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Leaving Pathfinder 2e Behind



I started to get into Pathfinder 2e back in 2021, while I was still running a 5e campaign for my longterm group.


I got started with D&D 3.5, and had run a full level 1-20 campaign in Pathfinder 1e, but initially bounced off the PF2 playtest because it felt too different.


But after playing 5e for a while I started to see the appeal of a lot of elements of PF2, and made a video talking about the things that excited me.



In that video the main things that intrigued me about the system were;


  • 3 action economy

  • Tags

  • Encounter building

  • Rewards (specifically having magic item prices)

  • More interesting weapons (on critical hits)


I've been playing PF2 for more than a year now but have decided to switch my group back to 5e, and I want to talk about some of the reasons why.


We see a lot of talk online about folks moving from 5e to PF2, but not much about the reverse.


A Long Road, A Fresh Perspective

Coming to this decision took a long time, a lot of introspection, multiple conversations with my players, and a revelation to finally get there. It didn't happen easily.


When we switched from 5e to PF2 we did so for two main reasons, one was because I felt like the 5e system was buckling under the weight of what my players were trying to do, and the other reason was the OGL fiasco.


But several months after making the switch I ended up running a few games of 5e for a group of players who had never played any RPGs before and it was some of the most fun I'd ever had at the table.


When running for a group of people who weren't bringing multiple edition's worth of baggage and preconceptions with them, 5e played amazingly well. For the first time I could fully understand why it was the edition that had exploded the popularity of D&D.


I had forgotten how much fun 5e could be as a vehicle for storytelling. For the most part during play, the rules just get out of the way and allow you to have fun. Contrast that to how I felt about PF2 at the time and it felt like every time we wanted to do anything we had to consult the oracle and read several pages of rules interactions.



At the time I chalked this up to inexperience with the system, but this never really went away. Up to our most recent sessions we would have to stop to check rules interactions in PF2, find out the relationship between tags and traits, or look up some other mechanical element.


That's no surprise though, PF2 is a more mechanically sound game. More options have codified mechanics, so it's no shock that there would be more referencing required. And so I put that concern to the back of my mind and tried to move on.


Perhaps this problem would have been lessened if we were playing more frequently, or were a decade younger with less responsibility? But we play weekly and TTRPGs are my full time job, and I still really struggled to keep hold of the rules interactions in my head week to week, so I don't think it's an invalid criticism when people label PF2 as too complicated. The core resolution mechanics are simple enough, and each individual element is easy enough to grasp, but remembering how it all fits together can be a lot to manage.


Balance, Over Balance

One of the most lauded elements of PF2 is its mechanical balance. The monster levels work, the encounter building works, when you build an encounter that says it will be severe, it will be severe.


When we first started playing I loved this aspect of the game! It made my game prep much faster and I enjoyed throwing together encounters that were mathematically balanced.


Over time though, the tightness of PF2's math started to cause me some issues. Because the system's underlying math is so tight, even minor tweaks can compound quickly and errors in monster or encounter design can have pretty big impacts - or at least that's how my brain started to perceive the system.


"Don't tweak that ability, it could have a knock on effect you've not thought about and cause a TPK".
"You can't give that monster that combination of abilities, it could break the fundamental laws of the universe and cause a black hole."

These kinds of thoughts came frequently, and I had started to get so in my own head about the "balance" of the system that it stopped being an attractive part of the game to me and became a noose around my neck.


This was made worse when it came to making homebrew monsters, which felt like I was filling in boxes to make a "balanced" option instead of making the cool unique thing I wanted.


I want to be clear here; this was all my perception of the system, and I don't claim it's an empirical truth. But perception is reality, and once the idea had taken root it started to make it very difficult to enjoy the homebrew process, which is one of the areas I derive the most joy from as a GM.


Player Problems

While I was having my problems with PF2, my players were having their own issues with the system. I was so wrapped up in my own problems that it took me far too long to realise, but eventually I clocked that we hadn't gone a single week in months without at least one of the players complaining about something to do with the mechanics of the system.


Really the only complaint the players ever had with 5e was they wished there were more character options, it was mainly me as a GM complaining about 5e while we played at the high levels.


But in PF2, different players were bringing up bugbears with the system weekly. The most common complaint was how the casters felt weak in comparison to early editions, a sentiment often talked about online.


The PF2 designers have said that casters are performing exactly as intended, but it does undeniably suck for them to struggle to get a spell to do anything in terms of damage, and then when they try and use utility spells a lot of monsters are immune to the conditions they are trying to bring to bear.


A Well Oiled Machine

I want to pause here and note that all of these problems are specific to my groups' experience with the system, and it is absolutely not the way everyone will experience PF2.


If you have a party of tactically focused, teamwork driven players who build their characters to the strengths of the system, and they build characters around the guidance given in the primers to the official adventure modules, you're probably going to have an amazing time. A group operating like a well-oiled machine of seamless teamwork efficiency will absolutely crush it in PF2.


I especially think if you're running prewritten material and not concerned about homebrew then PF2 will probably support you much better than 5e will. I've not run Paizo's pre written material, but I hear almost nothing but praise for it.


But as we continued to play through the months of our PF2 campaign, I came to realise the loosey goosey, rulings not rules style of gameplay encapsulated by 5e actually suits my GM style much better.


As a player, I am still excited to play PF2 with other folks who are looking for that well-oiled machine. The thaumaturge I made for PF2 was built around the idiosyncrasies of the system, takes advantage of all of the systems strengths, and could only really work in PF2, and he's one of the most fun characters I've ever played.





I miss your weird shit

This all came to a head after a recent session. The players had complained about the mechanics again and after the session I brought it up and we started a discussion about the system as a whole.


We talked about caster disparity, the overwhelming number of irrelevant options for characters on level up, how several of the players felt like they were still never utilizing their 3rd action so just ended up attacking a third time, and more.


After more than an hour of this discussion one of the players made an off-hand comment that fully unlocked what I had been wrestling with for months.


They said they missed having the Anto homebrew weirdness, and getting cool unique magic items that I'd made, and that if felt like during this campaign all they'd been getting was stock stuff.


And it clicked for me that the PF2 game I was running was so much more stale; a much more inside the lines kind of game where I felt like my creativity was almost being hampered by the rigid math of the core system and my own fear of breaking the system.


Making bonkers esoteric crap up on the fly is where I do some of my best work as a GM, and I don't think I'd really done any of that while we were playing PF2 because I'd gotten so hung up on the tight maths of the system and didn't want to break such a fine tuned machine.


Why 5e?

So why go back to 5e? If I want a system with less mechanical complexity why not go to something even more rules-lite? Or why not check out a 5e clone or alternative instead of returning to 5e?


The three main reasons, in no order of importance are;

  • My players are already familiar with the rules so can get up and running with minimal disruption to our campaign.

  • I already make content for 5e for work so get to use that and utilize that system mastery.

  • It's the most played system, by a lot. There's just so much support out there for 5e, both in terms of official resources, licensed 3rd party content, other 3pp, community discussion, and more.


Since making the decision to switch back to 5e I've been more excited about my campaign than I have in months, and now I'm focussing on only 5e again I've been more creatively charged that I have been in a long time.


I'm excited to start making the weird shit again, I'm excited to make cool and unique items for my players that they can't get in any other system or campaign, and I'm excited to just have a system gets out of my way most of the time.


5e is far, far from perfect, and there's already a few things I want to do to "fix" some of the problems that caused me to leave in the first place (the economy being top of my list), but I've been using the following analogy to make sense of the situation in my head and explain it to folks for the last few weeks.


5e as a system is like an annoying friend who interrupts me while in the middle of having fun. Pathfinder as a system is a wall I have to climb before I can start having fun. Both of them provide their own unique problems and barriers to fun, but I would rather be interrupted while I'm already having fun than have to climb the wall each time to start having fun.


As we're switching systems, we're doing a soft reboot of our campaign and the players are all making new characters, which makes it the perfect time to start up the campaign diaries again here on the blog, so keep an eye out for the first one of those next week!


But until then, happy gaming!

Anto

5 comments

5 Comments


Hyodorio
Hyodorio
Apr 15

We tried for a year with my second group. Ended up turning back too since we felt more comfortable and they say I shine more as a DM in 5e due to similar things shared on this post and they as player also just prefer 5e outside a few things that PF2e improves. Honestly, I have more fun this way too, and I like tinkering with things and I'm excited to what's coming this year.

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Anto
Anto
Apr 16
Replying to

I'm cautiously optimistic for the 5e rules update later this year. I already really like the weapon mastery UA, so if they added prices to magic items and a better CR/encounter builder system I'd be pretty much perfectly happy with 5e.

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Same here. Switched to Pf2e from 5e as well, for the same reasons you listed above. We've grown frustrated with the system too, and will be switching back to 5e, or a variant of 5e. Looking forward to a looser ruleset with more room to homebrew

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Anto
Anto
Apr 13
Replying to

Glad to know I'm not the only one! I've not really seen anyone talking about making the switch in this direction (I suspect vitriol towards WotC post-OGL is a big part of the reason why).

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Great read - I'm glad to hear you've got that excitement back! :D

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