The Pathfinder Roleplaying Game has a fascinating history. Here is an entire system that arose out of the embers of the revised third edition of Dungeons & Dragons. As Wizards of the Coast took D&D in new directions with the fourth edition of the game, Paizo’s Pathfinder offered an alternative – an ongoing way for players to stay closer to the more familiar and beloved system they had played for years, but with some clever new twists. Sometimes informally dubbed by its fans as D&D 3.75 upon its official release in 2009, Pathfinder grew to compete against the very game it had diverged from, and to this day, many role-playing enthusiasts swear by Pathfinder’s rich campaign setting, strong rules, and dynamic play at the table. 

Cut to 2018, and Wizards of the Coast has in the years since rolled out the popular 5th edition of Dungeons & Dragons, and Pathfinder is a system with nearly a decade of new content, rules additions, and other baggage to bear. By the admission of Paizo’s own director of game design, it’s time for Pathfinder to move forward on to a new edition – one informed by years of experience with the existing system, as well as the desires of an enthusiastic ongoing fan base. 

I talked with Jason Bulmahn, director of game design at Paizo, and team lead on Pathfinder, and asked him about this new forthcoming edition of the game. Like back in 2008, the team considers its players’ feedback as integral to getting things right, so the first step into this new edition is a dedicated Pathfinder Playtest book release, coming this August. Within the Playtest book, players and GMs will be able to see what Paizo has been up to, with innovations and new rules to keep high adventure as the centerpiece, side-by-side with returning core systems that have been tweaked to keep all players – new and experienced alike – having a great time. And those same fans will then have the chance to offer feedback about those rules that will help shape the final release of the new edition.

As we conversed, Bulmahn shared insights into the new magic system, the move from character races to ancestries, and even shared some exclusive new sketches of the art on the way in the Playtest book. As a big fan of learning about new role-playing systems myself, I’ve chosen to run the bulk of our lengthy interview below, so Pathfinder fans can get the full picture of what Bulmahn chose to share. Enjoy!

 

Miller: When considering a new edition for Pathfinder, what were the design tenets you started with? What did you prioritize? What was the list you came to on a top level for what you wanted the new edition to do and be?

Bulmahn: In reality, the new edition of Pathfinder started the first day after we sent the first edition to the printer, because a game like this is such a big thing, and it has so many moving parts. Role-playing games have hundreds of pages, dozens of roles, lots of sub systems, and Pathfinder was born out of the 3.5 version of Dungeon & Dragons. As such, we inherited a lot of pieces of the game that, even when we started, were eight years old, and now 10 years after that we’re looking at parts of a mechanical system that are 10 years out of date. Well, I guess out-of-date might be the wrong term. The tech for it is almost 20 years old, and game design has moved a lot since then. I would say the start for Pathfinder: Second Edition really started almost right away with us understanding that there were some limitations to what we could and couldn’t do with the game. 

The engine itself is great. It allows us to tell us these great, heroic stories while building the characters you want to build. We knew we wanted to keep that, but there was a lot about the way the math worked and how there were some elements of choice and the way you built your characters that wasn’t very friendly to new players. Even more problematic, at the higher levels of play when the story’s really coming together and you’re getting to the endgame, there are some math problems that make the game have some uneven play experience. You end up with some situations where high-level characters actually get worse at things when they go up in level, which is kind of odd and counterintuitive. We wanted to make the game a bit more true to the stories we wanted to tell. 

I think in some way the engine wasn’t doing quite what we needed it to do, so the start for Pathfinder: Second Edition — or in this case the Pathfinder playtest which is coming out first — is that. We wanted to re-engineer the game to allow the game to emulate the stories we wanted to tell even more so than they did in the past. I think that’s where we started. We always try to start from a place of what’s best for the story, what’s best for the group, and what’s best for the players. All of our decisions spring from that. The most important part of the game is the people playing it and the stories they tell together.

Miller: You brought up the interesting thought that game design has come a long way in the last decade. What are some of the trends you’ve seen?

Bulmahn: I think a lot of people think of pen-and-paper role-playing games, and they think it’s like it always has been. It doesn’t really change; you sit at the table, you roll some funny-shaped dice, and you tell stories. In truth, over the past 10 years — even going back further than that — the game as a genre of entertainment has really made leaps and bounds in mechanics and storytelling, diversity, and with acceptance, and the audience has grown. There’s a lot of things changing. I would say in the last 10 years we’ve seen a big shift towards games that are a bit easier to understand, that are easier to get into. I think that’s become important to a lot of gamers, especially as segments of the audience have either grown older, or we get new segments of the audience that just don’t have the time I had when I was a kid. I didn’t have video games, I just had my books with D&D and I could spend an entire day just poring through a book trying to get all the details and get all of the rules in my head. Today, everyone has to compete with movies and cellphones and apps and video games, so I think having a game that’s a bit easier to get into, that’s a bit easier to understand, has grown more and more important over time. 

I think the trick for us in particular is we need to push for that expression: A game that’s easier for people to learn, but we don’t want to sacrifice any of the depth, any of the richness. I want a game that’s easy for you to pick up and understand but still has the depth of options for you to explore and create the character you want to create. I think the industry as a whole has moved toward that in some directions — some games have moved that way, some games haven’t. Everybody’s trying to find their niche. I think the one we’re trying to aim for is one that has infinite diversity of choice without so much complexity that it’s really hard for you to understand. 

I think that was part of the problem with our previous edition of the game. There was that real barrier to entry for new players, and that’s a term we use around here a lot. How much do you have to learn before you can start having fun? I think video games, above all else, have taught us that the faster the player is having fun the better off your game is. If you have to spend a great deal of time creating a character or reading a manual, that’s a time investment that you have to sink in before the fun can begin. I want to get out of the way and let people have fun as quickly as possible. With a pen-and-paper role-playing game, there’s obviously some things you have to learn and some things you have to do, but I want to minimize that by explaining some base concepts to you to get you going as quickly as possible. 

I always think back to a game like Skyrim. They wanted to get away from the create-a-character screen and instead jump straight into a narrative where you’re playing (and they ask) what’s your name, and you type it in as the game is talking to you. We’re not exactly doing that, but we are looking at that as a model of how we can engage people from the moment they open up the book. 

It’s beyond mechanics, too. I think narratively speaking we’ve learned a lot over the past decade. I think there’s a lot of games out there that are doing interesting things with narrative play and narrative construction and how they’re putting together their stories. It isn’t “here’s a dungeon map, open up a room, kill the monster, and take its stuff.” We’re trying to get more nuance, we’re trying to get a more emotional journey, we’re trying to build stories that take you places and let you explore aspects of not just your character, but issues that are important to you, issues that are important to the story and reach a depth you might not normally get. 

I think it’s important we create games that speak to our more modern audience and we are working and trying our best to make a game that has a spot at the table for everybody. This new version of the game allows us to take even more steps in the right direction. We’ve always been a very diversity-friendly company, we’ve always been a forward-step-looking company, and I think the new edition allows us to bring even more of that into the fold in ways where everybody can have a place at the table, everybody can see themselves in the game. That’s really important to us.

Next Page: What makes this a new game, and not just an expansion to the existing rules?