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Pathfinder RPG Beta Playtest

Pathfinder RPG Beta Playtest

The Introduction lays out the lead designer's intentions and philosophy clearly: taking Dungeons & Dragons 3.5 as a starting point and to perfect it, clean up all those little niggles and improve the balance, making every option as attractive as any other so that choices can be made purely on the basis of the character you wish to play.

The first chapter (slightly confusingly it's Chapter 2 as the Introduction is also Chapter 1) looks at Creating a Character, with an overview of the process leading to more detailed explanations of what you can do in Chapters 2-11. Firmly based in the concept of your character as an alternate 'person' who you will be role-playing within the alternate reality of the game world, it advises having a good idea of what this character is going to be like before considering rules-based concepts like class, skills and feats for him. Still, that's best left to your imagination, so it quickly moves on to ability scores - what they mean and how to determine what they will start as (later choices may modify them, of course). There are different options for generating them from pure die-rolling through to point-purchase systems which can be fine-tuned to set the general level of ability for the game (the more points you have to spend, the higher the overall ability scores will be). The chapter ends with clear explanations of what each ability score enables you to do, an aid in deciding which are most 'important' based on your core concept.

Chapter 3: Races gives details of the classic fantasy races: human, elf, dwarf, halfling, gnome, half-orc and half-elf. Each has its racial traits which confer specific advantages and abilities to a character of that race, as well as typic attitudes and approaches to life - which are not mandatory like the traits, but suggestions about what most characters of that particular race are like - your individual may be quite different from the norm. All that is said here is very generic, and may be applied to a member of the race in question in whichever campaign world they might live. Apart from ability score modifiers, nothing is detrimental to a character of a given race, and even the modifiers are balanced out, with advantages to one ability matched by reductions in another.

Next, Chapter 4 gives the same treatment to classes, taking each one in turn and explaining how it works. There's an interesting discussion on hit points, with several different options all aimed at making it that little bit easier for 1st-level characters to survive. One novel option is that as well as your Constitution bonus you add a bonus based on your race, dwarves and half-orcs being the toughest. For clerics, the deities of the Pathfinder Chronicles are listed, although all their abilities are described in generic terms should you prefer a different set of gods. One striking change is that, although clerics still need to choose spells in advance, they may cast any orison (0-level clerical spell) at will up to the daily limit. Rogues gain a new class ability called 'rogue talents' which consist of various useful abilities like being able to remain stealthy when moving at speed, a new ability from the list being gained every 2 levels, starting at 2nd-level. At higher levels extra more powerful abilities become available. The sneak attack ability has also been modified, and can now be viewed as a knack for seeking out an opponent's weak spots or vulnerabilities, rather than an ability to strike vital organs specifically. For Sorcerers, the idea of their powers deriving from their bloodline has been taken a bit further, with different abilities depending on which bloodline you choose as your heritage. Overall, all the classes have been made a little more powerful, and some considerably more so than the original, so that they are balanced one with another and also with some of the additional core classes that have been published elsewhere.

Chapter 5: Skills presents the expected survey through the skills available. There is one major modification however. At 1st level, you do not get additional skill points to spend over and above the standard (x + Int modifier) points you get each level, rather you get a one-off bonus of +3 to any designated class skill which you choose. Some of the skills have been changed as well, for example Balance, Jump and Tumble are now grouped together in a single Acrobatics skill, Listen and Spot both are now parts of Perception and - rather oddly - Forgery comes under Linguistics (along with Decipher Script and Speak Languages, which do group together sensibly). For each skill, there is a wide range of uses - and the Difficulty Classes associated with them - to give you a very good idea of the sort of things you can do with that skill. Using these rules will make it easy to make mundane skill use part and parcel of characters' capabilities and enhance role-playing by being able to do well - or badly - at all manner of things, not just brawling. The enhanced ability to determine how hard any given task is (either because it is one of the extensive examples or by comparison to them) with appropriate die rolls should encourage DMs to include the need to accomplish things other than combat as part of the requirements to succeed in the mission at hand.

Next, Feats are the focus of Chapter 6. There isn't as much to say here: feats tend to either enhance something else or enable you to do something you otherwise would not be able to do, and this has not been changed. There are generally only minor changes to the feats, necessitated by the changes made to the skills earlier. The actual mechanics are well described, though, and it is clear just what a given feat can do for you.

Now you have all the information necessary to create a character, so Chapter 7: Equipment lets him gather all the items necessary to survive and succeed at adventuring. Naturally, weapons and armour feature large, but the usual bits and pieces that adventurers like to start out with are there as well. Shopping done, Chapter 8: Description helps you round out your character with things like alignment. This includes a discussion of the law-chaos and good-evil axes, and describes the classic nine alignments in terms of the individual's outlook and why each one is the best possible! The 3 evil ones are descibed as 'the most dangerous one to be' instead, and there's a suggestion that they are best left to the opposition. Age, height, weight, carrying capacity and other details are also covered, with optional tables for the first three should you prefer to roll rather than decide for yourself. Then on to useful stuff like movement over different terrain and breaking things.

Chapter 9 turns to that all-important point, Combat. It works through the mechanics in an orderly manner, showing clearly how the process is run cyclically with each participant taking his turn; and then going into what options are available once it is your turn. It seems horrendously complex, but it soon becomes second nature to figure out what you want to do and be ready with the appropriate die rolls when it comes round to your turn. An interesting innovation here is energy channelling. If a cleric channels a burst of positive energy, drawing on the power of his deity - probably trying to turn or harm undead - this also has the effect of healing people in the area of effect. Likewise, if it's negative energy, the effects are reversed with undead healed and the living harmed. The aim of this change is to make extra healing available, particularly to low-level groups, without forcing the cleric to be a healing machine who never gets to cast any of the other divine magic available to him. Likewise, in an attempt to make some of the actions available easier to adjudicate, a whole range have their chance of success calculated the same way, even though the results are completely different - a grapple or a disarm, for example.

The Combat chapter only briefly touched on magic use, and of course there are plenty of things you can accomplish by spell-casting outside of a brawl, so Chapter 10: Magic gives you the full details, beginning with an outline of the process. Basically, apart from bards and sorcerers casting anything they know and have available slots in their daily allowance for and everyone else having to decide in advance what they want to be able to cast that day, the process is the same: make the gestures, say the words and use any material componets required. Any distractions make it harder or even impossible to cast a spell. Provided the spell succeeds, the effects as described occur. After a discussion of the different schools of spell - which is a more general classification that applies to all spells both arcane and divine, although it's wizards who can specialise in one or two schools if they wish - comes explanations of what the different types of spell involve. These are very clear and worth studying if you want to get deeper that the flash-bang-effect level with your spellcasting. One of the biggest alterations has been to the group of polymorph spells, which have hitherto never been very clear about exactly which aspects of the form you (or your target) adopt and which aspects of your own original capabilities you retain. Now it's laid out explicitly. Just as was done for combat earlier, all the options available to the spellcaster are laid out and discussed in detail, it looks complicated but again repays study as you will be empowered to use your spells to greater effect by manipulating the options to suit the needs of the situation. The processes whereby you learn your daily spells and acquire new ones to add to your repertoire are also laid out precisely: no question now about what is and is not possible!

Chapter 11 contains the spells themselves. It starts with a master listing, just name and one-line summary, for all the spells presented by level for each type of caster in turn: bard, cleric (both by level and the domain lists), druid, paladin, ranger and sorcerer/wizard (who share lists, just use them a bit differently). Then there are lists by school, for those wizards who want to specialise. These done, there is a complete listing of all the spells alphabetically, in detail. Well, most of them. Some are available in a web enhancement that can be downloaded from the Paizo website (it comes automatically if you download the PDF version). The level of detail means that this chapter alone occupies almost one-quarter of the book. Most people will concentrate on the spells they'll be using, but it is worth a scan through to see just what is available!

Next comes Chapter 12: Running the Pathfinder RPG. In particular, this looks at what changes you might need to make to published D&D/OGL adventures or to your own material written under that ruleset. A lot boils down to how pedantic you are about game mechanics of course... characters generated and run using the Pathfinder ruleset will work fine with existing material. To get the full benefit, however, you will need to look at any aspect of your target adventure when you'd normally get the dice out rather than role-play, and make the appropriate changes. Encounters - especially those where you expect or intend combat - will need to be reviewed, particularly as Pathfinder utilises its own unique experience point charts for character advancement so you will have to ensure that challenges are set at appropriate levels for characters to advance at the rate you wish. Mathematically-challenged DMs may begin to gibber at this point, but a bit of thought when planning a game will ensure everything is in order. If you run a lot of stuff on the fly, you will find it advantageous to abstract experience point awards a lot more rather than stick diligently to the mechanics explained here. After a brief discussion on how treasure should be awarded (from a game balance rather than storyline viewpoint), the chapter moves on to monster design. This concentrates on the mechanics underlying monsters to ensure that they present an appropriate level of challenge to the characters who will face up to them. What it doesn't provide for is how to manipulate monster statistics so that you can have both the creature which fits the storyline - "There are giant spiders here" - and still have them present a suitable challenge by varying aspects of their capabilities; but if you enjoy designing monsters from scratch it will ensure that they are well-constructed from a game mechanics point of view. It is an excellent stage-by-stage account of how to design monsters, and is followed by no less than two different ways of converting existing monsters to fit in with Pathfinder. The quick and easy way is to just accept them 'as is' with the provision that they will probably be a shade underpowered (but you can always beef them up a little or add to their numbers if that's important for you). You will still have to change some things: for example, if they use grapple as a combat technique. Otherwise - and worth it to get the full benefit of this ruleset - a complete rewrite is necessary, starting with basic abilities and skills. The same mechanism can be used to convert existing characters for use in a Pathfinder game.

Chapter 13 contains Additional Rules, the majority of which are there to help the DM adjudicate the workings of the game world. It begins with the different sorts of dungeon that might be encountered - still in use, ruined (but maybe with opportunist creatures living there), storage facility or natural cave system - and then looks at likely terrain and how it can affect adventurers (or they can affect it, such as the force needed to break through different types of wall). It covers useful tips like how the nature of the floor may affect the ability to move quietly, doors and locks, traps, and even more natural dangers such as cave-ins or wildlife (slimes, fungi and the like)... and of course, the perennial dungeon favourite, the trap. There's a lot of detail on how they are constructed and triggered, what you need to do to avoid them and what happens if you don't - and several pages of sample traps ready to use. Next, the wilderness gets the same treatment. To start with, what happens when you get lost? Then different types of terrain such as woods (including the dangers of forest fires), marshes and so on... not forgetting urban adventuring either. There are plenty of perils within the city walls. For a start, you have local law to obey. But there's other things you can do with a city - like besiege it, so there's a section on siege engines. Then, wherever you are, there's always the weather to contend with... not to mention the risks of drowning, catching fire, being poisoned, starvation and thirst... it's a dangerous world out there and armed with these rules you can ensure that all those dangers can be used appropriately. This is nothing new, many rulebooks have enumerated the dangers adventurers face and given you mechanics to handle them: but this set of game mechanics is exceptionally clear and well-explained.

Natural dangers dealt with, Chapter 14 looks at Non-Player Characters. Herein are the standard NPC classes of Adept, Aristocrat, Commoner, Expert and Warrior, given a Pathfinder makeover ready to become your supporting cast. A lot of NPCs, of course, don't need to be created in such detail: if they are there for role-playing interaction you just need to know who they are, what they are like and what they are doing and intending at the time that the characters interact with them. If a fight is likely - whichever side the NPCs will be on - you do need some abilities and feats for them, and this chapter rounds out with an example of a fully-developed NPC.

Chapter 17: Magic Items provides details of all manner of magic items that might be found (and there are more in the web enhancement!). As well as details of all the things that a magic item, for example some magical armour, might be able to do there are also random tables for when you are in a hurry or for some other reason prefer to roll up an item rather than design it. For every item there is information on what it does and how it can be made (including costs). The same treatment is given to 'wonderous items' which are magic items that just don't happen to be weapons, armour, rings, potions, staves, or wands.

Chapter 16: Glossary actually contains rules covering special abilities. It also covers afflictions and curses, disease and poison; and how things like blindsight and compulsion/charms work. And losing a level - to level-draining monsters or effects, or from being resurrected - has gone, as it's very difficult administratively - can you remember precisely what you changed last time you levelled up? - so instead a mechanism for imposing penalties but leaving your character as he is has been introduced for such circumstances. There are other special effects covered, and how to combine them if more than one applies to the same character at the same time.

Finally, Chapter 17 looks at Playtesting. Although this appears fairly complete there are still areas under discussion - some highlighted in box text - and of course you, the reader and player, may find things that don't work as well as they might. The Paizo online forums are the main place for voicing your thoughts, and those thoughts will be welcomed. A healthy approach indeed.

Overall, this is a very clear exposition of a ruleset. It may belabour the point a bit at times, but that's better than not explaining a particular mechanic properly or leaving ambiguous remarks about what happens when... It looks as if it will hold together well with good game balance and workable mechanics which should not intrude on the flow of the game or interfere with the alternate reality you are trying to create.

Return to Pathfinder RPG Beta Playtest page.

Reviewed: 17 August 2008