Review: Pathfinder 2E

To enjoy Pathfinder 2E is to enjoy tinkering with mechanics as much as stories; to have fun flicking through sourcebooks and cackling about all the cool heroes you can brew with them. It’s a game that demands a certain type of player and GM to flourish, but if you’re able to put the time in the rewards are incredibly satisfying.

If you’ve never encountered it before, Pathfinder is essentially Dungeons & Dragons with the serial numbers filed off and the crunch dial twisted to the right ‘til it snapped off. And that isn’t a snide ‘all-fantasy-RPGs-are-D&Djab either – the Pathfinder books still print a little notice at the back as part of the 19-year-old Open Gaming License that lets third parties crib off the old D&D ruleset.

 What this all means is that Pathfinder 2E is still about the kind of things people picture whenever someone mentions generic RPGs, with parties of brave adventurers facing orcs, dragons and slimy monsters in their quest for justice and/or treasure. What separates it from the crowd, however, is the depth of its rules and the attitude of its heroes.

And the word ‘heroes’ is important there, because – no matter if they’re good or bad – one of the game’s main themes is that the characters you play are incredibly powerful.  Even first-level adventurers are loaded down with about half-a-dozen special abilities or perks, and as their powers increase their capabilities only get crazier and crazier.

Neither the rules or the setting particularly support anything gritty or realistic, and while you could hack the system apart to run a low-fantasy, dungeon-crawling type of game you’d have a much easier time in more stripped-down RPGs designed for that kind of experience. No, when you come to Pathfinder 2E you’re there to build a cool as heck hero with a whole host of sweet powers, whether they come from your link with the arcane or just because you’re such a badass.

All these powers have to come from somewhere, though, and this is where we get into that other defining aspect – character complexity.

A Feast of Feats

The fundamental building block of a Pathfinder 2E character is the feat. These are little bundles of rules that you sew onto your hero to grant them new abilities that can range from training in a skill to brand new powers they can unleash in combat.

They come in several different flavours, including ancestry feats, skill feats, class feats and general feats. Your elven fighter might have gotten her resistance to sleep spells through an ancestry feat, for example, while her ability to suddenly charge a foe from across the battlefield came from a class feat. As you level up you stack more and more of these onto your character, growing them organically and adding new layers to their abilities.

This system allow for a truly mind-melting degree of customisation and control. With the right selection of feats you can whip up some truly incredible characters who can excel in just about whatever field you feel like. You don’t need long with the book to start planning out pathways for building a gnomish barbarian capable of wrestling ogres to the ground, a drill-sergeant so skilled at intimidation that they can literally frighten their foes to death, or a dwarven warrior who simply refuses to die.

And this is just scratching the surface. The nature of the format means that creating new feats and archetypes – essentially a bundle of feats that allow a character to specialise in a particular area – is incredibly simple. As new books come out for Pathfinder 2E the possibilities are only going to grow and grow.

Whether this is an opportunity or a problem, however, will vary from group to group. One of the complaints about the first Pathfinder was that keeping track of character powers and potentially game-breaking combinations became incredibly difficult as the supplements piled up. While this isn’t quite the case for the latest edition right now, it’s hard to imagine that the releases aren’t going to come thick and fast over the next few years.

On top of this, many groups may be confronted by the fact that not everybody wants to tinker and plan out elaborate character builds, in which case the sheer volume of choices confronting you can be a little overwhelming.

A Melee of Mechanics

It would be easy to take a flick through the rules for adventuring and think that they were similarly intimidating. After all, the sections covering combat, magic and skill actions drags on for page after page of dense text and if you want to memorise every possible interaction you’re in for a whole lot of reading.

In practise, however, once a game gets rolling everything feels surprisingly smooth. One of the major factors in this is Pathfinder 2E’s decision to move away from the traditional action economy set down by D&D, where move actions were different to standard actions which were different to… You get the picture.

Instead, every character now has three actions to use as they see fit. They can move three times, attack three times (though with increasing penalties as they flail away), spend an entire turn fiddling with their gear or take any combination they desire. This has also allowed the designers to limit some more powerful abilities by making them require multiple actions, and to add flexibility to spells by letting casters decide how many actions they want to pump into them

If you use just one action to cast the standard Heal spell, for example, you can restore some hit points to an ally standing right next to you. Throw in another one and the spell gets a 30 ft. range. Spend all three actions on it and you create a big cloud of healing that could potentially aid your entire party.

It may sound like there’s a lot going on here, and in truth there certainly is. However, once you have a character built up and you have a solid grasp on what they can do most sessions shouldn’t be too complicated. Combat is a delightful mess of dice and death, with room for plenty of tactics and strategy if you want it.

If there’s a major problem with the pacing of the game, it’s that the rules are often a little too prescriptive. There are strict rules, for example, on how to Make An Impression on somebody, with the results of a check shifting the NPCs disposition a few notches up or down a predefined scale. Falling off a ledge also has a couple hundred words to describing its exact mechanics, as does balancing on a rope or a ledge.

Honestly, these are the areas where the game begins to bog down and feel needlessly complicated. If your entire group is happy to memorise the ruleset (or confident enough to cheerfully ignore the bits that drag down the pacing) you’ll probably shrug these issues off, but otherwise your enjoyable game can suddenly start feeling like a chore.

A New Direction?

Ultimately, Pathfinder 2E straddles the line between depth and complexity, and which side it leans towards will depend on your perspective. For many folks who just want to roleplay a fantasy story and aren’t massively concerned about sick mechanical combos or convoluted character builds, it’ll be the latter. After all, if you don’t derive any particularly joy from playing about with the tools, there’s very little point in dragging them around.

On the other hand, groups who do love complexity – who exchange WhatsApp messages at 2AM discussing the viability of halfling barbarians or what combination of feats puts out maximum single-turn damage – will love it. There’s just so much to fiddle and tinker with, and the influx of new options is just going to add to that.

When it was first announced I wasn’t sure what Pathfinder 2E was going to look like, or what it wanted to be. The original game has already carved out a sizable domain for itself amongst fans of craved complexity and didn’t like the direction D&D’s been taking for the past couple decades, and simply chasing on the coattails of D&D 5E seemed like utter madness.

Instead, Pathfinder 2E seems to have found a niche of its own. A place where mechanically complex characters sit alongside a refined and (comparatively) smooth combat system. It has its flaws, including a thoroughly intimidating character sheet and some thoroughly fiddle minor rules, but for me these are outweighed by the chance to build a halfling barbarian who wields a large-sized greatsword, and have that mean something mechanically.

And that, perhaps, is what Pathfinder 2E is all about.


★★★★☆

If you’re the kind of player who gets a kick out mechanics you’ll find a lot to enjoy in this modernised take on Pathfinder‘s classicly crunchy ruleset.

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