition.
I was vaguely aware of Pathfinder. I had played the adventure card game. I had walked through their large booth at GenCon and I had seen some of their computer RPGs, but all I really understood was that it was a "next step" game, as we board gamers like to call them. Where D&D chose to sacrifice customization for ease-of-play, Pathfinder chose to open the barn doors and let the players go wild, though that meant that there had to be more rules to keep things at least somewhat corralled.
I never got to play Pathfinder first edition, though in listening to the Glass Cannon Podcast's highly entertaining playthroughs of Giantslayer, Ruins of Azlant, and Strange Aeons, I felt like I was an experienced player. Pathfinder 2e launched in August 2019 to much fanfare. It was a fresh start for a game that had become so immense that folks like myself did not see any good jumping-on points, so this review series will be from the perspective of a D&D 5e game master taking that next step into Pathfinder with its second edition.
As this review series progresses, I will be learning the rules and gathering my adventurers to play through my first Pathfinder adventure, The Fall of Plaguestone, which was the first standalone adventure launched for 2e. I'll be reviewing it as well as we go along.
The Pathfinder 2e Core Rulebook is the biggest and heaviest RPG book I own. It clocks in at 638 pages (and, for weirdos like me, the book also smells really good). For those of us coming over from D&D, this book combines what we would think of as the DM's Guide and the Player's Handbook into one volume. The first half of the book provides the guidance your players need to create their characters, including information on ancestries (i.e., races), backgrounds, classes, skills, feats, equipment, and spells. The last half of the book gives your game master (and perhaps your players) information on the lore of the universe as it currently stands, as well as your instructions on how to really play the game. The overall layout and organization are top notch, which is vital for a book that needs to be both a narrative walkthrough and a reference guide.
Chapter One: The Introduction The introduction of the Core Rulebook really shines. In 25 pages it gives all the information you need to sit down and start playing right away, and those 25 pages don't read like a densely packed instruction manual for a graphing calculator—the text is highly readable and makes you feel like you're sitting down with a kind and effective teacher. Key terms are in bold print and can be referenced in the glossary/index. Sidebars, charts, numbered steps, illustrations, and examples of play are judiciously interspersed to make concepts clear without overwhelming the reader. I managed to get about halfway through the introduction before succumbing to the urge to grab my phone and start putting together my own Pathfinder 2e campaign. Since Pathfinder and D&D share a common ancestor, the "next step" from D&D over to Pathfinder 2e is not as great a leap as it might seem. A 5e game master reading this introduction will recognize most of the concepts, terms, and methods of play. Perhaps the biggest difference is the concept of having three actions in a turn. Some quick maneuvers like swinging a sword may only take one action, while other more complex moves may take 2 or all 3. But at first level, if you want your swordsman to swing his short sword three times in a single round, well, you can go right ahead and do that! He will get less accurate with each swing (-5 to hit on the second and -10 on the third), but at least you have the option. You'll also notice subtle differences in how skills work and how they can be trained up individually to different levels of proficiency. The introduction also walks you through creating a character. A 4-page, blank character sheet is included in the back of the book that you can copy, but most players will probably find it easier to print their own character sheet from the Paizo website.
A 2-page spread introduces and summarizes all 6 ancestries and all 12 classes available in the Core Rulebook along with illustrations from the legendary Pathfinder artist, Wayne Reynolds. Let's take a moment here and highlight the change of the long-used term "race" to the new "ancestry." Race is, of course, a loaded and imprecise term, especially when it comes to fantasy role playing games where intelligence developed along many different ancestral paths. Some even evolved on different planets or planes of existence. The term race also conjures up our world's own troubled history and ongoing struggles that many experience every day. I applaud Paizo for challenging long-held assumptions about our shared terminology. I believe this decision will be another step in making more people feel welcome at the gaming table and separating a term that brings a lot of heavy baggage from our escapist fantasy world. I hope other companies follow Paizo's lead. Back to the Introduction. The authors emphasize conceptualizing a character's personality, motivations, and history before beginning to put pencil to paper and building them in game-play terms. Far too often, in my experience, players work backwards in developing their characters. Ancestry, class, skills, and abilities come first, and then they layer a personality and history on top in a haphazard and often incomplete manner. While this may be fine from a purely game-play perspective, it often undercuts the storytelling that many RPG players are hoping to experience. It can cut the heart out of the narrative. When a character is a mechanism and not a person with relationships, history, and struggles to overcome, then one is easily exchanged with another without any emotional reactions. Paizo also explicitly highlights that your character could be a vehicle to explore the idea of challenging not only the norms of Pathfinder's fictional world, but the real world as well. Role playing games allow a—hopefully—safe space to explore one's own desires or curiosities, whether that be in challenging gender norms, cultural norms, or familial expectations. I appreciate the authors emphasizing these points, and I believe they will lead to better games and stories.
In 10 steps, the introduction walks you through creating a character concept, building ability scores, selecting an ancestry, picking a background, choosing a class, determining your final ability scores, recording your class details, buying equipment with your starting 15 gold, calculating your modifiers including saving throws and attack bonuses, and applying the "finishing details." "Finishing details" includes things like alignment, the deity the character worships, age, gender (including preferred pronouns which have their own space on the character sheet), class DC for abilities and spells, armor class, carrying capacity (or "bulk"), and hero points. Hero points are another new concept that will be unfamiliar to D&D players, though it resembles inspiration. At the start of each gaming session, characters start with a single hero point and can earn more (up to 3) by performing heroic deeds as determined by the game master. They persist for only that session. You can spend one to reroll a check (you must keep the second result) and you can spend all of the hero points you have (minimum 1) to avoid death. The game-play mechanics of death will be explored more in a future blog entry. Again, the authors discuss the story-telling aspect of hero points in detail and give guidance on how to use these hero points to bring the narrative to a dramatic crescendo. Finally, the introduction provides an example of the character-building process and then explains the leveling-up process. And with that, the player should have enough knowledge to begin their adventures if guided by an experienced GM. The 25-page introduction as a quick-start guide is a fantastic tool that should combat feelings of trepidation when handed a massive 638 page rulebook. The success that Paizo has accomplished with this introductory chapter cannot be overstated. They've taken something known for its challenging complexity and made it approachable and inviting.
Overall, the introduction of the Pathfinder Core Rulebook makes you feel safe. You are on solid ground with scaffolded supports, clear instructions, and a guide who cares about you and the story you want to tell. One of the first paragraphs in the book emphasizes how important it is to sit down with your group and discuss expectations and set ground rules. Role playing games are for story-telling and escaping the problems of everyday life. Some folks are not going to want to deal with certain issues and problems in their fantasy world, especially if that's something they have to deal with in their real lives. The Core Rulebook explains how to have those conversations before playing to ensure that everyone feels welcome at the table and is able to experience an adventure that feels fun and rewarding. If you're on the fence about whether you're ready to make the leap to a new game system with a new world to explore and new stories to tell, go to your local game store or library (when they finally open again) and flip through the introductory chapter of the Pathfinder Core Rulebook. If you're like me, you won't be able to finish those first 25 pages without wanting to fully immerse yourself in this shiny new world and start adventuring with your friends. Pathfinder is another story-telling tool. While a casual observer probably wouldn't notice much of a difference if they were watching one table playing D&D 5e and another playing Pathfinder 2e, they each occupy a different segment along the spectrum from complex customization to easily-accessible archetypes. Each also brings to the table different lore and stories to tell. Personally, I'll soon be running adventures using both D&D and Pathfinder (not to mention Starfinder) and I expect to fully love each for their different qualities. Next time, we're going to take a look at Chapter 2: Ancestries & Backgrounds to see who you'll be able to play and how the ancestries of Pathfinder compare to those of D&D. A link will be added here once the article goes live.
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