First off, you might be wondering what Pathfinder is. Pathfinder is a tabletop RPG published by Paizo that is based on D&D and yet outsells D&D, at least according to some sources. This is pretty amazing considering the average person might not even know that table top RPGs besides D&D even exist. Before you fire up your defensive comments – I understand RPG sales numbers are murky. But nonetheless, Paizo went from being “the people who published the D&D magazines” (Dungeon and Dragon respectively) to “the people competing with D&D for the number one slot” in just a few years. Certainly I can believe that Pathfinder is outselling D&D at the moment since D&D is between editions and Pathfinder had some strong releases this summer. I personally play and enjoy Pathfinder, but it’s far from perfect. Let’s take a look at five of the best and five of the worst parts to Pathfinder.
1. They Give You Lots of Options
You could make this happen. In your game at least.
Pathfinder is loaded with options. Do you want your barbarian to actually be smart and live in a city? Done. Do you want your witch to attack people with a beard instead of cursing people? Done. You can even play around with the technology level of your fantasy world. Although Pathfinder initially started in the usual murky faux-middle-ages of fantasy gaming, they have since added an alchemist, a doctor of the Frankenstein/steampunk persuasion who mixes extracts and makes bombs, and a gunslinger who charges into battle with gunpowder weapons. Of course, some people completely hate these changes and declare them anathema, but I like having more options than less and so I am not bothered.
Pathfinder is not quite as option-rich as the D&D 3rd edition it was spun from (thanks to the OGL D20 system). That edition allowed a bewildering number of class combinations usually with dozens of versions available of each. But the way they were structured was problematic. It was often better to make a 20 level character with 5 levels of Ranger, Paladin, Fighter, and Monk as the bonuses were all front-loaded and you were a bit of a sucker for sticking to one. Pathfinder seems to against such multi-classing (known in the parlance as “dipping”) and so the classes now get their powers over time, with some of the best ones coming at the later levels. In the old days, anyone taking a Fighter past level 4 got a strange look, but in Pathfinder a 20 level Fighter is a viable class choice. In addition, in order to keep things interesting, you have the option of a normal fighter, a sneaky fighter, a fighter who fights with one hand free or both hands free, a gladiator…. You get the idea. Or if you don’t get the idea, you can take a look here.
2. Paizo Has Your Back
One thing I definitely have to credit Paizo with is the fact that they still run Pathfinder like a small company. For instance, the guys over at Fate have spectacular customer service. But the company is tiny, from what I understand, just a few staff and bunches of freelancers. Whereas Wizards of the Coast is the other extreme: since being owned by Hasbro, they sometimes have a very corporate approach and prefer things like Brand Managers who are less interactive with the public. To some extent, this is just natural as smaller companies have to focus on customer service and have more exposure while corporate monsters like Hasbro (who owns Wizards of the Coast and thus D&D) have many layers to get through.
The good news about Paizo is that if you post a rules question on the Pathfinder forums and normal users can’t answer the question, it is very likely an actual Paizo employee will step in at some point. In effect, they create a small business customer experience despite being large (for an RPG company). This has paid some big dividends for them in the form of customer loyalty, as people do feel a lot of ownership of the brand. So it is not to say that they do it out of the kindness of their hearts, but they do manage to keep in contact with the customers.
This is important for all industries, but is much more so important for the RPG industry, as it is niche to begin with and seems to be getting smaller rather than larger over time. Which is not to say that being this exposed to the customers is always great, as the Paizo people are still human and may feed the odd troll or be defensive here or there, but overall it is a definite plus.
3. Tried and True Mechanics, With Some Improvements
There was a time where this was stamped on half the books in your local game store.
The Pathfinder system uses the Open Game License (OGL) D20 system as its basis. The OGL D20 system is unusual in that it was designed to be freely usable by anyone, instead of being a sort of “secret sauce.”
I am not sure exactly what prompted Wizards of the Coast to give their core system away, but my understanding is that it was a new, and very aggressive, kind of marketing. It seemed to work at the time. Not only did D&D 3rd edition crush the competition, but there was a long, strange time when other game companies became interested in creating D20 versions of their own games. Everyone from independent companies to fully-fledged rivals to D&D released special D20 versions, or just used D20 in the first place.
Personally, I think this was sort of awful as D&D really isn’t particularly a universal system like, say, GURPS. Not every game really benefits from a class/race combo, and I have always been bothered by just how much “swing” a 20-sided dice can have, as opposed to 10 siders. Basically, if you are +5 to hit and you roll a D20 to do it, you have anywhere between 6 and 25 as a result, and you do not really know where you will end up.
Anyway, people seemed to like it at the time and the system worked well for what it was fundamentally designed for, e.g. fantasy gaming with lots of monster murdering and treasure looting. So, Pathfinder started with that basis and then added many of their own innovations, removing a few of the weirder bits and adding some refinement. Although I felt burned out on D&D 3rd for the first years of Pathfinder and proceeded to avoid it until some friends peer pressured me into trying it, I have to admit this is a very solid approach. It also has the nice benefit of the game mechanics all being available digitally, for free, right here.
4. Fun Flavor and Art
I have heard Pathfinder fandom criticized as people who buy the books for art (due to the fact that the books are fundamentally available online and/or new versions of old books). And, in fact, the art is pretty great. Wayne Reynolds seems to be responsible for a large portion, particularly the covers, and they have a fun, fast-moving/swashbuckling feel that the best games can reach. The women look good without necessarily being full-on cheesecake (though cheesecake is very much in the eye of the beholder, I have learned). The weapons are fantastical but not bizarre looking, with the possible exception of the Barbarian’s anime sword. Overall, I do enjoy it; although you do get the occasional ugly, bizarre, or just misplaced art that looks like it was done in an hour by some poor, starving freelancer, it is by far the exception and not the rule.
The flavor text is also fun. Like Robert E. Howard did for the Hyborian age, Pathfinder‘s default setting is a pastiche, with various throwbacks to real historical periods. You have an Egyptian country full of undead, a country that seems to be based on post-revolution France, and an idealized America. This stuff is not always subtle. For instance, in “Not France,” there was a bloody revolution involving guillotines and masked revolutionaries destroying a refined society. The people all dress like French peasants from the 1700s. And, just in case you missed, it the place is called Galt, he of “Who is John Galt”, Atlas Shrugged fame.
Similarly, there is a country that tries to start democracies everywhere and is symbolized by a golden eagle named Andora. And, in case you missed the America/Andora similarities, everyone dresses like Revolutionary War re-enactors. Cheesy? Yes! But cheesy fun, and there is a lot of detail work and fleshing out that makes it passable. Frankly, for a game where you wander around killing dragons and looting gold as a profession, you do not need to get too serious with the nations.
5. It’s Basically Free To Play
I mean, as I mentioned, due to the vagaries of the Open Game License, Pathfinder has to allow all of the mechanics to be posted online with no cost. This means you need perhaps one copy of the book, for the game master, and all the players can find their own information online. Given that, you might wonder how it is that Pathfinder has any sales at all, let alone the top in the industry. First, all of the “good” listed so far means people want to support the company. And, they do. None of the art or the zany fantasy pastiche stuff makes it online, for instance. Also, the fact that the fans feel ownership for the brand results in them wanting to support them financially, at least in my limited experience.
How many RPG companies have a whole page devoted to Free Downloads?
Another good thing Pathfinder does is a slow release schedule. When Pathfinder releases a book called Ultimate Magic, they mean they are trying to cover a massive cross section of needs for the game and they will not be releasing another full book anytime soon. Pathfinder limits the releases I am interested in to every month or so, which is very easy to keep up with. I never feel overwhelmed by the books being released, for good or ill.
The final thing my wallet likes about Pathfinder is that they release mini-books, little comic book-sized digests that cost less than $20. It used to be if I found out a particular bit of gaming goodness I would be putting out $30-$40. However, with Pathfinder you can get away with $10-$15 a lot of the time, which is far from free, but is very cheap compared to what you can have to pay to play in a niche hobby. This allows for more of a whim purchase, which is definitely not enabled by $40+ books.
1. Useless Crap
Along with all of the fun options, there are a lot of options that can basically sabotage your character. First, there are different views of the ever-cherished ‘game balance’. Paizo seems to think that only things that make your character better than other characters is a problem. Anything that makes your character sort of suck are fine as long as they have amusing aspects. In order to combat this disinterest in not torpedoing your character, fans make things like handbooks that color code all options so they can help you know if it sucks. Obsessive? Maybe. But it’s a public service.
Now, somewhere someone is wagging their finger and saying that making handbooks is trying to “win” at role-playing, which you should not do. Fair enough. However, there is a difference between not trying to make the most powerful character EVER and just trusting the game company to not give you actively bad options. Pathfinder routinely allows you to trade useful class abilities for completely useless ones with no warning.
For instance, Vow of Poverty. This is a vow that keeps your Monk from using more than one magic item. This is, frankly, nonsense, as the game is built assuming each character maintains a certain amount of “gear”, including and especially items that help you actually hit things and resist being hit. Going without them is basically suicide. However, when confronted about this, the lead designer for Pathfinder said the following: “Pathfinder lets you make suboptimal choices, or even poor choices, and it doesn’t reward you for making those poor choices. Because rewarding poor choices is dumb.” So don’t bother showing up if you don’t have enough system mastery. Or just break into those color codes I mentioned before.
2. Wizards Rule
Paizo’s official gaming enterprise, the Pathfinder Society, retires characters at level 12. There are probably a lot of reasons to do this, such as lowering the range of adventures people are expecting support of, and also the fact that higher-level characters can be expected to do bigger things and disrupt the game world more. However, there is another reason, a problem with the old D&D 3rd system that Paizo did not fix.
That problem is the caster/warrior disparity, which at high levels means that your rogue can sneak across a hallway and climb a wall really well, or the wizard can just go invisible and fly over it. That is, if she doesn’t just decide to go hang out in another dimension or destroy the whole building. This is not great for the rogue. Basically, no matter how good you are at what you do as a rogue or fighter type, the god-like powers available to high level casters make you look bad. Your fighter might spend his whole career working up to slaying 3-4 enemies per turn. But the wizard can do the same thing to tens of foes with a well-placed fireball.
Oddly, this problem was largely addressed in the old days with the addition of the Tome of Battle, a massive book entirely devoted towards making martial warriors that could go toe to toe with arcane casters. Despite the fact that the book was massively successful at the time, Paizo has carefully avoided releasing a version of it, perhaps in order to coast on nostalgia and people being able to recognize the old classes. Another, simpler solution was the old style D&D approach of making casters need more experience to level, thus prolonging their awkward adolescence. This is also not used in the new game, where one level of wizard costs the same as one level of fighter. Overall, it is just disappointing to ignore a problem this large that has always been there in the background.
3. Confusing/Conflicting Rules
This is a personal issue. I have a sort obsessive/compulsive thing with organizing and charting, which helps a lot in the corporate world, but with the number of moving bits on a Pathfinder character sheet it can make things pretty painful. As mentioned, you can have multiple classes, and you can customize each class multiple times. Astute readers will note that I said this was fun before. And it is. But the thing is that it can also be confusing.
It is easy to understand you can either be a Rogue Acrobat or a Rogue Scout. But can you be both? The rule is that both versions of a class cannot change the same feature. The problem is reading through both entries and noting what changed and making sure there is no crossover. This can be surprisingly difficult as both entries will have long entries of what a new class feature does before what it replaces is listed. This site here is what I usually use to save ten minutes of my life.
It gets more confusing when you add Prestige Classes and Roles to the mix. A Prestige Class is a special class that can only be taken at higher levels and has qualifications a character needs to meet to take the class. A Role is an archetype-lite that has few mechanical effects and is instead a list of already-existing class features and abilities. When combined together these will make a class seem like a specific version of that class from the setting. For instance, your Fighter could be a Hell-Knight if you focus around Intimidation and the Morningstar. This doesn’t change your character at all, it is just an interesting bit of background.
What gets confusing is when they cross over – I have a book of knights for Pathfinder that lists Roles for classes that also have a Prestige version. So are you better off using the Role or the Prestige version? This happens with Archetypes, too – there is both a Fighter Archetype and a Prestige Class called Aldori Swordlord. What does it all mean?
4. Everything Is a Feat
This is an inherited issue for Paizo, and maybe well outside of their mandate to keep things familiar, but fresh. But, fairness aside, let me complain for a moment about feats. Feats are level-based benefits you get periodically as your character adventures. They can do almost anything, and they tend to go in chains. (For example, to get the Greater Blind Fight feat, you would first have to acquire both Blind Fight and Greater Blind Fight.) The problem with this is lazy design. If the Pathfinder world is expanded in some way, odds are there will be a feat chain (or two or three or ten) to go along with the expansion. When Ultimate Combat was released, they added martial arts styles. A great idea, maybe even a little overdue. But, of course, it took the form of three feats.
Now, you only receive about ten feats in your character’s career, which is a best case scenario as it assumes a brand new character you are designing to use whatever new feat chain is being introduced. If you are already a level ten character and thus have half your feats already, you are in even more trouble. But either way, you now have to change the way you wanted your character to work to allow this new resource. Here are the feats presented in chains, scroll down to Improved Trip and you can see Paizo has about a dozen feats revolving around tripping people, enough your entire character could be devoted to it.
No, not that kind of tripping.
Really, the main book already offers plenty of feats, dozens of them. It is more than enough for most characters. But if you click over here, you will find there are hundreds of feats now. And you still only have maybe 10 slots to put them in. And every month there are even more. For all that I praise Paizo for having a relatively relaxed release schedule, the “relatively” part is important as you are still piling more and more feats on top everything else, so many that the most devoted fan in the world will still never get to try them out as there are just too many.
5. It’s a Lot of Work
All of this forum-searching and resource-checking and book gathering and reading… so much reading. The fact is that Pathfinder is based on a game engine created back in the mid-90s that was intended to reconstruct everything in massive detail. And, since they started with this engine, most of Paizo’s work has resulted in more complication instead of less. The amount of data one should be familiar with to have something approaching system mastery is pretty disturbing, even as the fan community works to contain the amount of data expansion.
This is at a time when games like Fate Core seem to be leading the way to an RPG future where the paperwork is much lighter and characters are a few paragraphs instead of being pages long. I still personally play and enjoy Pathfinder, and some other heavier systems like GURPS, with World of Darkness being a midpoint between light and heavy. But there are times when people seem to be migrating more and more to systems that can make things easier. Certainly the new D&D Next (the game Wizards of the Coast hopes will surpass Pathfinder upon release) is going much, much rules lighter.
On the other hand, some of the new expansions to the system, while complicated, have been really solid and fun. Ultimate Campaign adds systems for giving your characters goals, a detailed background, and town building. I loved all of it. Though that may have worked because the complication added in that book was a little more organic. The main issue with Pathfinder is the frontload. You have to do a lot of work on your character before you can play. For example, we are currently trying to get a home game off the ground, and we’ve devoted two potential sessions just to character generation so far. At the end of the day, Pathfinder is based on the old 3rd Edition D&D system, which was system heavy already. That is not going to change. Originally it was a big pull from people looking for a nostalgic experience. Whether it will become a drawback in the long-term remains to be seen but right now I think I can see it coming soon.
Previously by David N. Scott