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Pathfinder stripped every last trace of D&D from its new rulebooks — even owlbears

Say goodbye to true neutral alignments, ability scores, and more

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A group of adventurers plays a board game in art for Paizo’s Pathfinder. Image: Paizo

When proposed changes to the Dungeons & Dragons Open Gaming License leaked in January, Paizo chief creative officer and publisher Erik Mona said the news drove a stake through the heart of the company’s release schedule for all of 2023. Paizo had already been moving away from its dependency on the OGL through the release of Pathfinder Second Edition, but Wizards of the Coast had shaken the bedrock assumptions that had driven Paizo’s business model for more than a decade. Avoiding future legal conflict was going to require more than just some errata documents.

“We decided we really need to take another crack at republishing the core rules, which we started pretty much right away,” Mona told Polygon in a recent interview. “Within a couple weeks of the OGL crisis happening, we started two projects. One was the Pathfinder Remaster project which would align the rules away from OGL derivatives and the other was a new open gaming framework.”

On Nov. 15, Paizo released the first books based on that work: the remastered Pathfinder Player Core and Pathfinder GM Core. While the bedrock of Pathfinder 2E remains intact, developers pored over all the rules to remove the chance of future licensing conflicts with Wizards.

That meant changing names of everything from mechanics (like swapping 3.5 edition D&D’s flat-footed condition to off-guard) to changing the name of D&D-specific fictional languages (like the fire elemental’s native tongue, known as Ignan, which Pathfinder now calls Pyric). Even character ancestries, like tiefling and celestial, had to be rolled into a new bucket called nephilim, a catch-all for characters touched by other planes.

“I don’t know if there’s anything protectable about mushing an owl and a bear together and calling it an owlbear, but that’s clearly a monster that D&D puts a lot of cachet behind,” Mona said. “We’re going a little further to make the distance between Pathfinder and D&D even more clear.”

The reassessment also offered an opportunity for new creativity. Mona said that over Paizo’s 15-year history the publisher had largely stuck to D&D’s model of chromatic and metallic dragons due to nostalgia, not providing much extra development for one of the most iconic monsters in all of fantasy.

“Now we’re going through and inventing a whole bunch of new dragons that tie into the rules of Pathfinder in that each dragon is connected to one of the sources of magic: arcane, divine, occult or primal,” Mona said. “As we continue to write adventures, they’ll become a much more important part of the Pathfinder brand.”

Even though Wizards abandoned its attempt to alter the OGL and placed the game’s rules in the creative commons, Mona said Paizo couldn’t ignore the threat to its business model.

“The problem is there’s an erosion of trust at the top level,” he said. “They caught themselves in an internet outcry and backpedaled almost right away, but who’s to say they won’t try again next year or the year after that? If we have another seven rulebooks and another couple of million dollars put in the game, all of a sudden we’re right back to where we were before.”

A knight has sanctuary cast on them as an enemy attacks. Image: Paizo

Instead, Paizo has created its own alternative to the OGL, the Open RPG Creative (ORC) License. The company doesn’t actually control the license, so it can never be updated or revised.

“I wanted to create an environment for greater collaboration, inspiration and innovation and give publishers peace of mind that the rug is not going to be pulled out from under them,” Mona said. “We got the input of more than 1,000 publishers that gave us a tremendous amount of insight into what was important to them.”

The remastered Pathfinder Core rulebooks redefine several key elements of D&D. Alignment has been replaced with edicts and anathema that represent a character’s personal philosophy and code of conduct.

“Alignment is in some ways so culturally ubiquitous that I wonder if it’s even a protectable thing at this point, but it’s a pretty simplistic way of summarizing how people actually interact and what their belief systems are,” Mona said. “Every year that goes by, it feels a little more dated. We’re trying to create a game that is of the moment and appeals to modern players and gamers.”

The ability score numbers originally devised by rolling three six-sided dice have been stripped away and replaced with attributes of -5 to +5, the modifiers commonly used in D&D. It’s a rule change first used in the Pathfinder Beginner Box to make the game more accessible.

“Why have complexity that adds nothing to the system?” Mona asked.

Revising the books also gave Paizo the opportunity to address criticisms of Pathfinder 2E. The intimidating 640-page Pathfinder 2E Core Rulebook was split into a version for players and one for game masters, and the character sheet was updated based on feedback that it looked a little bit like a tax form. Only half of the 16 classes published in the Pathfinder 2E Core Rulebook were released this week, with the most complex player options reserved for a second player book that will launch at Gen Con 2024.

“We had an opportunity starting in January with a lot of players saying ‘I don’t want to play D&D anymore. I want to find a different game,’” Mona said. “We wanted to make that game as easy to understand and as inviting as possible.”

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