Once upon a time, the Wizards made a Golem, which served them well for a time, tending to their Dragon and their Dungeon, until the Wizards finally set the Golem free. These Wizards had also made a Grimoire, full of all their secrets, and left it open so anyone could use their spells. The Golem learned the magic of the Grimoire and soon grew to rival the Wizards.
And that is the story of Pathfinder, the roleplaying system that seems to be falling through the cracks in a lot of this discussion about the new edition of Dungeons and Dragons.
Paizo (whose logo is, of course, a golem) was licensed by Wizards of the Coast to publish the Dungeons and Dragons periodicals, Dragon and Dungeon, and then pulled the plug on that licensing agreement when they decided to pursue an online pay-wall strategy with Dungeons and Dragons Insider. The grimoire I mention is the Open Game License and the System Reference Document, that wonderful tome that defined the Third Edition, and ushered in a golden age for the hobby. The OGL let third parties write their own sourcebooks for the Dungeons and Dragons system, and the d20 ruleset flourished.
When Wizards of the Coast decided to release their Fourth Edition, Paizo published Pathfinder, which enshrined the SRD. Backwards compatible with the Third Edition, Pathfinder has been called “3.75”—a call back to Wizards of the Coast’s “3.5” tweaks. Pathfinder was in the center of the “edition wars.” Though Paizo didn’t take sides, it never the less provided a convenient flag those who found the Fourth Edition lacking to rally around. The third party publishing agreement for the Fourth Edition—the Game System License—didn’t help matters. It had a “poison pill” clause that prevented anyone using it from publishing under the old license—effectively forcing anyone who wanted to publish third-party Fourth Edition supplements to stop publishing anything compatible with the Third Edition. Wizards of the Coast ended up removing a lot of the more restrictive language in the end, but the damage was done.
In all the chatter about DnD Next, I don’t see anyone talking about Pathfinder, and that strikes me as quite an oversight. Well that isn’t quite true. I see lots of people talking about Pathfinder…in the comments sections. All that stuff I said before, that quick history lesson, people played the game—Third Edition, Fourth Edition, Pathfinder, Old School Renaissance, whatever—through that. This is a work in progress for people; edition changes aren’t monolithic. Just because a company starts publishing a new line of books doesn’t mean your old books vanish from your shelves, or the rules suddenly stop working. It is all there, ready to play and Pathfinder takes advantage of that. You can use all your old stuff and you can buy their stuff, so your Third Edition supplies continue to be vital tools for you, if you want them to be.
And you will want to buy their stuff. That is the hook, you see: they produce quality output. That is the glowing angler fish lure that they’ve got dangling. Just a glance at the art direction ought to give you a good idea why; there is a diversity in the covers and internal illustration that goes to the heart of things. I’m bored of seeing heroes with scrunched up tough guy faces, which have really come to dominate in some quarters, and Pathfinder covers a range of emotions and styles. Not just that, but the characters pictures aren’t all white men—you’ve got a wide swath of skin tones and hair colours (from light to dark to neon, even) and a parity of genders. Hey, inclusive representation counts for a lot. Paizo’s Pathfinder output is a mix of “crunch”—rules options and mechanics—and “fluff”—setting and philosophy. New classes like the alchemist, who mixes a sort of Doctor Jekyll/Bruce Banner mutagen drinking, Hyde/Hulk class feature with a bit of bomber tossing or the literally “sword and sorcery” magi, who mix swordplay up with spell-slinging. Fluff-wise, you get new locales, like Irrisen, a Grimm’s fairy tale nation ruled by Baba Yaga, locked in ice like the White Witch’s Narnia; Cheliax, the decadent nation who holds up Asmodeus as the Lord of Law and Numeria, which basically makes a whole region out of the adventure out of the old “Expedition to the Barrier Peaks” adventure, where your adventures stumble across a crashed spaceship. Then you get the best parts—when the fluff and the crunch align. Like monster design! The cover of their recent Bestiary has an undead knight alongside a feral Cyclops and a bunch of kung-fu kappa. If that isn’t eclectic (and awesome), I don’t know what is.
All this is likely preaching to the choir. If you’ve read this far, you probably know what Pathfinder is. I guess the core of my point is—why are they being overlooked in this conversation? In large part, I think it is because “Dungeons and Dragons” is a sort of shibboleth amongst gamers, especially among outsiders. It has become shorthand for “when I say roleplaying I don’t mean World of Warcraft, I mean pen and paper.” Besides that, it has always been the face of the hobby to outsiders. It has dominated the market—occasionally being overtaken by the hot new kids on the block, but it is the monolith, the standard. Pathfinder, indie games, the Old School Renaissance, they all show that there are other paths out there. Alternatives—big ones, in the case of Pathfinder—to the Edition Wars, to the notion of being chained to each successive iteration of Dungeons and Dragons. I for one have high hopes for DnD Next but I take comfort in knowing that other options exist.
“I’m a Dragon” and “Pathfinder Goblin” illustrations by Andrew Hou
Mordicai Knode is 65,000,000 years old. The name of his fictional band is “Crown Me King” and his highest level 3rd edition character was an epic tiefling psion in an Planescape game. You can yell at him on Twitter, if that is your sort of thing.