For those not in the know, this is Pathfinder:
Pathfinder is a role playing much like Dungeons & Dragons. In fact, in many places, it is word-for-word exactly like the 3.5 edition of Dungeons and Dragons. For, you see, a few years ago, Wizards of the Coast (the Hasbro subsidiary which owns Dungeons and Dragons these days) decided to "improve and update" the classic role playing game, moving it from 3.5 to 4th Edition. And, to be blunt, a lot of us players think they did a shit job. But I'm not going to go into that.
Here's where Pathfinder comes in, though. See, there is another company called Paizo which had been working closely with Wizards of the Coast on projects such as "Dungeon" and "Dragon" magazines. They decided to take advantage of D&D 3.5's use of the Open Game License to make a game which would appeal to those of us aforementioned gamers who felt that D&D 4th Edition strayed too far from what we liked about 3.5.
To put it simply, Pathfinder is Dungeons and Dragons 3.75. Though perhaps "Advanced Dungeons & Dragons 3.5" might be somewhat more apt.
Pathfinder has been around for a few years now, but I only just picked up the Core Rulebook & Beastiary recently. (Though I did go over the rulebook when it was being beta tested back in 2008 or so.) The changes intrigued me right off of the bat, so I've been steadily and methodically pouring over ever page, committing the new rules to memory and thoroughly enjoying every minute of it.
To be honest I'm not quite done with the book at this point, but I'm through most of the interesting / important stuff, and I'd like to give some of my first impressions, before I start doing any playtesting. Below I've broken down my thoughts by chapter first, and by chapter subsection where appropriate.
Chapter 1: Getting Started
There's not a lot to this chapter. It does include an introduction from Monte Cook (one of the people who did a lot of work on D&D 3.0/3.5) which I thought was a very nice gesture.
One thing mentioned in this chapter which I don't recall seeing in other sources (though it may have been in Unearthed Arcana or something) is the "dice pool" method of ability score rolling. Essentially, you get a certain number of dice total, and assign a number of dice to each ability score (minimum 3). Using 24 dice, the character has no more available dice than a character using more traditional ability score rolling, but the player gets to direct the values a little better than they might get from a random roll.
For example, if you're playing a barbarian, you might use 6 dice for Strength and Constitution (giving you a higher probability of getting high scores there) and use the minimum of 3 dice for widsom, charisma, intellect, and dexterity (since the player would deem those abilities less important to the character he wants to play.)
The best part, in my mind, is that there's a small chance that barbarian might end up with an 18 Intellect by complete random chance, creating an interesting Role Playing opportunity.
Chapter 2: Races
This is where the differences in the game really start to shine through. In a lot of games, including D&D 3.5, choosing a race grants advantages certainly, but the impact of a race choice seems to be intentionally minimized so as not to force players of class A to select Race #4 in order to be effective. And while that's all well and good, It's almost always overdone.
The Pathfinder races have all been buffed significantly. Dwarfs, to use the first example provided, now receive a +2 to Constitution, a +2 to Wisdom, and a -2 to Charisma. This, I think, gives the Dwarfs a greater racial identity than the D&D 3.5 method of simply giving them +2 Con -2 Cha. They're not just stalwart and gruff, they're stalwart, gruff, and pragmatic.
Additionally, the choice to give an improvement to the race without forcing an additional penalty (which was done for all 7 basic races) means that players interested in optimizing their characters no longer look at Dwarfs as an option only for classes which focus on CON, and have no use for CHA.
I'd also like to give a special nod to the way Pathfinder handled Humans. They've always been the "jack-of-all-trades" race. Which, in D&D 3.5, meant they get no ability score bonuses or penalties. In Pathfinder, they've given humans a +2 to any ability score, chosen at character creation.
This theme of "buffing" is maintained all throughout pathfinder. It's a controversial choice for a game based on a game which had already been criticized by some for leading to characters which became too powerful too quickly. But I, for one, feel that so long as the challenges scale to meet the abilities of the players (level 1 Kobolds might have 20 HP instead of 10 for example) then balanced buffs are perfectly justified.
I would also like to give props for the fantastic racial artwork. Of course, as a consumer, I would love to have more of it. But at least Pathfinder has full color artwork, as opposed to the rough sketches in the Hasbro-owned Dungeons and Dragons core books.
Chapter 3: Classes
The changes to the classes are some of the biggest in the game. It should be no surprise to anyone, particularly those who have played a game like World of Warcraft, that class balance is not a simple thing. And it's not exactly easy to patch a game which comes in book form. So the changes to the classes in Pathfinder are meant to address a litany of balance issues which have come to light over the decade that Dungeons and Dragons 3.X reigned.
There are two things I'd like to point out right off the bat as huge improvements over 3.5.
First is the new Favored Class system. In 3.5, each race came with a predetermined "Favored Class." To use Dwarfs as an example once again, the Dwarvish favored class was Fighter. This meant that if a Dwarf Fighter decided to multiclass, his levels of Fighter didn't count towards his experience point penalty while multiclassing. This was part of the pointlessly complicated system which 3.5 used to punish players who wanted to level a character as more than one class (as if designing a multiclass build that doesn't suck isn't difficult enough.)
Pathfinder wisely avoids using punishment to discourage people from multiclassing. In Pathfinder, every time a character takes a level in their Favored Class, they get 1 bonus HP, or 1 bonus Skill Point. This pattern of using the carrot instead of the stick is repeated all throughout Pathfinder. And all I can say is Thank Vecna for that.
Oh, and the best part about the new favored class system? They dropped the race-based bullshit. Players now choose their character's favored class at first level.
The second thing I want to mention before getting into the classes themselves is the new rate of feat acquisition. In 3.5 characters earned feats at a rate of one every three levels. And for the entire time I played 3.5, I complained that this was simply too slow. As I repeatedly put it: individual feats simply aren't good enough for me to look forward to them for three levels.
In Pathfinder, the rate has been bumped up to one new feat every other level. And while this might not seem like much, it's exactly what I think is needed to make feat acquisition move at a pace which doesn't feel overly slow. A fact helped, I think, by the fact that feats have been buffed a little as well. But I'll discuss that later.
I'll discuss individual classes in Part 2.