Monday, June 25, 2018

The State of Fantasy RPGs, Part V--Pathfinder 2nd Edition Playtest

I mentioned in the last post that I played in a two hour Pathfinder 2nd Edition (hereafter, "P2") playtest at Origins, and I wanted to give my thoughts.  But first, I should say that I am, at best, a casual fan and player of Pathfinder 1st edition.  I have played Pathfinder probably a half-a-dozen total times, entirely in the context of Pathfinder Society.  I have never GMed Pathfinder.  I have also never played or GMed D&D 3.5, which is the direct predecessor of Pathfinder.  I recite all of this to say that I really have no emotional commitment to Pathfinder 1st Edition, and so I am approaching P2 mostly as its own game on its own terms.  Similarly, if you are looking for a deep dive into the Golarion lore consequences of making Goblins a core Ancestry (i.e. The Artist Formerly Known as "Race"), then I'm not your guy.

Second, I want to give a shout out to Luke Woods.  He's a local Pathfinder Society GM who happened to be the guy who ran the demo for us (Paizo, as usual, had a big operation, and it was a mix of locals, Society GMs from other places, and Paizo employees).  Because he's a local, I've played in a couple of games he has run, and he's an excellent GM and seems like an excellent dude.  He also spent some time after the game chatting with us about his thoughts on P2 with the perspective of running six two-hour demos in a day.  Whatever you think of organized play, the GMs who run games in those settings put in a ton of hard work in tough GMing conditions and deserve to be cheered, especially the good ones.  So, props to him.

Third, I'm going to focus on overall impressions as opposed to listing every mechanical element.  Paizo has done a series of blog posts about the various changes that is pretty comprehensive that you can go to for the deep dive, so instead I am going to focus on the things that jumped out at me from play.  Plus, we'll have the full playtest document in six weeks or so (which, after playing at Origins, I will be picking up, especially since it will be free), and I got the sense from Luke that some elements were still be worked out, so if you want more detail it makes sense to wait to get the actual product in hand.  This post is more about helping you figure out whether or not you are going to be interested in looking at that product in the first place.

OK, now on to my thoughts:

1.  It's Still Crunchy.  Reading the forums the day that P2 was announced, the #1 concern I saw was that Paizo was going to follow the current zeitgeist and dramatically pare down the volume of rules.  I can confidently tell you that this is not the direction they went with for P2.   It may end up being slightly less crunchy than it predecessor, but it is clearly going to be on the crunchier side of the spectrum for RPGs (especially newer RPGs), and it is clearly going to be crunchier than 5e.  And this makes all the sense in the world--they need to find a way to distinguish themselves from 5e, and "more options, more tactical, more mechanically engaging" is a very sensible way to do that, especially since that's where your fanbase is already located.

As some examples, there are a ton (at least 20, based on my quick count of the reference sheet) different status conditions.  That's a lot, especially for someone who routinely forgets to apply conditions to rolls (which I did in the climax of the demo, but upon reading the Paizo blog, it turns out the condition that I forgot to apply actually would have worn off by the time I forgot to apply it.  So, I accidentally did it right).  The character sheet, for a 1st level character, was two full pages of dense information.  We were using pre-gens, so it was hard to get a sense of character creation, but it certainly seemed like you will have lots of relatively small options that you can mix and match to make the character you want.

My sense is that this, in general terms, is what Pathfinder fans want--if they didn't, they probably would have ditched Pathfinder for 5e.  I'm more on the rules-light end of the spectrum, so P2 might be a bit crunchier than I would prefer.  But the point is that it seems they are not chasing 5e, but instead providing an alternative.  That's a good sign for the overall project, I think.

2.  The Death of the 5 Foot Step.  The biggest take-away I had from combat was there was a lot more movement.  Pathfinder combat (and, IME, 5e when using a grid) tends to be pretty static--the parties maneuver around in the beginning, but then the sides settle into a set battle line and trade blows until it's over.  In the demo, folks were moving around quite a bit even in the later stages of a fight.  Even my Paladin, which I was playing extra-tanky on purpose, was moving around quite a bit.

I think this mobility comes from two things.  First, they ditched the move action/standard action/full-round action taxonomy in favor of three actions per turn that you can use anyway you want, including 3 move actions.  Since you can move up to x3 your movement every turn, you can usually get to any spot that you want on the battlefield.  My experience is that if it takes more than a round to get to a spot, players tend to say "forget it," so being able to get to a spot in a round (even if you can't do anything when you get there) encourages players to get and stay moving.

But the bigger factor is that they made attacks of opportunity a special ability, as opposed to something that everyone can do.  And a relatively rare special ability at that--as far as I could see, none of the monsters we fought could do attacks of opportunity, and I think only Valeros the Fighter could do so among the PCs.  I find that the presence of AofO create a psychological barrier that discourages movement, because the players feel like they have screwed up when they trigger an AofO (I know I do), and so they end up moving less to avoid that screw up.  Taking that away empowers players to flit in and out of melee range.

One class that will definitely be seeing more joy in P2 is the Rogue.  I wasn't playing the Rogue and I didn't have the character sheet in front of me, but it didn't seem like the Rogue's abilities were buffed.  Instead, the freedom of movement allowed the Rogue in our party to more consistently get into position to use those abilities.  My experience with Rogue enthusiasts (*cough* Jason *cough*) is that this is exactly what they are looking for.

3.  Shields and Other Equipment Stuff.  So, shields.  My Paladin had a shield.  Basically, you spend one of your three actions to raise your shield, and it stays raised until your next turn.  In addition to bumping up your AC, your shield absorbs the first melee or missile weapon attack against you.  If the attack does damage equal to or greater the shield's hardness (5, in my case), it gets a "dent"; if it takes damage equal to twice the toughness, it takes two dents (I think).  With two dents, it's broken and no longer effective.

This mechanic is great, particularly because it "felt" good.  The fact you had to spend an action to raise a shield made using your shield was a tactical decision that had real trade-offs (one less attack or one less move action), but it was powerful enough to be worth doing.  But it was also the idea that you were actually doing something to block attacks with your shield, without creating a set of cumbersome parry mechanics.  It felt the way using a shield should feel, something that no previous edition of D&D or its derivatives have done.  Extremely well done.

On the equipment front, it seems like they are leaning into individual mechanics for individual weapons, to make a long sword play differently from a spear which plays differently from a dagger.  For example, if you want to multi-attack, the 2nd attack is normally at -5 and the third at -10.  But, if you have a rapier, it's -4 and -8, respectively.  I think that is going to be done via a "tag" system, where each weapon has one or more tags that carry with them the specific properties.  I really need to dig into the rulebook to have a full sense on this system, but Luke seemed particularly excited about it from what he has seen.

4.  No More "Roll for Initiative".  The most genuinely innovative idea that I saw in the playtest was that they have done away with initiative and the initiative roll.  Instead, during "exploration mode" (i.e. the out-of-combat adventuring period), you roll skill checks based on what you are doing during that mode.  So, if you are just generally looking around, you roll Perception; if you are sneaking around, it's Stealth; if you are follow tracks, it's Tracking (or whatever the tracking skill is), etc.  If you do run into a fight, the result on that roll carries over into the fight as your initiative.

Conceptually, this sounds awesome.  One of the things Luke mentioned, and we saw at least the promise of this in our very straight forward demo adventure, is that it allows for encounters that blur the lines between combat and non-combat.  Once the GM says "roll initiative," there is usually a Pavlovian response from both the players and GM that "it's fight time now."  But here, because there is not that clean break, exploration mode can flow into encounter mode (i.e. the fight) more fluidly.  I predict that this will encourage more role-playing and non-combat solutions.  That's great.

Here, though, I need to see it fully described and fleshed out in the rulebook.  I presume the rule is that initiative is determined by the last skill check you attempted--if you were looking around at the beginning of the travel and then started following some tracks, then your Tracking roll and not your Perception roll would control--but I could see how that could get kind of messy in play.  Also, it seems to me that it has the potential of encouraging players to spam their best skill at all times, no matter how appropriate it is narratively (Rogue player: "I'm moving stealthily." GM: "Uh, you have an audience with the king and you are trying to hide?"  Rogue player:  "Yes, exactly.").  So, I can see a bunch of ways where this basically great idea could really fall apart in play, so I am optimistic but reserving judgment until seeing the rule book.

Bottom line--I am much, much more interested in P2 then I was before Origins.  The full playtest document comes out at Gencon in early August, and then they are going to have a year of a public playtest, with a full set of playtest scenarios (spanning all character levels, and apparently designed to really "stress test" the system) before the final version is released.  After what I saw, I'd like to participate.  I might even be convinced to run it with the right group, which would be my first foray into GMing Pathfinder.  It very well may end up not being something that I'm going to want to play long term, but what I saw makes me very willing to give it a shot.

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