Sunday, January 01, 2012

New Year, New (for me) Game: Discovering Pathfinder

I'm late to the party, but I recently discovered that Pathfinder is pretty cool.

Back in November, I picked up a few of the core Pathfinder books. I hadn't really looked at the game since the early days of the open playtesting/beta/whatever.

I was impressed.

Pathfinder isn't D&D 3.5. I think I assumed it would be D&D with the numbers filed off, a few rules tweaks, and some rebalancing. It could be described like that, but I feel like it is really its own game insofar as it has a different design philosophy than 3.5 did.

D&D 3.5 was all about the expansion of options. Obscure new feats, prestige classes, and other rule subsystems created a tone that encouraged players to scout out strangeness. The rules encouraged players to multiclass, play unusual races, and otherwise seek out "cool stuff" from fringe supplements.

Pathfinder is all about making the core PC options cool. Base classes are not only filled out so that there aren't any "dead levels" at which the class doesn't give you any benefits, but they also gain powerful capstone abilities at 20th level. The new favored class rules (choose any class as a favored class at level one... gain +1 hp or skill level - or another bonus based on your race/class combo - each time you take a level in that class) encourage you to stay single-classed. The class archetypes in the Advanced Player's Guide allow you to tweak base class abilities to fit your character concept.

I think the class archetypes are one of my favorite features. For instance, there are Bard archetypes that swap out the Bard's performance abilities for themed abilities. Some of these are subtle: the Court Bard gains abilities that are little more than tweaks of standard Bard abilities. Others are complete class rewrites: the Arcane Duelist swaps out performance for abilities that magically enhance her combat abilities. Some archetypes essentially replicate base classes in 3.5: the Sandman removes Bard performance abilities and replaces them with spell-stealing and a bit of sneak attack (basically recreating the Spellthief).

A big part of what I like about Pathfinder's approach is that it uses carrots rather than sticks. Players aren't punished for making choices that the game designers don't want them to make. Instead they are rewarded for making choices that are deemed desirable. The favored class rules are an obvious example of this. Class skills are another. You can learn cross-class skills to your heart's content in Pathfinder. They don't cost any more than class skills. They don't have a lower max rank. Instead, if you take a single rank in a class skill, you get a +3 in it. As a result, PCs tend to have at least one rank in each class skill. Another stick-removal: nothing has XP costs. If you buy an item creation feat, you aren't penalized for using it. Why would you be?

Pathfinder doesn't really address my biggest gripe about D&D 3.5 - that it is all about the next level and the eventual build - except by trying to make PCs a bit more interesting at lower levels (primarily via more feats and more little, colorful abilities). Is that enough? Maybe. Is it better than 3.5 - a game that I enjoy despite its flaws? Yeah.

I think that's the appeal here. I like D&D 3.5, and Pathfinder incorporates all those things I like about it and improves on them.

I've started running a Pathfinder campaign. Follow-up post on that is coming soon.

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