This article by Jason Bulmahn, Director of Game Design, was published in the July edition of Meeple monthly. We are pleased to share it with you today.
Pathfinder is a game with a legacy. Drawing from a heritage stretching back to Gary’s table, when envisioning a new edition, it is tempting to simply iterate on what has come before. After all, that was the strategy that built Pathfinder into an incredibly successful Roleplaying Game.
That was not the route we decided to take.
Simply iterating on the same game engine was not enough. The 3.5 engine has had its day, and as a team we decided that it was time to modernize, to create a version of Pathfinder that was more than just tinkering around the edges. The game needed to evolve to speak to the desires of the current crowd of gamers. It needed to an engine tune up that made it easier for novices to grasp, while still providing a rich depth of option. What it needed was elegance in its design.
The first steps were taken shortly after the first edition of Pathfinder made their way to the printer. The work that was left undone, due the necessity of compatibility, would become the basis for what the new game needed to be. The math engine caused problems with high level play that led to an unsatisfactory game experience. Imbalances in fundamental class design created imbalances that left some players feeling unable to contribute. A bloat of rules options without any checks in the system created a game that was unwieldy to run.
But in spite of all that, the game itself was still a success, due in large part to the world it created, and the investment it fostered in players and game masters alike. We knew, from the outset, that the story of the game had to remain the same, even if the rules that made it manifest needed to change. Achieving that goal meant that we needed to do a lot more than simply clean up the game. We needed to start over.
Pathfinder Second Edition does not include one single sentence or rule carried over directly from first edition. That was one of the first choices we made. Everything was up for examination, from the fundamental math formulas behind the game to the individual statistics for longswords. And while that made for a lot of additional work, it also meant that we could look at each rule cleanly, unburdened by the conventions of the past. In the end, many things work similarly to how they did in first edition (a longsword still does 1d8 damage), but we were able to innovate where the game called for innovation. Take the action system for example. In first edition, when it was your turn to act in combat, you had a complicated menu of options, between move actions, standard actions, free actions, swift actions, and on and on. In second edition, we simplified that to just three actions, removing all the types and making your turn a more dynamic part of the game. The narrative is still fundamentally the same, but how you take part in the game is much simpler to teach and easy to use.
Next, we knew that if we were going to take a fresh look at the game, we needed a playtest that would allow us to gather meaningful data about the core of the game’s engine. In the past, our playtests had focused on the experience of the rules, relying mostly on player and game master anecdotes to gather information. While this gave us insight, it was impossible to apply any measure of statistical rigor to the data. For second edition we decided to create an environment that allowed us to gather better data about our game. To start, we needed to standardize the feedback by getting a massive number of players to experience the same adventure. We wrote Doomsday Dawn, a seven part mini-campaign, with the express goal of testing targeted parts of the Pathfinder game engine. There was a part filled with undead to stress test the player’s healing capabilities. There was a tests focused on the various skill disciplines in the game. And perhaps most importantly, there was a test designed to push the characters beyond their limits, to test the rules for death and dying in the game.
While this sort of hardcore testing gave us invaluable information about how our game assumptions were playing out, it was a grueling test for some groups of players. After all, playing the same type of encounter over and over to determine the breaking point is not exactly the most fun way to play the game. Their sacrifices, though, led to some of the most in-depth analysis we have ever seen on an RPG. It led us to fully understand the spots where our assumptions and biases were leading the game astray, allowing us to course correct. Some systems were entirely abandoned (like resonance, a system for balancing magic item use), while others were refined into rules to meet player desire (like the new system for focus spells, allowing casters to utilize their signature spells all day long). The playtest was one of the hardest we have ever run, but it was also the most rewarding.
The second edition of the Pathfinder Roleplaying Game has been in the works for years, but now on the eve of its release, all of that work is about to pay off. The new version of the game is simple to run and easier for new players to learn, but it keeps all of the features that players have come to appreciate from Pathfinder: deep character customization, a rich world narrative, and all the tools to tell the type of stories that you want to tell. Speaking for the team, we can’t wait to share those stories with you.
Director of Game Design
New Edition the Hard Way
Monday, October 7, 2019