There have been a ton of reviews of Pathfinder Second Edition (2e) comparing it to D&D 5e, but I want to take a moment today to compare and contrast it to Pathfinder First Edition (1e) in as excruciating detail as possible. I know many 1e players started as D&D 3.5e refugees, so learning a new a system after they’ve grown to love another over 20 years is a big ask. I won’t be including comparisons to other roleplaying games, except when I feel it would enhance understanding.
I should preface this entire review with a few caveats. Number one, I love Paizo for a number of reasons. They slot somewhere between eating junk food on my diet cheat days and hearing my firstborn laugh. Number two, I have been playing 2e since March 2019 with the playtest and am very impressed with it. I hope this doesn’t color my analysis of its shortcomings, but I recognize that the potential is there. Finally, I am a Professional Game Master, meaning I get paid to run games, and am often tasked with learning and mastering new systems on a regular basis. I have played and ran games for AD&D, 3.5e, Mutants and Masterminds, 4e, 5e, PF1, Starfinder, and at least a dozen other rules-light games, such as several PbtA systems, Dread, Fate, etc. What I mean to say is that I have very few biases towards any particular system, except a bit of personal favoritism.
There is one other item worth considering when contrasting the two systems. 1e has an enormous amount of content out after 10 years of first party publication, double that if you include 3.5e material, and fucktouple it if you include third party publishers. At this time, there is only the Core Rulebook, Bestiary, and Lost Omens World Guide available as primary material for 2e. It would be disingenuous to try to compare the entire catalogue of 1e to 2e’s core, but it also isn’t useful to ignore it either, except for those few GMs who still run “Core Only” games. I don’t have a guiding philosophy for when to focus on core-to-core comparisons and when to consider the systems in their totality, so I’ll make sure to be clear which I’m using and why.
Ability Score Generation
1e generates ability scores through two primary methods, point buy and rolled, primarily 4d6 drop 1. You then apply racial adjustments and calculate the modifiers. There are several other methods, but those are the most common in my experience.
2e also has rolled ability scores in the same method as above, with modifiers for ancestry (formerly known as race) and background.
The primary method of generating ability scores is through the boost system. In this, you begin with 10 and make adjustments based on your chosen ancestry, background, class, and four free boosts that can be placed anywhere. You can also take two flaws to gain one boost during the ancestry step. Each boost gives +2 to the stat, each flaw gives -2, and you cannot reduce a stat to below 8 or above 18.
Both systems for rolling ability scores are roughly equivalent, though 2e has a slight edge due to backgrounds giving you just a smidge more customization.
Where the interesting differences come is in the comparison between point buy and boosts. With point buy, you have highly granular control over the ability scores you desire. When planning a build, it’s simple to make minor adjustments to get the numbers you need to qualify for options later down the line. However, you often had leftover points, and leaving any score with an odd number (meaning you didn’t quite reach the next modifier) always felt bad.
The greatest advantage of the boost system is its simplicity, but only after wrapping your head around it. One of the most common pieces of feedback in 2e is how character creation felt daunting your first time, but became intuitive after having some experience with the system. Because 2e calculates modifiers in the same way as 1e, having boosts be in multiples of 2 streamlines the process significantly. With how boosts are structured, one can have an 18 regardless if the race you chose has a flaw in that ability, which was not possible in 1e.
I can only think of two minor criticisms of the boost system. It does tend to create a bit of homogeneity, given that everything is done in multiples of 2 and you generally want an 18 in your primary ability and 16 in your secondaries, though this isn’t a significant detriment to my enjoyment in creating characters. The biggest issue I have with generating ability scores using the book or SRD is the amount of page-flipping required. This isn’t so much of a problem when building for a specific concept, but does cause issues when weighing several different mechanical options. This problem is alleviated completely when building a character using an app, such as Pathbuilder for Android.
Ability Score Advancement
In 1e, you can increase one ability score every four levels. This helps alleviate the issue of odd-numbered scores during character creation, although it rarely felt like you got to make a significant decision. The optimal choice is almost always to increase your primary ability or maybe bring a secondary/tertiary ability to an even number.
In 2e, you are given four boosts every five levels. This follows similar rules to character creation, with the only difference being boosts applied to abilities with a score of 18 or higher. In those cases, you only receive +1 instead of +2. This does create a more interesting choice of whether to get the immediate benefit of increasing your modifier in a secondary stat or to increase your primary stat even further at higher levels.
I’ll address items and equipment in greater detail in a future post, but I would be remiss to leave them out of this section. In 1e, you could wear a headband and belt that added between +2 and +6 to one or more ability scores, and read a tome that granted between a +1 and +5 permanent bonus to a single score. While these generally felt great to find or buy, they quickly became mandatory as the game progressed into higher levels (aka The Big Six), and were a gold tax rather than an interesting choice.
In keeping with 2e’s philosophy of eliminating taxes and mandatory items, the only analog is Apex items. You can wear any number, but only one will give you a +2 to a single stat (or raising a stat to 18). They also come with a passive bonus to a skill and an activateable ability.
While the big six have been a staple of 3.5 and 1e, I’m personally happy to see them go and welcome the new paradigm.
Misc Ability Score Rules
Ability Score Balance
One of the greatest criticisms of 1e is the overemphasis on Dexterity, to the point where it would be prioritized over secondary stats for certain builds. It governed AC, initiative, reflex saves, combat maneuver defense, ranged attacks, ray spell attacks, and that’s before you consider character options. One only need to look at the X to Y document to see how truly ubiquitous Dexterity was.
Conversely, the emphasis on Dexterity has been greatly reduced in 2e, although it still is a very strong statistic. Initiative duty is now primarily on Wisdom, spell attack rolls are keyed to the caster’s ability modifier, and Dex-to-AC has been reduced or even eliminated in the case of Heavy Armor.
In 1e there were a variety of effects that would temporarily increase an ability score. These have been eliminated and replaced with a simple bonus to the relevant checks. This has massively helped with bookkeeping and making sure adjustments weren’t accidentally left out.
Damage and Drain
1e has ability damage and ability drain. The former gives a penalty to associated checks and DCs, whereas the latter modifies the actual score. These have been eliminated in 2e in favor of conditions and specific penalties. For example, 1e’s Touch of Idiocy applied a temporary penalty to mental ability scores, whereas the 2e version applies a condition called stupefied, which accomplishes a very similar goal. Once again, I believe the 2e version helps significantly with bookkeeping and simplifies the process without sacrificing the flavor and mechanics of attacking an ability.
Ability Scores Summary
Pathfinder First Edition Pros and Cons
+ More granular control
+ Buffs and penalties to scores feel more flavorful
– Odd numbered stats feel bad
– Mandatory items
Pathfinder Second Edition Pros and Cons
+ Even-numbered boosts streamline character creation
+ Slightly better customization with rolled ability scores
+ More interesting level-up boosts
+ “Big six” item/gold tax eliminated
+ Dexterity dethroned
+ Temporary stat changes eliminated for simplicity
– Too much page flipping during creation
– Some flavor sacrificed for simplicity
It should be no surprise that I believe this aspect of the game has been improved nearly across the board. Some may argue that too much flavor has been sacrificed for the sake of a cleaner game, and I won’t ever say that that perspective is invalid. However, most of the streamlining that happened was to eliminate the minutiae of many of the systems and mechanics ported over from D&D 3.5e.
As you can see, there’s a lot to cover when it comes to the differences between 1e and 2e, however I’m of the opinion that the new edition is still fundamentally Pathfinder, and that the new rules are fertile ground to grow a healthy game from.