Despite my previous diatribes against character classes, I still like Pathfinder.
Pathfinder is the inheritor of the spirit (if not the intellectual property) of good ol’ Dungeons & Dragons and since my first gaming experience was with D&D, it was the yardstick by which I measure other games – at least until 4th edition, which, I did not care for much at all. (5th seems to be headed in the right direction but, in all honestly: I’ve never actually played it. I’ve just sunk too much money into other games and the “brand name” doesn’t mean as much to me these days.) Anyway. By becoming D&D v3.75, Pathfinder became my yardstick by default.
The main rulebook has a good number of classes, which you can customize with feats and skill selections. Thus you can build an archer-fighter, a strength-fighter, and a dexterity-fighter all the same level but all with completely different abilities. The Advanced Players Guide introduced the concept of Archetypes, which are basically sub-classes. Don’t like or don’t anticipate ever using a particular class ability? There’s probably an archetype that substitutes something better instead. The Advanced Players Guide as well as lots of other books published since added still more classes (and still more archetypes for said classes). Also there’s an uncountable amount of third-party compatible stuff out there.
With all of the above in play, there’s no reason why you can’t realize almost any campaign-appropriate character concept. Pathfinder is a player’s dream system.
That said, it can be challenging to game master.
Not so much if you’re running the pre-packaged adventures Paizo makes; they’re high quality and there’s plenty of them. But if you primarily run homebrewed campaigns, there can be a lot to keep track of.
The bewildering number of options available to every character makes it more difficult to design effective challenges for your players. For instance, you can’t count on Rogues to have the Trapfinding ability because a given player may have traded it away as part of taking some sort of con-man archetype. That’s really just one small example, but multiply that by 5-6 players and 20+ character classes and you realize that there’s a lot of variables that need juggled. You have to amass a tremendous body of knowledge to run a game. I don’t envy a new GM just starting out.
The choices can also be overwhelming for new players. IMHO, they tend to fall into two camps: Crammers and Explorers.
Crammers want to know everything. Rules mastery is a big thing for them and you can count on the Crammer to pick stuff up pretty quickly. If they can’t afford rulebooks (and you don’t have spares to lend) they go online and read the SRD. They’re motivated to have the best character they possibly can — which unfortunately usually equates to the most powerful character. They get help from message boards and player websites on how to optimize their characters and end up with a guy who’s super great at one particular task or style of combat and who sucks at everything else. There’s nothing inherently wrong with this per se, but it’s one of those things that makes it hard to plan a game. How many encounters are a challenge for the indestructible guy and won’t immediately destroy the wienies in the group?
Explorers tend to make seemingly random choices. They’re not so much interested in mastering the rules as they are just playing around to see what happens — or because they want to develop a particular concept. They build a character based on what seems cool at the time, which is fine, except Pathfinder isn’t set up to reward this style of play. Not all feats are equal and it’s entirely possible to make a wrong choice. For instance: the Run feat is just a bad choice. Choosing it will gimp up your character. An Explorer with Run is at a significant disadvantage against a Crammer with Power Attack — so they can become frustrated that their guy never seems to shine.
Explorers eventually either lose interest in the game or they wise up and become Crammers, so if you play long enough you’ll end up with a party of specialists, each of whom operate at level +2 within their area of specialty and at level -5 for everything else. Hard to juggle.
O.K. Looking back it seems like I’ve spent most of my time complaining about Pathfinder, which is probably misleading. There’s a lot of choices because there’s a lot of books. There’s a lot of books because there’s lots of players. There’s lots of players because it’s lots of fun. It’s so much fun that I wanted to publish for Pathfinder, even though there’s no 21st century setting. That’s why I wrote Modern Adventures. (One of those third party compatible things). paNik plans to publish for Pathfinder for as long as we can. It’s good stuff.