Pathfinder. I’ve talked about some of their work over the last few years, with reviews of its Lost Omens: Mwangi Expanse and Travel Guide books, and a few episodes of Lore Diver.  Broadly, these have been positive, so it’s probably time to talk about how this evolution of 3.5e D&D has handled representation and how their approach has positioned them ahead of their rivals over at Wizards.
The story of pathfinder is fairly well known at this point. As Wizards prepared switch from 3.5e to 4e D&D, they decided to bring it all in-house, including their long published magazines: Dragon and Dungeon. Paizo had gained the rights to publish these magazines in 2002, and surprise hit the fans in 2007 when Wizards announced Paizo would no longer be producing them. Looking to stay in the game, Paizo took up the then Dragon Managing Editor Jason Bulmahn’s longshot proposal. He had been doing some serious home brewing in 3.5e and had most of game. The idea was that they’d finish it and launch it as their own game, hoping fans of 3e and 3.5e would come over. In 2009, Pathfinder released and swiftly began gaining ground. For a brief period it even outsold 4e D&D, but has been in a steady second place since the release of 5e D&D.
1st Edition Steps Up, and to the Side…
In honesty, I support the description of Pathfinder first edition as “3.75e D&D”; it was firmly rooted in the 3.5e D&D ecosystem mechanically, with enough modifications, updates, and improvements to make it a smoother ride. And it leaned hard into representation in ways that D&D still doesn’t.
One of the most profound choices the game made was with its art and specifically the Iconics. Iconics being the representative art of each class. 3e D&D had introduced the idea but applied it poorly, seldom using most of the Iconics and largely ignoring the non-white ones. Pathfinder though? It went hard with its Iconics and made them the centrepieces of the art. Past that, they were visibly multi-ethnic; not in the “coded European characters with ethnically ambiguous companions” way either. They were distinct and stayed that way. The result is a solid sense of continuity through the books and a general feeling of being seen.
Another major choice they made early was queer and trans content. Way before D&D was getting credit for having a gay couple as NPCs, Pathfinder was ahead of the curve for LGBTQIA+ stuff. And to put this in perspective, they were doing this while gay marriage in the USA was still being fought for, and only about five years after laws that made gay sex illegal in multiple states were overturned as unconstitutional. So having openly gay, queer, and trans characters who were in relationships was HUGE.
But for all that, there were some not so great aspects. The game was still heavily rooted in D&D, meaning that biology and culture were conflated. There was still some less than great language and narrative baggage with the Half Orcs and Half Elves. The African analogue area was woefully undeveloped and where it was, it was a confused morass of ideas and concepts that were sort of bolted together. The Egypt analogue had a lot of very white, European looking people for its art. So while in many other areas, Pathfinder’s first edition excelled, it was still very much a derivative product of its source material.
2nd Edition Blazes Forwards
I’m the first to admit, 2nd Editon had a rocky start for a lot of fans; including myself. They made a lot of big changes that deeply changed not just the mechanics of the game, but also its vibe and capabilities. And a lot of the changes were most apparent in Ancestries, the replacement system for the older player race concept. The big thing that second edition did was embrace the crunch, and somehow make it smooth, and Ancestries were included in this concept. And here’s where they walked a difficult line between the game’s D&D heritage and the associated expectations of the existing fanbase with the needs of a new system and the expectations of new players who rejected a lot of traditional D&D-isms.
On the down side, there was still some retained thematic issues. This manifested around things like Half Elves having the option of casting Charm once per day as a natural ability (Charm is an extremely abuse prone spell, both in its official and unofficial interpretations). There’s also the challenges of Golarion being, at its core, a D&D type world with D&D type themes that influenced a lot of the advice and guidance around the Ancestries. It’s not egregious, but it’s there and it’s not great to see. Problematic stereotypes that are watered down are still problematic.
On the up side though? Diversity. With a capital “D”. As in: D. I. V.E. R. S. I. T. Y. It’s everywhere in the 2nd edition, to levels that I honestly don’t think anyone expected. Even in the core book you’re treated to dark skinned, non-European coded peoples of many Ancestries. It’s in the Ancestry section, it’s in the classes section where the Iconics share space with others of their class from different origins. It’s a visual explosion of “you are seen, people who look like you are part of this world”.
Then it went deeper, and this is where the Ancestries come in strong. Tying into the crunch aspect, each Ancestries has feats that come available at specific levels, reflecting a character’s focus on honing their inherent knowledge, abilities, and potential. But then it’s revealed that there’s multiple potential developments at each level, some with prerequisites, others without. The result? No two elves are the same. No two dwarves are the same, even if they’re from the same village, same culture, same parents. It’s a refreshing use of core mechanics to make things better and different. It injects variety into the game at a level that didn’t exist previously.
And naturally, Pathfinder’s second edition carried on the game’s long tradition of solid LGBTQIA+ representation.
Pushing past the Core Book
Unfortunately, I don’t have Pathfinder money right now, so I’m a bit limited in this sense. But from what I’ve seen of the Lost Omens series of books; such as The Mwangi Expanse, Traveller’s Guide, Guns & Gears, Book of the Dead, and Impossible Lands; diversity has been deeply embraced by Paizo, as has a lot of the necessary world building to make it work. The only real issue I’m seeing is a tendency towards atomistic (or siloed) creation. For example, The Mwangi Expanse is not meaningfully connected to The Golden Road or Impossible Lands regions. It’s well developed, but has little connective tissue to the larger world around it save for its former colonial power, Cheliax, and pirate regions. This connectivity is a major spot where I really hope Paizo improves in the future.
As a mainstream game with deep roots in D&D, Pathfinder has come further faster in its two editions than D&D has in its five. It’s not perfect by any means, but they’re making more effort in a more legitimate way than Wizards ever has. Part of this has been an actual embrace of diversity as a core aspect of the game, but the other part is that by focusing on a single world, Paizo has been able to do key world building needed to make it work. And it’s challenging. Pathfinder is very much walking a fine line between nearly mutually exclusive demands from different populations in its fanbase, while trying to attract new players to grow. It’s not been perfect, but the effort is clear. Pathfinder is currently undergoing a revision process to remove all the D&D legacy content from the OGL, which has included things like removing the Drow and renaming/revamping spells and abilities. What I’m hoping is that this opportunity has been used to take steps away from the problematic narratives that were left as well. But until then, I’m happy with the direction Pathfinder is going for its diversity. It’s made the fandom stronger and the game more welcoming.