Guidance — 5 Likes & Dislikes: Pathfinder RPG, 2E

Hey, Know Directioneers! I’m Alexander Augunas, the Everyman Gamer, and boy y’all had a ton to say on my article about things I like and dislike about Pathfinder 1E last week! So many of you think that I hit the nail on the head or have no idea what I’m talking about or clearly don’t understand the intricacies of Pathfinder 1E. Yeah, that’s a comment I got. :sarcastic eyeroll:

Anyway, I’ve got some bad news for all the people praising me for harping on Pathfinder 1E and taking that to mean that I love Pathfinder 2E. Some really, really bad news.

Let’s talk about Pathfinder 2E! As always, there are just my thoughts and opinions, but I know that’s not going to stop the internet from hating on me so BRING IT!


Likes 1: 3-Action Economy is Great

I don’t think this is going to surprise anyone. Pathfinder 2E’s action economy, which gives you 3 actions that you can spend however you want, is basically the most celebrated aspect of the system. EVERYONE talks about how it makes Pathfinder 2E easier and more satisfying to play because it gives you unprecedented fidelity over the actions your character takes during a turn. Essentially, this is the perfect action system.

Unless you’re a spellcaster.


Dislikes 1: 3-Action Economy is Great … for Martial Characters

Pathfinder 2E’s action economy is INCREDIBLY unfriendly to Spellcasters. A martial character can use their actions to move 4-5 squares on the map and attack twice, change their weapons around, raise their shield, or do any number of super fun, flavorful, and helpful actions. Spellcasters, on the other hand, cast spells. Almost every spell in Pathfinder 2E takes 2 actions to cast; spells like magic missile and heal that “ramp up” actions are currently rare, and as a result spellcasters don’t get to access to the action economy to anything near the same degree as martial characters do. As a result, a spellcaster’s turn ends up feeling rather samey, and they don’t respond well to situations that require them to use one or more actions. For example, if you need to move away from an opponent, you can forget about that reach metamagic feat you considered using.

In my opinion, this is a major flaw with the system because manipulating the action economy is a huge part of PF2’s system mastery, and spellcasters largely don’t get to play with it. Whereas martial classes get feats that allow them to combine actions in new and exciting ways to stretch their actions further, spellcasters don’t really have anything like that, and the few options that do exist tend to be high-level options. There are very few spells or spellcaster feats that can be triggered as a reaction or that require single actions to cast, so you don’t really get the same gradient of gameplay that martial characters get. For example, imagine a world where dimension door can be cast with up to 3 actions, and each action increased the distance you teleported. 60 feet for 1 action, 120 feet for 2, and 180 for 3. Suddenly you have a spell that allows spellcasters to teleport small distances (effectively two and a half Moves for most characters) in an instant and still cast a spell! But instead, spellcasters are largely shackled to the three action paradigm.


Likes 2: Medicine is Useful

I was never a fan of the wand of cure light wounds spam, even if it was the most effective way to recoup after a combat. It doesn’t feel good to go into a fight severely wounded, but it also doesn’t feel good to sit around and just spam a low-level wand. As a result, I think the Treat Wounds activity is among the greatest innovations of Pathfinder 2, giving real ways for science and alchemy to restore wounds. Battle Medicine makes Medicine even more fun in my opinion, though I truly wish they didn’t feel the need to keep Battle Medicine restricted to once per day; I think something like 1 + 1 per proficiency rank above untrained would have been better. I would have loved for Battle Medicine to be a way for anyone to become a passable in-combat healer, but even if Battle Medicine isn’t perfect I still want to acknowledge that the Medicine skill’s usefulness is one of the shining stars of PF2.


Dislikes 2: The Rules Are Sometimes Wishy-Washy

So when it comes to Tabletop RPGs, there are two basic models of player agency—allowances and adjucations. All current incarnations D&D are allowances games while a game like Big Eyes, Small Mouth is an adjucations game. In an allowances games, a player basically can’t do anything unless a rule says you can. (It’s worth noting that one rule most allowance games is GM fiat, so even if no rules exist to do a thing GM fiat allows the GM to make judgment calls for themselves. Still, when a player benefits from GM fiat it’s still a GM making a decision for a player rather than the player getting to use the rules themself.) In contrast, in an adjucations game a player tells the GM what their character does and the rules exist to help the GM determine how successful the player is. The key difference between the two is that in an adjucations game, the player typically has significantly more freedom do whatever they want without an explicit rule needing to exist that gives them permission to play in a certain way.

Pathfinder 1E is an allowances game, and Pathfinder 2E inherited this from its predecessor. But one thing I dislike about Pathfinder 2E is that it has globs of adjucations-style gameplay mixed into the rules without actually giving the GM any guideline regarding when to allow players to access those adjucations. The #1 place where this is a problem for me is in the initiative rules. As you might be aware, PF2’s initiative is skill-based, so according to the rules you roll either a Perception check or a skill check with any skill that represents what you were doing that the GM allows you to roll. Normally, this is Stealth but the rules call out that other skills can be used.

Me: Okay. How? Give me some examples on when it would be appropriate to start a combat using Intimidation or Religion or Arcana or literally any other skill that isn’t obvious like Perception or Stealth.

PF2: Nah, but we’re going to publish a class that basically has a rage mechanic that you can only access if you start the combat by using a skill you would never think to use for initiative, for initiative.

Me: …

Now, don’t get me wrong. I think games that give players the ability to adjucate on their own are awesome. They make players active participants in the game’s worldbuilding rather than passive consumers. But if you’re going to have an allowances-based system dabble in adjucation, you need examples and/or allowances for those adjucations. In places like initiative, Pathfinder 2E’s allowances feel lazy because the rules don’t do a good job of giving examples of when and how such adjucations are appropriate, and that drives me crazy!


Likes 3: GMing is Easy

Alright fam, I’m going to admit something that’ll probably get me into trouble. As a grand experiment, I’ve GMed roughly 3-6 PF2 scenarios and book 1 of Age of Ashes, and aside from a quick read-through of the material I haven’t prepped ANYTHING. At least, not like how I’d have to prep PF1. I didn’t have to go and find stat blocks, take pages of notes on how abilities interacted, download Jen McTeague’s awesome PF Prep files, do research on monster tactics, redesign encounters substantially to suit my players, spend HOURS coming up with mechanics that might increase the fun for a group of terrifying death machines with unhittable characters.

Nope. None of that.

PF2 is generally pretty simple to GM; if you know enough to play it, you probably know enough to run it as long as you’re willing to look up rules on the go. I think that this is generally a strength of the game; you want the barrier to GMing to be low because more GMs means more tables of players.


Dislikes 3: Perception is a Pseudo-Skill

WHY IS PERCEPTION NOT A SKILL?

It works like a skill. It uses proficiency ranks like a skill. YOU USE IT TO DETERMINE INITIATIVE ALONGSIDE OTHER SKILLS. Just. Make. It. A. Skill!

Seriously, Perception not being a skill has some serious consequences for the game. It’s the reason that “Champion Initiative” exists. Champions have a notoriously poor initiative because they’re one of the game’s few classes that don’t have an inherent way to boost their proficiency rank with Perception above expert. There’s no good reason for Perception to not be a skill, and there’s no good reason for the game to have classes that are less good at Perception than, say, the rogue. Or gosh, the CLERIC. I understand the concern of Perception being a must-invest skill if you could invest in it, I really do. But in that situation I feel like the answer is to:

A) Make the other skills better (Seriously, have you seen Athletics? That skill is AMAZINGLY good now.)

B) Pull back on some of the uses of the Perception skill.

I don’t know which of these options would have been the best one. Personally, I’m thinking that most of the game’s other skills could have used a serious buff or two, especially if Perception was formally reclassified as a skill and a good place to start would be to add some of the class feats back to baseline. Regardless, we’re left with this weird system where Perception is basically just a skill that you can’t spend a skill increase on, and it’s not great.


Likes 4: Traits Make Citation Easy

Of all the various additions to the game, I think traits make the most sense. They basically work like keywords from Magic: The Gathering after all; they’re universal rules that when you see them, they’re easy to look up and reference. You can now say, “Whenever you use a fire effect” and that means something, because the game defines that effects with traits are effects with traits. It’s simple, easy, and overall a great way for the rules to stay consistent with themselves. (And if we’re being honest, a large reason this system works is that PF2 has that BEAUTIFUL appen-index in the back of the book!)


Dislikes 4: Rocket Tag, All Day Every Day

I might be the ONLY person who thinks this, but did the Pathfinder Design Team SERIOUSLY take one of the things nobody likes about high-level play (rocket tag, or the ability for players to go from full HP to nothing in a single turn of actions) and make it a core feature of every level of play? In my experience, PF2 characters seem to be designed in a way that they’re always one critical hit away from being knocked unconscious, as if you take two hits per round (very likely given the math) and one of them is a critical hit, that’s the same as taking a full suit of hits in the same round and dropping.

“Oh, it’s just Luck Alex. It won’t happen often Alex.” Friends, I’ve literally done this to someone EVERY TIME I’ve played Pathfinder 2, sometimes multiple times to the SAME PERSON. And the reason is simple—the Math in PF2 is so tight that generally speaking, the PCs are largely punching up more than they’re punching down, meaning it’s more common for them to be attacking foes with higher ACs (meaning crits are less likely) and higher attack bonuses (meaning being crit is more likely). The math is really in the favor of a PC going from zero to nothing in one round, and in my experience there’s not a lot you can DO about it beyond “use a shield last round and hope for the best.” There aren’t any good, widely available actions for protecting yourself from critical hits.

So maybe calling PF2 rocket tag is unfair. It’s more like “Rocket Bullying,” where the GM can just constantly shove player’s Hit Points into the dirt until they either die or manage to scrap a win past a monster. You know, luck is KIND of a factor here!


Likes 5: Buffs Are Brought in Line

I REALLY like how buffs use a small list of buff types (conditional, circumstance, status). I think that this not only makes the math more managable for the GM, but it also ensures that you can have a larger variety of people at the table and not worry as much about their class abilities canceling each other out. Paradoxical, I know, fewer buffs means less self-canceling? And no, that’s not entirely what I mean. Hear me out.

Generally speaking, most spells give status buffs, right? That means that you can’t take a spell / feat and expect to always have that benefit up. Instead, the question becomes, “Which character among us has the best version of this spell for our current situation?” It changes the nature of the game to picking the spell you need in the moment rather than just always having it active. For example, if it makes more sense to have EVERYONE get a status bonus, bless is a better answer than heroism because bless is multiple targets. But if only one person in your party is attacking things, heroism is the better option because it gives more benefits to that one target.

It makes choosing from among buff spells a more tactical choice, rather than PF1’s answer of, “JUST APPLY ALL THE BUFFS ALL THE TIME!”


Dislikes 5: Pathfinder 2E is Afraid of Players

I made this dislike last, because I’m expecting this one to be the most controversial. Pathfinder 2E is afraid of its players. What do I mean by this? The game is absolutely riddled with relatively heavy-handed stop-gaps to make sure that player power doesn’t get out of hand, and oftentimes it doesn’t feel particularly good. Perhaps the best example comes from the incapacitation trait, which makes it so your spells automatically one degree of success less successful against anyone who’s level is more than twice the spell’s level. This generally means such spells(s) have about a 10 to 20% chance to have their success effects against any foe that’s a severe or an extreme encounter on their own, while they have NO chance to critically fail. Which is a problem, since incapacitation spells generally don’t have worthwhile effects unless your foe critically fails. (I think the “best” is baleful polymorph’s 1-minute long sickened condition that can’t be retched, but my familiarity with higher-level spells is less then that of lower-level spells.) This, honestly, might have been a fine mechanic if most incapacitate traits weren’t spells, and spellcasters weren’t limited to a meager 3 spell slots per level per day. In practice, this makes incapacitate spells a “mook-only” level mechanic without actually saying as much to the player.


In conclusion,

I think that mathematically, PF2 is a superior game to PF1 if only because the math is tight enough that the game doesn’t fall apart at any point during the game. PF1 notoriously falls apart around Level 7, and I think its safe to say that PF2’s design is cohesive enough that something like that won’t happen. But that having been said, just like how PF1 has its flaws PF2 has flaws too, many of which center around what some have called a “trademark PDT heavy-handedness” when it comes to fixing power creep. (For reference, such people usually cite things like the Crane Wing nerfs of 2010-ish when talking about how the PDT prefers to “break” things that are too strong rather than fix them. Whether or not this is accurate is a matter of personal opinion, and not an opinion I share personally.) I think that there was always destined to be some controversy around the release of a new addition, but I also think that we also need to critically examine the games we play so we can identify their strengths and weaknesses. For all of its excellent mathematics and fun action economy system, PF2 does have its design issues. Like with any game, however, it’s up for you to decide for yourself whether those issues are bugs, flaws, or features.

I hope you all enjoyed my Likes and Dislikes of Pathfinder 2E. I was originally going to do SF today, but I had so many PF2 fans hating on PF1 last week that I decided to set the record straight and do PF2 first. Next time I’ll take a look at SF and discuss what I like and dislike there. Until next time, ciao!

Alexander “Alex” Augunas, the Everyman Gamer, has been playing Tabletop Roleplaying Games since 2007 after a friend pretended to be his father in order to smuggle him out of high school so his gaming group had enough people to run a module. Today, Alex is the owner and publisher of Everybody Games, a co-host on Know Direction: Beyond and RPG Design Club, and a player on Stellar. You can follow Alex’s exploits on Twitter (@AlJAug), on Facebook, or on Patreon. Know Direction fans are also welcome to “@Alex” him on the Know Direction discord server!

Alex Augunas

Alexander Augunas lives outside of Philadelphia, USA where he tries to make a living as an educator. When he's not shaping the future leaders of tomorrow, Alex is a freelance writer for esteemed Pathfinder Roleplaying Game publishers such as Paizo, Inc, Radiance House, Raging Swan Press, and more, and also acts as a co-host and blogger on the Know Direction Network, where he has earned the nickname, "The Everyman Gamer." Recently, Alex has forayed into the realm of self-publishing through his company, Everyman Gaming, LLC.

2 Comments

  1. Great article thank you ! If I may add one dislike to the list, and this one is very « Society » related:

    Gold management.

    Why couldn’t they decide to have a system using only one type of coins instead of this hellish gold/silver/copper system, where each adventure earns you a few gp, then makes you earn 12 silvers on you dayjob and spend 20 copper on a mundane item and somehow expect players to keep track of all that.

    Madness.

  2. About the rocket-tag issue… Alex isn’t wrong, but… the more we’ve been playing, the more it seems like most enemies shouldn’t be 2 or 3 or more levels above the PCs. In PF1, you had to use foes that were well above the PCs’ level, because otherwise they were pushovers. PCs were typically 2 or 3 levels higher in power than their raw class level would suggest. But in PF2, I can’t help feeling that most foes need to be of a comparable level to the PCs.

    Of course, this avoids the issue that every Paizo adventure published to date features really tough adversaries hitting well above the PCs’ level. Are they just having teething issues regarding adventure design?

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