Pathfinder: all the tools

Ben Potts

Pathfinder: all the tools
July 23, 2020 Ben Potts

In the world of tabletop roleplaying games, Dungeons & Dragons is king. However, there are plenty of alternatives out there.

Just what is Pathfinder, you might wonder? You’ve heard your tabletop roleplaying game-obsessed friend talk about it, and you’re pretty sure they’re not referring to the long-running Nissan utility vehicle. Just what is Golarion? You don’t want to mix it up with the Galarian region of the newest Pokémon games. The Pathfinder tabletop roleplaying game (TTRPG) and its home setting of Golarion, despite struggling for name recognition, are strong alternatives to the cultural powerhouse of Dungeons & Dragons (D&D) and its classic fantasy world of Faerûn.

Pathfinder was, in fact, born out of D&D. The producing company, Paizo, used to work with Wizards of the Coast (WotC) during the well-loved 3.5 Edition of that game, producing its magazine. When WotC moved on to 4th Edition, the folks at Paizo were concerned with some of the restrictive licensing rules around the new version and made their own game, intended to be backwards-compatible with 3.5. Pathfinder spruced up some of the more lacklustre elements of 3.5, while still allowing players of that edition to ‘migrate’ old characters to the new system. As D&D’s 4th Edition fell short of expectations, Pathfinder rose to fill the niche of being the premier tabletop roleplaying game. 

For a while, anyone who was playing a fantasy tabletop roleplaying game was playing Pathfinder. In fact, prior to livestreaming their now-insanely popular D&D game, the cast of Critical Role used the Pathfinder system in their home game. Thanks to Paizo’s extensive playtesting and faithfulness to classic systems, as well as a dose of creativity centred around this new world of Golarion, Pathfinder was at the top of the TTRPG game.

All of that changed with D&D’s 5th Edition (5e), known for a time as ‘D&D Next’. WotC engaged in their own extensive playtest, refining and pulling from old systems to create the most streamlined and user-friendly game system around. Suddenly, Pathfinder was obsolete; it was far more complicated than 5e, and less user-friendly to new players. Thanks to 5e’s brilliant new ‘advantage/disadvantage’ mechanic and philosophies of ‘exceptions-based rules’ and ‘bounded accuracy,’ rolling dice and minimising large numbers or rules was easier than ever. As livestreamed and recorded tabletop games emerged into the mainstream, shows like Critical Role and The Adventure Zone infatuated a whole new generation with D&D, and Pathfinder was largely relegated to hobby stores.

In recent years, Paizo has made an effort to market themselves as an alternative to D&D’s simplified, classic gameplay. The centrepiece of this strategy is their 2nd Edition of Pathfinder (P2), which was released last year. P2 was a calculated attempt for Paizo to carve out a new niche for themselves, as the game for players more interested in an in-depth, dedicated fantasy gaming experience. In their marketing, they emphasised how different they were from 5e: P2 had a fully-fleshed out and functional beastmaster ranger, for example, a sore spot for 5e; and P2 launched with an Artificer character class ready to play, with far more classes yet to come.

Unfortunately for Paizo, their gamble seems not to have paid off. 5e Player’s Handbooks continue to fly off the shelves at a record pace, while P2 books lag far behind in sales. D&D has firmly entrenched itself at the centre of the TTRPG community, with little room for competition. In addition to popularity boosts from livestreaming, 5e has been bolstered by a partnered website called D&D Beyond, which digitises and streamlines character creation. P2, as yet, provides no such service. Still, as an alternative to 5e, Pathfinder is worth your consideration.

While P2 has streamlined the game somewhat from the original Pathfinder, it remains more involved and nuanced than 5e. In 5e, deciding a character’s features might be as simple as picking a class and subclass, then adding a predetermined feature to your character sheet each time you level up. In P2, each time your character levels up, you choose from a broad selection of talents and feats, specialising your character in different ways.

Even critical hits and failures are different between the two versions. In D&D, you automatically succeed or fail on an attack roll if you roll a 1 or a 20 on a 20-sided die, and double the dice rolled for damage if you critically hit. In Pathfinder, you have critical successes and critical failures for attack rolls, skill checks, and saving throws, when you beat or fall short of a target number by ten or more, and each critical success or failure works differently based on which attack, spell, or other effect is in play. Natural 20s and natural 1s still play a role, bumping a success or failure up or down a ‘stage’ of the ‘critical failure-failure-success-critical success’ progression.

An easy illustration of the differences between the two can be found in the character creation process. Suppose someone wants to create an example of the most popular archetype in fantasy gaming: the human fighter. In 5e, they begin by rolling for ability scores, which are TTRPG’s standard Strength, Dexterity, Constitution, Intelligence, Wisdom, and Charisma ratings. Instead of rolling dice, the player could take the standard array of scores, or engage in the more complex system of ‘point-buy.’ That done, they choose the human race. If they choose the ‘variant’ version of human, they assign two ability score increases, pick an extra skill, and choose a special bonus ability called a ‘feat,’ which is an optional rule in 5e that allows for special customisation of characters. However, our player can far more easily take the standard human and just add one point to all ability scores, plus another language. In the 5e rulebook, all of the mechanics they need to build a human take up a quarter of a page — the remaining three pages are flavour.

Following their race selection, they take the class ‘fighter,’ and choose between one of six simple combat styles, which offer small boosts to particular modifiers. They choose two skills from a list, pick starting equipment from another list, and then move on to select a mechanically-simple background that offers pre-selected skills and equipment. Once they’ve recorded their choices, their character is done and ready for play. All-in-all, the process takes less than an hour — far less, with practice. When this character levels up, they roll for additional hit points and add a new ability called ‘Action Surge’ to their character sheet. That’s it. A maximum possible total of about a dozen small choices.

On the other hand, suppose we’re creating a human fighter in Pathfinder. First of all, we can’t roll for ability scores. We need to use the system’s equivalent of point-buy, starting each score at 10 and applying a series of bonuses and possible penalties based on our race — sorry, I mean ‘ancestry’ — class, and background, plus a series of additional free bonuses. For our human fighter, that will be a series of nine small boosts, some of which we pick from a limited range and others we choose freely. If we want a little extra flexibility, we can take two flaws for another boost. We then choose an ‘heritage’ for our human ancestry, such as ‘half-orc’ or ‘versatile’, which add some more scribbles to our character sheet. Then, we choose an ancestry feat, picking from a list of seven (or more, depending on our heritage). We also add ‘traits’ to our sheet, namely human and humanoid (we’ll be collecting traits like candy as we go on). Finally, once our Intelligence score is worked out, we’ll need to come back to our ancestry and pick any additional languages.

Once we’ve ironed out our ancestry, we pick a background from among 35 different options (5e has sixteen in the base rules), and make another couple of choices within the background. We add another feat to the sheet (say that five times fast. You’ll need to say it often in Pathfinder).

Finally, we become a fighter. We get some proficiencies by default, and will need to pick four additional skills, plus possibly more — we’ll need to remember to re-calculate our proficiency bonuses each level, which will vary based on our character level and level of proficiency (untrained, trained, expert, etc.). We add the Attack of Opportunity and Shield Block abilities to our sheet, then choose yet another feat from another list of seven. Finally, finally, our character is ready. When we level up, we will choose a feat again from that list of seven, with an additional seven options, and then we will choose yet another feat from a much larger list of ‘skill feats’ in Chapter Five. But at least we don’t need to roll for hit points — we get a default number. 

It’s a much larger number of choices than we get when we make a 5e character, and from much more varied and intricate options. Keep in mind that fighter is pretty much the simplest class. Try playing a spellcaster. Need I go into the difference between prepared and spontaneous spellcasting? How about focus spells, heightened spells, and the four spellcasting traditions?

You get the point. Not only does Pathfinder abide with tricky decisions, the book is swimming in rules and technical terms with specific meanings. With 5e, you can pretty much get a new player up and running in an hour or two for a fun, free-flowing game. The 5e Player’s Handbook does include extensive rules, but it also contains a large proportion of flavour text and advice. In Pathfinder, the book is almost entirely made up of rules, with Chapter Eight largely set aside for world-building. Forget running combat in ‘theatre of the mind’; you’ll almost certainly want a battle grid.

For these reasons, 5e is a better game for new players. Gamesmasters can easily walk them through the rules until they become comfortable with the system, and the cookie-cutter fantasy world of Faerûn is full of familiar tropes that anyone who has watched Peter Jackson’s Middle-Earth movies will recognise. While there are some leftover archaic notions from traditional fantasy (still calling them ‘races’? Come on, WotC), many of them have been cleaned up and modernised by the culturally-conscious folks at WotC, who have taken care to emphasise diversity and representation in their work. It’s a satisfactory experience.

What, then, is the place for Pathfinder? Well, you might say that Pathfinder is D&D’s end game. 5e is a wonderful system that leaves plenty of room for creativity and diverse characters, but Pathfinder expands on that. The vastly increased number of choices made during character creation and advancement means that you can customise your hero to a far greater extent. The expansive system of rules allows for more advanced and nuanced tactical gameplay. The ‘three action’ system gives players a bit more flexibility and capacity for strategy on their turns in combat. Finally, Pathfinder’s world of Golarion breaks or expands on a number of classic fantasy tropes to create a truly unique setting. Elves appearances’ change based on their long-term environment; gnomes lean towards a fey ancestry and are immortal until they get bored and fall prey to the colour-sapping ‘Bleaching’; and goblins are excitable pyromaniacs that can fit in among civilised societies despite their unsavoury tendencies. Once you’ve seen all that 5e has to offer, Pathfinder can be new and engaging. It’s the true nerd’s tabletop game.

Unfortunately for Paizo, most people will never reach that point. In our busy lives, most of us struggle to maintain a regular tabletop gaming session. We can barely afford enough time to maintain our character sheets, let alone spend hours making difficult choices between small numeric increases. Most people probably just don’t have the time or level of interest. For those of you who do, though, check out Pathfinder. It’s about as in-depth an experience as you can find in fantasy tabletop gaming.