In the past couple of months, starting with the Beginner Box, I have been learning how to play Pathfinder, second edition, which came out in 2019. It is a successor to the original Pathfinder edition, which in turn was based on Dungeons and Dragons 3.5 through the Open Gaming License (the same one under attack recently by Wizards of the Coast).
Speaking from personal experience, Pathfinder has suffered from a bit of an image problem…
But I picked up the Core Rulebook lately, which has been a fun read. The artwork is top-notch, and the guide does a pretty careful job walking you through the rules. However, the sheer size of the rulebook makes it hard to mentally absorb all at once, so I found this excellent series of videos by Jason Buhlman, lead game designer, that walk through all the essential aspects of playing Pathfinder.
I enjoyed this series, and it really helped the rules Pathfinder 2e “gel” in my mind. It also made it easier to go back and make sense of the text in Core Rulebook without having to reread multiple times.
So, I went ahead and made a first-time character to get used to the new ruleset: Tharivol a Wood Elf Druid. Pathfinder does not yet have an equivalent online character sheet storage system like D&D Beyond, but it has been fun to make on paper.
Transitioning from D&D
But, what’s it like going from Dungeons and Dragons 5th edition, which I have played since 2017, to Pathfinder 2nd edition?
Mechanically speaking, many of the rules, especially combat rules, make a lot more sense in Pathfinder than they did in 5e. The feel is more or less the same, but when you get into the grey areas, the Pathfinder approach often makes more sense, and there’s usually a contingency for everything a player wants to do. Some rules look more familiar to old time players like me (for example the spell “slots”) who played older editions, others look like fresh design improvements over older games. It’s an interesting mix of complexity with novelty.
Weapons also make more sense. For example, I complained previously about the lack of Asian-style mundane items, weapons and magic items in 5th edition and I was surprised to find, for example katana weapon stats in Pathfinder right in the Core Rulebook. This means, my old elf-samurai character, if adapted for Pathfinder, would probably look a bit more realistic (as much as fantasy elves in a Japanese-style setting would 😅…) than before.
Speaking of character creation the Pathfinder system relies less on character “tracks” to follow as one levels up, and more on a kind of buffet where one picks feats over time. Sometimes, the feat choices and skill increases are limited in scope, but you still usually have room to choose. This makes it hard to create the same character twice, and means each one will have a bit more individuality.
In the Advanced Player’s Guide and Lost Omens: Ancestry Guide there are quiet a few more character races and classes to choose from beyond the Core Rulebook. I was surprised to see a more diverse set of options. My son who is half-Japanese, was excited to be able to play a Japanese-style kitsune (fey fox) character, for example.
Even the human characters, unlike 5th edition Dungeons and Dragons, get a lot of attention and care and are a lot more compelling to play. The artwork alone depicting humans in Pathfinder is amazingly diverse and fascinating. Take a look at a couple pages from the Lost Omens: Character Guide…
Holy cow, the amazing detail and artwork really brings the various cultures of Pathfinder to life, and makes it much easier to find cultures you can identify with. Paizo really needs to pat itself on the back for this effort. Speaking of artwork, the Lost Omens Travel Guide is simply amazing. The Guide is written as a travel guide for players who might venture in the default setting of Absalom and surrounding areas, but provides amazing detail about everything from fashion, to card games, and even recipes that you can try out in real life.
Speaking of which, the fact that Pathfinder is not limited to hardcover books (which are fairly expensive) and openly available online through PDFs, or just through official reference sites makes a lot of this easy to fit your budget level. You can start as you are and learn pretty quickly and cheaply, but if you’re like me and like physical books, you can easily order those either through your local game store or directly through paizo.com.
For all these wonderful aspects of Pathfinder, there is one area I have personally been frustrated and that’s the world building and lore.
A lot of the familiar old settings that I knew from Dungeons and Dragons, such as Eberron and Barovia, both of which predate 5th edition, simply don’t exist in Pathfinder. There are probably good reasons for this due to licensing issues, intellectual property, and so on, but the loss is definitely felt. Fan created conversions for such settings do exist, but they ran the gamut in terms of support and quality. It would have been nice if Pathfinder had found a way to provide more official versions that were maybe similar to the D&D settings, but obviously not carbon copies. Such things may exist, but it’s a bit hard to sift through all the different adventure packs and settings that are printed already.
It isn’t all that hard for an enterprising DM to also just convert 5th edition settings into Pathfinder ones, but I do miss being able to just have the reference books handy, for lore if nothing else. Pathfinder focuses on the Lost Omens setting as its introductory setting, and if you played 5th edition, this will feel in some ways like the classic Forgotten Realms Sword Coast. Beyond that though, things get a bit muddier in terms of lore that’s familiar to old D&D players.
In short, compared to Dungeons and Dragons, I have found that Pathfinder has more to learn up front due to slightly more complicated rulesets, and the vast array of books that Paizo has printed for 2nd edition already in the last 3-4 years. But Paizo recognizes this and provides a number of choices and options to help ease the transition. It took me about 2-3 weeks reading Core Rulebook and watching the videos in my spare time, but once I got past that initial hurdle, the rest of Pathfinder 2nd edition just made sense.
I’ve played a bit with my kids, but I would like to find other groups to play in the near future, but as with any TTRPG, finding players is…. challenging.
In any case, Pathfinder is dynamic, exciting and has a lot of offer. They are hungry for customers and are making great efforts to help educate people, and stay responsive to their needs. Where 5th edition has lost its luster for me, Pathfinder is a lot more exciting and compelling.
Of course I still enjoy 5th edition, and it has a lot of memories for me and the kids, but it also feels increasingly like it’s run it’s course, the corporate greed has homogenized the game to the point of being moribund.