Pathfinder RPG Core Book (1st Edition) - Review
By Tom Mannering
Almost ten years ago, the Pathfinder Roleplaying Game Core Book was released by Paizo into the RPG world. The spiritual successor to the 3rd edition of Dungeons and Dragons, this hardback book paved the way for a decade of content releases and the soon to be released Pathfinder Second Edition. So, why am I reviewing it in 2019? Firstly, with the Second Edition of Pathfinder on the horizon, this seems like a great time to look back on the origins of the system. Secondly, as the first of my RPG reviews as part of the Unlucky Frog team, it seems appropriate that the baseline and prime review be for the core book of the system that brought me into both the larger roleplaying community and Unlucky Frog*. Now, without further ado, let’s dive in.
You can accuse Paizo of many things, but not of slacking in the presentation department. The first thing you see when you look at the cover of the Pathfinder Core Book is the - now iconic - artwork of Wayne Reynolds. The cover sets the tone for what Pathfinder would go on to be; a sleek, modern take on its classic D&D roots. This style continues through the entire book, using bright, evocative artwork to spark the imagination of anyone reading. Throughout the book we see the same cast of characters appearing in the art. These characters were known as the ‘Iconic Characters’, each serving as a representative of their Class. Again, the artwork for these characters is excellent across the board and seeing these heroes in different circumstances throughout the book builds a narrative of the types of adventures you can have.
The actual layout of the book’s contents is nothing ground-breaking, but it is done so in a logical fashion that makes for easy reference. The chapters take the reader on a step-by-step journey through the required play experience and - thanks to a detailed index at the back and clearly labelled chapters - it’s not a difficult book to navigate when you need it for quick reference for rules. The stylised margins and the actual size of the book give it a very ‘tome’ like feeling, which is something I’ve always appreciated in my RP books.
By design, the Pathfinder Core Books theme is not its own. It was an intentional rebirth of the 3rd edition of Dungeons and Dragons. Many D&D fans at the time lamented the decision to abandon the well supported current edition of the system in favour of the more “user-friendly” 4th edition. I know this, because I was one of them. Paizo stepped out the shadows, picked up the ball that Wizards of the Coast had dropped, and ran with it.
As such, Pathfinder promoted the familiar themes of action, adventure, teamwork and heroics. Naturally, any roleplaying game can be pretty fluid with the themes it brings to the table - largely at the whim of the GM and the players - but it is clear from the content that this was the initial intention for Pathfinder adventures. Later supplements would further support intrigue, horror and more, but those fall out with this review. For its intended purpose, the Core Book provides all the material players would need to create, play and run exciting and interesting characters. There is a good assortment of Races, Classes, Skills, Feats and Spells to choose from that both capture the classic feel of D&D, but fine tune it in line with Pathfinder’s image. The default setting for Pathfinder was Paizo’s pre-existing world of Golarion, which served as a melting pot for tropes present in just about every fantasy setting that exists.
3rd edition D&D wasn’t the simplest RPG system. However, Pathfinder did attempt to streamline and iron out the major creases. The Core Book reinvented overly complex combat manoeuvres like grapple, rushes and trips and attempted to balance out the classes somewhat. Whilst improvements were made, the rules presented in the Core Book are not without their flaws and missteps.
Firstly, addressing the complexity, Pathfinder is not a pick up and play game. It required someone to study the Core Book to some degree before play begins and benefits greatly from at least one person (ideally the GM) having a solid understanding of the rules. Even then, it was not uncommon for an experienced group to have to reference the rules from time to time to understand certain interactions or environmental rules. While these could typically be house ruled on the fly, that could be said of any system, and I’m assessing the book based on its own merits – not upon how groups would interpret, or house rule it. However, Pathfinder had the benefit of experience from the system that it emulated, but also from an extensive public beta, and that shows in the finished article.
The game plays very smoothly, especially in the earlier levels – a point that brings us to the issue of balance within the game. In the earlier levels of the game (approximately character level 1 to 10) the classes all seem reasonably balanced, and you had to go out of your way to actively build a ‘broken’ character. That’s not to say that a Wizard’s fireballs couldn’t outshine the damage output of a sword and board combatant, but the Wizard had limited spell slots. On the other hand, a Fighter could – in the immortal words of the Captain - “do this all day”. Pathfinder took steps to try to add some more depth to the builds for Fighters, Rogues and Clerics, and while these weren’t all hits, their attempts to try to flesh these classes out should be noted.
Finally, one additional aspect I’d like to consider with RPG is usability; many RPG core books and source books are valuable resources, but often don’t stand on their own merits. The Pathfinder Core Book is no exception. Whilst you could certainly run a game using just that book and no additional resources, you would likely soon run out of content - especially from an adversarial perspective. The Pathfinder Bestiary and Game Mastery Guide are, in my opinion, must have books for a group to really get the most out of the system. But as a player, the Core Book was really all you would ever really need (but rarely the only book a player would have).
It’s clear that the reason Pathfinder has endured as long as it has because it was built on a strong, tried and tested foundation with the Core Book. Whilst the book and rules it presents are not without some minor flaws, it stays true to its mission statement and provides a refined version of the gameplay that fans grew to love in 3rd edition D&D. I started playing Pathfinder seven years ago and - between home campaigns and organized play - it’s the system I’ve run more than any other and seen hundreds of other enjoy first hand. I met the lead designer, Jason Bulmahn, while I was volunteering for Paizo at UK Game Expo 2017 and got the distinct impression that he had a true passion both for Pathfinder, but also for the systems that it was built upon. I think that shines through in every aspect of the original tome; from the layout and artwork, to the gameplay and the setting. If you enjoy roleplaying in a medium-to-high fantasy universe, and don’t mind a little bit of studying before you do so, the Pathfinder Roleplaying Game Core Book will serve you well and set you squarely on that path. It remains to be seen if the Second Edition will be able to make the same claim.
*Long time listeners to the Unlucky Frog Gaming podcast may recall that my first appearance was back when I was the Scottish Pathfinder Society Venture Captain. I was on the show promoting the benefits of organised play.