What Pathfinder gets right, part one

To hear the fanboys talk you would think that Pathfinder does everything right and there is nothing to fault in Paizo’s premier role-playing game. There’s a lot of truth to that too; Pathfinder does at awful lot very well indeed, and you would have to dig deep to find much to fault at all. It’s not to everyone’s taste but no rules system is, and that is exactly as It should be.Games that try to appeal to everyone are like as not doomed to failure from the start. Much better to find your target audience, and treat them well.

For this reason I am watching the development of the Next Edition of D&D with extreme interest. Can they really do the nigh-impossible and create a system which appeals to everyone? They’re making all the right noises so far, so we’ll see. I wait with bated breath.

Meanwhile, we are taking a walk through every edition of D&D to highlight the positive elements in each. I’ve already covered Third and Fourth Edition D&D so it’s time to take a minor detour onto the side road that is Pathfinder. I’m sure you’ve heard of it.

Evolution, not revolution

We live in a terrific time for role-playing games. We have games such as Diaspora and Mouse Guard which take the hobby to the stars and under the tree roots. We have Savage Worlds and superhero games by the bucket-load – and I’ve barely even scratched the surface of what’s available. Whatever your preferred genre or style of play, there’s bound to be a game for you.

Heck, we even have two sequels to Third Edition D&D. How cool is that?

Where Fourth Edition D&D revised the game, adding in new elements such as Powers, Rituals and Skill Challenges (all of which were in the rules already, but not quite with the same names or design), Pathfinder took a more measured approach to the game’s development. Rather than rebuild the core classes, races and rules from the ground up the Pathfinder design team examined what needed fixing in Third Edition D&D, and….. fixed it.

Pathfinder is rightly called D&D 3.75; it’s an evolution of what came before, whilst Fourth Edition is (also rightly) called…. well, Fourth Edition. Each and every major edition of the game has rewritten the core rules, and 4e follows that honourable tradition. Third Edition was as radical a departure from the AD&D rules as Fourth was to Third (if not more so, in fact – 4e kept the same saves, increasing AC, die rolling conventions, etc), and that suffered pretty much the same kind of criticism as 4e received when that was launched. Role-playing gamers are a notoriously conservative lot, and we just don’t like our games tampered with.

So. Which is right? 4e or Pathfinder?

Both of them, of course! For gamers such as I who were badly burned out GM’ing Third Edition D&D, Fourth Edition was a breath of fresh air. Once again it was fun for plan scenarios, devise encounters and come up with the sort of cunning plot twists that make we GMs giggle with glee. For those who still played Third Edition but yearned for the rough edges to be sorted out, there was Pathfinder.

We have both Revolution, and Evolution, both at the same time. Pick one, or both, but it’s not cool to diss anyone who chooses differently to you.

Vive la difference!


Easy encounter building

Remember what encounter building was like in Third Edition D&D? Let me remind you.

Dear gods I grew to hate that table with a passion. Challenge Ratings and Encounter Levels were the offside rule of Third Edition D&D. They existed primarily to allow smug DMs to revel in their smugness, and did little to enhance or improve the flow of the game.

Pathfinder does away with much of that nonsense. Challenge Rating begets XP reward, and you build encounters with an XP total in mind, just as nature intended. There’s still a nod to Third Edition D&D in the process (to keep the smug GMs happy, no doubt), but encounter building in Pathfinder is an altogether less painful affair.


Single campaign world

One of the strengths of core D&D is that there are a plethora of published game worlds to explore.

It is also one of its weaknesses.

Dungeons & Dragons is a game, divided. It’s divided by editions but also by entire campaign settings. We have gamers who play in the Forgotten Realms across three different rules editions, Greyhawk across two and the original Known World with Classic D&D. This would be a wonderful thing if D&D was blooming, but right now that’s division at a time when the less things divide the hobby, the better.

Pathfinder presents one single campaign setting – the world of Golarion – and gamers are welcome to use it (or not) as they choose. All gaming material assumes this one default setting so they’re not losing sales by offering adventures in a different setting to the one being played by your gaming group. During Third Edition D&D, Wizards of the Coast  experimented with offering adventures set in the Forgotten Realms, and they didn’t sell too well – they only appealed to a subset (those who play in the Realms….) of a subset (…. and play 3e D&D) of gamers.

Paizo got it right. Present one world, but make the setting generic enough to appeal to those who create their own settings, and you maximize your audience.

I’ve been mulling over a solution to this problem: what if all the campaign settings of D&D were a part of the same world? In fact, something like this….

(Not to scale. Our own world used purely to make the point)

Characters could travel from the Forgotten Realms to Greyhawk using mundane means of travel, but the distances involved would keep the areas sufficiently distinct and unique. Certain areas (such as the “world” of Dark Sun) could obey peculiar natural (and supernatural) laws, and there’s plenty of unexplored space to build your own campaign setting too.

This would unite all the game worlds under a single banner, and adventures set in (for example) Eberron would be of use to far more game groups.

Hey, it’s a thought.

Next: What Pathfinder gets right, part two.

10 Comments on “What Pathfinder gets right, part one”

  1. That was sort of done in part a few times before, for example Spelljammer, to connect several gaming worlds together. You will find that players still like their part of their world better then others, to the point they ignore or pretend that other part does not exist.

    Yet, oddly, despite the game system (not the best in my opinion but sometimes well liked as being persistent and not having varies editions for years), there is a game that is popular for one of those reasons, being able to connect different game worlds together, and creative game worlds at that. What game is that? RIFTS. It does the one concept you spoke of at the end of the article right. If one looks at the palladium games not from a rule mechanic view and view it for its concepts and ideas for settings you find it quite an amazing place.

    If we look at what games does it right, it is something to consider.

  2. Greyhawk,

    What Paizo did right is the Adventure Paths. That’s their biggest sellers. What WotC got wrong is game rules. We got a lot of crunch and no fluff. And worse, a GSL. And we aren’t having an honest debate about how the OGL benefited WotC, and abandoning it gave WotC big trouble. It’s a shouting match.

    I tried to use the Car approach, the poster turned it around on me. So I used WotC’s dream world approach on him. A perfect Monopoly of Roleplaying Games. I’m trying to instill in him that competition is good for WotC.

  3. … I admit, I LOVE Golarion. And the Pathfinder Adventuree Paths are very well written – our DM has adapted the Kingmaker path for our 4E group and it’s very fun. I think he’s had to rebuild the encounters from scratch … But the result, for us, is the best of both worlds.

  4. @Elton, It’s not so simple. Competition is both good and bad for WotC. I agree with you that the GSL went too far. But there are many OGL systems that use the work of WotC without returning anything to them. And while the OGL was good for the industry as a whole, it also killed many independent game systems because the publishers jumped on the d20 bandwagon. I don’t think WotC is foolish enough to keep the GSL, but I think they won’t be as permissive as the OGL.

    1. WotC doesn’t have to do anything with the OGL anymore. Pathfinder, FATE, Mutants and Masterminds, ICONS, Spycraft… at this point I think the OGL is better off if WotC keeps its hands off of it anyway.

  5. The multiple settings on each continent totally reminds me of Torg. They had cavemen in America, the Cyberpapacy in France, Pharaohs and Indiana Jones in Egypt, and mechas in Japan. And the laws of reality changed depending on which area you were in.

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