Monday, August 24, 2009

Pathfinder First Impressions

As a teenager I thought size was a measure of quality in an RPG, but these days anything beyond 128 pages doesn't hold my attention unless it is particularly well written.

Pathfinder is 576, that's nearly 600 pages of fine print.

To be fair it is effectively a DMG and PHB combined in one tome, and what I've read so far is perfectly fine writing. Yeah, much of it is reference, spells, magic items, stuff. But still, thems a lot of words there.

I like the Art. A lot. Paizo is in a tight spot. Traditional D&D would be far too conservative, and modern fantasy like Warhammer is way too outrageous for their audience. And they have to distinquish themselves from Wizards - while using the same artists Wizards uses. They did this by returning to the subject matter of 80's Dragon magazine covers, but with contemporary styles. What I mean is the illustrations depict scenes of what you might actually do in the game. The cover, instead of being some characters facing you trying to look "bad ass", they are engaged in an epic battle with a dragon located in some ancient ruins. This asthetic is apparent in almost all the art inside the book. Except in the character generation section, appropriately, most of the illos are full action scenes in interesting locales.

They've allowed Wayne Reynolds to let loose with the detail and stuff he is so well known for, in ways I haven't seen before. I've read complaints on forums that the art is "dungeon punk", sure its completely unrealistic, but so is casting a spell, fighting a dragon, or drinking a magic potion.

Monte Cook writes a nice intro. In my opinion he is the "Wayne Reynolds" of RPG writing, that is to say his writing is insanely detailed, and he does a lot of it. It is most appropriate that he gives kudos to Pathfinder here.

The layout is good, font choices are good. Everything is legible despite how many words appear on each page. And the graphic designers still managed to get quite a bit of decoration in the headers, footers, and gutters in an aesthetically pleasing fashion without infringing on the text. Nice work.

The Getting Started chapter does a lot of explaining, but I can't imagine this RPG is for a beginner. And an experienced D&D player doesn't need this much intro, it is a bit overkill. It's almost a dictionary/glossary before the Character Generation stuff even begins. Really, all this could have been moved to an appendice.

Creating a character is familiar, but there are a couple things different. Each step has included optional rules in the text, not as a sidebar. Ability scores can be rolled for or purchased. The purchase option includes four methods from low fantasy to epic fantasy. To my design aesthetic this is playing it a bit too safe. I'd prefer the designer stick to what he thinks is the best rule and relegate options to a sidebar or appendice. It would make the design speak with a stronger voice, it would demonstrate confidence.

The ability modifiers stick with the 3.0/3.5 scale. Personally I'm most fond of the range in Moldvay's basic/expert rules as expanded in Wrath of the Immortals. But for Pathfinder's design goals it uses the obvious and most sensible scale for their audience.

The races are presented nicely, if somewhat blandely. This is the danger when trying to make generic templates - the results can be bland. We have the classic line up: dwarf, halfling, elf, human, gnome, half-orc, and half-elf.

I find that the presentation of the classes is much stronger than the races. The writing is more engaging and the illustrations are intense and filled with the potential for great adventure. As always happens though with more flavor comes more specificity. This is a very particular flavor of D&D. I like the line up here: barbarian, bard, cleric (I like the domains), druid, fighter, monk, paladin, ranger, thief...I mean rogue, sorceror (very cool bloodlines), and wizard.

Skills are slightly condensed from 3.5, I think they could have been simplified more. My biggest complaint with 3.0 was the way skills rolls replaced what players used to puzzle their way through.

There are a lot of feats in this book. Too many. Not a good thing in my opinion.

The weapons section is nice, illustrations and descriptions are effective. This is one of the more successful sections of the book I think.

Alignment. This is one thing I think 4.0 got right, by eliminating problem alignments like Chaotic Neutral, and simplifying it just a bit. But, Pathfinder sticks with the classic AD&D moral/ethic axis we are all familiar with.

The additional rules section is 10 pages of encumbrance, movement, age, height/weight, vision, mounts, and object AC. Considering all the detritus 3.0/3.5 collected over the years this is fairly succinct.

But then we get to 26 pages of combat rules. No thanks.

The next three chapters are magic, spells, and prestige classes: arcane archer, arcane trickster, assassin, dragon disciple, duelist, eldritch knight, loremaster, mystic theurge, pathfinder chronicler, and shadowdancer. Prestige classes are one place I depart with many of my OSR colleagues. I really like them, adds a lot of flavor to the game, and creates interesting options for players as the campaign develops. Keeps things from getting stale. I'm not sure this is the list of prestige classes I'd choose for a core rulebook, but these look fun.

The rest of the book is basically the DMG. Looks like plenty of advice, plenty of treasures and magic items. This review has already grown much larger than I intended, so I must skip it. I haven't read any of this section yet anyway.

In summary, if you like 3.5 you'll probably love this book. It's a bit like 3.5 on steroids. One thing I do like is that it tries to stay true to D&D without abandoning the roots of the game. I'm not likely to ever play it, but I don't regret purchasing it. It is a finely crafted work.

I'll close out with one of my favorite illos from the book, the header for the Gamemastering section:


  1. I have kicked around getting this but I just can't pull the trigger. I agree about the art, I like a lot of the newer art out there these days and like the old as well.

  2. I'll get it eventually as I am a collector as well as a gamer but I'm in no rush. It is another D20 fantasy product and I need one of those like a need a another hole in my head.

    Barking Alien

  3. It really is a stunning book. Looking back at what I wrote it probably sounds more negative than I meant.

    I was hoping for more simplification of 3.5 than Pathfinder presents.

  4. The strength of Pathfinder, to me, is the writing in their modules. When WotC pulled the plug on both Dragon and Dungeon magazines, I had money unspent with Paizo. I opted to get the first few Pathfinder modules instead of a refund.

    I was pleasantly surprised. Strong scenery, supported with bold writing and characterization, along with new takes on common monsters. e.g. goblins. I'm not a huge fan of story arch that dictates player action, but these were certainly well done enough that they might be workable in a different setting.

    The Pathfinder rules on the other hand...No thanks. 3.X was the main reason I turned to retro-clones in the first place.

  5. whats the distinction between
    gnome and dwarf ?
    or gnome and halfling ?

  6. Thats the problem with character races. You are actually dealing with cultures of a human physical size subgroup. Humans actualy range from 1'10" - 8'11" (17d6+5") so when they talk about halflings 2'10"-3'2" They are describing an offshoot of the human race that have become fairytale creatures. They are a distinct human culture we dont consider human. Anything outside 4'7" - 6'4" isnt considered normal (and wasnt considered human) and we allocate them to the fairytale world where we keep dwarves, Elves, and ogres.
    Some of the tallest people in the world carry a particular phonetic (or variations on that phonetic: Sun, -Sen, -San, zen-) in their family name that can be traced back to one african tribe: Khoe-San. Not understanding that has held the game back. Races should have been regarded as human cultures and human characters needed to be far more diverse. Diversity is what the game lacks.