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Celebrate the release of Pathfinder 2e! New Podcast! New Review of Pathfinder 2e! New Review of the Bestiary!

Pathfinder Second Edition Review: What’s Old Is New Again

Make sure to also listen to our one-hour discussion of the Pathfinder Second Edition Rulebook on the Roll For Combat podcast. Also, make sure to read Jason’s review of the Pathfinder Bestiary.

If you enjoyed this review make sure to check out our brand new Pathfinder Adventure: The Fall of Plaguestone Actual Play Podcast!

It feels like it’s been on our radar for a while, but with a formal release scheduled for GenCon 2019, Pathfinder Second Edition is finally being released into the RPG wilderness. Our secret operatives have managed to get our hands on the new Core Rulebook and wanted to share our first impressions on the next chapter in Pathfinder gaming.

If you think about it, Pathfinder First Edition is a decade old and was itself a revision of an existing system (Dungeons and Dragons 3.5), so there are a lot of miles on that odometer. The flip side of 15 years of depth, is 15 years of kludges, conflicts, workarounds, and other annoyances. New Class X is better than Class Y in every way, so much so that no one bothers playing Class Y anymore. Something written in sourcebook A directly conflicts with thing written five years ago in sourcebook B but nobody caught it until it was already in print. A new book comes up with a better mechanic for something that really should’ve been The Way It Was Done all along. Game design as a discipline is more of a formal thing now; we simply understand the inner workings of these games better than we did 15 years ago.

The other elephant in the room that we long-time players have to acknowledge is that we’re at a time when new players are kicking the tires on this hobby, and 15 years of complexity equals 15 years of “holy crap, this is complicated!” when a new player sits down at the table for the first time. Those of us who have been playing all these years may live and breathe and even love that complexity, but at a time when roleplaying games are receiving newfound mainstream acceptance (thanks, Stranger Things!) and people who never threw dice before are giving this hobby a fresh look, rolling a forklift stacked with books up to their doorstep is a bit daunting.

So you can see the needle Paizo has to thread here. Second Edition needs to preserve what was best about First Edition, and deliver something that still feels like the Pathfinder we know and love. It also needs to take advantage of everything they’ve learned about their product over the last 15 years and condense it down to a new “best” version of the game. And while they’re doing all of that, make it simpler and more accessible to new players without making us lifers feel like it’s been dumbed down past the point of recognition.

Oh, is that all?

After sitting down with these rules for a while, I feel like they did a pretty good job of hitting the mark. While it’s still recognizable as Pathfinder, it does some things differently in ways that will hopefully make for more interesting gaming. I’m not going to pretend it’s perfect – there are some things I not that crazy about and would want to see in a live game before I make a final decision. But all in all, it’s a good first step and our gaming group is definitely going to give it a look. I’m going to roughly follow the structure of the book since that seems like a logical way to tackle this.

Getting To Know You (Ancestries and Backgrounds)

The first few chapters deal with character creation, for which Paizo has helpfully supplied us with a mnemonic of “ABC” – Ancestry, Background, Class. If you’ve been following Starfinder at all, it’s very similar to the character creation in Starfinder: you choose these three aspects of your character, and those choices do a lot of the heavy lifting in terms of shaping your ability scores, hit points, languages, and so on.

Ancestry is what we longtime players have heretofore been calling race, but “RBC” doesn’t really work. All of your usual fantasy roleplaying classics are here – elf, dwarf, halfling, etc. – with a few minor caveats. First, half-elf and half-orc are no longer considered separate entities but are considered variants (“heritage” is the official terminology) of humans. Second, Paizo’s official mascot – the goblin – is now one of the base playable ancestries. Me, I’m not a goblin guy (sorry… please, no hate mail), but I know a lot of people love the little guys.

Under the umbrella of ancestry, additional flavor is available through the selection of a “heritage” (say, the difference between a wood elf and high elf; half-elf and half-orc are technically human heritages), and ancestry feats. Ancestry feats are talents you can take to customize even further – you might take Nimble Elf and take an extra five feet of movement speed; I might take “Otherworldly Magic” and take a cantrip I can cast whether I’m a caster or not. Furthermore, you get additional ancestry feats as you level, so the customization grows over time. So your elf and mine already have subtle differences before we even get into classes.

Background is a one-time, static choice – what was your character doing before they became an adventurer? Nuts and bolts, background gives you a few ability increases, a Lore skill (like Knowledge skills from Pathfinder 1, but can literally be ANYTHING), and another skill. At a roleplaying level, it can help shape the story of your character. Were you a noble? A prisoner? A merchant? There are a lot of choices, so roleplayers and min-maxer types should be able to find something that makes their character work.

A Touch of Class (Classes)

Of course, class is the meat and potatoes of character creation. As with ancestry, all your old RPG favorites are here (joined by Alchemist as a core class). But within the familiar, there are wrinkles. The bard is no longer a hobo caster and has been upgraded to a full caster class with a full spell list. A sorcerer can choose a bloodline associated with any of the four magical sources – primal, arcane, divine, and occult – so yes, you can have a sorcerer that heals. The position that used to be occupied by the Paladin is now the Champion – the Paladin still exists as the lawful good variant, but Neutral Good and Chaotic Good champions can also exist.

One thing that’s neat is that each class has multiple different specializations available from a fairly early level. With some classes, the choice can be more of a subtle flavor; others look like they could play dramatically differently. For example, if you’re playing an Alchemist, you can play a Bomber (‘splodey direct-damage), a Mutagenist (buffs for yourself, debuffs for enemies), or a Chirurgeon (healing). Champion feels like a class where it’s more flavor – they all play as divine-inspired fighters, but some of their supporting powers are tweaked based on the variant – the lawful paladin gets more powerful when getting revenge for damage already done, the neutral redeemer applies debuffs to enemies (YOU SHOULD BE ASHAMED OF YOURSELVES!), and the chaotic liberator’s powers focus on freedom of movement and action.

One thing that’s very noticeable across all classes is the “feat-ification” of class abilities. In First Edition, a lot of core class abilities were static – every character of a particular class gets the same tools at the same levels. In Second Edition, there’s still some of that, but a much larger portion of class abilities are distributed in the form of class feats, and you have multiple choices available at any given level. To take one example, a second-level cleric can choose (among other things) Turn Undead, Communal Heal, or grab additional cantrips with Cantrip Expansion. It’s going to take running some characters up to higher levels, but it feels like this could lead to interesting character choices, where your Level 10 ranger and my Level 10 ranger could end up playing a LOT different from each other.

Feats Don’t Fail Me Now (Feats)

I’m actually going to go out of order in the book and stay with feats for a bit. (Skipping over the chapter on Skills, but we’ll come back). One thing you might have picked up on by now is that Second Edition puts feats in silos quite a bit. In First Edition, pretty much everything was just a feat – as long as you meet the prereqs, you could take anything you liked. Wizard with heavy armor and Cleave? Have at it, if you can make it work. Now, we have Ancestry Feats, Class Feats, Skill Feats (we haven’t discussed them yet, but they exist), and they’re all on separate tracks. There are a few general feats anyone can take, but it’s a much smaller number than before.

I will acknowledge that this might be a mixed bag to some players. The downside is that people who are into creating really niche character concepts might struggle to do that with all the tools walled off in different places. If you just want to steal one or two abilities, there are ways to do that – most notably, there are multiclass feats that let you grab something from another class. But there are probably going to be some builds from PF1 that just aren’t going to be possible in Second Edition.

If there’s an upside, it’s that they’ve basically eliminated the so-called “feat tax”. In PF1, you could tie up three or four feat slots laying the groundwork to get the destination feat you really want. In PF2, character level is the single biggest gatekeeper to taking a feat: if you’re high enough level to take the feat, you’re good to go. The difference is not so much the destination feat itself – in both systems, you might not be able to take the feat you really want until level 12 – but what you’re doing in the meantime. In PF2, you’re taking other feats that make your character more interesting whereas, in PF1, you often ended up checking boxes instead of taking the things you really wanted. (On the other hand, I know there are going to be a few players who are gonna be pissed because they had a meticulously crafted build that got them that feat by Level 9 and think it’s arbitrary they have to wait for Level 12 now.)

The one sort-of exception is skill feats, where you need to have a specific character level, and in some cases, need to be trained to a certain level in a skill. There are some surprisingly useful things hidden in the skill feats. Treat Wounds is a heal you can get through the Medicine skill that doesn’t require magic. Trick Magic Item gives you a chance to use a magic item even if it’s not normally something you could use. There’s also Recognize Spell, which lets you identify a spell as a reaction as it’s being cast.

The real intriguing ones are the high-level Legendary skill feats. They don’t kick in until you reach Level 15 and achieve Legendary in a particular skill, but… whoo, boy. Legendary Linguist in the Society skill lets you come up with a pidgin language in real-time. For ANY language. Legendary Sneak, in Stealth, literally gives you a chance to hide in plain sight. But the best has to be Scare To Death, for the Intimidation skill. As the title says, you have a chance to scare an enemy so bad it just up and dies.

A View To A Skill (Skills)

Technically, we’re now going back a chapter, but let’s talk about skills. I’m not going to spend a lot of time about the skills themselves – they’re mostly the same ones that have been around since First Edition and even before: OK, what used to be called “Knowledge” is now “Lore”, Climb and Swim are now lumped under “Athletics”, and “Handle Animal” is now a specific action you can take under “Nature”, but the  broad strokes won’t be surprising to anyone. I should mention that Lore is more open-ended than Knowledge was – Knowledge had specific categories; Lore can literally be anything. (OK, not motorcycles, because they haven’t been invented yet. But you know what I mean.)

I wanted to spend my time talking about some of the surrounding logistics of the skill system.

First, the math associated with skills has gotten a whole simpler. The days where you put ranks into skills every level are gone. Now skills only have five levels (or, four plus “untrained”) – Trained, Expert, Master, and Legendary – and the bonuses associated with those levels are simply +2, +4, +6, and +8 respectively. You also get your character level IF you’re trained in the skill, but not if it’s untrained. Additionally, instead of getting a certain number of skill ranks every level, you just get skill advancements at certain points during character leveling.

This is one of those areas that at first, I thought it was TOO simple, but then I thought about it, and this may actually work out better in the long run.

First, it represents the difference between choice in name only, versus engaging, interesting choice. In First Edition Pathfinder (or Starfinder for that matter), it was feast or famine – you were either a low-skill character who only got enough skill points to put points in a few core skills and nothing else; or you were a skill monkey and had so many choices it became silly once you put a few points in INT. I just leveled Tuttle in our Starfinder game, and he gets something like 10 or 12 skill choices per level and… if I’m being honest, choosing his skills isn’t that interesting. “Here are the seven skills I take every level, here is the cluster of skills where I round-robin between them, and then I have one or two points to be stupid and bump up against things I’m never going to be good at anyway”. It’s choice in name only.

Second, the math is a little flatter. The highest skill bonus you can get is 8 plus your ability score modifier, so there’s no more “I roll a +32 for 44”. With the math being flatter, the GM doesn’t have to ratchet up skill challenges to stay ahead of the players who can roll highest, which means the lower-skill players don’t get left as far behind. You’re still out of luck if you’re TOTALLY untrained in a skill, but maybe that’s as it should be.

The other thing that’s new and neat is that there’s now a formal means of using skills to make money during downtime. It was always supposed one could make money with a skill, but mostly left to the imagination. Pathfinder 2 formalizes it. Officially, it’s most commonly associated with Craft, Lore, or Perform, but if you and your GM can come up with a job you could perform to earn money with another skill (e.g. use Nature to work as a stable-hand), it’s within the GM’s discretion to allow it. You work with the GM to determine what jobs are available, the GM sets a DC for the work you’re doing, and you roll to see how well you do the work. You still get paid SOMETHING even if you fail your check, but passing the check and being more proficient in the skill let you earn more.

One more thing I feel is worth mentioning is that the concept of “Take 10” and “Take 20” – saying “we’re going to do XYZ until it works” – is basically gone. On one hand, Take 10/20 was sometimes a really convenient short-hand and moved action along, but it was arguably prone to abuse and sometimes broke the immersion of storytelling – yes, there’s a creature on the other side of the next door, but he’s going to ignore us while we search for twenty minutes.

The main reason it has to go away is because of critical successes and critical failures, which now apply to many skill checks. This is a little bit oversimplified, but a natural 20 or making a skill roll by 10 or greater is a critical success and a natural 1 or missing by 10 or more is a critical failure. Since there’s always a possibility of a negative outcome, the system can’t really accommodate the Take 10/20 like it used to. Having said that, it can still exist in the GM’s mind – if there’s enough time to perform a skill in a leisurely fashion, he or she can give a bonus to the roll that accomplishes most of the same thing.

Don’t Forget Your Spare Underwear (Equipment)

As with skills, I’m not going to spend a lot of time on the charts of equipment themselves. You don’t need to read 300 characters on the fact that yes, “50 feet of rope” is still a thing. I’ll more talk about the systems that exist around equipment, and particularly those that have changed from First Edition.

One of the biggest shifts is a small one, but I’ll mention it – the silver piece has basically replaced the gold piece as (pun semi-intended) the coin of the realm. Things don’t really cost any more – starter gear, in particular, is the same once you move the decimal. But it does mean that find a few gold pieces is more of a big deal than it was before.

Let’s also talk about encumbrance. If you’ve been following Starfinder, Pathfinder 2 makes use of the “Bulk” system from that game. There’s no more “I’m carrying 230gp of weight”. Most items have a bulk value – either a number, L (for “light”, with 10 light items counting as 1 bulk) or some items are light enough to have no bulk. Your carrying capacity is really simple: 5 + (strength modifier) to be encumbered; 10 + (strength modifier) and you can’t carry anymore.

I will discuss ONE specific class of item here: shields. In Second Edition, shields go from a passive bonus to an active defense system. It used to be that if a shield was equipped you got the bonus to your AC automatically. Your abstract tin can gets a little stronger. Now you have to actually raise your shield to get the bonus; however, if you do, not only do you get the AC bonus, but even if you get hit, the shield can take the damage. Up to a point… shields do have hardness and enough damage will eventually break a shield. I have to admit this part worries me a little – at one point we were joking about fighters having to carry a wagon of extra shields through dungeons with them. It’ll be interesting to see how often shields actually break and need to be replaced “in the wild”.

There’s also a revamped crafting system, but I don’t think a lot of people are going to be crafting off-the-rack stuff so we’ll come back to that when we reach the part of the book that deals with magic items.

Watch Me Pull A Rabbit Out Of My Hat (Spells)

Again, I’m not going to spend time on individual spells for the most part. I’d rather talk about the ways magic has changed in Second Edition. I feel like “flexibility” is the theme here; casters can now get more out of spells and use them in more interesting ways.

One example is scalable cantrips. In prior editions, low-level casters would eventually reach a point where they’d run out of “good” spells and would be left with either cantrips that didn’t scale (that Level 8 creature laughs at your 1d3 Ray of Frost) or abandoning their core skills and using melee or ranged weapons. With Second Edition, cantrips scale, so a caster always has SOMETHING he or she can do. A cantrip’s never going to be your BEST spell, but it’ll at least keep you in the fight.

Another nice change is the concept of heightening. A lot of spells – particularly, but not exclusively direct-damage spells – can be more powerful by putting them in a higher spell slot. Note that this can be either +N levels, or a spell might have specific tiers (2nd, 5th, 8th). Let’s look at healing, for example, there’s no more Cure Light, Cure Moderate, Cure Serious where you have to learn each one. Now you have “Heal” and it’s 1d8 per level of the spell slot you put it in. I’ve oversimplified this a LITTLE –  there are some circumstances where a caster would have to learn both the regular and heightened version of the spell – but for the moment, know that it’s there and it can be a pretty powerful tool for expanding a caster’s arsenal.

Heal also demonstrates another way in which magic can be more flexible through the use of actions. Some spells can have different effects depending on how many actions you spend on them. With one action, Heal is single-target and has a range of touch. With two actions, it’s a ranged single-target heal. With three actions, it becomes an area-effect channel. For another example: Magic Missile – more actions simply means more projectiles.

My hope is that this will actually lead to more interesting caster characters because the flexibility will free up spell slots for other things. Now, you don’t have to spend half your spell slots just to keep your best damage or healing spells current; that should leave players with more spell slots for utility choices.

There are two other small things I wanted to mention. Burying the lede a little, we also have Level 10 spells! Now, there aren’t a LOT of Level 10 spells – only four or five per magical source. That’s partly because they’re really powerful, but partly because heightening reduces the need somewhat: some of your Level 10 spells are just going to be heightened lower-level spells. But there are some cool things here. Each source gets a catch-all that amounts to “any lower-level spell, whether you know it or not”. Arcane casters can stop time. Primal casters can turn themselves into a kaiju or turn their party-mates into a herd of mammoths. Divine casters can turn themselves into an avatar of their god or raise the dead. Like I said… cool stuff.

The last thing I wanted to mention is focus spells and rituals.

Focus spells are the way non-casters like Monks and Champions get their powers, but they’re also available to regular casters through feats, for which they’re almost like a cantrip on steroids. It’s a spell that can be cast with a separate set of points (focus points) instead of spell slots, and you can get back at least one point by taking a 10-minute rest. So it’s another way to get a scalable (it always casts at half your level) repeatable spell without using spell slots.

Rituals are spells that are powered by skills rather than magical power (and also have a cost in material components). Rituals are non-combat activities, lasting hours or days, but the requirement to perform a ritual is usually a primary skill and one or more secondary skills. Magic is not strictly required, though, for a lot of rituals, the primary skill might require ranks in one of the magical arts. To give an example: a Resurrect ritual requires Expert-level Religion as the primary skill, with Society and Medicine as the secondary skills. So a group of fighters who happened to have the right skills could perform a resurrect ritual, but a Cleric is far more likely to have Religion trained to the right level.

Golarion For Dummies (The Age of Lost Omens)

This is the base-level world-building chapter – it introduces you to the places, factions, gods, etc. Not that this stuff isn’t interesting, but a) except for deity restrictions for divine-flavored characters, it doesn’t really impact gameplay, and b) spoiler alert – there’s also going to be a whole sourcebook on this stuff (The Lost Omens World Guide), so I’ll spend my review energy there. Moving on.

Everyone Was D20 Fighting (Playing The Game)

This chapter is mostly, but not entirely, How Combat Works.

Let’s start with the single biggest and possibly most polarizing change. One thing that immediately leaps out what Paizo has done with the action economy. In First Edition, you had a Batman Rogue’s Gallery of actions – full-round, standard, move, swift, free, Clayface – and figuring out the basics of what you could do each round got a little convoluted. Now, pretty much everything is just an action, and you get three of them. (I say “pretty much” because Reactions are still a thing and the free action still exists for REALLY simple interactions, but everything else is an action.)

Now, I know that sounds overly simplistic at first glance. I’ll go ahead and concede the point because that’s how I felt when I first heard it. But here’s the dirty little secret. They didn’t really lose the complexity, they just moved it to the other side of the equation. Everything’s an action, and you get three of them, but some spells and attacks can have different effects depending on how many actions you put into them. As I mentioned in the chapter on spells, a spell can do different things based on how many actions you pump into it. Yes, you can take three attacks, but you get a -5 to hit for each extra attack you make (or -4 with finesse weapons), so there’s some cost-benefit there. Raising your shield is an action, so if you want to get that extra attack in, you lose the AC bonus from your shield. You still have interesting choices, you just lose the sometimes-tedious terminology. Where the rubber meets the road, I’ll say that 90% of the time, it’s a wash and the other 10% of the time feels like you’re making tactical choices that matter rather than figuring out how tightly you can pack a suitcase.

Another thing that could be a bit of a game-changer is that the Attack of Opportunity seems like it’s going to be a lot less of a dominating force. In First Edition, EVERYONE could do attacks of opportunity and combat generally devolved into a dance of five-foot steps because nobody wants to eat an attack of opportunity. In Second Edition, Attack of Opportunity is a specific skill, and not everyone has it. On the player side, fighters get it automatically as a class skill at creation, a couple of the other melees can take it as a class feat (Level 6 seems common), but other classes would have to get really creative with multi-class feats to get there. I haven’t had a chance to inspect the monster lists in great detail, but anecdotally, it seems like the same goes for enemies too – there might be a few enemies who have the ability, but it won’t be universal. I feel like this could open up the battlefield in interesting ways and make combat a little less “line up and take swings until someone drops”.

I mentioned it in the skills chapter, but I’ll bring it back again here – the role of critical successes and critical failures has expanded. Now the definition of a critical success is exceeding a DC by 10 or more, and a critical fail is defined by failing by 10 or more, and a natural 20 or natural 1 just adjusts the degree of success up or down one level.

It may seem like it’s a small semantic difference, but it does have some implications for combat. First, it puts a lid on crit-farming because if a natural 20 would be a miss, it doesn’t generate an automatic crit anymore, it just generates a regular hit. Similarly, it should better capture the flavor of (to use a wrestling term) “squash matches” where one side is way overpowered. Now, the more powerful side will get a lot more crits and end the fight more quickly. Fun if you’re the Level 10 party fighting Level 1 kobolds and can crit on a 13 or 14. Not so fun if the party runs across an adult dragon and they’re the ones getting critted over and over.

Hero Points also become a formal thing in Second Edition. I know this was already pretty popular as a house rule – if you roleplay well or come up with something clever, you get a re-roll in the bank for when you need it – but Pathfinder Second Edition formalizes it. Now you get one Hero Point at the beginning of each session and can earn more through interesting play choices (but can only hold 3 at a time). As far as spending them, you can spend one point to re-roll (but you HAVE to use the new roll), or you can spend all your points to stabilize from dying. Moral of the story: ALWAYS keep a spare Hero Point around, just in case.

Shall We Play A Game? (Game Mastering)

This is another chapter I have to admit I glossed over a little because it’s mostly information for novice GMs sitting down at a table for the first time. There are a few useful nuggets in here, including a lot of sample hazards (aka traps), but most of it is 30,000-foot “how do I start a game” information. The trap stuff is kind of cool – traps get increasingly difficult to both spot and deactivate, so only trained people can even do it, and some traps even require multiple steps to deactivate safely.

Medieval Q-Branch (Crafting & Treasure)

I feel like this is a chapter that’s going to be one of the most polarizing ones. Basically what we’ve got here is all your old favorite magic items (yay!) along with a bunch of restrictions about how you can use them (boo!). GMs who saw the weak spots in the system and know magic items had the potential to break the game will probably either outright like these, or AT LEAST understand the necessity of them. Players will mostly be annoyed at the new levels of inconvenience; it’s really just a question of how much.

Take the concept of investing. Most magic items other than consumables need to be “invested” once per day – think of it as bonding with the character. Weapons and armor are in the middle – if you don’t invest, you still get the pluses, but you lose any special abilities. However, you can only invest 10 items per day, and if you take one off, it loses its investment and you have to do it again to re-use it. GMs will see it on a check on players bringing the perfect magic item for EVERY situation; players might see it as a hoop to jump through.

Similarly wands. Wands don’t have to be invested, but you can only use the wand once per day. You can use it a second time (and the spell will go through), but you have to roll a DC10 “flat check” (i.e. no modifiers, just the die roll), where failure overloads the wand and it’s destroyed. I get why wands had to be checked a little – our group was notorious for buying Cure Moderate Wounds wands in bulk at the Golarion equivalent of Costco (Who is this powerful mage, “Kirkland”?) to the point where out-of-combat healing became trivial, so… I GET it intellectually, but I can’t say I’m thrilled by the idea.

On the other hand, they’ve also added a new consumable class of magic item: the talisman. Talismans are cheaper, one-shot magic items that can be affixed to weapons or armor but disintegrate after use. And they can be affixed to a piece of gear with a single action, so it would appear you can add a talisman in combat. Scrolls for fighters, sorta? A fairly straightforward example of this is a Potency Crystal, which makes your weapon a magical weapon, but only for one turn. The single-use makes them kind of underwhelming, but they’re flexible and also fairly cheap, which might play well with the new crafting system.

Told you I’d come back to it.

Crafting is a little more of a process in Second Edition than First. You don’t just roll out of bed and say “I’m making Baba Yaga’s Hut today”. First, you have a recipe, and recipes for rare items are just that… rare. They won’t be available in every hardware store in Golarion; they might be treasure prizes on par with wizards’ spellbooks. If you’re a crafter, your other option would be to figure out how to make one through reverse-engineering. Yes, you have to disassemble a perfectly-good magic item in working order, hope you learn how to make it, at which point you could then reassemble it. Except if you fail, you don’t learn the recipe AND you might lose some of the materials in the process. There are higher-level skill feats that help with some of this, but it’s still a non-trivial thing. So making magic items is going to be harder to do, but more of an event when you do succeed.

Weapons and armor are interesting because magical enhancements now operate on an almost MMO-ish system of runes. There are “fundamental runes” and “property runes”. Fundamental runes include the potency rune, which represents the plus, and either a striking rune for weapons which grants extra damage dice or a resiliency rune for armor that grants bonuses to saving throws). Property runes are things like adding typed damage to weapons or adding charges of invisibility to a piece of armor. You can only have one of each fundamental rune; the number of property runes is determined by the potency rune (aka you can have as many properties as pluses).

The neat thing is the runes can be upgraded or transferred, which… I don’t know how people feel about it as a game mechanic, but as a storytelling thing, I like a lot. One of fantasy’s great tropes is of named weapons (particularly swords) that go through their wielder’s journey with them, and this rune system makes that a more viable path. Gandalf didn’t sell Glamdring to a vendor because he found a better sword in the next dungeon.

I’d also note just in passing that the highest “plus” I see on a magic item is +3… the days of +4 and +5 weapons seem to be gone. Then again, if you can get a +3 AND additional damage die, maybe that’s better overall. I feel like weapons and armor will be versatile enough we won’t miss the pluses all that much.

In Conclusion

Well, that’s a wrap on this first look at the Pathfinder Second Edition Core Rulebook. I recognize everyone wants something different from their gaming table, so I’m not going to get too carried away telling you whether you “should” or “shouldn’t” make the switch. I know some people have a lot of time invested in their number-crunchy First Edition games, and if that’s what floats your boat… cool.

Having said that, I’ll give you a quick “here’s where I stand” to sum things up.

Here’s what excites me about Second Edition:

  • Magic seems far more flexible and casters are probably going to be more fun to play. Yes, a lot of that centers on damage and being more effective at blowing stuff up, but I feel like it’s going to free up spell slots to use on utility spells as well, so casters will be more dynamic in general. But also… blowing stuff up.
  • So far I’ve really liked the three-action economy. We haven’t played a LOT of Second Edition yet, but it feels like it adds interesting choices to the game, and it’s a lot easier to remember.
  • Maybe it’s because I’m familiar with it from Starfinder, but I like the ABC character creation system. It’s flexible while being fairly simple, while still helping to define the “story” of your character. I actually think that’s pretty neat.
  • I like the fact that two people can create two different characters that might be the same race and class but might play remarkably differently. I appreciate a system that can accommodate different playstyles like that.
  • It’s a small thing, but bringing some structure to downtime by being able to work at a skill is a welcome change. Right now, downtime just amounts to milling about aimlessly.

Things that… I won’t say I “hate”, but the jury’s still out:

  • The rules on magic items. I get why they need to exist – I’ve seen and sometimes been guilty of the excesses they were attempting to curb – but they still might end up being a little heavy-handed. It’s discouraging to get a shiny new toy and not be able to use it. It’s the one piece that overtly reeks of micromanagement.
  • It’s a small thing, but shields being an active defense is a mixed bag. It adds a tactical element, but it’s also easy to forget to do, and the issue of shields breaking is something that needs data from the field. If you lose a shield every 3-4 sessions, whatever; if you lose one every other fight, that could get tedious.
  • Is the feat-ification going to be TOO silo’ed? This will probably affect my group-mates more than it will affect me (I tend to play fairly simple character concepts), but I do wonder what’s going to happen when someone wants to create a really customized build that was possible under First Edition but is impossible in the new system.
  • Talismans aren’t really doing it for me at first glance. I don’t know that it’s a bad idea – I just don’t like consumables in general (beyond healing potions) and another class of consumable is kinda shrug-worthy to me.

What I will say is it feels like they preserved most of what was appealing about the Pathfinder experience, while still performing some cleanup and making it more inviting to new players in the process. If a gaming system like that sounds appealing to you, Pathfinder Second Edition is probably worth checking out.

SP15: Pathfinder Second Edition Core Rules Review

Make sure to read Jason’s review of the Pathfinder Second Edition Core Rulebook, as well his review of the Pathfinder Bestiary.

If you enjoyed this review make sure to check out our brand new Pathfinder Adventure: The Fall of Plaguestone Actual Play Podcast!

Welcome to a special edition of Roll For Combat, and we’re excited about this one because we’ve got a treat for you! We’ve taken a break from our usual schedule to bring you a roundtable review of the newly released Pathfinder Second Edition Core Rules!

Join Stephen Glicker, Jason McDonald, and Rob Trimarco from Roll For Combat, as well as Vanessa Hoskins and Loren Sieg from the Know Direction Network as we discuss the biggest change to the role-playing landscape in decades!

And don’t forget to become a supporter of the podcast our Patreon page: https://www.patreon.com/rollforcombat where you can help us while unlocking fun exclusive rewards for yourself!

Pathfinder Second Edition Bestiary Review: Back-to-Basics Beasties!

Make sure to also listen to our one-hour discussion of the Pathfinder Second Edition Rulebook on the Roll For Combat podcast! Also, make sure to read Jason’s review of the Pathfinder Second Edition Core Rulebook.

If you enjoyed this review make sure to check out our brand new Pathfinder Adventure: The Fall of Plaguestone Actual Play Podcast!

Dragons and demons and orcs… oh my! It’s the Pathfinder Second Edition Bestiary! We here at Roll For Combat got our hands on an advance copy and we’re here to give you some first impressions now that we’ve had a chance to take a look.

It’s funny because part of me is writing this review under protest. There’s the book I knew Paizo would make, and frankly, the book they HAD to make. But there’s also the book I secretly hoped it would be, even though it was unrealistic.

Let me spend a few lines howling at the moon lamenting The Path Not Taken. As I was waiting to get my hands on this, I’ve been thinking back to last year’s Starfinder Alien Archive, and I have to admit that book was one of the most refreshing RPG supplements I’ve seen in recent memory. I thought it was a beautiful balance of still being a bestiary book while still throwing in interesting nuggets of other stuff. Oh look, here’s stat-blocks for making this creature into a player character! Here’s an inset that gives you a set of goggles you can make from the eyes of this creature! Here’s a couple of paragraphs of world-building talking about the planet where they hunt this creature for sport! It stuck to its core mission and never forgot it had to deliver a package of creatures, but it also ended up being a lot of other things in an entertaining way. I love that book.

Truth be told, part of me was hoping the Pathfinder 2 Bestiary would be a swords-and-sorcery version of that book. But… snapping back to reality, I knew it wasn’t going to be, and I know there are valid reasons it had to be that way. I won’t say there’s NONE of that content (for instance, I did see a poison associated with an underworld race called the Caligni), but it’s pretty rare.

Starfinder was being built completely new from the ground up. They could afford to take risks and do things differently. With Pathfinder, they’re doing a refresh on an existing game system with a decade of inertia and an existing fanbase with prior expectations – most of the risk-taking is already baked into the core rulebook, so there’s something to be said for making the REST of the content familiar and reassuring. For making their Bestiary look like the six other Bestiaries they did for the original game. They don’t need to reinvent the wheel; they already reinvented the CAR, and the wheel just needs to fit on it.

Here’s what this book REALLY needed to be. A cross-section of what most people would consider the “essential” creatures, revamped so they’ll work with the new system. Period. End of story. On that front, the Second Edition Bestiary delivers EXACTLY the book most players are going to want it to be – around 350 pages of what amount to Pathfinder’s Greatest Hits, with a few deep cuts and some new material sprinkled in. And grousing aside, mostly the book I want it to be too. Because at the end of the day, what we really want is to be able to drop classic monsters into Second Edition games and have them play like they’re supposed to play. If that means I have to take my dreams of 20 playable races and weird creature-eye goggles later… that’s what it means.

My first big concern was what creatures would make the cut for the first Bestiary since original Pathfinder had so much to choose from. It’s odd that a 40-year-old book holds such influence over me, but personally, I’ve always come back to the AD&D Monster Manual as the gold standard – that weird mix of old-school mythology, Tolkien, and whatever late-night bong rips gave us the Mimic. That was the book that defined the hobby for me, so if those creatures (minus the TSR Product Identity, of course) aren’t front and center on day one, the whole enterprise feels like it’s on shaky footing. I was a little worried that Paizo might get a little weird out of the gates and we might end up with the Well-It’s-Mostly-Blue-But-When-It-Rains-It’s-More-Purple Dragon and Werepenguins. But I’m pleased to report an initial glance at the table of contents seems like they had a good finger on the pulse here. If they put this book in a quantum-tunnel and sent it back to Teenage Me, Teenage Me would approve of this book. (Though OK… Teenage Me would have also been disappointed at the relative paucity of scantily-clad ladies – I wasn’t the most sophisticated teenager.)

But if you’re looking for a book that passes the Traditionalist Test, this book delivers the goods. Chromatic dragons of all conventional hues. Orcs, goblins, gnolls and other cannon-fodder humanoids. A healthy supply of undead. (Or is that an unhealthy supply?) Giants! Hydras! Even the horribly impractical yet somehow-fantastic gelatinous cube is here. I don’t necessarily want to go line-by-line, but it looks like they hit on most of the big names of fantasy gaming. If any of the weirder stuff made the cut, it’s just a mild sprinkling.

(One caveat: if they had wanted to consign the Rust Monster to Bestiary #934, they wouldn’t have heard a peep out of me.)

That’s not to say there’s NOTHING new in here. I kinda like the Nilith, which is basically a demonic tree sloth – except that it moves at normal speeds and has mind-affecting powers. Then there’s the Quelaunt, which looks like someone decided your average Area 51 Gray Alien needed an extra arm and leg, claws, and lack of facial features to be even more creepy. Its power-set revolves around fear powers. And claws. I think my personal favorite at first pass is the Skulltaker, which is an undead that one would describe as a sentient tornado of bones. As a neat flavor thing, it also can draw on the memories and experiences of all the bones that comprise it, so it has perfect Lore knowledge. Not a were-penguin, but cool stuff.

(Note: I did searches on the online Bestiaries and didn’t see any references to these three. If they’re buried in an adventure path or sourcebook and I didn’t see them… my bad.)

The artwork is top-notch, as it always is in Paizo books. In fact, I feel bad that I sometimes take it for granted. One of my low-key favorite things about the resurgence of fantasy-themed gaming as a hobby – when you add Pathfinder, D&D, Magic The Gathering – it’s a wonderful time for fantasy art. We’ve come a long way from getting one Dragon Magazine cover a month. This book is no exception, though by necessity it’s a more functional art style focusing on just images of the creatures rather than action scenes or panoramas. If there’s not a picture of EVERY creature, it’s certainly a large majority of them.

The creature information is organized in a nice, clean, familiar fashion. In general, a low-level or simple creature’s stat block may be about the size of a long paragraph; a complicated high-level creature may take up the majority of a page. You can almost think of the first part as a creature’s non-combat stats – perception and vision, languages, skills, bonuses to ability scores. This is usually followed by any passive abilities – auras, attack of opportunity, things like that. Next come the basic combat stats – hit points, armor class, any weaknesses or immunities. They’re almost set off as a dividing line in the middle of the block. Then we’re into the combat info. The creature’s speed is listed, followed by all the creature’s attacks and combat abilities – number of actions they require, damage dice and type, any other effects. My only minor logistical complaint is that some reactions are listed up top amongst the passive effects while others are listed amongst the combat moves. I’m not sure if there’s a distinction I’m missing that makes it all make sense, or if it’s just an inconsistency that snuck into the final product.

Some pages have sidebars with additional content, but the content of those sidebars is a mixed bag. Sometimes it’s very rubber-meets-the-road stuff like a creature’s spell list or how to manage a particular power as GM. Other times – particularly with the humanoid races – I’ll give it credit for approaching the world-building that I liked in the Alien Archive. There are times where it’s precariously close to filler text – there was some blurb that mentioned that a particular creature (one of the giants, I think) might have exotic treasure. I SHOULD HOPE SO.

One of my ongoing concerns about Pathfinder Second Edition has been attacks of opportunity – I’m worried that we won’t have ‘em and the critters will. For my own personal curiosity, I wanted to see how many creatures get attacks of opportunity, and… it’s actually not that many, and they’re mostly high-level creatures. I didn’t do anything scientific; just a quick scan. Giants get them. Dragons get them though they tend to only get them for their bite. A few lower-level creatures get them, but it’s far fewer than I expected. So at least at low levels, one should be able to operate without a lot of fear of attack of opportunity.

On the other hand, I have noticed that the powerful high-end creatures seem to have ways to push the edges of the three-action limit. The first isn’t really a way “around” – they just tend to have a lot of passive auras and reaction abilities, which don’t technically violate the three-action rule; it’s just a pain in the ass. At the more dodgy end of the spectrum, I’ve seen a few creatures that have abilities that amount to “hey, these three things count as a single action; sucks to be you”. But again, this is the stuff in the deep end of the pool that’s really SUPPOSED to push a party to its limits, so maybe it’s OK.

In conclusion, Pathfinder Second Edition is a bit of a grand experiment, but if you’re going to take that leap, the Bestiary is pretty much an essential book to have. While I realize everyone’s going to have their pet favorite from Bestiary 4 that didn’t make the cut, Paizo packed most of the Fantasy RPG All-Stars into one book to make this easy on us. So let’s go roll some characters and kick their asses, shall we?

Starfinder Alien Archive 2 Review – Scions, Tigers, and Bears – Oh My!

If you enjoyed this review make sure to check out our weekly actual play podcast where Jason and the team are playing the Starfinder Dead Sun’s adventure path as well as the occasional Starfinder Society adventure as well.

Normally when someone says “more of the same”, it comes across as a bit of a pejorative. “More of the same” sounds like “boring” or “uninventive”.

But what if the “same” was already really good? What if the “same” was the Alien Archive, which delivered a nice batch of monsters for GMs to play around with, but also sprinkled in playable races for your players, new tech and magic items to stock your treasure hoards, and general world-building lore? Why would you reinvent the wheel if you got it right the first time?

That’s where I feel like we are with Starfinder’s Alien Archive 2. I thought Paizo came up with a really good formula for the first book because I thought they made a nice reference book that gave GMs everything they needed to run their campaigns AND threw in some content for the players too. So they’ve basically done the same thing this time: the “mix” is a little different because there’s maybe a little less world-building to do and slightly fewer playable races (only 16 this time as opposed to 20-some last time), but overall they stuck with what worked.

In terms of nuts and bolts, the table of contents lists 65 entries, though sometimes an entry is a single creature; other times, an entry might be multiple examples of the type, or a more general category of creature (“herd animals”, to pick an example). For those of you who are compulsive re-rollers, 16 of those are identified as playable races. Slightly fewer than last time, but still a healthy chunk of new choices.  In terms of sourcing, most of the material is original, but there are some Pathfinder holdovers that have been converted to the new system, and they also imported a few creatures from adventure paths or Society games (I noticed the akatas and garaggakal from Dead Suns, off the top of my head).

This time, whether it was intentional or not, the book feels like it has a few broad “themes”.

The first theme is animals. There are several “beasts of the forest” type critters, category entries for things like “predators” and “herd animals”, and several of the playables are animal humanoids. The Pahtra and Vlaka have you covered on cat and dog/wolf humanoids, respectively, but the one our Discord channel was raving about (and rightfully so!) was the Uplifted Bear. I mean, you get to be a bear with humanoid intelligence who can wear armor and wield weapons (though, damn right, you also have claws that serve as natural weapons). The supporting text for the Uplifted Bear also gives us this gem:

Uplifted bears are sometimes rumored to have violent temperaments, but their personalities are as varied as those of any sapient species. Some uplifted bears take great pleasure in playing to this stereotype when they meet other people, drawing out the biased assumptions of the ill-informed, and then mocking them.

I’m sorry, but if you can’t muster a smile at the idea of a sentient bear that threatens to eat people before giving them a wink and a big hug, I don’t know what to say to you.

I would also observe that the “Uplifted” concept feels like it could be applied to pretty much any animal. So… (taps microphone for benefit of Paizo people who might be reading) two words for Alien Archive 3: “Science Otters”. The judges would also accept a team of Uplifted red panda commandos.

The other broad theme of Alien Archive 2 is a deeper dive into the world of the undead. It feels like Starfinder wiped the chalkboard clean as far as what we know about the world of the undead, and Alien Archive 2 starts to drill into that a bit more. So you have some classics like the Ghost and the Ghoul, but you also have newcomers like Corpsefolk (think of them as worker-class undead in Eoxian society – not quite zombies, but “real” undead look down on them), Bone Troopers (Corpse Fleet soldiers: they look like the aliens from Mars Attacks after a few months of Crossfit), and the Emotivores (undead that died under circumstances of strong emotion, so they have psychic abilities tied to emotion). For those of us who found the initial treatment of undead in Starfinder to be a bit of a blank slate, it’s nice to see them… (wait for it)… put some flesh on those bones.

A few other random highlights that leap to mind: Lovecraft fans will cheer the arrival of the Colour Out Of Space – a malevolent cloud of shifting color that will do all sorts of bad things to you. It makes an appearance in a Pathfinder adventure path but gets brought into the future here. The velstrac are an extraplanar race who think religious enlightenment can be achieved by inflicting pain on themselves AND others, so they’re a weird combination of brutal and masochistic. And then there’s the CR20 Living Apocalypse. It’s a cloud of evil radioactive energy that’s the byproduct of large-scale destructive forces (power reactor meltdowns, firing of doomsday-level weapons), and it pretty much just destroys everything living in its path. And when it can’t find anything to destroy, it can search for wireless communications to find new targets. Or… send out fake distress signals.

Turning our attention to playables, obviously the uplifted bear is the talk of the town, but there are several interesting choices. People feeling nostalgic for Pathfinder get orcs, hobgoblins, aasimars and tieflings (the latter two listed under the more generic “Planar Scion”). As I mentioned, the Pahtra and Vlaka have dog and cat lovers covered. My two personal favorites are the Ghoran and the Osharu.

The Osharu – they’re slug people. Right down to the ability to secrete slime to create difficult terrain. That’s self-explanatory: who wouldn’t love that? With the Ghorans, I’m drawn to the lore – they’re plant people that started out as Pre-Gap creations of a druid, and they looked more like Swamp Thing. The druid designed them to be “perfect” but that included TASTING perfect, so humans hunted them almost to extinction to eat them. “NATURE’S PERFECT SNACK”, quite literally. The surviving Ghorans went into hiding, survived, and eventually evolved into a more conventional humanoid form with two subraces. They also founded their own planet where they went full Genesis Device (minus the explodey part) and converted a barren rock to a floral paradise. Now THAT’S a backstory.

As with Alien Archive 1, the Alien Archive 2 has a sprinkling of creature-themed “extras” scattered throughout its pages. Weapons and armor, technological devices, ships, feats, etc. About half the creatures come with some form of add-on content – sometimes it’s a tool or weapon used by the creature, sometimes it’s something that can be made from the remains, other times it’s just “scientists tried to figure out how the ability works and came up with this gadget that does a similar thing”. The one thing I appreciated is that AA2 puts these into an index in the back – something AA1 did not do – so you can look up the page an item is on with minimal fuss.

Speaking of “the stuff in the back”, whereas Alien Archive 1 felt like vital reading because it explained the system for creating creatures and gave rules for how to do it, Alien Archive 2 is more standard “back of the book” stuff that mostly just expands that system to account for this new content – as such, it’s probably only essential for the homebrew GM. There is a useful appendix that gives detailed rules for polymorph – in addition to formalizing polymorph as a spell (self or mass) and feat, it answers the questions of “how much of the polymorphed character is still you, how much is the critter you’re turning into” through the mechanism of “forms” – the GM and player work to create a “form” for the combined character. The rest of the appendices are mostly just lists and indexes: creatures by CR, creatures by terrain/environment, index of where the “extras” are, index of the playable races, etc. Not new content, but does make it a LOT easier to navigate the book. In comparison, AA1 only had a single table for creatures by CR.

All in all, I’d consider Alien Archive 2 to be a successful addition to the Starfinder line. If my praise seems a little more subdued, it’s probably just because it’s the first follow-up book – Alien Archive, Pact Worlds, and Armory were the first books of their kind, and Alien Archive 2 is just going back to the buffet for another plate. But if you feel like the Alien Archive model represents a winning formula – and I do – then it’s just a question of how big an appetite for new monsters you have. To that, I say “keep ‘em coming!”

SP01: Pathfinder Playtest Review

Make sure to read our review of Pathfinder Playtest Rulebook!

Welcome to a special edition of Roll For Combat, and we’re excited about this one because we’ve got a treat for you! We’re taking a break from our usual Starfinder gaming to bring you an inside look at the newly released Pathfinder Playtest!

Paizo has been getting their big update to Pathfinder ready for prime time, and we’ve been getting ready to hit the ground running here at Roll For Combat – we’ve read the rules, we’ve created a few characters, and even run through a few adventures. So pull up a virtual chair and listen to our impressions about the most anticipated Paizo release of the year!

And don’t forget to become a supporter of the podcast our Patreon page: https://www.patreon.com/rollforcombat where you can help us while unlocking fun exclusive rewards for yourself!

Pathfinder Playtest Review – Back to the Future

Make sure to also listen to our one-hour discussion of the Pathfinder Playtest Rulebook on the Roll For Combat podcast!

If you enjoyed this review make sure to check out our weekly actual play podcast where Jason and the team are playing the Starfinder Dead Sun’s adventure path as well as the occasional Starfinder Society adventure as well.

Unless you’ve been living in a cave for the last several months, you’ve probably heard about the Pathfinder Playtest. If you listen to our podcast, you’re probably enough of a Paizo fan to be eagerly awaiting it already. Nevertheless, for the benefit of my hypothetical cave-dwelling friend who stumbled on our website by accident, the Pathfinder Playtest (which I will sometimes call Pathfinder 2 or PF2 because, frankly, it’s less to type) is Paizo’s attempt to cull, streamline, distill… whatever-other-sort-of-action-verb you like… a decade’s worth of Pathfinder gaming into a new beginning. The goal is “different, yet familiar” – something that keeps long-time players happy and feels like Pathfinder, but that also welcomes newcomers aboard the SS Swearing At An Inanimate Object Because It Rolled Three Straight 1s.

Well, I have good news for you. We here at RFC know a guy who knows a guy, and we got a copy of the Playtest rules in advance, so we’re able to give you some first impressions so you know what to expect when they’re released into the wild. There may or may not have been a midnight exchange at a bus terminal, but frankly, the less you know about that the better.

At first glance, the content in the Playtest seems to represent a mix of approaches. There are some concepts that are truly new to Pathfinder and are going to take some getting used to – some things are genuinely being rebuilt from the ground up. Some things are more of a repackaging of what was already there, to create new and more interesting choices. And though they’d be reluctant to admit it because they want both games to stand on their own as equals, there are some places where Starfinder’s Greatest Hits make an appearance (encumbrance: bye-bye “gold pieces”, hello “bulk”).

But what does that actually mean where the rubber meets the road? (Or, if you prefer, “hammer meets the anvil”.) Well, we’re here to at least start answering some of those questions for you. Part of me wanted to go “big changes first, work our way down” but playing around with it a little more, I decided to follow the basic chapter structure of the book itself. So grab a beverage and settle in, because we’re gonna give you as much information as you can handle on this thing.

Writing Roleplaying Systems Into Existence

Before we get into the gory details, I feel like it’s worth looking at the big picture. In the roleplaying game world, change is inevitable. You build a game system, people play it and love it, and all is good. They clamor for more; you give them more. They keep playing that stuff too. And it’s great.

But….

Some of the new content contradicts the old content, and you didn’t realize it until three books later. Some of the new content is flat-out better than the old content, and nobody plays the old stuff anymore. There are a few things that never really worked quite right, but they’re too cool to errata out of existence. You think of a new mechanic six years in that’s really the way it (whatever “it” is) should’ve worked since Day One. If we’re being totally candid, there are problems that managed to exist for a decade without EVER being truly addressed. And you look up a decade later at a Jenga Tower of Strangeness (not a new wondrous item… yet) that probably works for the die-hards who understand how you got there and can house-rule around the awkward parts, but isn’t very inviting to the new player sitting down at the table for the first time.

At some level, what’s most exciting about PF2 is that it’s starting over with a real framework that can be expanded in a modular fashion, and not just a series of incremental additions attached with duct tape. In saying that, I don’t want to bag on original Pathfinder, but Pathfinder was a decade of upgrades to 3.5, which already had miles on the odometer when Paizo came into existence. Even Paizo’s best ideas had to be shoe-horned into what was already there. (This is something Paizo people have commented on interviews, so it’s not like I’m throwing them under the bus or anything by saying so.)

I also know that in the larger gaming community, 4th Edition made the idea of a “framework” a dirty word for a while by going too far in the opposite direction and making everything TOO similar. But there’s value to building on a solid foundation that can be expanded easily – game design has come a long way since Gygax did his thing. You want something that can grow seamlessly so that the new stuff and the old stuff fits together. Heck, you even want an environment that offers GMs a path to homebrew their own content without a lot of pain. A coherent system is what gets you there.

So we’re going to delve in and take a look at that system in what is hopefully the right level of detail. We recognize there’s a lot of curiosity, but we also don’t want to make your eyes glaze over, either. The easiest way to do this is to follow the structure of the book, which means we start with the first chapter…

A-B-C. Easy As 1-2-3. (Ancestry)

You’ll hear a lot about the “ABC” character creation system – Ancestry, Background, Class. The idea is that they’re trying to let you build a story for your character rather than just select options off the buffet. Additionally, they’re trying to steer people away from the cookie-cutter character by offering more choice along the journey.

Ancestry is race, only they found a word that starts with “A” to fit the theme. All of your traditional Pathfinder core races are here, with two caveats: first, goblins are upgraded to a core race; second, half-orcs and half-elves are no longer independent races but are considered a variant of humans. You unlock those by creating a human and selecting the appropriate ancestry feat for “half-whatever”. Your ancestry gives you starting hit points, a few stat adjustments, languages, movement speed, enhanced senses… all the usual stuff.

BUT… you also get an ancestry feat at Level 1, which is the first major change – race is no longer an attribute you pick at Level 1, translate into a package of skills, and forget about for the rest of the game; ancestry is an ongoing component of character development where you select a feat every 4 levels (1st, 5th, 9th, 13th, 17th). So your elf and my elf may already be subtly different based on which ancestry feats we took.

Backgrounds are back-stories for your character – what they were doing before they became adventurers. At the risk of letting the cat out of the bag, they’re a lot like Starfinder’s “themes”. Yes, the min-maxers in the crowd will be happy to hear backgrounds come with stat bonuses and train you in skills, but they also fill in the flavor of your character. Unlike ancestry, backgrounds are one-time setup choices; you don’t go back and revisit your background later.

I’m going to dig deeper into class in a moment, but at a high level, I’ll start by talking about the “feat-ification” of class skills. In Pathfinder, you pretty much picked your class (and maybe variant or archetype) at Level 1, and that pretty much dictated what you would receive every time you leveled up. Every rogue got Sneak Attack at Level 1, Evasion at Level 2, Trap Sense at Level 3, etc. In Pathfinder 2, there are still some static class benefits (rogues still get Sneak Attack out of the gate, for instance), but most of the class skills are now considered class feats, and you have multiple choices at various points in the process. Your rogue and my rogue may look and play quite differently based on which class feats we select along the way.

When it comes to actually “rolling” a character’s stats, ABC borrows heavily from Starfinder’s character creation system. I’ll be speaking of “boosts”, which are generally 2 point increments unless you go over 18. You start with 10s across the board. Ancestry lets you boost two scores and gives you a penalty in one (except for humans, who don’t receive the penalty). Background gives you boosts to two scores, your class gives you a boost to the primary score of that class, and you have four free bonus boosts. The only real restriction is that you can’t multi-boost the same stat within the same step – so you can’t put both your ancestry boosts or all four of your free boosts into the same stat. You can voluntarily lower scores for role-playing reasons, but you don’t get points back to use elsewhere – it’s not a point-buy system.

Why Don’t You Call Me Sometime, When You Have No Class? (Class)

I don’t know quite how to write about classes without writing a book about them, which… Paizo already beat me to the punch on that. If I get too granular I’ll be at this for hours; if I stay at too high a level, I’m not sure I’m telling you anything useful. So I think I’ll use this part to call out a few things that leapt out at me as interesting.

One of the single most dramatic changes for the better is to the classic sword-and-board (or “bored”) fighter. Remember “Beef Steelfist”, that fighter that was your first or second character, but you ditched him because it got real old watching everyone else summon tentacles or critting for 9d6 and you were still just swinging your sword? Now, he’s the undisputed master of clogging up the battlefield and protecting your buddies. He’s got a tactical role to play. First, fighters are the only class that gets Attacks of Opportunity as a class skill; a few others can take it as a feat, but fighters have it in their DNA. Additionally, a shield goes from an abstract bump to Armor Class to an active defense system – you can use one of those actions to raise your shield and if you get hit, the shield takes the hit for you. (Though the shield eventually breaks, leading to a three-beers-in discussion at PaizoCon imagining a fighter pulling a wagon of spare shields through the dungeon with him.). Put those together, and the fighter becomes a defensive machine.

I’m noticing that they did away with the notion of hybrid casters – either someone is a caster, or they’re not. Rangers and paladins no longer have the half-assed “well, you get a few spells, but not enough to really be useful” thing going on – pallies get a very specific subset of powers purchased as feats (rebranded as “Champion Powers”), and rangers pretty much lose casting entirely in favor of more woodland skills. Bards, on the other hand, get upgraded to full caster status with a full range of Level 1-10 spells.

The sorcerer is an interesting case, insofar as they don’t necessarily have to be arcane casters anymore. Backing up a minute, there are four different magic types, each of which has a primary dedicated caster class – arcane (wizard), divine (cleric), primal (druid), and occult (bard). Those are the four “traditions” of magic. The sorcerer’s tradition is derived from the bloodline he or she chooses, so they could end up as any of the four.

I love monks, so I’m excited about this one – the monk gets a little less stats-hungry, since you can now select STR or DEX as a primary stat. Do you want to be Luke Cage (What? He’s kind of a monk!) or Iron Fist? Also, some of the damage mitigation is farmed out to an “unarmored defense” skill, which Monks already start at Expert level.

I don’t necessarily want to just sit here reciting factoids about every class, but those are some of the things that struck me on the first read. I’ll also specifically come back to casters in more detail when we hit the chapter on Spells. For now, moving on.

What I Do Have Are A Very Particular Set Of Skills (Skills)

Most of the skills themselves are what you would normally expect from Pathfinder, though they took this opportunity to streamline things a bit. It does look “Perform (X)” skills are crunched down to a single “Perform” skill, and the “Knowledge (X)” skills are distributed out to other skills – “Recall Information” is an available action under several other skills. The “Craft (X)” skills are just “Crafting”, and some of the key skills (Alchemical Crafting, Magical Crafting) are just feats available once you have that skill. But the basics are still what you would expect them to be.

Buried on page 153 is something very interesting – a table for using skills to make money during downtime. Basically, between adventures, you would work with the GM to identify a job your character could perform and the GM sets a DC for the task. You then roll a skill check and if you make it, you make a certain amount of money for the amount of downtime you use.

The thing I really wanted to talk about is how you progress skills as a character. The days of picking 4-8 skills to rank up each time you level are gone. Begone, busywork! Skills now follow a tiered system: Untrained (roll modifier of -2), Trained (0), Expert (+1), Master (+2), and Legendary (+3). Your modifier in a skill is your character level, the relevant stat modifier, and an adjustment based on which tier you’re in. That’s it.

You get new skill bumps as you level where you can either train something you haven’t trained yet or move an existing skill to the next rank. Generally, these come every other level after 3rd, and there are a few restrictions – can’t take a skill to Master until 7th, can’t go to Legendary until 15th. There’s also the concept of “signature skills” being your most vital ones – and only your signature skills can go past a certain level (though there are ways to designate new signature skills as you go).

One thing that jumped out at me – what’s the mechanism for adding new languages? It seems like the main way – other than magic items – would be to take the “Multilinguist” general feat, which gives you two new languages each time you select it.

Well, what’s a general feat, you say? That brings us to…

The Thrill Of Victory, The Agony Of The Feats (Feats)

We’ve already introduced the concepts of ancestry feats and class feats. This chapter gives us a look at general feats and skill feats. General feats are obviously feats that are available to anyone; skill feats also technically general feats, but you have to actually be trained in the skill required for their use.

Your old pals like Toughness and Incredible (formerly Improved) Initiative are here but there are some new faces as well, particularly amongst the skill feats. There’s Trick Magic Item, which lets you attempt to use a magic item you normally wouldn’t qualify to use. There’s also Legendary Negotiator under the Diplomacy skill, which actually looks like it gives you a chance to stop a battle IN PROGRESS to try and negotiate. Battle Medic, based on Medicine, is an interesting one: if you succeed, it lets you do in-combat healing without spells, but if you roll a critical failure, you actually do damage to the person you’re healing. I’m imagining the first time someone goes to heal a fallen comrade and accidentally kills them – “sorry, was that your aorta?”. And OK, there’s also “Scare To Death” which lets you use your Intimidate skill to literally try to kill someone by frightening them. I thought the skill feats would be kind of boring, but there’s some surprisingly fun stuff in here.

Now that we’ve discussed all the different types of feats, I feel like this is the right time to mention this: I’m wondering if what they’ve done with feats might be a little bit of a polarizing issue. Obviously, in Pathfinder, feats were just feats, and you could pretty much take whatever you wanted, as long as you met the restrictions. Putting them in different silos like this may be a little controversial. I know WHY they did it – it forces people away from min-maxing and makes them create more well-rounded characters if they have to use a variety of different feats. Otherwise, some people are just going to max out combat feats and be done with it. On the other hand, I do worry that some people might feel penned in and feel like their choices are being artificially restricted. I guess we’ll have to see how it plays.

Stone Knives And Bearskins (Equipment)

There are a few interesting nuggets in this chapter, but the single most interesting is the crafting system. One of the bigger weak spots in Pathfinder was that it was way too easy to make things – unless there was an exotic material component, it was “here’s half the cost of the item… gimme”. Pathfinder 2’s crafting throws in a few wrinkles borrowed from MMOs that make it a bit more of a challenge.

First, you have to learn or buy a formula for the item before you can make it. There’s no “I intuitively know how to make a wand of cure light wounds” anymore. That said, if you have one of the items in question, you can try to reverse-engineer the formula by disassembling it. And as long as you don’t critically fail and lose the raw materials, you can then try and remake it if you succeed.

In the case of some items – particularly weapons and armor – you also have to deal with different material qualities. This kind of extends the whole idea of “masterwork” gear, but an item has to be Expert, Master, or Legendary quality to be enchanted (and higher level materials can hold more powerful enchantments).

The other wrinkle that makes the system more challenging is that items (and their formulas) have an associated rarity, and rare items won’t just be available in every town you visit. This idea that you can just go to the local Bob’s Magic Emporium and they just happen to have every magic item you’d be interested in always seemed like a bit of a kludge.

We’ll revisit all of this when we get to the later chapter on magic items – put a pin in it for now.

A couple other things worth calling out. The first is that the silver piece has replaced the gold piece as the standard coin of the realm. The whole economy has dropped down one denomination and a gold piece is now a lot of money. Worth remembering.

Also, as I alluded to earlier, Pathfinder 2 is going to be making use of the same encumbrance system Starfinder uses. If you haven’t played or listened to our podcast, here’s the basics of how it works. First, specific weights are done away with in favor of units of “bulk”. So a weapon might be 1 bulk; a particularly heavy set of armor might be 3 or 4 bulk, etc. Encumbrance is really simple to calculate: it’s 5+ STR modifier to be encumbered; 10 + STR modifier and you have to start dropping things. That number seems small, but this is offset by the fact that many items are considered Light bulk (L), and it takes 10 items to make one unit of bulk. (And that 10 is always rounded down, so you can have 9 healing potions and it counts as nothing.) The best part is it’s trivially easy to manage – no more “hold on, I have to lighten up by 8 gold pieces to get back to medium encumbrance”. (And yes, some items are considered negligible bulk and don’t count toward encumbrance at all.)

Let’s All Go To The Lobby (Intermission)

This isn’t a chapter. I just realize we’re throwing a lot of stuff at you, and wanted to give you a chance to catch your breath. Grab a smoke, take a walk around the block, throw a ball with your dog… whatever you do. The second half of the book will be here when you’re ready.

Pick A Card… Any Card (Spells)

This chapter is a big one, both physically – it’s the single largest chapter at almost 100 pages – but there’s a lot of meaty changes for casters.

The first is the ability to “heighten” spells by putting them into a higher-level slot. One easy example is something like Summon Nature’s Ally, where the slot you use determines how powerful the beastie you summon is. For direct damage spells, it tends to be more of a +N thing where you get an extra damage die for each level you add. (I heartily encourage players to yell “IT’S OVER 9000!” at their GM as often as possible when they heighten a spell because that will never get old.)

The ideas under the hood aren’t that revolutionary – it’s “just” streamlining multiple versions of the same spell with a layer of what used to be metamagic feats on top – but the net effect is far more powerful and flexible. Among other things, it means you don’t have to keep replacing the same spell multiple times in your career, which will hopefully lead to more diverse casters.

Another cool thing is that cantrips now scale automatically to the highest level you can cast. One of the things I actually really liked about 4E was the notion of “at-will powers” – that casters would never TOTALLY run out of spells and always have a few spells they could cast. Pathfinder cantrips gave you the idea of an at-will spell, but the damage spells didn’t scale, so doing 1d3 frost damage became worthless after a few levels. Now, a cantrip casts at the highest spell level you have access to, so (for example) a Level 10 caster with access to 5th level spells will be able to do a slightly more useful 2d8 + (modifier) points of damage.

They also gave casters Level 10 spells, but confession time: after an initial surge of excitement, I’m in the minority that felt like this was more of a This Is Spinal Tap “these go to 11” moment. OK… they’re the same spells, you just re-swizzled the lists so 10 is the top level. “Well it’s one louder, isn’t it?” Also, there just aren’t that many of them – each class only starts with 3 Level 10 spells (OK, occult casters get a fourth). I get the feeling heightening lower-level spells up to 10 is going to be more common.

As far as stuff that specifically caught my eye – primal casters seem like they have the most fun stuff here. They can turn into a dinosaur. Or a dragon. When they hit their Level 10 spells, they can turn themselves into a kaiju (Nature Incarnate) or turn their party-mates into a herd of mammoths (Primal Herd). Druid is looking pretty darn fun right about now. On the other hand, divine casters get Weapon of Judgment, where a giant ghostly version of your deity’s chosen weapon materializes out of nowhere and starts slapping people around with force damage. And I’ll have to read my contract and find out if I’m allowed to talk about necromancy, but the occult school offers us Vampiric Exsanguination, where you “draw blood and life force from creatures and shoot it out through your outstretched arms.” You know. For the goth bards in the house.

The spell chapter ends with Rituals, which are non-combat spells for the spell-less – they tend to be based on skills rather than magic ability, so they can actually be cast by non-casters. This is where you find stuff like Consecrate, Geas, and… the big one here… Resurrect. Yes, you can bring back a dead party member without any caster party members. It’s a little pricey (75g x character’s level, max 11th) but it’s an option.

Assistant To The Regional Manager (Advancement And Options)

Not sure there’s too much to look at here. There are some useful archetypes; particularly the multiclass archetypes for people who want to dabble in other classes. The material on animal companions lives here, which… seems a little out of place, but I guess it needed to be somewhere. And we (re-)introduce the gods of Golarion for the umpteenth time… “oh hi Desna!”. But let’s be honest… nothing that’s burning a hole in my pocket. I’d rather move on to…

The Game’s Afoot (Playing The Game)

There’s a lot of important stuff here because it’s the nuts-and-bolts chapter of how to run combat, and combat is the engine that ultimately drives the game. On the other hand, this is probably going to be sort of a grab bag where I’ll just hit on a bunch of different things without going into a lot of detail on any one thing. Welcome to the info-dump portion of our program.

The 800-pound gorilla of this conversation is going to be the changes to the action economy. The days of full-round, standard, move, swift, free… yeah, say goodbye to all of that. Now everything is an action and you get three of them. And I get that there’s a visceral “that’s too simplistic” reaction when you first hear that. I felt it myself before I sat down and played the Playtest at PaizoCon.

But here’s the thing. They didn’t really get rid of complexity, they just moved it to the other side of the equation by making a lot of your powers/abilities/etc. more flexible. Now, some of your abilities can be powered up by putting more actions into them. Take the old standby, the cleric’s channel: at one action, it’s a touch heal; two actions change it to a ranged heal, and three actions give you a group burst. So not only is there still room for complexity, but it comes with more interesting choices for the player. I actually think that this is going to work really well over the long haul.

And I know what you’re thinking: why don’t people just stand in front of each other and do three attacks every round? Well, besides the fact that the opponent can… you know… move, there’s the fact that each consecutive attack takes a -5 penalty, so good luck hitting that third attack with a -10.

If there’s a 400-pound gorilla, it’s that attacks of opportunity are going to be far less of a dominant force in combat. Paizo noticed that the fear of AoO’s locked a lot of combats into a dance of five-foot-steps – square-dancing with cutlery. In particular, mobile melees like rogues and monks faced a real uphill climb to use their abilities effectively. Now, only a few characters and some (but not all) monsters will be able to do Attacks of Opportunity, and the hope is that it will open up the battlefield a little more.

“Now the 200-pound gorilla”… OK, I’m going to stop with the rapidly-shrinking gorillas. Either I’ll run out of gorillas entirely, or we’ll end up at a 4-ounce gorilla, and you’ll all be saying “well, that’s actually kind of cute, can I have one as a familiar?”. (NOTE TO STEVE: 4-ounce gorilla plushie on the RFC store, ASAP. The kids will love it.)

You do need to know about critical hits and critical failures. First, critical misses are going to play an increased role in Pathfinder 2 – they’d existed around the edges when it came to skills checks, and some GM’s homebrewed them into their campaigns, but Pathfinder 2 makes the critical miss more integral to the game. Also, there’s going to be more than one way to get critical hits and misses. Yes, natural 20 or natural 1 will still get the job done; on the other hand, making your roll by more than 10 or missing a negative roll by more than 10 will also serve as a trigger. So if you roll a 16, modified to a 32 against a 14 armor class, that’s still a crit. (Reading the fine print though, if a natural 20 would not normally be a success, it becomes a success but not a critical success; similarly, if a task is so easy that a natural 1 plus mods would succeed, a natural 1 would be a failure but not a critical failure.)

The good news, combat-wise, is it will probably make trash fights go faster. If you can get crits from modified 14s or 15s, that’ll end those fights a lot quicker. But that same logic applies to your enemies – so if you go into a battle where YOU’RE clearly outmatched (like trying to farm a dragon at low levels), the bad guy’s going to probably get some easier-than-normal crits and you’re going to have a bad time.

Let’s also talk about death. Massive damage (2x your hit points) is still an insta-kill. Certain spells have a death effect which is also automatic. Anything else, you are unconscious, at zero hit points, and placed at the beginning of a four-stage countdown. You start at “Dying 1” and have to make Fortitude saves every round – if you fail, you move to Dying 2, Dying 3, and then Dying 4. Dying 4 is dead (though there’s a feat that allows you to go to Dying 5). And ohbytheway, a critical failure ups the dying counter by 2. So don’t roll a 1. Any successful save returns you to life at 1 Hit Point.

Lastly, Hero Points are another informal/homebrew thing that’s being formalized in Pathfinder 2. It’s fairly common for GMs to have a policy of rewarding Hero Points to players who do something exceptionally cool or roleplay a situation particularly well. PF2 formalizes this. A player can hold up to 3 Hero Points at a time, each player starts with 1 Hero Point at the start of each game session (yes you read that right… game session, not level), and they can be used in the following ways:

  • 1 Hero Point can revive from any point in the death cycle, even if you use it when you fail the save that would kill you. Pretty good motivation to keep at least one Hero Point handy at all times.
  • 2 Hero Points can be used to re-roll a single D20 roll. (If the second roll fails the check you’re trying to make, you get back one of the Hero Points you spent on it.)
  • 3 Hero Points lets you take an additional action (or reaction).

Oh Captain, My Captain (Game Mastering)

I think the most generally relevant thing from this chapter is introducing the three game modes. To some degree, this just creates some formal structure around the natural flow that already exists, but Pathfinder 2 breaks the game down into three game modes:

  • Encounter Mode: This is generally combat, though I suppose a campaign could break a social encounter or skill challenge into real-time as well. Everything has to be explicit, rolls have to be performed for most things, players need to make decisions quickly. Also, even if it’s not combat, encounter mode tends to work best in formal turns, so that no one person can dominate the action. In short, the game’s in high gear.
  • Exploration Mode: you’re in a potentially dangerous location where something could happen, but not every second of action has to be on high alert. People can kind of do what they want unless they do something that would move the game into encounter mode. Some dice roles can be fudged in the assumption that “you look around until you find it”.
  • Downtime Mode: the time spent in safety, usually between adventures. This is the mode where you can have people hand-wave hours or days spent on a particular task. Sometimes downtime mode tasks can even be performed outside the game – i.e. working on leveling up your character or preparing a shopping list between sessions.

The rest of the chapter is mostly tips for fairly novice GMs – how to assign experience and treasure, how to set up encounters, what sorts of special rules are involved with different terrains and environmental conditions. I’d have to defer to Steve as to whether there are any particularly important gems to discuss in here.

Shiny! (Treasure)

And now we come back to magic items and crafting.

I feel like one of the polarizing things in this section is the concept of Resonance Points, as relates to magic items. Magic items in original Pathfinder used to be a bit of a free-for-all, and wands in particular arguably got a little out of hand. (One can imagine a mule loaded down with Cure <X> Wounds wands and the party burning through 2 or 3 wands after each fight like they were those little fluorescent glow sticks.) Now, characters have Resonance Points (your character level + CHA bonus, so now everyone can get some benefit from Charisma) as a daily resource that are used to “power” magic items. The general rule of thumb is that things you use with a charge, it’s one resonance point per use; for things you wear, it’s one resonance point at the start of the day to “invest” it (i.e. put it on and power it up).

(I feel like I have to mention the wizards of the Harry Potter world would be absolutely screwed in this system. You got about, 10, 12 Expelliarmuses before you’re dry, kid… make the most of them.)

The positive of the system is that it comes up with a use for Charisma beyond “face of the party” stuff and prevents magic item use from getting too silly; the bad is that there could be places where you can’t use a simple healing wand because no one has resonance points left – there was something appealing about “fire and forget” consumables, even if it could be abused.

Slightly less controversial is the section on runes. Basically, runes are the mechanism that power the pluses and effects (flaming, freezing, etc.) on your armor and weapons. “Potency” runes are what give an item its plus; property runes are what makes that sword flaming or vorpal or whatnot. You can replace runes with more powerful ones, though – here’s the MMO-ish part – certain runes have an item quality restriction – i.e. you can’t make a +5 weapon out of an off-the-rack sword. Runes can also be transferred between weapons (for the frugal adventurer, it saves money over having to get a new one), or can be stored on and recovered from runestones. (Again, if you’re following Starfinder at all, runes are kind of like weapon seals.)

Set aside game mechanics: I like this on a storytelling level. There’s rich history in the fantasy genre of heroes having named swords that travel with them throughout their journeys, so the idea that you can keep upgrading your weapon and keep it with you from Level 1-20 has some appeal. After all, Gandalf didn’t trade in Glamdring because he found a +3 sword in the next dungeon.

Keep in mind that runes follow the same rules as other craftables – you have to find or buy the formula for creating a rune before you can use it, so it’s not just a simple matter of deciding you want your sword to be +3 and doing it. Heck, finding formulas might even create some interesting story hooks for possible adventures: you want that flaming rune? I guess you’ll have to go investigate that dwarven armory that was overrun by goblin hordes. We mainly play adventure paths in our group, but this could be fertile story material for a group that mostly runs homebrew content.

So What’s It All Mean?

I could keep going, grabbing thinner and thinner slices of rules to focus in on, but I don’t know what people are going to care about most, and I suspect you get the general idea. There’s a lot of stuff here, and it’s an interesting mix – something old, something new, something borrowed (from Starfinder), something blue (dragons, prismatic walls… the usual suspects). I think it’s all going to work out, but we’ll know more when we roll up our sleeves and start playing in the new system.

And that’s the big thing to keep in mind. The operative word is “Play-TEST”. The first few months of this are literally going to be testing mode. The first adventures are designed to stress-test particular aspects of the game, and I’m sure some things may not work as they originally planned them. So be patient, have fun with it and remind yourself that being in on the ground floor of something new could be exciting. When this hobby started out, you could be a wizard or an elf, but not both. Now the company that makes the game is inviting you to help be a part of making it better. To quote Roger Sterling from Mad Men, “you’re an astronaut.”

And if you really have to be a cynic… just don’t sell your PF1 library on Craigslist just yet.

Pathfinder Playtest is available for free at http://www.pathfinderplaytest.com.

Starfinder Armory Review – We Do We Get Those Wonderful Toys?

If you enjoyed this review make sure to check out our weekly actual play podcast where Jason and the team are playing the Starfinder Dead Sun’s adventure path as well as the occasional Starfinder Society adventure as well.

The Starfinder Armory is finally here. If the Alien Archive and Pact Worlds releases were mostly for the benefit of the GMs, the Armory is very much a book for the players – a world of new toys for your characters to play with.

The first big-picture question everyone’s going to ask: “is there cool stuff I’m going to want to run right out and buy for my character(s)?”. (Or, if you’re an alt-aholic like me, “make you want to roll up a new character that can use that piece of gear”.)

Short answer: yes, but that would either make for a really short review, or it would turn into that Chris Farley SNL sketch where I just list pieces of gear at random and say “that was cool” after each one. Neither approach strikes me as very satisfying.

Instead, I’d like to approach this from the standpoint of the questions I had in my head when I got to sit down with this book. I will probably come back around at the end and give you the Farley list anyway, but for the moment, let’s focus on a few more specific things that were on my mind.

GENERAL QUESTION 1: Does the Armory truly break new ground and expand the game content, or is it just N+1 versions of what’s already there? Particularly for a game system as new as Starfinder, I’d expect to see some new ideas getting introduced, not just “well this is the gun you already had but the laser beams are green now!”.

I’m going to go ahead and give the Armory a solid passing grade on this front. There’s nothing revolutionary – they didn’t backdoor a new class in or add an entirely different form of combat – but you wouldn’t expect that from an Armory book anyway. This is about the gear. What you do get is some good solid extension of the ideas contained in the Core Rulebook.

Take weapons. Yes, you get the MORE – particularly on melee weapons, where they’ve dramatically increased the options for energy-based melee weapons – but you also get weapons with the “conceal” trait, that can be more easily smuggled into places, or the “integrated” trait which lets them be mounted into an upgrade slot instead of taking up a hand. (There are even a few options for tail weapons for your vesk and ysoki friends!) There are profession weapons that can both act as a tool for use in the profession, and ranks in the profession can be used to obtain proficiency in the weapon. Weapon accessories give you the common real-world mods – scopes, silencers, and so on. Want a grip to hold your flashlight or a bipod for that sniper rifle? Done, and done.

Some concepts from core get more fully fleshed out in the Armory. Weapon materials are one such concept – the Core Rulebook listed the three traditional Pathfinder choices (adamantine, cold iron, and silver), but they’re almost all about overcoming damage reduction. The Armory adds six new options and the effects are more dynamic. Abysium is slightly radioactive so weapons made from it can apply the Sickened condition. Dzejet is more receptive to magic, making it easier to apply seals; armor made from it is caster-friendly, increasing the range and duration of spells. Horacalcum has weird space-time properties – on a weapon, it can create the Staggered effect; on armor, it helps with initiative checks and saves against Staggered.

Powered armor is another thing that goes from more of a placeholder treatment to a fully fleshed out category of gear. The Core Rulebook’s coverage of powered armor was kind of sparse – “here are five rather generic chassis options; customize them as you see fit”. It felt like they knew powered armor was something that was supposed to exist in a sci-fi game system (see also: Ripley cracking alien queen skulls with a cargo loader), but they hadn’t really decided what to do with it yet. Is it just the next armor after heavy? Is its own thing somewhere between vehicle and armor? The Armory gets deeper into it (17 new options, though a few are variants of each other) and comes up with options flavored for different cultures and different applications – here’s one that’s good for underwater use, here’s one that’s more oriented toward casters, this one has tools for cold weather environments. (And with the Stag-Step Suit, here’s one if you want to wear antlers on your head and feel like teleporting, because… well, who doesn’t?)

For another example, consider our friend the grenade. In the Core Rulebook, grenades were mostly about damage – how much and what type. In the Armory, they lean into a broader range of effects with hybrid grenades. A Diminisher Grenade can reduce the duration of ongoing effects in an area, a Microbot Grenade creates (essentially) swarm damage in an area, a Summoning Grenade warps in a creature to fight for you (Pokemon Go, but in reverse!). But the piece de resistance are Wonder Grenades. Roll a d100 and random stuff happens. Maybe everyone turns invisible! Maybe it creates a vacuum in the area! My personal favorite… maybe the area is filled with adorable, harmless Diminutive animals (tribbles?) that create difficult terrain.

In the “totally new” (at least in terms of usable items) bucket, we have the necrograft. Necrografts appear in the Core Rulebook as a throwaway line in the description of Eox – “some come seeking necrografts, undead prosthetics that are often cheaper than cybernetics”. Well… here they are. You can get a necrograft version of an existing augmentation, or the Armory gives you undead-specific choices, such as the Black Heart, which gives you the environmental bonuses of armor and increased saves against most things that affect the living (sleep, paralysis, etc.). Better read the paperwork, though – the minute you install one of these, you gain the necrograft subtype, which makes you kinda-sorta undead. (Ummmmm… Rusty? Is there anything you want to tell us?)

I could go on – there are new class options for each class, “domestic” drones that perform non-combat chores (including a robo-mule), the magic and tech items really feel like they focused on broadening rather than deepening, etc. – but to answer the question – yes, it does feel like more than N+1 gear.

GENERAL QUESTION 2: The second thing I wanted to see going in was whether they could still fit in the “stealth world-building”. One thing I really appreciated about the Alien Archive (in particular) is the way Paizo snuck in world-building lore around the edges, so it wasn’t JUST a laundry list of creatures. Were they able to do something similar with this book?

Again, I think they hit the mark pretty well. For a prime example, let’s go back to those necrografts. Did you know it’s possible to get a necrograft for “free”? Now that sounds good and all, but to do that, you have to participate in a “corpse lease” program where if you die, you’re agreeing to let the Eoxians harvest your body to create more undead. PAY IT FORWARD! That just brought a huge smile to my face: not just because it’s the nightmare scenario of not reading the Terms and Conditions, brought to life, but also that it really fleshes out (pun semi-intended) the Starfinder universe.

Another example: weapon manufacturers. There are a few pages at the end of the “weapons” section that talk a little bit about various arms manufacturers of the Pact Worlds. At a nuts-and-bolts level, you can pay a small bump in weapon cost to get the in-game effect offered by a particular manufacturer. Ereus Teletech is based on lashunta telepathy, so their weapons have a psychic signature and can only be used by the owner. Ichihara Holdings has perfected their use of modular parts to such a degree that their weapons are easier to repair. Zeizerer Munition specializes in ammunition, translating to larger ammo capacities. And so on. The in-game effects are certainly useful, but you also get this neat little dump of world lore that I find fascinating.

So yes, you get lore… maybe not galore (even though it rhymes), but they did manage to pack some tidbits around the edges.

Those were the biggest general concerns, and I think the Armory delivered pretty well on those. I also had a couple “pet peeve” issues that have cropped up over the past year playing, and I wanted to see if maybe the new gear in the Armory shed some new light on those things.

PET PEEVE #1: Healing

I am still not crazy about healing in Starfinder. At least for our Dead Suns group, I know part of it is our group’s fault for not having a Mystic. I acknowledge that Stamina points are fairly easy to replenish and you’re probably not “supposed” to get into Hit Points as much as we do. But the economy of healing still feels a little off. Mk 1 Healing serums don’t do much at all, but the other levels of serum get too expensive, and there’s no real equivalent of the healing wand.

Did they address this at all with the Armory? Well… sorta. There still doesn’t appear to be a one-touch option like a healing wand, but there do seem to be a few items that add a regenerative impact to the short rest, so that the short rest gives you back stamina and health. The “Medical Interface” armor upgrade is one such item, as is the Regenerative Blood augmentation. On the poison/disease side, they did go with more of a wand-like solution, the Nanite Hypopen – different colors for different effects and strengths. So they get partial credit for this – they didn’t add my dream item (no fire-and-forget Star Trek hypospray), but they also didn’t ignore the issue entirely.

PET PEEVE #2: Fusions

I’m also not sold on the whole fusion system yet. Maybe it’s just dumb luck that so far, the fusions we’ve run across as loot were ones we couldn’t use, but the whole item level/fusion level/weapon type dance still feels a little clunky and frustrating. Maybe once I get the right one for my weapon at the right level, I’ll feel differently, but for now… ehhhh.

The content in the Armory… well, it doesn’t really change my feelings about the system, but there are some cool concepts for seals here. The Tracking seal makes it so that once you’ve damaged an enemy with that weapon, you have tracking within 1000 feet (as long as you’re still holding the weapon). The Conserving fusion refunds your ammo if you miss. Bombarding is a seal for grenade use, and it’s pretty freaky – you attach it to another weapon, it copies a grenade into extra-dimensional space, and you can fire a mystic copy of that grenade once a day.

The ones that piqued my interest are the ones that play around with spatial relationships – the Continuous fusion lets you extend the duration of a line weapon’s shot until the beginning of your next turn, so in the meantime, anyone that wants to go through those squares gets hit. (Or, if your beam is stopped by an obstacle, a teammate could move that obstacle and give the beam a chance to hit new targets.) The Rebounding fusion lets you bank a shot off one surface at a -4 penalty, so you can potentially get around total cover by shooting off a wall. I’m not sure the math is great on a -4 and it seems like it treads similar ground as the Seeking fusion from the core rules, but it’s a total hero move. (“You missed!” *P-TING!* “Did I?” Enemy drops.)

So final analysis, I have to admit I’m still lukewarm about fusions as a whole. Maybe I’ll get there, but nothing in the Armory really served as a game-changer or cast it in a new light.

THE FARLEY LIST

OK, having dispensed with my major points, I’m going to finish up by bouncing around the book and pointing out a few things that jumped out at me. You know – the jazz improv portion of the review, if you will.

  • Shell Knuckles: take a standard punching glove, load the knuckles with shotgun shells. Low-tech, but wonderfully violent.
  • Shadow Chains: chains that do cold/darkness damage. Originally weapons for Zon-Kuthon worshipers, but other people made copies that hopefully aren’t 100% evil. Very gothy.
  • Nanite Weapons: more of a class of weapon than a single weapon, you hit with these weapons, and they release nanites that burrow into the target and do damage. Some of them, you don’t even have to hit the target; if you get close, the nanites will cover the rest of the ground themselves.
  • Clearweave: more of a roleplaying thing, Clearweave armor can either be transparent (so people can see the outfit you’re wearing underneath) or can project patterns, logos, etc. Just in case you want your character to make money on the side renting out ad space.
  • Lashunta Mind Mail: armor that responds psychically to the user’s needs, it’s rigid when you’re about to be hit, flexible when you need more movement – that just strikes me as a cool concept no matter what the actual stats work out to.
  • Stag-Step Suit: Teleportation. It bears repeating.
  • X-Legs: An augmentation that lets you replace your legs with a four-legged spider-chassis. And yes, there’s a climbing version that lets you walk on walls and ceilings.
  • Restless Pineal Gland: an augmentation that lets you get your abilities back with 2 hours of rest, but only once per day.
  • Disintegration Hoop: It’s a Level 20 item that does 4d20 damage just putting an appendage in it, 14d20 if fully inside the hoop. I don’t need to know more than that, and neither do you.
  • Teleportation Puck: Activate the puck and throw it, and then you (and possibly others) can teleport to its location. Seems like it would be handy in combat to get flanking, or for overcoming certain obstacles (chasms, falls or climbs, etc.)
  • Software Imp: Think “sentient computer virus”. It’s an artificial personality that you can load on a computer that can cause all sorts of trouble – access information, can try to trick users into giving it further access, can run incorrect commands, etc.

FINAL ANALYSIS

In some form or another, if you’re playing Starfinder, you’re going to want this book on your shelf. If you’re a little skittish about paying full price for a fairly short hardcover (160 pages), the PDF at $10 is a total steal. Either way, get it and get started on all the characters you’re going to need to make use of all of this stuff.

Pathfinder Planar Adventures Review – The Good, the Bad, and the Astral

Pathfinder Planar Adventures PDF

If you enjoyed this review make sure to check out our weekly actual play podcast where Jason and the team are playing the Starfinder Dead Sun’s adventure path as well as the occasional Starfinder Society adventure as well.

“One last time. Relax, walk the planes with me. One last tiiiiiiiiiime.”

Let’s talk about Planar Adventures. Planar Adventures has the distinction of being the final scheduled hardcover release for the original Pathfinder system.

Now I must admit, when Steve first asked me to take a look at it, I was a little squeamish. First, we mostly play adventure paths these days, so homebrew planar stuff isn’t really in our wheelhouse as a gaming group. More importantly, my most vivid frame of reference for a book like this is the old AD&D Deities And Demigods, aka “Let’s Give the Gods Stat Blocks. So You Can KILL Them!”. Done poorly, planar gaming is the sort of stuff that can get out of hand and go spectacularly wrong.

Wisely, Planar Adventures seems to know this and is not that kind of book. Much like the Pact Worlds book I reviewed for Starfinder, Planar Adventures is more of a toolkit for GMs who want to play around with this stuff. It gives a framework for what a planar adventure might look like and tools to make it happen, but it also understands that the GM still has to build the game that’s right for his or her table.

Having just said this is mostly a book for GMs, the first chapter (“Planar Characters”) is actually for the players. You’ve got planar archetypes for several classes – some of these are pretty great. The Gloomblade intrigued me because it’s basically bringing Starfinder’s Solarian weapon into the Pathfinder setting – the fighter can summon a shadow weapon of his choosing, and it can be any weapon he’s proficient in. Feats are a mixed bag, but the most intriguing to me were the conduit feats, that can get anyone (even non-casters) access to magic abilities just by investing in Knowledge (Planes). One that made me drool a little was the Flickering Step feat, where for 9 ranks in Knowledge (Planes), you can use Dimension Door as a spell-like ability. The spells and magic items were a little more situational: a lot of the focus was on enabling planar travel – how to get there, how to get back, how to talk to the locals while you’re there, etc. – though some are more “planar-flavored” tools that would still add an exotic flavor to a more conventional campaign. But let’s be honest that the majority is designed to tug you in that direction.

The next chapter (“Running Planar Adventures”) is more of a high-level look at GM-ing planar adventures. First, there are the nuts-and-bolts discussions – how does time work, how does gravity work, how do spells work. Think “underwater combat rules”, but for the planes. Then more of a world-building digression into the actual theological workings of souls and what happens when characters die. Then the book gets back into the brass tacks – how do you enable this stuff in your stories? How do you get characters to and from the planes? What magical items can get them there? What story hooks do you place?

I will warn you the gods make an appearance here, but no, you can’t kill them. In fact, the only real tangible game impact is that each god has a “Divine Gift” they can bestow on their favored mortals. If you’ve been listening to our Starfinder podcast, Sarenrae is going to be particularly popular in our group – her divine gift is a prayer that makes all healing actions heal for the maximum amount for 24 hours. No more pesky 1’s to deal with!

The next, and largest section (“The Great Beyond”) is the Rand-McNally World Atlas of the planar universe.

Let’s first review the general structure of the planes as Pathfinder sees them. In the center is the Material World, which is where we adventurers hang our hats 99% of the time. The next layer out represents the various magical forces – the four elemental types, plus positive and negative energy. (Though there are also Material-Positive and Material-Negative boundary planes.) Now dunk all of that in Jell-O to fill in the gaps between planes – that Jell-O is the ethereal plane. (“Though really it’s metaphysical Jell-O that co-occupies the same space as the Materi… never mind.”). That ball of cosmological stuff is the “inner planes”.

But then that Inner Planes ball represents the core of a larger ball, like the nucleus of an atom or the core of a planet. The next layer out is the ethereal plane, which connects to the “outer planes”, which are alignment based afterlives/homes of the gods themselves. “Heaven” is the Lawful Good plane, “The Abyss” represents the Chaotic Evil end of the spectrum, and so on. Outside all of that, there are a few other general planar spaces (“demi-planes”) that don’t fit in the model, but that’s kind of the gist of it.

Feel free to take a “box wine and Cheetos” break and contemplate you or your character’s place in the universe for a few minutes. I’ll wait.

The book presents each of the planes in consistent fashion. There’s a “stat-block” for each plane that summarizes the bullet points of each plane – gravity, passage of time, alignment, who the major inhabitants are, etc. They then go through subsections:

  • Denizens: Who lives there on a permanent basis. The Denizens section is usually where they place an inset for a random encounter table for the plane in question.
  • Deities: Are there any gods here? As a quick cut, no for the inner planes, yes for the outer. The elemental planes have elemental lords that end up in this section, but they’re not really gods since they’re not generally worshiped by the humanoid races.
  • Locations: You don’t think of planes as having “locations” but most of them do. Sometimes these will be formal cities with population, government, notable NPC’s, etc.; other times, they’ll just be interesting map locations to visit. These represent the storytelling hooks a GM can build an adventure on.
  • Exploration: This is where any relevant game rules are discussed in further detail – all spells are twice as effective, map-making is impossible because everything is constantly shifting, penguins with death touch, etc.

There is also a subsection for “Demi-Planes and Dimensions” which covers a few places that don’t fit the model. Those write-ups tend to include the stat-block and a few paragraphs describing it, without the other formal categories. I thought the neatest of these was the Akashic Record also known as the “Reading Room” hidden somewhere within the Astral Plane that contains a psychic library of all knowledge, anywhere in the multiverse.

The final section is the Bestiary, which is… you guessed it… creatures relevant to the planar settings. (21 to be specific). As you would expect, most of the creatures are mid-to-high level threats – you’re not going to be sending new characters out to the planes – but I was surprised to find three races (Aphorite, Duskwalker, Ganzi) with rules for creating actual characters. Some of the creatures represent the “cannon fodder” species for a particular plane, but there are a few oddballs sprinkled in as well. You have the Sapphire Ooze, a good ooze that wants to help people – it will even allow itself to be worn as armor. There are The Watchers, these giant walking eyestalks that show up to observe the destruction of worlds – they’re invisible in plane… errr… plain sight unless you make a ridiculously high Will save and they aren’t there to attack… just watch. (And if you see one, shit’s about to get real.) And there’s the Wrackworm – all the fun of a traditional CR20 giant worm, but he can also bite dimensional portals into existence. But if you’re really cruel, there’s the Level 30 Leviathan – eye beams, bite that dispels magic, tail slap that can plane shift targets, and if you get eaten, its innards are a maze you have to escape. If you really need something god-like to fight, the Cosmic Whale is willing to be your huckleberry.

I think one “elephant in the room” question one has to ask this close to the Pathfinder Playtest is “how much of this stuff could be ported over to the new system?” You’re going to have some people on the fence because maybe they’re worried about buying books for a system that’s… it’s not going away, but it might be fading into the background a little. I think most of this stuff is written at an abstract enough level that it can be brought to the new system intact. I think the character stuff and the creatures might not survive the transition easily – though Paizo or the community may yet create a conversion path – but the general world-building and infrastructure stuff that comprises most of the book should survive intact. Or… just keep playing original Pathfinder if that’s your thing. There’s probably still some glutton for punishment playing blue-box D&D out there somewhere.

Since we’ve predominantly been a Starfinder podcast, this led to an interesting side discussion: could you use this material for Starfinder? And… after thinking about it, I’ll give that a “maybe” as well, though I’m not sure I’d recommend it over the official Starfinder releases. I mean, it’s clearly meant to be a shared universe, the races of the Pact Worlds worship many of the same gods. It’s not hard to imagine that maybe Drift travel is powered under the hood by planar forces, and if that travel goes awry, maybe you could find yourself on a different plane. I’d say the context is there if someone wanted to use it that way. On the other hand, maybe with the Starfinder system being so young, there’s a little danger in creating new lore in your own campaigns that could later be contradicted by a future official release.

So what’s my final analysis? I’ll put it this way: as a personal philosophy, I like my cosmos mysterious an unknowable, and I’m not crazy about reducing the planes to Just Another Place To Visit. But if I was into that sort of gaming, this feels like the right way to present it – it brings some level of order to the chaos, but without the excesses of god-killing, and still leaves the major decisions to the GM sitting at the table. If planar campaigns are your thing, this book feels like a good one to have.

Starfinder Pact Worlds Review – Let’s Meet The Neighbors

starfinder pact worlds

If you enjoyed this review make sure to check out our weekly actual play podcast where Jason and the team are playing the Starfinder Dead Sun’s adventure path as well as the occasional Starfinder Society adventure as well.

In the Alien Archive, Paizo decided to kick off its line of Starfinder supplements by looking deep into space and seeing what sort of creepy crawlies lived out in the great unknown. In their newest release, Pact Worlds, Paizo trades the telescope for a microscope and takes a deeper look at the worlds we’re already familiar with from the Core Rulebook.

Now, when I say “worlds” you have to take an expansive view of the word. Yes, you have traditional planets like Castrovel: fairly close to Earth-like, if a little hot and jungle-y. On the other hand, you also have planets that play around with planetary physics, such as Verces (doesn’t rotate, so it has a day side, a night side, and a thin habitable strip in the middle) or Triaxus (goes around the sun so slowly that seasons last centuries). It’s also got things that don’t count as planets at all – Absalom Station ought to be pretty well-known to even a passing Starfinder fan, the Diaspora is a series of colonies out in an asteroid belt, Idari is a space-ship that has been recognized as a planet, and ohbytheway, there’s a series of magically-protected bubble-cities inside the Sun itself. There’s a lot of different and surprising concepts – 14 in all.

Logistically, the book is organized into four major sections, though the real meat of the book is in the first and last parts.

The first, and largest, section is the information on the Pact Worlds themselves. If you like, think of it as Chapter 12 (“Setting”) of the Core Rulebook on steroids. Each of the 1-2 page planetary summaries from the Core Rulebook is expanded to a more fully fleshed-out description of each world. These generally include information on geography (including full-page maps of each), how society is structured, who their friends and foes are, plus a summary of various people and places of interest.

At its simplest level, it’s just a lore-dump, but what it really gives you framework on which the enterprising GM can build his or her own stories. Need a gladiator pit? Akiton has you covered. Want a story involving space pirates? Welcome to the Diaspora. Or, when in doubt, you can always send them to Eox and see what sort of shenanigans Zo! can inflict on them. (Think of Zo! – and yes, the exclamation mark is part of his name – as the undead version of Ryan Seacrest). A brief bone is thrown to players in the form of a planet-specific character theme for each world (to pick a few examples, the Diaspora gets the Space Pirate; the undead world of Eox gets the Deathtouched) but this part of the book is mostly for the GMs.

The players get theirs in the final chapter of the book. Gear, spells, feats… there are some of each, but they’re really the appetizers here. The big additions are six new archetypes (the core rulebook only had two) and six new playable races. I suspect the one that’s going to be a fan favorite is the SROs (“Sentient Robotic Organisms”) which are exactly what they sound like – robot PCs. If you want to play as HK-47 from Knights of the Old Republic… Paizo’s got your back, meatbag.

The middle two sections are smaller and a little more specialized in nature. Chapter 2 offers a selection of various faction-specific spaceships. To pick a couple examples, Hellknight vessels (you may remember them from Pathfinder) are heavily armored and full of jagged edges and pointy bits, while Xenowarden vessels incorporate living plant material into the ship design. Chapter 3, on the other hand, lays out NPC generics – cultists, mercenaries, street gangs – in case your campaign needs some extra cannon fodder. These seem useful in the right situations but might not make it into every campaign.

So that’s the nuts and bolts of the book. The real question is: is it something your gaming table really needs? I’ll put it this way – I think anyone can enjoy it, but where it’s really going to shine is for the GM who homebrews his own stories – groups that predominantly play adventure paths may not get as much out of it. If you’re sticking to adventure paths… OK, it deepens the lore a little and gives you a few more character options, but there might be a fair amount of overlap between the lore available in Pact Worlds and the lore in any given AP. But if you’re looking to make your own adventures, this thing is an idea factory and it’s probably worth having at hand – it’s almost impossible to read all the world lore and not have some sort of storytelling gears start turning in your head.

Starfinder Alien Archive Review – We’re Not In Golarion Anymore…

Starfinder Alien Archive

If you enjoyed this review make sure to check out our weekly actual play podcast where Jason and the team are playing the Starfinder Dead Sun’s adventure path as well as the occasional Starfinder Society adventure as well.

In addition, check out the podcast episode for a full one hour review of the Alien Archive!

It’s the newest rules supplement for the Starfinder game system. So new we had to rupture a small hole in the space-time continuum to get a copy. It’s best if we don’t discuss that any further, other than to say if you meet a cybernetically-enhanced otter named “Alphonse”, DO WHAT HE SAYS and wait for his quantum reality to collapse back into nothingness. But now that we’ve gone to all the trouble of rupturing the multiverse, the least we can do is offer you a few first impressions of the book.

At its simplest level, the Starfinder Alien Archive is a bestiary of creatures for use in your Starfinder games, even if that description sells it a little short. Nuts and bolts, it’s a little shy of 160 pages, with somewhere between 60-80 creatures (depending on how you choose to count variants and subtypes), 22 of which are presented as options for character races. Each creature gets a full two-page spread, so there are no half-finished monsters tucked into whatever space they needed to fill. As with pretty much all Paizo products, the production values are top-notch – beautiful artwork, the data-heavy elements are presented clearly… these guys have been doing this for a while and know how to make these books look great.

But let’s give the Paizo guys credit – they didn’t just dump a bunch of random re-skinned orcs and zombies on us and call it a day. There’s a lot of other stuff going on under the hood.

Starfinder Alien Archive skittermanderFirst, there’s the sheer variety of the creatures. Yes, you do have some holdovers from the world of Pathfinder (elementals make an appearance, as do dragons), but most of the stuff in here is totally new. On one end of the spectrum, you have the Skittermanders, little technicolor furballs that could give the Porg from the new Star Wars a run for their money on the cuteness scale. On the other end of the spectrum, there’s the Novaspawn, which only has rules for starship combat because it’s so large (and yes… you’ll be happy to hear it has tentacles). The gelatinous cube of your youth gets a high-tech facelift as the Assembly Ooze, and now it can assemble and disassemble technology devices. One of the most intriguing might be the Hesper, a radioactive creature whose radiation attack can cause random mutations – because who doesn’t want to grow a few extra eyes in the middle of a battle?

Similarly the player races. The Drow, Dragonkin, and Space Goblins represent a shout-out to Pathfinder, but you’ve got plenty of new options. You have a couple different insect options; an aquatic race (the Kalo…. I actually kind of like them); the Reptoids, who have shape-shifting powers; the Nuar, who are kinda-sorta minotaur-ish. We also get an appearance everyone’s favorite little gray men from Area 51 (the Grays), and I can’t stress this enough… we now have a BRAIN-IN-A-JAR race, better known as the Contemplatives. So if you thought the races of the core rulebook were going to be a bit limiting… the Starfinder Alien Archive has got you covered.

Starfinder Alien Archive DragonkinIn addition to the creatures themselves, you also get a small armory of treasure items that can be included as loot for the party. Sometimes it’s the loot carried by the creatures themselves – the Sarcesian are a race of mostly mercenaries that happen to carry really good sniper rifles. Sometimes it’s gear that can be harvested from the remains – you can take the remains of a scavenger slime and make sticky bombs out of it. Sometimes it’s more of a similarly themed item – the Bryrvath is a creature that manipulates light to fuel its powers; in studying it, scientists invented the “Aura Goggles” which protect against any effects that target vision.

And that’s the other thing — the bestiary sneaks a fair amount of lore about the Starfinder universe in through the back door. Yes, they give a GM the nuts and bolts they need to run it in combat – stats, what tactics it uses in combat – but they also give you a bit of lore about the creature and its place in the Starfinder universe. Add up all that content, and you get a nice piece of world-building.

Lastly – and in some ways most importantly – the appendices contain a lot of info about HOW Starfinder monsters are made. With the Starfinder system being so new, this may be one of the few times I’d advise reading the appendices before diving into the body of the book – it’s that useful. I almost wonder if they shouldn’t have put it up at the front.

I will say at first read it felt a little too “template-y”. You start with an array, which is a general role – fighter, caster, “expert” – and then you add different “grafts” to represent other aspects (race, class, etc.). Add special abilities, give them skills and spells, bake for 45 minutes at 350… I’ll confess it felt a little dry and by-the-numbers at first read, and I even started to get some 4th Edition cold-sweats.

Starfinder Alien Archive OmaBut I thought about it a little further and I think it works because it serves the premise well. I think fantasy tends to come back to familiar tropes while sci-fi is expansive. When you look at sci-fi, a lot of the fun is this idea that you have a whole galaxy/universe as your playground. Think Star Trek or Doctor Who where… yes, they have a few core races that reappear, but they also have a lot of fun with Alien of the Week. Some people are going to want the comfort of adventure paths, but some people are going to want that more expansive feel, and what the Starfinder system DOES offer out the wazoo is flexibility. If your players decide they want to take a detour to a moon you weren’t planning on visiting, you can have a new race for them to meet in a matter of minutes.

Besides, as the authors themselves admit, if you don’t like the rules, feel free to bend or break them as you like.

If there’s one thing I’m not completely sold on… maybe I’m being overly sensitive but I sometimes feel like the Pathfinder holdovers feel out of place. You’re coasting along looking at all this new and exciting stuff you’ve never seen before and then… “Space Goblins” (record scratch). I know they wanted to have a gateway to the familiar to help ease Pathfinder players into the new system, but sometimes it feels a little forced and I wish they would’ve just burned their ships when they reached the New World. But I think that’s a personal taste more than a fault with the material – there are GMs and players who will want that familiar element in their campaigns.

All in all, I think the Starfinder Alien Archive is an exciting addition to the Starfinder ruleset. If you’re going to be kicking the tires on Starfinder at all, the Starfinder Alien Archive is going to be a good addition to your real or virtual bookshelf.