The big news from the Paizo arena is, of course, their Pathfinder Playtest. I picked up a copy of the physical rulebook at my FLGS about a month ago with the intent of writing a review. Guess what? This is that review. Normally, I have a system for my reviews of RPG products, but I’m going to set that aside for this effort since the book is bigger than simply cover art, mechanics, prose, layout, and interior art. This review will be split up over the course of multiple articles because of the in-depth nature of the playtest book.
If you’re interested in reading along with me during the review, you can pick up the free PDF of the playtest rulebook at Paizo’s site: http://paizo.com/pathfinderplaytest 
The book is split up into twelve different sections:
- Advancement and Options
- Playing the Game
- Game Mastering
In this segment of the review, I’ll be covering Overview through Classes. The rest of the book will follow in other articles.
What is a Roleplaying Game?
The Overview section starts with the typical “What is a Roleplaying Game?” segment, but Paizo does a fine job in this section. It covers more than the typical basics of players, characters, game masters, collaborative storytelling, and other things found in these types of entries. It’s a great introduction to RPGs for new players as well as a solid reminder to veteran players and GMs why they are at the table and how to comport themselves while gaming.
The section here that impressed me the most was the “Gaming is for All” part where Paizo dives into responsibilities as a player and GM at the table. It’s not just “pay attention” or “know the rules.” As a matter of fact, these aren’t even mentioned. The “Gaming is for All” segment speaks very well to the fact that each player comes from a different background, culture, family, environment, and so on that influences how they play. No player (or the GM) should contribute to behavior (in or out of character) that promotes or reinforces racism, bigotry, hatred, or any other form of action that can offend, make someone uncomfortable, or that will drive someone from the hobby. These are strong statements, and I feel they need to be said.
The book also states that no one at the table (especially the GM) should allow this kind of behavior to exist at the table. I’m very happy Paizo included these segments. Also, for the first time in a major publication, I now see reference to a social contract (search in the upper right corner for this phrase for multiple Gnome Stew articles on this topic).
This section explains things in very clear terms. There are quite a few core changes to a familiar product, and having these Basic Concepts explained up front helped me wrap my head around things that I’ve known in my heart for the past nine years. It set me up to adjust how I see the rules for the new version of Pathfinder, and it also was a great introduction to the basics of the rules for those new to Pathfinder.
To help simplify the game, the overview gives three options for activities a PC can take during a single round. These are Actions, Reactions, and Free Actions. Each PC gets 3 Actions and 1 Reaction per round. Some activities may consume more than 1 Action, so while this sounds like quite a few things going on in a round, I doubt it’ll be quite as crazy as first impressions give. To be honest, it feels like it’s simplified things, so it will be (I hope) easier to avoid analysis paralysis that some players (and GMs) go through when presented with all of the options available to a higher-level character.
The Key Terms section runs through an alphabetical list of terms that constitute the core of the game with clear summations of what the terms mean to players and to the game. Again, this section helped me mentally point out to myself where the game is changing from the first edition.
The character creation overview section did leave me a little lost. While page numbers were listed to refer to the more in-depth rule explanations, I found myself flipping around the book to excess. There are only nine major steps to character creation, but each of those nine expand out considerably with sub-steps and references. The sample character sheet on page 11 calls out the various places you have to fill out. There are 27 different things to go through. This is on par with the first edition of Pathfinder, and many editions of D&D, so I don’t feel it’s too much to handle. However, I felt like there could be a little more explanation of each of the nine steps in the Overview section of the book. This could have prevented the flipping around the book like I did. Of course, I’m comparing this experience to what I do with the current version of Pathfinder, which I know well enough to be able to skip over sections I don’t need and get directly to the meat of where I need to read for the character choices I’ve made. I suspect I can get comfortable enough with the new version to do this as well.
Here is a doozy of a change! Rolling for ability scores is now optional! You read that right. The core mechanic of developing your character’s six main abilities (which haven’t changed in this edition), is now an additive system. Everyone starts with a base 10 in each ability. Then the player will subtract or add (mostly add) 2 points to specific abilities depending on their choices in ancestry, class, background, and so on. There are quite a few options in there that are “Free boost” where the player can pick which ability to add their 2 points to. This means that every “elf ranger” won’t end up with the same ability scores. One thing I love about their changes is that no single ability can be above 18 at first level. They can creep above that threshold at higher levels, but not to start the game with. This helps prevent a considerable amount of min/max building for starting characters that is possible with decent die rolls and munchkin builds in the current version of Pathfinder. Their two side-by-side examples of generating ability scores in the playtest were very clear and illuminated the process very well.
An Aside: Alignment
As you can already tell, there are quite a few changes to how things are approached in this version. Unfortunately (in my opinion), alignment remains attached to Pathfinder. I had hoped with this new version that Paizo would take advantage of the shifts and ditch this outdated, often ignored, and clunky method of determining a moral base for characters. I feel leaving alignment in the game is a missed opportunity for Paizo to do something better in this area.
Another Aside: Hit Points
A very clear change to the game is that rolling for hit points at each level is now a thing of the past. Instead, each character starts with a base amount for the chosen ancestry, adds some more hit points based on the chosen class, and then adds more hit points with each level taken. Maybe I’m just being a grumpy grognard here, but I feel like this is a violation of the spirit of Pathfinder’s storied history. Few die rolls are more important (or thrilling) than the vaunted “roll your hit points” moment. Then again, it always sucks to roll a natural 1 in those times, so I guess I can get used to the steady increase in hit points.
You’ll notice so far that I’ve not used the word “race” within this article to describe a character option. That’s because Paizo has taken the correct forward step to remove this off-putting, charged, and insensitive word to rest in their game materials. From here on out, Paizo will be using Ancestry as the overarching label for dwarves, elves, humans, etc. Hats off to Paizo for doing the right thing for the members of our community.
I’m not going to do a blow-by-blow of each ancestry presented in the book. That would probably be an article unto itself, and I’d rather not have this series of reviews run on until the actual game comes out.
Each ancestry (except for humans, oh those complex humans) is covered by a two-page spread. There are ancestral feats only available to the specifically listed ancestries. Most of them are options at first level, but some can only be taken at fifth (or higher) level. The samples in the book include many first level options and only a few fifth level options. There are none for levels higher than that, so I am assuming the final product (which will most likely be larger than the 427-page playtest book) will have these options. Of course, expansion and splat books will expand these lists considerably. One addition is a “heritage” feat, which can only be taken at first level. These heritage feats help establish some core principles of the character, and are, quite honestly, pretty cool. I like these inclusions.
Before I move on from ancestries, I want to point out that goblins are in as an officially playable ancestry. This, as you can probably tell, makes me happy. These plucky little fellows have been fodder and mooks for way too long. I’m not surprised that Paizo made this move based on the wide variety of goblin-centric products they’ve released over the years.
Unfortunately, I have something in the ancestries that makes me sad. Half-orcs and half-elves are now just specific types of humans, and a feat has to be used to gain access to the orc or elf ancestry goodies at a later level. I’m not sure I like this change because it’s going to reduce the number of players playing these ancestries. This removes some diversity from the gaming gene pool, and I’m not entirely convinced this is a good thing. Perhaps things will be adjusted in the final version that’s not apparent in the playtest book that will make this a good decision from Paizo.
Paizo included a brief list (two pages worth) of backgrounds to pick from during character generation. I really hope they expand upon this list. What they have is pretty solid, but I can see players clamoring for more options, and we GMs will have to deliver. These backgrounds are used to tweak characters, make them unique, and boost abilities, feats, and skills. I love the inclusion of these types of things in modern RPGs, and Paizo has a good start here. (As a note: I really want to play someone who has a Barkeep background now.)
Everything in here is pretty typical of what most players expect to find in this section based on the past 40+ years of roleplaying game publishing. However, Paizo has also included a section on sign language. This is pretty cool. It’s a great description of sign language, how it impacts the game, and how it can be used. I love that they’ve acknowledged not everyone has the ability to speak or hear, thus increases the inclusivity of their game another notch.
As with ancestries, I’m not going to do a deep dive into each class. That would also be an entire article unto itself. The most interesting change here is the addition of the alchemist as a playable class to the core list. All of the usual classes players are used to finding are still in the book, so don’t fret that your favorite core class won’t exist until the proper expansion book is published.
Each class, like with the ancestries, gets certain base abilities automatically, then there is a list of feats to choose from at the various levels as the character advances. Because of the vast number of combinations going on here (ancestries, ancestral feats, backgrounds, classes, and class feats), I can see character creation and leveling up taking some time because of the inclination to want to pick the best thing for a character. This will up the levels of analysis paralysis in many players, so be warned. This will only become worse as more content is added to this version of the game.
Having said this, I don’t think this is a bad thing. I love many options to pick from. This allows me, as a player, to play a cleric in back-to-back campaigns, but without playing the same cleric both times. This makes me happy, but I still felt the need to point out the possible issue with so many choices laid out before the players.
(I know I said I wouldn’t do a deep dive into the classes, but I have my eye on a monk character for my first Pathfinder Playtest character class. Combine that with the Barkeep background? Hrmm… I wonder how a goblin monk who used to be a barkeep would work out?)
Aside, the Third: Feats
I seem to be mentioning feats quite a bit here. Right? Yeah. I am. That’s because almost every power, ability, spell, trick, or effort is based on a feat. There are quite a few to pick from. While Paizo chose to continue the use of the word “feat,” I suspect the re-use of that label will lead to some false assumptions in the players between the editions. These are not the same power level of feats found in D&D 3.0 through D&D 3.5 and into Pathfinder. The Pathfinder Playtest feats could have been relabeled to avoid confusion. I recommend Paizo do a massive search/replace for “feat” and drop in the word “talent” because that feels like a more accurate descriptor for what these are in this book.
Yet Another Aside: Deities and Domains
One thing I dislike about the first edition Pathfinder core rulebook was the fact that information about the Golarion deities and domains was jammed into the cleric class section. I can see the decision behind this, but in a world where the deities can directly impact life in more than the spiritual sense, there will be more believers and worshippers. This includes non-clerics. I feel like the descriptions and summaries of the deities deserves its own sub-section within the book, not a sidebar for clerics. Unfortunately, Paizo made the same decision here. I’d love to see more pages dedicated to their deities (like they did with the Key Terms section). Of course, not everyone is going to use Golarion in their games at home, but since the defaults of Pathfinder assume Golarion it’s safe to dedicate more paper and ink to the deities.
For the domains in the cleric section, I love the list here. It feels comprehensive, expanded, and with more cool options for the multitude of those that wield holy (and unholy) powers.
Conclusion, For Now
Overall, I’m pretty happy with what I see up through the Classes section of the book. I hope this review has been helpful to you if you’re on the fence about downloading the PDF (or buying the book). Up next, I’ll dive into Skills, Feats, and Equipment. If word count for the next section allows, I’ll also briefly cover the Spells section, but without doing a deep dive into each spell.