Can the Pathfinder RPG divine the path to D&D’s future?

My gaming group’s been playing in the World of Greyhawk for more than a decade. Greyhawk’s a traditional fantasy setting, one of the first for D&D, and it’s very much inspired by the likes of Jack Vance’s Dying Earth, J.R.R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings, and Fritz Leiber’s Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser. It’s a sword and sorcery realm in which the story revolves around rank-and-file adventurers, rather than the antics of super-powered heroics of uber-mages or unstoppable drow warriors.

The setting, and our campaign, has a lot of history. We’re not eager to give up either.

With Paizo’s new Pathfinder RPG, we might not have to. Paizo carried the torch of Dungeons & Dragons by publishing its namesake Dragon and Dungeon magazines for five years, and then continued that tradition with their Pathfinder module series – have announced their going to stick with D&D 3.5 rather than upgrading to 4th edition. But they’re not just going to keep publishing adventures for the old game system; they’ve announced their releasing their own game based on the 3.5 SRD.

Pathfinder won’t be exactly the same as 3.5; instead, they’ll be upgrading the system, fixing rules that are clearly broken or difficult to use (I’m looking at you, Grapple and Turn Undead), streamlining feats (Power Attack, Cleave) and fleshing out classes with enhanced abilities, all with an eye toward maintaining the traditional fantasy feel of Dungeons & Dragons 3.x.

This is in sharp contrast to Dungeons & Dragons 4th Edition, being released by Wizards of the Coast, which is clearly going for a modern fantasy/World of Warcraft-inspired game.

Traditional Fantasy, Upgraded Design

As someone who isn’t eager to abandon his long-running campaign, Pathfinder has a lot of appeal. It promises to fix what was broken, and inject enough new DNA into the old system to keep things interesting. The people behind it are veterans of Wizards of the Coast and TSR – hell CEO Lisa Stevens and publisher Erik Mona were practically synonymous with Greyhawk for a few years in the late 1990s and early 2000s.

In short, they don’t just play my kind of game, they publish my kind of product.

Paizo’s released the alpha version of Pathfinder as a free PDF, and have announced a year-long playtest. Periodic updates to the alpha – based on player reports and in-house discussion – are being published as well. A beta of the book will be published in print form at GenCon 2008, with the final version being released in 2009.

Perusing the alpha, I find a lot to like. The standard races from 3.5 are there (something that can not be said of 4th edition), more or less the same as what you’d find in the existing Player’s Handbook. There are a few racial tweaks, such as the addition of the questionable “unnatural beauty” trait to elves, which grants them a bonus to interactions with other races (but which, IMHO, isn’t needed as a racial ability; the Charisma bump should cover it) but fans will find much familiar  here.

Only four classes are covered in the alpha, but they are some of the most important ones in the game: cleric, fighter, rogue and wizard. Each has sees new abilities added to their level progression lists; clerics gain new domain powers which replace their previous domain spells, wizards gain school powers (like domain powers), fighter’s learn how to fight better in their armor (lessening their heavy armor skill penalties over time) and rogues gain new tricks at earlier levels. Each retains the feel of the original class, but offers additions that keep the class attractive at higher levels.

This should help offset 3E’s insane proliferation of prestige classes – if your core class has more tricks, you’re less likely to want to pull a prestige class out some obscure d20 source book.  The wisdom of some of these additions is debatable – I don’t know that clerics and wizards needed quite so many additional powers, but it’s intriguing.

The races and classes follow the standard design philosophy of Pathfinder, which is more about adding elements to 3E, and less about changing what was there.

The Fix Is In

That said, there are some much needed changes. In his introduction, Pathfinder designer Jason Bulmahn says he wanted to fix the rules that were most likely to cause slowdowns at the table – stuff like Grapple checks and Turning Undead. It offers alternatives for both, and I like them because they hew closer to the core rules. Maintaining a Grapple is now a Skill Check, with a target DC determining how well you grabbed your opponent. Turning Undead now damages the undead with a wave of positive energy. Gone is the complicated 2E mechanic that forced players to calculate hit dice affected; now clerics do a certain amount of damage based on their level.

Undead save for half damage; tougher undead get a bonus to their save. Undead who fail their saves and who aren’t destroyed can still be shaken as per the original turn. Moreover, burning a turning attempt now heals characters near the cleric. This is a good mechanic, allowing clerics to spend more time casting the spells they want to cast, rather than constantly having to burn through their lists for healing.  While some in my group argue this isn’t a huge problem, to me it seems like a change that just makes sense.

A Maze of Tiny Twisty Passages, Some Alike, Some Different

Things get murkier when venturing into the revised Skill and Feat systems, and here in lies the reason why my group might not change to Pathfinder.

The Skills system has been changed so that players gain a certain number of skills per level based on their class and intelligence, and gain additional skills as they level up. This seems like an unnecessary addition to me – while the Skills system could use some streamlining (as Pathfinder does by combining skills like Bluff and Sense Motive into Deception, as well as other similar consolidations) I don’t think it needed any sort of limits on the number of Skills a character could have. If your class lets you have 10 skills as class skills well, and you want to put a rank into each of them well, more power to you. There’s definitely an argument to be made for broad vs. narrow-focused characters; it doesn’t need to be settled in the rules.

The Feats system also makes changes – Power Attack now offers a bonus based on the your Strength bonus, rather than your Base Attack Bonus. Cleave now allows an extra attack whenever you hit your opponent, not just when you drop it. There are also a host of new feats, but my primary concern is with these older ones, and my concern is the same as with the move from 3.0 to 3.5: how the hell do we know what’s different?

Yes, in theory everyone should read through the book, and hopefully people are familiar enough with the old rules to know what’s different in the new ones. But practically speaking, this didn’t happen.  The adoption of 3.5 brought a number of improvements to the game, but it also gave rise to 3+ years of disagreements over the rules, which inevitably meant we’d have to consult a rule book. One side would then be proven right … and the other would grumble frustratingly about how it didn’t work like that under 3.0 (never mind if it did work like that; at this point we’re all too confused to easily remember the difference).

I don’t want to reopen that can of worms. I don’t want to switch our campaign to Pathfinder, and then spend another three years arguing about the differences between it, 3.5 and 3.0.

Which brings me back to the changes to Skills and Feats. I’m not in favor of changes to Dungeons & Dragons just for the sake of change, and that’s what the tweaked Skills system feel like. Specifically, the mechanic restrict how many skills you can know at a given time strikes me as something that people are going to forget or get confused about.

With Feats, I realize some of them aren’t as elegant as they could be, but I don’t think Cleave and Power Attack are so broken as to be revised this way; the same goes for the rest of the feats in the core 3.x rule book. I’d rather have players be able to sit down at the table and know that their feats and skills work pretty much the way they did, then to have to scramble for a book every time they want to use their fighter or rogue.

Now this may seem like something of a contradiction – why am I in favor of changing Grapple and Turn Undead but not Skills & Feats? To me, the key difference is that the former are self-contained subsystems; they work on their own, independent of the rest of the rules. They’re easy to swap out because of that. Skills and Feats, however, are integral to the rules system; while it’s easy to fix any one feat or skill, changing a bunch of them leads to players second guessing the rules they thought they knew.

An Unneeded Power Up?

My other concern with Pathfinder is the general powering-up of the game. It feels like the core rules are being re-balanced in favor of the later 3.x product line (books like Complete Arcane, Complete Champion, or Complete Scoundrel). I liked the lower-power feel of the original 3.5 Player’s Handbook, and I’m not sure we need all these cool extras, even if they are cool.

Pathfinder definitely has potential. They’ve done a lot to alleviate the confusion factor by including sidebars throughout the Alpha explaining what they’ve changed from the Core Rules and why (though curiously, a block explaining the new Skill system is absent). If they include this for every major change in the book (including Feats) it could go a long way toward helping my players embrace the system. Such extra text is worth its weight in gold (or platinum) because it clearly identifies what’s knew, and increases players comfort factor.

Of course, nothing says my campaign is going to change systems at all. We could very easily keep on playing Dungeons & Dragons 3.5 for the next five years, relying on our dozens of old source books. The danger there is that our group will fall out of the gaming mainstream, making it harder to recruit new players, but I suspect that Dungeons & Dragons 3.5 will remain popular for some time. Paizo clearly feels the same.

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