Sep 12, 2019

[Review] Pathfinder 2e

I picked up a hard copy of the Pathfinder 2e core book last Wednesday, and have read it over enough to feel like I can offer a review of it. I'm still digging through the details of the spell section, but I've read the rest of it cover to cover (and separately, read the SRD).

The book is 638 pages not counting endpapers, and like the Pathfinder 1e corebook is composed of material that in stock 3.5 was scattered across the Player's Handbook and Dungeon Master's Guide. The Monster Manual equivalent - the Bestiary - is out but I haven't read it yet, except for glancing through some of its content in the SRD.

As many people know, the offline game I've been playing in for the past eighteen months or so has been a D&D 3.5 game. I'm not a great fan of D&D 3.5 (the group is good enough to bear with the system) and much prefer the various rationalisations and clean-ups of it, like Arcana Unearthed / Evolved, Iron Heroes, and Trailblazer. Pathfinder 1e, which is a slight rebalance of 3.5, didn't go far enough in the core book for me, and I never became invested enough in the system to follow the various developments and tweaks it made to the d20 core over the course of its run, as extensive as I understand they eventually became.

Pathfinder 2e however, has impressed me with how extensively it's cleaned up the d20 system. The strength of the d20 system is its systematic character, and I find Pathfinder 2e has doubled-down on that strength. It's not a system that leaves much implicit, from defining the three rhythmic structures of play (Encounters, Exploration, and Downtime) to explaining exactly how far one falls in a single round spent falling (500 ft. the first round, 1,500 ft. each additional round). You can hate this systematicity if it's not something you care for, but insofar as one does enjoy it (and I do), Pathfinder 2e is a surprisingly well-done implementation of it.

I designed a first-level human wizard character in Pathfinder 2e to test out how cumbersome a process it would be, and I found it took about half as long as creating a D&D 3.5 character. The main time savings were in attribute selection, skill selection, and feat selection. In D&D 3.5 these are all processes that demand a lot of consideration and often provoke "analysis paralysis" in new players, with inobvious long-term consequences and large lists of options, Pathfinder 2e breaks these processes up into a lot of smaller decisions that accumulate over the whole process of character creation and involve picking from smaller lists. That speeds things up considerably.

I also think it will be relatively easy to design your own backgrounds, ancestries, and other bits for character creation because you can get a clear sense of the scope of work for each piece. After looking over the backgrounds once, I understood what each offered (an ability boost tied to one of two stats; a free ability boost; two skills, one of which is a Lore specialty; and a skill feat tied to one of the skills) well enough that I feel comfortable designing my own.

5e breaks down parts of its character creation process in similar ways, and that brings me to the final piece of this short review, which is comparing 5e and Pathfinder 2e. I've been middlingly positive towards 5e as an edition: I own the core set and Xanathar's, and prefer it to 3.5 at the end of its run and to 4e. But I've never been in love with it as an edition either. I don't like the importance of attributes in its system, and I'm not wild about its skill list, and there are various other small choices or gaps in its design such that I'm not an enthusiast.

By contrast, after reading the Pathfinder 2e core book, I was excited and interested in running a d20 game again for the first time in maybe a decade or more. Certainly if I was going to run a campaign using a d20 system, Pathfinder 2e would be my preferred system for doing so. This is surprising for me, but I think it does a better job extending and intensifying the core strengths of the d20 system, whereas 5e tends to be structured in such a way as to mitigate d20's weaknesses.

I think Pathfinder does a better job structuring the cycle of exploration, relies less on attributes (and more on skills) to determine character capacity, and has more granular combat. I wouldn't say any of these was a key criterion for my decision, but each contributed to it, along with my more general admiration of its systematic character, whereas I think D&D 5e tends to leave much more open (and this is probably why many people love it - I'm not trying to start a fight about whether it's good).

Anyhow, I'm at the beginning of a larger conversation with my group about switching from D&D 3.5 to Pathfinder 2e, and I'm quite hopeful that we'll decide to do so eventually.


  1. You make a pretty strong case in favor of PF2. I will say though, I think that 5e convinced me in favor of bounded accuracy. (And secondarily, about equal advancement for all classes.)

    5e solved a problem that every previous edition of D&D struggled with, and while it's not the only possible solution (in fact, what I just called "struggling" could instead be seen as applying different solutions) I'm convinced for now that it's the solution I like best. It would be hard (for me) to go back to a world where one character can have a like 15-point higher bonus to a task than another has, from levels alone, after seeing what a max 4-point gap can do.

    1. Yeah, that's fair.

      In PF 2e, everyone gets their level added as a bonus to skill checks, with additional bonuses coming from their level of training (maxing out between two characters of equal level, one a legendary expert and the other a complete rube, at 8 points) plus whatever stat differences. I haven't tested it out yet, but it looks like it's going to help keep the gap smaller and more manageable.

    2. Untrained characters don't add their level as a bonus, though (cf. Checks, Step 1 at

    3. Yeah, sorry I was in a rush and forgot details and badly explained the specifics around untrained characters.

      You need to use the Follow the Expert activity to get your level added onto untrained skills as a bonus. That activity allows a single character of at least expert-level training to make a check. On a success, untrained PCs / group members add their level to proficiency checks using the same skill during exploration.