I have received a copy of the Pathfinder Second Edition manual from Giochi Uniti in order to write this review. For those interested, this RPG is also available in Italian at the Giochi Uniti store (which we thank for the Italian distribution) at a price of €59.90. This is why all the images are taken from the Italian version of the game.
Back in the now distant year 2009, Paizo released the first edition of Pathfinder, a role-playing game that took all the basics of D&D3.5 and set out to create something even bigger and more complete. Success was not long in coming, and deservedly so in my opinion. In 2010 the work was translated into a number of languages. Ten years after its original release (2019), Paizo released Pathfinder Second Edition. This new edition was created as an independent evolution of the largely D&D 3.5ed-based first edition.
In the Second Edition, Pathfinder has undergone changes roughly comparable to those that occurred in the transition from D&D’s 3.5e to 4e to 5e. In the same manner, the final product is the result of years of analysis and is very different from the first edition. The distance between the two products is considerable, although they still have many details in common.
However, we already anticipate that, given the deep changes, the new version is not compatible with the previous one. The different “numerical approach” and the simplification of the calculations make it necessary to convert any materials that you wish to transpose.
A Look at the Setting
But let’s stop a moment to establish some context for this icon of modern epic fantasy RPG’s. This work is one of the most important exponents of the genre, it has a very rich proprietary setting, that has evolved over the years, thanks to the APs (Adventure Paths, collections of modules that make up long and deep campaigns) written to support it. Players have witnessed (and still do) these evolutionary changes by experiencing these stories as they continue to be released. In this way the events of the first edition (AP’s) have already taken place in the second edition (heralding the current Age of Lost Omens), without requiring the players to play all of them, specifically. Information useful for understanding the current situation in the game world is included in the Pathfinder Second Edition core rulebook (although this review doesn’t contain any spoilers).
The power level is definitely high in Pathfinder 2e; all the PC’s grow considerably in their level-ups and what they are capable of is well beyond human limits. The setting manages to bring the cornerstones of fantasy together in a fluid way. Some areas are more primitive, thick with jungles and inhabited by dinosaurs. Others have a technological level that includes firearms. And the use of cultural templates from the Real World provide myriad opportunities for game play, from Transylvanian vampires or classic empires to Arabian deserts, gateways to other planes, and more from ancient sagas, history, fairytales, short stories, novels, movies – even other RPG’s.
Because the world of Golarion is not the only playable world, you can also find the classic planes of existence, all interconnected by lore and “divine” bonds. All these details are noted in this manual, needing no other reference books.
The “Weight” of the Pathdinder Second Edition Core Book
Are you afraid that some aspects are taken for granted? Absolutely not! This review is based on reading the nearly 650 pages of the Pathfinder Second Edition core rulebook and we assure you that everything is there. Do not be frightened of the page count, however; a perfectly adequate font and an impeccable classical two-column layout make consulting the tome simple and convenient. The precise thematic division of contents and the very useful final glossary with attached index allows you to navigate its pages without getting lost. On the side of each page, the thematic subdivision of the contents it belongs to is clearly marked.
The last pages contain an empty character record sheet. I admit, it’s one of the things I liked the least. Don’t get me wrong, it’s complete and usable; the problem is that the graphics are pedestrian, especially when compared to the quality of the rest of the book.
All the materials used for the manual are excellent; the hard cover properly protects the tome, the pages are sturdy but at the same time serve to enhance the images. The illustrations and artwork are a huge point in favor of this work. There are many, all original and all to be admired. The style sometimes a little irreverent has remained, but here it is even more interesting. A very real leap forward in quality is evident when compared to the first edition, the style more mature and intriguing.
But a book shouldn’t be judged by the cover, right? Let’s dive into the contents! The first point of note is the idea behind the work, the order. If the first edition seemed well done, here lovers of rational order will melt like an ice mephit hit by a red dragon’s fiery breath.
The New Order of Mechanics
The use of Traits for each concept reveals the first instance of the application of the new order. They are “labels” attached to almost every element (item, spell, creature, etc.) in order to define it. This classification eliminates any doubts regarding when to use a certain mechanic or which targets are valid for a certain effect. I personally love this stylistic choice. Another type of classification is that given to items. In addition to having their own traits, they are also characterized by a number that indicates the ideal minimum level that the characters should have to obtain them.
The task resolution dice tests are carried out with the classic d20, but acquire a greater depth. To highlight sensational successes, rolling 10 or more over the Difficulty Class (DC) yields a Success with Additional Benefit(s) or a Critical Success. Likewise, a very unfortunate die roll can lead to a a Failure with Complications or a Critical Failure. These extra consequences are clearly specified for each circumstance.
In addition, the degrees by which skills are distinguished have been eliminated in favor of a more dynamic approach that reminded me of a mix of D&D5e and Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay. Each skill is measured by a level of training that ranges from Trained to Legendary. This level (in addition to unlocking new Actions) adds an additional bonus to the basic bonus provided by a given discipline, the sum of the key attribute modifier plus the character’s level. Not being trained allows you to use only the key attribute modifier. Furthermore, the opposing tests are no longer present; simply the one who undergoes the action has a fixed DC that the one who performs the action must pass. Finally some tests are expressly to be done in secret, to discourage the meta-gaming.
The Protagonists of the Game: Constructing the PC’s
To the casual eye, character creation might seem a bit more sparse than previously, but this impression isn’t accurate. In the core manual of Pathfinder Second Edition there are a good number of classes and races (now called Ancestries, but more about that later in this review). They are not yet comparable in number to those of the first edition, but it is only a matter of time until additional support manuals are released to remedy this.
The first choice is character “Ancestry”, which differs from the classic race concept. its modularity distinguishes it: each Ancestry has different bonuses to attributes, languages and heritages. The latter represent the different varieties that make up a specific Ancestry (Arctic elf, Woodland elf, …) or race hybrid (half-orc, half-elf). Each Ancestry also has a unique set of Talents from which players may choose at level-ups. Rejoice in the fact that each member of a particular Ancestry can be well modeled and distinguished from the others!
Background is selected next. This personalization greatly stimulates role-play and provides PC’s with training in skills and another Talent.
Then there is Class selection. Each Class includes a whole range of skills that the character may wield. Weapons, armor use, saving throws, and skills in which he/she specializes, any spells, and everything that characterizes him/her in terms of viable Actions available. Here, too, we encounter Talents; they actually combine the old class abilities and also incorporate the Pathfinder First Edition archetypes’ functions. Level-ups allow you to unlock new Talents, making the character even more unique. It is also possible to select some aspects of other classes and progress in their development. This aspect removes the classic multi-class, replacing it with something more fully satisfying (here called Archetypes).
How Fantastical Can It Be without Magic?
Pathfinder Second Edition certainly wouldn’t please its audience (and this review) if it didn’t provide those oh-so-satisfying fireballs we’ve come to expect, don’t you think? Magic is often the key element that makes fantasy RPG worlds special. I was genuinely worried about not finding anything new. That would have made me sad. I’m not saying that the magic in first edition worked badly, but it needed an evolution. Luckily, I was not disappointed!
The spells are many, nothing is missing of what one might expect and they have a whole new dynamism. They can be intensified. That is to say, they may be cast from a higher level slot than the native one it would normally occupy. In this way, they acquire extra effects or those already present are intensified. Have you always dreamed of creating a twentieth level magician specialized in Magic Missiles and still performing them? Well, now you can! And you’ll have fun throwing a swarm of Magic Missiles prepared with a tenth level slot (yes, the maximum level of spells is now 10) — as big as ballista’s stones!! Spells are divided into four Traditions, based on their origin: Arcane, Divine, Occult and Primal. Then there are special formulas, namely Rituals. They are powerful but little-known spells that allow multiple spellcasters to work together to try and produce special effects.
Finally, a note of merit also goes to the magical items, now much easier to manage. The enchanted weapons and armor are particularly well-made and allow you to assemble them in an interesting yet balanced way.
Combat of Pathfinder Second Edition
In Pathfinder Second Edition combat is one of the most prominent and important original aspects of tabletop RPG’s and also among the ones I like most.
Each turn focuses on the management of three Actions (in addition to free actions). This approach avoids having to remember which tactical options are feasible together and which are not. Every possible activity costs from zero to three Actions.
As long as a character has Actions available, he/she should generally be able to engage in activities. In addition, certain activities classified as Reactions allow characters do things outside their normal turns.
For the rest, the fight follows the classic mechanics of the game, giving its best with a battlemap on which to calculate the range distances and areas of effect. This also facilitates management of most peculiar situations, such as fighting in water, on horseback, or in flight. These circumstances are dealt with explicitly in the text, meeting the needs of less experienced GM’s.
Other subtleties significantly streamlined the time combat takes, which I also appreciated. First of all, damage is divided into types (Physical, Energy, Aligned, Mental, Poison, Bleeding, Precision), each explained in detail.
In addition, the Conditions that may afflict characters are clearly defined, as if they were additional Traits. Even the combat maneuvers are elegantly resolvable through simple d20 tests of skill; the almost total absence of attacks of opportunity made the combat more dynamic and not even the Summoners will be able to overwhelm the battlefield, needing Actions to control their beasts!
Some words must also be said about death; reaching 0 Hit Points represents fainting; then a series of dice rolls causes the life of the character to oscillate between various steps of gravity, until the definitive departure. However, Hero Points allow you to re-roll and save the situation.
The Right Space for Other Activities, too
Although combat is certainly one of its strengths, Pathfinder Second Edition is also very attentive to other types of play. Elements that were previously neglected are recognized with precision
Two concepts in particular I appreciated:
The Exploration Mode has precise mechanics for traveling, geared to the pace the PC’s adopt. In fact, a variety of possibilities are highlighted, including searching the area as they move, constantly on the look-out for magic or following some expert guide. Many gaming groups already use similar dynamics, but they are finally, clearly spelled out in this manual.
The Downtime Mode proposes rules for various activities during rest periods. Those actions/activities make much more sense than in first edition, where they were almost useless; and yes, we are talking about common town-based activities (the old Profession), building useful items for the party (the old Craft), hunting in the wild lands and taking care of wounded companions. Another very useful function of these Downtime rules is Retraining. Finally, there is a set of rules in the basic manual to replace the disappointing progression choices.
Final Considerations on Pathfinder Second Edition
The sessions flow smoothly on both the player and GM sides. For the latter, the situation is even more pleasant, as the manual is full of ideas and help. There are more than 600 pages of reading, but it is absolutely worth it. Whether for the beautiful writing, the beautiful images, or the excellent content, it is one of those manuals that you will never tire of reading. Creating a PNG is much easier and faster than creating a PG. Furthermore at the end of the manual there are even ten-ish pages describing dozens of types of traps (called Hazards), all different and some very funny. Farewell to dungeons dotted only with the usual pit with spikes!
Despite the fact that I have compared Pathfinder Second Edition to the first edition several times in this review, this should not be seen as a competitive comparison between the two. My comparisons are aimed at better explaining certain concepts, as the two games can coexist very well. Both of these two products absolutely deserve to be tried on their own merits – and what better time to dive into the second edition than now? Considering also the possibility of participating in official sessions with the Pathfinder Society, I would say that thought deserves consideration.
I conclude by saying that this RPG in my opinion will be one of the most played in the coming years and it deserves this success. It manages to be technical without being a grind. It offers a lot of material, but is well-structured and ordered. I would like to write more about it, but now I have a new character to create – nothing conveys the wonder better than trying it for yourself!