Pathfinder Second Edition Looks to Break Away From Its Dungeons & Dragons Roots

The newest edition of Pathfinder is moving past its Dungeons & Dragons roots. For a brief period of time in the early 2010s, Pathfinder was the top-selling tabletop RPG in the world. The fantasy RPG game was built around Dungeons & Dragons' 3.5 edition rules, giving D&D fans an option to stick with the beloved system even as Wizards of the Coast moved onto its much maligned and quickly abandoned 4th Edition ruleset. Pathfinder managed to defeat D&D for several years in the "edition wars," but the game struggled to maintain its popularity when Wizards of the Coast released the Fifth Edition Ruleset for Dungeons & Dragons, which simplified the game and attracted millions of new fans. While Pathfinder still enjoyed a loyal following, the game started to sag under the weight of its own rules, as new classes, new spells, and new races were released on a yearly basis as if to fill some sort of quota.

Now at a crossroads, Pathfinder has attempted to fully create some separation from Dungeons & Dragons with its new Second Edition, which came out in early August. Instead of mimicking Dungeons & Dragons' path to success by simplifying its game, Pathfinder instead to emphasize its differences - focusing on customization and optimization while streamlining combat mechanics. The results are mostly positive, and the new game offers up a more "crunchy" alternative for those who feel that Dungeons & Dragons' Fifth Edition rules are growing stale.

The most radical change in Pathfinder 2E is its overhaul of combat with the use of an innovative 3-action system. Pathfinder has done away with Swift Actions, Immediate Actions and Full-Round Actions, and replaced their system with a pool of three actions that players can use however they wish. Drawing your sword costs an action, as does moving, and so does attacking or raising your shield. Players can choose to dash ahead by moving twice during their turn, or they can opt to move once and attack twice (albeit at the cost of a penalty for making two attacks in quick succession.) Certain special actions tied to ancestry or class may take more than one action to complete, and many spells cost more than one action to cast. However, players can keep track of the cost of their actions through the use of Pathfinder's new action icons, which resemble diamonds stacked on top of each other.

Another major change is the way that players build their characters. While classes still retain some default features, Pathfinder 2E gives players much more customization options by allowing players to choose different kind of feats when they level up. There are ancestry feats, skill feats, and general feats, all of which give players different options as they level up their character. Some of these feats are identical to class features or racial features from Pathfinder 1E, but there's a bit more importance to them. As you level up, you'll choose how your player grows stronger instead of getting saddled with abilities that you might not use.

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(Photo: Paizo)

The main issue with Pathfinder 2E's feats system is that its all a bit overwhelming. Pathfinder's Core Rulebook isn't presented in a way that allows you to easily see how your ancestry feats, class feats, and general feats all interact, and the lack of a quick online character builder means that players will need to spend hours researching their character progression in advance to make sure that you meet the prerequisites to obtain those higher level feats and customize the character how you really want it. The Feat system also makes it difficult to quickly build a new character. A strength of D&D 5E is that you can quickly toss together a character in just a few minutes, but Pathfinder 2E requires players to pick out a lot of feats even if you start your character at 1st Level. Building a 3rd Level character in Pathfinder 2E took me an entire evening, which seems less than ideal for those who can't dedicate a ton of time to their RPG hobby.

Players will also note some changes to Pathfinder's Core Classes - the Alchemist is now a Core Class, and the Paladin has been replaced with a "Champion" class that has different subclasses based on their alignment. Magic is also rejiggered, with four types of magical traditions (arcane, divine, occult, and primal) instead of two types and some classes gaining access to a 10th level spell slot. Still, the Pathfinder classes should still feel familiar to players, albeit with more customization options due to the new Feats.

The other notable (and somewhat confusing) change is to Pathfinder's proficiency system. While Pathfinder continues to have different skill checks, players start off the game trained in several skills (such as Athletics or Arcana), weapon types, and defense types. Instead of adding skill points to their various abilities like in Pathfinder 1st Edition, players can periodically increase their Skill proficiency from Trained to Expert to Master to Legendary. Some skill checks can't be made unless you're an expert in a skill, and certain feats are only available if a player has a certain level of proficiency in a particular skill.

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(Photo: Paizo)

Pathfinder also made some technical changes with some of their rules - a Natural 20 will now always be a critical hit, and you can also score a Critical Hit if your Attack roll (or Saving Throw) exceeds the target AC or DC by 10. There's also Critical Failures, triggered by exceptionally low rolls. Players also get a fixed number of hit points when they level up, determined by their class and their Constitution modifier. Finally, Pathfinder has also added an overhauled proficiency system, with players gaining levels of proficiency in skills, weapons, and defenses.

It took me a while to write the review for Pathfinder 2E because I struggled deciding whether the changes to the game would help or hinder the game in the long run. For every positive change I saw in Pathfinder 2E, there was something that either confused or frustrated me. However, I eventually came to see that the changes to Pathfinder was meant to truly provide a level of separation between it and other D&D games. While certain parts of Pathfinder were streamlined for ease of play, the game still retained its core appeal - a meatier system for those who truly wanted to fiddle with their character build until it achieved its desired result. Building a character in Pathfinder 2E is akin to building a car from the frame up. Sure, you can just by a vintage car by hand, but I felt a level of pride when I finished my Level 3 Alchemist build that I didn't when I create a D&D character for a one-shot. Assuming I did everything right, my little halfling alchemist could do some really crazy things when she reached higher levels, things that no other alchemist character could do.

So - if you want to really dig into the mechanics of your tabletop character and customize it to your liking, Pathfinder 2E is the perfect game for you. While it retains some familiarity to its roots, Pathfinder has broken away from its 3.5 roots and is forging its own path, and I can't wait to see where it goes next.

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Rating: 4 out of 5

The Pathfinder Second Edition Core Rulebook and Bestiary are available for sale now.