It’s been said* that history is just one damned thing after another, but the purpose of historical writing is to reveal the patterns that underlie those damned things, to tell their story. Thus, history is actually a pointillist painting: up close you can only see the dots, but the further you get away, the more you can understand the complete picture. This is of course a problem when you’re writing about recent history, because you’re quite close to those dots. You can’t always see the endings and you can’t always see how it all fits together into a larger whole.
When I went back to update my history of Paizo Publishing, I jumped in right after the creation of the Pathfinder game, because with Pathfinder First Edition coming to an end, I was better able to understand the pattern of its entire catalog of products. Of course there was new stuff too, like the appearance of Starfinder and the Pathfinder 2e Beta Test. They’re just points right now, but in some future publication, they’ll be part of the pattern as well.
To read the entirety of the Paizo Publishing history, start in Designers & Dragons: The ’00s and read pages 205-224, but then when you get to “The Pathfinder Renaissance”, jump instead to the revised and expanded material here.
Like my other Designers & Dragons Next articles, this update was produced to support the new German edition of Designers & Dragons, now on Kickstarter.
* Yeah, I led this article off with passive voice. That’s because this is another of those famously misattributed quotes.
The Pathfinder Renaissance: 2009-2019
The release of Pathfinder truly made Paizo its own company, beholden to no one but its fans. Throughout the ’10s, Paizo would support their new game and its game world better than anything in the industry — except perhaps D&D at its publishing height in the ’90s.
Despite the quantity of publication, Paizo managed Pathfinder’s first edition lines very carefully. For example, when planning out the game’s hardcover lines, Stevens both wanted to avoid over publication, as had happened at TSR in its dying days, and to ensure that her fans weren’t starved for product, so she set a schedule of three hardcover books each year: a Bestiary for the holiday season; a rules-heavy book for Gen Con; and something else for the spring. She debuted this plan with the GameMastery Guide (2010) in May 2010, the Advanced Player’s Guide (2010) that August, and the Bestiary 2 (2010) at the end of the year. Paizo continued this schedule for ten years, with just a bit more variety toward the end. For example, a set of six Bestiaries (2009-2017) was supplemented by an NPC Codex (2012), a Monster Codex (2014), and a Villain Codex (2016), all of which offered more individual adversaries.
The Advanced Player’s Guide covered ground beyond the d20 core for the first time in Pathfinder; it presented several new base classes (such as the alchemist, the cavalier, the oracle, and the witch) and it used a new “archetype” system to offer a many variety for the core classes. Though the first edition of Pathfinder still cleaved relatively close to the d20 rules, further “Advanced” and “Ultimate” books expanded the scope of the system, primarily with more classes and other rules variants. These books included Ultimate Magic (2011), Ultimate Combat (2011), the Advanced Race Guide (2012), Ultimate Equipment (2012), Ultimate Campaign (2013), Ultimate Intrigue (2016), and Ultimate Wilderness (2017). Late in the lifecycle of Pathfinder First Edition, Paizo figured out one more way to expand their hardcover line: genre books such as Mythic Adventures (2013), Occult Adventures (2015), Horror Adventures (2016), and Planar Adventures (2018) offered new ways to play the game.
The Pathfinder rulebooks were often closely related to the ongoing Pathfinder Adventure Path. As the beating heart of Paizo’s roleplaying production, Paizo’s near-magazine would spin off rule systems and sourcebooks while also integrating with the newest publications. The sixth Adventure Path, “Kingmaker” (2010) thus gave players the opportunity to found a kingdom and was the ultimate source of the Ultimate Campaign rules, while the thirteenth Adventure Path, “Wrath of the Righteous” (2013-2014), integrated with the Mythic Adventures rules.
Meanwhile, Paizo’s first Pathfinder Adventure Path, “Rise of the Runelords”, was becoming another foundation stone in the world of Golarion. It was rereleased in hardcover form as the Rise of the Runelords Anniversary Edition (2012), which converted the 3.5e adventure to Pathfinder. This coincided with Paizo publishing the eleventh Adventure Path, “Shattered Star” (2012-2013), which was a direct sequel to the classic adventure. Paizo concluded the trilogy with twenty-third Adventure Path, “Return of the Runelords” (2018-2019). Along the way, Paizo also published other well-loved and well-remembered adventure paths, such as the story of Cheliax rebellion in “Hell’s Rebels” (2015-2016), the piratical “Skull & Shackles” (2012), and the science fantasy of “Iron Gods” (2014-2015).
Paizo’s Pathfinder Modules have always taken a bit of a back seat to the Adventure Paths, but they nonetheless continued throughout this era. Their biggest change came in Spring 2013; beginning with The Dragon’s Demand (2013), the Modules moved from their classic 32-page length, which were reminiscent of TSR’s old-school adventures, to a longer 64-page length. In later years, many of the Modules would be the output of the yearly RPG Superstar contest, but that came to an end after its ninth “season”, with Nick Wasko’s Seers of the Drowned City (2016). Following its release, Modules editor James Jacobs said that the contest was on semi-permanent hiatus. It had originally been intended to find new designers who might once have come up through Dungeon and Dragon, but now Jacobs that the contest served its goal “less and less every year”. Without having to support these freelance modules, Jacobs hoped “to make the module line into something that’s more integrated into the world and has more focus”.
Paizo’s Pathfinder Chronicles, Pathfinder Player’s Companions, and all the rest continued throughout the Pathfinder era, resulting in a few hundred additional products. The Chronicles had a clear remit of detailing Golarion one book up a time, while the Companions provided players with a variety of resources including religion sourcebooks, setting Primers and occupation-focused Handbooks. Paizo also made one addition to their classic lines: a series of high-quality cardboard “pawns” that depicted monsters and characters. They were essentially cheap miniatures, for use in the tactical battles that were the focus of Pathfinder play. The pawns debuted in the Pathfinder Beginner Box (2011), then became their own line with the release of the Bestiary Box pawns (2012) and the Rise of the Runelords Pawn Collection (2012).
Pathfinder’s prodigious release schedule was the first sign of the game’s success, especially if you also consider the 10,000 or so items released under the “Pathfinder Roleplaying Game Compatibility License”. Top third-party publishers have included: 4 Winds Fantasy Gaming, Dreamscarred Press, Expeditious Retreat Press, Frog God Games, Kobold Press, Legendary Games, Open Design, OtherWorld Creations, Rite Publishing, Rogue Genius Games, and Super Genius Games.
By the end of 2010, there was another good omen for Pathfinder: Paizo was seeing signs that it was outselling Dungeons & Dragons. Those without access to Paizo’s own sales numbers saw that Pathfinder was truly competing with Dungeons & Dragons a few months later, in the spring of 2011. That’s when the ICv2 web site revealed that their sample of retailers was also seeing better sales for Pathfinder than for Dungeons & Dragons. This would continue to be the case through the summer of 2014, an impressive three years.
This was in part due to the collapse of Wizards of the Coast’s Dungeons & Dragons publication in 2011 — and the announcement in 2012 that they were abandoning the 4E line. However, that should not diminish Paizo’s unprecedented accomplishment. Some unverified sources suggest that White Wolf might have bettered TSR’s sales for a brief month or two in the ’90s, which is a drop in the bucket compared to Paizo’s three years of dominance prior to the release of Dungeons & Dragons Fifth Edition (2014).
There have been other indications of Pathfinder’s success. For example, in 2013 Paizo stepped up as a co-sponsor for Gen Con, an agreement that they renewed in 2016. However, the most notable sign of Pathfinder’s success may have been a tongue-in-cheek “Gentleman” character class that Old Spice released as part of an advertising campaign on February 7, 2018. Rather than being a D&D character class, it was a Pathfinder character class, complete with Paizo’s standard trade dress. (Paizo had to have a talk with Old Spice about that, but someone on the ad team was clearly a Pathfinder fan, so they were able to resolve the problem easily.)
Paizo was definitely finding success with their new game, but they were also trying to do much more with it.
Extending a Brand: 2009-Present
From the start, Paizo has been very smart about business, which is what’s allowed them to survive disasters such as the loss of the Star Wars Fan Club, the termination of the Dragon and Dungeon licenses, and the sunsetting of the d20 System Trademark License. It’s no surprise that as soon as Paizo had a successful game in Pathfinder, they also began working to expand it into a full brand. This has resulted in a few additional product lines for Paizo as well as lots of licenses.
That started with new fiction. Though Paizo’s Planet Stories line lasted until 2012, it was wobbly by 2010. Erik Mona had a passion for the line’s pulp content, but it had never been as successful as the company hoped. As a result, Paizo decided to create a new fiction line that could more directly benefit them and Golarion. The resulting Pathfinder Tales under editor James Sutter kicked off with Dave Gross’ Prince of Wolves (2010). Wizards of the Coast has certainly proven that novels can be every bit as successful as the games that spawned them and sure enough, the Pathfinder Tales immediately did better than the Planet Stories line.
Five years later, the Pathfinder Tales leveled up when Tor became its new publisher, starting with Dave Gross’ Lord of Runes (2015). Paizo touted the advantages of a larger potential audience, better distribution, and more electronic formats, though some fans weren’t thrilled with the move from mass-market paperbacks to trade paperbacks, and the accompanying price increase. Unfortunately, the line came to a halt after the Tor deal ended following the publication of Gabrielle Harbowy’s Gears of Faith (2017). Rather than returning to publishing fiction themselves, Paizo is seeking another partner because it recognizes the marketing and negotiation advantages offered by a mass-market publisher.
We’ve decided to stay the course. Pathfinder is doing amazingly well, with our products selling better and better each year, and our licensing partners are helping us make it the top RPG worldwide.Lisa Stevens, “Paizo Publishing’s 10th Anniversary Retrospective — Year 10 (2012)”, paizo.com (December 2012)
Meanwhile, as Pathfinder grew, its licenses did too. Reaper Miniatures started producing unpainted Pathfinder miniatures in 2009. Shortly thereafter, WizKids licensed the rights to pre-painted plastic miniatures. They kicked off their production with a Pathfinder Beginner Box Heroes Miniatures Set (2011) then regularly began releasing Pathfinder Battles (2012-Present), a series of randomized pre-painted miniatures sets. Around the same time, the Pathfinder Tales got a graphical supplement when Dynamite Entertainment began publishing Pathfinder comics (2012-Present).
The most controversial license arose in the computer world. Ryan Dancey’s Goblinworks, a sister company to Paizo, raised $1.3 million dollars through two 2012 Kickstarters to create a Pathfinder Online MMORPG. The controversy came from the fact that it was an unusual use of Kickstarter, intended to raise seed funds that weren’t sufficient to produce the full MMORPG; they just wanted to be able to do enough work to prove the concept to other investors. In 2015, a failure to acquire additional funds caused Goblinworks to lay off most of their staff; Dancey also departed, leaving Lisa Stevens the acting CEO of Goblinworks. Though the game went radio silent for a few years, Stevens announced at Gen Con 2018 that two employees had continued working, and the game was in its final stretch before open enrollment. Pathfinder’s second CRPG, Pathfinder: Kingmaker (2018?), has been more immediately successful. It raised $900,000 in its June 2017 Kickstarter, with a first Beta following in April 2018.
Meanwhile, Paizo was also creating important new lines of their own. The first was Mike Selinker’s Pathfinder Adventure Card Game (2013-Present), or PACG, which was originally codenamed “Project Swallowtail”. The card game merged cooperative deckbuilding play with the Pathfinder setting. In many ways it was a typical adventure game, albeit a card-based one. Its big innovation was the fact that it was intended to be played as a campaign over 30 or more game sessions. The idea of campaign-based boardgame play has long been a holy grail, with Risk: Legacy (2011) being one of the few predecessors. Pathfinder Adventure Card Game took the next step, resulting in one of the first games that meaningfully combined the advantages of roleplaying’s long-term adventuring with board gaming’s more constrained play.
PACG also fit right into Paizo’s proven subscription model. Each “adventure path” was released as one box and six decks of cards, offering a set of seven PACG regular releases. And when one PACG adventure path ended, Paizo could immediately start a new one, using the storylines and artwork they’d already created for their roleplaying campaigns. Paizo published a total of four PACG adventure paths in the first four years of the line: Rise of the Runelords (2013), Skull & Shackles (2014), Wrath of the Righteous (2015), and Mummy’s Mask (2016).
Production slowed following the first three sets. The problem was a difference between roleplayers and board gamers: roleplayers very often purchase supplements that they never play, and may never even read! Though some board gamers do the same, it doesn’t seem to be to the same extent. Thus, after they published Wrath of the Righteous, Paizo began to see that they were “outpacing all but [their] most enthusiastic players”, and so had to slow down their production of PACG. They’ve kept the line alive with new “class decks” that can be used in any game, and which offer more grist for their subscription mill. A new universal base set for PACG (2019?) and the fifth adventure path, Curse of the Crimson Throne (2019?), will continue the game’s evolution.
The Pathfinder Adventure Card Game has been successful enough that it’s had spin-offs and licenses of its own. The Pathfinder Society Adventurers Card Game supports organized play for the game, while the Pathfinder Adventures computer game (2016) from Obsidian Entertainment supports electronic play. The computer game initially adapted “Rise of the Runelords” (making it one of the most widespread campaigns ever) then began producing its own content with “Rise of the Goblins” (2017) and “A Fighter’s Tale: Valeros” (2017).
Paizo’s spun one other major line off of Pathfinder: Starfinder, a science-fantasy roleplaying game set in the far future of the Pathfinder multiverse — after a mysterious “Gap” has eradicated history, and the planet of Golarion has gone missing. Designer and Creative Director James Sutter had been chomping at the bit to produce science fantasy ever since he tried to erect a space elevator in Varisia in Pathfinder Adventure Path #3: “The Hook Mountain Massacre” (November 2007). Despite that failure, he still got to reveal Golarion’s solar system in Pathfinder Adventure Path #14: “Children of the Void” (September 2008), then expanded on that in Distant Worlds (2012) for the Pathfinder Campaign Setting line. He was also one of the many contributors to People of the Stars (2014), a Pathfinder Player’s Companion that introduced many of the core races of Golarion space. Now, joined by Creative Leads Rob McCreary and Owen K.C. Stephens (formerly of OtherWorld Creations), Sutter was creating a full game on the topic.
While designing his new science-fantasy setting, Sutter used FASA’s Shadowrun (1989) as a touchstone: just as that game had successfully mashed together cyberpunk and fantasy, Sutter wanted to combine space opera and fantasy. The obvious predecessor was Jeff Grubb’s Spelljammer (1989), but Sutter wanted his game to be less “goofy” that TSR’s classic setting. The use of fantasy theming also ensured that that Sutter’s new game was “conceptually compatible” with Pathfinder, which allows GMs to cross-pollinate the games, for example using monsters from the Pathfinder Bestiaries in Starfinder.
In some ways, it’s kind of similar to Warhammer and Warhammer 40k; one is sort of a fantasy version, one is more science fiction and science fantasy version. They’ve got the same universe but they are still very different games in very different fields.James Sutter, “Top of the Table — The Starfinder Interview”, Game Informer (December 2016)
Paizo debuted the Starfinder RPG in the Starfinder Core Rulebook (2017) and the Alien Archive (2017). Though they planned to go lighter on supplement production, they didn’t miss the opportunity to produce another adventure-path non-magazine: Starfinder Adventure Path (2017-Present) began with the “Dead Suns” adventure (2017-2018).
By all indications, Starfinder’s initial release went well; it even briefly surpassed Pathfinder on the ICv2 retailer reports. To ensure the game’s continued success, Paizo promptly created a Starfinder Compatibility License supporting third-party publishers and a Starfinder Society for organized play. They’re very consistent in reusing their most successful ideas.
(And Starfinder would be Sutter’s last hoorah at Paizo; shortly after the release of Starfinder at Gen Con 2017, he left to pursue his own writing.)
The Second Pathfinder Renaissance: 2018-Present
Pathfinder was essentially born from fan discontent over the release of Dungeons & Dragons Fourth Edition, following eight years when the industry’s premier fantasy game got rebooted three times. Thus, it’s no surprise that Paizo fans have been asking since day one (with some trepidation) whether Pathfinder would see a second edition. Some became certain that a new edition was around the corner in 2012, when the game was just three years old, while others transformed Paizo’s statement that they had no plans at the time for a second edition into the belief that Paizo had said they would never produce a second edition. (They didn’t.)
However, as the mid ’10s approached, there were two portents that Paizo was playing with their rule systems, and that a second edition might be coming. The first was the release of Pathfinder Unchained (2015), which has been called the Unearthed Arcana (1985) of Pathfinder. It revamped core classes, revised monster design, and released many new systems that Paizo considered “too big to be touched” in other rulebooks. Then Starfinder offered variant looks at some core Pathfinder systems, supported by almost a decade of design experience.
Some people were surprised and some weren’t when Paizo announced on March 6, 2018 that they were releasing a playtest of Pathfinder Second Edition that summer. It had been ten years since the first edition, and twenty years since the release of the original D&D 3e rules. Now Paizo wanted to update the design by making it easier to play and more accessible to new players. They also wanted to address known problem areas, such as higher-level play. More pragmatically, they wanted to consolidate rules expansions and address questions that had been raised over the years.
Fans got to sample the revision at some of the top gaming conventions of the period: Gary Con X (March 2018), PaizoCon 2018 (May 2018), UK Games Expo 2018 (June 2018), Origins Game Fair 2018 (June 2018), and PaizoCon UK 2018 (July 2018). Paizo then released the first published iteration of the updated game on August 2, 2018, during Gen Con 2018. It used the same model as the first edition: free copies of the playtest rules were made available electronically and hardcover copies of the playtest rules were offered for sale. A massive online playtest (and publicity campaign) then began.
I guess out-of-date might be the wrong term. The tech for it is almost 20 years old, and game design has moved a lot since then.Jason Bulhahn, “Top of the Table — The Pathfinder Playtest Interview”, Game Informer (April 2018)
Though the structure of the new edition looked a lot like the old, with a few favorites like the alchemist class and the goblin race being added to the core, a lot of the details in the new edition were very different. Players weren’t quite sure what to make of the differences, except they were immediately sure it was a biggish change. Because of the greatly increased use of feats to represent everything from ancestry (race) to class powers, because of the increased focus on tactics, because of the extensive use of levels for categorization, and because of simplified monster stat blocks, many compared it to D&D 4E. Because of slight simplifications to the very crunchy game system and general refinement and polishing, others compared it to D&D 5E. Because some of these changes were about presentation, not mechanics, still others said it was still a D&D 3.5e game. Of course, the other question was how many of these changes would make it past the playtest. When the Pathfinder First Edition playtest was running, there were some very notable changes to the game system that were walked back before the game’s release. However, the Pathfinder Second Edition playtest felt much more polished than its predecessor — much more like the game that Paizo intended to release.
Even though Pathfinder 2e had the potential to be a 3.5e to 4E style change, there wasn’t the same vitriol among fans. That may be because Paizo was very careful to say that it would continue to serve its fans who preferred the original edition. The core rulebooks from first edition Pathfinder would be kept in print through cheap pocket paperbacks as long as they were selling, and third-party publishers would be allowed to continue releasing products for whichever version of the game they preferred. It was a very different tactic from Wizards of the Coast’s open attacks on D&D 3.5e when they released their fourth edition, and it was one that made sense for Paizo, given Pathfinder’s foundational user base of disaffected D&D players.
As for what will actually appear in the final version of the new edition, and how it will be received … that’s still a question for the future.
This article was originally published as Advanced Designers & Dragons #18 on RPGnet. It was written for the German edition of Evil Hat’s four-volume release, which was a sort of version 2.1 of the series.
Expanded Bibliography & Thanks
Jones, Andrew Zimmerman. 2017. “James Sutter Fields Some Starfinder RPG Questions”. Black Gate. https://www.blackgate.com/2017/02/22/sutterstarfinder/.
Miller, Matt. 2018. “Top of the Table — The Pathfinder Playtest Interview”. Game Informer. https://www.gameinformer.com/b/features/archive/2018/04/20/top-of-the-table-the-pathfinder-playtest-interview.aspx.
Miller, Matt. 2016. “Top of the Table — The Starfinder Interview”. Game Informer. https://www.gameinformer.com/b/features/archive/2016/12/09/top-of-the-table-the-starfinder-interview.aspx.
Uncredited. 2018. “Pathfinder Playtest Frequently Asked Questions”. Paizo Website. http://paizo.com/pathfinderplaytest/faq.