First off, you might be wondering what Pathfinder is. Pathfinder is a tabletop RPG published by Paizo that is based on D&D and yet outsells D&D, at least according to some sources. This is pretty amazing considering the average person might not even know that table top RPGs besides D&D even exist. Before you fire up your defensive comments - I understand RPG sales numbers are murky. But nonetheless, Paizo went from being "the people who published the D&D magazines" (Dungeon and Dragon respectively) to "the people competing with D&D for the number one slot" in just a few years. Certainly I can believe that Pathfinder is outselling D&D at the moment since D&D is between editions and Pathfinder had some strong releases this summer. I personally play and enjoy Pathfinder, but it's far from perfect. Let's take a look at five of the best and five of the worst parts to Pathfinder.
1. They Give You Lots of Options
Crysco Photography You could make this happen. In your game at least.
Pathfinder is loaded with options. Do you want your barbarian to actually be smart and live in a city? Done. Do you want your witch to attack people with a beard instead of cursing people? Done. You can even play around with the technology level of your fantasy world. Although Pathfinder initially started in the usual murky faux-middle-ages of fantasy gaming, they have since added an alchemist, a doctor of the Frankenstein/steampunk persuasion who mixes extracts and makes bombs, and a gunslinger who charges into battle with gunpowder weapons. Of course, some people completely hate these changes and declare them anathema, but I like having more options than less and so I am not bothered.
Pathfinder is not quite as option-rich as the D&D 3rd edition it was spun from (thanks to the OGL D20 system). That edition allowed a bewildering number of class combinations usually with dozens of versions available of each. But the way they were structured was problematic. It was often better to make a 20 level character with 5 levels of Ranger, Paladin, Fighter, and Monk as the bonuses were all front-loaded and you were a bit of a sucker for sticking to one. Pathfinder seems to against such multi-classing (known in the parlance as "dipping") and so the classes now get their powers over time, with some of the best ones coming at the later levels. In the old days, anyone taking a Fighter past level 4 got a strange look, but in Pathfinder a 20 level Fighter is a viable class choice. In addition, in order to keep things interesting, you have the option of a normal fighter, a sneaky fighter, a fighter who fights with one hand free or both hands free, a gladiator.... You get the idea. Or if you don't get the idea, you can take a look here.
2. Paizo Has Your Back
One thing I definitely have to credit Paizo with is the fact that they still run Pathfinder like a small company. For instance, the guys over at Fate have spectacular customer service. But the company is tiny, from what I understand, just a few staff and bunches of freelancers. Whereas Wizards of the Coast is the other extreme: since being owned by Hasbro, they sometimes have a very corporate approach and prefer things like Brand Managers who are less interactive with the public. To some extent, this is just natural as smaller companies have to focus on customer service and have more exposure while corporate monsters like Hasbro (who owns Wizards of the Coast and thus D&D) have many layers to get through.
The good news about Paizo is that if you post a rules question on the Pathfinder forums and normal users can't answer the question, it is very likely an actual Paizo employee will step in at some point. In effect, they create a small business customer experience despite being large (for an RPG company). This has paid some big dividends for them in the form of customer loyalty, as people do feel a lot of ownership of the brand. So it is not to say that they do it out of the kindness of their hearts, but they do manage to keep in contact with the customers.
This is important for all industries, but is much more so important for the RPG industry, as it is niche to begin with and seems to be getting smaller rather than larger over time. Which is not to say that being this exposed to the customers is always great, as the Paizo people are still human and may feed the odd troll or be defensive here or there, but overall it is a definite plus.
3. Tried and True Mechanics, With Some Improvements
WotC Logo There was a time where this was stamped on half the books in your local game store.
The Pathfinder system uses the Open Game License (OGL) D20 system as its basis. The OGL D20 system is unusual in that it was designed to be freely usable by anyone, instead of being a sort of "secret sauce."
I am not sure exactly what prompted Wizards of the Coast to give their core system away, but my understanding is that it was a new, and very aggressive, kind of marketing. It seemed to work at the time. Not only did D&D 3rd edition crush the competition, but there was a long, strange time when other game companies became interested in creating D20 versions of their own games. Everyone from independent companies to fully-fledged rivals to D&D released special D20 versions, or just used D20 in the first place.
Personally, I think this was sort of awful as D&D really isn't particularly a universal system like, say, GURPS. Not every game really benefits from a class/race combo, and I have always been bothered by just how much "swing" a 20-sided dice can have, as opposed to 10 siders. Basically, if you are +5 to hit and you roll a D20 to do it, you have anywhere between 6 and 25 as a result, and you do not really know where you will end up.
Anyway, people seemed to like it at the time and the system worked well for what it was fundamentally designed for, e.g. fantasy gaming with lots of monster murdering and treasure looting. So, Pathfinder started with that basis and then added many of their own innovations, removing a few of the weirder bits and adding some refinement. Although I felt burned out on D&D 3rd for the first years of Pathfinder and proceeded to avoid it until some friends peer pressured me into trying it, I have to admit this is a very solid approach. It also has the nice benefit of the game mechanics all being available digitally, for free, right here.
4. Fun Flavor and Art
I have heard Pathfinder fandom criticized as people who buy the books for art (due to the fact that the books are fundamentally available online and/or new versions of old books). And, in fact, the art is pretty great. Wayne Reynolds seems to be responsible for a large portion, particularly the covers, and they have a fun, fast-moving/swashbuckling feel that the best games can reach. The women look good without necessarily being full-on cheesecake (though cheesecake is very much in the eye of the beholder, I have learned). The weapons are fantastical but not bizarre looking, with the possible exception of the Barbarian's anime sword. Overall, I do enjoy it; although you do get the occasional ugly, bizarre, or just misplaced art that looks like it was done in an hour by some poor, starving freelancer, it is by far the exception and not the rule.
The flavor text is also fun. Like Robert E. Howard did for the Hyborian age, Pathfinder's default setting is a pastiche, with various throwbacks to real historical periods. You have an Egyptian country full of undead, a country that seems to be based on post-revolution France, and an idealized America. This stuff is not always subtle. For instance, in "Not France," there was a bloody revolution involving guillotines and masked revolutionaries destroying a refined society. The people all dress like French peasants from the 1700s. And, just in case you missed, it the place is called Galt, he of "Who is John Galt", Atlas Shrugged fame.
Similarly, there is a country that tries to start democracies everywhere and is symbolized by a golden eagle named Andora. And, in case you missed the America/Andora similarities, everyone dresses like Revolutionary War re-enactors. Cheesy? Yes! But cheesy fun, and there is a lot of detail work and fleshing out that makes it passable. Frankly, for a game where you wander around killing dragons and looting gold as a profession, you do not need to get too serious with the nations.
PathfinderSociety Very Subtle
5. It's Basically Free To Play
I mean, as I mentioned, due to the vagaries of the Open Game License, Pathfinder has to allow all of the mechanics to be posted online with no cost. This means you need perhaps one copy of the book, for the game master, and all the players can find their own information online. Given that, you might wonder how it is that Pathfinder has any sales at all, let alone the top in the industry. First, all of the "good" listed so far means people want to support the company. And, they do. None of the art or the zany fantasy pastiche stuff makes it online, for instance. Also, the fact that the fans feel ownership for the brand results in them wanting to support them financially, at least in my limited experience.
paizo.com How many RPG companies have a whole page devoted to Free Downloads?
Another good thing Pathfinder does is a slow release schedule. When Pathfinder releases a book called Ultimate Magic, they mean they are trying to cover a massive cross section of needs for the game and they will not be releasing another full book anytime soon. Pathfinder limits the releases I am interested in to every month or so, which is very easy to keep up with. I never feel overwhelmed by the books being released, for good or ill.
The final thing my wallet likes about Pathfinder is that they release mini-books, little comic book-sized digests that cost less than $20. It used to be if I found out a particular bit of gaming goodness I would be putting out $30-$40. However, with Pathfinder you can get away with $10-$15 a lot of the time, which is far from free, but is very cheap compared to what you can have to pay to play in a niche hobby. This allows for more of a whim purchase, which is definitely not enabled by $40+ books.