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Pathfinder 2E is a tabletop role-playing game. This review is not a how-to-play guide and assumes you have at least some understanding of what a tabletop role-playing game is. But it was written with players, potentially new to the hobby, in mind.
Paizo offers a wide selection of Pathfinder products, this review is focused on what I consider to be the core experience. That means the Core Rule Book, the Bestiary, and the unreleased Game-mastery Guide that won’t be involved in this review because at the time of writing, it was not released.
The Core Rule Book is monstrous with over 600 pages of RPG goodness. Don’t panic however, it looks far more intimidating than it is. The core rule book includes character creation, game-play rules, a setting primer, and a game mastery guide. Its almost several products rolled into one, thus the size.
Like its predecessor, Pathfinder 2E is a d20 system. You will be instantly familiar with several aspects if you have played any others. Including the six core ability scores and modifiers. However, 2E actually distances itself away from its competitors and even its predecessor, forging a unique identity of its own within the tabletop sphere.
I go over several topics below, but I first want to point out the built-in critical success and failure system because much of the game is based on that very foundation. In most d20 systems, a roll of a “20” on a twenty-sided dice is considered a critical hit, or success. Likewise, a “1” indicates a critical miss or failure.
This is still true in Pathfinder 2e. However, any roll that is 10 over the target number is also a critical success, and a total roll 10 or under the target number is also a critical failure. I was skeptical of this change at first, but the more I read and played the more I realized how it tied so much of the game together. This includes combat encounter balance and it grew on me quickly.
Most importantly, it means nearly every action in the game, from spells to diplomacy, have built-in degrees of success and failure into the mechanics.
Pathfinder 2E features six Ancestries such as Human and Elf and twelve classes from Wizard to Fighter. Each ancestry has a choice of sub heritages to choose from. Combining this with your choice of background forms the bones of your character.
Unlike many d20 systems, rolling for your ability scores has been regulated to an optional rule. Instead, your ancestry, class, and background, all grant different ability score boosts or negatives and you choose four free boosts at level 1. This system makes character creation more standardized, it’s difficult to build a poorly performing character by scores alone and there are far less swinging power levels than when rolling your ability scores.
At a glance, it looks like characters may end up feeling samey, but that couldn’t be farther from the truth. The number of choices you can make when you’re creating and leveling your character is pretty staggering without being overwhelming.
Much of this comes in the forms of feats. There are class feats, ancestry feats, skill feats, and general feats. Feats can grant you passive bonuses, new abilities or change the way existing abilities function. Progression tables clearly lay out what you are supposed to choose each level and you make meaningful choices every single time you level up.
Overall character creation and progression offer a lot of personal choices. It’s fairly easy to slap a quick one together by following examples in the book. But you can go much deeper with your concepts. You could easily have four players at a table all playing the same class and each one could play and function quite differently.
I particularly enjoy the focus on ancestries and heritages, which replace races in similar games. They have a large impact on your character and you even choose specific feats for them at certain levels. This is also true with backgrounds, they are more than flavor. They affect your ability scores, skills and usually come with a free feat.
The character creation and progression are a very high point for Pathfinder 2E, allowing flexibility and depth of character while being relatively simple to learn.
Pathfinder 2E splits game-play into three sections, exploration, encounters and downtime. Exploration time is when the players are exploring, it might be a dungeon, a town or the wilderness. Downtime is when the players are spending several days in a single but mostly safe area.
They can craft items, work mundane jobs for money and more. Encounters are tense situations where the game is broken down into turns. Combat is the most common encounter, but not the only kind.
Each section has detailed information on some of the actions players can take. Such as scouting in exploration, or earning income in downtime. In fact, one of the core tenets of Pathfinder 2E is it has some kind of rule explanation for most common actions. If a player wants to jump, there is a rule for it. If they want to trip a foe, there is a rule for it.
It can take some time to fully wrap your head around the extent of it all. The rules themselves are concise and easy to understand. There is just a lot of them. In play, this actually works very well and isn’t restrictive.
It boils down to the fact that the Game Master doesn’t need to adjudicate every single action on their own whims alone. While they are obviously free to interpret, change or alter rules, they always have a toolbox for how basic actions are performed. Freeing them up to tackle the more improvised stuff. It makes simple actions like climbing feel more consistent because a Game Master doesn’t have to remember how they adjudicated it last time someone climbed.
Even something like carry weight is boiled down into an easy to understand concept of bulk, that makes the rule painless if you want to use it.
In combat, each player has three actions on their turn. They can use these three actions to do nearly whatever they want. They can move three times, move twice and attack once, or even attack three times. Some actions take two or more actions to perform, casting spells is a common example. Attacking multiple times does carry penalties, but the option is there.
Players have a lot of choice in combat, and the game itself has faith in the player’s ability to actually play the game. Standing in a single spot and swinging a weapon over and over again tends to be ineffective. Players are encouraged to use tactics and the wide array of actions at their disposal alongside any clever improvised ideas.
A fighter might use an action to demoralize a foe, lowering some of their stats, attack them, then raise a shield defensively. A ranger might fire a bow, then take cover to gain a larger defensive bonus. Almost every type of roll in the game is against a target number. There are generally no opposing rolls at the table making the math easier and the game flow smoother.
I found that the three action system makes combat move quicker overall. Despite the fact that my players have many more actions to choose from in combat, they caught on quite quickly.
The freedom to use those three actions in any way they saw fit freed them up from the agonizing analysis paralysis of how to use specific actions from other systems. I also noticed that they are encouraged to try new ideas because they usually have a spare action left over to attack or defend with.
This, in turn, made rounds move faster. This has a ripple effect that makes players willing to waste a turn not doing anything flashy because their next turn isn’t far away.
Interacting with NPCs has neat twists, usually, they have a starting disposition that players can attempt to change with a combination of roleplaying and skill usage. The stealth rules are a bit messy to understand at first but actually come together quite nicely as a package once you piece it all together.
Being a Game Master is a challenging job in any system. I was impressed with how much guidance the core rule book provided in spite of the fact that the true game mastery guide is not yet released. It hits on all the bases from running the game, adjudicating the rules, building encounters and handing out rewards.
I’ve found that the most difficult part of being a Pathfinder 2E Game Master was learning the basic actions players can use. Once you have that down, it’s a fairly painless transition if you have ever run Pathfinder 1E or Dungeons & Dragons. The book provides you with most of the required tools.
Notably, I found it quite simple to adjudicate any kind of improvised actions by using the DC tables in the book alongside the three action system. I could come up with mechanics within seconds for anything from a dropkick, to attempting to wrap a grappling hook around a wooden beam and pull it down.
Encounter building is incredibly simple. Basically, you are given an XP budget for how difficult you want an encounter to be and spend that budget on monsters and hazards. Both of these are entirely adjusted based on the party’s level. For example, a creature that is an equal level with the party is always worth 40XP. Whether the party and the creature are level 1 or 20, it doesn’t matter.
The creatures found in the Bestiary are almost all interesting and fun to run as a GM. They each have some quirk or special ability. Most importantly is how the actual danger of your encounters are handled. In my experience in most RPGs, a bunch of equal level creatures are always more dangerous than a giant mean one. This is because of the action economy. Four players have more actions than a single creature, even if it’s a dragon. This is still true of course, but for the 1st time ever, I feel that the problem has been solved.
While there are a couple of rule tweaks regarding monsters stronger than the party. Most of it is simply handled mathematically. At the start of this review, I mentioned the critical system. This is where that system shines brightest. A creature that is higher level than the party is vastly superior to any single player character statistically.
This means that players’ attacks hit less often, and are rarely critical when they do. The beast on the other hand not only hits players easier but does so critically.
Taking on a powerful creature requires a change of tactics. The players must buff themselves, debuff the enemy and use every advantage they can find. Sometimes that’s as simple as taking cover or raising a shield. Not with the intention of not getting hit, but of not allowing the attack to become a critical hit by being 10 over their AC.
Pathfinder 2E is the first system I don’t have to plop down a dragon and give the dragon minions so that it’s not insta-gibbed. It is also the first system where my players have been truly afraid of a monster.
The beauty of the execution is the fact that there are no “boss” monsters in the bestiary. They are just monsters, one becomes a boss simply by being a few levels higher than the party. This becomes a tool to help showcase how the player’s characters have grown as well.
They might come out of a fight against an Ogre barely breathing. In a few more levels you can pit them against two Ogres, and they will fare far better. A few more levels and they might be able to trash those Ogres like sewer rats.
The Degrees of Failure
Pathfinder 2E is not perfect though. Its math is tight-knit, which is mostly a good thing. But with only a single bestiary published, it can be problematic. The pool of monsters that are viable to use is always four levels below or above your party. This means without home brewing your own, you could become quite limited very quickly.
Furthermore, the bestiary has no NPCs. No town guards or the like. It lacks anything that isn’t monstrous in some way. The Game Mastery guide will include stat blocks for NPCs as well as full rules for creating your own. Paizo released this monster creation guide for free, but it is a band-aid at best.
While I love the design of the monsters, I do get annoyed at how some of them are structured. Some abilities are given no description only a keyword. You have to flip to the back of the book in a special appendix to see what it does. If a monster has spells, it only lists the spells, not what they do. You need to reference the actual spell in the core rule book.
A Game Masters plate is often full, it would have been much more convenient to have all the relevant information in the actual stat block. The tight-knit math means strict treasure guidelines. You can generally break or bend these without breaking the game. However, the tight math and treasure guidelines utterly destroy the crafting skill.
Rules, as written, make crafting one of the worst skills in the game in all but the rarest of circumstances. Given that crafting is a core skill with several feats, this really rubs me the wrong way. To boil it down to its simplest terms, you craft the equivalent of someone spending downtime to earn income.
You just make the item instead of buying it, you can spend an absurd amount of in-game days and weeks to lower the price. But you could have used earn income during that downtime for the same or better effect.
You will absolutely want to talk to your GM and see how they intend to use the crafting rules before investing your character into it. If you’re a GM, you’re going to want to consider altering the rule altogether.
Magic items are handled pretty well for the most part. The addition of runes handles most of the basic +1 to hit simple stuff and makes any weapon or armor set upgradeable. I did find the book lacked a wide variety of interesting magic items for any given level though. Experienced GMs are no stranger to brewing their own, but it would have been nice to have more choice from the book.
Spells can be heightened, effectively casting the spell at a higher level. For prepped spell-casters, this is fine, they simply prepare the spell in a higher spell slot during their daily preparations.
I, however, find the implementation clunky with spontaneous spell casters. They have to actually choose a lower level spell when they are higher level to make it the higher-level version. It feels messy and un-intuitive and can often require replacing lower levels spells altogether.
There are a few spells and feats that either don’t scale correctly are clearly more powerful than the others. This is a minor gripe, it can easily be altered by the GM and will likely be fixed in official errata at some point.
I couldn’t touch on every aspect of the game, it’s simply too large to comb over every detail without writing a book of my own. I do have my complaints and it’s certainly going through growing pains this early in its life cycle. But overall, it is a stellar system.
It manages to streamline complicated aspects and grant accessibility without squandering depth. It is a very deep game in nearly every way, from character creation, to combat and exploration. It’s nowhere near as simple as some other systems, but the simplest systems have to sacrifice a lot of options, choice, and depth to attain that level of simplicity.
It is also nowhere near as complicated as some other systems, ones that make you climb a steep mountain of rules before you can access its depth.
Pathfinder 2E is the middle ground. You will have to learn a decent amount of rules, but it’s not overwhelming and you gain a very satisfyingly complex game out of it. The tight-knit math and critical system are by and large fantastic and the game is pretty easy to run on the Game Masters side of the screen, barring my previously mentioned hiccups.
Overall it is my favorite role-playing system so far, and one I see myself sticking withi
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- Deep meaningful character creation and progression
- Clear and concise rules for basic actions
- Combat is tactical with plenty of options, I hit it with my weapon over and over is now a relic of the past
- Character creation, Game Mastery Guide, and setting primer rolled into one book
- Monsters are interesting and fun to use as Game masters
- Interesting NPC attitude system
- Easy encounter building for Game Masters
- Tight-knit math and critical system ties everything together into a coherent bundle
- Fun, fast, deep and relatively easy to learn
- Crafting is hot garbage if ran by the book
- Heightening spells can be clunky for spontaneous spell casters
- Bestiary doesn’t always list the effect of spells and abilities, requiring you to memorize them or search them out
- A single bestiary with no NPC’s and very little home-brew support until the Game Mastery Guide releases is painful
- Could use a wider selection of interesting magic items