Notable Things about Pathfinder
- Ancestries not Race
- Backgrounds are more meaningful
- Feats aren’t just abilities
- Character Creation is easy
- So Many Classes
- You Don’t Need To Buy Books You Don’t Need
- Details Details Details
- The World
- All The Colors of the Rainbow
- The Adventure Paths
- What about Starfinder?
- What Next?
- Obligatory Disclaimer
A friend asked what was notable about Pathfinder 2nd Edition in comparison to D&D 5th Edition.
I thought I’d write up my thoughts because he’s not the only one wondering that these days. Note that the following are in no particular order.
Ancestries not Race
Even if we set aside the problematic idea of “race”, your biology only plays a small part who you grow to be. Pathfinder acknowledges this.
Ancestries express the culture your character hails from. Within many ancestries are heritages— subgroups that each have their own characteristics. An ancestry provides ability boosts (and perhaps ability flaws), Hit Points, ancestry feats, and sometimes additional abilities.
Ancestry can be thought of as “species” most of the time, whereas “heritage” is more about the environment you grew up in. Your biology provides biological advantages and disadvantages. So does the environment you were raised in. Ancestries also provide “feats” you can take as you level. For example, a Dwarf could take “Dwarven Lore”, or various things related to familiarity with stone as a result of growing up underground.
The book comes with 6 common fantasy ancestries. However, if you include all the additional content (see below) there are 31 Ancestries to choose from.
Backgrounds are more meaningful
In D&D Background is mostly just about providing some story flavor for your character. It doesn’t really have much mechanical effect. In Pathfinder each background gives you 2 ability boosts, as well as skills that you are “trained” in.
While your character’s ability scores represent their raw talent and potential, skills represent their training and experience at performing certain tasks. Each skill is keyed to one of your character’s ability scores and used for an array of related actions. Your character’s expertise in a skill comes from several sources, including their background and class.
You can get better at your skills over time, and they’re actually specific things that not every character has. Each skill has a level noted as untrained, trained, expert, master, or legendary. They’re specific and interesting. For example under Acrobatics we have “Tumble Through” (allows you to try and move through an enemy space), under Arcana there’s “Borrow an Arcane Spell” which lets you “borrow” a spell from someone else’s spellbook during your day’s spell preparation.
Feats aren’t just abilities
Feats do give you new capabilities, but they also serve to add more flavor to your character. “Hobnobber” lets you gather more information through conversations. “Lie to me” lets you trip up people trying to deceive you. “Impeccable crafting” means that your crafting skills are so good that a successful Specialty Crafting roll is automatically a critical success.
Character Creation is easy
While the number of options is potentially overwhelming to a new player, they guide you through the process step by step, and also explain what every aspect of the standard character sheet is for. As you are choosing aspects of your character they tell you exactly where to put it on the character sheet and what numbers go where and where they came from.
For each of the primary classes Paizo has created an “Archetype” character. These are the characters you see being heroic in all the Pathfinder art. These characters serve not only to give you concrete examples to point to while learning the game, but they’re also all actual characters that beginners are encouraged to play.
So Many Classes
Wizards of The Coast hasn’t put out many classes for 5th edition. Pathfinder’s core book has the same 12 classes as D&D, but if you include the additional content they’ve released there are 21 possible classes. These are all available for free online.
To me this is notable because there’s obvious demand from players to be able to express cool ideas for their characters that don’t quite fit into the existing classes. People are constantly homebrewing D&D classes, but as a DM I don’t want my players to use them, because I don’t know if they’re even remotely balanced. They could have glaring flaws that make them annoying to play, or completely overpowered relative to everyone else in the group. I don’t want to have to spend hours trying to figure out the potential long-term consequences of the choices of someone’s random homebrew.
Pathfinder’s classes are by folks who do this for a living. There’s a reasonably good chance that even if they have faults, they’re not going to have a significant effect on your fun. More official classes, means more options for players to express their ideas without accidentally causing problems.
You Don’t Need To Buy Books You Don’t Need
You should probably buy the core book, but if you wanted to play a character with the Oracle class, you could just look it up online. The Archives of Nethys has all the official content online. Paizo has released everything under the OGL so it’s completely legal. Yes, Paizo would like you to buy their books, but they don’t seem interested in trying to convince anyone to buy an entire book just to get the one new species or class that you want even when you don’t care about anything else in it.
Details Details Details
Many D&D players feel a bit overwhelmed when they see the size of the core book. It’s more than twice as big as the D&D Player’s Handbook & the D&D Game Master’s guide. The main difference is that Paizo is giving you everything you need to play. They’re not trying to trick you into paying more by splitting it into 2+ books. They’re not hiding GM info from the players. Everyone is an equal participant and they’re not being greedy.
Much like the overwhelming size of the book, the rules can feel overwhelming to new players too. There’s more of them and you can do more on your turn, and everything’s more detailed, and, and, and… D&D’s authors tend to be very imprecise and ambiguous in how they describe things. This feels less overwhelming, but it means that you’re going to have a lot of debates at the table trying to figure out what the hell the authors meant or if they even considered the implications of this thing being used under these circumstances.
Pathfinder’s authors on the other hand have taken the time to explain everything very clearly. You’re not going to have many table debates where everyone’s trying to guess at the intended meaning of a rule, and if you should use that, or what it says even if it doesn’t make sense. Instead, you’re going to just look at the rule, read it, and do what it says. Pathfinder asks for a tiny bit more work up front, in order to let you understand everything better while playing. At the worst you’ll take a moment to look up a rule, and then go on, rather than look it up, and have a debate about it.
The Pathfinder 2e Core book is, in my opinion, the best example of good bookcraft in the Tabletop RPG world. On the edge of the every right page is a section guide with the current section highlighted, so you can easily flip through it. Iconography is used throughout to help convey inportant information quickly. For example, there are icons next to abilities / spells that take more than one action to perform that make it clear if it takes 2 or 3 actions (Pathfinder has 3 actions per turn). The way they use headings and colors also makes it very easy to visually scan a page. It’s just an excellent job that every TTRPG publisher would do well to emulate.
The canonical setting is called Golarian. It feels rich, and well thought out, with different peoples and spread across the world. In many ways it’s a collection of common fantasy tropes that have been spread out over the lands so that you can choose the type of common fantasy thing you want to deal with and stay in an area that’s centered around that idea.
For me Glorantha (the setting for Runequest) feels so detailed and specific that I enjoy reading about it, but am uncomfortable playing in it because I know I’d be getting something “wrong”. Golarian (Pathfinder’s) meanwhile feels, to me, that it’s been described well enough for me to have a basic familiarity with a given area, but not so much that I feel like I’m “doing it wrong” when I start improvising things about it.
I wouldn’t be surprised if there were just as many, if not more, details available for Paizo’s world, but somehow Paizo’s stuff comes across more as “hey, here’s an option if you want it” rather than “This is the way the world is!”. The core book contains roughly 30 pages giving you a basic overview of each of the main areas with half a page of description and an inspirational image.
The supplemental books are written in such a way that it’s easy to take the content and use it in other worlds, which makes them really valuable even if you don’t play Pathfinder.
All The Colors of the Rainbow
Paizo has fully embraced modern thinking about race/species, gender and sexuality. Two of the archetypes are canonically in a lesbian relationship. There are gender neutral characters. They specifically encourage the use of pronouns.
That being said, some of the stuff has been around for a long time. Rise of the Runelords (one of the more famous Adventure Paths) came out for Pathfinder 1st edition in 2007, and sometimes the heterosexual assumptions are revealed. It’s been updated for 2nd edition rules, but I don’t think Paizo has bothered to have a sensitivity reader take a look at it.
The Adventure Paths
Pathfinder offers something I wish every TTRPG publisher would offer. They call them “Adventure Paths”.
Every month, the Pathfinder Adventure Path brings you a new installment of a multi-part series of interconnected quests that together create a fully developed plot of sweeping scale and epic challenges.
With two complete campaigns every year, Pathfinder Adventure Path offers a diverse and ever-growing catalogue of themes, challenges, and play experiences. - Paizo.com
It’s somewhere between a magazine subscription and a Patreon. You subscribe and every month they send you the next installment in a 6 month campaign at a 30% discount. They get a constant stream of money to stay in business, the world gets bigger, and you subscribers get more content to run for their players. These are also high quality, high production value adventures by professional game designers that Paizo will then sell separately.
What about Starfinder?
Superficially Starfinder looks like “Pathfinder, but Sci-Fi”. The reality is more nuanced than that. First, it’s actual sci-fi, not “let’s give your sword swinging fantasy characters a spaceship” like Spelljammer.
“[Paizo creative director James Sutter] cites the Star Wars, Alien, and Guardians of the Galaxy franchises among the films he and his team drew from for Starfinder, which is set thousands of years in the future of Paizo’s blockbuster Pathfinder franchise. Firefly and The Expanse also make the list, along with the comic book series East of West and Saga. - Vice.com
Starfinder shares its setting with Pathfinder, set in its far future after Golarion, the planet that Pathfinder was set on, had mysteriously disappeared in an event called “The Gap”. The history of the planet during the disappearance is lost to all races, preventing players from returning and interfering with previous events in the Pathfinder timeline, while also acting as the foundation of Starfinder’s own timeline. Because Starfinder shares its past with Pathfinder, races and monsters of the Pathfinder setting persist in the Starfinder universe alongside new alien races from other worlds. Magic remains a part of the game’s mechanics, often intertwined with high-level technology. In the time since the Gap, allied races formed an alliance called the Pact Worlds for diplomacy, trade, and technological sharing, with Absalom Station as their focal point for these activities. An organization called the Starfinder Society, based on Absalom Station and other planets, was established to seek out pre-Gap technology and any information that may have explained what happened prior to that event. - Wikipedia
The game was released roughly 1 1/2 years before Pathfinder 2e. As a result, Pathfinder benefits from a fair amount of additional gameplay and rules refinement before its release. Like pathfinder
Maybe watch this Video by The Rules Lawyer discussing his “10 Reasons Pathfinder is Easier To Run Than D&D 5e”. If you’re even remotely interested in D&D style gaming you should totally pick up a copy of Pathfinder 2e.
Pathfinder 1st Edition was an obvious, unabashed rip-off of D&D 3.5 when Wizards of The Coast got greedy upon the release of 4th edition. Pathfinder 2nd edition feels like Paizo asked itself “What would it look like if we updated with everything we’ve learned since then.” Basically, the same thing the D&D folks did, but they took the same lessons and applied them differently, and created their own thing with Pathfinder 2nd Edition.
Want to learn about how to play? Check out this episode of the RPGBOT.podcast where they discuss How to Play Pathfinder Second Edition (Part 1). Part 2 gives an example of character creation.
I’m a mechanics geek. I read tons of TTRPG books, but only play a few. I haven’t gotten Pathfinder to the table yet, and I definitely haven’t played it from 1st level to 20th. That being said, I have read a lot of TTRPGs and I have a ton of respect for what I’ve read in Pathfinder.
I’d choose Pathfinder over D&D any day of the week. D&D’s ambiguities drive me nuts. As a DM I hate the way 1st level characters are hard to keep alive. I hate that once characters get past 10th level combat just feels like the DM is making up bullshit rule exceptions for the monsters to be able to stay alive for more than two rounds against players. “oh it’s a ’legendary action’”. Arrgh.
If given my druthers I wouldn’t choose either though. There are so many amazing games out there that aren’t just another take on the core mechanical ideas D&D came out with decades ago. Cypher System is one of the most elegant games every written. FATE is so flexible and good. We are truly in a Golden Age of TTRPGs.
If you want to play Pathfinder I think you’ll have a blast. If you’re just looking for something “not D&D” Pathfinder is a great choice, but there are lots of other great choices that might be a better fit for your group. If want some help finding something ask me on Mastodon.