The new Pathfinder roleplaying game released a while ago, and while I was excited, I didn’t play the game until years later.
This post is about three things. First, how we picked a roleplaying game for a new fantasy campaign. Second, why we landed on the Pathfinder second edition this time around and what sources we included. And, finally, our experience from the first nine sessions.
The goal is to inspire you to try new games.
Quitting Fantasy RPGs and the Inevitable Return
When Pathfinder 2e released, I checked out the new books. Everything looked good. Pathfinder should have been obvious to our group. However, I was tired of fantasy and ready for a change.
Instead, we dived into Vampire: the Masquerade, then Call of Cthulhu, and a couple of years passed sleepily in the Shire, as they say. I played Dungeons and Dragons online, which was fun, but the game itself was never exciting.
Maybe I was done with tactical fantasy?
Then, eventually, the itch returned. It was time to play fantasy.
Fantasy RPGs, You Say? Well, We’ve Got Options.
When shopping for a fantasy roleplaying game, you may get the impression that Dungeons and Dragons is the only option. It is not.
After our Call of Cthulhu Masks of Nyarlathotep campaign came to a grisly end, we had a roll call — a session zero if you will — to figure out what we wanted to play.
Choosing what to do next is a group decision. Running a proper campaign is often a 30-session or more commitment, so this is a big deal.
I believe setting up a game means making three choices: system, setting, and style of adventure. All roleplaying games intertwine the choices in varying degree — games like Call of Cthulhu or Vampire: the Masquerade have strong implied settings and a certain style, while Fantasy Age makes fewer implied assumptions.
I came up with some promising ideas. After running two essentially linear investigations, I was tired of knowing all the answers and wanted a sandbox. I wanted a story with dark themes and consequences, but perhaps not as gloomy as Call of Cthulhu.
Systems shortlist included Dungeons and Dragons, Pathfinder, Fantasy Age, Warhammer Fantasy Role-Playing, depending on how we configured the three choices above.
Dungeons and Dragons. Our group started out with the classic Dungeons and Dragons Basic Set (1984) — the Mentzer “red box” — which means a variant of D&D always is an option, although it has a lot of baggage.
D&D has changed. We can debate this, but, in my opinion, it’s mostly for the better. Whenever I flip through the “red books”, I’m hit by nostalgia, but I’ve never seen myself going back and play the 1980s-version once I dig into the details. I enjoy the tactical part of the modern game.
The D&D implied setting has become clearer for each edition. The worldbuilding is brilliant if you like the D&D lore. I enjoy old-school Forgotten Realms lore. Back in the day, Greenwood was my dude, and D&D peaked with the third edition Forgotten Realms Campaign Setting (2001) and BioWare’s Baldur’s Gate II (2000).
Today, D&D is a subgenre of its own. It is not generic fantasy; it is D&D. There is nothing wrong with that. However, it defines tone and style.
After playing D&D 5e online since 2014, I’ve realized the current D&D rules were not fast and dirty enough to be fast and dirty, and not tactical enough to get me excited about combat. While enjoyable and slick, it’s not for me.
However, returning to my session zero, despite my lukewarm take on D&D 5e, I figured we could play D&D with the right setting. I had nothing prepared, but knew I would enjoy a classic Forgotten Realms/Baldur’s Gate rehash or a Guardians of the Galaxy-meets-D&D pastiche. It would be a blast. It would be easy to set up. D&D 5e is perfect for this type of game.
A Pathfinder or Fantasy Age Heist Game. The idea clearest in my mind was a grittier style of fantasy. We’ve never played a thieves’ guild or a heist-crew. The Lankhmar stories about Fafhrd and Grey Mouser are at D&D’s roots. It’s always been there in our games, but we’ve never explored it in depth.
The story I pitched was a Six of Crows, The Lies of Locke Lamora, The Godfather, and Ocean’s 11 mashup: dirt-poor nobodies with theft as the only way to survive in a neighbourhood overrun by organized crime.
Speaking of system options, I was tempting to get Goodman Games’s Lankhmar books, but was unsure of availability, or even if I’d like them. I love Goodman’s old-school attitude, but dislike old-school systems, so I settled for a more modern system.
Green Ronin’s Fantasy Age or Paizo’s Pathfinder systems seemed perfect for the game I had in mind, and would fit my homebrew fantasy world.
A Pathfinder Steampunk Game. My second strong pitch was a variant of the first one, although with a broader range of character factions and with guns. I imagined a steampunk-vibe, like The Nevers (2021) show mixed with Kaja Foglio’s Girl Genius comics, with portal magic and guns. In short, gunslingers and wizards fighting capitalism.
This pitch was clearly Pathfinder 2e, using Guns and Gears (2021), or perhaps Victoriana 5e from Cubicle 7, if I could find the book. I had a clear idea of an awesome new homebrew setting and was ready to explore.
Warhammer Fantasy Role-Playing: The Enemy Within. For the flimsiest of reasons, I have always liked the style of Warhammer Fantasy Role-Play. Not the minis though — the pen and paper roleplaying game. I recall flipping through the Shadows over Bögenhafen (1987) adventure as a kid, thinking “a roleplaying game can be this?” I never got the book and never played the game, but the idea was so powerful it pushed my AD&D game into unexplored territory.
My session zero pitch, however, was half-hearted as we’d just come off a scripted 30-session Cthulhu game with Masks of Nyarlathotep, and it was time for something free-form. Perhaps next time. Running The Enemy Within campaign remains on my bucket list. I cannot compare to the old books because I never got them, but Cubicle 7’s current version is simply fantastic.
Other. There are countless other games and ideas we could explore. I loved the old d20 Star Wars, if we could find a set of books. A Mass Effect pastiche using Starfinder must happen. We played R. Talsorian Games’s Cyberpunk 2020 as kids, and the new Cyberpunk RED looks fantastic. You never know, someone may have an idea that blows everyone away.
So, the verdict. Maybe the group thought I preferred the heist pitch. Maybe I did. Regardless, the group picked Pathfinder, matched with my homebrew, for a darker heist story.
Maybe the hamster trailer in the Spelljammer-marketing tipped the scale? Who knows? I adore Boo, but a miniature giant space hamster may not be what we’re shooting for here.
So here I was, four years after Pathfinder 2e’s release, setting up my first game with the new toys. I got my old game back.
I have and Know Pathfinder 1e, So Why Change to Second Edition?
First edition of Pathfinder is great. The style appeal to me. The group enjoys tactical fantasy with lots of options. If it works, why change to the new edition?
Pathfinder was complex, which I don’t see as a flaw, but a feature. It’s a matter of taste.
Pathfinder 1e has some serious flaws: a broken high-level game, an over-reliance on magic items and “buffs”, the powerhouse (and boring) cleric, and encounter design hinging on challenge ratings (which in fairness must be difficult to pull off). Ask anyone with experience with any roleplaying game, and they will give you a list. This is my list for Pathfinder 1e. I learned (often painfully) to work around the flaws (with lots of trial and error), or (bitterly) accepted them. Life was (mostly) good.
So, Tactical Fantasy? What Does That Even Mean?
Allow me to side-step for a bit. I see D&D since 3e and its offspring Pathfinder as tactical fantasy. What does that mean?
Both have wargaming roots, and it shows. By tactical fantasy, I mean a level of detail where it is attractive to leave the theater of the mind and use miniatures and a grid for combat.
I think trading speed for clarity is beneficial. The game improves when everyone understands what’s going on and has meaningful options.
In D&D 3e (and thus Pathfinder), the combat rules manage themselves once the monsters hit the table. The combat requires few judgment calls and becomes a kind of chess game. Well, in my opinion, anyway.
I enjoy this. At first glance, “rules lawyering” sounds bad, but there is an upside. The group can resolve combat rules disputes themselves, allowing me, the person running the game, to focus on the stuff I enjoy: setting, setup, and story.
So, system choice is important.
Wait, There’s More! Social Encounters
Pathfinder may seem like a game about detailed characters and combat flipping through the hefty 638-page Pathfinder rulebook.
You are not wrong.
You can run Pathfinder as a pure dungeon crawl game. That’s its roots.
However, you can run Pathfinder as an intrigue and investigation game, with Perception, Diplomacy, Deception, Intimidate, and Knowledge skill checks resolving the main bulk of the action.
During the first nine sessions, we had a chase scene, an elaborate break-in, and only five combat encounters. The rest was free-form roleplaying and investigation settled by skill checks. The first straight fight was in session four, and the group entered the first dungeon in session seven.
So, Why Change Edition?
Despite what I consider flaws, Pathfinder 1e is an excellent game. Unless people stop playing it, the first edition never goes away. All the goodies are still there.
With the new edition of Pathfinder, I’d expect Paizo to fix some problems and perhaps give the old system a fresh spin. The previews looked good. Paizo released the new Core Rulebook, the Bestiary, the Gamemastery Guide, and the Advanced Player’s Handbook in rapid succession, meaning I got everything I had for my old game.
So returning to Pathfinder, the possibility of fixes, cleaner rules, and richer character options was impossible to resist.
First, you can play Pathfinder for free. The complete rules are online and the publisher, Paizo, commits to keeping the rules open.
However, I am old as dirt and like books. Reading Wikis to learn games is not for me.
The complete basic Pathfinder is two books: the Core Rulebook (2019) and The Bestiary (2019). The two books cover the same ground as the first edition versions.
Paizo has the Beginner’s Box, which I believe they promised is a slimmer, but not dumbed down, version of the game. Despite the name, the box seems to be a great product for anyone. However, you’ll need to expand after a while, either with the online archive or books. Either way, we should be good.
However, sometimes we all need a little extra.
What Books to Add
If you want more options, you can expand your game with the Advanced Player’s Guide (2020) and The Gamemastery Guide (2020). I believe the technical term is customizing your game and exploring options is fun.
For our nine years with the first edition, we used this four-book setup. They are expensive books, but also an incredible value for money. I felt we only scratched the surface of this game. For me, one of the many pleasures of running a game is to watch the players go nuts with character options, and the Advanced Player’s Guide opens the floodgates.
Also, Paizo has put out themed books like steampunk and undead, complete with character options. Vampire gunslingers, anyone? Hmmm.
However, my group skipped steampunk and vampires, so I shelved Guns and Gears (2021) and Book of the Dead (2022), at least for now.
What Optional Rules to Use
Pathfinder 2e has options to customize the game. They flagged some character options as uncommon, asking the player to check with the GM before use. They tucked away some subsystems in the Gamemastery Guide for peruse and (more likely) save space in the Core Rulebook.
I have argued elsewhere, everything everywhere is bland, so I enjoy optional rules to create something distinct.
My goal for my game is to run a dark high magic story — meaning high-powered magic, but with meaningful choices and consequences, and motivation grounded in characters.
So, going back to my pitch, I want European renaissance-era stories with lots of magic and grubby characters in my homebrew setting. Six of Crows with a Diablo 2 twist. The Godfather meets Dragon Age. The Witcher meets Breaking Bad. This is the stuff of legends. Hence, I want the rules to support this as much as possible.
Flipping through the Core Rulebook and the Gamemastery Guide, I find milestone XP, zero-level characters, free archetypes, high-quality arms and armor, and relics optional rules.
I adore the zero-level characters option, this also from the Gamemastery Guide, for two reasons: it lowers the learning curve for the new system and roots the characters in the world. The idea was to use milestone progression and stay at 0-level until the group was ready to advance.
In addition, I prefer lower magic than the Pathfinder baseline, which involves some eyeballing for encounter design and magic item availability with the first edition. I expect the same with the second edition.
Into The Sinkhole: Learning Pathfinder 2e on the Fly
Once the group picked the Pathfinder heist pitch, most of session zero was deciding the above. In addition, we refreshed some table rules for darkness, graphic details, lethality, harmful tropes, who want dungeons anyway, and so on.
Learning the new systems is always a drag, so we wanted to learn the game on fly, drawing on our first edition experience, making adjustments as we went along.
Three Things Old-timers Must Understand Switching Edition
To prepare, I skimmed the book and watched videos online, and found three things everyone needed to understand starting out.
- Finished characters look very similar between editions, but we build them differently.
- A character has three actions during their turn. We must understand the difference between actions and activities — it’s important, everyone says so. Nine sessions into my first campaign, I’ve only begun to grasp the nuances.
- Encounter design works. With D&D and Pathfinder’s first edition, the encounter math is wonky, so I just wing it. However, everyone says encounter design works in Pathfinder, so reckless GMs beware.
The First Characters
The initial character generation was odd. I assume the designers streamlined Pathfinder for the new edition, and I’d argue making characters with pencil and paper is more viable now. Still, it’s a lot to digest. We set to work. Two veterans needed more time. The newbie set up her apprentice witch in no-time, with an android app. The others were all over the place. Sometimes unlearning old stuff is harder than learning new stuff.
The group put together a team of zero-level characters aspiring to become a bard, two rogues, an alchemist, a cleric, a fighter, and a witch.
I bet Danny Ocean would approve.
Besides selecting character options and equipment, I asked the players to come up with brief backgrounds for dirt-poor characters on the worst side of town, including dirty secrets and immediate trouble. Last time around, I used random tables. Now, the group came up with hooks.
Session One: Character Introduction and Flight
The first session was brief as we still worked on the characters. The group grew up together in The Sinkhole, a part of town where loners die young, so the group begins closely knit.
One player had come up with a backstory involving winning against a sore loser, meaning the character was flush with gold, arriving with food to his half-starved squatter friends.
Once the players described their characters and established a sketchy group dynamic, a band of sellswords come knocking to retrieve the gambling winnings.
The characters, with flimsy equipment and lacking combat skills, escaped out a widow, one of them almost killing himself failing a climb check, leading to a chase scene.
We resolved the scene with a contest of Perception and Local Lore checks, but the characters could shake the sellswords. The outlook was bleak until the apprentice alchemist spends his single fire bomb to buy time.
Session Two and Three: The First Heist
After escaping the sellswords, the team decided offense is the best defense and made a list of what’s worth stealing in this horrible neighbourhood. They devised a plan to infiltrate the favorite tavern of a local gang leader, drug the gangster, and steal his little black book. Which is very dangerous (see the Gamemastery Guide for stats) for 0-level characters, even if the gang leader doesn’t kill people that annoy him. No fighting rats in the sewers for this crew! However, accidents happen and early character deaths are serious blows to new campaigns.
The characters set to work. Cue cool music for the heist preparation montage. The apprentice alchemist devised a sleeping poison. Two characters got jobs at the tavern. The aspiring bard practiced a song and dance routine. The waitress was going to slip the gangster a sleeping drug. What could go wrong?
Skill resolution was fast-paced as the characters executed the first step of their plan. The players described what they are doing, and we resolved the outcome with skill checks. They were ready to attempt the theft.
When the gang leader arrived at The Sinkhole tavern, the next step begins. The team poisoned the gangsters, but was only partially successful. However, the poison made the gangsters wish for an afternoon nap. The guards remained a problem, but the team eventually stole the gangster’s notebook and made a clean escape with no witnesses.
After the session, several players expressed they were ready for their character to advance to the first level. However, I want to run a proper fight before leveling to the first level. We were three sessions in, albeit short ones, with no combat yet.
Session Four to Six: Investigating The Sinkhole
For the next three sessions, the team investigated The Sinkhole and made plans.
Selling the stolen notebook was a problem. They could not put it on the market, as it would reveal them as the thieves, and decided using the information themselves. It turned out this book was a treasure trove of vague plot hooks and confusing secrets. The tavern waitress and bouncer wisely kept their jobs, at least for now, to obfuscate their role in the book theft.
As the investigation proceed, the team dealt with petty rivalries and learning about local power struggles.
In terms of game rules, the sessions were mostly us just talking. Social encounters involved occasional skill checks to resolve conversations or remembering lore. Running around talking to people, being perceptive, detecting lies.
For a stretch of four sessions, we ran two brief and amusing fights. First, a character’s mentor feigned an assassination attempt as a diversion. Second, two characters are beat up by a young ruffian (see the Gamemastery Guide)they trailed, until resolving the conflict by fleeing and then telling the ruffian’s mother. Mean streets, and so on.
We forgot about the three action turns, but it did not matter. Both characters and NPCs were amateurs. We’ll get it right next time.
Session Seven to Nine: The Fish Market Tunnels
It was time for a dungeon. Remember the list of what’s worth stealing in The Sinkhole? Well, the list included forgotten vaults under the local ruined temple, located deep in a gang turf, which I secretly tied to several characters’ backstories.
The characters groveled to local goblins for sewer access and soon entered their first dungeon. The minis hit the table and we play what Paizo at first glance designed Pathfinder for: a dungeon crawl.
For every session in the dungeon, they explored a couple of rooms and had one fight. First a rat swarm (finally!) and a couple of guards under the gang compound. Then three skeletal champions and an imp in the shrine crypts.
The game slowed down as we ran combat with the full group. We were learning the new system, a large group, and I wanted to test the characters’ capabilities. This is the point I bet Fantasy Age would have played faster.
Remember the warning about Pathfinder 2e encounter design rules actually working? We have seven second level characters against three skeleton champions and an imp. I almost slaughtered the team. Checking the math afterwards (hindsight is beautiful), gives me an encounter budget of 190 XP for a second level party, adjusted as we were six characters that session, which puts it somewhere close to extreme according to the design rules. I was damn lucky all the characters made it out alive. Clever players.
The Verdict: A Critical Hit?
To sum up, with the first campaign well underway, I love this game. Fast social encounters and detailed combat encounters are what I want from my games. I want both, which I believe is the point of Pathfinder.
When the campaign is over, I may return to this topic.
Share Your Thoughts!
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The Reading List
As of writing this in mid-January 2023, Pathfinder just hit the zeitgeist when Wizards of the Coast made a PR-blunder with planned changes in the Open Gaming Licence.
I cannot do justice to the debacle that followed. Bards will sing about it.
However, with the influx of new players, Pathfinder designer Jason Bulmahn tweeted a guide for Pathfinder beginners to check out.
To enjoy D&D at its peak, check out the 3e Forgotten Realms Campaign Setting . Which works almost perfectly with Pathfinder. Also check out Shadows over Bögenhafen. Both are affiliate links.