Saturday, January 02, 2010

How Pathfinder Lost its Way

Just over eighteen months ago, Wizards of the Coast released a new Fourth Edition of the Dungeons & Dragons game. Shortly thereafter, I posted to the effect that there were some things I liked, some things I really didn't like, and some distinct oddities in the new rules. At length, I concluded that I wouldn't be switching to the new edition.

However, when Wizards released the Third Edition, they also released the core of the system under an Open Gaming License, allowing anyone to take the rules and develop their own adventures, expansions, and even revisions. As it became apparent that Fourth Edition would not be similarly open, and that the revisions were receiving a distinctly mixed reception, a company called Paizo announced that they would be doing their own revision, entitled Pathfinder.

I had eagerly awaited Pathfinder. Indeed, I had hoped to get it on release day, only to find that I was in France at the time, and so could not. Still, I got the new rules as soon as I got back, and spent some time reading them. I finally finished the Core Rulebook just before the New Year, and have since read the Bestiary.

And my impression? Will I be switching to this new version of the game?

Um, no.

There is an awful lot I like about Pathfinder. The core of the game is recognisably the same as the game I have been playing for six years, with some key improvements. A lot of the options that used to be wasted space in the books (being clearly less good than the others) have been improved, to the point where the game once again has seven good races and eleven good classes.

The big improvement to the game comes in the form of "Combat Maneuvers", which have standardised the old systems for disarms, sundering, grappling, and the like into a single coherent system. This is a very strong mechanic, and one of those "I wish I had thought of it" developments.

But the problem with Pathfinder is that it is not "better enough" to compel a switch. My existing group are all very familiar with the 3.5e of the rules. We all have the rulebooks, and although there are some things that bug us, we never had huge problems.

To switch to Pathfinder, we would all need to invest in copies of the new rules (granted, I have a set, but the others do not), they would all need to read the 576-page core rulebook, and then we'd need to spend some time assimilating a whole host of minor and annoying changes. The force of inertia is just to strong.

My other issue with Pathfinder is that it features yet another round of "power creep". It seems that with each version of the game, the numbers get bigger - in the 3rd Edition, a Fighter of a given level had certain abilities; in the 3.5e revision, that same Fighter got some new powers that made him just that bit more powerful; in Pathfinder he's just a bit more powerful again. The monsters are all more powerful too, so it's not a massive issue by itself, but given that the biggest weakness of the 3.5e version was that the numbers got out of hand as the game went on, this does not bode well for the new version.

I'm also saddened by a number of missed opportunities in Pathfinder. The Fourth Edition of D&D introduced a marvellous new concept called Skill Challenges. That mechanic could have been adopted, adapted and improved for Pathfinder, but alas has not. Similarly, Fourth Edition introduced some powerful new methods of designing encounters; these have also been ignored. And where 4e made the 'low-level humanoids' more distinct from one another, Pathfinder leaves them as-is, leaving Kobolds, Orcs, Goblins, Hobgoblins, Gnolls, Bugbears and Lizardfolk feeling very much like the same monster in different masks. It's a shame.

I don't want to come across as being too negative. I really like Pathfinder for what it is. I certainly prefer it to D&D Fourth Edition. And, if I were making a recommendation to a new player, that would be the game I would suggest. On balance, I even say it is a better game than 3.5e. It's just not "better enough" for me to switch over.

#1: "Pathfinder Roleplaying Game Bestiary", by Paizo Publishing


Anonymous said...

Dear Stephen,

Are you really allowed to include this bestiary as #1 on your 2010 list? Surely you read a significant portion of it in the waning seconds of 2009?

Also, happy new year to you and yours.


Steph/ven said...

Nope, I actually didn't read any of it until 2010 started. Besides, the rule was always "books I finished in..." which is why I was so determined to finish Lankhmar before the bells.

Anonymous said...

Then it is allowed on two counts!