Pathfinder is changing. Pathfinder has been on my radar since it first released, and the pocket editions of its first edition have a priority spot on my shelf. The second edition showed evolution, and a willingness at Paizo to directly confront a lot of their game’s baggage. Now they’re making necessary changes again to define their game as theirs, not just a D&D clone. This is the review of the GM Core and Player Core books, the first releases of the new remaster of Pathfinder 2nd Edition.
Notice: electronic copies of the Player Core and GM Core books were provided to me provided to me on a complimentary basis for review and content purposes by Paizo Inc., in compliance with US law.
Pathfinder’s story starts with a company called Paizo being contracted by Wizards of the Coast to produce their Dragon and Dungeon magazines in 2002. Paizo grew in both size and capability, so when their contract wasn’t renewed in 2007 for 4e D&D, they doubled down on their expertise with 3.5e and working within the OGL to create and release Pathfinder for 2009. But by 2018, the system was showing its age, and they announced work was starting on a second edition.
In 2019, Pathfinder 2nd Edition was released to positive reviews. Its D&D roots were still there, but changes in its action economy, experience system, ancestry (previously player race), and mechanics all marked its significant evolution from its OGL roots. The game was solid; the only substantial complaints came from its extremely complex character sheet and the long character creation process. And while nerds battled over which of Pathfinder 2nd Edition or D&D 5e was the best, Paizo went to work. Between 2019 and 2023, Paizo put the work in, dragging Golarion into the modern age by shedding many of its D&D-isms and proving that quality world building still sells books.
Then January 2023 hit with the OGL debacle. In an effort to make more money, Wizards announced sweeping changes to the OGL (all later rescinded under a firestorm of push back); these included royalty fees and what seemed to be a claim on all OGL works. Paizo fired up its legal team, and while confident they’d win a fight in court, they decided it was time to cut the OGL strings. They announced a remaster for Pathfinder 2nd Edition, with the first books dropping in late 2023. The new books would be under the Paizo crafted, irrevocable ORC License, to ensure that the game remained accessible to creators.
The plan with the new books seems counter-intuitive at first. Pathfinder had famously been a two-book set for over a decade, consisting of the Core Rulebook and Bestiary. With the revised edition, there’s a Player Core, GM Core, and Monster Core. The reason is simple. They’ve tailored the Player and GM books to a degree that a single book isn’t viable anymore. There’s pros and cons to this and I’ll get into that later, but I think as long as they continue to offer the softcover pocket editions, a lot of the issues will be mitigated to some extent. The Player Core and GM Core are HUGE. The Player Core is clocking 452 pages, and the GM Core is an equally robust 335 pages. Both encompass components from the Core Rulebook, mixed with parts of the Character Guide, Ancestry Guide, and Gamemastery Guide to name a few.
In the broadest terms, the books have been mildly to seriously overhauled from earlier content, with the OGL contents being scrubbed out. I’m certain that there will be lists of changes published within hours of the review embargo lifting, so I’m not going to burn a lot of space here diving into that.
Organization. The books are beautifully laid out and designed to be accessed with relative ease by the users. Sections are clearly identified, there’s a huge index in the back, and manual navigation is good. This dramatically eases the perceived complexity of the game and makes it friendlier for new players. Another place this flashes up is the character sheet. When second edition dropped, it was dragged over the coals for its incredibly busy and frankly intimidating character sheet. Since then, Paizo has revised it, and this revised design ethos has made the jump into the remaster. The sheet is still long at four pages, but the layout and organization are way better.
Now for some serious stuff. Paizo has shed an enormous amount of Gygax fuelled D&D design concept baggage around its ancestries. One of my complaints about 2nd Edition was that while they’d taken steps to change stuff, things like the Half Elf and Half Orc persisted and were still focused on mixes with humans and carried some Gygax problems. The remaster abandons all that. It offers Dwarf, Elf, Gnome, Goblin, Halfling, Human, Leshy, and Orc baseline ancestries and heritages. Then it steps up and has open Versatile heritages to represent mixed ancestry characters, with Changeling and Nephilim leading the way. Changelings haven’t changed (no pun intended), and the Nephilim encompass the OGL cut Aasimar and Tieflings. The biggest shift comes with the Aiuvarin and Dromaar, previously known as Half Elves and Half Orcs. These are no longer exclusively human mixes, and in a solid anthropological/sociological move, have their own names now. It’s fantastic to see. There’s also a lot of variety and no direction to make all of an ancestry in a single area the same baseline, allowing you to mix things up in terms of heritages and ancestry feats.
Alignments are GONE. Prescriptive alignments have been an issue for a long time; largely because of their use and function being lost with the exit of Gygax, and because they make gaming and world building difficult. Instead, there’s a personality section on the character sheet that breaks down some aspects of the character and their behaviours. Likewise, things like “Detect Evil” are gone now too. There’s no diminishment of the game, and it’s gained some additional nuance.
Disgruntled grognards will be upset that the combat wheelchair is now a permanent thing in the game. Pathfinder has always been on the leading edge for traditional style games in terms of diversity and acceptance, and this is more of that. And it’s good. It hurts literally no one to add and makes people who want to have that option available feel welcome. It’s a net win.
The GM Core book is actually built to be used. And I mean USED. This book doesn’t play and it’s here for everyone from the newest GM trying to get their feet under them to a grizzled veteran GM who just has it all referenced with tags on pages. From encounter building to travel to down time to story and then through the adventure to campaign spectrum, this book has your back. It’s not trying to be anything else, and it shows. It’s a GM’s toolbox that assumes nothing about your experience or background as a GM and, as a result, is useful to everyone.
In this year of 2023, the electronic copies aren’t indexed. It’s possible I’ve been spoiled by Cyberpunk RED, but this is a stumbling block. PDF documents can have a lot more functionality for navigation built into them, and it’s not here. This is an impediment to quick referencing, and I hope that Paizo updates this here and in their other electronic documents.
There’s missing classes. We went from five to eight core ancestries and got an expanded versatile ancestry section, but at the cost of five classes. The Alchemist, Barbarian, Champion, Monk, and Sorcerer are absent in the Player Core book. They’re coming in Player Core 2, but that’s a different point.
Back to Ancestries, there’s still some challenges happening. Development and options are uneven across the Versatile heritages, and the Mixed Ancestry (Aiuvarin and Dromaar) entries are wildly underdeveloped. The term Nephilim, while I understand its use here, has some real world religious implications and I think they probably would have been better served inventing a name. The Dromaar aren’t too bad, there’s still some baggage, but the issue is, again, with Aiuvarin. They have Charm as an innate ability option at level 5 and that’s hugely problematic because it’s an innate mind control power and would make them targets for caution at best and violence at worse. We’ve moved past “Half Elf”. We need to move past charm as an innate ability for player ancestries.
Cost. Pathfinder has always been on the expensive side, and the reason this one’s not in the Ugly section is because there’s options. The worst part is that each Core book (Player, GM, Monster) is going to be $59.99 USD for hardcover; that’s a 69.99USD cost jump for a complete set over the $59.99 USD Core Rulebook and $49.99 Bestiary cost that the original core duo books ran for. It’s mitigated by the fact that Paizo is seemingly dedicated to its efforts to having hardcover, softcover pocket edition, and electronic copies of each book. So at $19.99 each for electronic copies, it’s affordable, and the pocket editions keep it affordable(ish) for those of us who like physical media. But the cost jump for hardcover, the traditional format, because of the three-book format is a rough go.
Shades of 4e planning. One of the things that turned people off 4e D&D was that buying the core trio didn’t get you all the expected baseline classes or player races, you had to keep buying books just to get the core contents for players that the previous edition had in one book. There are shades of this with the remaster, as five core classes are being released as part of a second Player Core book. The book appears to be replacing the Ancestry Guide and Advanced Player Guide in some ways; but that’s not comforting when you’re being asked to pay for a fourth book to get material that was part of the older Core Rulebook.
This is almost everything I wanted from Pathfinder 2nd Edition when it dropped back in 2019. The Remaster represents a series of giant steps away from the game’s D&D roots and gives me a lot of hope for where the game is going to go in the future. It’s clear that a lot of effort went into making the game more approachable, easier to navigate, and friendlier for new to experienced players and GMs alike. There are rough patches, but overall, I’m more than comfortable giving the Player Core and GM Core a strong Rank A rating. Paizo set out to make a break from the OGL, and they did. Pathfinder is deep into its evolution, and I’m here for the ride.