Review: Pathfinder 2nd Edition

Following the four month playtest in 2018, Paizo Inc has released a second edition of their Pathfinder Roleplaying Game.

Unlike the playtest for 5th Edition D&D, which was more of a series of concept tests, the Pathfinder 2 playtest was very much about testing the game, and was intended to balance the new edition. The final product of Pathfinder 2 is very much like the playtest product; while there are numerous small changes, the overall foundation of the game and its classes are largely the same. If you didn’t like the playtest, you probably won’t like the final product. And if you loved the playtest product, this is largely the same thing with tighter balance, refined rules, and better presentation.

For the unaware, Pathfinder was initially a very slightly tweaked version of 3rd Edition Dungeons & Dragons, released following the divisive 4th Edition. At the time, Paizo valued backwards compatibility with the wealth of 3e material already on gamer’s shelves, and resisted making many changes to Pathfinder. Despite half a decade of evolving game design, Pathfinder was still 3e.

And now, ten years after Pathfinder 1 and almost twenty years after 3e we have Pathfinder 2.

What It Is

The Pathfinder Core Rulebook is 640-pages, making it almost exactly the same size as the 5th Edition D&D Player’s Handbook and DMG combined. 

The book is full colour, with a textured background and big decorative coloured sidebar on the right that tells you what chapter you’re reading. 

The book is divided into a 34-page section on Ancestry, 166-pages on classes, 22-pages on skills, 16-pages of generic feats, 26-pages of equipment, 120-pages of spells, 26-pages on “The Age of Lost Omens”—an introduction to the world and setting—which curiously comes before the section on actually playing the game. Those rules take 40-pages, followed by 48-pages on Game Mastering, and lastly 87-pages of magic items . 

Also out for the ruleset is the first Bestiary, and an update of their campaign sourcebook in the Lost Omens World Guide as well as a GM screen and Condition Cards. Coming soon is a Lost Omens Character Guide, which is the first (of likely many) splatbooks, offering three new ancestries, and 10 archetypes (each likely with at *least* half-a-dozen feats) and the Gamemaster’s Guide, with the *rest* of the rules needed to really run the game (like monster/NPC creation). Shortly after will be a second Bestiary, and the 2e Advanced Player’s Guide will drop at GenCon 2020 with four new classes and 10 new ancestries!

Playtest Note

For this review, I’m going to try and focus on the product itself, and not really bring up the public playtest. While initially outlining this review I would observe things that had changed since the playtest and mark those as “good” or “awesome” based on how much they had improved, not considering if the mechanic itself was good or bad, which isn’t very useful for a review of the product.

Generally speaking, this product is a LOT like the playtest. Small things were changed and tweaked (language in powers, the removal of resonance) but the overall design of classes and the game is largely identical.

The Bar

In my review of the playtest I spoke (read: ranted) at length at what I would like to see in a 2nd edition of Pathfinder. Changes from that initial edition that would bring me back to the Pathfinder fold after abandoning it for 5th Edition and other game systems. 

My review and opinion of Pathfinder 2 will largely be shaped by if it includes or does not include:

  • Lighter rules
  • Optional Complexity
  • Optional Magic Items
  • Focus on Gameplay Outside of Combat

First, an overall reduction of the weight of the ruleset. Too often I felt less like a storyteller and more a puppet of the rules, being forced to conform my ideas to the game system: I wasn’t the game master, I was the rules’ servant. Because there was a rule for everything, system mastery was a powerful tool, allowing my players to “win” via the rules, leading to far more rules lawyering and arguing. 

Secondly, the complexity of characters was problematic. While I appreciate some players enjoy building, not everyone enjoys that; for half my players the mandated complexity made creating characters and leveling-up a chore rather than a reward. And planning characters, that doesn’t translate to fun at the table. That’s literally something you do between games. And because options equal power creep, and optimized characters destabilized the balance at the table, too much character complexity is detrimental to play.

Magic items are third, and were a big problem for my 3rd Edition and Pathfinder campaigns. The prevalence of magic items in those editions doesn’t really match any established fantasy fiction, and often reduced what should be wondrous and special items to just another element of the character’s “build”. And common magic items did funky things to the economy of the world, making it difficult to award extra treasure or rewards, and led to absurd elements like ogres with magical greatclubs worth tens of thousands of gold pieces.

Lastly, I’d like some focus on roleplaying and the personality or values of characters. Modern RPGs (read: those created in the last 10 to 20 years) tend to have some form of bonus related to the character: convictions in Vampire, values in Star Trek Adventures, personality traits in D&D, aspects in Fate, icons in 13th Age, duty/ obligation in Star Wars, Tales from the Loop‘s Problem, Drive, Pride, Relationships, and Anchor (phew), and so many other examples. Or even the venerable Plot Points, like in so many other narrative games created in the last two decades. 

The Good

The linchpin of the Pathfinder 2 system is the three action system. This was actually introduced in Pathfinder Unchained back in 2015, and is a relatively small tweak of the existing action economy of Pathfinder. While arguably as complex as PF1’s standard/move/swift system (being just a slight simplification) it potentially makes things faster by theoretically removing option paralysis and confusion. Rather than having to hunt through your character sheet for a minor or swift action, you can just use another action, such as moving a second time or making an additional attack. 

At first I was worried that the icons that drive the game’s powers would be hard to read or parse, but they do pop and are easy to distinguish, even in monsters. It’s easy to tell at a glance if a power is a passive ability or an active one that requires an action. 

The critical success/ failure system works with natural 20s and 1s. If you succeed by 10+ it’s a critical success, while if you fail by 10+ it’s a critical failure. But a nat-20 bumps the result up to the next degree of success while a natural 1 bumps it down. So even if you would miss on a 20, it’s still a success, or if rolling a 20 still only succeeds by 9 it’s a critical hit. And while you miss on a 1, if you’re skilled enough to just succeeded on a 1 then you don’t critically fail but just fail. (And, theoretically, if you’re so amazingly badass that even a 1 would be a critical success, you still only get a success.) It effectively maintains the “1” is a auto-fail while the 20 is an auto-success” but elegantly ties it into the new definition. 

The game has lots of decision points for people who crave that sort of game system and enjoy building characters. At first level alone you have six or seven decision points, all with two to four options. And you pick at least one new feat every single level afterwards. For players who don’t enjoy building characters, each class has two or three suggested paths that you can follow for levels 1 to 12 (however you still need to pick your heritage, skill, and general feats). These pre-planned builds—basically PF1 style archetypes but baked into the class—are each fairly diverse, and there’s some decent variety of characters that can be created, such as baseline angry barbarian, the animal barbarian that grows claws or fangs, or the giant barbarian that wields and over-sized weapon. 

Races are now called “ancestries”, dropping the mid-19th Century racist connotations. There’s an acceptable amount of lore on each ancestry, along with some roleplaying bullet points and common perceptions of those people. Each ancestry also has several  “subraces”, which are called “heritages”. These provide a mechanical variance, letting you customize what type of dwarf or elf you want to be. Ancestry feats are a decent idea, allowing you to expand natural talents and inclinations, and continuing to make your choice of ancestry matter after first level. Most of the later feats are reasonably well designed, improving your existing ancestry abilities or refining your skills rather than having you spontaneously develop some new ability. 

Both the ancestries and classes have their key text for new characters located in a side column, which makes finding those mechanics easy. 

Each class section also begins with a nice page telling you want the class does in each of the three varieties of encounter, letting you know what type of characters you can play with that class and how they can contribute. 

The disparity between the power level of linear fighters vs quadratic wizards is largely solved by removing automatic scaling of lower level spells and awarding fewer spells of each level. Also reining in the power level of spellcasters is the action requirement to sustain spells, which might also limit your ability to cast spells in future rounds. However, spellcasters have also been gifted slightly more effective cantrips that scale with their level, so they can continue to contribute despite fewer full-power spells. 

Additionally, the spellcasting classes also have “Focus Spells”, which are spells that use Focus Points rather than spell slots. These recharge after 10 minutes of rest, offering an additional power boost, making up for the fewer spells per day. Completely not coincidentally, there are a number of non-spellcaster feats that also have a once per 10 minute stipulation. These are basically 4th Edition D&D Encounter Powers presented without overtly calling out that they’re once per encounter, maintaining the in-world narrative. Really, they’re Encounter Powers done right. 

Multiclassing is handled through archetypes. You take a feat that gives you some base features and can then take other feats from that class, letting you pick their powers. Given the classes are basically packages of feats, this isn’t much different than gaining a level in that class. The initial archetype feats also give you a decent array of abilities, so you’re not losing that feat slot as a “feat tax” to build a character you want. 

The book has a quick summary of the campaign setting, which includes changes in the setting as the result of the last decade of Adventure Paths. I like that Paizo is incorporating the effects of their Adventure Paths and letting their world evolve. Also, the world of Golarion is something unique to that publisher, being what differentiates their game from any other generic fantasy RPG ruleset. It makes sense that they should tie Golarion into the game. 

There’s lots of decent art. The ancestors section seems to have a male and female individual of the relevant species in each section. And many of the pieces are full half-page scenes with a background and environment. There are fantastic locations and scenes of adventuring in progress, and significantly fewer images of a generic character standing mid-pose like they were caught in front of a greenscreen.

The art for the iconic characters was updated. (The sample characters of each class, who are seen in most illustrations throughout the product line.) Most are relatively unchanged save for small tweaks. The iconic rogue Merisiel is a little less busty, having less of a “boob window” while the iconic sorcerer Seoni has more clothing and a cloak. Pathfinder always tried to be more inclusive with less cheesecake art (and women in realistic armour), so these changes are appreciated. Similarly the cover of the book now features Harsk, the ranger; Kyra, the cleric; and Merisiel, the aforementioned rogue. The cover is now two women—one of colour—and a dwarf, rather than a generic white dude and scantily clad woman. If you know the character’s lore, you’d also know Kyra is gay while Merisiel is bisexual, so the cover is exceptionally diverse and representative. Nice!

The Bad

Ancestries have no base powers or features, apart from ability boosts, proficiencies, and vision. Everything else is a choice. There’s no unifying element common to all dwarves. Forge dwarves and rock dwarves might as well be related in name-only. Like walnuts and peanuts. And the Heritages are just a mechanical choice: there’s no flavour or world lore for a Cavern elf or Razortooth goblin. That choice doesn’t tie you to anyplace in the setting or bring with any additional story hooks or background details. Adding to this absence, later in the book we’re given descriptions of different people found across Golarion, including variant goblins, who don’t match the heritages in this book. Why are the PC goblins and the setting’s goblins unrelated? 

Half-elves and half-orcs as human Heritages feels off. As races don’t get base abilities, half-elves and half-orcs don’t really share anything with humans. They could just as easily have their own section, which would allow for half-elven Heritages based on elven subtype or who raised them. (Or just not have different Heritages: there doesn’t need to be an option and choice…)

Because the rules rely on icons, it’s easy for errors to creep in. For example, both the fighter and the monk have the feat Stance Savant, but it’s a free action for the fighter but a reaction for the monk. 

There’s no names for iconics in the book. They all have a story and personality that doesn’t exist in the book. Given the iconics are such a big part of Pathfinder, it would have been nice to include their lore in the book, perhaps as a small section of their full page portrait. Or even just their name…

The classes are basically collections of unrelated feats, with most (but not all) having a signature power at level 1. I’ve heard them described as “feat soup”. There’s a handful of small features gained at higher levels, but most of these just increase proficiencies. This design has led to a lot of generic feats just becoming class options options, often for fighters. Attacks of Opportunity is now their signature ability, but they also have Blind-Fight, Combat Reflexes, Lunge, Point-Blank Shot, Power Attack, and even Spring Attack. The fighter doesn’t have any more identity than in Pathfinder 1; instead, other classes just have options taken away. Wanted to update a beloved Spring Attack-ing rogue? Sorry, roll a Dex fighter. 

As shown by 4th Edition D&D, this style of class design is also a space hog. Every new “build” of a class needs 1-2 powers at every other level, for 11-22 new feats. And there’s always a demand for filled gaps. For example, there’s only four two-handed melee feats for the fighter, so that’s a pretty basic gap that needs to be filled necessitating at *least* 7 new feats, which is a LOT of mandated design that would easily fill an entire page. With each build filling two pages, a lot of space and design work is needed just to provide minimum support to a new option; even the multiclass archetypes need a full page and their feats are often only a couple lines long.

As non-skill feats are localised to classes, this often means some feats are printed in multiple places. I appreciate they didn’t just rename some options—like Blind-Fight or Quick Draw—giving us two almost identical options. But this is not universal, and there are options that are super similar, like Double Slice, Twin Feint, and Twin Takedown. (And since perfect balance is impossible, that means one of those will be the better choice and the other two nonoptimal.)

Given classes can share feats, it’s odd that all the class feats are located in the classes, rather than being consolidated in a larger feats section with a list of feats for each class, that way they wouldn’t need to reprint or come-up with doubles. Especially as that’s exactly how spells are printed. Making this even more contradictory, there are a number of options and class feats that grant spells, which are included in the spells chapter. Why the paladin-only feats are located in the paladin class section while the paladin-only spells—like lay on hands—are on the far side of the book makes little sense. It’s not like the Focus Spells are included alphabetically in the regular spells. 

Speaking of the paladin (now known as “the champion”), this class has become very reactive. It’s a tank class, defending allies and using its former “smite” abilities to hit enemies that strike at its allies. I dislike baked-in roles, and prefer players to have a choice in their party role. If someone wants to play a damage dealing striker paladin then the game shouldn’t tell them they’re wrong. Previously, the class was generally proactive: smiting and dealing damage when it wanted, so this is a pretty sharp change to expectations. Plus, with three different subtypes of champion (the paladin, redeemer, and liberator) it would have been easy to have one be proactive, one reactive, and one defensive. Let the player choose their role. 

Cantrips are confusing. They’re presented like other heightened spells, so a casual reader might think you need to spend a higher level spell slot to gain the increased benefit. The damage of most cantrips is also still pretty low. Wizards might still better off relying on a crossbow that deals 1d10 damage than using a cantrip that deals 1d4 damage, and only takes one action rather than two. 

I praised the inclusion of 10 minute rests earlier as “encounter powers done right”. Which I stand by, as phrasing them as requiring refocusing your mind or a break to muscles is better than calling them out overtly as being tied to Encounters. However, rather that using “Focus Points” they could have probably just said “you know the spell XXX and can cast it once without using a spell slot, and regain the ability to do so after you spend 10 minutes refocusing your mind.” And there are other more awkward examples, like the rogue’s Defensive Roll feat that doesn’t require you to catch your breath for 10 minutes, but just requires 10 minutes to pass. The 10 minute “short rest” just feels like a hidden mechanic, a minor example of expected system mastery in the book, and knowing that most characters will want to stop after every fight for 10 minutes. It feels like Paizo wanted desperately to avoid having overt “short rests” despite that concept being a part of the gamer zeitgeist for a full year before Pathfinder was published, 

Backgrounds are exceedingly minor, containing the minimum amount of flavour and additional options possible. They evolved from the traits of Pathfinder 1, but somehow contain even less design. They feel like a reluctantly included element, done out of obligation rather than to add something to the character. 

The core rulebook only contains class archetypes for multiclassing. The playtest offered others, but those were omitted. Possibly for space (it’s a big book). But it’s a shame there’s not even a single example of an alternate archetype to use as the baseline for homebrewing or updating existing characters. There’s still a lot of vestigial elements in the rule set. For example, Encounter Mode section still tells players to “Roll Initiative”. But you don’t “roll initiative” as that’s a Perception check now (you roll for initiative). Every single player’s first combat is going to involve them scouring the character sheet for an absent “initiative” box. Why not just say “Roll Your Perception” or even “Determine Initiative”? Similarly, the game also still has Ability Scores that go from 1-18 (and higher) with related modifiers. Dungeons & Dragons can’t iconic elements like “18 Strength” or “8 Charisma” but Pathfinder can. Its not like “rolling your Ability Scores” is even an optional rule. (Edit: Nevermind. There totally is. But one optional rule isn’t really a good reason to keep a confusing vestigial part of a different game system.) There’s zero reason to maintain the distinction between Ability Scores and Modifiers which just exist to confuse new players. Dump ’em. For a more dramatic change, the designers could have renamed Charisma as “Presence”, making it more clear what it represents. Or dropped Constitution and tied Fortitude saves to Strength, as no one makes Constitution a dump stat and there are no associated skills. (Of the iconic characters, everyone but the cleric has a Con of 12 or 14.)

The Ugly

The book makes regular use of specialized icons, with Paizo having a specialized font for those. Which is available for approved compatible publishers. But NOT the fans. So you can’t use it for homebrew monsters, NPCs, custom feats, or cheat sheets of powers. This is seriously unacceptable. Roleplaying games live and die based on the ease of homebrewing, and almost every GM eventually want to do some custom design. That’s how new game designers are made! I’m opposed to anything that makes it more frustrating for gamers to not only prep but to homebrew, especially since it would be effortless for Paizo to put it into their Community Use package and thus limit commercial use. 

Then there’s the size of the book. It’s 640-pages! At the peak of Pathfinder, when it was the best selling RPGG, the 1st Edition Core Rulebook was often called out for being so large it intimidated new players. And then they go and make the next one even larger! While it has been argued this is the same size as the 5th Edition D&D Player’s Handbook and Dungeon Master’s Guide combined this isn’t a fair comparison: Pathfinder 2 doesn’t move beyond player content until page 415 with some setting details. And arguably the “magic item” section is also player content, since Players will be crafting most of their gear. The DMG section of the book is less than 50 pages. And the Pathfinder 2 Gamemastery Guide with the rest of the GMing rules coming in January 2020. Plus… if someone is a player, why do they need those 50 pages of GMing lore at all? 

Pathfinder 2 needs to attract new players to be a success, and a giant, expensive, and intimidating tome isn’t a selling feature. 

While talking about new players, I want to rant about the fighter for a second. The fighter is often called out as the “newbie class”. The class just for people who want to hit things. But this wasn’t really true in 1st Edition Pathfinder, as the class had a LOT of choices in practice. In PF2 the fighter seems simple, not having the obvious build choice of the other classes. All fighters just get Attack of Opportunity. This is problematic for three reasons. First, what if you don’t want to be a tank? Second, one of the three fighter “builds” is the Archer, which can’t take advantage of its signature ability as it can’t make melee Strikes. Archery is a trap option. Lastly, the real choice of what type of fighter you are is the weapons you focus on. Your fighting style: sword & board, two weapons, finesse weapons, archery, a greatsword, etc. But realizing that takes system mastery as well as reading through ALL the feats to see which you should take. The game should have made the fighter’s choice of weapon their decision point, and had Attack of Opportunity limited to specific melee fighters. 

Adding to the problems with the fighters is that the class seems designed around resolving complaints regarding the fighter. Which seems like a good idea… except people often complaining most about the fighter were not fighter fans. They designed the class who the people who didn’t like the design rather than design it for the people who did! There are a lot of fighter fans who liked the idea of a simple character that just attacked and didn’t have a litany of options to memorize or sort through. The PF2 fighter has lots of feats and many give additional action options, so the fighter ends up with a large “hand size” of potential options usable each round. Which non-fighter players appreciate, but can disinterest former fans of the fighter.

Proficiency in Pathfinder 2 is curiously like that in 5th Edition D&D: being trained gives you a +2 while being legendary gives you a +8, so the difference between a master and novice is 2 points higher than in 5e. Which is fine, really. But the game also adds your level to all trained checks, which feels needless. It’s bonuses for the sake of bonuses. Bigger numbers that don’t really do anything since the DCs in the world and in the monsters you face all increase at the same rate. (You don’t even get experience for fighting monsters more than 4 levels lower than you.) The numbers increase, but you don’t really get any better. 

This just leads to one of my biggest pet peeves from 3rd Edition D&D and Pathfinder 1: the dwindling effectiveness of poisons and diseases. You need to continually have deadlier and deadlier poisons as old poisons cease to be effective. Rather than a single poison that paralyzes, you need a dozen of various levels. Arsenic is a level 1 poison but only has a DC 18, so the first level pre-gen wizard with his 14 Con has a +5 Fortitude bonus, necessitating a roll of 13 to be unaffected. Reasonable. But that same wizard at fifth level has a +10 bonus and needs to roll an 8 to avoid feeling the effects of a deadly toxin. And at level 10 that could be +15. Meanwhile, the fifth level pre-gen fighter is rocking a +12, and by 10th level they can just sprinkle arsenic on their morning eggs for extra kick. It’s silly. 

The game doesn’t even need to have 5th Edition D&D’s flat math to move away from the above wackiness. Page 503-4 has a table of DCs by level, used for things like rituals. Poisons and diseases could always be a Hard difficulty save of the character’s level. Heck, pair this with an expected damage-by-level table and even the damage of poison could scale to always be a threat. 

Which leads to another complaint. I could not find an expected damage-by-level table. Which is essential for GMing. I need to know how much damage is appropriate to have a trap or hazard deal to a tenth level PC. The closest is the environmental damage table on page 512, but that’s not set by level. 

Pathfinder 2 retains the magic item treadmill of Pathfinder 1. The adventuring party is expected to find no less than four permanent magical items before they reach second level! Over the course of a level 1 to 20 campaign, each character will find thirty-six permanent magical items. That’s a ridiculous amount of magic.

Magic items are also required for the math of the game, and there is no “inherent bonus” system offered. Magic items are very essential for martial characters to maintain their effectiveness; by mid-levels of the game, the majority of their damage will likely come from the extra damage dice of striking runes rather than their skill or ability. It’s not the PC that’s the hero, it’s the weapon. They’re just the tool the weapon uses to move.

Each class’ powers make regular use of “traits.” These are tags that reference bite-sized rule element or restriction. Common ones are in a sidebar at the start of each class, but not every trait is covered like that. Plus, it’s easy to overlook a key tag and not realize how an ability works. 

Having critical success and failure dependant on the degree of success inherently slows down gameplay. It’s not enough to know if you succeeded or failed, you need to stop and do the full math to determine the margin of your success to determine if it was a critical success or just a regular success. 

The book has a staggering 42 conditions! Pathfinder 1 only had 34, which already felt like a ridiculous number. Some of these conditions are just descriptions of real-world terms like “Helpful” and “Indifferent” without a firm mechanical effect. Or Encumbered, which is really more of a state of being than a condition: encumbered should cause a condition, not be one. I can’t imagine a spell or power causing someone to be “encumbered” rather than just be “slowed”.

The classes are exceedingly focused on combat, with precious few (if any) options relating to out-of-combat activities. And nothing related to exploration or social encounters in classes. This is largely the result if the feat soup design of classes: flavourful options (what Wizard of the Coast designers refer to as “ribbons”) work best as static class features that cannot be exchanged or swapped out. Which are exactly the kind of options Pathfinder 2 removed from classes, because if you’re choosing feats, an option that works only outside of battle is a trap option. It’s an option no one will take as it hinders their expected power level. This means elements like a ranger being able to survive in the wild or calm animals, the monk ceasing to age, or rogues knowing a thieves’ cant have vanished. 

There’s also almost no focus on roleplaying, with no system where the player can be rewarded for having some form of personality quirks or flaws that the GM can also employ to prompt roleplaying. The game could easily have tied Hero Points into some kind of Virtue or Aspect system. These kinds of systems have been commonplace in other mainstream RPGs since the 3rd Edition of Fate back in 2007, and predate Pathfinder. It wouldn’t even have been that hard to add a “roleplaying” mechanic. Pathfinder 2 makes use of the “Hero Point” system found in Pathfinder 1, which is tied to abstract “heroic deeds.” (However, the bar for “heroic deeds” is low as the GM is expected to hand out one each hour!) But it could just have easily been roleplaying elements. For example, champions have Tenets while druids and barbarians have Anathemas. Every character could have those, choosing their own, and when the character chooses to conform or act according to their Tenets or Anathemas, that could grant a Hero Point.

The Awesome

The index is also a glossary, which includes several basic actions including their icons as well as a description of traits and conditions. I really like that.

The bulk system for managing equipment is good. Much simpler than counting pounds, making tracking gear less onerous, but also not so simple that you might as well skip encumbrance altogether.  

As I mentioned earlier, the paladin class has been renamed the “champion” and now features a variable alignment restriction, with the Lawful Good variant of the champion being the paladin. I love this so much. It retains the concept of the paladin being the champion of virtue, but doesn’t lock people who enjoy that class’ concept into a set alignment and offers some variety. It also means we don’t need three or four variants of the paladin class down the line, as something like the blackguard could just be a champion subclass. 

Calling out two other classes, I’m rather impressed by the barbarian and the bard. The barbarian’s rage is a mechanic that D&D-esque games have struggled to get right for several editions. I think they really nail it here: Pathfinder 2 oddly keeps in simple, just allowing you to rage almost at-will, only requiring a 1 minute break following a rage to calm down. Not even the psuedo-short rest of 10 minutes. Meanwhile, the bard is an oddity, being a full caster (as there are no spellcasters in Pathfinder 2 that don’t get 9th level spells… or higher), but they have their own spell list (occult, which is an… adequate… fit for the bard, if I’m being generous). However, where Pathfinder 2 makes the bard shine is in their Focus Spells. Former class features have been added to this, including Focus Cantrips, like inspire courage or inspire competence. The bard can just do that at-will as a single action. The Pathfinder 2 bard can be a support machine. 

While discussing the unconscious condition, the game includes hard rules for when you hear something while sleeping. I’m not a fan of having “a rule for everything” and don’t see the need to codify every situation… but this is something that comes up often enough that having a rule makes sense. I can’t think of a single campaign where there wasn’t a nighttime ambush or encounter. 

Basic enchantments for magic items make use of runes, which can be moved from one item to another via a runestone. This is an evocative and neat idea that matches the fiction of magic items in a way that has been missing in D&D since… ever. It also allows you to keep a useful enchantment but upgrade to a different weapon… or potentially upgrade a well-loved weapon like the archetypal “familial longsword”.

As teased earlier, you don’t roll initiative in Pathfinder 2: you roll your Perception, which determines when you act. How well you spot the danger determines how quickly you act. However, this can be other skill checks if the GM wishes (in an uncharacteristic display of GM fiat in Pathfinder), such as a Stealth check if you’re hiding or a Diplomacy check during a social encounter. A few class feats imply Survival could also work. It’s a fun idea and a neat twist on Initiative. 

Goblins were added as an ancestry. Nice! This addition was hotly debated on the forums, as goblin PCs have the potential for being disruptive. They’re the Pathfinder equivalent of kender or Malkavians, and disruptive players are drawn to them. But Pathfinder’s goblins are so very iconic to that game it makes sense to move them closer to the forefront. (And really, disruptive players are going to disrupt anyway.)

The other new addition to the game is the alchemist. This is an odd choice and I imagine many Pathfinder players all had their own preferred base class that needed to be “promoted”. The gunslinger or summoner maybe… perhaps even the bloodrager or investigator. I don’t mind the alchemist, and quite like the implementation. Specifically, I like how this alchemist actually makes and throws the same alchemical items other players can buy, rather than their alchemical items being entirely different to all other alchemical items in the game. There’s some nice design work there.

The game has four set spell lists all the classes use: arcane, primal, divine, and occult. It’s nice and simple. The names are odd, given they could just as easily be called the wizard, druid, cleric, and bard spell lists. But I imagine this leaves room for the inevitable additional of new classes. (*sigh*) 

In a related comment, I love how the sorcerer isn’t tied to arcane spells. Instead, their bloodline determines the spells they have access to. That’s amazing and really makes the sorcerer far more interesting that just being the wizard with an alternate spellcasting system, while also negating the need for a “spontaneous cleric” or “sorcererous druid”. 

The resurrection ritual can fumble. Oh. My. God. Gamemasters live for the kind of shenanigans that can arise from an evil spirit taking over the dead body of a PC.  

Final Thoughts

Pathfinder 2nd Edition is almost retro. If there was a term for 3e OSR style play, Pathfinder 2 would be that style of game. It’s Labyrinth Lord for d20. (d20SR?) It streamlines and cleans up the rules while improving balance but doesn’t really innovate much.

Pathfinder 2 reduces the number of skills while removing skill ranks; it adds Encounter powers; classes are designed around lengthy chains of feats/ powers; powers with keywords and tags; monsters that don’t follow PC rules; bonuses that increase based on your level; treasure is awarded by handing out magic items of set levels. To say nothing of the heavy combat focus and tactical play that requires a battlemap. It’s all very 4th Edition… but 4e arguably done in a way that retains a lot of classic elements and curiously kills fewer sacred cows than 4e despite being far more able to make hamburger.

The game is a direct evolution of 3rd Edition and Pathfinder. But it evolves the d20 game system in a lot of the same directions as 4th Edition and Star Wars Saga Edition. Games that ironically predate Pathfinder 1st Edition. It’s an evolution of the game, but an evolution that could have taken place almost a decade ago. It feels designed in a vacuum, ignoring innovations of its competitors and rivals. Which would be problematic at the best of times, but is even more curious at a time when 5th Edition D&D has become the best selling RPG ever.

It’s also a dense system that requires a lot of system mastery. You need to know what keywords do, and memorize conditions, and keep track of specific jargon like “Step” and “Stride”, which are different things despite starting with “S” and relating to movement. This is not an easy game to learn. While arguably simpler (or at least more streamlined) than Pathfinder 1, it’s still one of the more complicated RPG rulesets currently being published. If not the most complicated in-print RPG. We’re currently in a time when most other roleplaying games have been moving towards narrative play (or even the emotional play of Nordic RPGs), when theatre-of-the-mind gameplay is a major focus as it enables & supports the live stream games that have become so essential for new player acquisition. 

All of the above is a pretty big feature/ bug. If you like complexity, everything I just said is probably a selling point. If you don’t, then Pathfinder 2 is probably not your jam. And that’s okay. Because so many other games are drifting towards the narrative end of the spectrum, it’s probably a good thing to have a big name game providing an alternative.  

Pathfinder 2 evolves Pathfinder in a direction I have very little interest in playing. It doesn’t fix or resolve any of the issues that caused me to burn out hard and drove me away from the game. It’s still complex with a lot of work to build character and ridiculous amounts of magical items without even an optional inherent bonuses system. And it encourages roleplaying and acting in character largely as much as Battletech or Warhammer 40k. In a world where 5e didn’t exist, I could probably hammer Pathfinder 2 into something playable with a barrage of house rules… but 5e does exist, so I don’t need to do all that work. 

But that’s just me. I’m sure there are lots of people who want a heavier game than 5th Edition and are unsatisfied with its character building. It should also appeal to D&D fans who are unhappy with 5e’s “rulings not rules” attitude and want a game with less arbitration and firmer rules. It should also appeal to many fans of 4th Edition who might be in the market for a new game. To say nothing of Pathfinder 1 fans who just want a little more balance, or desire a version of the rules that has a clean slate and far less bloat (at least for a year or so). Pathfinder 2 might easily appeal to all the above. And it’s certainly the go-to game I will recommend to people who want that kind of experience.

Shameless Plugs

If you liked this review, you can support me and encourage future reviews.

I have a number of PDF products on the DMs Guild website, including a bundle of my Ravenloft books including the newly released Cards of Fate and my FIRST adventure on the Guild, Smoke, Snow & Shadows. Others include my first level 1 to 20 class, the TacticianRod of Seven Parts, TrapsDiseasesLegendary Monsters, a book of Variant Rules.

Additionally, the revision of my book, Jester David’s How-To Guide to Fantasy Worldbuilding is on DriveThurRPG, available for purchase as a PDF or Print on Demand! (Now in colour!) The book is a compilation of my worldbuilding blog series, but all the entries have been updated, edited, and expanded to almost two-hundred pages of advice on making your own fantasy world.

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