Roll Perception Plus Awareness: Pathfinder RPG

Welcome back to Roll Perception Plus Awareness, a column about the world of role playing games. Two installments ago, I mentioned that the end of Dungeons and Dragons version 3.5 led to a reboot of the Dungeons and Dragons franchise into its 4th edition. This time, I will take a look at the other major game to come out of the end of D&D version 3.5…a game that isn’t D&D at all, but aspires to carry on the 3.5 tradition: Pathfinder.

As I mentioned in the aforementioned column, the Open Gaming License offered by Wizards of the Coast for 3rd Edition Dungeons and Dragons led to a proliferation of d20 products and RPG companies seeking to tap into that market. Among those companies was a company called Paizo.


Paizo already had a working relationship with Wizards of the Coast, publishing their Dragon and Dungeon magazines through September 2007. Paizo enthusiastically put out modules and Adventure Paths for Dungeons and Dragons 3.5, as many companies did, until Wizards of the Coast announced their 4th Edition Plans.

Faced with the prospect of the base 3.5 system going out of print, and unwilling to submit to the revised and more restrictive Open Gaming License that Wizards of the Coast planned for 4th Edition, Paizo decided to create their own offshoot of the 3.5 system of their own. And thus, Pathfinder was conceived. After extensive “beta” playtesting, Paizo finally released their core rulebook in 2009. Since then, they have followed up the core book with a steady stream of modules, setting materials and other additions to the game. In this respect, they have been very much in keeping with the Dungeons and Dragons tradition of an extensive list of follow-on products.

As an extension and cleanup of the D&D 3.5 system rather than a full reboot, Pathfinder RPG might be thought of as “Dungeons and Dragons 3.75″. It builds on the Third Edition chassis, attempting to clear up issues and continue its traditions and feel. Personally, I think that while it aspires to be a generic roleplaying D&D-like game, Pathfinder, especially in its modules and setting material comes across to me with a much more gritty, sword and sorcery feel. If Dungeons and Dragons 3.0’s world evokes, say, Brandon Sanderson, then Pathfinder RPG’s feel is more of a Jon Sprunk or James Enge sort of milieu.

But is the game successful? Forget the business I mentioned with 4th Edition Dungeons and Dragons about “roles”, daily and encounter powers and the other radical reboot notions. Most of the things in Pathfinder RPG will be similar to those who played Dungeons and Dragons in the 80’s and 90’s.

Wizards are still fragile. Spells work much the same as in earlier editions. Memorize spells and use them, Vancian style. The prestige class mess is pared away. Some thorny rules are clarified. Grappling rules, for instance, which are to Dungeons and Dragons as the “Infield Fly rule” is to baseball, have been addressed, for instance. Fighters and Rogues have been rebalanced to be viable and strong characters at high level, which no doubt helps give that sword and sorcery feel. Classic Dungeons and Dragons at high levels tends to be dominated by magic-users; Pathfinder seems designed to be much more balanced toward the combat oriented classes.

Make no mistake, though. This is not a rules-light system by any stretch. The complexity of the Dungeons and Dragons 3.5 system is still there. For someone who has never played any Dungeons and Dragons, the amount of complexity in the 576 page rulebook might be daunting and intimidating, although that rulebook includes both the player and the Gamemaster rules in it.

For those who have played Dungeons and Dragons, though, the buy-in for Pathfinder is a lot easier and a lot more palatable, I think, than for Dungeons and Dragons 4th Edition. The chassis that underlies Pathfinder RPG is the same chassis that builds upon the earlier editions of Dungeons and Dragons. Terminology, concepts, and basic mechanics are very much the same. If you took the hypothetical time-traveling D&D player from 1980 I invented in my column and gave them a copy of Pathfinder RPG, they would have much more familiarity and comfort with it than Dungeons and Dragons 4th Edition. Large portions of the game are simply unchanged in the Pathfinder RPG.

Like Dungeons and Dragons 3.5, there is a fairly loose Open Gaming License applied to the Pathfinder RPG. Thus, if you want to take a look at the system document and see for yourself that it very much resembles Dungeons and Dragons pre-4th Edition, you can do so here.

The last reason to pay attention to Pathfinder as a RPG is the tie-in novels. Paizo has had a tradition for a number of years of publishing some formerly out of print classic novels from the 1940’s and 1950’s (under their Planet Stories line) but now, just as Wizards of the Coast has done with Dungeons and Dragons, Paizo has taken to publishing books and stories based in the Pathfinder world. Fantasy authors like Liane Merciel (author of the River Kings Road) and Howard Andrew Jones (author of the Desert of Souls) have written Pathfinder tie-in novels.

Many thanks for clarifying some parts of Paizo’s history and Pathfinder go to Jim Groves, who has written for a number of Paizo products and modules.

4 thoughts on “Roll Perception Plus Awareness: Pathfinder RPG”

  1. I haven’t gotten to play for awhile, but I find the Pathfinder/D&D 3.5 hybrid to be a good structure for role-playing, especially, as you noted, in a fantasy/sword-n-sorcery setting.  I’ve used it once for a campaign that was cut short, but I thought that, with a few homebrew rules we added in, the system worked well and, as you also noted, was quickly engaged by the other players, all of whom came from a D&D background. I was not enamored of 4th Edition, although shifting from the Vancian magic system sounds like a good idea. Before the campaign stopped I had started working on a new magic system (taking some ideas from the 3.5 Warlock) that gave lo-level mages a bit more power.

    I somehow missed the OGL aspect of Pathfinder; thanks for bringing that up and linking to their SRD.

  2. I haven’t played Pathfinder, but for what I’ve seen it indeed looks more accecible than other D&D editions. But talking about d20, I prefer D20 Modern and Star Wars Saga. Mainly because the setting is is so different from fantasy, wich honestly I’m tired of it in RPG’s. By the way, when are you going to talk about other games, like Traveller, Gamma World or Paranoia?

  3. Hi Aldo.

    I felt that I had to start on the most familiar ground before branching out to less well known games. Thus, I always planned to do D&D and Pathfinder early, so readers would have a degree of familiarity.

    Now that I’ve covered D&D (and its greatest imitator). I feel free to branch out. I have a whole shelf of games in my bookcase to talk about…

  4. Another interesting contrast between the two is the format: Pathfinder is available as a PDF (a PDF that is kept current with changes in the rules, I believe), Dungeons and Dragons 4e is not.

    Wizards of the Coast experimented with PDFs, but stopped after concerns about piracy.

    This is one of those instances where the mass and inertia of Wizards of the Coast and Hasbro are keeping them from being as nimble as the much smaller Paizo (though at this point, I’d posit that Paizo is the second biggest publisher of RPGs in the US). WotC needs to convince a massive body of shareholders–most of whom traffic in tangible toy goods–to the value of meeting new media demands; Paizo (who made their name and lucre selling both tangible and intangible goods for WotC) is already convinced of it.

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