10 Things in Pathfinder Second Edition I Like (and 1 I Don’t)

In 2008, Paizo sent designer Jason Buhlman to the Winter Fantasy convention to sample the upcoming fourth edition of Dungeons & Dragons and report on the game. Paizo founder Lisa Stevens recalls the outcome. “From the moment that 4th Edition had been announced, we had trepidations about many of the changes we were hearing about. Jason’s report confirmed our fears—4th Edition didn’t look like the system we wanted to make products for. Whether a license for 4E was forthcoming or not, we were going to create our own game system based on the 3.5 System Reference Document: The Pathfinder Roleplaying Game.” See The Unintended Consequence That Ruined Fourth Edition D&D’s Chance of Success, But Proved Great for Gamers.

While fourth edition featured a bold new design aimed at saving D&D, Pathfinder became an alternative that refined D&D’s 3.5 edition. For a time, sales of Pathfinder rivaled D&D. But after nearly 10 years, Pathfinder needed an update. So in August 2019, Paizo released a second edition. In a post, lead designer Jason Buhlman named the update’s number one goal: “Create a new edition of Pathfinder that’s much simpler to learn and play—a core system that’s easy to grasp but expandable—while remaining true to the spirit of what makes Pathfinder great: customization, flexibility of story, and rules that reward those who take the time to master them.” Even new, Pathfinder 2 offers more character options than fifth edition.

On reading the new rules and playing a short introduction, I can share 10 things I like in the new game, and 1 thing I don’t’.

1. “Ancestry” instead of “race.” In the The Hobbit, Tolkien calls hobbits a race, and started the custom of referring to elves, dwarves, and other fantastic kin to humans as races. But the term “race” has a common meaning different from the game meaning, which leads to confusion. Referring to even imaginary “races” as intrinsically talented, virtuous, or corrupt feels unsavory at best. “Species” makes a more accurate term, but its scientific flavor makes it jarring in fantasy. Pathfinder replaces “race” with the more agreeable term of “ancestry.” Unless Wizards of the Coast resists an innovation “not invented here,” expect to see “ancestry” in some future sixth edition.

2. Fewer action types. The Pathfinder team saw new players stumble over the original game’s zoo of swift, immediate, move, and standard actions. In a bid to simplify, this second edition consolidates the action types into a system that gives characters 3 actions and 1 reaction per turn. This means even new characters can attempt 3 attacks per turn, although the second strike suffers a -5 penalty and the third a -10 penalty. In practice, only more proficient attackers will land extra attacks. Most spells require 2 actions to cast. When I played a Pathfinder 2 demo, its simpler actions proved very playable, even elegant.

In a related refinement, Pathfinder adds clarity by calling a single attack a strike. This avoids the confusion that the D&D rules sometimes cause by using the same word for an attack and for an attack action that can include multiple attacks.

3. Animal companions level up. To many D&D players, animal companions offer a special appeal, but the game’s support for pets remains shaky. Pathfinder devotes an entire section to animal companions and familiars, showing pets the attention they deserve. Rather than keeping animal companions close to their natural abilities, pets improve in lockstep as characters level, making them capable of staying alive and relevant.

4. A manageable encumbrance system. D&D measures encumbrance by pound. While this system seems to add complicated bookkeeping, it proves simple in play because everyone ignores it. Pathfinder measures encumbrance by Bulk, a value representing an item’s size, weight, and general awkwardness. You can carry Bulk equal to 5 plus your strength bonus. Bulk streamlines encumbrance enough to make tracking playable. (Plus, the system charms the grognard in me by recalling a similar rule in Runequest (1978) that tracked encumbrance by “Things.”)

5. User-friendly books. Paizo devoted extra attention to making the core rulebook into an easy reference. For instance, the book includes bleed tabs, and I love them. These bleed tabs don’t show how to play a metal song on guitar; they make finding chapters easy. Unlike typical tabs that jut from the page, bleed tabs show as printed labels on the page that go to the edge and appear as bands of color. The book combines an index and glossary into a section that defines game terms, and also leads readers to pages containing more information. Every game rulebook should include these features.

6. Degrees of success. Roleplaying games often include core mechanics that determine degrees of success or failure, but D&D only offers one extra degree: a 5% chance of a critical on attack rolls. The Pathfinder 2 system delivers a critical success on a 20 and a critical failure on a 1. Also, a check that exceeds the DC by 10 or more brings a critical success and a check 10 or more less than the DC brings critical failure. Pathfinder avoids the punishing effects that make some fumble systems too swingy. For instance, a critical failure on a strike just counts as a miss. Sorry, no fumble tables that lead characters to put their eye out. Where natural, fumbles and criticals affect spell saves. For example, a successful save against Gust of Wind lets you stand your ground, and a critical save leaves you unaffected.

7. The Incapacitation trait of spells. Save-or-die spells have proved troublesome in high-level D&D play. Campaigns that build to an epic clash with a fearsome dragon instead end with the beast helpless in a force cage and stabbed to death in a dreary series of damage rolls. Pathfinder gives spells like Force Cage and Banishment the Incapacitation trait. Creatures twice or more the level of the spell typically need to fumble their save to fall under its effect. To me, this beats D&D’s solution to the same problem, legendary resistance.

8. Character customization without decision paralysis. Fourth edition D&D focused on offering players vast numbers of character options. Players uninterested in the solitary hobby of character tinkering soon found the options overwhelming. For my characters, I turned to the Internet to find character optimizers who sifted through countless options and helped me choose. Pathfinder aims to give players room for character customization without forcing a bewildering number of choices. The system works by presenting character options as feats. At each level, players make selections from small menus of feats. Even first level characters of the same class can play differently, and they grow more distinct as they advance.

9. Skill DCs replace passive checks. Pathfinder dispenses with passive perception and passive insight in favor of Skill DCs, “When someone or something tests your skill, they attempt a check against your skill DC, which is equal to 10 plus your skill modifiers.” Often skill DCs work just like passive abilities, like when a stealthy character attempts to beat someone’s perception score. In the most common use of skill DCs, a sneaking creature would roll against a character’s perception skill DC.

Without passive perception, a game master must roll secret perception checks to learn if exploring characters spot traps. Passive perception aims to eliminate such die rolls, but I consider rolls to find hidden traps useful. Without a roll, DMs just compare set DCs verses passive scores. DMs who know their players’ scores decide in advance what traps get found, with no luck of the roll to make the game surprising. Skill DCs also replace opposed ability checks—a second core mechanic with skewed odds that clutters the D&D rules.

10. Limited opportunity attacks. To encourage more movement in combat, Pathfinder 2 limits the characters and creatures capable of making opportunity attacks. At first level, only fighters start with the capability. Opportunity attacks mainly existed to help front-line characters protect the unarmored magic users in the back, but D&D and Pathfinder make once-fragile character types more robust now. Opportunity attacks make sense as a fighter specialty, especially if that encourages more dynamic battles.

That makes 10 things I like. What do I dislike?

Pathfinder 2 features a proficiency system that leads to the sort of double-digit bonuses that D&D players last saw in fourth edition.

In trained skills, every Pathfinder 2 character gets a bonus equal to at least 2 plus their level. This steady advance makes characters feel more capable as they level and rewards players with a sense of accomplishment as their characters improve. “The best part about proficiencies is the way they push the boundaries for non-magical characters, particularly those with a legendary rank,” writes designer Mark Seifter. “Masters and especially legends break all those rules. Want your fighter to leap 20 feet straight up and smash a chimera down to the ground? You can do that (eventually)!”

As in fourth edition, Pathfinder game masters can justify the sky-high DCs needed to challenge high-level characters by describing obstacles of legendary proportions. At first level, the rogue must climb a rough dungeon wall; by 20th level, she must climb a glass-smooth wall covered in wet slime—in an earthquake. At first level, you must negotiate with the mayor; by twentieth level, he’s king. And you killed his dog.

At least as often as fourth-edition dungeon masters flavored higher DCs as bigger challenges, they just paired routine challenges with higher numbers. That tendency leads to the downside of such steep increases in proficiency. In practice, characters usually just advance to face higher and higher numbers for the same challenges. In fourth edition, a steady rise in attack bonuses and armor classes meant that monsters only made suitable challenges for a narrow band of levels. This may also apply to Pathfinder 2.

I favor fifth edition’s bounded accuracy over the steep increases in proficiency bonuses featured in Pathfinder 2. For more, see Two Problems that Provoked Bounded Accuracy.

Aside from these 11 things, how does Pathfinder differ from its sibling Dungeons & Dragons?

Gamers often describe Pathfinder as more crunchy—more rules heavy—than fifth edition. After all, the core rulebook spans 638 pages! But that book includes content that D&D splits between the Player’s Handbook and Dungeon Master’s Guide, and those books include almost exactly the same number of pages. In some ways, Pathfinder proves simpler. For instance, its system actions and reactions simplifies D&D’s action types. Still, Pathfinder devotes more crunch to describing outcomes and conditions. For example, in D&D, characters make a Strength (Athletics) check to climb, but the DM gets no help determining the outcome of a failure. Pathfinder describes outcomes: A climb failure stops movement; a critical failure leads to a fall. D&D describes 14 conditions; Pathfinder describes 42.

Without playing more Pathfinder 2, I feel unready to label this post as a review. Nonetheless, I like most of what I see and I’m eager to play the game more.

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16 Responses to 10 Things in Pathfinder Second Edition I Like (and 1 I Don’t)

  1. Scott H Casey says:

    Like your review, but I think a lot of your dislike of the proficiency system comes from a misunderstanding of the system.
    In the playtest, even untrained characters got a bonus equal to their level to a skill. In the final released version, that is gone. Untrained only get their ability score to the check. Additionally, the difference between each level of proficiency is a little larger now; increasing by 2 for each level.

    • Weylin Stormcrowe says:

      Came to say the same thing. That really makes a trained character at fifth level a hell of a lot better than an untrained one (+0 lbs +7)

    • Angelo Pantano says:

      “Like fourth edition, every Pathfinder 2 character gets a level-based bonus to even their untrained skills. In the case of Pathfinder 2, that bonus equals a character’s level.”

      This is not true, Untrained gives +0 not +lvl, can you please edit the article?

  2. Dante says:

    Many of the things you like are things I don’t like. Pathfinder 2 “feels” much like 4th Edition D&D did to me.

  3. Jack Dunker says:

    Personally, I really like the new proficiency because it gets rid of class skills. Just because I grew up a poor rogue doesn’t mean I couldn’t spend as much time reading scripture as a cleric right? The proficiency ranks also tie the various tiers to new abilities, like an expert in intimidation is allowed change people’s attitudes in combat and a legendary acrobat can perform feats like Legolas that even someone of a higher level with a higher total bonus but lacking the Legendary rank simply cannot perform the same feats.

  4. Tim Gerheim says:

    Do you think the good ideas are ones that a 5e DM could incorporate behind the scenes? Or at least, are enough of them cross-compatible that it might be worth getting the rulebook for that purpose?

    • dungeonHamster says:

      I first did the same thing and it worked great (especially the initiative rules), but eventually i copied so much over that we ended up trying pathfinder2 and have migrated over.

      Your player’s enjoyment correlates directly to how much they lile customization at level up.

  5. Shroom says:

    You spent seven paragraphs complaining about a feature that does not exist. Your proficiency bonus (as the name suggests) only scales with things in which you have proficiency. Please edit your review.

  6. Kevin Barnard says:

    I think it’s useful to add another legitimate complaint. #2 unfavorable aspect of P2 for me is the massive decline in art. It’s jarring after seeing all the fine iconics in the 1st Ed CRB

    • Sapphire Crook says:

      Agreed.
      The Besteriary cover doesn’t have any pop or contrast and they made Leshies look weird instead of the adorable lil scamps they were.
      In general the art looks just mystifying in places.

  7. NOLA Bert says:

    I don’t understand the current fad of being unable to distinguish between fantasy and reality regarding intrinsic racial differences. I’ll take it a step further. I have no problem referring to non-humans in fantasy RPGs as demi-humans. And I like the simplicity of race as class. I’d be perfectly fine with dumping racial modifiers AND abilities/traits/features if that meant I’d see less min/maxing and optimizing at the table. How many players would be happy if all races in a fantasy RPG had exactly the same modifiers, abilities/traits/features? Then the only reason to play a character other than a human would be for flavor and role-playing. At most 5E tables in my experience, the race that is least often played is human.

    • Kevin Barnard says:

      The commentary I hear all the time for 5e character optimization is “play a variant human”. If people you play with aren’t choosing v. Human, then maybe they enjoy the RP reasons for not being one.

      • NOLA Bert says:

        When people play humans at most of the 5E tables I’ve gamed at they play the variant. Humans are the race I’ve played the most in 5E games (I play in various home campaigns and in Adventurer’s League–I also like to play other systems like DCC and AS&SH. Prefer these last two systems over 5E to be honest). I’ve only chosen the variant human when I play human characters. I like to take a feat. But I take feats based on RP rather than optimization. Min/maxing and optimization by other players reduces my enjoyment at the table (one of the reasons I like DCC is that you can’t easily optimize your characters since character generation is random). I play AL mainly to get more gaming in, to be connected to my local gaming scene (where AL is popular), and to experience different play and DMing styles. Some of the mods can be a lot of fun. Other times, less so. The culture of my local AL scene is heavily min/max optimizers, so much so that when new players join, the min/max experts descend on them telling them how to build their characters. These same people often pressure other players on what optimum actions to take during combat, which ends up being the primary focus of the local AL games I’ve played. I can’t stand this style of play.

    • Peter says:

      Thank you.

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