Pathfinder 2E, Reviewed
I didn’t think I had room for rules-heavy games anymore. Years ago, I tried to learn Pathfinder 1E, but gave up halfway through rolling up a Rogue. I got really into 13th Age as my preferred D&D-alike, loving its freewheeling design and “stripped down 4E” vibe. More recently, I’ve ventured into FitD, PbtA, and other story-first, rules-light game systems, as well as the weirder, DYI side of the OSR.
But something tugged at me. I missed the strategic, granular gameplay of maps-and-minis gameplay that 4E excelled at. Sure, I had Lancer and Emberwind, both exemplary games. Couldn’t I let another one into my collection? I had looked at Pathfinder 2E (henceforth referred to as PF2E) a few times, but a few things made me bounce off:
- My word, those are a lot of pages to read.
- The character sheet’s color scheme is an affront to all that is good and pure in this world.
- I already had a negative reaction to the previous edition.
But still, something tugged at me.
I heard good things about the action economy. While I couldn’t wrap my head around how the degrees-of-success mechanic would play out, it sounded novel enough. Then I read someone on RPG.net talk about how PF2E handled multiclassing in a balanced, modular way, and I could resist no longer. I ran down to my FLGS and bought the Core Rulebook.
I’m really glad I did. This game is great.
So, what’s great about it?
I wasn’t far into the introduction when a paragraph leapt out at me:
Pathfinder is a game for everyone, regardless of their age, gender, race or ethnicity, religion, sexual orientation, or any other identities and life experiences. It is the responsibility of all of the players, not just the GM, to make sure the table is fun and welcoming to all.
This should be the lowest of low-hanging fruit, to acknowledge that it’s everyone’s job to make the experience fun and welcoming, but this hasn’t been the case. Throughout the book, and sprinkled into appropriate sidebars throughout the books I’ve acquired since, are passages reinforcing this central tenet. Safety tools, callouts when monster themes might be too much, you name it. Good stuff all around.
But enough about that. What are the things that make the game fun?
Balanced, tactical combat: This was a huge draw for me. The encounter math is spelled out very clearly, making encounter design the easiest it’s been in years. From the player’s side, each class has something meaningful to contribute. Martial characters tend to have a bunch of options to squeeze advantage out of the action economy, while spellcasters trade action efficiency for potent abilities.
Progression with meaningful choice: As characters go up in level, they are confronted with a choice of some sort of Feat. This is probably the most daunting part of the game, but also the most rewarding. There don’t seem to be straight-up bad choices, and the retraining guidelines are generous if you make a choice that doesn’t work out. This means that, no matter if you’re a caster or a martial class, every level-up means you not only get something new to play with (no dead levels!), but you get your choice of things to play with.
Skills matter: Something that’s bothered me about d20 fantasy games is how skill usage tends to get siloed off into exploration, and mostly ignored once combat starts (aside from maybe Stealth). This bothered me especially in 4E, since terrain and forced movement were so important, but nobody really leveraged Athletics or Acrobatics to use them to their advantage. I can’t recall anyone using Intimidation to scare enemies into surrender. Most damningly, while there were rules for knocking over loose walls or whatnot for dramatic terrain effects, they were often inferior in outcome to the powers on your character sheet. So why bother?
PF2E takes a different approach. Skills all can do something basic, but if your character has at least one degree of training in a skill, they can often do fantastic effects that can fundamentally reshape the situation, and there’s reason to do them in the heat of battle, as they can often be a better option than swinging a sword a whole bunch for your actions (thanks to the Multiple Attack Penalty). Is your Fighter trained in Indimidate? Why not set the party up for success by Demoralizing your foe? A one-round -1 to defenses doesn’t seem like a lot, but since this also affects the crit range, a small bonus means a lot.
Outside of combat, skills still matter in big ways. Aside from the usual exploration and interaction skills that are commonplace among this sort of game, perhaps my favorite thing is the Medicine skill. Not only does it stabilize the dying, treat diseases, and other expected usages, it allows anyone to be the party healer. That’s right. Your Rogue can be the team medic and get everyone back up on their feet. You don’t need a healbot Cleric, though a lot of classes still get some support/healing options, if that’s an enjoyable play experience for a player.
Archetypes! Are! Awesome!: At the beginning of this review, I mentioned how I had heard that multiclassing was handled in a really cool, balanced way. This is the Archetype system: an optional set of substitution Feats that allows your character to grow in ways outside of their Class. They’re separate from the main Class writeups, which allows them to be tuned so as to not overpower your base Class (nor anyone else). But Archetypes do more than just this! The Advanced Player’s Guide has Class Archetypes, which allow for specialization and variation within a Class. What’s more, the requirements are often easy to slot into just about any character concept you have. Your Druid could be an Herbalist, for example… but so could your Barbarian.
Amazing support: Something I can’t get over is how all of the rules are available online… for free. That’s tremendous. Not only can I “try before I buy” (which I absolutely did), the rules are there in their entirety to help me run games. One of the things that’s driven me off from running 5E is the presence of spell lists in creature write-ups. While they’re present in PF2E as well, the fact that the spell lists are hyperlinks to the actual spells eliminates this pain point.
Wow, that was a lot, but oddly fitting for such a mammoth book. It’s an incredibly dense, rules-heavy system, but learning it is giving me that feeling of knowledge interlocking and clicking into place that I got when mastering 4E. They’re wildly different games, of course, but PF2E has won me over in a big way, which is something I never thought would happen.