Here's the second half of my review for Savage Worlds: Pathfinder!
This follows on from my introductory comments, which you can find here, in part 1. As noted before, this review reflects running the game, not just reading it (gasp!). The game materials were provided as free .pdfs in exchange for a fair, thorough review here on the blog.
Worth noting: as of early today, the July sale is on at DTRPG.com, and now you can get this game for a few bucks off: HERE for the Core Rules and HERE for the Bestiary (please note those, and any other DTRPG links below, are affiliate links - which help support this blog's activities at no added cost to you. Thanks!).
Alright! Let's get this review out the gate. In today's post:
+ How does the game handle magic?
+ What else comes in the Core Rules?
+ How's the Bestiary?
+ What were my reflections after RUNNING the game?
+ How does SW: Pathfinder compare to other fantasy-genre SW products?
+ What are my overall thoughts? Final recommendation?
HOW DOES THE GAME HANDLE MAGIC?
First, there's lots of it. As the rules state (p. 167), "magic is everywhere in Savage Worlds: Pathfinder," as befits "the magically-charged world of Golarion." Of the 11 class archetypes offered for characters, only 3 don't have (or gain through advances) some sort of arcane or mystic powers (the 3 are Barbarians, Fighters, and Rogues). When you consider how easy multi-classing or extra arcane edges are to pick up over a character's career, you can expect plenty of fighty-sneaky characters to end up with some magic, anyway.
So, magic is important. But how does it work?
By my read, the game treats magic as narratively somewhat Vancian (mages squish spells into their brains through arcane study, but casting the spells exhausts the magic words from the caster's mind). Ok, fine...but in practice, mechanically, magic does NOT follow Vancian assumptions (which is music to my ears). I think I prefer this game's mechanics for magic to most iterations in D&D.
You can get a bit of a deep-dive into the game's wizards here, but I'll offer a quick synopsis. Instead of a massive library of spells divided by class/archetype, there is a core group of Powers (about 60, I believe?). These are about as robust as a semi-grognard like myself might be used to in a lighter OSR ruleset, though of course it's peanuts compared to a full-fleshed magic system in one of the leading modern games. The beauty of SW: Pathfinder's system comes in the way the Powers get built out.
See, that list of ca. 60 powers just offers some core templates, on top of which your players can build easily.
Powers are modified, first by Trappings. What the game calls "Bolt" might stand-in for a traditional Magic Missile or Lightning Bolt; "Blast" could be Fireball, Prismatic Spray, or many others. When you first choose a Power, you assign it a default Trapping that fits your character's concept. So, my "Blast" might involve fire, but yours might involve a hailstorm of sharp ice fragments. On the one hand these just provide narrative color - until that color becomes meaningful. Are we fighting a troll? It's going to suffer more from my fire trapping, but your hailstorm damage will get regenerated. On the other hand, are we fighting some kind of fire-mephit? I'm probably out of luck. Each Power in the game comes with a small menu of optional, suggested Trappings, but the sky (and GM permission) is the limit (in our trial game, for example, a mage's spells allowed him to cause giant sticky goo-globs to burst out of the ground to entangle foes, whereas some other caster might have used accelerated-growth vines, ice, or who knows what for a similar effect). In short: Trappings offer customization and color, and they get out of the way completely until they are directly relevant. Well done.
Second, Powers can be modified using a one-page menu of extensions and adjustments. Each caster has a pool of Power Points, which are expended to cast Powers (they recharge a little bit like hit points, except that this game has no hit points) ;-). You can spend extra Power Points to modify your Power on the fly at the moment you cast it. This includes things like adjusting the Trapping, expanding or limiting the normal scope, range, or duration of the spell, adding extra damage, adding armor-piercing to damage effects, etc.
Finally, you can choose to cast more than one Power per turn (even the same Power - non-Vancian, remember!) so long as you have enough Power Points. In fact, you can even 'short' a spell, attempting to cast it under its normal cost, if you risk negative consequences should this fail (to be honest, the negative consequences are seriously tame - nothing like Dungeon Crawl Classic's failed magic results here!). You do have to 'ante up' 1 Power Point to attempt to cast a spell, which you'll lose even if you fail the attempt.
In play, this all worked really nicely. Magic was a useful utility tool and a fun way to express a specific character, with reasonably minimal bookkeeping.
The game also offers rules for crafting magic items - there's a short-term system, in which a caster 'deposits' some of their Power Points in an item, and a longer-term, slower system, for crafting in a way that doesn't burn through your Power.
Thumbs up on the magic stuff.
WHAT ELSE IS IN THE RULES?
There's a fair bit of other content. This is a pretty packed core rulebook. A few highlights:
+ Quick Encounters, Social Encounters, Mass Combat, Interludes, etc.: sections dealing with sub-systems for these. The Quick Encounters system offers (for example) a way to handle a random encounter along the road that might have minimally negative or positive consequences. Not the kind of thing you necessarily just want to hand-wave, but you don't necessarily want to spend half a session playing through these sideshows, either. This offers a little mini-game to sort them out. 'Interludes' offers a little mini-game for adding narrative depth to 'what we were all doing on that journey, or between sessions, or in downtime, etc.' Mass Combat is ALSO kind of a mini-game. It's a pretty decent system, though for some reason (I think based on comments on SW forums) I was expecting something a bit more integrated into the normal play procedures. Don't get me wrong - this mass combat system does reflect the core rules, and it allows players an integral role in shaping how battles go, without sacrificing a core emphasis on which side thrashes the other (the characters are important, but they support the army, not the other way 'round). All in all, these look like decent sub-systems. I didn't try them out in our playtest game.
+ Some other cool combat elements: unlike the items just referenced, these aren't separate mini-games, but optional tweaks for the game's central rules. There's an intriguing random-roll tale for incapacitation effects (Injury Table, p. 126) when a hero gets taken out. Depending on how well you roll at this critical juncture, you might end up dead, you might be permanently scarred by one of these effects, or you might be debilitated by one until you've had time to heal. They're not pulling punches here, which delighted my evil old-school GM heart. Possible results include brain damage, "Guts - broken," "Guts - busted," "Guts - Battered" (each with different mechanical effects), or the most squirm-worthy: an injury to the "Unmentionables." There's ALSO a fun little table for 'creative combat.' No, we don't need a table of pre-generated results to be creative in combat, but these are some useful ways to spice things up. One of the game's key concepts in combat is the Support or Test roll - instead of making an attack, you do something narratively suitable to help a friend or distract/hinder a foe, and then roll to see whether you earned a mechanical benefit. This short table offers some colorful bonus effects for when a character pulls off a Support/Test roll. The intent, I think, is to encourage this kind of colorful and tactically nuanced behavior (and, aargh, I forgot to use this table during our playtest. But we did a bunch of Support rolls). Using this would make those characters who aren't great at fighting, per se, even more useful as they help their allies (and share a little bit more of the combat spotlight with them). It also adds to the dynamism of the combat system and its unexpected results.
+ All the expected core manual stuff, of course - detailed gear lists, magic items, GM tips, etc.
+ A mini-Bestiary: ok, so ... sigh. This mostly includes mundane animals and a few basic human types you might encounter. I understand that the base SWADE genre-neutral rulebook offers a very detailed Bestiary toolkit that lets you customize your own things. This isn't really doing that, at least not in any robust way. More to the point, there is a separate Bestiary volume. I am not really sure why this mini-mini-mini Bestiary is here, because it's not really adequate as a Bestiary. Just ... if you want this game, DON'T use this mini-Bestiary as a criterion for the game; you basically need the separate Bestiary.
...well, if you want pre-made critters. There is a substantial list of special abilities here, and you can use them to put together your own monsters or convert existing ones from, say, Pathfinder (remember, in Savage Worlds, there's no HP, so you aren't crunching CR numbers and hit dice, you're deciding whether something is an Extra or a Wild Card, and then adding special abilities on top to suit the fiction and needed role for your adventure).
WELL SHUCKS, SPEAKING OF ... HOW IS THE SEPARATE BESTIARY???
It works fine. For a separate purchase, you get a 132-page .pdf file with plenty of color art. The table of contents lists (I'm estimating) about 150 different monster entries, which doesn't include the various sub-entries as well. You get all the special abilities for monsters listed again (if I'm not mistaken, this time that content is just a little, little bit longer, suggesting that there might be a few new abilities wrapped into the Bestiary volume).
Many monster entries include sub-entries for variants. In the picture above, the two centaur variants at the end of that creature's main entry show what a LESS-DETAILED variant would look like; other entries offer more detail for some critters' variants.
I used several Bestiary monsters in prep (and a couple in play) for our playtest. The entries were fairly easy to run. The file is layered, so you can manipulate the .pdf to make it much more printer-friendly if you just want to print directly the pages you need.
I only had a few quibbles with the Bestiary. I happened to notice that one of the Spectre's notes (on p. 112) refers instead to the Shadow, but I know PEG has been soliciting Errata on forums, and it wouldn't surprise me to see this tiny error vanish in a near-future update. The organizational choices didn't always agree with me; I first thought that the Bestiary lacked an entry for that classic,staple of D&D combats: the giant rat! It turns out that "Rat, Dire" is on p. 84, in the "Lycanthrope" section, as an adjunct to the "Wererat" entry - even though it isn't listed with other "Giant Animals" (pages 61-65), like the "Giant Stag Beetle," "Giant Leech," or "Giant Spider." On Ye Interwebs, there has been a little snarky howling that the Bestiary cover includes a Marilith ... but the book doesn't have an entry for that creature.
Ok, those quibbles aside, I found the Bestiary perfectly functional and a decent, probably even necessary resource for getting much play out of this game, unless you want to create/convert most monsters. If you DO want to do monster conversion, the Abilities described here and the attendant Size chart should let you sort through that without too much trouble.
NOW TALK ABOUT RUNNING THE GAME!!!
I ran one quick combat scene with my kids, and then ran a proper full session with my adult gaming group. For that full session, I heavily expanded on a recent One-Page Dungeon contest entry (thanks, reddit user u/derekvanzarovich2 !!!), adding my own monsters, extra rooms and plot elements, etc. In my version, the PCs were sent to break up an assassination-and-abduction ring that had sway over a local governor. The bad guys ran a murder-for-hire racket with a deluxe option for customers: for an extra fee, they'd kidnap the victim, and make them fight to the death in an underground slave fight pen - while the person who paid to hire the 'hit' could come watch or even gamble on the outcome. The catch is that the ringleader was secretly a Doppelganger, who had magically gained the surprising cooperation of an undead serial-killer revenant, a Mohrg, making it willing to sometimes abduct victims to increase their net personal suffering as gladiator pit-slaves, instead of just killing them. Ok, weird premise, but it worked to pull a session together. The underground lair was under an abandoned abbey; the PCs were a paladin, a monk (battle nun!), and an elderly wizard (all with only 3 advances). They had the option of bluffing their way in as 'customers' for an evening fight at the ring, or staking the place out and trying to infiltrate it earlier. The players chose the latter option.
Here is a shotgun-array of various impressions from different moments running the game.
+ Hindrances are awesome! SW: Pathfinder characters can take on a few of these drawbacks or vulnerabilities at character generation. As you Advance, you can buy them off, but I think I'd strongly advise AGAINST getting rid of hindrances - they're that useful for the story and characterization! Don't use that knife! Hindrances. Our three characters included a martial Paladin who is literally afraid of the dark (Phobia: Minor), which meant that he had to muster his courage and face his own fears before going off to smite real foes in the darkness. The wizard had the "elderly" hindrance, with its attending penalties to many physical actions. The monk had taken vows never to touch money (thanks, St. Francis of Assisi!) and never to wield a weapon. Why were these useful? Well, for one thing, they immediately reveal interesting sides of these 'archetypal' characters. Moreover, these problems became directly relevant in play ... which meant that they helped earn the players new BENNIES (basically re-roll tokens on steroids).
For example: the heroes found the outline of a secret door in the ruined abbey, but the door obviously opened outward, and had no handle facing them. They tried to pry it open. The wizard used a dagger as a crowbar. The quite strong monk offered to help the weak wizard with a Support roll ... Now, why wasn't the quite able Monk the one attempting to pry open the door? Because she had taken a vow never to wield a weapon, and was therefore unwilling to use a dagger, even as a tool for ingress. So she just tried to tug at the door with her bare fingertips (penalty on the Support roll). Unsurprisingly, she failed to Support her ally adequately. Making things worse, the wizard rolled a critical fail (double 1s) on his roll to pry open the door ... so his dagger snapped. A bitter argument ensued between the characters (just in roleplay...the players are married to each other quite happily) :-). That was a bit of small drama mid-game that perfectly fit the characters but wouldn't have happened without their Hindrances - and the Bennies-for-hindrances system actively rewarded them for playing into it.
+ "Can I use Stealth to climb down the well?" "No, you can't. You can use a rope to climb down the well. I'll tell you if you need to roll for anything." After failing to enter through the secret door, the players instead descended an old well-shaft. Just before, the conversation above occurred between a player and me. I noticed a recurring temptation for a player to see MECHANICAL SKILLS as the answer to in-game problems, rather than imaginative thinking about the fictional situation being described in-game. This is a problem (well, I see it as a problem) that I usually push against actively when running games. Here, again, you can see an artifact of my old-school/rules-light style of running games.
That being said, I was chatting with a local friend who GMs 5e games, and we agreed that this could just be a symptom of a player adjusting to a new, unfamiliar ruleset. I think that with further play, a GM could wean players of SW: Pathfinder away from seeing the Skills list as the actions menu, but a game like this, with Skills and Edges up-front, may require care if that is an approach you want players to avoid.
+ Yes, the dice will explode! As I noted in Part 1, Savage Worlds uses exploding dice (a 6 on d6 is kept and re-rolled, over and over again if you keep rolling the max #, so you can potentially roll a very high number on a low die). Some of the most memorable moments in our game involved exploding dice. First, the monk blew a Stealth check out of the water via exploding dice (yeah, that time I did call for the Stealth roll!). Faced with a really spectacular success, I allowed the player character to accomplish quite a lot of active infiltration around several corners while 'riding the high' of that one roll. Later, the same player rolled a melee attack against the villain, and ... exploded a d8 with 3 rolls of 8 in a row. JAW DROP. I think the mathematical odds of that happening are 1:512! Well, it happened. This gave a result that was technically enough to earn 10 Wounds against the BBEG in a single hit. Now, the game actually says that no single attack can cause more than 4 Wounds, so this is capped. Even with that cap, this was enough to kill off the villain in a single hit. But...
+ To soak, or not to soak? The GM gets a few Bennies too, and 'wild card' (significant/powerful) NPCs have their own mini-pool as well. This allows the GM to roll to 'soak' (basically, nullify) Wounds for a BBEG, just like a player with Bennies can for their PC. Well, I've seen recommendations online that GMs should use their Bennies to re-roll missed hits, etc., etc., doing what they can to keep up pressure on the PCs, but NOT pay Bennies to Soak Wounds - in order to prevent fights from dragging on forever. In light of that recommendation, and because our spunky monk had just dished out UBERDAMAGE on the villain, I faced a little dilemma. At that moment, I had about 5 Bennie tokens available to spend on the villain's behalf.
I decided to soak just enough to leave the villain standing, but unable to take more than one further hit (the monk hit him again when he tried to run away, and killed him).
All good, and pretty easy to adjudicate, but this did leave room for a lot of subjective interpretation of the best strategy to take as GM. That's probably a net positive, in the end - had this been earlier in the session (if the PCs had made it initially through the secret door and dropped right into the villain's bedroom, for example), then I probably would have Soak, Soak, Soaked away.
+ More on Bennies...I was apprehensive, before our game, about the Bennies economy. Would I give out enough? Would I be too stingy? Bennies are often described as the real currency driving the action in a Savage Worlds game. I think I agree. Again, this is something that will reward GMs who want to keep a finger on a game's pulse and adapt to changing situations, but it might frustrate GMs who only want a really by-the-book, rigid way to run. In my case, I found that the Benny economy just kind of fell into place in the game, though (as noted above) this was a lot easier because of the Hindrances.
+ Multi-action turns are sweet - PCs can push beyond their normal action limit, performing up to three actions per turn if they accept dice penalties to ALL rolled actions that turn. This opens the door to some pretty frantic action now and then. Right after our elderly flubbed an Athletics roll to jump over a pressure plate (when I say 'flubbed,' I mean 'rolled a critical failure'), he face-planted right onto the pressure-plate, opening a hidden cabinet with a vicious undead killer waiting inside. Melee time! As the other two players got busy fighting, the wizard pulled off a really sweet 3-action turn...he successfully rolled to cast a spell weakening the monster, then successfully rolled to cast a spell that damaged the monster, and then he calmly stood back up. Nice turn, but good thing he made those rolls.
+ Player reflections - we did a little debrief at session's end. Overall, all three players said they enjoyed playing SW: Pathfinder, and expressed interest in trying it again (with more advanced characters next time). One thing that really struck me about their comments was how they echoed a lot of the overall vision (hype?) for Savage Worlds: fast, furious, fun ... my players really felt that this is a game system for pulpy, unpredictable action. Memorably, one player said, "I feel like if we wanted to run a 'space cowboys' kind of game, this would be perfect for it." The flipside, of course, is that they weren't sure this is ideal for a more subdued, deliberate kind of play.
They commented on the importance of exploding dice and swingy results. "Because you can't really predict how things will turn out," one player said, "you kind of just have to 'go for it' with your actions, and see what happens."
I'll come back to those reflections in my final wrap-up below. But first:
HOW DOES SW: PATHFINDER COMPARE TO OTHER FANTASY SW OPTIONS?
Note that I haven't played the other options described below, I've just read a bit about them.
When you dive into SW: Pathfinder, you aren't just choosing to play fantasy Savage Worlds; you're choosing one particular approach to fantasy in Savage Worlds. The core SWADE system is, again, genre-neutral (aside from that general suitability for big, pulpy action), and is designed explicitly for customization to whatever type of game you're running at the moment. There is a Fantasy Companion that offers genre-specific options, but 1) the current one dates back to the edition before SWADE, and 2) PEG is at work right now on a follow-up Fantasy Companion for the new edition. Additionally, there are several setting-and-game packages for running fantasy SW of different flavors ... to cite some leading examples:
+ Beasts & Barbarians - Conan-esque sword-and-sorcery, heavy on the loincloth art.
+ Gold & Glory - tips and tweaks for running old-school-flavored dungeon-crawls in SW.
+ Tyrnador - a high fantasy setting and campaign, tonally somewhere between Mystara and Dragonlance.
I can't speak to those others, but the point should be clear: again, SW: Pathfinder offers a specific kind of fantasy for Savage Worlds. Relatively high fantasy; class-based archetypes dominate; magic items are plentiful (though I'll say 'when you want them' - you don't really need to load your characters up with them in this the way you might in normal Pathfinder). And, to put it frankly, it's mid-edition D&D as Savage Worlds, with all the pros and cons that might entail in your mind.
FINAL THOUGHTS AND RECOMMENDATIONS
So where does all that leave us? Is this a good product? Who will most appreciate it?
In short, I think this is a very good game, with a growing list of resources (PEG is at work on a bunch of things from the Kickstarter that are pending release, apparently soon!).
The catch is that this may or may not be the right game for you, or for this moment.
If you don't want to play a game that puts classes front-and-center (though they can be tweaked easily), don't get this.
If you don't want a high fantasy, D&D-style system, don't get this.
If you don't want a game that will surprise you frequently with BIG plays by heroes and villains alike, don't get this.
And the flip side:
If you want a game that feels like 3-ish ed. D&D but is much simpler, check this out. For that matter, if you actually want to play some Pathfinder material, but you want to finish a combat before real-world humankind achieves insterstellar flight, try this out.
If you want D&D classes front-and-center, but you'd like easy room for fast character customization, this is a great option.
If you want to run something that fits a dynamic, pulpy style, this is a great fit (I've seen comments online that some prefer running D&D's fantasy pulp setting, Eberron, in Savage Worlds instead of D&D!).
If you like having competent characters who have cool abilities, check this out. SW: Pathfinder produces characters who are marginally more competent than regular SWADE characters, but it doesn't require you to produce 'superheroic' characters (unless you're trying to).
In fact, I think that if you really want to 'play D&D' but in the Savage Worlds 'fast, furious, fun' style, and if you'd like to take solid resources off the shelf and not have to invent everything yourself, then you're likely better off with SW: Pathfinder than with other SW fantasy options, or even with SWADE. If you prioritize your own content customization or other approaches to fantasy, look afield.
Finally, for myself?
There is some chance this will become my next ongoing campaign system, though it faces steep competition. The fact that this one system builds player familiarity with simple rules for many genres is a big plus, since we switch stories and even systems...oftener than I'd care to admit. :-)
When I want to run something 'fast, furious, fun,' I will probably still reach first for Dungeon World or another light game, especially for one-shots, but will reach for this instead if I want that dynamism with more mechanical crunch.
And, surprisingly, this might fill in on those rare occasions when I feel like busting out 4th edition D&D for some precise fantasy skirmish boardgaming, because underneath everything, Savage Worlds remains an evolution from a skirmish wargame, perfectly capable of running gridded movement, counting squares, etc. But by avoiding the hamster-wheel of slow hit point ablation, and by dropping a lot of unnecessary administrative encumbrance, SW: Pathfinder makes possible that kind of fantasy battle, with unique and memorable characters and foes - but fast. And, yep, furious. And fun.