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The story of Pathfinder, Dungeons & Dragons' most popular offspring

Left adrift, one partner decided to strike out on their own

Cover art for the first-edition Pathfinder Core Rulebook shows two heroes in battle against a red dragon. A tower crumbles around them at the fighter lashes out with a sword. Behind him a mage readies a spell.
Charlie Hall is Polygon’s tabletop editor. In 10-plus years as a journalist & photographer, he has covered simulation, strategy, and spacefaring games, as well as public policy.

The Pathfinder Roleplaying Game is one of the most popular franchises in modern tabletop gaming. It’s also one of the youngest. Polygon spent time with lead designer Jason Bulmahn to learn about its birth, and to find out what makes it so different from its older sibling, Dungeons & Dragons.

In late 2007 Wizards of the Coast was on the cusp of releasing the fourth edition of Dungeons & Dragons. The team at Paizo Publishing, which had for some time been WotC’s partner of a sort, had a big problem. The role-playing ruleset they’d been working with for years, known as 3.5, was about to reach the end of its lifespan and WotC didn’t have timely answers for how their partnership might continue.

"We were the publishers of Dragon and Dungeon magazines," Bulmahn said. "When they were still printed, that is. When that license came to an end, we were left adrift without any plan."

During its time with WotC, Paizo had created an adventure path called Shackled City. Subscribers to Dungeon magazine received pieces of it over the course of a single year, and later it was collected into a hardcover book and sold well. Paizo figured it would continue with that plan, bridging the content gap between 3.5 and fourth edition with a new standalone product called Pathfinder Adventure Path.

"It was very well-received," Bulmahn said. "But at the same time fourth edition was still looming. We, as a company, were trying to figure out how we were going to make that part of our plan. And we hit some snags.

"For one, we hadn’t seen the rules for fourth edition D&D. We were running out of time to put together the next adventure path. Two, we hadn’t seen the license, to be able to use the rules compatibly. We could do it through more open fair use laws, but we didn’t want to go that route. 3.5 had an open game license, a legal license for people to publish stuff compatible with 3.5. ... It said, basically, 'You can use this stuff, indicate that you’re compatible and we won’t sue you.' But for fourth edition we had no idea whether that would exist, and we were running out of time."

"I floated an idea. ... A week later I was a lead designer of the Pathfinder Roleplaying Game."

In the background, Bulmahn said he had been tinkering with a sort of homebrew version of 3.5. He’d streamlined a lot of the rules, and changed or modified others to suit his tastes. One day while Paizo’s leadership was gathered around the table wringing their hands, a lightbulb went off for him.

"I floated an idea," Bulmahn said. "I said, ‘I kind of have a half-written RPG. We could publish that!’ And a week later I was a lead designer of the Pathfinder Roleplaying Game."

It was a daring move. Paizo risked the ire of WotC by building a new game based off its core set of rules, and it risked alienating fans of 3.5 by making sweeping changes. But the gamble paid off. Die-hard devotees of the older D&D systems were the first to latch on to Pathfinder, and from there the system and its universe took on a life of its own.

"In 2008 the core rulebook was released," Bulmahn said. "We were all just holding our breath. We didn’t know what to expect. Do we have a hit on our hands? Is this going to be a great new thing? Or is this just going to fade away?

"We knew we were in a good place when our initial print run sold out before we even got it. The preorders for it were more than we had ordered. The second printing of the game has very few changes from the first printing because the game wasn’t even out yet. We had just noticed some typos in a couple things and said, ‘OK! We’ll fix those. Fine. It’s great. Reprint!’"

Today Pathfinder has grown to become the flagship product at Paizo Publishing. Its success has even allowed them to take over partial sponsorship of the Gen Con convention itself. The annual gathering of tabletop devotees first begun by Gary Gygax, the father of D&D, now features Pathfinder on the marquee.

What makes Pathfinder so successful, Bulmahn said, isn’t the core of D&D-based, d20 rules. It’s the way that he and his team have changed the trajectory of character progression, and how they’ve brought in their own touches to create a unique role-playing world.

"We didn’t want to just reprint 3.5 rules forever," he said. "The first time we really struck out on our own was the Advanced Player’s Guide, which came out the following Gen Con in 2009. That book introduced two things that started setting us apart and giving us our own place.

"It had six brand new classes in it — classes that had never been seen before in the game. We had the cavalier, an alchemist, a summoner. These were not in 3.5. There was a witch, an oracle, and the inquisitor. We had six classes that no one had seen before. They were all ours. Initially, we had done a lot of revision to the base classes [from 3.5] in the core rulebook. They were very different than 3.5. But even then, people still looked at it from an angle of, this is just the core rulebook revised. ... With the advanced player’s guide that all changed."

Expect to learn more about Paizo's new system, Starfinder, at this year's Gen Con. It's currently scheduled for release in 2017.

Paizo also differs in how it chooses to teach new players. It’s not about hooking them on the next set of adventures coming down the pike. It’s about teaching them to make worlds and stories of their own.

"We put out something called the Beginner Box," Bulmahn said. "We said, ‘OK we should have an adventure that’s really simple, but explains the concepts as you go along. But we should also have tools for you to write your own adventures.’ We stripped out some of the most complex rules. You don’t need to know about attacks of opportunity yet. It’s not important. Let’s teach you how to roll dice and have fun first. ... It’s there to introduce them to the hobby. It’s not just about our game. It’s about the hobby itself. Training people and teaching people to invent their own stories.

"We go out of our way, in many places, to give you the tools to do that. We also take the time to explain how to do it."

Inside the Beginner Box, Bulmahn said, is a map without names. It’s a laminated surface, a tool for running adventures in the future. But it’s also meant to be an inspiration.

"The initial adventure happens. The bad guy doesn’t necessarily die at the end of it. Right after that we say, 'Here’s how you write the sequel. Let’s talk about what the sequel could be.' We even give you a map for it. 'Here’s a map. We won’t tell you what’s on the map, but we’ll give you the map. Here’s some things we think could be in there, but you can put in whatever you want.'"

Paizo has a number of announcements due to land at this year’s Gen Con, including a new system called Starfinder set in space. For all our stories on tabletop games, see our dedicated section here.