The Future of Pathfinder | Is the D&D Alternative Doomed?

In the world of entertainment -- music, movies, or video games for instance -- there are rising stars and fading memories, successes and victories and failures and defeats, empires built and empires crumbled. Similarly, the history of role-playing games is filled with legacies. Here we’ll look at a particular role-playing legacy that’s at an inflection point - Pathfinder.

Pathfinder is at a critical moment now, as the landscape of the role-playing hobby, and how people perceive it, are changing. We’re starting to see new trends formalize, emerging from fads and experiments and ventures to become harbingers for new forms of the hobby. New generations of role-players are discovering and rediscovering roleplaying through new digital channels. Role-playing is evolving, and Pathfinder may not be poised to keep up.

Picking Up a Torch

Pathfinder’s legacy starts, as so many in role-playing, with Dungeons & Dragons. By the mid-2000s, the 3rd edition of Dungeons & Dragons was widely regarded as the game’s ultimate form. Fans were eager to see what the new 4th edition of D&D would look like when it was announced in 2007. Fans were eager to see what improvements that D&D could make to their beloved game. Fans were greatly disappointed.

Dungeons & Dragons decided to take a very different approach in its 4th edition. Many fans saw the new edition as “video game-y” and interpreted that D&D was trying to recover players it had lost to burgeoning PC-based MMORPGs, like World of Warcraft. That was true to a certain degree; 4th edition was trying to anticipate players playing online more, over forums and chat clients, and was restructured to accommodate that. At any rate, fans did not take kindly to the streamlining, simplification, and outright reworking of many aspects of the game.

Enter Pathfinder. Developed by writers who had been creating official D&D content for years, Pathfinder sought to preserve not just the beloved 3rd edition of D&D, but also its Open Gaming License. The Open Gaming License let third parties create and publish D&D content without permission from D&D’s publisher, and to many, was an important feature of 3rd edition D&D.

And it was a success. Pathfinder found its audience in fans who felt disenfranchised by Dungeons & Dragons’ shift in focus. Pathfinder developed its extensive library of rules and lore books, in the same form as each edition of D&D that came before it. Meanwhile, 4th edition D&D, for all its design cleverness and marketing effort, became an object of mockery amongst diehard RPG fans.

The Aging Champion

Pathfinder became the go-to RPG for many fans, having dethroned D&D, in their eyes, as the flagship RPG. D&D persisted, though, having decades of legacy that Pathfinder couldn’t replicate. Novels featuring beloved D&D characters were popular, settings and stories were featured in single-player computer games, and well-remembered board games helped bring new people into the hobby as well. When Dungeons & Dragons came out in a new 5th edition in 2015, it seemed that D&D got to have its cake and eat it too: longtime D&D fans saw 5th edition as a return to form, and new fans that joined in the 4th edition era were eager to transition to a streamlined-but-classic version of D&D that spoke to its legacy.

5th edition D&D, for a variety of reasons, was D&D’s comeback. Seemingly in response, Pathfinder announced a second edition in 2018. Like D&D 5th edition, Pathfinder 2nd edition had a public playtest to gather community feedback before committing to a final edition. Unlike D&D, though, Pathfinder 2nd edition sought to streamline its rules but not skimp on complexity and customizability. D&D aims to simultaneously preserve its history while being accessible to new players; Pathfinder aims to keep its current, more "classic RPG" fans happy.

New Challenges

So this is Pathfinder’s position in 2021: a respectable second place in light of D&D’s bounceback, using an updated version of rules it originally sought to preserve, amid a host of smaller RPGs emerging from a roiling sea of innovation. Alas, history does not let victors rest on their laurels. Tastes and sensibilities change over time, and adapting to - or defining - a shifting landscape is crucial to continuing relevance. Pathfinder faces many new challenges in its middle age.

New Trends

Firstly, the design goals of RPGs have changed significantly in the past 20 years. Two major movements have shaped what RPGs can and should do: Indie RPGs and storygames, and the Old-School Revival/Renaissance.

Indie RPGs were born from an internet forum in the mid-2000s, where a lot of creative people questioned and deconstructed a lot of assumptions that RPGs were based on. A lot of very novel, very unique and often strange games were invented. Intuitively, indie RPGs tend to be small, brief in form but dense with ideas, as they’re the efforts of a single author or small partnerships. However, the story-first philosophy has left an indelible mark on RPGs. Apocalypse World, and its extensible “hackable” rules, is the hobby’s biggest takeaway from indie games, with many Powered By The Apocalypse games like Blades in the Dark coming out every year.

And, in light of the long and often tumultuous history of fantasy RPGs like D&D, and the constant cyclicality of “retro” sensibilities, some RPG fans have decided to go back to role-playing’s roots. The Old-School Revival movement seeks to experience fantasy roleplaying in its nascence, resurrecting the very original D&D systems (known in the community as BECMI or B/X). OSR also encompasses original games that recompile “first edition” D&D rules, like Old School Essentials or Dark Dungeons, and whole new games that hew to D&D’s inspirations, like Dungeon Crawl Classics. The rough, raw feel of 60s and 70s fantasy literature is the driving spirit here.

Pathfinder, in its second edition, doesn’t offer the appeal that these trends do. It’s not a light, sleek, story-first/realism-maybe system; in fact, it’s kind of the opposite. Pathfinder offers lots of customization options, but they’re all mechanical rule-based options, focusing on combat. There’s little inspiration or guidelines for creating characters with rich relationships and backgrounds.

This focus on character customization is very much a hallmark of Pathfinder’s middle-age generation, as well. The early fantasy RPGs that OSR fans like focus on challenging dungeon crawling and unrelenting settings, and character permanency is not guaranteed. Pathfinder’s focus on character advancement isn’t as well suited to serve the unforgiving, brutal tone as OSR games are.

New Platforms

And, unfortunately, Pathfinder doesn’t seem to have joined another major shift in the RPG hobby: streaming. From podcasting, to Twitch streaming, to long-form YouTube episodes, people have adapted new ways to enjoy RPGs digitally, in a wide-reaching parasocial manner. This is demonstrated most succinctly by the breakout success of Critical Role, and many content creators follow in their footsteps. To Pathfinder’s consternation, almost every content creator goes with Dungeons & Dragons 5th edition. (Which is ironic, when you think about it, how 4th edition was supposed to facilitate internet play on forums.) When content creators play non-D&D games, they choose games with very different settings and tones, often choosing venerable 2nd-tier RPGs like Call of Cthulhu, Vampire: The Masquerade, Shadowrun, or Cyberpunk. 

New Players

And this ties into probably Pathfinder’s biggest problem: turnover. It’s a gloomy truth for any hobby, but participants are always coming and going. When people leave a hobby, it’s rarely due to dissatisfaction or misfortune. It’s most often due to higher priorities demanding more attention. People grow up and grow out of hobbies like RPGs, as career and family duties and other aspects of real life come up. Fans and publishers fight this Sisyphean fight constantly by recruiting and introducing new people to their hobby.

Dungeons & Dragons is very good at this right now. Partly due to very specific efforts of charismatic content creators like Critical Role, partly due to publisher resources spent on marketing, partly due to good ol’ name recognition. Current pop culture trends have made room for nerdy pastimes, like comic books, science-fiction/fantasy/horror literature, and gaming. Dungeons & Dragons’ name recognition gives it an imbalance boost here when competing with Pathfinder.

New Markets

Lastly, there’s a very broad change that the modern internet has made on many hobbies and media. The main resource that video games, roleplaying games, or any other kind of game is competing for isn’t money - it’s time. The internet has indeed had a democratizing effect on media and content creation, and this shift to the attention economy hasn’t spared tabletop RPGs. This connects with several previous points. Lighter, faster story-first Powered By The Apocalypse games demand less free time, both because there’s fewer rules and lore to learn and less prep work for storytellers. And when players and content creators have to choose which game to focus their efforts on, famous games with lots of name recognition get first pick - second fiddles don’t get a lot of love.

Finding Paths, Finding Hope, and Reaching for the Stars

So what’s Pathfinder to do? With a dwindling base of Pathfinder fans that are slowly but surely aging out, how can Pathfinder stay relevant? Where should Pathfinder’s publisher focus their efforts?

To paraphrase Sun Tzu, don’t fight a battle you can’t win. Pathfinder directly competes with Dungeons & Dragons. While Pathfinder does bring something unique to the table, namely its complexity and customization options, its similar setting and inspiration doesn’t set it apart far enough. Pathfinder shouldn’t forsake its existing fanbase. Just as with its invention, the prospects of expansion rely mostly on Dungeons & Dragons faltering, which doesn’t look to be happening soon.

Instead, Pathfinder has a very interesting sibling that deserves some attention: Starfinder. Starfinder takes Pathfinder’s story and fast-forwards it several hundred years - literally. The changes that happened between Pathfinder’s story and Starfinder’s story are strange and intriguing science-fiction weirdness, ripe with fodder for creative players. Starfinder ends up being a fun mashup of science fiction and fantasy tropes, where magic exists alongside spacefaring technology, and dragons and liches mingle with aliens and robots.

Starfinder is unique in the current RPG landscape. There certainly exists other RPGs that blend science fiction and fantasy, but Starfinder has a pulpy Star-Wars-meets-Harry-Potter vibe where the rule of cool prevails and players don’t have to take things too seriously.

Starfinder does use the same rules as the first edition Pathfinder. These rules are a little clunky and dated, especially compared to systems like FATE Core and Powered By The Apocalypse.  But they’re also technically the same beloved rules that 3rd edition Dungeons & Dragons had, and one of the things that started all this. Instead of updating Starfinder to use the 2nd edition Pathfinder rules, it might be more interesting to develop a new, modern, prep-light and story-first system that will make it easy for new players to pick up and have fun with.

The Way Forward

Pathfinder, both its first and second editions, are important parts of RPG history. The world is better for Pathfinder and its innovations. But again, the only constant is change, and even pioneers that brought change have to adapt as well. The way forward for Pathfinder is murky, ironically; however, with its original mission fulfilled of preserving D&D 3rd edition and the Open Gaming License, Pathfinder has many options available and resources to take advantage of them. In the grand story of RPG history, Pathfinder has entered an interesting second act, one where the tectonics of the ever-shifting environment have been unfavorable. And, despite all this Pathfinder may yet still see triumph.

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