From Modern Mythcraft to Magical Surrealism

Game Review: Pathfinder Fantasy Roleplaying Game Core Rulebook

When the first copies of the 4th edition of the Dungeons & Dragons game rolled off of the assembly line and hit store shelves gamers found themselves with a serious choice to make: should they adopt the new system or stick with the game in its still-popular 3.0/3.5 iteration?

In some ways, this was the same choice that players had made with every prior edition: gamers had already purchased scads of rule books, source books and adventures for the old system and switching to the new edition-which in the case of 4th edition should be noted isn’t backwards compatible-could be an expensive proposition. This familiar quandary was more pronounced in the case of 4th edition: it was a substantially different game. Nominally, it was still Dungeons & Dragons, but some gamers felt that with its heavy emphasis on miniature combat it played more like a board game than a traditional tabletop role-playing system.

Others likened the new character abilities to the popular massive multi-player online role-playing game World of Warcraft. In themselves, these changes were neither bad nor good-just different. While many gamers enjoyed the changes, there were some who chose to continue to play the game in its old edition, ironically swelling-at least in spirit-the ranks of the self-described Old School Renaissance players who had rejected Dungeons & Dragons 3.0/3.5.

Third-party publishers of adventure modules and sourcebooks had decisions of their own to make. The prior edition of the game had been published under the “Open Gaming License (OGL)”, which essentially allowed these publishers to produce and market compatible products, royalty-free. This license also allowed for the creation of new gaming systems based on the Dungeons & Dragons game engine, which led to the development of popular games that could be used independently of Dungeons & Dragons itself, like Mongoose Publishing’s Conan role-playing game. However, the new 4th edition of the game replaced the Open Gaming License with a more restrictive “Gaming System License (GSL)”.

While the new Gaming System License still allowed for the creation of royalty-free materials, it restricted the kinds of materials that could be produced, including variant systems like Conan, as well as forbid the reproduction of essential game rules like the character creation process.

Much like the customers they served, reactions were mixed to the new license. Initially, Wizards of the Coast forbade publishers from producing products under both the OGL and GSL, with the result that some declined to produce products for the new edition. Wizards eventually capitulated, modifying the GSL to allow companies to produce products for both licenses, but even so, there were those who chose to continue to support the older edition either alongside or instead of Dungeons & Dragons 4th edition.

Paizo Publishing has positioned itself as foremost among those companies that have chosen to hold the 3.5 line with the release of the Pathfinder Fantasy Roleplaying Game Core Rulebook, an independent stand-alone variant of that older edition, released under the OGL. Pathfinder’s release, along with a slew of planned supplements and adventures, is intended to fill the gap left in the wake of Wizards’ move to the 4th edition, not only preserving the now out-of-print older edition but expanding it for a customer base that liked their Dungeons & Dragons game the way it was.

This is not to say that it is a clone of the previous edition, though. Pathfinder builds upon 3.5’s success, retaining what worked while implementing various changes that, for the most part, are solid improvements. The Pathfinder Roleplaying Game book is very large: a 576 page hardcover that weighs in at nearly five pounds. Fortunately, for those hapless gamers who must travel between sessions, this single book effectively combines the contents of both the Dungeons & Dragons Players Handbook and Dungeon Masters Guide between two covers, meaning that this is likely to be the only book a player will need to carry. Gamemasters will require additional materials to run the game. More about that later.

Players will find that Pathfinder offers plenty of option in creating new characters. All of the original, “classic” races are covered, including the gnome and half-orc, both of which were absent from 4th edition. While there are no important mechanical differences between the way they are presented in Pathfinder and Dungeons & Dragons, most of them have received minor tweaks in terms of presentation and backstory. Instead of tinkerers, gnomes are positioned as refugees from the fey realms, capricious and driven to adventure. In a seeming nod to Tolkien, elves are now described as being taller than the average human. While none of these really affect character creation, they do go toward establishing an identity for Pathfinder separate from Dungeons & Dragons.

Where Pathfinder really shines is in its revision of the eleven core classes: barbarian, bard, cleric, druid, fighter, monk, paladin, ranger, rogue, sorcerer and wizard. All of the classes offer more options for player customization, so as the character gains levels he or she can evolve differently from others of the same class. Barbarians, for instance, receive access to an entire array of “rage” based powers, gaining bonuses to his or her attack rolls, devastating special attacks, and even bonuses to certain skills and savings throws in some circumstances. Wizards can specialize in nine different schools of magic, and sorcerers have ten different arcane bloodlines to choose from as the source of their magical abilities, each offering access to special bonus feats, skills and spells. Players who enjoy playing either of these classes will also be happy to know that both now have a hit die of d6, rather than the murderously low d4. Rogues also get a higher hit die, d8.

Speaking of rogues, they too gain access to some impressive and useful powers, such as the ability to cast minor spells at higher levels, as well as inflict attacks that stun or kill. Clerics can channel the energy of their god and release it in a 30 foot radius, using it to heal party members or harm undead creatures. If there’s one change in Pathfinder that is likely to spur debate among players it is this ability, as it now takes the place of the cleric’s ability to “turn” the undead. For the most part, it is a useful trade-off, as it allows clerics to use their non-healing spells during the game instead of sacrificing them for healing spells, and when it is used to attack the undead it is always harmful, as even a successful saving throw still results in half-damage. The amount of healing or undead-smiting energy available to the cleric goes up every few levels, ensuring that the power continues to scale in response to higher level challenges.

Purchasing and calculating skills is a lot simpler in Pathfinder. Each class starts with a base number of skill points modified by adding or subtracting his or her Intelligence modifier. This number stays the same every level. Gone are the “half-levels” of Dungeons & Dragons. Also gone is the distinction between “class” and “cross-class” skills. Instead, players who buy ranks in skills favored by their class gain a bonus. The skills themselves have been simplified, with many of them consolidated into single skills.

Gamemasters will also find Pathfinder improves on formerly difficult rules, such as special combat maneuvers. Each character has a Combat Maneuver Bonus and Combat Maneuver Defense total, and formerly onerous tactics like grappling are now handled by simply rolling a twenty-sided die, adding the bonus to the result and then comparing it to the opponent’s defense. Other duties, such as calculating experience points, are clearly explained and easy to apply. Gamemasters now also have the option of choosing between slow, medium or fast methods of character progression, to better control how quickly their players level up.

As mentioned, Pathfinder is very nearly a complete system. The back of the book contains charts and descriptions of magical treasure and almost everything else the gamemaster needs to run his or her game, with one major exception: monsters. There are none included with the book. For those, GMs will have to look to the Pathfinder Bestiary (released in November), or to an old copy of Wizards of the Coast’s Monster Manual or some other third party source. To be fair, many groups will already have access to these things and for those that don’t there are sample monsters and free adventures downloadable from Paizo’s website. However, including a few monsters in the core book would have been useful, especially for new players. With the exception of this minor quibble, Pathfinder is an excellent product and a welcome alternative for those who don’t feel a connection with the latest version of Dungeons & Dragons.

Pathfinder Fantasy Roleplaying Game Core Rulebook
Paizo, hardcover, 576 pp., $49.99
ISBN: 978-1601251503