The internet appears to exist in two camps: those that praise 5E for being accessible, elegant, and a return to the classic days of D&D without sacrificing new avenues AND those that hate 5E, and call it D&D for babies. While Pathfinder is the essential "D&D 3.75," fixing the broken nature of 3E, and 3.5, with nautical tons of published content, options, and possibilities - D&D superheroes with limitless possibilities. Or that Pathfinder is an overcomplicated, standardized system where rules rule all and the amount of required reading far outweighs the power of play.
And I say to you, hordes of the internet, is it too much to enjoy both?
Seriously. Why pick sides, when you could just enjoy both for their individual merits? I play Pathfinder and 5E. I play Fate Core, and Starfinder, and Serenity RPG, and Exalted, and Werewolf. I enjoy them all. ...You're allowed to like multiple things, people!
But for a lot of folks, it comes down to preference and what they can get into initially. We live in a world of global understanding. Say the word "gym" and everyone gets a pretty clear image in mind. Say D&D, and anyone with a concept of a D20 system starts making some assumptions, and has a basic framework. Say Pathfinder, and the circle gets smaller, and there have been many moments where players have wondered "what's the difference?" Why pursue Pathfinder when I have 5E, or why look at 5th Edition when I already have Pathfinder?
As someone versed in both, and who actively plays in both often, let's break it down. :)
Rules and the Role of the GM - Social Paradigm
The first major difference is one found in the social philosophy that surrounds each game, and the observed trend of mentality across general play. What I'm pointing to are the social trends at the table, and how each system supports or struggles with a certain paradigm. The question is this: Are the rules flexible?
Now, it's often an assumed answer in most tabletop scenarios that the GM rules as they see fit; if something makes more sense to the narrative, the circumstance, the rule of cool...whatever your term - this is a social, group game - the GM can rule differently. However, not every system makes this understanding a PART OF THEIR RULE SET explicitly. Pathfinder does not, while 5th Edition does, and what this does in broad strokes is build two distinct types of players: 1) Players that interpret rules as written universally (RAW), and will fight the GM on rulings, and 2) players that interpret the rules as guidelines and openly accept and play-test homebrewing, circumstantial rulings, and work with the GM. While one camp keeps things mechanically sound and universal table-to-table, they don't give the GM a lot of narrative wiggle room (from a mechanical standpoint, we'll get to social soon), the other supports cooperative interpretation of the rules. Hell, even the dudes and dudettes that helped write the damn Player's Handbook use a ton of homebrew rules and content in their home games. The door is open, people.
These two camps represent the extremes, and there are thousands of striations in the middle, but it does reveal an interesting trend in the standardization of play table to table. Pathfinder offers so many options, with so many numbers, that the whole thing WORKS no matter who is running it; it is mechanically sound from a mathematical perspective, but (often) can result in more arguments if you have a looser DM and stricter, rule-based players. But 5th Edition, with its looser approach to running the game, opens the door to ALLOW higher mechanics if desired, but never requiring it. The ruleset is flexible enough to augment in subtle ways to add complexity, or strip down to bare essentials, and both approaches are supported; you won't break anything. All of this can be waived with a good group and clear social contract, so the systems themselves may not be fully to blame; these are just my initial musings.
In my experience, players that approach 5E from a Pathfinder background are industrial, mechanics focused, and eager to try strange builds. It supports organizational creativity, but they are often disappointed at the smaller number of perceived options out of the gate. My players that approach Pathfinder from a 5E background are immediately overwhelmed with the breadth of material (creating a Level 1 character should not take 2 hours, new system or not), and for some, the level of bookkeeping out of the gate turns them off completely...but those who stick around enjoy what is a highly versatile system that, once you get it down, can be truly amazing - it just requires a lot more investment.
I'd be lying if I said Pathfinder was easy. I've been playing it 10 years, and there's still things I forget about. True, I don't have to study it as deeply as 5E for my job (YET...the podcast is coming), but the learning through osmosis was essential. And, each time I build a character, I go through the process all over again. There's a lot to flip over from the D&D editions, and the parallels are pretty interesting, but you have to know what you're looking at to make the numbers work. I HIGHLY RECOMMEND investing in a fillable, calculating PDF when building a character. It not only puts numbers where you sometimes forget they'd go, but in working with the calculator, you'll start to figure out more directly how the game functions mechanically.
With so much content available, streamlining it all into a digestible format can be very time-consuming (future blog topic), and I think that this fact is the main blame to character creation taking so long. There are lists upon tables upon subtables upon archetypes upon traits and so many floating modifiers and circumstantial bonuses...that it can get a little nuts. BUT once it's learned, the system is extremely powerful. ...But it has to be LEARNED.
D&D 5TH EDITION
Anyone with access to the Open SRD content can begin play in the 5th Edition ruleset, as it was released for free to the public via the internet. Now, to be clear, Pathfinder started MUCH SMALLER than what it is now, just like 5E, so the size isn't what I'm arguing here. It's the lack of initial numbers, and ease of organization.
Emphasis is placed on narrative interest and group play as the main paradigm, and the language used, though employing game terms, is much smoother and easily accessible. Spellcasting requires less bookkeeping (we'll get to it), the system is more forgiving, there are less circumstantial modifiers (though they're still there), and everything feels cleaner in its organization. Less reading required, and many less moments of looking back and forth from different sections during character creation.
So let's break down the big differences, why they're there, and how I choose to roll with them at my table.
Confirmed Critical (PF)
What it is: When you roll a Critical success, often referred to as a Natural 20, but in Pathfinder threat ranges can be wider - so a "Crit" could be on a rolled 19, or 18, and so on. When this happens, you don't start your multiplier celebration; instead, you roll to "confirm" the critical by rolling the dice again to meet or beat their AC. If that SECOND roll is successful, then you start doing your crazy critical bonuses. If NOT, you still hit them, congratulations, roll damage.
Why is it there? - The critical bonuses in Pathfinder get a little nuts. Not only do you have weapons that crit on a 18-20, but some of those take the damage and multiply it by 3, or 4, or 5. Others get extra swings, special effects, bleed damage... Nasty stuff. So, increased critical chance mixed with huge consequences created an extra check to help justify the nasty.
Do I use it? - No. And here's why. Rolling a critical is celebratory, and being on the other end (as player) when you *finally* roll a crit, only to then roll to confirm and fail...takes the wind right out of my sails. If you work so hard to fight for that critical, only to have it fail anyway...it just sucks. In a game where creatures can have 40 AC and 2000 HP...yeah, buddy, you own that crit. Have fun. AND I'M NOT THE ONLY ONE THAT DOES THIS. Countless GMs, friends, and fellow player outright wave this rule. It cuts down the time, keeps the game rolling, and joins in on the celebration of the luck mechanic in the game.
Skill Ranks (PF)
What it is: Each level your character is awarded a handful of points (your class allowance + your intelligence modifier) to distribute as extra number bonuses to the skills of your choice. If a skill is included in the list given by your collected classes (because multiclassing expands this list), then adding as little as 1 Rank in it gives an additional +3 bonus (trained bonus) to it once. You can never have more Ranks in a skill than your total character level.
Why is it there? - This is one of the ways that Pathfinder avoids a blanket Proficiency Bonus and puts more agency into the player each level. It creates a pool of customization; you can choose to play into your inherent strengths by pouring points into "trained" skills, or just put them in any skills you like. You'll still get the Rank bonuses, and it helps you mitigate skills you were initially weak in. (this is how I got around Bigby's AWFUL perception bonus...put Ranks into it)
What do I think? - This is one of my favorite things about leveling up in Pathfinder because I'm a skill tree kid. There's a clear correlation between the point I put into a skill and what it will do in the game. This is how you get +20 to skill checks, people. And with no cap on the numbers in Pathfinder, you can go for the highest bonus you can. Plus, it adds to the level of customization; it's a core element, and I still love it.
Base Attack Bonus (PF) vs Proficiency Bonus (5E)
What it is: Base Attack Bonus (BAB) is a general bonus that is added to all attack rolls in Pathfinder, while your Proficiency Bonus is a general bonus added to attacks and trained skills in 5th Edition. Pathfinder - increases as you level up; some classes it follows your level, while others progress slower, and it is a cumalitive total in all classes that you have levels. 5th Edition - Proficiency Bonus starts at +2 (added to trained skills and attack rolls) and increases by +1 at distinct total level tiers, ending at a static +6 at 17th level.
Why is it there? - BAB and PB in both games are a numerical representation of your overall ability to do things. In Pathfinder, it ends up being an extra bonus to attacks, and 5th Edition uses it in place of Skill Ranks, and as a bonus to attack rolls, and saving throws.
What do I think? - Both make sense for the games they are in. The numbers get bigger in Pathfinder. Everything is tighter (lower numbers) in 5th Edition, so of course they rolled Skill Ranks and BAB into a general progressive bonus. Less to manage, and it works.
Full Attack Round (PF) vs Extra Attack (5E)
What it is: Pathfinder: As you progress in level in a single class, there is a moment where one gains access to a second attack. This second attack, however, suffers a -5 penalty to its roll. So, effectively, if one were to attack twice, the bonuses would be +6/+1 (before adding Strength or Dexterity modifiers that is). Also, you can only take that second attack if you move no more than 5 feet (1 square) this round. This is referred to as a Full-Attack Around, where you stand mostly still and wail on your opponent. As your BAB increases, though, your amount of attacks available also increases, and before you know it you're attacking 4 times in a round. 5th Edition - *some* classes gain access to the Extra Attack feature at 5th level, allowing you to make a second attack when you take the Attack Action on your turn. There is no penalty to this second attack, and you can move freely on your turn within your movement speed. Only the Fighter gains access to 4 attacks when taking the Attack Action at 20th level.
Why is it there? - It takes time, energy, and focus to hit multiple times or to fire multiple shots, and Pathfinder represents this effort by creating penalties or limiters to ensure that a player must sacrifice something to swing their axe and cleave down an army. 5th Edition supports faster combat with straightforward Action Economy, so the bonus never changes no matter how many attacks you have (less math) and believes that the more skilled you are with a weapon, the more efficiently you can attack, therefore it would never sacrifice movement.
What do I think? - I think the Full-Attack Round overcomplicates things, but I understand the penalties from a mechanical perspective. For ease of play, I have seen GMs rule that once you gain access to that second attack, you can just attack twice now, and still move freely. In my games, I still use the scaling penalties, but allow movement; because hey, if YOU guys can attack 3 times and be mobile, so can my monsters, so it's still fair. Any adjustments I make are made on both sides of the table.
Feats, ASI, and Attribute Limits (PF and 5E)
What it is: Okay. I've gotta' break this down carefully.
Feats in Pathfinder - ...are essential. They are many, and some are hyper-specific, while others are generally awesome. Some offer circumstantial bonuses or abilities to support specific builds, while others give static bonuses to help off-set flaws. And MANY have specific prerequisites in order to be taken in the first place, so "Feat Chaining" is required to get the most out of the system (and there's a lot to read). Because they're so important, EVERYONE gets them at every odd total level, regardless of class, and other classes gain Bonus Feats at specific levels.
Feats in 5th Edition - ...are optional. They are a variant rule employed by most GMs that allows players to opt out of their Ability Score Increase (or ASI) to instead take a Feat. Each Feat grants a main benefit, sometimes with a +1 to a specific ability score (as per the flavor of the Feat), with a few auxiliary benefits as well. Since you're giving up a numerical increase, you often get quite a bit from each Feat, and very few have prerequisites. Racial Feats complicate this truth slightly, but there you go.
Ability Score Increases in Pathfinder - ...Occur every 4 levels. You may increase an Ability Score by 1. There is no limit to the Ability Score number (I've had a Strength of 30 before).
Ability Score Increases in 5th Edition - ...are tied to the progression in a certain class. Most classes get them every 4 levels in that class, but others get extras at specific intervals (*cough*, Fighters and Rogues, *cough*). At each ASI, you have 2 points to distribute to your Ability Scores. HOWEVER, you cannot increase an Ability Score beyond 20.
Why is it there? - Pathfinder is a system of micro adjustments, and each Feat is an interesting choice for the player, but the benefits are minimal at the onset...awesome as the game progresses. It's a slow burn, like building a mech, and when your character comes online, all that careful selection and planning makes you a god. But you need to plan well. 5th Edition keeps numbers tight, so it's a trade to take a Feat, but what you get is so much more in comparison - more options, powers, and flexibility. Or you can play without them, and lose nothing in the flow of the game. Play without Feats in Pathfinder? Oops. I broke it. ;)
What do I think? - I've always been good at organizational creativity, so the Feat Chain only bothers me when I'm a caster, because I'm managing spells too. And because I love numbers, the Feats that create those insane bonuses are a rush to play with...but navigating the swell of feats available and sorting great from good from junk is a process. Again, 5th Edition is fast and most feats can be taken by anyone, making it less of a predetermined path for the ideal build, and more a cool character choice to open up a few options.
What it is: Woof. This is the big one. In Pathfinder and 5th Edition, you can prepare a certain number of spells to cast based on a few factors each day/long rest. That's not our issue.
As per RAW, in Pathfinder: You prepare EACH CASTING of a spell, and once it's spent, it's gone. So, if I prepare Cure Light Wounds... I've prepared to cast it once. Once I cast that spell, I can't cast it again, even if I have more Spells Per Day available. I would have had to prepare it as a casting again. So if I've got three Spells Per Day, and I want to cast Cure Light Wounds three times that day, then my prepared spells look like this: Cure Light Wounds, Cure Light Wounds, Cure Light Wounds. ALSO, many spells have more powerful versions at higher levels...that you must learn individually, like a brand new spell.
In 5th Edition: you prepare the use of a certain number of spells each Long Rest, not the number of casts of each spell. So you could prepare Cure Wounds, but still expend all of your first level spell slots (not spells per day) by casting Bane 3 times instead. This isn't a waste of Cure Wounds because of the added benefit of Spell Slots, where you could simply cast Cure Wounds (a 1st-level spell) using a 2nd level Spell Slot and make it more powerful at the same time.
Why is it there? - Power is important in Pathfinder, and knowledge is power. Magic is also much more discrete and distinct, so power levels are explicit. So spells of varying power levels are much more complex than their weaker counterparts, therefore they should be treated as separate spells. 5th Edition frees up magic use and interpretation, using Spell Slots to make casting more flexible and keep caster options open.
What do I think? - I've never employed this rule completely in Pathfinder. Ever. Any caster I've played, and any caster that's played with me, has held to the prepared spells rule, but never the number of casts per spell name. You have three 1st level spells per day, you prepared Bane, Cure Light Wounds, and Bless. This means you have three options every time you cast, not one casting of each spell. Why be that way? In extension, 5th Edition wins here, clearly and distinctly, because of Spell Slots.
If I'm a Wizard and I learned to cast the spell Sleep, why do I have to learn a more powerful version of it later? As I level up, it's implied that I'm learning quite a bit about the weave of magic and gain access to more powerful spell levels anyway, so why can't I just cast Sleep at a higher level? Nope, you need Sleep II, or Sleep IV. But in 5th Edition? Yeah, go ahead. Add an extra 2d8 per level above 1st. Great! Thanks, buddy.
You know what this also does? CUTS THE BOOK IN HALF. What a concept. Write the spell once, add a blurb of what it looks like at higher levels, and you're DONE. Duh.
Traits (PF)* vs Backgrounds (5E)
What is a Trait?
Traits are considered backstory "seeds" that give a mechanical benefit equal to about half a Feat at character creation. If used, characters can take up to 2 Traits, and never 2 traits in the same category (Combat, Racial, Regional, Religion, Faith, Campaign, Social, Equipment, Family, Magic, Mount). If you want more Traits, you may take Drawbacks - penalties that tie into possible story hooks or detriments - and gain more Traits. GM approval required.
*Not all GMs play with Traits. I've met a lot of Game Masters, and guys that have been running the system for eons didn't know they existed. With so much available at the onset of play, many feel Traits unnecessary, but including them can help create a clearer picture of where the character came from while adding a *minor* mechanical boon on top of it.
Backgrounds are important in 5E, but not really. The ones available in the book and their accompanying features are published options, yes, but you can just as easily pick 2 skills to be proficient in and a language, and roll it all into your origin story. Either way, you'll get two free skills and often a language or toolset, in addition to what your class and race give you. Again, simple, straightforward, let's play.
A Few Extra Notes
PATHFINDER has A LOT of options. Races, weapons, armor, potions, magic items...it's huge, and has a very effective and extensive crafting system supported by all those options. It is an involved system that rewards industrial planning and creative problem-solving, and remains at the heart of some of my most epic sessions. ...But you've gotta' put in the time to get the ruleset down, and it can get a little involved.
5TH EDITION has A LOT of flexibility, and can swing toward more complex features or toward more streamlined options without sacrificing balance. The material is straightforward and clear, and easily digested at the onset. Sure, there's layers, but you'll get playing fast.
Anything can be spoiled by a bad GM, or a bad table, but that's not the fault of a system. Create an effective Social Contract before engaging in any tabletop experience.
As with any game, the GM can choose to add or omit anything she pleases, as long as she discusses and justifies it with the players. A Feat you don't agree with? Strike it from the system. A rule that makes you feel weird? Make an adjustment and test it out. None of this is in stone, which is why I don't understand some of the hate being flung over a social fantasy game on some of the forums these days.
If you're still on the fence, pick one and try it out. What's the worst that could happen? You don't enjoy yourself? Great. Try something different. The best teacher is experience.
See you at the table.
PS: Next week will be centered on New Beginnings. Campaigns have ended, here's to the new adventurers!
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Professional Game Master musician, music teacher, game designer, and aspiring fiction author.