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Pathfinder 2E Complexity vs. Depth -- A Look Inside Pathfinder 2nd Edition

One of the biggest tabletop RPG releases of the decade, Pathfinder 2nd Edition launches today at Gen Con. Many of us have playtested it, others have watched streams and podcasts, but this is the big day. Here are my thoughts on the new iteration of this classic game. I'm assuming here that you're basically familiar with either Pathfinder 1E or D&D 5E.

One of the biggest tabletop RPG releases of the decade, Pathfinder 2nd Edition launches today at Gen Con. Many of us have playtested it, others have watched streams and podcasts, but this is the big day. Here are my thoughts on the new iteration of this classic game. I'm assuming here that you're basically familiar with either Pathfinder 1E or D&D 5E.


Before I start this look at the Pathfinder 2nd Edition core rulebook, let me explain my background so that you can contextualize it. I was a big fan of D&D 3E and 3.5 back in the early 2000s and ran two multi-year campaigns with that ruleset (one being Age of Worms from Paizo). When the D&D 4E/Pathfinder edition war happened, I ran one long 4E campaign (our own War of the Burning Sky adventure path). After that, I played through the Kingmaker AP for Pathfinder as a player, ran a couple of D&D 5E storylines (loved Strahd!), and I've run about half the Pathfinder 2E playtest but having received my pre-ordered copy of the materials after they were on store shelves, struggled to keep up with the pace and eventually bowed out.

Going in to this: I was a fan of the 3.x ruleset, but felt a little left behind after a while with PF1 in terms of system mastery, rules boat, and setting lore. I didn't get on super-well with the playtest, so I was slightly wary as I opened this book. On the other hand, I do enjoy a bit of crunch in my games. A new jumping on point, you say? Let's take a look!

There are two important concepts to keep in mind when looking at this game: the difference between complexity and depth. I'd like to quickly define them as I use them, just in case your definitions are different. To me, complexity arises from multiple subsystems or different rules, or complicated rules. Depth, on the other hand, resides in the options and available customization. These two things can exist independently, and for me a game works best when it has low complexity but high depth.

The short version of this review: I think Paizo have pulled that off. Compared to PF1, they have reduced complexity. Compared to, say, D&D 5E, they have more depth. I would say that this game is about as complex as D&D 5E, but with more depth. The rules are more standardized than they used to be, but you have important choices at all stages of character development. If you don't want read this big wall of text of a review -- I like it, and it scratches an itch for me. I'm pretty sure I'll run it soon.

I find it amusing that Pathfinder 2nd Edition has the exact same page count as D&D 5th Edition. I don't know if that's a coincidence, some artifact of printing scales, or an inside joke at Paizo, but the Pathfinder 2E core rulebook is 640 pages, while the equivalent content, D&D's PHB plus DMG, is 639 pages. Basically, if you take the PHB and the DMG and smoosh them into one hardcover, it's the exact same size as the Pathfinder 2E core rulebook. Like, uncannily so.

Sticking with format, the edge of every right-hand page has a useful 'bar' which shows you where in the book you are. It's a big book, and this really helps with navigation (though I feel maybe adding each section's page number would help? Or maybe that would look too cluttered. Not sure!)

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The game now formally codifies some things which were not explicit in the original: the mechanics are divided into three "modes", namely encounter (rounds), exploration (freeform), and downtime (daily). And Golarion is officially the core, default setting and baked into the core rulebook, although under the pen-name of Age of Lost Omens. I don't know much about Golarion or the Forgotten Realms myself (I know FR has a Drizzt in it), and I'm not really a settings guy, but all of Paizo's adventure paths take place in that setting, so the chapter is useful.

So, let's look at the rules, starting with character creation. A character is built out of feats, which are chosen from lists granted by ancestry (what was once 'race'), background, and class.

At each stage you get a choice of from two to about six feats -- for example, if you choose the dwarf ancestry, you choose one of six feats at first level, then one at 5th, 9th, 13th, and 17th. The effect of this is that any two dwarves are not the same; ignoring the heritages (basically 'sub-races') which grant minor tweaks like fire or poison resistance, a dwarf is going to choose between the familiar stonecunning, or something like dwarven ore, rock runner, unburdened iron, and so on. And this is what I mean by depth v. complexity: it's easy (you are just choosing one of six feats) but it's deeper (you have more customization to your race); plus you become more like your race as you go up in levels and get more of those race feats. Your ancestry keeps being important. You become more and more dwarfy.

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The races are the standard list you'd expect; plus a goblin. Each race has a handful of heritages (sub-races), and half-orc and half-elf are now human heritages.

Moving on to classes, again we're looking at a fairly typical list. The Paladin is now a "Champion", and each class has some sample builds such as the Rogue Scoundrel, or the Ranger Archer. Like with race, you have a free choice of class feats from a list presented in that class -- the Alchemist, for example, has a choice of three at 1st level, three at 2nd level, and again at 4th, 6th, etc. This means that your Alchemist will differ from your friend's Alchemist. Low complexity (you're just choosing from a short list of feats again) but high depth (two characters of the same class can be customized by a choice of three options every other level).

There are other bits -- archetypes (used to pseudo-multiclass) and backgrounds (each gives ability adjustments, skills, and a feat) which customize your character a little more.

Feats & Skills
As with previous editions of both Pathfinder and D&D, this game features the expected skill list. It's familiar ground; each iteration of the d20 engine has a similar list, with some tweaking. In this case we have a list of 17. PF1 and D&D 3.x had skill ranks which went from 0 upwards (a bard character in my Age of Worms D&D 3E campaign was rolling something like +40 on Use Magic Device by the end of the campaign). D&D 5E simplified that to a binary skill proficiency - you're proficient, or you're not. Pathfinder 2E takes a middle ground - there are five skill levels called untrained, trained, expert, master, legendary. Some skill uses require a certain skill level, and can give access to certain skill feats (there's feats again!)

I keep talking about feats. There's a reason for that. Feats are the core of the game's depth: everything is a feat. Race feats, class feats, archetype feats, skill feats, general feats. You can very much customize your character with your choice of feats. At each level you'll be choosing one or more feats. These are literally on the character sheet, so you can see them, and simply fill in the box. That character sheet isn't pretty, but its very functional. You can see them below -- the character sheet tells you what feats you are choosing at any given level and - more importantly - while the game has a lot of feats in it, at any given time you're choosing from a short list. At 5th level, you get an ancestry feat, but you're only choosing from a small handful for your race at that level.

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It's easy to think that a game with a thousand feats is too complex. It's not. You never have to choose from a thousand feats; you're always choosing from a short list for that level of ancestry, class, skill, or what-have-you. Low complexity. High depth.

Like all games of its ilk, PF2 has an equipment chapter. Pathfinder delves into equipment in more detail than its main competitor, but it's not onerous -- about 25 pages of the book. It's mainly familiar ground, with some structural differences -- equipment has a level which defines how hard it is to make, and encumbrance is measured in an abstract value called 'bulk' which takes into account size and weight. Then we have the usual lists of armor, shields, weapons, and gear, including alchemical stuff, animals, services, and so on. When I ran the playtest last year, I struggled with the sheer volume of keywords in the game - especially when they sounded similar, like a weapon that was deadly or fatal (aren't they all?), finesse or agile, and this hasn't changed; it's something which will come naturally with familiarity, I'm sure. Overall, though, this chapter is pretty much what you'd expect.

So, spells. Magic is a BIG part D&D and Pathfinder, and this book is no exception. You know when you buy a D&D descendant what you're getting into: a big 120-page chapter full of spells. Many you'll be familiar with -- your magic missiles and fireballs and walls of stone and so on. We have lists of spells for four magical traditions -- arcane and divine, plus primal and occult. These four big lists tell you which classes get access to them (wizards cast arcane spells, bards cast occult spells, druids cast primal spells, and so on), and each of the many, many spells listed in the book is tagged with one or more of those four lists.

The schools of magic are familiar, and Vancian magic is still king. Vancian magic has been D&D's core 'fire and forget' spell slot system since the 1970s, based on the books of Jack Vance. So what's changed?

For a start, we now have 10 spell levels (plus cantrips) rather than the traditional 9. All four lists go up to 10, and that top level contains the heavy hitters like wish, gate, time stop, and cataclysm. Generally speaking, you'll only ever have one 10th level spell slot, although there is a way to get a second. You can 'heighten' spells by putting them in a higher level spell slot, and each spell has a little list of what benefits that gives you - usually it's a numerical or damage increase, but other times it's an upgrade in functionality - a 1st level detect alignment, for example, indicates the presence of but not location or strength of aligned auras. If you heighten it to 2nd level, however, you get each aura's location and strength, too.

Most spells take between 1-3 actions to cast (more on the 'three-action economy' later), and this is depicted by a nifty little icon in the spell description. 2 actions seems to be the default, some like guidance take a quick single action, and some vary depending how you use the spell - magic missile is one action per missile, heal increases its range and area depending on how many actions you use, and so on. Others take minutes or longer. Here's magic missile and heal, as an example:


The Core Rules
Pathfinder has a reputation for having a lot of rules. This is where a lot of work has been done. Rather than many subsystems, or weird ways of doing different things, Paizo has streamlined the game here; going back to my theme of reduced complexity, this is the obvious area you'll see the effects. Anybody familiar with d20-based games knows that a check or attack is a d20 plus modifiers to beat a target number, and this hasn't changed, though the actual numbers are slightly different (skills have a limited tier of modifiers rather than running from 0 to infinity).

Sadly, the many itty bitty modifiers are still in there (I love D&D's advantage/disadvantage system, though I recognise it's lack of granularity), but Paizo has done something interesting here: all checks, whether an attack, a save, or a skill check, have four degrees of success baked into the core. You can critically succeed (beat the target by 10+), succeed, fail, or fumble (miss the target by 10+). Many activities tell you exactly what happens in those situations. Let's look at a couple of examples:

Skill Check using Acrobatics to balance:

  • Critical Success You move up to your Speed.
  • Success You move up to your Speed, treating it as difficult terrain (every 5 feet costs 10 feet of movement).
  • Failure You must remain stationary to keep your balance (wasting the action) or you fall. If you fall, your turn ends.
  • Critical Failure You fall and your turn ends.

Saving against the 5th level banishment spell:
  • Critical Success The target resists being banished and you are stunned 1.
  • Success The target resists being banished.
  • Failure The target is banished.
  • Critical Failure The target is banished and can’t return by any means to the plane it’s banished from for 1 week.
You'll see this all throughout the book, whatever the activity.

Combat has had quite an overhaul. It's faster now, and a little more tactical. I feel like characters are making meaningful choices more often, but from our playtests, I really did feel it ran quicker. Time will tell with big convoluted encounters and high-level stat blocks, of course, the latter of which Pathfinder is famous for.

Notably, there isn't a big section called "Combat". The section is called "Encounter Mode".

Combat begins with Initiative, as always. Initiative has been tweaked here; instead of rolling d20 plus a dex modifier, instead you are making a skill check. The fun part is that it's not always the same skill check -- often it will be Perception, but a sneaky rogue might be rolling Stealth, and sometimes you might even be rolling a Diplomacy check! Even if you don't play PF2E, use this in your d20 game, whatever it is.

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Each character gets three actions, in what people are calling the new "three-action economy". This is a big change. Any given activity takes between 1-3 actions (most are one action, spells are often 2-3, and so on). You could move three times, move and attack twice, attack and then move then cast a 1-action spell, or whatever you like. Available actions are listed, and include things like Aid, Crawl, Ready, Seek, Step, Take Cover, and more. Something those who played the playtest will recall, and which is still in, is the choice to take an action to Raise A Shield in order to gain an AC bonus until your next turn; this initially sounds fiddly and extra complication where it's not needed... but it's not. It works. Everyone I played with reported that it made it feel like their shield was a thing, not just a static bonus on their character sheet, and that its use was a defensive choice (after all, you could use that action to attack or move). It's a little innovation which adds far more to the game than it has any right to do.

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What happens when you die? Well, you can't go below 0 hit points. At that stage you gain the "Dying" condition, which has four levels. Each round you roll to see if you get better or worse, and if you get to Dying 4 you're dead. If you do recover, you gain the Wounded condition, which adds to future Dying values - so you can't keep bouncing up and down; it'll catch up with you. Other than that, you have a fairly standard set of conditions - blinded, fatigued, invisible, and so on.

Game Mastering
This 40-page section of the book is part GM advice, and part collection of miscellaneous rules. Here you'll find the rules for environments, hazards, natural disasters, and traps. You'll also see mechanical advice on appropriate rewards, setting difficulty classes, and using the different modes of play. And, of course, information on how to plan a campaign, create a welcoming environment (there's a sidebar which calls out X-Cards as a veil, and a section on dealing with objectionable content, with a description of what the game's assumed "baseline" is -- PCs don't torture, rape, own slaves, harm children, and so on). It's a useful chapter, although it feels a little eclectic; a grab-bag of stuff that doesn't quite fit elsewhere.

No d20 game is complete without a big list of magic items, and those familiar with PF1 or D&D will recognise many of these. Interestingly, this chapter is actually called "Crafting & Treasure"; 3.x and PF always had a crafting element to magic items, and PF2 is no exception. It's one thing that 5E studiously avoids.

So, in addition to pages and pages of wands, potions, amulets, and other assorted magical items (the categories have actually changed a bit) we have a big section on crafting items. You can make things out of special materials like darkwood or cold iron, and you make them magic by etching runes on them - runes like Invisibility, Dancing, Thundering, Vorpal, and so on. There's also a section on crafting snares (simple traps).

That Character Sheet
The character sheet is not a pretty sight. It looks like a tax form, and I feel like it alone could put people off this game. But it IS functional. The feats section pretty much tells you what you need to know about the game: you start by looking at it and saying "ten million feats!" but then you realise you're just picking a couple from a different short list each time, and the character sheet tells you when you do that. It's much more manageable than you might think at first. I can see why people might balk at this sheet, but I'm sure that fans will create dozens of pretty ones within hours of the game's release.

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This was always going to be a tricky launch. Somehow Paizo has to keep the fans of PF1E on board, many of whom are veterans of the D&D 3.x games, switched over when 4E was released and are naturally invested in that system by definition; but the game has reached peak bloat, the engine is 18 years old, and its cracks are really showing. Is that even possible?

For me personally, they pulled it off. They have reduced complexity AND increased depth. I know I keep saying that, but that's the thing I keep coming back to and it's the theme of this article.

Is it perfect? No. It's too keyword heavy for my tastes (requiring a lot of "what does 'deadly' mean?" at the table), and that requires time to gain mastery in. I feel that, if anything, would be the barrier to new gamers. Also, there's still lots of those little +1 or +2 modifiers or penalties which I find too finicky.

But it is good. It's a really good evolution of the d20 system. It's modern game design, with heritage. And it feels weighty in a "reliable" not a "cumbersome" way. Is it D&D 5E? No. Is it D&D 4E? No (although the monster stat blocks do remind me of that game in terms of layout). It is neither of those things. It's very much Pathfinder 2E. Of course, there are some general design principles which are found in most modern RPGs, some of which 5E and 4E created and others which they adopted from elsewhere, and you will see the edges of the Venn diagram overlap with Pathfinder 2E, but it would be a mistake to think it's not its own game.

So who's it for? If you're a new player, it may be a little intimidating as a first game, but the complexity is about on par with D&D 5E. If you're a 5E player, it has some extra depth where 5E leans more into the storytelling, and might scratch that itch for a little more mechanical heft and character customization. If you're a Pathfinder 1E player, it's more difficult -- it depends on how invested you are in that system, and I'm not yet clear on the level of backward compatibility.

Things I personally struggled with:
  • Lots of keywords. I'll be looking up the difference between deadly, dangerous, fatal, and mildly-ouchy weapons for a while (OK, I made two of those up); I'm sure the designers are thinking "What? But that's so simple!" and I am sure it is after a bit of play.
  • Lots of small +1 modifiers.
The people I think would like this game are those who, like me:
  • Like Pathfinder 1E but would like a more modern, streamlined play experience than the aging 3.x engine
  • Like D&D 5E but would like a bit more mechanical depth
  • Were intimidated by the sheer volume of Pathfinder 1E material and are looking for a jumping-on point
  • Want to customise their character more
I wasn't sure going in, but I think this is a better game than its predecessor and scratches an itch for mechanical depth. I'm going to run it.

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Wait 6 months and see if paizo’s release schedule triples the amount of feats to how fast they increased them in PF1....that was the tipping point to ruining my fun in that edition.
I still plan on flipping through it at the comic store, much like i did with 5e and saw I liked 5e more than PF1 at that point of my gaming preferences at the time. I’m still enjoying 5e now so no impulse buy to try out the new thing but I’m sure I’ll check it out given time.


Interesting review Morrus - thank you! I will say that I am not sold on the idea that it has a similar amount of complexity to 5e but more depth (using your definitions). Just from your description there are a couple areas that are clearly more complex than 5e. I'm not saying that is a bad thing, but it definitely appears to be a thing. I do think the added depth sounds interesting and I have wanted to have a system that relied on training (feats & skills) more than leveling (features in 5e speak). That being said I don't like the idea of gaining ancestry feats as I level. I don't want to continue to get more "dwarfy" as I level, I want to be dwarfy to begin with. But maybe that is just me. Again, thank you for the review, I will probably pick up the PDF at some point and see for myself.


Choosing feats isn't the real issue in the complexity issue. It's the number of them on the sheet and how they impact play. if they are just passive "always on" bonus.l, it's not usually a big issue. if it is an active, I need to.reference the rulebook feat, that is where the depth makes things complex and play bogs down. It's not different than having a ton of spells. writing titles down is.not a big deal. Knowing how they all work without having to read the description every time you use them is the trick


Interesting review Morrus - thank you! I will say that I am not sold on the idea that it has a similar amount of complexity to 5e but more depth (using your definitions). Just from your description there are a couple areas that are clearly more complex than 5e. I'm not saying that is a bad thing, but it definitely appears to be a thing. I do think the added depth sounds interesting and I have wanted to have a system that relied on training (feats & skills) more than leveling (features in 5e speak). That being said I don't like the idea of gaining ancestry feats as I level. I don't want to continue to get more "dwarfy" as I level, I want to be dwarfy to begin with. But maybe that is just me. Again, thank you for the review, I will probably pick up the PDF at some point and see for myself.

I completely agree about ancestry feats. I'm surprised they kept them from the playtest, as I recall them not being popular, but also the are altogether illogical. Gaining more advanced skill in one's profession, which is what leveling represents, should have no bearing whatsoever on how much a member of a species one is. This is probably the biggest example of dissociated mechanics I've seen thus far, but it really jumps out at me. There's a term I didn't think I'd have to pull out again, but there it is.


Seems laid out better than the playtest but same problems. Not a fan of ancestry term or the feats.

I can at least see why they did it as racial feats in 4E and 5E feats are competing with other feats.

I'll buy the PDF but I no longer have my group from 10 years ago and newcomers will struggle IMHO.

On the plus side it will probably play better than it looks, the playtest was fun once you figured the basics out.


I played a lot of 3x back in the day, and PF by extension (during the 4e Age of Darkness). I get why so many hated all of PF's "feat bloat" and other complexities. It seems like PF2 has ramped up a lot of that by turning All class and racial features into feats. I know, I know, it "makes everything more customizable"; but when I think of an elf, or a dwarf, or a paladin, or a (fill in the blank), there are certain things that come to mind. Some features are just expected; and while customizability is good, there is nothing wrong with some things that are always the same. Elves and dwarves see in the dark, etc. Paladins smite and heal.

Since playing 5e, I've come to appreciate how streamlined it all is. It has a great balance of simplicity and detail. When it comes to PF2, I will most likely be looking for ideas to bolt onto (or replace within) my hybrid 5e/OSR-ish game. Good ideas are good ideas, wherever they come from.


One thing I do like with the racial feats is the customization. A lot of 5E races have a bit of everything and a lot of features are useless eg Mountain Dwarf weapon and armor proficiencies. By that I mean any class the Dwarf will be good at already has those armored and weapons.

It's kind of what makes 5E half elves and variant humans so good.

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