Pathfinder: A Retrospective

Pathfinder: A Retrospective

With the upcoming release of Paizo's Starfinder, I thought it would be an opportune time to look at the future of Pathfinder games. And to consider of course whether its vision has been perhaps flawed or shrewd.

imageFor a game-line grown out of Dungeons and Dragons's tragic conflict of identity, would it be so wrong to consider that perhaps Paizo's Pathfinder could eventually outlive its purpose: that being purportedly to preserve a legacy of much-loved D&D mechanics from a bygone age.

It's quite clear that for many the answer is no. Pathfinder, even after waning popularity with the release of D&D 5th edition in 2014, still enjoys strong sales and represents nearly 15% of all active games on the popular online platform Roll20. That might not seem like much but in comparison, on the same platform, the nearest non-D&D title enjoys somewhere around 2% activity.

But none of this would've been possible if not for Paizo's bold maneuvering and insightful decisions nearly 10 years ago. Those risks led to the creation of their strongest flagship product: Pathfinder.

The Edition Wars

The state of in-fighting amongst D&D fans across online forums
But to understand why Pathfinder remains relevant and perhaps why it might still have a future, it's important for us to go back to where it all started: the Edition Wars.

a Dungeons and Dragons "civil war of creative differences"

Many people aren't even sure if "the wars" actually happened and the lack of a Wikipedia article on the subject only seems to support the idea that it could've all been imagined. But for those of us who were around back then, and in the folk history of the web, the Edition Wars was a very real thing. Real enough that Paizo has effectively built a small hobby empire around the product that was its standard bearer in that Dungeons and Dragons "civil war of creative differences".

The situation was this: D&D 4th edition had arrived in 2008 and it was vastly different than what anyone had expected. Especially its license when it came to third-party developers. All hell broke loose.

Like any conflict, the causes were complex but as Morrus of EnWorld fame once put on a post, it basically boiled down to players who'd invested in either edition trying to "actively persuade others" that they'd made the right choice and if someone else had "made a different choice then they made the wrong choice."

As for the circumstances surrounding the development of 4th Edition Dungeons and Dragons, they were complex like :  
  • A market exhausted with too many D&D products. A new edition of Dungeons and Dragons meant a product reset and renewed consumption, but also rendered previous investments into older books 'kinda' worthless.
  • Probably the most expansive compilation of rules of any edition at the time (and maybe since, at nearly 1,000 compatible companion products) that were neither well balanced nor consistent.
  • Competition and market-crowding by third parties using D&D's Open Gaming License: an innovation that had come to haunt its makers.
  • A flawed perception that tabletop games were in decline and digital consumers of MMOs needed to be won over instead. 
"In Dungeons & Dragons 4th Ed, Wizards of the Coast appeared to be trying to appeal to the online MMO crowd." - Phoenix Comics & Games
I sympathize with those tasked to make the hard decisions back then. The proprietors of Dungeons & Dragons, Wizards of the Coast, were as much a business at that time as they are now and needed to make certain business decisions; most importantly was how to make D&D sustainable in a market with stiff competition? Competition admittedly they helped create by open-sourcing their core rules perhaps too generously and exhausting customer's pockets with too many releases. But a decision isn't the same thing as a good decision.

And in 2008, the proposed solution that came in the form of releasing Dungeons and Dragons 4th Edition was so far removed from a good decision that it split the community in pieces (and took D&D nearly a decade to recover from). It was from this chaos that Pathfinder and its vision would be born from.

Pathfinder's Success

The fate of D&D as game and as an intellectual property in 2008 was felt to be in flux, or more ominously, at risk. Its parent company had proposed an ultimatum to third-party publishers. It was considered a "poison pill" wherein publishers could release companion products for D&D 4th edition or 3rd but not both (at least not when it came to the genre of 'fantasy' and on a per game-line basis).

This restriction, bundled together with the general displeasure for D&D's new edition by those most vocal, left the fragile satellite industry of third-party publishers unsure as to what to do next.

It’s not a “poison pill.” It’s a conversion clause. - Wizard's of the Coast, Mike Lescault

It was in this air of uncertainty that Paizo's bold founder, Lisa Stevens, made a calculated risk to not follow the industry leader. Like a tactician who intuitively reads the tides of war, Lisa went full-stop in risking the livelihood of her humble company to chase a legacy D&D had discarded. But fortune often favors the brave.

Cover Art for Pathfinder by Wayne Reynolds
None of this probably would've been possible had Paizo not been helmed by someone as esteemed as Stevens. The once #1 employee of Wizard's of the Coast (yes, D&D's parent company) had life experience in managing properties like D&D in fact and the Star Wars RPG. She was even there when Wizard's published for the first time the now massively lucrative and popular TCG (trading card game), Magic the Gathering. Before that, Lisa worked at White Wolf where her fellow college classmate helped create Vampire: the Masquerade. That's not to mention her association with the cult-classic Ars Magica.

With this kind of pedigree, Paizo was poised for success so long as they could keep their eyes on the prize. D&D 4th edition's opaque development was met by Paizo's inclusive open playtesting. Paizo brought deeper, but familiar rules to oppose D&D's new jarring mechanics. The quality of art and production was tête-à-tête and perhaps the use of the same artist (Wayne Reynolds) for the cover of both games even further blurred the lines between both properties.

Cover Art for D&D 4th ed. by Wayne Reynolds

Soon, despite strong initial sales, D&D noticeably fell out of favor with the public and Pathfinder sailed strongly across open waters. No one had ever dethroned D&D before (although arguably, this was still D&D). Pathfinder's product line grew, the quality remained consistent, and Paizo had started it all by offering that same 'restart button' on 3rd edition that many players of that era had desperately held out for.

A Borrowed Legacy

If I have hailed Paizo's successes and those of its shrewd leader, it's because I honestly feel they merit praise. But I also believe their legacy runs the risk of stagnating, becoming mired with controversy, and of falling out of touch with new trends.

Spinning back around, by Paizo asserting itself in 2008 with a revision of the rules, they established a clear standard that their new game, Pathfinder, would become the definitive rulebook for that legacy style of play. A new setting, Golarion, was emboldened to sell that idea with crisp art, known writers, and fantastic marketing.

But behind all the IP creation was possibly a very lucid business sensibility. By updating the rules and placing them in a new fictional setting, Paizo accomplished two things: they had hit the restart button on 3rd edition content and also rendered previous 3rd edition material (D&D included) irrelevant to the game-line they were going to support. But there was perhaps one circumstance that they might've not realized 10 years ago that had also taken place; Paizo had walked themselves into a corner.
Pathfinder Beginner Box
By drawing intentional comparisons to D&D and effectively using the bulk of that very game's legacy engine, Pathfinder would expectedly draw further comparisons if it ever decided to evolve. And notably since then, it hasn't really tried.

Then there was the fact that Pathfinder allowed Paizo to bloom, gaining the independence it had aspired to since its early days as a magazine publisher. But if that growth meant a bigger war-chest, it might've also been responsible for Paizo perhaps becoming more cagey when it's come to taking new risks.

Flash-forward to 2017. Starfinder is now a perfect opportunity for Paizo to test the waters of its fanbase and perhaps those outside of it. And yet, recent previews of this game show a conservative creation that is so devoid of new approaches that it's said to be mostly compatible with previous Pathfinder products.
Starfinder Player Character Folio

Lastly, there is still something a bit 'iffy' about a brand that effectively only changed a game enough so as to still reliably continue to ride on the vision of its original developers. I'm not debating the legality of using open-source materials or the OGL, that much is crystal clear; but I am considering the moral ambiguity of producing games built on a game engine whose intention was never to sustain its own rival competitor (but rather a symbiotic community). And come on, it's been 10 years.

The Future Could Be Bright

In my opinion, if Paizo hopes to stand on its own and prove that it can survive beyond just riding the waves of D&D's mishap back in '08, they need to assert a true evolution of their game.

This isn't just my point of view; a business marketing student in 2015 stated on Paizo forums that said company "will find themselves in a spot where they have to re-invent Pathfinder or face the risk of dying". The post was so prescient as to predict that in an "attempt to consolidate their remaining customers" that Paizo will "likely [start] by lowering their prices and increasing their product output". Since 2015, Paizo has released 82 Pathfinder non-adventure books (including 29 Campaign books and 19 Core Books) and also produced a Pathfinder "Pocket" Edition in an effort to make the entry title more affordable. Nice one, 2015 forum guy! In comparison, since that time D&D has only released 4 non-adventure titles! (Volo's Guide To Monsters, Sword Coast Adventurer's Guide, Player's Companion Elemental Evil, and this year's soon to be released Xanathat's Guide to Everything)

Xanathar's: D&D's only 4th content release in three years

Another poster, 'Otherwhere' on that same thread had this to say on whether it's time for Pathfinder 2nd edition:

"I think it's a valid question to ask because we can see that the game itself is evolving with the addition of new archetypes, hybrid classes, and the whole field of psychic magic, etc. It sort of makes me ask: Where is it going? How can all of this work together? Does it all work together?"
Pathfinder Occult Adventures - Caio Maciel Monteiro
The same poster closes his thoughts by saying that "no - there won't be a PF 2.0 unless it is something entirely new."

In fairness of full disclosure, there are other voices who think the game is simply "fine as it is". But are these voices now the minority and are they in turn responsible for demanding that Pathfinder stay the same?

I think that no matter where you stand on the debate, Paizo's release of nearly 90 titles in the last 3 years hardly seems sustainable. We've seen the outcome of this before; we watched it with the demise of D&D's 3rd edition. So why not get ahead of things? Paizo seems to have picked up on so many hard lessons that D&D and Wizard's of the Coast had to learn the hard way. So why is it so difficult for them to see where this trail is leading them and instead trust in their own vision?

Final Thoughts

I haven't played Pathfinder in quite a few years. It sits on my shelf, reminding me of my Bard who could throw down +50 to Bluff as a 9th level character or Armor Classes that could easily spill into the 30s, inflated damage numbers and thematically contradicting content. We had some good times but ultimately my expectations as a player outgrew a game that refused to grow along with me. So Perhaps that is Pathfinder's ultimate crisis of identity: does it simply want to be a time-machine for D&D 'as it was'? Or will it, after 10 years, finally try to carve out its own path?

Are Pathfinder's most hardcore advocates (who reject change) the game's own worst enemy?

Starfinder First Contact
I'm not sure what Starfinder will ultimately look like. It could be the start of something big. I understand there are innovations like the addition of Stamina Points and Resolve Points and the removal of iterative attacks; but I'm not entirely convinced that these represent all the fundamental changes the game needs or could benefit from.

For now, I'll continue to place my attention on other titles, some smaller, some bigger, that have in my opinion taken more recent risks. I prefer a game that responds to the living story of our collective gaming experience. But I'll keep an eye out for Paizo, just in case, Pathfinder decides to surprise me.