There has been a lot of complaining about the Pathfinder playtest, and believe me, I’ve done my share of it. And though I summed up what I felt was wrong with the game as a game back in October with My Final Thoughts on The Pathfinder 2nd Edition Playtest, I’d like to talk about something tangential that I feel hasn’t been covered as much in the debate of whether or not the playtest is or is not a good game.
Because I’ll admit that it’s functional, even if I feel it’s held together with duct tape and string in a couple of places. However, what it is not is Pathfinder as we know it.
That isn’t just grognard-speak for, “This new version of the game isn’t the one I learned, so therefore it’s ruined!” either. Because Pathfinder wasn’t just another fantasy RPG in a market where you can hit one of those by chucking a rock. It was a game with a very distinct identity, as well as a unique heritage that allowed it to fill a particular niche. It had a brand, and the people who played it (or who asked about it) understood what made it different from the competition.
This new version we’ve seen and played, though, doesn’t carry through any of that uniqueness, and it feels like it’s trying to ride the brand name without offering any of the things that players associate with the brand. For example…
1) Copying What’s Popular (Instead of Being The Unique Stand-Out)
When Pathfinder first claimed its market share, it did so by lifting the falling light of the DND 3.5 engine. There were other games using it, sure, but Paizo took that engine and made it bigger, faster, louder, and stronger. They carved out their own niche, and when the 4th Edition of DND under-performed, Pathfinder existed as a viable alternative that was mechanically different from 4th Edition in a lot of meaningful ways.
This new playtest, though, feels like it’s trying to play catch-up rather than stand-out.
While it’s true that it isn’t exactly the same as Dungeons and Dragons 5th Edition, you can see whose homework Paizo was copying with this playtest. And while 5th Edition is a stand-out in the marketplace, it’s on the other end of the kind of play that Pathfinder tends to be associated with. So it feels like Paizo is just trying to be more like the latest success story, which isn’t working because that game already exists, and this attempt to hybridize it is just not going to appeal to players who like Classic Pathfinder or players who like 5th Edition.
2) Limiting Mechanical Freedom
One of the biggest selling points Pathfinder has, in my view, is the sheer amount of mechanical freedom it offers. If you have a character concept, there is probably some way you can make it happen using the rules and options as they exist. And you aren’t just re-skinning an existing mechanic so that it looks different; you have the specific mechanics you need to manifest your idea.
My best example for this is playing someone descended from storm giants. In 5th Edition, for example, there is nothing that stops you from making this claim. You can use it to justify a maxed-out strength score, and describe your character as blocky and gray-skinned. If you’re playing Pathfinder, though, you can take a feat that states explicitly that you are a storm giant for all effects related to race. And if you take a second feat, you are now immune to any effects of electricity damage. It’s more than story justification; according to the physics of the world, you have storm giant heritage.
There are dozens of examples in Pathfinder Classic of this kind of mechanical freedom. You want to play a character that’s half-orc and half-elf? Cool, take this racial option and this feat. You now have a half-elf with a bite attack and tattoos, or a half-orc that can do tricks with a bow usually reserved only for elves. You want to play a Jekyll and Hyde character who literally transforms into someone else? There’s a prestige class for that. You want to be a celestial being raised on another plane who is coming to the material world as a foreigner? There’s options for that, too!
The playtest, though, is all about rigidity of path and tamping down on your mechanical freedom as a player. Multiclassing is discouraged to the point that it feels token, all classes are forced to make choices that narrowly define their abilities and progression, and the new feat system has all the complexity of the old one without any of the mix-and-match ability you had to make exactly the character you want to play.
One of Pathfinder’s greatest strengths as an RPG was the flexibility of its mechanics, and how you could blend them to form exactly the concept you wanted without having to bend any of the rules as they were presented. In this playtest you’re stuck with archetypes whose abilities are rigidly defined, and which gives you almost no options to meaningfully deviate from the path that’s been laid before you.
3) Pointless Complication
Pathfinder was always the crunchier fantasy game on the market. If you like a game that had rules for what penalties you deal with when you’re drunk, to exactly what saves you need to make to avoid drug addiction, then Pathfinder was your jam. However, even if you found some of the rules cumbersome or unnecessary, you could at least envision situations where they would be useful.
The playtest kept all the complexity, but distanced it from scenarios where it helped rather than hindered.
The best example of this is the bulk system. In Pathfinder Classic (and most games with encumbrance rules) you simply look at your Strength score, and that tells you your light, medium, and heavy loads, as well as your maximum amount of ability to lift, push, etc. The playtest uses a bulk system, which means you have to look up an individual item, determine what its bulk value is, and then run your attribute through a formula to figure out how much bulk you can carry.
You might argue that they were just trying to do something different, but any playtester would have told you immediately it was a bad idea. It overcomplicates a simple mechanic that most players would like to ignore in the first place, so why would you do that?
You see it all over the place in the playtest. If you want to make a combat maneuver like a disarm check or a grapple (things that, previously, any character could just try to do), now you need to make a specific skill check. Not only that, but if you’re not trained in that skill, then you may not even be able to attempt the thing you’re trying to do. It’s the same line of thought that staggers out your racial abilities over a dozen levels, because it makes complete sense for a half-orc to get darkvision only once they’ve killed enough monsters to activate the eyes they were born with.
Pathfinder players aren’t scared of a complicated game. But they’re used to the complications at least making sense, and too much of this game seems to have been complicated for no other reason than to make it crunchier even if those changes added nothing to the experience but irritation.
For more gaming thoughts from Neal Litherland, check out his Gamers archive, his blog Improved Initiative. To read his fiction, drop by his Amazon Author Page!
Picture Reference: https://paizo.com/pathfinderplaytest
Anyone who knows me know that I'm a die-hard Pathfinder fan. I've been playing it since the end of the 3.5 era, when so many of us jumped ship from Wizards as a refusal to move on to their 4th edition. I've been quite happy with it, on the whole, and I even went on record back in the end of 2016 to explain Why Pathfinder is My Game of Choice.
With that said, Pathfinder isn't a perfect game by any stretch of the imagination. So when I heard that Paizo was working on a 2.0 update, I was tentative, but interested. And now that the playtest rules have been released I can say without equivocation that I am the furthest possible thing from interested in this new iteration of what has long been my go-to game.
Why? Well, I'll give you some of the major reasons, and the conclusions I drew after my read through.
1) The Feats Are A Mess
Feats were your bread and butted in any Pathfinder Classic game. Whether you wanted to be a knight riding his destrier into battle, a master of metamagic, or someone whose unique bloodline had allowed them to awaken sorcerous power without having to take sorcerer levels, feats made all sorts of stuff possible. And which feats you took was entirely up to you. If you wanted to have nothing but combat feats (the equivalent of going to the buffet and loading your entire plate up with pork roast), you were more than welcome to do that. If you wanted to dedicate your feats to becoming a master of certain skills, that was also an option. If you wanted to bolster your class features by gaining extra rounds of rage, more uses of lay on hands, or bonus arcana points, you could do that too.
You can't do that in 2.0.
Oh there are still feats, don't get me wrong. But now we have class feats, we have ancestry feats (race feats for those not up on the new terminology), and we have general feats, along with a few other classifications. And rather than letting you pick whichever feat you qualify for every other level, you now get different types of feats at different levels. So it doesn't matter if you don't actually want to take any of the ancestry feats you have access to, or that you find your class feats useless until you hit level seven; you're stuck with them.
This limits your ability to customize your character, and puts you on very specific tracks of advancement. Not good for folks who like the ability to load their plate however they want to in order to achieve specific results.
2) Where The Hell Are My Combat Maneuvers?
One of the things I was most grateful for as a player was the invention of Combat Maneuver Bonus and Combat Maneuver Defense. Nothing was more nightmarish (or prone to cause arguments), than constant roll-offs between a player and the DM whenever the player wanted to do something other than hit the big bad with his sword, or cast a spell at him.
So I was disappointed (but not surprised) to see that those things are absent from version 2.0.
The maneuvers still exist, but they're buried in the skills section. Why are they in the skills section, you ask? Well, because now instead of making attack rolls, you make skill rolls for many of the combat maneuvers. Even stranger than that decision, though, is that when you make these rolls, you're going against your enemy's saving throws. Why? Hell if I know.
There's another issue, though. Because in this version, you don't have skill points. Instead, your skills (and a lot of other stuff, but we'll get to that) are influenced by your proficiency level. There are five of them; untrained, trained, expert, master, legendary. These determine what bonuses you get on skill checks, but they also determine when you can or can't use them for certain things.
And if you're not trained in Athletics, then you can't make a disarm attempt. Or feint in combat, if you're not trained in Deception.
This is a very specific example, but it shows up throughout the game. Things that everyone used to be able to do (attempt a combat maneuver check, make attacks of opportunity, etc.) are now limited to very specific classes. So much like feats putting you on a certain track, there are options that were available to anyone regardless of class in Classic that are now kept behind glass unless you have the right proficiency level.
3) What's The Big Deal With Proficiency?
In the Classic edition, proficiency simply means you can do something without penalty. If you're proficient in heavy armor, you can wear heavy armor. If you're proficient with martial weapons, then you can wield martial weapons. It did nothing, unless you didn't have it, which meant you were dealing with a non-proficiency penalty.
In the playtest, this word does not mean what you think it means.
Those levels of proficiency literally control all major aspects of your character. If you're untrained, you have a proficiency bonus of your character level -2. If you're legendary, it's your character level +3. Each level between changes that number by one.
I'm not exaggerating here, either. Proficiency determines everything from your attack bonus with a weapon, to your bonuses on spells, to what your skill checks are, to your saving throws, to your goddamn armor class. It is the central mechanic that this entire playtest is built around, and it only comes in one of five varieties.
This means that huge parts of your character just get automatic progression along your track. A 10th level character gets a +8 bonus on untrained checks from their proficiency. Doesn't matter if Hrothgar Bloodbeard had never attempted diplomacy in his life, he'll still be pretty okay at it. Call me a cantankerous grognard if you must, but I am not a fan of the idea that you just automatically get better at everything as you go up in level. Especially stuff that you've never invested time, resources, or effort in mastering.
4) No More A La Carte Options
Another thing that I adored when Paizo brought out Pathfinder back in the early post-3.5 days was what I call a la carte options. Barbarians had a list of Rage powers, rogues had a slew of talents, ninjas got a list of tricks, alchemists got discoveries, and so on and so forth. This gave you a lot more control over the powers your character gained as you leveled, and you could use those powers in combination with feats to produce exactly the effects you wanted.
As with anything else on this list I was a fan of, that's gone too.
While a lot of these choices have made it to version 2.0 as options you can take, you aren't allowed to freely choose from the list like you were earlier. Barbarians, for example, are now locked into a choice of totem (which was completely optional in the previous edition if you never wanted to take a totem-style power). Rogues receive a number of options to choose from, but they are only available at certain levels. Alchemists... don't even get me started. While they're now a base class, their progression gives me a headache every time I try to read through it.
It is the same for feats. What was once a wide open menu of choice where you could pick whatever you wanted as long as you qualified for it has been narrowed down to a bare handful of options, and a lot of them are arbitrarily shut behind a certain amount of level progression.
And to those of your clearing your throats and asking if I'm comparing a single book to the huge morass of a decade or more of Classic publications, no, I'm not. Core book versus core book, you had more freedom in the older edition than you do now. All the stuff that's come out since the core book was published is just frosting on top.
5) There is No Multiclassing (Not As We Know It, Anyway)
Real talk here. In the decade and a half since I got my first set of dice, I've played between one and three single-class characters. Every other character I have ever brought to the table has been multiclassed. So when I finally got to the section on leveling up, I noticed right away that this playtest assumes you are never going to deviate from the class you started in.
But what if you really want to? Well, you can take an archetype.
What does that mean? Well, it means you're technically still taking levels of your original class. But now you're replacing your class feats with the class feats that belong to your archetype. And let me tell you, this method is an out-and-out dealbreaker from where I'm sitting. It's messy, overly complicated, and sends a very loud, very clear message that if you start off as a fighter, barbarian, or wizard, then you'd better get comfy, because acquiring the specialties of another class is going to be a headache for you and your DM alike.
… And Then It Hit Me
There came a moment, around page 390 or so, where I realized something. In addition to all the red flags I've mentioned, there were a dozen little tweaks that felt familiar in their annoyance. Rage that lasts for an arbitrary amount of time, instead of increasing with you as you level? Sneak attack that requires you to use a ranged, agile, or finesse weapon? Three or four different levels of dying, fear, or fatigue rather than specific conditions that you are or are not in?
This is not Pathfinder... this is Dungeons and Dragons 5th Edition.
As I've said time and time again, the Classic edition was what we got when Paizo put Dungeons and Dragons 3.5 on the table, and gave it some juice. It came out bigger, tougher, and just as flexible and customizable as it's ever been. It was also just as complex, and required just as much investment. The second edition, though, has nothing to do with 3.5 at all. It's Paizo giving Wizards of The Coast's 5th Edition property the exact same treatment and hoping that the lightning will strike twice.
Why? No clue. Because when the lightning struck the first time there was a big audience clambering for support for a system that Wizards had dropped... but 5th Edition is riding high right now. It is, though it galls me to say it, probably the RPG of choice for the current tabletop renaissance. However, it holds that title because it is basic, it is clean, and it is literally something you could teach a person who has never gamed in their life with maybe a 15-minute run down.
Reading through this playtest, it has all of the complexity and confusion of Pathfinder's elaborate rules, but none of the simplicity and ease of learning that 5th Edition has. The mechanics have different names, and many of them have been split into three or four parts, but this is just 5th Edition with a bunch of gears glued on it to make it feel different.
Maybe I missed something in the lead-up to all this, but no one mentioned to me that the company was changing out the engine that ran the game, and which formed the core of what made everything else run. Because no matter what edition you're playing, if you want a 3.5 engine, you are not going to get those results running a 5E motor.
Folks who read my last post, 5 Things I Hate About Dungeons and Dragons 5th Edition, will know exactly how damning this next statement will be; I would never play this game over 5E.
For more of Neal Litherland's work, check out his gaming blog Improved Initiative, or take a look at his archive over at Gamers!
Picture Reference: https://geekdad.com/2018/03/pathfinder-version-2-0-playtest-anounced/
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