Pathfinder 2nd Edition’s Core Rulebook is another bullet-stopper, so there’s no way I’ll get through the whole thing with a review. What I thought I would do is share impressions and thoughts as I read through it in three categories: Hell Yes, Ok Whatever, and Please No. TL;DR – I’d play it and probably enjoy it, but it is still hard to learn for new gamers and will have some challenges even for experienced players.
Hit points from race (culture). I like this idea a lot. I have a similar one as a possible D&D 5E house rule, where you get some hit points from your character background that you choose. (To be clear, you also get hit points from your class, meaning…)
Higher hit points at level 1. Yay. 4th Edition D&D got this exactly right, while 5th Ed is back to being survival horror at lower levels and heroic fantasy only after you’ve survived that long.
The language of race is gone from the character creation rules as far as I can tell. They use ‘ancestry’, which is much preferable, with half-elves and half-orcs as human bloodlines instead of “races.”
No random ability scores. This is fine with me, though they do have alternative rules for rolling ability scores for those who want to do so. Normally this is just OK Whatever, but I put this under Hell Yes because they way you build ability scores is by bonuses (and a penalty) from your background and the feats you choose. I encountered this first through Beyond the Wall, and OSR style game that takes a similar approach of choosing elements of your background and having those determine your starting ability scores.
Class intros. These are really helpful. Each class gives you a list of things to do in combat, exploration, and social encounters, as well as what this class is good at, how others might view you, and why you might see yourself as a member of this class.
Three actions and a reaction. I love that they simplified the way actions work when your turn comes around. I love the flexibility this brings. You get three actions and one reaction per turn, and you can use those actions to move, interact, or activate abilities that cost one or more action to use. So if you just stand there and bang, you can make multiple melee attacks. If you move around a lot, you can make fewer. If you want to charge up a spell or cast a more powerful version of a spell, you spend more actions casting and are less mobile. I loved this in the playtest I played at GenCon last year, and I love it now.
Lots of crits. Why not? Crits are fun. In Pathfinder 2E, a roll is a critical hit when it is 10 or more over the target number, and it is a critical failure when it is 10 or more under the target number. You can critically succeed or fail at saving throws as well. I’m all for this. That being said, the profusion of numerical bonuses and penalties discussed below is going to be a problem here, as players won’t want to be denied a crit, or told they crit fail, and then later remember that they forgot a bonus. Which, with a dozen or more categories to track, is pretty likely.
Safety tools. There’s a whole four pages or so in the GM section about creating a welcoming environment, avoiding “social splash damage” which I kind of like as a term, using the X-card, lines and veils, and so on. There is also a Pathfinder baseline described – violence is OK to describe but not excessive gore; no rape or violence against children or sexual threats or slavery; sex happens offscreen; avoid PCs hitting on each other as it can feel like the players hitting on each other; love it. A section like this should be in every GM section and every GM book for the next 100 years.
Book design and art. (Originally Hell Yeah, but on further reflection…) Both are good. There is a menu along the outer edge of every page that tells you the section you are currently in, and so flipping through different sections was quite easy with this edition. The art throughout is totally recognizable, generally great-looking, though there are of course a few that are sub-par here and there. The maroon backgrounds on some of the class-example portraits make them harder to see, and I would have gone with a less saturated color or something. But the book is pleasant to read through, at least so far. I think that I prefer the art and design in the original Pathfinder Core Rulebook, but this one is fine.
Max hit points at every level. So, there’s no clear reason not to make this change, except for the fact that without also increasing damage, it will lead to longer combats. Pathfinder will be more of Hit Point Attrition the Game. Rolling hit points is a relic that I’m fine doing away with, I just think it should have been paired with fixed damage. Fixed damage is used in Big Eyes Small Mouth, as well as Mutants and Masterminds and other games, and it works great. You could even roll damage for a glancing blow (barely missed AC) and just double the number for a critical hit (or more than double for extra-critical abilities).
Everything is feats. This is fine. They just took all of the words for class abilities and race abilities from previous games and call it all feats.
Alchemists and goblins are core. No problem here. Alchemists are an interesting class, and they do things that other classes don’t with throwing bombs and mutagens. Goblins are awesome, though their Paizo-style super-monstrous appearance seems out of place among the other winsome species.
Arcane, divine, occult and primal spell lists. I like this change, as it simplifies how the spellcasting classes work a bit. This is one of many elements that seem drawn from D&D 4E, honestly, and I don’t mean that as a criticism, just an observation. (D&D 5E dropped a lot of good things that were in 4E, and that’s too bad) It’s odd to have occult on the list, and I noticed that the bard is an occult spellcaster. The description of what occult means seems very similar to what arcane means, but I get the impression that maybe Pathfinder’s occult classes were really popular and they wanted room for them. (All this being said, while there are down to only four spell lists, there is a lot of added spellcasting complexity in PF2)
The character sheet. It is so bad. This has already been commented upon when it was released ahead of time, but bears repeating. I just…don’t understand. It is both ugly and hard to follow, being overly-busy, at least to my untrained eye. But even Paizo can’t knock it out of the park every time.
Numerical modifiers abound. In the Gamer’s Table podcast review of the new rules, I believe they identified 14 different categories of numerical modifier that could apply to a single roll. This is a problem that the advantage/disadvantage system in D&D 5E honestly did fix. Cognitive load before a dice-roll should really be minimal, but Paizo doubled down on numerical modifiers.
A bafflement of riches. To my eye and taste, the core rulebook has too many options. Pathfinder 2nd Edition Core Rulebook includes 20 or so backgrounds, 6 species, and 13 classes, each class also gets 3-6 sub-class options on top of all of that (somewhere between 40 and 70 class options, without counting). Let’s be conservative and say around 5,000 combinations. On reading through, I had the strong feeling that I need an app for this. And I’m saying this as someone who played Pathfinder, ran Pathfinder, and has been playing RPGs for a long time. (For an example of doing something similar but a bit simpler and much better, you have Adventures in Middle-Earth from Cubicle 7, the 5th Ed D&D version of The One Ring, with backgrounds, cultures, and classes presented in a way that is much less overwhelming but seems to have comparable options) This just feels like too much to throw into character creation – not only inaccessible for a new gamer, but it’ll take some processing for experienced gamers to get their heads around as well. To be fair, D&D 5E probably has a comparable number of combinations with their longer list of core races and three sub-classes for each class, but the presentation and pacing of character creation decisions didn’t lead to the same feeling of overload.
Too much categorization of spells. You have four spell lists: arcane, divine, occult and primal (still not clear exactly what separates arcane and occult); you also have the usual schools of magic from previous editions; you also have categories of Matter, Mind, Life and Spirit for things that spells affect; you also have spells divided into common, uncommon, etc. like WoW drops; then there are spells that use spell slots and other spells that use focus points; there’s just way too much here.
Only humans have ethnicity. Dammit, Paizo. It’s stupid when the Forgotten Realms does this, and it was stupid when Golarion did this in Pathfinder’s 1st Edition. You were doing well, too, so far.
Would I Play This?
Definitely. But I would need a group of experienced gamers who wanted to really dig into a crunchy system. I would not hand this game to a new player, where I might actually hand them Pathfinder, with some guidance of course. Pathfinder 2E is better thought out, better designed, more interested (at least in the core rulebook), but more complicated as well, and the complexity comes in with character creation, which can be really daunting.
House Rules Already
If nothing else, I would use fixed damage for basic weapon attacks equal to the maximum that could be rolled on the dice. I haven’t had the time to read through how spells work damage-wise to see if it would be necessary there. If so, though, I’d be fine using fixed damage for all of it.