Wednesday, June 19, 2024

Paizo At GenCon: Senior Designer Stephen Radney-MacFarland On Pathfinder’s New…Path

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In the minds of many tabletop gamers, the story of Pathfinder is inextricably tied to the grand-daddy of them all: Dungeons & Dragons. Formed by ex-staffers of Dungeon and Dragon magazines as a response to the radical rule changes and restrictive licensing rules of D&D: Fourth Edition, Pathfinder was a refuge for many players who still wanted their RPG’s to have some crunch. But what began as a game that was disparagingly, and often lovingly, referred to as “D&D 3.75;” eventually became a truly unique experience.

Thanks to over 30 official splatbooks and hundreds of third-party contributions, Pathfinder has become one of the biggest names in tabletop gaming (You know that super popular show Wizards keeps pushing, Critical Role? That was a Pathfinder game first). But now, with the distinguished competition making waves with a brand new fifth edition, which ended their reign atop the bestselling RPG list, Paizo saw a chance to make some changes to their now ten-year-old game. And thus, Pathfinder: Second Edition was born.

I’ve been playing Pathfinder since it came out, one of those very players who was disappointed by the D&D: Fourth Edition and wanted to keep the customization (and, weirdly, math) that I loved about 3.5. So I was excited to hear about the new changes to Pathfinder not just as a journalist, but a longtime fan as well. Luckily, while at GenCon, I had the opportunity to speak with someone who’s had a hand in some of those same RPG’s: Stephen Radney-MacFarland.

Stephen Radney-MacFarland (left) had a hand in making many of the RPG’s that helped turn me (nerd, right) into a tabletop RPG fan

Dan: So how long have you been working on Pathfinder?

Stephen Radney-MacFarland: I started working on Pathfinder with the Advanced Player’s Guide, right after I left Wizards of the Coast. At Paizo, a bunch of my friends there were like “Hey, we’re working on this.” I knew that Pathfinder the role-playing game had come out at that point and they were looking to make their first major expansion of the game. I ended up doing a lot of the work on archetypes and various other parts of it.

Dan: So with the second edition, you’ve sort of been at the helm of it, to a certain extent, or part of it?

SR: Well the new edition, at least design-wise, was really a team effort between myself, our Director of Game Design Jason Buhlmann, Logan Bonner, and Mark Seifter, who were the other designers on the edition. I have the role of a Senior Designer. Sometimes that just means I’m old, sometimes it means I’m organizing freelancers and stuff, I also work on the map packs, I designed those.

Launched at GenCon, the Pathfinder Playtest Rulebook gives players everything they need to experience the new system

Dan: So Pathfinder has been running in its original form for years now

SR: Ten years, yeah

Dan: Ten years, new splatbooks new maps, multiple players handbooks. So many things. Why move to a new edition? Why do a clean-ish slate with 2E as opposed to keeping the first one going?

SR: Well, the basics of Pathfinder come from the [Dungeons & Dragons] 3.5 ruleset. I happened to work on the 3.5 ruleset as well. We’d known for a long time some of the issues with the underlying architecture of that system. Like the fact that higher level players slowed down, there’s an issue with the fractional progression. Me, I’m a bit, sort of an economy junkie, and I’d come up with an epiphany on action economies years ago that I’ve been fooling around with ever since. We put the glimmer of what is now the 2E action economy into a little alternate rules-thing, Pathfinder Unchained, which was the Three-Act Economy. We really liked how people responded to that through internal playtest, we really liked the play that opened up. So we knew that, at least on the play level, that that was going to be one of the anchors of our system. Unless, of course, we found something about it in that playtest that was terribly wrong with it, then we’d have to adjust.

Dan: So what are some of the other things that are new shifting from Pathfinder to Pathfinder 2E?

SR: Well, we really wanted the game to click better with our game world of Golarion, even though we also want it to click well with what everybody wants to play, no matter what the setting is. One of the things that we decided pretty early on, after some surveys, was to put the Alchemist in as a core class. And that also gave us the opportunity to tackle a system that was very popular and integrate it more seamlessly into the game. A lot of people liked playing the Alchemist, but they didn’t work as well without chemical items, which were really just weird spells in a bottle, and we really wanted to expand that out so Alchemy is almost a former competitor to magic that is its own thing, rather than just a system trying to latch on.

The Edward Elrics of Golarion are finally going to get their due

Dan: So the core mechanics are still the same?

SR: Yeah, a lot of it is. You roll a d20. High is good, 20 is awesome. We have gotten rid of confirming your criticals (EN: A rule where if a player gets a critical hit, which doubles or even triples damage, they must roll again to beat the target’s armor in order to deal that damage), but we have added a new rule that if you hit something by 10, then that is also a crit. One of the things that always bothered me about confirming the crit, even though mathematically it was sound and there were reasons why it was there, is that it slowed down the game. Sometimes, you’d get very excited about having rolled that 20, then you roll a 1 on the confirmation and it’s just wah-wah. Wherever possible, we wanted to make gameplay more active and more fun. So that was just one of the ways we were able to do that.

Dan: And I assume there was thinking towards bringing in players that are new to Pathfinder as well, making it accessible.

SR: Of course. Over the last ten years, we’ve found that we’re getting an influx of players annually. New players are also a little more game-savvy. Sometimes, I haven’t done it in a little while, I teach game design in the Seattle area, and something that I really love to talk with 20-something students about, who grew up on this abundance of board games, video games, everything else; was how vital D&D was in changing our idea of how games work. And for a lot of people younger than me, that’s just accepted. The idea of armor class, or hit points, or hits, or experience points…those are things people just know by now. It’s not brand new. And with that has come new ideas about what games fun and what makes games interesting. So newer players are in some ways more savvy than older ones. So we worked to update the game a bit to fit modern sensibilities.

Dan: On the other end of that, gamers and tabletop gamers especially can be very stubborn and stuck in their ways and stubborn about their choices. What would you say to a longtime Pathfinder player who might be a little wary of the new system?

SR: The core basis of the same is everything you love. You know how to play this game. Some of the particulars might make you scratch your head a little bit, in the beginning, but once you’ve played a little while and see why those changes are there and go “Oh, OK. This is much better! Higher level play goes much quicker than it did, advancing my character is more exciting, I’m getting much more interesting choices.” And other things, like having greater opportunity to customize characters into what players want it to be, rather than feeling obligated to take, say, a particular feat because it gives a +4 benefit, rather than a different feat that would let me do some cool things with pickpocket.

Dan: I like that. In these big games, it always seems like a player can get trapped in having to be good rather than getting to be cool.

SR: Exactly. We’re working hard to get rid of feat taxes (EN: Prerequisite feats needed to help a player earn more powerful feats, even if the early feats are almost entirely useless)  that really slow down the progression. We just want to give those to you.

For too long, the sneaky rogue has labored beneath the yoke of pointless acrobatics feats

Dan: You mentioned how Pathfinder sort of grew out of the 3.5 D&D system, and developed an identity as a game for people who enjoyed that system to keep getting new content in that system even as Dungeons and Dragons moved on to do different things. But now things at both companies have changed. What was it like to work on Pathfinder to create this new identity for it, rather than being, in some ways, a reaction to a preexisting system?

SR: Well I don’t think Pathfinder, even in the early days, was viewed by anybody as a reaction to an existing system. Paizo grew out of Dungeon and Dragon magazines. You had these very capable people who were doing this content on a high professional level for so long…and they really didn’t want to stop doing it. In some ways, what we’re doing now is an evolution of that. We really wanted to fix things that needed fixed, and while it may seem a little drastic at first glance, I think people will realize that it’s really an evolution. It’s tapping into the potential of that system that really made Pathfinder such a great game.

Dan: When it comes to Pathfinder, I’m curious about plans for the new game, as well as if there are any plans to update the old adventures into the new system?

SR: As you can imagine, when you do a playtest…everything is in flux. Potential plans are on the table as we see how people respond to the playtest, what kind of change come about as we see how people respond, what they think and what they want. One of the really fun things is that it is very easy to update our old adventures into the new system, it’s just a case of swapping the stat blocks. We didn’t want to change the story because really want you to enjoy the old adventures because they’re still great. I do think there’s an opportunity to go back and revisit even the more popular ones, and the sandbox there. Like Kingmaker, updating it to where the River Kingdom is sitting right now because it’s in flux; coming back and updating the River Kingdom is something we’ll end up doing. In a lot of ways, just like any successful company that makes content for fans, we’re going to see exactly what people want and damn, we’re gonna give it to them.

Dan: Paizo has gotten a really good reputation in the past few years for its commitment to diversity and representation. I assume you’ve continued that commitment into 2E when it comes to both NPC’s as well as character creation i.e race, gender, sexuality, that sort of thing?

SR: Oh, absolutely. You know, I’m an older guy in my forties; I started playing this game in the 80’s. Once upon a time, I’d go to a convention and it would be a sea of white dudes. And don’t get me wrong, the games were still great and everything else, but deep down inside I always wondered “These games are so much fun and they offer such a great escape, why aren’t different types of people playing it?” And as I got older, a big part of that is representation and accessibility. And Paizo has shown that opening that up actually brings those folks in. And we want more of that.

Shardra Gelt, the Iconic Shaman, wasn’t just the first transgender core character in Pathfinder and gaming in general, but also one of the first trans RPG characters to be written by a trans writer, Crystal Frasier

Back when I started working at Wizards of the Coast, Peter Adkinson had this thing that he wanted to make games “bigger than movies.” And in some ways, games ARE bigger than movies. We want to make RPG’s accessible because RPG’s are bigger than movies, not just games in general. We want everyone at the table, having a good time. We want to foster respect, and good times, and great shared adventure storytelling.

Dan: Is there anything you’d like to mention that we haven’t touched on?

SR: Just a reminder that if you haven’t bought the [Playtest Rulebook] that’s OK. You can go online and download it, as well as the first adventure, Doomsday Dawn. Play that, we’re going to be sending out tons of surveys, fill those out, go to the message boards, go on Reddit, go on Twitter, any social media; we’ll find it. Tell us what you think, we want to know what you like and what you don’t like. And I’m looking forward to seeing how all of this ends up!

Big thanks to Stephen for talking with me at the tail end of what was no doubt a very long and very busy four days at GenCon. For all of the details on Second Edition and the playtest, and to download your copy of the Pathfinder Playtest books, you can visit Paizo’s website. You can also still find the hardcover, softcover, and fancypants deluxe hardcover on Paizo’s store as well as on Amazon.  We’ll also have more coverage of Pathfinder as the game develops, as well as Paizo as a whole, plus a deep dive review of the new rules. You can also learn about Pathfinder’s sister game, Starfinder, in my interview with its lead designer Robert McCreary.

Images via Paizo Publishing

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