Finding a Familiar Path – Part 1

Finding a Familiar Path – Part 1

July 24, 2018 Off By Chase

“Our first goal was to make Pathfinder Second Edition feel just like the game you know and love,” Jason Bulmahn wrote in his May announcement. “The rules that make up the game have to fundamentally still fill the same role they did before, even if some of the mechanics behind them are different.”

The playtest of the new edition of Pathfinder, out this August, promises new and exciting opportunities for the Dungeons & Dragons derivative. Yet whether through design or happenstance, the form it takes seems eerily familiar.

The Warring Houses

Paizo Publishing produced Dungeon and Dragon magazines for five years when Wizards of the Coast decided not to renew their contract. Paizo pivoted to the publishing of Pathfinder, a third party supplemental periodical of adventures for Dungeons & Dragons v3.5 to keep the lights on. When Wizards announced Dungeons & Dragons 4th Edition in August 2007, they were tight lipped about how the OGL would continue to function, if at all. Unsure if they could continue to publish content for D&D, Paizo invested resources into Jason Bulmahn’s side project of updating v3.5’s rules. In March 2008, Paizo announced the core rules for the Pathfinder Roleplaying Game, their in-house spiritual successor to D&D.

The two games deviated dramatically. While 4th Edition stripped the rules to the drywall and built them back up within a framework that addressed systemic issues with the d20 system, Pathfinder was designed with the idea that much of the core rules for D&D were still sound and any player issues could be addressed with targeted rules changes. This kept Pathfinder very close to the system v3.5 players already knew and attracted those who felt belittled by Wizards’ deflecting or ignoring their concerns that 4e was too different from what came before. Wizards, for their part, maintained that 4th Edition was largely the same game, even if they’d given each class an equal assortment of spell-like powers and abilities, murdered sacred cows like 20-level progression and limited nonmagical healing, and mandated new mechanics like the mathematically-maligned skill challenges.

The Widening Gyre

Both games engendered success, though Pathfinder grew a little more and D&D retained a little less than either company expected. Fourth Edition stabilized with its Essentials line which hewed classes closer to the mechanical designs of older editions, but never shook the idea that Wizards included video-game-like elements to constrain play and appeal to a younger audience. Pathfinder blew out character options while supporting itself with in-house-developed Adventure Paths, but the bevy of options bogged down the game and fans and detractors alike referred to it as D&D v3.75 (though the former did so ironically).

Still, the only constant is change, and in January 2012 Wizards of the Coast announced the development of what would become 5th Edition. 5e took a few concepts from 4e (like hit die recovery, short rests, and a simplified skill list), grafted them onto 3e class design (fewer powers for non-spellcasters, similar multiclassing rules and caster progression), and incorporated some new ideas (expanding saving throws to every attribute, bounded accuracy, and the advantage/disadvantage mechanic). The result was a big success for Wizards; the 5e Player’s Handbook outsold that of each prior edition’s PHB lifetime sales in just two years. Live-streaming games and Stranger Things nostalgia made 2017 the bestselling year of Dungeons & Dragons ever.

The Endless Waltz

On the stage at GenCon 2007, Wizards announced 4th edition with a tongue-in-cheek look back at the life of the game. A somewhat exasperated, bizarrely French narrator reassured the audience, “Ze game will remain ze same.”

It’s in this spirit that Bulmahn reassured his own audience over a decade later. With the success of D&D 5e, Pathfinder players worried the game would change to incorporate similar design ideas and homogenize the two games. Bulmahn preemptively assuaged these concerns, and successive updates over the last four months have made it clear: Pathfinder Second Edition isn’t Dungeons & Dragons 5th Edition.

It’s 4th Edition.

Insight, observation, or hyperbole? All three, maybe? Find out in Part 2.