Originally, I was going to do a review of Warmachine this time, but as I’m planning to run an online game of this for the Bohage in a couple of months (if you want in there’s a link to the forum thread at the bottom of this article) I figured I’d do one of Pathfinder, one of the largest free RPGs on the market.
Yes, free. Not free as in torrents, not free as in illegal scans, free as in the publishers genuinely wanting to get it to as many people as they can despite the risk to their profits. There are two System Reference Documents on the web – one on Paizo Publishing’s own website and a larger one that incorporates third-party content, simply called the Pathfinder d20 SRD. These’ll also be linked at the end of the review. The only parts of the game that aren’t free are their published adventures, namely their Adventure Path line which puts out two whole campaigns a year and has been doing so for almost five years now. All of the gameplay mechanics as well as info on their campaign setting – Golarion – are freely available.
So what are these gameplay mechanics? Well if any of you have played Dungeons & Dragons 3.5 or any computer games that used the basic system (namely both Neverwinter Nights games and the Knights of the Old Republic games), then you should already have a pretty good handle on Pathfinder since it started as a tweaked version of DnD 3.5 made for those who were less-than-impressed with DnD 4th Edition.
In short – just about every dice roll in the game apart from damage is based on a twenty-sided dice, a d20 for those not familiar with dice shorthand. You simply roll the dice, add on relevant modifiers and hope that the total beats a target number called a Difficulty Class (or the target’s Armour Class in the case of an attack roll). Beyond that, the difficulty comes in how spells interact, more complex actions like mounted combat or grappling and the odd class feature (the debates on when a Paladin has violated their code of conduct could fill an entire university server room – although that may be from most of them devolving into the dreaded Alignment Debate).
Like practically every edition of Dungeons & Dragons, Pathfinder characters are very class-based (as opposed to point-based like characters from Shadowrun or most of White Wolf’s games) – almost all of their abilities will be derived from the class they chose. That being said, each class still has plenty of flexibility – whether it’s a Wizard’s spell selections, a Rogue’s choice of rogue talents or equipment, or how a Fighter turns the enemy into bite-sized chunks. Part of this is inherited from it’s parent game – skill and feat choices being very varied and allowing plenty of different ways to build a character – but Paizo added a few of their own ways to go about things, the biggest of which are alternate racial traits and class archetypes.
Now, both of these are optional so feel free to skip this paragraph if you don’t want to bother with them. Both alternate racial traits and class archetypes basically swap out certain abilities of your chosen race or class and replace them with a different ability. For instance, a Human character could swap out their free bonus feat with a bonus on Sense Motive checks and, if they have an animal companion or the like, can boost one of their companion’s/familiar’s/etc’s ability scores. Archetypes are things like the Drunken Master for the Monk or the Swashbuckler for the Rogue – both change certain class features and, as a result, change how the class plays. None of them are game-breaking, though I’d advise you to avoid the Drunken Master and the Spellslinger (a Wizard archetype that gives them a gun and abilities related to combining their firearm and spells) – both are notably weaker than the base class and may not be worth it (ask in the planning thread for my campaign if you want to know why).
There are a number of big changes from 3.5, many of them for the better. I won’t go into how spells were changed since that’d make this review several times longer than it needs to be, but many class abilities were either nerfed or at least tweaked to both avoid game-breaking power and to streamline the system. For instance, the Druid’s Wild Shape ability (a power that lets them turn into animals) in 3.5 had the character take on much of the animal’s stats, though was very unclear on how an altered Constitution score would affect the Druid’s hit points. Nevermind the fact that you would often have to grab the Monster Manual and flip through to find the animal you were using and generally slowing the whole game down for everyone. The Pathfinder Druid, however, now simply adds bonuses and penalties to their base scores and some special abilities if the form has any (obviously, turning into a parrot would get you the ability to fly) – the bonuses are based on the creature’s size rather than their build. So while this does mean that turning into a dire wolf makes you just as strong as a gorilla, it’s enough of an abstraction to cover the ability’s intent without making things needlessly complex.
One buff the system got over it’s parent system, and one I particularly like, is that cantrips – the weakest level of spells in the game – now are not expended when used, unlike higher-level spells. If a Wizard prepares Light at the start of the day, he can cast that as many times as he likes, unlike in 3.5 where he would’ve had to prepare it as many times as he thought he’d be using it that day. At low levels, this means that spellcasters can still throw out weak damage spells without having to rely on a crossbow or other weapon while at higher levels means that they won’t have to worry about basic utility spells.
On the subject of the spellcasting classes, the Sorcerer and Wizard both got actual class features this time around. In 3.5, the Wizard just got a familiar, a feat that let them scribe their own spell scrolls and a bonus spellcasting feat every five levels while all the sorcerer got was the familiar at level one and that was it. Now, Wizards can take either a familiar or a bonded item (which gives them a once-a-day ability to cast any spell from their spellbook without preparation) and their choice of specialist school gives them additional abilities – a Transmutation specialist, for example, get a free bonus to any one physical ability score and can change which score it applies to when they prepare their spells, can launch an invisible telekinetic fist at enemies and, at eighth level, gain a weaker version of the Druid’s Wild Shape ability.
Sorcerers got something similar, but rather than a specialisation, it’s more a potential origin for their spellcasting abilities – one might have daemonic ancestry that reflects itself in their magic, or maybe draconic or even some connection with alien beings beyond the stars (and by alien beings I mean alien as in Cthulhu, not alien as in Turian). This choice of Bloodline grants an extra Class Skill (a skill that your character has a natural inkling towards), a series of bonus feats to choose from, bonus spells the character knows, a bonus to certain types of spells and a series of powers that are unlocked as the character rises in level. The Aberrant Bloodline, for example, (the Cthulhu one) grants some interesting powers – the signature one being long limbs that extend the Sorcerer’s reach for spells that have to be delivered by touch. At their highest point, this power lets the Sorcerer’s arms stretch out to 15 feet… which would be an interesting sight, certainly.
The Sorcerer Bloodlines are probably my favourite part of the system as they can provide a lot of flexibility and flavour to the class. But one other change that was very well-received was the introduction of a new mechanic called the Combat Manoeuvre Bonus. In 3.5, the specific bonuses you’d use for things like a bull rush, a trip, a disarm, a grapple or whatever all had to be worked out more-or-less on the fly every time you wanted to use it. The Combat Manoeuvre Bonus in Pathfinder was, basically, working out most of the modifiers to those actions ahead of time. Now, to disarm someone, you basically make an attack roll with your Combat Manoeuvre Bonus versus the target’s Combat Manoeuvre Defence. A drawback of how the mechanic was handled does, however, mean that these actions are slightly less-likely to succeed, but at least they’re easier to work out so you might end up using them more frequently.
With the mechanics being available for free, I feel I should talk a bit about the setting Paizo have written for their game. Now, the setting’s totally optional and Paizo actively try to keep their core books (the main Core Book, Gamemastery Guide, as well as Ultimate Magic and Ultimate Combat and the Bestiaries) totally setting-neutral. So if you wanted to try and port over the races and classes from Eberron and run a campaign there, then there’s nothing to stop you aside from the effort.
For the most part, Golarion is your typical fantasy world but with plenty of twists to make it unique. Small things like the elves having almost monochromatic eyes or gnomes undergoing a fatal process called Bleaching if they stop getting new, vivid experiences or large ones like how the first human civilisation was actually uplifted by aberrant monsters for their own purposes who then dropped a meteor on them when they were not longer required or that the elves retreated through a portal to another planet to avoid the devastation of said meteor. At least one god actually got the job by accident – he undertook the Test of the Starstone while on a drunken bender and woke up a few days later as the god of Freedom, Ale, Wine and Bravery. Prophecy also is no longer trusted in Golarion when Aroden, the god of Humanity, was prophesied to return but on the day he was supposed to appear, died instead. With a prophesy of that scale falling flat on its face, what chance does any other prophesy have?
On the whole, the setting actually has a much darker feel than your average fantasy setting – not helped by many of Paizo’s writers and staff being fans of H.P. Lovecraft. It’s not taken to the degree of GrimDark, ala Warhammer, but the setting and Adventure Paths both have a more mature feel to them than most of the settings for DnD but they are careful to remind DMs to keep their group’s comfort level in mind; after all, squicking out your players is never a good idea unless you know that they’ll like it.
Technology is also a touch more advanced in Golarion than the fantasy-norm; the printing press for a start has been around for a while and the magic anomaly-filled nation of Alkenstar in the Mana Wastes has developed flintlock firearms in response to how unreliable magic is in the Wastes. Astronomy has also advanced to the point that they know that Golarion revolves around the sun and that there are many other planets in their star system – said planets and their inhabitants got a fair amount of detail in the Distant Worlds setting book.
Each country in the Inner Sea Region (the part of the world that’s gotten the most focus) feels unique and has their own feel and tone. From the Romani-style Varisians to the Renaissance Italy feel of Cheliax right over to the techno-barbarians of Numeria or the god-shunning nation of Rahadoum, you’re bound to find at least one country you like the look of.
Despite how willing they are to merge science-fiction elements into the setting (like the crashed starship scattered across Numeria or magical portals leading to other planets) they are aware that it’s something of a touchy subject and that there are at least as many fans of the combination as there are detractors – they are slowly testing the water with this through the aforementioned Distant Worlds book, as well as a Numeria-related novel and the Shattered Star Adventure Path which starts this July. Paizo want to do something more with Numeria and other sci-fi elements but won’t progress until they see how well-received these experiments are. If you don’t like the idea of planetary portals or a nation covered in pieces of a crashed starship, these are easy to write out of your version of the setting.
Now that the praise is out of the way, there are some problems with the system, many of which were inherited from DnD 3.5. For a start – spellcasters (namely full spellcasting classes like the Cleric, Druid, Sorcerer and Wizard) after about 7th or 8th level do have the potential to become very powerful with the right combination of spells, feats and magical items and that melee classes tend to have very few options in combat (other than the aforementioned combat manoeuvres, it pretty much boils down to which guy you want to hit with your sword). That being said, the problem’s been around that long thanks to it also existing in DnD 3rd Edition that forum topics about the problem are probably a dime a dozen if you can find the right words to put in the search and you’re bound to find an answer to the problem eventually. One I’ve heard a few times is that the spellcasters focus on augmentative spells to buff the party for the fight and throwing out the odd battlefield control spell like Wall of Fire or Grease. This way, they contribute to the fight and give the other players their chance to shine as well.
Failing that, you can try and port content from DnD 3.5 over to Pathfinder to close the gap – personally I recommend the Tome of Battle; it did a great job bringing melee almost up to par with magic (at least where the gap wasn’t as much of a problem) without being game-breaking. Now if only Wizards had actually gotten the errata for it right instead of having only half-a-page before a production error turned it into a reprint of the Complete Mage errata (which they never fixed due to 4e’s release).
It’s also easy to be overwhelmed by indecision sometimes thanks to the sheer number of feats, spells and equipment in the game. This is pretty much the only reason I find character build handbooks for the game – to narrow my choices down and direct me towards some of the useful ones. I don’t always take the best option that they recommend, but it does tell me which choices to avoid and why. Although sometimes this indecision, and the subsequent wandering around the SRD for what else to take can lead to some interesting ideas – like a Wizard I made once who was also a bit of a knife-thrower and had a wrist-sheath holding yet another knife.
Despite its faults, Pathfinder is a excellent game backed by an awesome company and many of the people who work at Paizo often post on their forums to answer questions or concerns. Their willingness to release the rules for free (along with much of the setting information thanks to the Pathfinder Wiki) and general support of the community have done more for the company than nearly any other RPG publisher can claim. And despite the rules being free, both their PDFs and print books have amazing production quality and brilliant art from a variety of artists – the main one being Wayne Reynolds (who also did the cover of the DnD 4e Player’s Handbook and several other DnD books and a fair few Magic the Gathering cards – just stick his name into a Google Image search) who’s art has adorned the covers of all of the Pathfinder core books and who drew the portraits for each class’ Iconic character.
For those who played DnD 3.5 and weren’t a fan of what Wizards did with 4e, I heartily recommend Pathfinder. If you don’t like 4e’s focus on combat or just never tried a fantasy RPG, I’d still give Pathfinder a go. If the magic/melee disparity annoys you, then feel free to skip it. If you’ve never tried RPGs at all, it might be worth a go – it’s not like you’ll be wasting money if you just use the SRD.
Paizo Publishing website: www.paizo.com
Paizo’s own SRD (core books only): http://paizo.com/pathfinderRPG/prd/
Full SRD (includes third-party content + feats, spells, etc from printed adventures and setting books): http://www.d20pfsrd.com/
Pathfinder Wiki: http://www.pathfinderwiki.com/
Planning thread for my Rise of the Runelords campaign: http://www.thebohage.com/forum/viewtopic.php?f=21&t=783