I’m going to admit that I never played Pathfinder 1E. When it came out I’d played and run more than my share of D&D 3.0/3.5 and felt burned out by it. Without cracking what looked like a mammoth book (I saw the tomes my coworker was carrying around), I pre-judged it as being “not what I was looking for” and stuck with the “ease of GMing” of D&D 4E.
Of course, then over the years I peeked at the Pathfinder SRD, talked to people who played it, and thought there were certainly parts that sounded interesting, but there was too much – too many options for me to cope with at the time.
Fast-forward to the arrival of Pathfinder 2E. When I initially heard of it, I thought “Well, I have D&D 5E and Fantasy AGE already, do I need another F20 game?”
Now the thing is, I like F20 games (Class/Level fantasy adventure.) For all that I love narrative or simulationist games, percentile systems and dice pools, personal supernatural horror, gritty fantasy, or historical gaming, I still get a real kick out of increasing my character level, finding a fun combination of abilities to pull off an awesome attack, tactical “dungeon crawling”, and epic adventure. So actually, if it strikes the chords I like, then I would “need” another F20 game. Where Pathfinder 2E really piqued my interest was reading about the more progressive elements that were being included, the (I’m told by those more mathwise than I) well-balanced classes and character options, the highly inclusive art, and more. Honestly, if there are Amazon reviews griping about it being “woke” then I’m definitely going to at least look at it.
I don’t know how well I can avoid holding it up in comparison to D&D. That’s not a criticism nor endorsement, as Pathfinder‘s roots are in D&D 3.5, so comparisons are inevitable. If you’re reading this review, it’s also possible you’re at least familiar with the basic ideas of class/level F20 RPGs and are looking around for an alternative to D&D that hits the same notes. To be truthful, that’s a major reason why I’m doing this review – I’m interested in seeing if Pathfinder 2E might become my preferred go-to F20 game. Hopefully I won’t make too many assumptions about reader’s foreknowledge of D&D and F20 games, but it may happen.
Chapter 1: Introduction
This is the “What is a roleplaying game?” and “how-you-play” section, which makes sense as an opener. With the popularity of the Pathfinder brand it’s also pretty important to include – I’m finding lots of games don’t dig too deeply into this section these days. If you want to make things easier on people picking your book up off the shelf of a Barnes & Noble or equivalent, it’s actually pretty critical.
The chapter is twenty-something pages and it’s pretty in-depth. I’d say that in general, you get a solid idea of what a roleplaying game is, how it plays out, what’s expected of players, and the basics play concepts. Key terms are bolded to draw attention and note them as being…noteworthy. I, as a long-time gamer, might think references to downtime are just references to when you’re not actively involved in an adventure, but there are rules governing what happens between adventures. It helps the veterans know what to look out for and it helps the newcomers know to pay attention to those terms.
The book is laid-out well. Chapter 1 helps establish the basics of the game, giving you all the general rules before you leap into the fleshed-out details and exceptions throughout the rest of the book. Therefore in Chapter 1 you learn all about the basics of your character.
Mechanically, player characters are made up of:
- A Class to determine their adventuring archetype and special abilities; background, the character’s upbringing (which will be familiar to D&D 5E players); and ancestry – heritage and lineage. The term “Race” being pretty archaic and not altogether appropriate, it’s nice that the designers took the time to pay attention to terminology and use “ancestry” instead. You’ll also have an Alignment: a two-word declaration of your characters ethos towards morality and ethics – how they view society and the cosmic order. Oft-maligned, Alignment seems like it’s here to stay in any descendant of D&D.
- 6 Ability Scores (Strength, Dexterity, Constitution, Intelligence, Wisdom, Charisma). These base scores create ability modifiers to adjust die rolls. All Ability Scores start at 10 and every step of creation provides “Boosts” – modifications of 2 points to a score chosen from presented options. So Ancestry provides some choices, then Background and Class, finalized by 4 discretionary boosts. I love this because it puts a skewer in the bioessentialist tradition where all Dwarves are hardy, all Elves are fast, all Orcs/Half-Orcs are strong but uncharismatic. It gives players much more freedom to make their characters unique. It also means it’s much, much easier to adhere to an envisioned character concept.
- Feats (individualized abilities) and Skills (learned aptitudes that adjust die rolls.)
This chapter also teaches you the basics of the system:
- “Checks” are rolls made to accomplish tasks when the outcome is in doubt. They are made on a d20 and you try to equal or exceed a Difficulty Class (DC) by rolling and adding any adjustments like Ability Modifiers or Skills.
- Your Skills (above) are ranked in levels of proficiency, granting a bonus based on which of five ranks you’re trained to, plus your level. I like that there are levels of mastery and that your actual character level is going to play a major role in how capable you are and not just determine the cool powers you get. Proficiency also applies to Saving Throws (resistances against specific kinds of effects, like poison/disease, or mental control), and weapons – which means you can become more and more skilled at using a particular type of attack. I first saw this applied to an F20 game in FantasyCraft, so love that I’m seeing it again.
I want to specifically highlight Actions. Some games use Full/Half/Free Actions in a combat encounter. Some give you a “Move” and Simple/Complex Action. In Pathfinder 2E you get 3 Actions on your turn in an encounter. You get Free Actions (very basic things like dropping stuff) and one Reaction on your turn – everything else is set as an Action. Moving is an Action, Striking is an Action, some abilities cost more than one Action, but the general economy is based around these 3 Actions (basically Action Points I guess.)
This means you can Move-Move-Move. Move-Strike-Move. Move-Move-Strike. Move-Spell. This looks really straightforward and simple and easy to remember for players. If it’s an Action it’s an Action – no half-actions or limits on the specific types of Actions you can take. To make it easier, Class Abilities receive symbols telling you if it’s a Single, Two-Action, or Three-Action Activity, if it’s Free, or a Reaction. It’s easy to understand and easy to read, saving on unnecessary text.
There’s an example of character creation that really helps clarify the process. It’s also worth appreciating that besides mentioning that all genders are completely equal in Pathfinder, it also gives the opportunity to record pronouns. I like that, because explicitly stating that in the rules helps define an atmosphere and environment for the game – nobody should feel discriminated against or excluded by omission. This actually caused me to look back at the previous and surrounding text to see what pronouns are used in reference to characters and players. I was pleased to notice that the reader is actually referred to as “You” and your characters (or undefined individuals) use they/their. There’s no “he is considered universal” or awkward and binary “he or she” – it’s all nonspecific.
Once you’re through Chapter 1, you’ll have a solid foundation to approach the rest of the book and understand the options presented throughout.
Chapters 2 and 3: Ancestries & Backgrounds, Classes
I really like how Ancestries are presented in Pathfinder 2E. These are the species your character belongs to like Dwarf, Elf, Gnome, Halfling, and Human, but they also introduce Goblin – which is delightful – they’re sort of chaotic little tinkers. They also fold Half-Elves and Half-Orcs into “Humans” by using Heritages (which are like sub-Ancestries.) Half-Orcs still suffer the occasional intolerance frequent in these games, though like all the other elements of Ancestries, only if you choose. And thank the gods there’s no mention of assault in their conception.
Common stereotypes of each Ancestry are presented in a section called “You Might…” and “Others Probably…” which highlight how your character might behave if they’re of that Ancestry and how the outside world tends to view them. Let’s look at everyone’s favorite: elves (my favorite actually) and see how this all applies.
Elves are generally found to be private, live in harmony with nature, otherworldly, cultured, forlorn and morose because they live longer than their friends, amongst other stereotypes. You Might “adopt specialized or obscure interests simply for the sake of mastering them” and Others Probably “assume you practice archery, cast spells, fight demons, and have perfected one or more fine arts.” These are great to generate ideas off, but it’s very clear that these generalities are in no way mandatory. This extends to biological and learned features of elves. Whereas in other games they might automatically have a form of darkvision, innate magical abilities, know how to fight with bows and swords – here they are all options determined by the selection of Feats. This means you don’t lose out on options, such as when you choose a Fighter class Elf and all your bonus weapon proficiencies are unnecessary (my biggest pet peeve.) As your character levels increase you’ll have access to new Feats that build on the previous ones or introduce new archetypal aspects of your Ancestry. Mechanically Ancestries also contribute to your base Hit Points (damage capacity), Languages, Ability Boosts (and Flaws, where they’re reduced.)
Backgrounds are included in this chapter and help flesh out your character’s history. Mechanically they provide ability boosts and skill training, making them another way to help round out and ensure a character concept. Some options include Acolyte, Artist, Barrister (pretty unique for an F20 game), Nomad, Warrior, and many others.
You get a wealth of Classes to choose from. The expected ones are present – Fighter, Monk, Ranger, Rogue, Sorcerer, Wizard, Druid, Cleric, Bard, Barbarian, but then Champions stand-in for Paladins (allowing them to “champion” a variety of ethoses), and Alchemists are included for all the bomb-happy, potion-brewers. Each class has a similar “You Might/Others Probably” section but also have entries for what a Class might do in Combat encounters, Social encounters, and when exploring, which I think is really nice to include as it gives a much clearer vision of their role in a group.
Classes provide the other half of Hit Points, “sub” classes provide more specialization, skills and proficiencies, and a list of Feats that help flesh them out over time. I can’t speak to how balanced or directly fun they all are, but you shouldn’t be lacking for options for at least most of your normal or even slightly unique concepts. It looks like they all fulfill the roles one would expect from similar games: Fighters fight, Rogues sneak, Champions champion a particular goal or ethos (not restricted to Lawful Good Paladins, other alignments receive Champions too.) One thing I really appreciate is just how many options Sorcerers have. If you’re not familiar, these are Arcane spellcasters who differ from Wizards because they get their magic from something inherent. Whereas a number of other games only give two, maybe three, options for a Sorcerer’s bloodline/inheritance, there are 10 in Pathfinder 2E, including my new favorite: Imperial – a distant ancestor who mastered magic and infused their bloodline with it.
You might wonder about multiclassing – the ever popular way to make a Fighter/Wizard with advantages of both classes. Pathfinder 2E does it elegantly, and in a way reminiscent of D&D 4th edition (which is a plus in my book.) When eligible for a new Class Feat, you take an Archetype Feat, which allows you access to roughly the starting level of another Class. As you acquire more Feats you can spend them to take other Archetype Feats and increase your ability in that other Class.
Chapters 4 & 5: Skills & Feats
Thought it’s set up as a class/level system, Pathfinder 2E is also a skill-based system. It’s not a surprise, as the first edition and D&D 3.5 also used Skills heavily. Your level of proficiency, combined with your ability modifier and other factors determines your bonus, which is rolled against a Difficulty Class. It’s pretty standard and straightforward. Where 2E innovates is including a designation of “Skill Actions”, determining what you can/can’t do if you’re Trained or Untrained in a Skill. Some are General Actions that can be performed with numerous Skills, some are tied to a single Skill. They’re explained well and have good examples of what could be attempted at various levels of Proficiency, inform the player how many Actions they take to perform, and state the results of various levels of Success/Failure.
The list of Skills isn’t overwhelming, nor redundant, nor does it contain anything seemingly random – everything should be covered by one of the listed Skills. I’m pleased to see a Craft Skill and a number of Actions that are meant to be used during Downtime and not just on an adventure. Crafting gets its own chapter later on, so we’ll look at it more then.
Feats are specific abilities that are learned through your Ancestry or Skills. The former are described in their Ancestry writeup and the Skill Feats in the Feats chapter. The best way to look at Skill Feats are as significant particular boosts to a Skill. “Rapid Mantel” for the Athletics Skill, allows you to pull yourself onto a ledge more easily, or catch one when you fall, subbing in your Athletics Skill for a Reflex Saving Throw. “Recognize Spell” (falling under a number of Skills) let’s you identify magic cast in your vicinity. General Feats allow proficiency in Armor or increased Weapon skill, increased Hit Points, and other effects not tied specifically to a Skill. When I looked at the list of options I initially thought there were quite a few, but in the end there aren’t an unwieldy number of Feats, and a player will only be looking at the ones appropriate to them anyway.
Chapter 6: Equipment (and Chapter 11: Crafting and Treasure)
There’s really no reason to not combine these two chapters, since both focus on stuff. The list of gear is what you might expect from an adventure fantasy game. There’s alchemical gear, services, cost of living (all helpful to include), and Class Kits for quick selection (what does your typical Barbarian or Fighter carry.) There’s a really good list of weapons and armor with what looks like little (if any) redundancy and a variety of options for killing stuff. This section also acts as a basic primer for combat, covering attacks, damage, and unarmed combat. There are three elements that make this section shine for me. The first is Bulk – a simple encumbrance system that means you have to watch how much you carry. The second is item toughness – I like when things wear down and need repair/replacing. Some might feel these two are too crunchy to include, but Pathfinder isn’t the lightest game, so they’re not out of place (plus they were probably in 1E. The third is the section on shields. Shields take damage when they block and can break and they can also be used as weapons! Too often shields are just passive defenses, so I love seeing them used as offensive items.
The magical items section is extensive, covering almost everything I remember from iterations of D&D. You’ve got your Elven Chainmail, Horn of Blasting, Rod of Wonder, and then a variety of precious materials with which to craft items. Make weapons and armor from Adamantine or Darkwood, and then etch Runes into them to give them special properties that increase their effectiveness or deliver special forms of damage like acid.
Chapter 7: Spells
Magic is organized into 4 Traditions: Arcane, Divine, Occult, and Primal. Spellcasters fall into a Tradition based on their Class (Wizards are Arcane, Clerics Divine, Bards Occult, Druids Primal, for example.) Individual spells are then broken down into 8 Schools based on the general application of the effect (Enchantment, Illusion, Necromancy, etc.) The chapter does a good job of explaining how magic works mechanically and there are a ton of spells you’ll be able to choose from. There are a couple of things new to me I want to highlight. First is Focus Spells, which are special Class spells that allow one to create magical effects that are more thematic to their Class type. This saves having a further list of “Cleric spells” and “Sorcerer spells”, allowing them to just be divided by Tradition. The second is Rituals, which are the spells with effects that take longer to manifest or cast (measured at the day scale) and include your Resurrections, summonings, planar gates, etc. Something I don’t recall seeing in an F20 game before appears on page 323 “Magic and Morality” and it discusses how the effects of some spells are objectively evil, particularly the mind-control effects of Enchantment spells, and how they can affect players at the table. Definitely an appreciated inclusion. I also like how there’s a whole sidebar on “Disbelieving Illusions – setting down Pathfinder‘s rules on something which has plagued tables since the early days “It must be an illusion! I disbelieve in the dragon!”
Chapter 8: The Age of Lost Omens
At the time of writing, I’ve just begun playing Pathfinder: Kingmaker. That’s basically the extent of my experience with the Pathfinder world of Golarion. However, the Second Edition pushes the timeline into the future of the setting and smacks it with supernatural devastation after supernatural devastation – keeping some old elements but creating a “new age of heroes” in which to play. Works for me as I wasn’t attached to the old setting. You’re given a brief history, a brief overview of the different regions (many of which seem interesting and I definitely want to take a look at the Mwangi Expanse in its book. It’s a brief Gazetteer, covering cultures and peoples, factions and religions (including a list of Deities with necessary mechanical information for their priesthood, and how creatures typically relegated to bestiaries interact with the world. I can’t yet tell if the country of Galt is a joke at Ayn Rand’s expense, but I hope so. Anyway, overall, it’s a perfectly good section and if you plan not to set your games in Golarion only takes up a little bit of the 642-page book.
Chapters 9 & 10: Playing the Game and Game Mastering
I bumped Chapter 11 ahead because it involved stuff, and I was already talking about stuff, so here we are now at the end: how to play Pathfinder 2E.
We’ve already been given the basic rules – enough to make sense of what we’ve read so far. Here is where it all gets fleshed out and we get the big picture.
Much like the text has done so far, this is written as if you’re new to tabletop roleplaying games. Even if you’re an old hand this is good because it helps clearly state what Pathfinder is about so you can set your expectations properly. At its core, the game plays out over three “modes:”
- Encounter: action and high-stakes situations. These are combat scenes and others where it is essential to maintain turn order among the characters and manage their time and Actions.
- Exploration: travel, social gatherings, general roleplay situations where the action economy isn’t necessary to track.
- Downtime: days, weeks, months – long stretches of time where characters will perform tasks of a greater duration.
The practice of making Checks – when, how, guidelines regarding conventions and modifiers is clearly spelled out. Combat is fleshed out further here. The basics should be familiar to any F20 player (Attack roll vs Armor Class, damage inflicted on Hit Points.) A couple of things I want to highlight that I really enjoyed: combat Initiative (turn order) is determined by a Perception Skill Check, “Counteracting” – the method by which you counter a Spell, fight off an Affliction, and so on, is clearly and succinctly explained, and finally: there are no Opposed rolls. All Checks are made against a static Difficulty Class. If you’re trying to sneak by a guard, your DC is calculated based off their Perception. If they’re trying to sneak past you, your DC is modified by their Stealth.
Combat/Encounter Mode has the level of crunch I like, though it may not be for everyone. The book looks like it covers most circumstances but you might take your time adding in features to best get the hang of it. I would have liked more significant Mounted Combat rules. As it is you basically only move faster, but don’t do further damage upon a successful hit. Doing otherwise might be a bit too simulationist for Pathfinder though and that’s ok. One thing to note, as it might be a dealbreaker, combat is grid-based and might not translate as seamlessly to theatre of the mind as some may prefer. We used to do it all the time back in the day, but your tastes may vary.
Exploration Mode covers the basics of travel, including new Actions revolving around moving, scouting, hiding, and the daily routine. Downtime Mode is only briefly detailed, but it does include the option to Retrain a character – which is much appreciated as I recall getting stuck on bad choices back in the days of D&D 3.5.
If anything should be crucial in this book, I’d say it’s the Game Mastering section. Everything else (rules) can be clarified or interpreted, but having a solid primer on how to run a tabletop rpg is essential, especially in a book that is otherwise written to new gamers. It’s not an easy task and not everyone wants to take on that role, so newcomers need all the support they can get!
The Gamemaster’s role is clearly spelled out and the chapter starts with the planning phase. You’re given advice on duration of campaigns, collaboration with the other players in terms of ideas and world building, themes for the game, and very importantly – “A Welcoming Environment.” This covers the group management tasks like making sure everyone is comfortable, covering personal boundaries and objectionable content, characters with disabilities, and so on. It even describes the baseline of content to expect from Pathfinder, including the reprehensible shit that players should never engage in. Kudos to clearly drawing a line in the sand.
GMs are given some good advice for managing their sessions and I appreciate the “Adjudicating the Rules” entry, which has a quick bullet-point list summarizing elements one may have to adjudicate on the fly and how to best handle them.
There’s more involving managing the three modes of play, hazards and environmental effects, balancing encounters, and I feel thoroughly covers what’s needed to achieve Pathfinder 2E’s intended style of play. It’s a very good section.
The content of the Pathfinder 2E core rulebook is stellar. I really enjoyed it and will definitely bring it to my table. I already have a sandbox dungeon crawl being planned out in my head – one that feels it needs Pathfinder to properly execute it. The layout of the book is really good. Things are easy to find, abilities are easy to read, and the art is gorgeous – it’s diverse, atmospheric, epic, and promises high adventure and action.
If you want a modern, d20-based fantasy adventure game, that has a little more meat to it than some of the others, I think you’ll be very happy with Pathfinder 2E. I’d say it might take a little investment of time but should be well-worth the effort!
You can pick up Pathfinder from the Paizo Store in print and PDF, or from the below Affiliate links to help support this site! I grabbed a copy of the Pocket-size rulebook. I love smaller books (easier on the back and bag) and had some hesitation (type size and ability to lie open), but didn’t need to worry about either. It’s a great physical product too and you can see some pictures of it here on my Instagram.
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White text on black background is brutal for folks with astigmatism. If you are going to use this format, offer an alternative for the 8% of us poor folks suffering from astigmatism.
I can imagine. Modiphius put up a black on white POD version of Star Trek Adventures because the white on black was hard for some to read.