Pathfinder: A Retrospective

Pathfinder: A Retrospective

With the upcoming release of Paizo's Starfinder, I thought it would be an opportune time to look at the future of Pathfinder games. And to consider of course whether its vision has been perhaps flawed or shrewd.

imageFor a game-line grown out of Dungeons and Dragons's tragic conflict of identity, would it be so wrong to consider that perhaps Paizo's Pathfinder could eventually outlive its purpose: that being purportedly to preserve a legacy of much-loved D&D mechanics from a bygone age.

It's quite clear that for many the answer is no. Pathfinder, even after waning popularity with the release of D&D 5th edition in 2014, still enjoys strong sales and represents nearly 15% of all active games on the popular online platform Roll20. That might not seem like much but in comparison, on the same platform, the nearest non-D&D title enjoys somewhere around 2% activity.

But none of this would've been possible if not for Paizo's bold maneuvering and insightful decisions nearly 10 years ago. Those risks led to the creation of their strongest flagship product: Pathfinder.

The Edition Wars

The state of in-fighting amongst D&D fans across online forums
But to understand why Pathfinder remains relevant and perhaps why it might still have a future, it's important for us to go back to where it all started: the Edition Wars.

a Dungeons and Dragons "civil war of creative differences"

Many people aren't even sure if "the wars" actually happened and the lack of a Wikipedia article on the subject only seems to support the idea that it could've all been imagined. But for those of us who were around back then, and in the folk history of the web, the Edition Wars was a very real thing. Real enough that Paizo has effectively built a small hobby empire around the product that was its standard bearer in that Dungeons and Dragons "civil war of creative differences".

The situation was this: D&D 4th edition had arrived in 2008 and it was vastly different than what anyone had expected. Especially its license when it came to third-party developers. All hell broke loose.

Like any conflict, the causes were complex but as Morrus of EnWorld fame once put on a post, it basically boiled down to players who'd invested in either edition trying to "actively persuade others" that they'd made the right choice and if someone else had "made a different choice then they made the wrong choice."

As for the circumstances surrounding the development of 4th Edition Dungeons and Dragons, they were complex like :  
  • A market exhausted with too many D&D products. A new edition of Dungeons and Dragons meant a product reset and renewed consumption, but also rendered previous investments into older books 'kinda' worthless.
  • Probably the most expansive compilation of rules of any edition at the time (and maybe since, at nearly 1,000 compatible companion products) that were neither well balanced nor consistent.
  • Competition and market-crowding by third parties using D&D's Open Gaming License: an innovation that had come to haunt its makers.
  • A flawed perception that tabletop games were in decline and digital consumers of MMOs needed to be won over instead. 
"In Dungeons & Dragons 4th Ed, Wizards of the Coast appeared to be trying to appeal to the online MMO crowd." - Phoenix Comics & Games
I sympathize with those tasked to make the hard decisions back then. The proprietors of Dungeons & Dragons, Wizards of the Coast, were as much a business at that time as they are now and needed to make certain business decisions; most importantly was how to make D&D sustainable in a market with stiff competition? Competition admittedly they helped create by open-sourcing their core rules perhaps too generously and exhausting customer's pockets with too many releases. But a decision isn't the same thing as a good decision.

And in 2008, the proposed solution that came in the form of releasing Dungeons and Dragons 4th Edition was so far removed from a good decision that it split the community in pieces (and took D&D nearly a decade to recover from). It was from this chaos that Pathfinder and its vision would be born from.

Pathfinder's Success

The fate of D&D as game and as an intellectual property in 2008 was felt to be in flux, or more ominously, at risk. Its parent company had proposed an ultimatum to third-party publishers. It was considered a "poison pill" wherein publishers could release companion products for D&D 4th edition or 3rd but not both (at least not when it came to the genre of 'fantasy' and on a per game-line basis).

This restriction, bundled together with the general displeasure for D&D's new edition by those most vocal, left the fragile satellite industry of third-party publishers unsure as to what to do next.

It’s not a “poison pill.” It’s a conversion clause. - Wizard's of the Coast, Mike Lescault

It was in this air of uncertainty that Paizo's bold founder, Lisa Stevens, made a calculated risk to not follow the industry leader. Like a tactician who intuitively reads the tides of war, Lisa went full-stop in risking the livelihood of her humble company to chase a legacy D&D had discarded. But fortune often favors the brave.

Cover Art for Pathfinder by Wayne Reynolds
None of this probably would've been possible had Paizo not been helmed by someone as esteemed as Stevens. The once #1 employee of Wizard's of the Coast (yes, D&D's parent company) had life experience in managing properties like D&D in fact and the Star Wars RPG. She was even there when Wizard's published for the first time the now massively lucrative and popular TCG (trading card game), Magic the Gathering. Before that, Lisa worked at White Wolf where her fellow college classmate helped create Vampire: the Masquerade. That's not to mention her association with the cult-classic Ars Magica.

With this kind of pedigree, Paizo was poised for success so long as they could keep their eyes on the prize. D&D 4th edition's opaque development was met by Paizo's inclusive open playtesting. Paizo brought deeper, but familiar rules to oppose D&D's new jarring mechanics. The quality of art and production was tête-à-tête and perhaps the use of the same artist (Wayne Reynolds) for the cover of both games even further blurred the lines between both properties.

Cover Art for D&D 4th ed. by Wayne Reynolds

Soon, despite strong initial sales, D&D noticeably fell out of favor with the public and Pathfinder sailed strongly across open waters. No one had ever dethroned D&D before (although arguably, this was still D&D). Pathfinder's product line grew, the quality remained consistent, and Paizo had started it all by offering that same 'restart button' on 3rd edition that many players of that era had desperately held out for.

A Borrowed Legacy

If I have hailed Paizo's successes and those of its shrewd leader, it's because I honestly feel they merit praise. But I also believe their legacy runs the risk of stagnating, becoming mired with controversy, and of falling out of touch with new trends.

Spinning back around, by Paizo asserting itself in 2008 with a revision of the rules, they established a clear standard that their new game, Pathfinder, would become the definitive rulebook for that legacy style of play. A new setting, Golarion, was emboldened to sell that idea with crisp art, known writers, and fantastic marketing.

But behind all the IP creation was possibly a very lucid business sensibility. By updating the rules and placing them in a new fictional setting, Paizo accomplished two things: they had hit the restart button on 3rd edition content and also rendered previous 3rd edition material (D&D included) irrelevant to the game-line they were going to support. But there was perhaps one circumstance that they might've not realized 10 years ago that had also taken place; Paizo had walked themselves into a corner.
Pathfinder Beginner Box
By drawing intentional comparisons to D&D and effectively using the bulk of that very game's legacy engine, Pathfinder would expectedly draw further comparisons if it ever decided to evolve. And notably since then, it hasn't really tried.

Then there was the fact that Pathfinder allowed Paizo to bloom, gaining the independence it had aspired to since its early days as a magazine publisher. But if that growth meant a bigger war-chest, it might've also been responsible for Paizo perhaps becoming more cagey when it's come to taking new risks.

Flash-forward to 2017. Starfinder is now a perfect opportunity for Paizo to test the waters of its fanbase and perhaps those outside of it. And yet, recent previews of this game show a conservative creation that is so devoid of new approaches that it's said to be mostly compatible with previous Pathfinder products.
Starfinder Player Character Folio

Lastly, there is still something a bit 'iffy' about a brand that effectively only changed a game enough so as to still reliably continue to ride on the vision of its original developers. I'm not debating the legality of using open-source materials or the OGL, that much is crystal clear; but I am considering the moral ambiguity of producing games built on a game engine whose intention was never to sustain its own rival competitor (but rather a symbiotic community). And come on, it's been 10 years.

The Future Could Be Bright

In my opinion, if Paizo hopes to stand on its own and prove that it can survive beyond just riding the waves of D&D's mishap back in '08, they need to assert a true evolution of their game.

This isn't just my point of view; a business marketing student in 2015 stated on Paizo forums that said company "will find themselves in a spot where they have to re-invent Pathfinder or face the risk of dying". The post was so prescient as to predict that in an "attempt to consolidate their remaining customers" that Paizo will "likely [start] by lowering their prices and increasing their product output". Since 2015, Paizo has released 82 Pathfinder non-adventure books (including 29 Campaign books and 19 Core Books) and also produced a Pathfinder "Pocket" Edition in an effort to make the entry title more affordable. Nice one, 2015 forum guy! In comparison, since that time D&D has only released 4 non-adventure titles! (Volo's Guide To Monsters, Sword Coast Adventurer's Guide, Player's Companion Elemental Evil, and this year's soon to be released Xanathat's Guide to Everything)

Xanathar's: D&D's only 4th content release in three years

Another poster, 'Otherwhere' on that same thread had this to say on whether it's time for Pathfinder 2nd edition:

"I think it's a valid question to ask because we can see that the game itself is evolving with the addition of new archetypes, hybrid classes, and the whole field of psychic magic, etc. It sort of makes me ask: Where is it going? How can all of this work together? Does it all work together?"
Pathfinder Occult Adventures - Caio Maciel Monteiro
The same poster closes his thoughts by saying that "no - there won't be a PF 2.0 unless it is something entirely new."

In fairness of full disclosure, there are other voices who think the game is simply "fine as it is". But are these voices now the minority and are they in turn responsible for demanding that Pathfinder stay the same?

I think that no matter where you stand on the debate, Paizo's release of nearly 90 titles in the last 3 years hardly seems sustainable. We've seen the outcome of this before; we watched it with the demise of D&D's 3rd edition. So why not get ahead of things? Paizo seems to have picked up on so many hard lessons that D&D and Wizard's of the Coast had to learn the hard way. So why is it so difficult for them to see where this trail is leading them and instead trust in their own vision?

Final Thoughts

I haven't played Pathfinder in quite a few years. It sits on my shelf, reminding me of my Bard who could throw down +50 to Bluff as a 9th level character or Armor Classes that could easily spill into the 30s, inflated damage numbers and thematically contradicting content. We had some good times but ultimately my expectations as a player outgrew a game that refused to grow along with me. So Perhaps that is Pathfinder's ultimate crisis of identity: does it simply want to be a time-machine for D&D 'as it was'? Or will it, after 10 years, finally try to carve out its own path?

Are Pathfinder's most hardcore advocates (who reject change) the game's own worst enemy?

Starfinder First Contact
I'm not sure what Starfinder will ultimately look like. It could be the start of something big. I understand there are innovations like the addition of Stamina Points and Resolve Points and the removal of iterative attacks; but I'm not entirely convinced that these represent all the fundamental changes the game needs or could benefit from.

For now, I'll continue to place my attention on other titles, some smaller, some bigger, that have in my opinion taken more recent risks. I prefer a game that responds to the living story of our collective gaming experience. But I'll keep an eye out for Paizo, just in case, Pathfinder decides to surprise me.

July 12, 2017
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D&D 5th - Falling Damage: The Neglected Woe

In a game that takes pride in being able to invoke perilous pits in the imagination of would-be adventurers, D&D needs some serious alone time with - Falling Damage.

Falling Damage: The Neglected Woe

For far too long, rules have allowed Falling Damage in D&D to be rendered nearly irrelevant amongst the scope of other existing arcane and monstrous threats.

Probably 9 out of 10 heroes would far more fear the consequences of a Fireball than that of being shoved off a roof.

They're not wrong, they can clearly expect to survive one ("so what's that? 40ft?! Okay, so 4d6, oh that's nothing.") whereas the other could seriously complicate their lives.

"A fall from a great height is one of the most common hazards facing an adventurer." - Player's Handbook, 5th edition, p.183
But how about all those epic scenes of heroes struggling up mountain faces, the ubiquitous hand grab over the ledge as one person holds on for all dear life? None of these moments are re-creatable in D&D without severely re-defining what we've come to understand as Falling Damage. So let's try.

Enhanced Falling Damage
⚫ A falling creature risks great injury, taking 3d10 bludgeoning for every 10 feet it falls.

At first glance 3d10 might seem like too much, and it might be, but remember, we're not talking about gracefully leaping down a ledge. We're essentially determining what happens when you belly flop from that height to a bed of jagged rocks or stone.

So yes, I suppose you could scale it down to 2d10 but you'll be doing a disservice to the threat as D&D is more than adept at ballooning character Hit Points than you might think.

But falling damage could be about so much more than just well, damage.

Enhanced Falling Damage & Injury
⚫ A great fall from a great height is expected to bring death or lingering injury to a person.
⚫ For every 10 feet a creature falls, it takes 2d10 damage. It must also make a Constitution Save DC 15 or suffer the Crippled Condition

(New Condition) - Crippled
⚫ While a character remains crippled, its speed is reduced to 5ft and it cannot take any Reactions.

⚫ Progress towards removing the Crippled condition requires a successful DC 12 Medicine Skill Roll. It may be attempted up to once per day and must be successful at least (5) times before the condition is permanently removed.

Lesser Restoration cast on the target counts as a successful Medicine Skill Roll.

Design Note:
This should equally affect warriors as much as casters since the latter heavily rely on the occasional Reaction.

So all of this work is about trying to make the hazards of the natural world proportional to those with fangs. It's about turning wonderful maps, terrain, and precarious ledges into something to be tackled with caution as we'd expect if we were watching our adventures take place on film.

I feel like I have so much more to say on this topic but I want to conclude this article with one final consideration for Falling Damage: proportion.

Damage by Proportion

This entire consideration stands on the idea that Hit Points are meant to reflect, as abstractly as possible, our heroes' means to endure blows or 'Hits'.

It doesn't mean they grow a second or third heart, that their blood cell counts are supernaturally high or that their organs regenerate a la Wolverine.

If you are able to accept this conceit, then please read on, otherwise your brow will likely furl on the forthcoming suggestion.

If 'Hit Points' provide an indication of how much stress a hero can take before they succumb to combat wounds, shouldn't damage originating from other sources be treated differently?

I don't want to take this too far astray so keeping it in the topic of Falling Damage, we could argue that a creature would suffer as much injury now as it would later if it's tossed off the same sheer cliff.

Enhanced Falling
⚫ A creature that falls from a height of less than 20ft drops to at least half of their maximum Hit Points.

⚫ A creature falling more than 20ft drops to at least one third of their maximum Hit Points.

⚫ A creature falling more than 30ft is considered Dying.

Okay. Me likes but too much math. Consider this simplified version.

Simplified Enhanced Falling
⚫ A creature that falls or is shoved from a height of over 20ft, drops to at least 10 Hit Points.

⚫ If they have less than 10 Hit Points before falling, consider them to be Dying and they must immediately make a Death Save.

⚫ A creature falling from a height of over 30ft is considered Dying and must immediately make a Death Save.

Halves tend to be the easiest number to derive and "half of something" is already used extensively across the core rules. This last version also pointedly ignores damage for any fall less than 20ft. So maybe the answer lies amongst one of these options or in a combination of them. Maybe we can at least agree that as it stands, Falling Damage is irrelevant and disproportional.

If you enjoyed this, I hope to expand more on my ideas of customized enhancements to 5th edition rules, so stay tuned.

If you have the time, please share this article and thanks!
February 12, 2016
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D&D Next: Roleplaying Is Out of the Trunk and Into the Backseat

The cat has pretty much clawed his way out of the bag. D&D Next is floating around everywhere and causing a lot of fuss. I know it's stuffing hairballs all over the blog world so I'll do my best to make
this worth your while. Especially since I'm a little rusty after a not so successful Kickstarter run.

Next Me One More Time

Ok, so Wizard's goal seems pretty clear I think: unify the rift between players and appease as many interests with one product as possible. I'd like to think that I'm not naive though. That somewhere in there a new version of Dungeons and Dragons is also about reclaiming the consumer base. Sales plummeted (compared to what Hasbro was used to) after 4th Edition whether you liked it or not. Money talks and our designers have been cued to listen.

If you're not convinced that money matters for big gaming publishers, look at what happened to White Wolf. They cashed in their chips, left a few consolation projects no one hears about and their parent company has thrown everything into MMOs.

I'm not trying to vilify Mike Mearls and his team. I just think we have to look at the big picture to understand D&D Next and formulate the right expectations. They are real people who care about this game but it probably doesn't help that they have a massive parent company that they have to appease. And I'm sure they don't want what the downsizing that happened to White Wolf to happen to them.

Does Roleplaying really fit into D&D?

Short answer: I think it does. I believe it did so in the past but that in the last few years we have seen it trickle away. Maybe it wasn't intentional but how can it be addressed now? It seems a legitimate concern that people want a roleplaying game from D&D and not a boardgame or something that plays like a boardgame.

The rift between consumers of D&D and its designers doesn't seem to have started yesterday either. I would like to think it started when D&D attempted to become a product with less abstraction and more concrete rules.

Whether this is 2nd edition, 3rd, or 4th is entirely up to interpretation. Each version has sidelined stragglers. Logic would suggest that it's been part of a gradual progression. Maybe we just didn't notice or didn't have the foresight to see where it was going.

If that's true then I think we all share bit of the blame for this "mistake" and we have to come together as a community if we decide we want to correct it.

The Heart of the Matter: Concrete Rules

"I think D&D has been caught overdosing on too many concrete mechanics."
We love for things to be spelled out to us. We are more receptive to things that are easier to understand. I think that's human nature. Try giving a mission objective that's more than three words to anyone and you'll likely get a slack jawed response.

But we are also lazy; if you play video games or watch movies you can probably relate to how many forms of media have become easier to consume over the last few years: whether it's teleporting in Fallout 4, autosaving in general, or any Marvel movie.

It's not all bad. D&D probably has under its belt the most balanced RPG ever created. But then there's that old adage right? "All things in moderation." We sometimes need the open ended, undefined, infinite, and indescribable. Even if it means a less balanced game. Open to possibilities. Just those three words together almost seem like magic.

D&D I think has been caught overdosing on too many concrete mechanics. You play on a grid, you move miniatures, you have abilities that are defined exclusively by numbers.

Some of these things are being addressed now but there is still nowhere on the official character sheet that is concerned with who your character really is as a person instead of just statistics.

How about their general motivation? Where do they come from? Do they have family, loved ones? Do they have enemies? What is his or her goal in life? How about their past? The sum of these little things create the roleplaying experience for me, not the taking of a "5ft step".

I know there are people out there who play like this. But the game as far as I can tell couldn't care less. The rules and the mechanics don't react to these details. Let's not kid ourselves, D&D as it is right now is a hack-and-slash. Maybe it has always been the case. Video games though have conquered that brainless guilty pleasure and they are much better at it.

So what role does D&D have if it's no longer defined by this kind of archaic niche it no longer exclusively dominates?

Put A Little Fill-In-The-Blanks In My Life

I think Wizard's needs to focus on what makes tabletop RPGs different from video games, even their own D&D Online. With tabletop RPGs content is never finite and mechanics can be created, broken, or appended.

D&D is about magic as much as it is about fantasy in general. We're walking into our 5th edition of D&D and yet we don't have the encouragement, mechanics, and guidance for players and DMs to really create their own spells instead of defaulting to a list. If magic is organic it could adapt, it could evolve. That doesn't feel like the magic we know from D&D.

Maybe that's breaking tradition but sometimes tradition needs to be broken because it can also stagnate and hold you back. The more important question I think is if such a move would be in the spirit of D&D, in the spirit of aspiring to be an even greater fantasy roleplaying game? I think it would be.

The introduction of Themes and Backgrounds has been an interesting move by the designers. It feels like a step in the right direction, having the character be defined by background and personality more than by a list of allowed choices in a Class. But that's about where the ball stops rolling.

Can we create our own Backgrounds and Themes? That would be another step in the right direction. The Skill system seems like it needs something new too, take a look at 13th Age's innovation in that arena.

Will the setting ever be considered in the rules? Some of the most highly regarded games have the worst mechanics but incredible settings. If setting is enough to make someone play a game they would otherwise hate, how much of an impact does it make when you divorce it from the core rules?

No Wizard's, I don't think you can make everything modular. The rules and mechanics of a game need to consider a setting specifically. If I abuse magic, do the great Mages sever my ties to the source?

Generic rules always lack identity and miss out on really connecting with the setting. I don't want it to be a cosmetic choice anymore. Maybe corporate wants it that way, release three settings and that many supplements. They definitely wouldn't care about this little technicality.


D&D Next will have a hard time meeting all of our expectations, but we can at least hope it starts heading back in the right direction.

I like the few bits of innovation introduced, combat feels more like the kind of game I would want to run, classes seem more enjoyable but they could definitely learn a thing or two from the depth added to them in Pathfinder.

Abilities feel less supernatural and more like extensions of what a character already does. Overall I'm happy but I know there's a lot more work to be done.
June 28, 2012
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