Dungeons & Dragons’ biggest competitor comes into its own with new release

After more than a decade on the market, the Pathfinder Roleplaying Game is known for two things: its origins in Dungeons & Dragons’ older editions, and the daunting complexity of its ruleset. Thursday is the global launch date for Pathfinder Second Edition and, after poring through the Pathfinder Core Rulebook and the Pathfinder Bestiary for the better part of two weeks, I’m excited about its prospects.

Second Edition refines Pathfinder’s tactical combat without losing the complexity that makes it so much fun at the table. Meanwhile, these new sourcebooks help to bring its unique world and its many different peoples sharply into focus. Even if you’re not planning on starting up a game in the system anytime soon, these documents are excellent inspiration for your homebrew campaigns, regardless of what system you prefer.

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A quick history lesson

It’s hard to talk about Pathfinder without directly using D&D as a point of reference. But, given that the vast majority of people who have been exposed to pen-and-paper RPGs know more about the latter than the former, it’s the best place to start. So, apologies to the diehard Pathfinder fans in our readership, but I’m kicking things off today with just a bit of table setting for everyone else.

When Gary Gygax and Dave Arneson concocted the first edition of D&D back in the 1970s, it was a very different animal than it is today. Gameplay was much less focused on the narrative of a given encounter or adventure. Instead, the emphasis was on the nuts and bolts of combat, with complex rules for landing blows and casting spells. Throughout second and third edition D&D, the measure of a skilled player leaned more toward whether they could do simple math at the table, rather than seeing if they could talk their way out of danger. Signature adventures, like the Tomb of Horrors, were meat grinders with a few named characters sprinkled about.

But, as D&D grew, so too did the tone and timbre of its published adventures. A major turning point was the classic Ravenloft, first published in 1983. It was one of D&D’s first complete narrative arcs, featuring a complex villain with hopes, desires, and ulterior motives that the players had to uncover over multiple gameplay sessions. Authors Tracy Hickman and Laura Hickman, and the writers and designers that followed in their footsteps, helped set the stage for today’s fifth edition of D&D, which is a much more social game than ever before. That’s why so many people who don’t even play enjoy watching or listening to others experience it through livestreams and podcasts.

Today, you can play an entire campaign of D&D without using markers or miniatures of any kind. In some ways, that makes the vignettes from Stranger Things — with four boys sitting around a card table pushing around pewter miniatures on a paper grid — a bit of an anachronism.

Image: Paizo

Except it doesn’t.

There’s still a lot of meat left on the tactical bone, as it were, of pen-and-paper role-playing. Moving miniatures around and doing simple math is a lot of fun, in very much the same way that strategy PC gaming is fun. Pathfinder has always embraced the use of paper grids and miniatures, and its ruleset — based in an older version of D&D called 3.5 — has always reflected that. The same is true of Pathfinder Second Edition. Miniatures or markers of some kind are required for combat encounters, as is a gameplay mat with one-inch squares.

That doesn’t mean that storytelling takes a back seat. It’s just that when playing Pathfinder Second Edition, it’s going to take you a lot longer to clear out a dungeon than in fifth edition D&D. That’s not a bug, it’s a feature.

A more refined experience

Page 17 of the Pathfinder Second Edition Core Rulebook contains everything you need to know for your first few rounds of play. The massive book also has shaded tabs printed along the edge so you can quickly find the section that you’re looking for.
Photo: Charlie Hall/Polygon

Where Pathfinder Second Edition excels is in making combat less complicated than it was previously. It does that, at the most basic level, by refining the rules for what a player can do on their turn. This “action economy,” as it’s called, is far simpler in Second Edition than it was before, and the writing and design team at Paizo has sprinkled references to it throughout the entire Core Rulebook. The result is a game system that’s much easier to learn, and far more easy to run for harried game masters at the table.

Pathfinder characters can now only perform three actions on their turn. Those actions might include drawing your sword, casting a spell, or yelling something to someone in your party. Everything you do in combat has a cost in actions, and every cost for every action is clearly explained. As a result, Pathfinder Second Edition feels unified and complete, rather than a hodgepodge of errata and exceptions that had accumulated for its previous iteration.

As an exercise in graphic design, the Pathfinder Core Rulebook itself is extraordinary. Details that would be relegated to a sidebar or a tiny, bespoke graphic in other game systems get entire pages with elaborate diagrams and drawings. That kind of attention to detail, coupled with the repetition within the text itself, makes it a true reference document. That means players and game masters alike will spend less time flipping back and forth between sections of the book hunting for rules.

Of special note is the Core Rulebook’s appendix, which includes a combination glossary and index that also makes reference to the action economy in a clear and concise way. Front to back, the entire document is supremely well-organized and seems thoughtfully designed with the intention of speeding up play. I’d pay real money for a version of Wizards of the Coast’s recent Player’s Handbook laid out in a similar way.

If I have any complaints, they’re about the ruggedness of the Pathfinder Core Rulebook’s cover and binding. While it lays perfectly flat on the table, revealing beautiful matte-finish pages that are easy to read, it feels incredibly flimsy. I could easily break both the front and back covers over my knee at the same time. With as much use as mine is likely to see, I’m already on the hunt for aftermarket sleeves that will improve its survivability. For a sourcebook that costs $59.99, that’s a bit of a disappointment.

Image: Paizo

What is not disappointing, however, is the depth and breadth of character customization options available inside. There’s easily the equivalent of one extra sourcebook’s worth of material bundled in here for free.

Pathfinder Second Edition comes with six ancestries, including its signature goblin race, and 12 fully playable character classes, which themselves include multiple variants. That’s an awful lot of content for what amounts to a starter set, and it speaks to the Pathfinder system’s maturity and Paizo’s confidence in it. This Core Rulebook all but guarantees that your party will have its own unique flavor from day one, even if multiple characters share the same combat role.

The world of Golarion is also explained in excellent detail. Where D&D’s Forgotten Realms setting can feel a bit samey from campaign to campaign, Pathfinder’s setting is much more diverse. Just one small portion of a single continent contains realms devoted to high fantasy, African-inspired fantasy, pirate-themed areas, and undead realms filled with zombies, not to mention areas for sword-and-sandal-style adventuring and several flavors of mythic weirdness unique to its universe alone. There are even other planets as well.

Golarion feels massive, and the possibilities in this new Pathfinder Core Rulebook feel almost endless. It’s a great showing for Paizo, and a sign of things to come. Tabletop RPGs have long been dominated by one 800-pound gorilla. Pathfinder Second Edition is a strong product that, while unlikely to knock that gorilla off his perch, nonetheless helps flesh out the landscape for fans of pen-and-paper gaming.

You can find out more about Pathfinder Second Edition at Paizo’s website, which includes information on where to find copies of everything you need to get started. Physical copies of the Pathfinder Core Rulebook go on sale via Amazon starting Thursday, as well as at friendly local game stores around the world and at the Paizo booth at the Gen Con convention in Indianapolis. Digital versions will also available. Virtual tabletop app Roll20 also supports the game starting Thursday.

Pathfinder Second Edition was reviewed using a final retail product provided by Paizo. You can find additional information about Polygon’s ethics policy here.

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