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The playtest has been going on for quite a while, and after months of discussion and several rules updates, I've had a lot of time to consider the strengths and weaknesses of the system. I think there are a lot of good ideas, and even those aspects of the system which I have issues with, I think can be tweaked to make something really good. And it is for that reason that I am sharing with you an outline of how we can make the best of all possible second editions.
Some of these things I have commented on before, and some are things that have evolved over the course of the playtest. But I present it all together now because ultimately, each element affects the others, and thus a big picture approach is useful. That said, obviously many people will agree with some of my ideas while disagreeing with others, and that's fine too. This isn't meant to be a list of demands for what the system must be, but a vision of what the system could be, a template for the kind of changes that could truly elevate it to greatness.
Before we begin I feel it would be worth noting that most of the changes are in service of the following goals:
1. Increasing player choice
2. Supporting a wider variety of playstyles and story types.
3. Better utilizing existing design space and creating more room for growth.
4. Reducing the gulf between game mechanics and in-universe logic.
As you can see, my priorities here are about not just about improving the design to fit my tastes, but also to make the system as a whole more versatile and capable of appealing to a wider variety of people. Part of the problem with the "try the most extreme change first" method employed in the playtest is that those extreme changes tend to leave a lot less flexibility than moderate approaches, and a system ought to be flexible enough to work for people who have different tastes and priorities. That's why, for example, I am not throwing out the ability score boosts at character creation in favor of rolling stats, even though I have no intention of ever giving up rolling for character creation. Since that is something where the system can already support both playstyles, there is no need to comment.
Now, let's get to it.
Character Creation and Feats
As many people have pointed out, ancestries are damn near empty at level 1, and it is very weird that it will take a dozen or more levels before you can start to actually feel like you are a member of your race. And at the same time, the fact that ancestry feats are mandatory means your character has to develop in a specific way even if you wanted them to be different. While separating feat progressions to better allow flavorful noncombat feats to exist is a good idea, forcing a specific type that players may not want is a mistake. As such, I propose the following changes.
Heritage Feats: Heritages are back to being called heritage feats (for what little difference that makes) and instead of getting a single one at level 1, you now get four. In this way, you can get a fully fleshed out member of your ancestry right at level 1. And because you can mix and match, there is less at stake for each individual selection, and therefore less pressure to pick the optimal choice over flavorful ones.
In addition, the Mixed Heritage general feat allows you to also count as a member of another ancestry, and take up to three of those heritage feats from that other ancestry. This allows for all playable humanoid races to be mixed as half-races. In order to keep half-orcs in core, orc is now a core race.
Ancestry Feats: Ancestry feats are no longer a category. All such feats are now sorted into other feat categories and simply have an ancestry as a prerequisite. You can still make Dwarfy McDwarferson, the Dwarfiest Dwarf who ever Dwarfed™, but you can also play a dwarf that is just a regular guy, or even one who is very un-dwarf-like, an anti-dwarf.
Feat Progression: All those ancestry feats you gained as you leveled up are now replaced with general feats. In addition, we introduce a new category, combat feats. Combat feats are, just as the name suggests, feats that focus on improving combat abilities. This category would not only allow any character to improve their abilities with a bow or sword, but also allows for things like unarmed combat, teamwork feats, and metamagic. It also provides an appropriate place for improving things like armor proficiency and saves for those who don't get them automatically from their class. Anything that is combat focused but not terribly specific to a single class can potentially go here. And by taking the generic combet feats out of class feats, we leave more room for flavorful and unique abilities for each class.
So, you get general feats and combat feats at all odd numbered levels, and class feats and skill feats at all even numbered levels. This creates a nice, smooth progression of 2 feats per level, one of which is largely combat focused, one of which is more likely noncombat.
Backgrounds: You now select three backgrounds, your first, second and third backgrounds. Each background offers three potential benefits, the first being a stat bonus, the second being a skill feat and the third being a lore skill. Effectively, backgrounds remain unchanged except that you get to pick three and choose which gives you the stat boost, which gives you the skill feat and which gives you the lore skill. Again, this allows for more player choice and more flavor, and also prevents the current problem where campaign specific backgrounds eliminate all other options because you only get one.
I also wouldn't mind seeing more variety in the types of things you can get from backgrounds, possibly replacing the skill feat or in the form of a fourth benefit that, like traits in 1e, can be anything.
Life and Death
The dying system in the playtest is one of my biggest sticking points. By completely separating damage from death, they have turned the entire health system into the kind of save or die effect that the four degrees of success system has been working to eliminate, and also created a recurring problem with consequences since there is no lingering damage to heal. The addition of treat wounds was a step in the right direction, but it has a lot of flaws and easily healing to full renders damage meaningless from the opposite direction as well. All these problems can be eliminated while still getting the best of both worlds if we switch to a health and stamina based system.
Health and Stamina: HP gets replaced with health and stamina. You now start with health equal to your constitution score plus your race bonus (now 3, 4, or 5), and this does not scale with level, though certain things may cause it to increase, such as the toughness feat. Every level you gain stamina equal to your Con modifier plus your class bonus, now 3, 4, 5, or 6. Incoming lethal damage goes through stamina first before targeting health unless otherwise stated by a specific effect, such as a coup de grace. Nonlethal damage goes through stamina before piling up in a separate stack, causing unconsciousness if it ever exceeds your current health.
Healing: The fine details of how healing work could go a number of ways, but the basic concept is rather straightforward. Stamina heals quickly and easily, health heals slowly and at more cost. Leaning towards simplicity, I would suggest that healing magic should affect health at a third the rate it affects stamina, and that the caster can decide which to target first. Stamina heals naturally while resting at an hourly rate, health is restored naturally at a daily rate. Treat wounds can speed up this process, though restoring health require medical supplies by default, and cannot be used repeatedly on the same damage. Medicine comes in varying degrees of quality, giving tools to the GM to make restoring health easier or harder depending on preferred playstyles, and in a way that does not affect the balance of in combat healing.
Dying: Whenever your stamina is at 0, you are fatigued (or something like it). When your health is at 0 or below, you lose consciousness. When your health hits a negative value equal to or greater than your max health, you begin saving against death. If you fail the save you die, if you pass the save you live for another round, and if you crit the save you stabilize and make no more saves until you take damage. The DC for the save is determined by your negative health, so the more damage you take, the more likely you are to die. And because there is a decent size buffer between conscious and dying, you won't see people popping up and down over and over again in a single fight.
This system eliminates the arbitrariness of the current condition based system, and creates a better balance between allowing easy recovery between fights to keep the adventure going, while also allowing for some injuries to have a lingering consequences.
Rolling the Dice
The math of 2e is both a strength and a weakness. While it is in a way brilliant and elegant, the entire system is kept in a stranglehold by the balancing issue it creates. Because a crit is always +10 or -10, the DCs for everything have be very tightly controlled, and bonuses have to be carefully guarded. Except, for some reason, we still get a level bonus which trumps all other bonuses combined.
Crits and Botches: The crit system gets a much needed overhaul to free up the math a bit and allow for some flexibility in design. As before, exceeding the DC can cause a crit, but now crits come in multiple levels which are triggered in increments of 5. The effects of crits are written out in a format similar to heightening. If you get a bonus for every 5 points by which you beat the DC it would be crit +1, if you get a bonus for every 10 it would be crit +2, and so on. For the sake of clarity, I would call the levels of critical failure botch -1, botch -2 and so on.
So an entry on treat wounds might look something like this:
Not only would this allow for a tremendous amount of flexibility in the math, it would even allow for multiple crit or botch effects that trigger at different levels of success. And it's simple and takes up no more page space that the rigid 4 degrees we have now.
1s and 20s: Because of this, we also reduce the extreme swinging of the dice a bit, as 20s and 1s become a flat +5/-5. Still enough to make them special, but not enough to make them routinely do idiotic things.
Level Bonus: Level bonus is reduced to 1/4 level. This will keep the basic concept around, but reduces it to a much more reasonable progression, where level provides slightly less of a bonus than going from untrained to legendary. It also greatly expands the flexibility GMs have in putting together encounters without murdering the party or boring them to death. Having a 1/4 level bonus still allows for the party to be special, super powered heroes if you want to play that way, but doesn't preclude more down to earth stories for groups who prefer that sort of thing, the way the current system does.
The rest of these I would consider to be smaller things, but still too important for me to not mention them.
Weapon Damage: Damage no longer scales monstrously. Weapon quality gives a flat bonus to attack and damage, while enchantments add cool effects. This not only makes a lot more sense when the quality bonus is nonmagical, it is also necessary to be compatible with the slower rate of stamina gain as described above. Damage scaling from other sources would obviously be affected as well, but that should go without saying.
Size Modifiers: Size modifiers are back. Let's be honest, this was never hard to keep track of, and it very rarely ever changed. AC and attack go up, weapon damage and carryweight go down, certain specific skill uses are affected. Easy.
Bulk: Bulk is gone and good riddance to it. This is pretty much the only thing about which I will say I could find no redeeming value. You want a simpler max carryweight calculation? Fine, strength score times X, Y, and Z for light medium and heavy, done. Want to switch to kilos instead of pounds? Fine with me. But this nonsense where nothing resembles a real world weight, and a scimitar is ten times the encumbrance of a short sword and half the encumbrance of a full set of chainmail? No. Just no.
Resonance: Resonance, at least as it was, is gone. Individual magic items have their own limitations, whether that means that they are consumable or used x times per day. I would also prefer worn equipment be slot based, but I am not going to fight and die for that alone.
Reactions: We want more of them. Everyone gets a few basic reactions just for being alive, conscious and capable of reacting to their surroundings. Things like hitting the deck, attempting to dodge or parry for a small AC bonus against a single attack, and taking a step can now be done as a reaction by anyone. As you you level up and gain feats, you can get more reactions and improve the ones you already have, but at least these basic things are always available. No more characters going into a vegetative state between turns, and consequently, all the more incentive for players to stay alert as well.
And that's my list. Obviously there are a lot of little things that I could probably nitpick,* but these are the big system-wide things that I feel the need to comment on. Because while there will always be nits to pick, these are the things that will likely change whether my group and others like them decide to move over to 2e, or write it off as 4th edition all over again. And I don't say that lightly or maliciously, but as someone who genuinely sees parallels to the very situation the brought me into Pathfinder.
2e needs to be a well designed system, and one which can appeal to many types of players and groups. Not only does it have to compete with D&D for the attention of newcomers to the hobby, it also has to compete with many other systems to hold onto existing players, and compete with it's own first edition. If 2e is not an improvement in the eyes of those who have been playing it, most will either stick with the current content and maybe hope for continued support and/or a system reboot from third party devs, or they will migrate to other games. God knows there is no shortage of games that I want to play but haven't had time for.
Pathfinder has been able to keep me coming back because it is a system where I can play damn near any character I want in damn near any type of story I want. It is that variety that keeps me coming back, and that is the element that I want to make sure 2e retains. Without that, there is nothing to separate it from games like Shadowrun or VtM, which are certainly fun, but too restrictive to be the default option for the next big game your group plays. Even a very well designed 2e would only ever see a little use at my table if it continues down the path of limited story and character choice. If I'm going to be shoehorned into something, I'll choose to be shoehorned into something new that suits my mood at the time, such as Mistborn or Dresden Files.
And that would be a shame, because I do see great potential in PF2e. I think this could be a great system, which is why I've posted this overly long manifesto on the subject. I want to see the system become the new default game at my table. I want it to be the system that I bring new people into. I want it to be the system that I can master over the next decade. And I want it to become so dear to me that I can have reservations about switching to a third edition.
What do you guys think? Does this sound like a system you'd want to play or am I butchering an already good system? Are there sweeping changes you think could make 2E better? I'd love to hear it.
*I could make a pretty big list of things that should be free actions but aren't. It's enough that I think it might be good to bring back swift actions, if only so we have a fifth action per turn reserved for paying these types of action taxes.