Recently my regular group has been playing in a Pathfinder game (when we get time and schedules line up, which is notoriously difficult). In any case, this is my first real foray into Pathfinder – something that isn’t at all surprising to those who know me.
Nevertheless I decided to give this updated edition a shot to see how it was. And it is actually, genuinely much better! So far I’ve been left with two things: a sense of surprise that I’m actually enjoying my time with the system, and a deep conviction that I will never in my life attempt to get a new player into it.
So let’s talk Pathfinder, shall we?
A Critic’s Admission
To begin I’d like to lay my cards on the table. Historically, Pathfinder and I haven’t really gotten along. In fact, I think the only thing I jokingly mock more than Pathfinder is probably Spelljammer.
I’m going to come back to my reasons for this at the end of the post, but I’d like to give an overview to inform what I’ve been looking for in the system. My complaints about Pathfinder 1st Edition can be summed up as follows:
- The system is too complex. While it lacks absolutely inane concepts like AD&D 2e’s THAC0, it still requires far too much effort to play.
- There’s too many required books. With the number of expansions and addons in the original Pathfinder, any prospective GM will need to either have deep pockets or be comfortable with pirating the stuff.
- This last one is a bit more subjective, but in my personal experience the type of game Pathfinder facilitates is far too concerned with numerical superiority and perfection to the detriment of narrative and fun. This says more about my friends who played Pathfinder than it does about the system itself, but it still informed my opinion of the system as a whole.
Basically, Pathfinder 1e was a bloated system with a high entry tax (both in literal money and in the time/mental energy required to learn all of this) and its focus on numbers over narrative killed my interest in it.
Are we all on the same page? Okay cool.
Finding the High Path
Upon opening up Pathfinder 2e for the first time (as a PDF, but whatever), I was pleasantly surprised. The system seemed more beginner-friendly, less convoluted, and more actually enjoyable (to me personally).
I was immediately taken by the system’s treatment of the “races” issue still plaguing D&D. Reinterpreting that choice as “ancestries” was a strong start to reimagining the system entirely. It also fixed a few more minor problems off the bat – the fact that you can have non-human tieflings, aasimar, and genasi is good.
Unfortunately, I was immediately let down by the decision to retain outdated
racial “ancestral” ability score penalties. This really shows a misunderstanding of what the issue was with classic D&D style races. I mean sure, it’s an issue that all elves can speak elvish even if they’re raised by owlbears. And it’s a problem that certain races have bonuses based on culture that the character may or may not have experienced, such as the dwarves’ marital training.
But the biggest issue was the fact that these older styled races are based around an incorrect and outdated concept of some races being “just better” at things than others, while still other races were “just not as good” at other things. I feel like I should split a greater conversation of that issue off into another post, but suffice it to say that I was left both pleased and disappointed by Pathfinder 2e’s ancestry system.
But there were other things I liked as well. I like Bulk (even though my group still doesn’t use it) and I liked the number of choices I was presented with when building my character (but more on that later). And I’m also loving the swashbuckler as a class – it’s a blast getting actual combat bonuses for doing the same stupid, overdramatic moves that I’ve been pulling for free for years now.
The best thing about the new Pathfinder, though, is its availability. They’ve almost completely pivoted from 1e by making all of the core rules available online in a relatively easy-to-read fashion. And rather than not add new classes, spells, and mechanics to the free sphere once they’re released (lookin’ at you, WotC), they’ve been good about keeping it all up-to-date.
A new GM can now actually read all of their players’ builds without taking out a mortgage. It’s phenomenal*.
*Whether it will remain so as the system ages and accumulates bloat remains to be seen, but that’s a general TTRPG issue and not in any way exclusive to Pathfinder.
Taking the Low Path
And that’s about it. I’ve been having fun with the system, but a large part of that I blame on my friends for being absolutely insane and hilarious whenever we play. It’s definitely a system that allows you to have fun with friends… unless they’re new to tabletop roleplaying games. But let’s not rush to conclusions just yet.
I have a few basic issues with the Pathfinder 2e system as a whole. What I’m going to talk about here is the feat options and the use of conditions and keywords.
Then we’ll look at the system as a whole and my ultimate opinion of it – as well as why I would never, ever, try to get someone new to tabletop roleplaying games into the hobby using this system.
Feat Selection, or “Wizard Paralysis”
I’m not sure where we got it from, but my group has a term to explain why we recommend new players pick sorcerer or warlock if they really want an “arcane” caster. That reason is wizard paralysis.
Basically, out of all spellcasting classes the wizard gets perhaps the largest variety of choices when it comes to what spell to use on any given turn. Other classes can prepare from their whole spell list and thus have the potential to use more spells than the wizard will learn, but they have to make that choice in the morning – not during combat.
So if you have a new player who chooses wizard, they’re in serious danger of locking themselves in a cycle of indecision on every turn of combat. Do I use magic missile for a bit of damage? But there’s that one goblin fleeing to get reinforcements… should I use charm person? Cause fear? I could also always end it with a well-placed fireball but then I won’t have it later…
Meanwhile a sorcerer just asks “is this a problem that can be solved with magic missiles or fireball?” If the answer is yes, they cast the spell. If it’s no, they use a cantrip. A warlock has it even easier – almost every turn is eldritch blast o’clock.
Now, how does this relate to Pathfinder 2e? Well, because this system is the literal perfect incarnation of wizard paralysis. For every class. At every level.
Choice is good. It really is, and I enjoy the choices I’ve made in my game. I’ve taken both of the feats that allow me to cause attacks and spells to miss me, and I really enjoy having them. It also annoys our GM to no end, but it’s all in good fun.
But at some point it becomes too much. Even if I filter out the later additions to the system, I’m still left thumbing through a dozen options at every new level. I can take that, it isn’t a problem for me, but for someone new to tabletop RPGs in general? It’s a critical flaw.
This is made even more damaging by how unforgiving the system is with “trap choices” – things that are technically up for grabs but are near-worthless if you take them. The swashbuckler has an initiative feat that’s only marginally better than a nearly identical general feat (Swaggering Initiative vs Incredible Initiative). So taking the swashbuckler feat is essentially wasting a class feat. Which is a poor trade, since class feats are usually stronger, not that you’d know that if you were new.
It’s up to interpretation of course. Different people weigh things differently. But the issue is that, for a new player, any of these trap choices can easily screw over a character. And that’s no fun. Should the GM warn a new player about these? Absolutely. But does that stop it from being a weakness in the system? Absolutely not.
Another point I want to make about feats is just about the numerical advantage that Pathfinder has over D&D. Pathfinder really seems like it has an unimaginable lead on ol’ 5e in terms of number of choices, but having played it I’m really not sure it does. I think a lot of that perceived “choice” is, in reality, an illusion.
Let’s take the fighter as an example. The fighter has 52 feats in the core rulebook. I’ve excluded feats with prerequisites beyond “be a fighter” and “trained in Athletics” – so none of these feats require taking another feat before you can get them.
That’s a lot of choices. Unless you don’t want to use a shield – there are 9 shield-specific feats in there that are wholly useless to you if you don’t use a shield. Oh, and you also can’t count the 9 ranged attack feats that are in there too. And another 7 one hand free feats, along with 3 dual wielding feats, 2 two-hander feats, and likely more. And that’s just the ones I caught with my beginner’s look-through – there are bound to be some I missed (though I believe I haven’t over-counted on any category).
My point is that you never actually have 52 options to pick from. Because many of those 52 options depend on other choices like weapon style. Remember – I didn’t count any feat with another feat as a prerequisite.
Depending on your choice of weapon style, it seems like you lose out on at least a dozen options. So it really shouldn’t be 52 options, it should be “up to 40” options. Also, at maximum you’re giving up twenty-eight feats – leaving you with a total of 24 choices. And again, this is all back-of-the-envelope math here.
Now, does this mean Pathfinder compares poorly with 5e? Hell no, Pathfinder still definitely has more available options. It just doesn’t have nearly as commanding a lead on 5e as it superficially appears to have. A 5e fighter only using the Player’s Handbook has a choice between Strength or Dexterity as a main stat, a choice between six fighting styles, a choice from three subclasses, and (if you pick battle master) a choice between 16 maneuvers. And then eldritch knight has as many choices as the wizard spell list has spells below 4th level, but I’m not counting that.
It also bears mentioning that the Pathfinder system is a lot more open. With 5e, you really only get anywhere close to the same number of choices if you pick battle master. And the maneuvers are also limited based on weapon style and other factors. So Pathfinder definitely has more choice, it just doesn’t have a huge amount more.
One last point – I don’t particularly like how bare-bones many classes are. Since everything is feats, there’s very little that any given class will give all of its members. This is partially a good thing, since it means no two fighters will ever be exactly the same, but it also makes me feel like I’d rather just have a classless, all-feat system instead. It feels like I’m basically building my class from scratch, and I feel like that would be more fun with even more customization.
And I know, I was just complaining about there being too much choice. My point is that if we’re going to have this many choices, I’d prefer to go all the way and dump classes as a concept to start with. But that’s a bit extreme, so I can understand why they didn’t do that. And again, this one is definitely a personal preference sort of thing – many people would disagree with me and present very good arguments.
In Critical Condition
Another big weakness for Pathfinder 2e is the sheer complexity of its system. I’m going to focus on conditions here because I feel they best illustrate what I think is wrong with the system as a whole, but please keep in mind that this issue extends far past mere conditions. Traits, items, spells, feats… it goes everywhere. But right now we’re talking about conditions.
For starters, I don’t particularly like a lot of the condition names. This might just be personal preference, but I don’t feel like “dazzled” and “doomed” do very much to explain what they are. Then there’s other conditions that have overlap either in name (undetected, unnoticed, and hidden) or in concept (frightened and fleeing).
A few of these are unavoidable. While “undetected,” “unnoticed,” and “hidden” are all near-synonyms, there are slight differences between them. I feel like they probably could’ve just made them different levels of one singular condition (hidden 2 is undetected, hidden 3 is unnoticed) but I haven’t read all of the classes in depth and so there could be some issue that would cause which I’m not aware of.
Others could be solved by just eliminating the condition entirely. There isn’t much benefit to replacing “they treat all creatures as concealed” with “they become dazzled” – you’re talking about a three word difference. And as I’ll discuss later, every redundant keyword weakens the efficiency of the system.
I also dislike the numbering system, but only because it isn’t applied consistently. Many conditions can have values attached to them. So you could have “clumsy 2” which is more powerful than “clumsy 1” but less powerful than “clumsy 3.” This is fine. I actually like this system, even if ultimately it still makes conditions too complicated.
The issue is that no condition treats these values the same way. Some conditions use the value to denote a numerical difference – clumsy gives you a negative Dexterity penalty equal to its value. Other conditions reduce their value at set intervals, thus using the value number as a duration. A few conditions have a set duration, with the value of the condition remaining the same throughout the entire time.
How conditions end is also inconsistent. The frightened condition reduces its value by 1 at the end of every turn, ending when it hits 0. The drained condition also reduces its value by 1 until it hits 0, but it does so at the end of each long rest. And fatigued completely ends after a long rest, regardless of its value. Sickened has its value reduced by passing a Fortitude save to retch, while wounded ends only if someone uses Treat Wounds successfully or you get back to full hit points and rest for 10 minutes.
And then there’s stunned, which has multiple different ways of working which are entirely dependent on the effect causing the condition. Sometimes stunned has a value, which then denotes both the effect’s severity and its duration. Other times it doesn’t have a value, in which case it automatically functions at its highest possible level for a set time based on the original effect.
There’s nothing inherently wrong about this, however it does make explaining the system a bit tedious. I really prefer just having each effect specify its duration and strength, so the condition can just be used to tell you what to do with that info. I want to read “they become frightened for one minute or until no longer in sight of you” and then look up what it means to be frightened – not read “they become frightened 4” and then have to reference the back of the book to see how the value works again. I can remember “frightened” the condition when it’s a simple one paragraph description a lot better than if it takes up a fourth of a page.
Finally, in base Pathfinder, there are around forty-two of these conditions. A few of them are more for GMs only, and if you also ignore the conditions which are essentially just references to other conditions (such as with dazzled and concealed) you still end up with 31 unique conditions (by my count). This is far too many.
Every additional keyword like this is another trip to the back of the book, essentially. When you’re a new player, any time you see one of these conditions come up you’ll either have to flip back to the reference or you’ll have to open a new tab in your web browser. You’ll learn over time, of course, but the more infrequent conditions will never be very familiar.
And ultimately it can be off-putting. If someone who is new to TTRPGs comes in and reads a paragraph of text overflowing with bolded keywords, they’re likely to just walk right away again. And that’s not even getting into traits, which are a whole deal all on their own.
I know some people would say “well that’s just laziness,” but the point here is that it drives people away from the system. If you’re learning a new game, you don’t owe that game any attention or effort. It’s up to the game to make itself worthwhile so that you’ll want to invest additional time (and money!) into it.
This is all exacerbated by another bad habit of this system – not even giving hints as to what something does when first mentioning it. Sometimes it isn’t necessary because the name is self-explanatory, like with the blinded condition or the Shield Block feat. but good luck trying to figure out what the hell “dazzled” or “Lie to Me” means.
And it shouldn’t be hard. “You gain the Lie to Me feat, letting you see through others’ lies.” That’s an extra… six words. Just six words to save me yet another trip to the back of the book. And I know it adds up over time, but sometimes you just have to take a little time to make sure your system is understandable.
Plus, you can always save some space by condensing the three separate “sneaking” conditions into a single entry, or by maybe even combining the five separate social opinion conditions into a more succinct format. If only we knew of one! Something like a table of different reactions… or something. A reactions table, if you will.
What this all boils down to is a system that is tedious to explain and even more tedious to learn. If I’m a new TTRPG player, I don’t want to play a system where I have to flip around to different pages every three sentences. I don’t want to be reading a cool description of the edgy tiefling ancestry only to run into yet another obscurely named feat that I have to go look up.
I’m not new to TTRPGs and it still annoyed me. And remember, I’m already a bit of an uncommon case these days – I picked up TTRPGs by way of Advanced Dungeons and Dragons 2nd Edition, one of the most complex systems ever concocted. When I say “I don’t want to learn a tedious system,” what I mean is “I don’t want to learn a tedious system again.”
And this leads to the ultimate problem I have with Pathfinder 2e – I would never, ever try to get a new player into this system. And to me, what that means is that Pathfinder is wholly dependent on Dungeons and Dragons to create its audience. D&D is the gateway drug to the meth that is Pathfinder. And then you have LSD, or as most call it, “Spelljammer.”
This system can’t grow without a steady stream of disaffected players of other, more easy-to-use roleplaying games. If WotC somehow miraculously created “D&D Perfect Edition,” a system that simultaneously fixes every problem (an impossibility, to be fair), then Pathfinder would cease to exist.
A few people would stick around out of nostalgia or personal preference, but the number of new players would decline to near zero. Anything interesting or cool about Pathfinder would simply be ported over as homebrew in the new “D&D Perfect Edition.”
And that is perfectly fine. If Pathfinder wants to be the “advanced” D&D, that’s okay. However I, personally, don’t think a system can succeed on that ideology. The lifeblood of a system is its ability to attract new players. Especially a multiplayer system like this. The less players there are, the more people will move to other systems simply to find groups, much less because of personal preference.
Plus, D&D is experiencing a real rebirth at the moment. If ever there was a time to release a fun, simple system that fixes 5e’s biggest issues while remaining extremely beginner-friendly… now’s the time!
Edit: Since I began working on this post, Paizo (the company behind Pathfinder) decided to release one of their adventure modules converted to 5e. This is great! However I just want to note a little point from the item page on their website*:
"You’ve heard about the quality and depth of Pathfinder campaigns for years—now explore the Abomination Vaults yourself without having to learn a new game system!"
I’m really glad they’re doing this, and I hope it’s successful. I believe they did this once before as well and that one did well, so this one should too. And I had always heard that Paizo’s adventures were better than WotC’s – as someone without many complaints about the majority of WotC’s modules (they’re fine, if inconsistent in quality), this release interests me.
But I do also think this supports my point. People saying this is evidence that Pathfinder is “failing” are… not all that bright, to be honest. I mean, just check. It’s doing fine. They have a massively successful video game funneling new players to them even as WotC’s repeated interesting business choices also serve to shuffle more players their way.
Pathfinder is doing fine. More than fine, in fact! But it is also complex and difficult to learn. And the designers know that! So we’ll have to see what they do. It’s a bright future.
But I can’t really see myself playing it outside of this current campaign. I certainly don’t think I’d ever want to GM for a Pathfinder game – I haven’t even experienced that side of things and I can already tell I wouldn’t like it.
Final verdict? Pathfinder 2e is a masterful reinvention of the original system. It fixes most of the biggest problems of the old system and definitely allows players to have a great time.
However, if you’re looking to get into TTRPGs for the first time, or even if you’ve had D&D experience, I would recommend not getting into Pathfinder. Much easier to homebrew in fixes for 5e’s problems than to immerse yourself in the complexity of this system.
But at least if you do, you can be sure that there is quite a lot of fun to be found. Try swashbuckler, it’s a blast.
*This link is not an affiliate link, just for the record.