• Welcome to this new upgrade of the site. We are now on a totally different software platform. Many things will be different, and bugs are expected. Certain areas (like downloads and reviews) will take longer to import. As always, please use the Meta Forum for site queries or bug reports. Note that we (the mods and admins) are also learning the new software.
  • The RSS feed for the news page has changed. Use this link. The old one displays the forums, not the news.

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.

pf_cover.jpg



Background
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!

Overview
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!)

Screenshot 2019-08-02 at 00.06.39.png

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.

Characters
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.


Screenshot 2019-08-02 at 00.08.17.png



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 fets 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.


Screenshot 2019-07-30 at 23.22.09.png



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.

Equipment
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.

Magic
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:

mmhe.jpg


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
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.

Screenshot 2019-08-02 at 00.26.39.png

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.

Screenshot 2019-08-02 at 00.28.10.png

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.

Treasure!
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.

Screenshot 2019-07-31 at 14.41.57.png

Summary
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.
 
Russ Morrissey

Comments

dave2008

Adventurer
A volley of 12 arrows with average luck could easily take out a new party.
Any easy house rule is: it takes 2 (or 3) actions to load and fire a bow and arrow (with that is not already a rule). Unless the goblins are alert or hunting, they probably don't have an arrow ready to go.
 
Last edited by a moderator:

Campbell

Relaxed Intensity
So they actually do use 4e style defenses in some places. Grapple is an Athletics check vs Fortitude DC (10 + Fort Save). They just do not use it exclusively. The really cool thing to me is that because the same math is used for attacks, saves, spell DCs, and skills we get this fun variations where we can have these things interact with each other like the DCs for Diplomacy being built off Will DCs. This was something missing in 4e.

It would take phenomenal luck for that group of goblins to take out a standard PC party. The first attack is at +8. The second attack is at +3. The third attack is at -2. Even a wizard who did not put any boosts into Dexterity or Constitution has an AC of 13 and 14 hp. A goblin would be lucky to drop a Wizard who is putting nothing into defense much less a fighter with around 20 hp and an AC of around 18. The short bow only does a flat d6. Even if all three attacks hit (that's a big if) with average damage rolls even a Wizard would be fine. That also presupposes winning initiative which is a really big if when those goblins only have a +2 Perception modifier compared to the PCs who should be ranging +3 to +7 if they didn't dump Wisdom. Things change dramatically if a fighter gets in close. Also pretty much any successful attack from pretty much any party member will take a goblin out. Tickle them and they die.

I'm not saying it will necessarily go well for the PCs. Combat is fairly deadly and can be quite volatile. A critical hit and a high damage roll might even knock a fighter unconscious and send him right to dying 2. I personally like that there is risk involved, but the odds are definitely stacked in the PCs favor.
 

Ed Gibson

Villager
Any easy house rule is: it takes 2 (or 3) actions to load and fire a bow and arrow (with that is not already a hose rule)./QUOTE]

This is a brand new system. The issue was reported during the play test process. We shouldn't need to be developing house rules already.
 

FowlJ

Villager
This is a brand new system. The issue was reported during the play test process. We shouldn't need to be developing house rules already.
I mean, you don't need to develop house rules, since that would require this to be a real problem.

A goblin attacking a first level elven wizard (AC 15, HP 12) three times deals an average of 5.8 damage. They deal less than that to armoured party members, who also have higher HP. If three of the goblins dedicate their entire turn to attacking the wizard in particular then they will probably (but not definitely) go down, but the other three party members will be fine. The party then retaliates, most likely dealing at least as much damage to the goblins (who have less than half the HP of the average party member) and killing one or two of them. The goblins then have much less attack power to use against the still mostly full strength party, and probably get cleaned up in the next turn or two, with someone going over to fix the wizard at some point.

Now, the goblins could get lucky. They could all win initiative (despite their +2 modifiers), and then all all hit the party with all of their attacks, and then the party misses all of their attacks against the goblins, and that would probably go poorly. That is, however, extremely unlikely, and there was no real need for Paizo to do anything in particular to prevent it, because the vast majority of people are never going to have this experience.
 

dave2008

Adventurer
This is a brand new system. The issue was reported during the play test process. We shouldn't need to be developing house rules already.
I't was a suggestion for someone else. I haven't read the rules yet so I can't say. However, I always start with some modifications after reading the rules. There are some things that we like that no version of D&D ever has, so we always have to add them. I don't think we will play PF2e as we still have to finish our first 5e campaign (and we've invested 4 yrs!). I will however review for possible options or variations to add to our game.

EDIT: That all being said, if ranged attacks don't take longer than melee attacks, that is something I would revise.
 

Garthanos

Arcadian Knight
So they actually do use 4e style defenses in some places. Grapple is an Athletics check vs Fortitude DC (10 + Fort Save). They just do not use it exclusively. The really cool thing to me is that because the same math is used for attacks, saves, spell DCs, and skills we get this fun variations where we can have these things interact with each other like the DCs for Diplomacy being built off Will DCs. This was something missing in 4e.
Definitely an intriguing thing some things could in theory be done much better when they operate on the same scale.
 

Kaodi

Adventurer
This is a small thing but an interesting side effect of the boost system of stat gains is that it is pretty easy to "reclass" characters (a la some Fire Emblem games) by figuring what their stats would be without the final class boost, giving them a new class with the new boost, and seeing what falls out. Like I made a quick Nega Seelah by swapping her Champion +2 Str to a Sorcerer +2 Cha and going from there, and I got a cool alternate reality Angelic Sorcerer Seelah. Though she was particularly easy because she had the same number of skills with both classes and she already had, as a champion, the sorcerer skills her bloodline got.
 

CapnZapp

Adventurer
It really isn't difficult to implement in 5e but you have to make some choices in translating the 6 saves to three and what attributes make of up the three.
Erm... How about choosing Constitution for Fortitude (former Strength and Con saves), Dexterity for Reflex saves (former Dex and Int saves), and Wisdom for Will saves (former Wisdom and Charisma saves)...?

I mean, the point of having all six saves was to "activate" the formerly "useless" Strength, Intelligence and Charisma scores...

...so it makes sense to "inactivate" these three again when returning to F/R/W saves.

In particular, I would advise against the 4E approach (where you take your best score out of Dex and Int for your Reflex save, etc).

Cheers!
 

dave2008

Adventurer
Erm... How about choosing Constitution for Fortitude (former Strength and Con saves), Dexterity for Reflex saves (former Dex and Int saves), and Wisdom for Will saves (former Wisdom and Charisma saves)...?

I mean, the point of having all six saves was to "activate" the formerly "useless" Strength, Intelligence and Charisma scores...

...so it makes sense to "inactivate" these three again when returning to F/R/W saves.

In particular, I would advise against the 4E approach (where you take your best score out of Dex and Int for your Reflex save, etc).

Cheers!
Well we have pretty much decided to determine the secondary attributes (Fort/Ref/Wil) by combining the primary:
Fort = (Str+Con)/2; Ref = (Dex+Int or Wis)/2; Will = (Cha+Int or Wis)/2

The question is how do you assign saves (which really shouldn't be a problem seen we don't run official adventures). Str & Con saves = Fort saves; Dex saves = Ref saves; Cha saves = Will saves. But where do you put Int & Wis? We've generally accepted that Wis & Int saves = Will saves. But it seems odd to have 3 saves smashed into one save. Then we start to question does something that just targets strength really require a Fort save, shouldn't it be just STR? And so on through the rest of them. So the only thing we have liked is combining all of them, giving you 9 attributes and saves, which has seemed like more effort than we are ready to take on at the moment.
 

Mycroft

Explorer
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 absolutely agree. I have been involved since the playtest started, and I still feel it is one of the most byzantine, clinical, and dense versions of the game to date. This is the last edition I would attempt to teach to new players.
Though it is growing on me, it just doesn't seem that fun, exciting. I can't quite put my finger on it - I didn't get that feeling like I do when being exposed to the new rules of any other edition.
I really like the 3 action economy, but that isn't new, it's been a PF1 thing for a few years (Unchained RAE).
I like some of the monster design (marilith), and Perception no longer being a skill.
 

Saelorn

Explorer
After reading this, it appears PF2 is more like D&D 4.5. Interesting direction
It's kind of funny, but I thought that 5E was more like an evolution of 4E, while PF2 is still iterating on the 3E model. I guess it's just a matter of perspective.
 

Advertisement

Advertisement

Top