The Pathfinder Playtest: Where Did These Changes Come From?

Parts of the Pathfinder Playtest seem like a jarring change to the system to me. That’s mostly because I spent 10 years running a game that used very few rules beyond the Core Rulebook or the Beginner Box. The major change to the action economy and the removal of old multiclassing, for example, feels weird.

That said, I did stay on top of new rules releases as part of my whole freelance writing thing, so I can see that many of these major changes still have Pathfinder DNA. If you’re wondering where all these changes came from, it mostly boils down to a decade of optional rules expansions.

Tougher 1st-Level Characters

One of the simpler but potentially more game-changing alterations in the new edition is a higher hit point total for 1st-level characters. In addition to getting an allotment of hit points from your class and Constitution modifier, you get between six and ten extra hit points based on your ancestry.

That means a dwarven barbarian could potentially start out with 25 hit points. Even a wimpy elven wizard begins with 11 or so hit points. That means better survivability for 1st level characters. I assume this is something the designers wanted to do from the beginning, because it was introduced a decade ago.

Back in the first Pathfinder playtest document, a sidebar discussed the possibility of adding extra hit points to 1st level characters, including the idea of a race-based hit point kicker. This never made it to the final rulebook, presumably because it would mean adding bonus hit points to every humanoid monster in the Bestiary.

Pathfinder Starting Hit Points

Since the new edition doesn’t build monsters like PCs, it doesn’t have that restriction. In fact, Pathfinder’s sister game, Starfinder, already tested the waters by adding racial hit points to character creation. That change apparently worked well enough that ancestries now offer bonus hit points…ten years after the idea was initially suggested.

Different Class Structure

1st edition character classes each had their own structure. If you played a barbarian, you got a new power of ability at every level. By comparison, fighters relied mostly on bonus feats, while clerics got boosts to their spellcasting and channel energy but very little else.

Pathfinder Halfling

In the playtest, the classes all advance more consistently. At odd levels, PCs get class features or new spell levels. At even levels, they choose class feats. This seems mostly due to the archetype system, which allows you to trade out class feats for other abilities.

Archetypes became a part of 1st edition in 2010’s Advanced Player’s Guide, which marks the point where Pathfinder started to solidify into its own game instead of just serving as an offshoot to Dungeons & Dragons. For those wondering where the alchemist class came from, that originated in the Advanced Player’s Guide, too.

In the old days, choosing an archetype at 1st level meant swapping out pieces of your base class for other special abilities. It was a more elegant solution than prestige classes, but the fact that it wasn’t part of the game from the beginning meant the system had limits. The cleric, for example, couldn’t have many archetypes because it had very few class features.

The new class structure allows archetypes to work across the board for all classes. It also opens the door for the new multiclassing system, which is one of many changes that originate in Pathfinder Unchained.

Did Pathfinder Unchained = Pathfinder 1.5?

Pathfinder Unchained came out in 2015 and introduced a ton of optional rules to the 1st edition system. Many of these rules should look very familiar to those who have read through the new playtest document.

Pathfinder Unchained

A lot of people on the Paizo forums speculated that Pathfinder Unchained was a stealth test for the next edition, and maybe they were right. Personally, I stick by my statements on the forums, which is that any new edition was bound to draw from this book but that it wasn’t really a secret playtest.

Regardless of whether or not Pathfinder Unchained was intended to serve as a test bed for a new edition, a lot of the new system resembles 1st edition with a bunch of Unchained rules in play. Here are just a few examples:

  • Barbarian rage is much closer to the simplified Unchained version of the power.
  • The skill list resembles the Consolidated Skills variant rule, and the Lore skill comes directly from the Background Skills section.
  • Skill feats resemble the Skill Unlocks introduced in this book.
  • The new action economy of three actions + one reaction per round mirrors the Revised Action Economy presented in Unchained.
  • Afflictions resemble the revised Disease and Poison rules that Unchained
  • Unchained had a Limited Magic which kept spells from scaling with caster level. Although the spells in the playtest have been tweaked with a heightening system that resembles the current edition of Dungeons & Dragons, the fixed ranges and damage numbers resemble Unchained’s Limited Magic system.
  • Although we don’t have a monster creation system in the playtest, the monster rules no longer seem to be connected to the way PCs are built, which matches the Simple Monster Creation section introduced in Unchained.
  • Multiclassing more closely resembles the Variant Multiclassing rules found in Unchained, although with several major tweaks to make the system more meaningful. (Your multiclass wizard can actually cast wizard spells, for example.)

It’s worth noting that Pathfinder Unchained netted positive reviews overall, so it makes sense that large parts of the book would make its way into a new edition. Whatever the original intent behind the book may be, it seems that Pathfinder 2nd edition will largely look like 1st edition with Unchained’s optional rules turned on.

How Much Change is Too Much?

All told, I estimate that about 90% of the changes in the Pathfinder Playtest are refinements on optional rules that existed in 1st edition. But if you played primarily with the core books rather than the 30+ supplements that came out over the past decade, the changes can seem jarring.

Pathfinder Library
Well, I see someone didn’t like the Advanced Class Guide.

The only piece of the new system that seems completely new to me is the proficiency system, which totally replaces the old skill system as well as base attack bonus and saving throws. Whether this feels like too big a change probably boils down to whether you like it or not. I enjoy the flexibility it offers along with the ability to keep groups of PCs roughly close in ability, but others probably miss the granularity of attacks, saves, and skills each being their own subsystem.

(Okay, the resonance mechanic used to limit the use of magic items is also brand new, but I strongly suspect that it will be discarded in the final 2nd edition rules.)

The future of Pathfinder largely hinges on whether the changes feel like too much of a shock to the system. The fact that most of the alterations have their roots in 1st edition supplements doesn’t mean that the majority of the player base is familiar with them.

The public playtest should help the new edition in this regard. Diehard fans who hate change will definitely make their voices heard, and my guess is that the more radical stuff (hi, resonance!) will get dialed back or removed before the final product hits.

Regardless of how this new game turns out, the Pathfinder Playtest largely represents the incorporation of popular optional rules into the old game. If 1st edition saw the game as an infant, 2nd edition is that game as a pre-teen. It’s changed a lot over the years, but you can still see what it used to be if you take a good look.


Images: Paizo Publishing

One thought on “The Pathfinder Playtest: Where Did These Changes Come From?

  1. Kaihaku

    I never did try out the Unchained variant rules but if the Pathfinder Second Edition Playtest is any indication I would have liked them. I did run a Pathfinder campaign that allowed players to use anything Paizo had published and – whew – I definitely see the need for a system that can better accommodate that volume of material. Admittedly, after years of patching 3/3.5/3.P I’m ready for a shiny new system that’s new player friendly, better balanced, and generally more consistent. A good Game Master can counterbalance the weaknesses of Pathfinder, but wouldn’t it be nice if they could have the strengths of the system without the weaknesses? (Granted – playing core only is a very different beast than playing with additional material.)

    To me, Pathfinder and Dungeons & Dragons 3/3.5 seem like software without an API…new material is just plugged in wherever it fits. The wealth of material ends up overwhelming the system and causing many of the problems that people complain about. It’s exciting to see this addressed directly in the Pathfinder Playtest which adapts a modular system with clear room for growth.


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