Pathfinder 2nd Edition: The Devil is in the Details

Paizo announced the playtest for Pathfinder 2nd edition today.  For those who don’t know, Pathfinder is an adaption of D&D 3.5 made to be backwards compatible with its rules and have the same flavor in a time when many in the RPG community were unhappy with the radical changes made by 4e.  Pathfinder, often referred to as 3.75 or 3.X for its similarity, initially enjoyed great success at the expense of 4e but over a 10 year publishing cycle developed the same problem 3.5 had with proliferation of splat books, rules addons that were poorly thought out, imbalanced, or simply not well integrated into the game or supported, resulting in a multitude of confusing trap options.  Many of 3.5’s structural issues remained as well, with a magical item treadmill of + something weapons and armor that ultimately was negated by enemy scaling, and a power gap between casters and martial classes that often rendered the latter spectators and/or broke encounters.  In one campaign I played the DM quietly asked our shapechange wizard to reroll after he trivialized an encounter by casting Fly on my barbarian and ferrying the other party members over to the enemy ship by turning into a giant bat.

Pathfinder is also one of the first systems I played- I have fond memories of my Aztec barbarian Necalluah, and less fond memories of remaking the character because I tried to sub-specialize him into guns and effectively neutered him through poor choice of feats.  Ditto my Words of Power Sorcerer Acke- while a fun character I eventually realized after a string of defeats for our party that the Words of Power system was strictly worse than normal spellcasting in most instances and appeared to have been crudely bolted onto the system in an addon and then forgotten.  Still, though I haven’t touched the system in years, I like the breadth options Pathfinder has to offer- I particularly found myself missing templates when trying to design interesting encounters while running 5e.

In recent years Pathfinder seems to have faded as 5e’s star has risen, at least according to roll20 statistics; neither WoTC or Paizo are releasing their sales publicly so we are left with educated guesses.

Pathfinder “dying” is by no means a foregone conclusion but having experienced the system it makes sense to me that it is having trouble attracting new players given its complexity and the clunkiness inherited from 3.5- Paizo has been trying to move away from this framework with the Unchained rules but past a certain point it’s too much for one system to hold.  There is certainly room for improvement.

So will 2nd edition improve on the first?

The proficiency bonus and backgrounds, while not terribly original given that 5e did both, along with their emphasis on streamlining, make me think that Paizo has learned some lessons from how difficult Pathfinder could be to use.

Their reference to continued use of feat trees in the opening announcement makes me think they haven’t learned all the lessons they should, and how while complexity is a selling point for them too much of a good thing can strangle a system.

Pathfinder’s generous policy of allowing a wiki with most of its rules– while appreciated by me- in some ways exacerbates the issue with its complex rules, making them all available at once with little context, and while convenient for new players who don’t want to buy the books doesn’t change the fact that 5e is simpler, and sharing books within gaming groups seems to be the norm anyway.

Honestly, this will live or die on the spell and feat list.  Shifting to a 3 action economy changes how everything scales but the specific wording of spells and the sheer number of feats are the root of both Pathfinder’s caster supremacy and difficult complexity.  Pathfinder 2.0 can sink on this iceberg even if the rest of the rules are solid, and re-releasing Pathfinder with only the spells and feats streamlined and improved could fix most of what is wrong.

Personally?  I don’t think they can pull it off- Starfinder , Paizo’s recently released system, seems to have- admittedly based on anecdotes I’ve heard, though its not making many bestseller lists- gotten a lukewarm response, and Pathfinder has walked in 3.5’s footsteps including its problems despite 3.5 being well-explored by the time Pathfinder was released.  There is room for a good system that marries the ease of use of 5e with a wider variety of options but I don’t think Paizo will make that system.  They had the examples of 3.5 and 4e the first time around and didn’t learn anything from the Tome of Battle, feat taxes, or the proliferation of splats.  Paizo has a limited window or as 5e releases more source books Pathfinder 2e won’t even have more options, its main selling point.

I would be glad to be wrong- I think the success of Pathfinder forced WoTC to do better on the next edition, making 5e as strong as it is, but even if the balance issues are initially fixed Paizo has a strong incentive to pump out splat books for sales in the short term if they are selling complexity, even if it hurts the system.

I don’t think Paizo will go out of business or Pathfinder will go out of print- DnD has survived its share of business failures and buyouts- but I doubt it can recapture its status as the de facto RPG that Pathfinder managed to hold for some of DnD 4e.

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2 thoughts on “Pathfinder 2nd Edition: The Devil is in the Details”

  1. They’re really stuck moving forward. Change it too much and lose the existing fanbase, don’t change it enough and keep bleeding players to D&D and other systems. I was listening to the first actual play of the new system, and while the 3 action economy and their new handling for initiative seem worth a look it sounds like theyre keepsing the morass of situational bonuses that made AC a set collection game.

    1. I took a look at the playtest book when it was released earlier this week- I think the three action system is an interesting idea but the problems of feat bloat and taxes seem to have gone unaddressed, and their attunement system seems a poor idea for a system dedicated to stacking magical bonuses.

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