• Michael Alves (The Sage)

The Gamer Sage Review - Pathfinder 2E RPG: Elegant and full of choices.


Pathfinder 2e is already out for quite some time. Time enough for me to be able to fully read it, and DM it’s enough times to see it in action, so I am now ready to make a review, one made with the point of view of a game designer, DM, and player.


I will not focus on the story of the world (Golarion), or the quality of the art, both are great but are not the point of this article. Here I will be focusing on the game design, rules, and mechanics behind this new edition, what I like and what I don’t, and why.


To better understand the game design behind Pathfinder 2E we need to first understand what the designer’s intention was behind it. Jason Bulmahn, Director of Game Design for Paizo, said in the interview for Mat Miller from Gameinformer[i], that he wanted a game that was easy for people to learn but that didn’t lose in-depth or richness. He points that the game should be easy to understand, but have many options for character creation. This concept of character options was so important to Paizo in this edition that it was one of the most emphasized features of their promotional video, which is named “Unleash your hero”[ii].


For Bulmahn, the aim was “infinite diversity of choice without so much complexity that it’s really hard for you to understand.” He points that he wanted to “re-engineer” the first edition to allow the game to emulate better the stories they wanted to tell, making it clear that the focus for his design was the players and the stories they created together.


To understand the design philosophy behind Pathfinder 2E we need to look at both what the designers are saying and what they are delivering. The new edition is based on a very elegant design for actions, very precise keywording, and a clear focus on giving players many options for character customization. As pointed by Stephen Radney-MacFarland, on his interview for the YouTube channel Roll for Combat[iii], the new edition drinks from what is most modern on game design, including the precise wording and exception-based rules that games like Magic: The Gathering developed and perfected upon on many years of work from its designers.

As the DawnforgedCast points on its video discussing Pathfinder 2E vs Dungeons and Dragons 5E[iv], “the language of Pathfinder is clear and precise, while 5e D&d is far more open-ended”. In DawnforgedCast opinion Pathfinder, 2E has more dept and more complexity than its competitor.


For Clave Jones from nerdsonearth.com[v], “Pathfinder 2nd Edition is a triumph. It is sleekly designed and impeccably displayed. It is flexible and it’s fun.”. In his opinion, the new edition is also recognizable, simple, customizable and flavorful, offering dept and options without complications.


Charlie Hall from Polygon[vi] points in his article that Pathfinder 2E excels in making combat less complicated by refining the rules of action economy, creating a game that is easy to learn and to run as a Dungeon Master.


So, it is clear that they achieved a clean and elegant design, without losing the complexity. But how they did that? Creating space for player choice!


The new three action economy system is elegant. Yes. But not only that. It is a brilliant example of game design! Where we before had the option to either move, do one action, or do a full-round action on PF1e, now we have to make up to 3 choices on our turn. This design opened the possibility for the designers to tune the game so that it is not always worth to just stay still and “full attack” the enemy. This opened the idea that using an action to AID, or moving to a better position, or even using a defensive ability could all be interesting choices now. This is reinforced by the fact the multiple actions with the “attack” keyword on the same turn receive increased penalties, making it much more interesting for you to look for something else to do with that third action.


When a system gives you a direct and clear answer about what is best to be done then there is no choice. Most of Pathfinder 1E fighters would try to full attack each round because that was the best action economy they could do, and it gets somewhat boring.


The new three action system creates an open space of choice where you can try to think outside the box and not feel penalized for not just “attacking” with all your actions. Maybe try moving for a better position? Maybe asking the DM if you can make use of any feature of the environment? Aiding your ally to hit his best attack? Or asking the DM if you can use your action to help protect the ally that is prone near you? The elegance of this new system is that it is both precise, simple and clear, and it also promotes better roleplay, as it opens space for people to try doing different things in combat without feeling penalized for not using all actions to attack.


In all aspects that I look at the new action economy, I see an improvement over the first edition of the game, and an improvement on most other RPG systems of the market. There is a very limited number of systems with such a good game design for their actions. It is clearly a more modern design, that drinks from concepts that appeared on Fourth Edition of D&d, yet make it very far beyond that, bringing elegance, gameplay and enhancing the narrative all at the same time.


The class design is another good improvement in this edition. Classes offer a myriad of internal choices, and as the game expands it will only grow more and more, making it possible to create characters from the same class that feel and play completely different. This is an important part of their class design; the choices are flavorful and they matter. Abilities are powerful and defining, and the choices enable you to focus on what you want to do.

There is still a very limited amount of released material for Pathfinder 2E, so obviously right now Pathfinder 1E still enables a wider array of choices, but as soon as we see some supplements, and maybe some 3rd party products being released for Pathfinder 2E, it will become clear how more powerful this new system is for character choice.


The process of character creation involves choices on all levels, and sometimes multiple choices on a given level. Between Class Feats, Ancestry Feats, General Feats and Skill Feats you have plenty of options already, and to make it even more open, the archetypes make the choices almost endless.


Yet, because they chose to avoid enabling multiple individual levels of different classes, since on Pathfinder you only level up on your starting class, from 1 to 20, the designers were able to make the classes flavorful from level 1, full of options, but still very balanced. It avoids the “necessary dips” of the first edition, like “2 levels of Paladin for Charism on Saves”, “2 levels of Rogue for Evasion”, and so many other dips that were “exploited” on character optimization because the game designers were forced to place cool abilities at lower levels to give the classes their initial flavor.


I was skeptical at not being able to multiclass freely at first, seeing it as an “easy way out of the problem” from the designers, but when I tested the multiclass archetypes it was clear that they had reached a much better solution. It is pretty easy now to make your Fighter learn magic and become a Fighter/Mage “gish”, then it ever was, and it will end up being a much more viable character than a Fighter 10 / Wizard 10 would be in the past.


The multiclass system works very well. Enables almost any concept you can think, and is endlessly expansible, as it will grow every time a new class is released, as well as when new class feats are made for a class. This is one of the examples that proves that what they said they were after with this edition is not just talk but is actually what they are actually doing, as this multiclass system is elegant, easy to understand, enables huge character diversity and does not cause “trap choices” that the old system did with multiclass. A new player can make an Elf that fights with sword (fighter) and cast magic (multiclass feat for wizard) and it will not be a bad character. If he did the same on Pathfinder 1E, he would need to know very well what he was doing to avoid making a very weak character.


Another interesting side effect of class design and multiclass that I liked very much is the removal of spells from the paladin (now called Champion) and the ranger classes. It enables you, for example, to play a headhunter, that knows nothing about spellcasting, and that cares nothing for nature, as a ranger, having no spells. And if you want your ranger to cast nature magic, just multiclass him with druid! The same for the champion, if you want him to have divine magic, just multiclass him to cleric. This is a very elegant change that by taking something away instead of reducing the options and the diversity of characters actually improved it! Amazing work from those guys at Paizo.


The class independent archetypes are also a feature I liked a lot, as I can see an entire group of players with a “Pirate” archetype being given freely in my table, for a very pirate-y game. I liked the concept because it enables characters to have something in common outside of just their classes. It does all that “prestige classes” did before, but way better, and it can be applied at lower levels.


The skill feats are another nice addition to the game. By separating it away from the combat-oriented feats you create space for the players to choose non-combat-oriented abilities to better distinguish their characters without costing combat efficiency. I liked it very much, but I fear that with the release of new material some feats with too much combat utility might start to appear. The designers need to be careful with that. (Also 3rd Party designers, please don’t create Skill Feats that give real, or even situational, advantage on combats, they will become obligatory or banned on most tables.)


The skill proficiencies, the overall proficiency system, and the scaling of the system is also another point that should receive great praise, as the system now works well from 1 to 20! The scaling is linear, but in a way that gives you an epic feeling of progression, as you can feel how powerful your character is at level 15 from where he was at level 5, and how he can now do checks that would be impossible for him before.


(I disagree with some critics about DC’s reaching too high values. For me, it’s the opposite, it is important that at level 15 my fighter can do things that are completely insanely impossible since he is now getting closer to the power of demigods. Fighters, Monks, Rangers, should do legendary stuff in par with what spellcasters of their level are doing. We don’t need real-life realism in high-fantasy, we need internal cohesion of story. A fighter can take many attacks from a 90 ft. long Dragon that weighs more than 150 tons, but can’t make a superhuman jump, or any other supernatural feat of strength or skill? Nonsense! Non-casters should scale, and having scaling DC’s is a good thing, as it creates uses of skills that are impossible at lower levels and doable at higher ones, reinforcing the feeling of progress and power.)


Pathfinder 2E Rulebook

Since I am a DM that often like to create very high fantasy stories, where players are traveling planes of existence and meddling in the plans of gods and planar entities, having a system that works well at the upper levels is great. Another point for PF2E.


The math of the game is solid, and the power creep is somewhat kept in check by the limits on the stacking of bonuses. We will see some power-ups as new material is released, as it is impossible for this to not happen, but I am pretty confident that Pathfinder 2E has way better systems, than its predecessor, to keep it all in check.


Still, on the topic of math, the new rules for degrees of success and degrees of failure, with beating the target by 10 being a critical, and failing the target by 10 being a critical failure was also something that was a great improvement to the game. It makes each +1 count, and no bonus feels wasted.


This new design also enabled save or suck spells to finally work! You can now have spells that petrify, banish or outright kill, and they don’t make for a worse game like they did in the previous edition. On Pathfinder 1E, if a player used a save or suck spell, either he optimized the save DC to make it very hard for enemies to make the save, and then they proceed to kill the big bad guy alone while the party watches or the enemy saves were too high and the player just wasted spell slots doing nothing, which was frustrating to the player. Spells with a binary effect are hell in a game design perspective, as it simply doesn’t make for interesting gameplay. But the Pathfinder 2E version of those spells work great. If the enemy makes the save, it still suffers some effect, your turn is not lost, if the save fails, it suffers a bigger effect, which is nice, and if they critically fail, they are taken out of combat. This keeps those spells being scary, as 1 on dice happens, it enables your wizard to threaten lower enemies with death rays, and keep your death ray relevant against the big boss of the adventure without making the whole party useless. It is the best possible design, the spell works as it should, gameplay-wise, on all situations on the way it should, and you can still have that amazing moment when the big bad guy rolls a 1 and just die, creating one of those memorable days at the table. IMO a huge game design improvement from PF1 or any D&d version.


Oh, and I cannot forget to talk about the scaling damage on magic weapons. Who had this idea was a genius! It finally made very powerful legendary weapons feel like a powerful legendary weapon. Let’s be real, a +5 Vorpal longsword on Pathfinder 1E is great, but give it to the hands of a peasant and it does not feel like the sword of legends. The weapons always felt much more like mathematical adjustments then really legendary items. Now your fighter hits for FOUR-TIMES the number of dices if he uses his legendary sword, then if he uses a common one. And if a peasant gets hold of his weapon, while it will not make him win against a much more powerful enemy, if he ever hits something with it, he will feel how legendary and powerful that weapon truly is. I liked it very much. (Ex: Peasant normal damage with a longsword: 1d8+0[4,5], on both editions. With Magic Sword, on PF1 Peasant Hits for 1d8+5[9,5], and on PF2 Peasant Hits for 4d8+3[21]!)


Now to what I didn’t like about Pathfinder 2E: Because not all can be praises.


First, monsters not following the same exact rules as player characters. On 3rd Edition of D&D they created a concept of transparency between monsters and players, wherein truth both followed somewhat the same rules, and you could easily add character levels to monsters, which was even encouraged and suggested for the intelligent ones. I liked it very much because it makes the world feel alive, and the player characters to see the world and themselves as consistent. Your fighter character can befriend an ogre and teach him how to fight like a fighter if you wanted, and the ogre would get a level of fighter, as any other person that trained to be a fighter would. I like the internal cohesion of the story very much, and I feel it is important that the rules of the world apply equally to everything, so I a saddened by this loss of this. I still hope that they will release rules that can enable back this transparency for the DM’s that want it. (Also, it was common in some of my games in Planescape-like Settings that players could play monsters, like a Vrock, or an Archon, for example, so right now I don’t see how it would be possible without major amounts of work on house-rule creation on my part.)


Another thing I dislike for story reasons is how easy HP recovery is right now. The new “wounded” system opened the opportunity for some meaningful consequences of combat to exist on the system, but then the designers made it so easy to remove this condition that it does not even really carry from one fight to another.


I understand that the idea was to avoid the chain of falling unconscious and getting back up again with healing, turn after turn. With the removal of negative hit points, the wounded mechanic was created to avoid players from optimizing healing by letting people stay at low HP. But the entire system was very close to create some meaningful consequence for dropping in combat, and instead, they made it very easy to be cleaned after the battle.


The way healing feels on current edition makes it hard even for gritty games with low magic to have real consequences on taking damage, as using the medicine skill is enough to heal very large sums of hit points.


I wish they had made taking damage more meaningful by creating a lasting consequence. If wounded needed one week of treatment, or high-level spells to be reduced, then you would feel like your character is “hurt” from that fight. It would be better to create interesting stories, so I disagree with the designer’s decision here, not because it is worse gameplay-wise, but because it could be better to create meaningful and interesting stories, as sometimes consequences are more important than non-stopping action. (I like to DM “Dark Sun” alike scenarios too, and healing, in most of those, needs to be hard, as it creates the tension and the feeling of “survival”. If only magic healing made things easy, it would not be a problem, but with non-healing magic being also so strong, it requires house ruling for scenarios where being hurt is important to the story being told.)


As a side note on this, they could make removing wounded, and recovering HP easy with magic, and very hard without it, which would enable the more “dungeon delving” style of play that does not want for damage to really be a problem from one combat to the next, without gutting the system ability to run more gritty or survival-focused games where getting hurt has consequences.


Another point I would have gone different then they did was with Vancian casting system. I understand that they want to keep the core features of the d20 system and that they are already changing so much that changing Vancian would maybe make it feels not d20 enough, but Vancian makes for a generally worse magic system IMO, as it does not promote the choice of actions, and feels too “gamey”. (I never really liked Vancian as an in-game story thing. All scenarios and worlds I play end up having a strange rule where wizards need to memorize things every day, and those things disappear from their memory when used. It’s an interesting scenario of magic, but it feels more like a corner case magic then what should all fantasy worlds be using.)


Still on magic, but now about multiclassing as caster, there is one thing that I feel doesn’t work properly, the multiclassing into spontaneous caster. It is objectively worse than on a non-spontaneous one, as the number of spells per day per level is only one, so there is no spontaneity at all. It makes no sense. The probable fix would be to simply add one more spell know per level for spontaneous casters. It’s something that is easy to solve, but that they need to take a look into.


And the last, and somewhat worse, the Shield Block. I really liked the idea, I liked the action, great design, but what about this current shield HP and DR scaling?! Either you get a shield specifically enchanted to have increased HP and DR or it will just break with one block at high-levels. They need to give some thought on this, as it makes no sense that a level 11 Arrow-Catching Shield will be broken in one attack of a level 10-12 monster. They need to make the shields HP and DR scale correctly with level, else it is great at low level, and later it is only useful if you get a shield enchanted specifically for it (Sturdy Shield). In a system where everything scales well, and most of the design is elegantly thought out, this oversight with the shields feels strange and out of place. (I can understand having to decide between an extra effect on your shield, or it being better at blocking. But the difference is so huge that non-sturdy shields are useless at blocking outside of low level. At level 11, breaking your shield to reduce damage taking by 6, and using your reaction for that? Bad.)


So, let’s resume it:


What I like:

  • Action Economy is great.

  • Well balanced Classes with lots of internal choices.

  • Skill Feats separated from Combat Feats.

  • Linear scaling of math, but with epic feeling.

  • Great multiclass system.

  • Ranger and Paladins (Champions) without spells as base, but can get it with multiclass.

  • Scaling Damage of Magic Weapons make high-level weapons feel legendary.

  • Class independent archetypes are better than prestige classes.

  • Degrees of success and failure are a great solution to save or suck spells.


What I dislike:

  • Monsters and players are not equivalent/transparent.

  • It is very easy to recover from wounds. Low consequences of combat.

  • Vancian Spell System.

  • Multiclass of Spontaneous Caster is bad.

  • HP and DR of Shields don’t scale properly for shield block usage.


Overall, in The Gamer Sage personal opinion, Pathfinder 2E deserves a 9.8/10, being easily the best system for the kind of fantasy games that I like to run or play. Easy to learn, with lots of options, and a very robust and balanced system. It left both its First Edition, and D&D 5E eating dust in the Gamer Sage personal opinion.


Now, looking exclusively as a game designer, PF2e is a big improvement on the already great game that was Pathfinder 1E. When compared with D&D5e, I can say that both are tied, with D&D5e maybe keeping a slight edge for being able to bring so many new players to our hobby. The guys at Wizards should receive many praises for that. In the future I will make a different article to clarify the strong points of D&D5e, and why it is an amazingly well-designed product too.


Yet, I will be playing much more Pathfinder 2E then any other system from now on, as it is by far the system that better matches my style, as well as being one of the most well designed. I recommend everyone to at last try PF2E as it is well worth the trip to learn it.


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References:

[i]Jason Bulmahn interview to Matt Miller, Game Informer. https://www.gameinformer.com/b/features/archive/2018/04/20/top-of-the-table-the-pathfinder-playtest-interview.aspx

[ii] Pathfinder 2E: Unleash Your Hero, Paizo YouTube Channel, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=I5EFrZZgxh8

[iii] Stephen Radney-MacFarland, interview for Roll For Combat Yotube Channel, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QINLBm5GSFY

[iv] DawnforgedCast, Pathfinder 2 vs. Dungeons & Dragons 5E, Dhttps://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lABhDVhg0r0

[v] Clave Jones, A Review Of Pathfinder 2nd Edition: Fast, Flexible, And Fun, Nerdsonearth,

https://nerdsonearth.com/2019/08/pathfinder-2nd-edition-review/

[vi] Charlie Hall, Pathfinder 2e review: Dungeons & Dragons’ biggest competitor comes into its own, Polygon. https://www.polygon.com/reviews/2019/8/1/20727563/pathfinder-2e-review-second-edition


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© 2019 by Michael Alves and my buddies from Arcano Games.

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