The Pathfinder Playtest: Character Creation

Paizo Publishing released their first look at the next edition of Pathfinder last week, offering a free playtest rulebook that people can use to put the new system through its paces. Character customization remains a large part of Pathfinder’s appeal, but the process by which you create your hero has changed.

Has it changed for the better? That depends on what you want out of the Pathfinder RPG.

Step by Step

You can get an immediate feel for the changes by looking at the steps to generating a character in each edition. The 1st edition Pathfinder Core Rulebook provides the following steps:

  1. Determine ability scores
  2. Pick your race
  3. Pick your class
  4. Pick skills and select feats
  5. Buy equipment
  6. Finishing details

By comparison, the Playtest Rulebook presents the following steps:

  1. Determine your character’s concept
  2. Choose an ancestry
  3. Choose a background
  4. Choose a class
  5. Finalize your ability scores
  6. Apply your class
  7. Determine skill modifiers
  8. Buy equipment
  9. Fill in the finishing details
Pathfinder Races
Clothing comes during the equipment phase.

Notably different is that you choose the essential details of your character – ancestry/race, background, and class – before you set your ability scores. This is because your decisions during character creation help set your ability scores. You’re no longer a fighter because you have a high Strength; you have a high Strength because you’re a fighter.

The new edition essentially creates a series of funnels that help you assign stats to your concept. This is probably a huge boon to new players, as they don’t need to have as much system mastery to get rolling. It might frustrate more experienced players who know the ins and outs of the system, because 1st edition Pathfinder could really do some nifty and unexpected things once you learned its nuances.

Why the increased focus on new players versus the experienced base that made Pathfinder such a success in the first place? I think that it has to do with the way the RPG market has changed since the game’s original release in 2009.

The Ebb and Flow of Dungeons & Dragons

Before it was a set of rules, Pathfinder was a series of adventures for use with the 3rd edition of Dungeons & Dragons. In 2008, D&D switched to a 4th edition that proved to be a significant departure from the previous versions of the game in both rules content and setting flavor. This opened up a schism in the RPG market, as a vocal portion of fans railed against the sweeping changes.

D&D Fire Logo
Tensions got so hot the logo itself burst into flame.

Paizo saw the schism in the market and realized there was demand for a set of rules that hewed closer to traditional D&D. in fact, although the playtest for the original Pathfinder RPG introduced several experimental concepts, the final product scaled back the more sweeping changes so the system could maintain backward compatibility with 3rd edition D&D. While new players were almost certainly a consideration, the target audience for original Pathfinder was clearly experienced gamers who wanted to keep playing something they were familiar with.

Pathfinder turned into a bigger hit than anybody expected, and 4th edition D&D stumbled more than most would have imagined. By 2011, Pathfinder was outselling the industry’s flagship. Their audience continued to grow, and people who were brand new to RPGs became Paizo customers. This meant that player acquisition became a new goal for the system, which led to the creation of the Beginner Box.

Meanwhile, D&D rebounded from its less than successful 4th edition with a new version that went back to its roots and introduced a simpler set of rules. Fifth edition D&D has met with insane levels of success, and that has helped to propel the hobby market as a whole to new heights.

As the number of people willing to roll with an 18-year-old RPG rules chassis shrinks and the number of new RPG players continues to grow, Paizo probably feels that it’s time to reach that new market. At the same time, the ability to customize characters in many different ways stands out as something that makes Pathfinder distinctly different than D&D. So the challenge is now to keep that level of customization while making it easier for new players to jump into the action.

Goodbye Dangling Doodads

One of the biggest changes I noticed in reviewing the playtest documents is that you get fewer overall abilities in this edition. The best way to illustrate this is by comparing a 1st-level dwarf from each edition.

In 1st edition, writing “dwarf” down as your race gets you the following things to add to your character sheet:

  • +2 Constitution and Wisdom, -2 Charisma
  • Medium size
  • Base speed of 20 feet; not slowed by encumbrance
  • Darkvision
  • +4 to AC against giants
  • +2 to Appraise checks to determine the price of nonmagical metals and gemstones
  • +1 to hit against orcs and goblinoids
  • +2 to save against poison, spells, and spell-like abilities
  • +4 to Combat Maneuver Defense against bull rushes and trips
  • +2 to Perception checks to notice unusual stonework
  • Proficiency with battleaxes, heavy picks, and warhammers, plus the ability to use dwarven exotic weapons as martial weapons
  • Common, Dwarven, and other languages
Female Dwarf
All that, and they still won’t let dwarven women have their beards.

In the playtest, creating a character of dwarven ancestry gets you the following goodies:

  • +2 Constitution, Wisdom, and one other ability score, -2 Charisma
  • Medium size
  • +10 hit points
  • Base speed of 20 feet; not slowed as much as others by encumbrance
  • Darkvision
  • Common, Dwarven, and other languages
  • One dwarf feat of your choice

That’s a big reduction in the overall number of traits. Your starting feat can give you a bonus to AC against giants, or a resistance to poison, or dwarven weapon proficiencies, but not all that stuff. Why the reduction in power?

Truth be told, though, I’m thankful for the dearth of extraneous abilities. In actual play, I often forget to apply all the doodads that PCs had because there were so many of them. A dwarven bard gets a +2 to save against spells and a +4 to save against sonic and mind-affecting effects, but it didn’t come up in play often enough for me to remember that.

By changing things to a smaller number of abilities that the player chooses, there’s less of a chance of forgetting those odds and ends. If I choose the Hardy feat for my dwarf, I’m much more likely to remember that she has resistance to poison because that’s something I chose. I’ve also got less stuff that I never use cluttering up my character sheet (the ability to use a battleaxe is meaningless to my wimpy dwarven wizard, and I never use the Appraise skill at all, let alone to price nonmagical metals and gemstones).

Of the various choices made in character creation, the only stuff I see that is not terribly useful or easy to remember is the stuff you get as part of your background. My first character was a wizard with the warrior background, which gave him the Warfare Lore skill and the ability to repair objects quickly. Neither of those are likely to come up much in actual gameplay, but as background is supposed to be the stuff you did before adventuring, I think that kind of makes sense.

Fewer Choices? Or Just Fewer False Choices?

Back when 3rd edition D&D came out, I used to take Improved Unarmed Strike for all my characters. Go ahead and try to disarm me – I can still fight with my fists without drawing an attack of opportunity!

Tavern Brawl
Of course, now Attacks of Opportunity are changed, so get ready for lots of tavern brawl carnage.

In reality, though, taking that feat meant I was wasting a feat choice on something that gave me the chance to do a whopping 1d3 points of damage in very rare circumstances. I didn’t mind, because I love making stupid choices with my character builds, but I would have been ticked to find that out if I was a new player who thought he was building a versatile martial artist. Similarly, feats like Diehard, Self-Sufficient, and Toughness should have all been named Don’t Bother.

That said, there is a large contingent of Pathfinder players who can mix and match those seemingly useless feats into something truly brilliant and effective in game. Unfortunately for them, the playtest rules don’t really cater to that level of tweaking.

Based on a read-through and the building of a couple characters, I would say that the Pathfinder playtest offers fewer overall options, but more meaningful choices for your character. You don’t get general feats at 1st level – your newbie hero’s feats are dictated by ancestry, background, and class, although you have plenty of choices to make at each step. On the one hand, that means that everything you choose is relevant to the concept you thought up at the start of character creation. On the other hand, it means you can’t mix and match unusual features right out the gate.

My elf wizard doesn’t get his improved unarmed strike anymore to represent time spent among monks. Then again, since that feat choice was never relevant in play, I could just say he has that but doesn’t use it. He does have elven weapon proficiencies, which would be my new useless feat if wizards didn’t advance in attack rolls as well as anybody else now. So even though I took a less than optimal feat, my elf can still pull out a longsword and fight effectively when he’s out of spells. He’d just better be careful that his puny hit point total doesn’t do him in.

Is this the Playtest Fans Want?

In case I’ve come off as too wishy-washy so far, I’ll just say right now that I really like what I see in the playtest rules. I hope they get some refinement, better formatting, and clearer language in spots, but I think this will be a great game.

Pathfinder Beginner Box
And if I’m wrong, 1st edition is still a nice fallback.

Will it be what current Pathfinder fans want? That’s more up in the air. I definitely think it will draw new players into the brand, which is probably what Paizo wants. I personally like that it will probably be easier to teach (no more explaining the difference between seven different kinds of actions), and I like the focus on meaningful choices during character creation instead of packages of extraneous and easily forgotten details.

I have many unanswered questions about gameplay itself, as I haven’t had a chance to run a playtest session yet. When I do, I plan to give my thoughts on the subject. In terms of character creation and customization, though, I think this edition is a step forward.

You might disagree on that last point if you really liked having a lot of stuff early on. If a dwarf doesn’t feel complete if she doesn’t get a +4 bonus to resist trips, detect unusual stonework, and effectively appraise gemstones, you might be miffed by the new rules. If you have a killer concept that involves a wizard with expertise in the whip and the ability to use Scorpion Style, you probably won’t be able to replicate that concept right out the gate.

And hey, if that stuff is a deal-breaker for you, make sure to let Paizo know by providing feedback on their playtest surveys – and, if you’re really brave, by wading into the vitriol currently present in the playtest forums. I know I’ll be waving my pom-poms and trying to get the final version of the game I want.


Images: Paizo, Inc., Wizards of the Coast

One thought on “The Pathfinder Playtest: Character Creation

  1. Kaihaku

    Is this the kind of character creation that I want? Most definitely yes.

    I think this stays true to the “spirit” of Pathfinder while cutting out the mess. This new set-up structures and balances character options while giving players even more freedom to customize their character.

    It’s not the muddled mess of numbers that I like about Pathfinder – it’s depth of options and strategy elements.


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