What is the difference between Dungeons & Dragons and Pathfinder?
August 23, 2013 7:55 AM   Subscribe

My friends tell me--not very helpfully--that D&D and Pathfinder are "the same but different." They're speaking in High Gamerspeak to a tabletop RPG n00b. I understand that the games are owned by different companies, and that Pathfinder is based on an earlier edition of D&D, but they sound pretty much the same to me. Is the "flavor" of the game different? I'm really not sure what questions to ask . . .
posted by jackypaper to Sports, Hobbies, & Recreation (9 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
My group just switched from playing D&D 3.5 to Pathfinder--this occurred pretty seamlessly because Pathfinder is based off of that D&D edition, like you mentioned (check out the Open Game License if you're interested in how this works). Think of it as D&D with some of its issues fixed by crowdsourcing.

Here are the big things I've noticed since the switch: more feats and more extended character class abilities; for example, my rogue now has access to cool talents that make her more versatile and interesting (without being overpowered); certain rules are simplified and streamlined, making things likes spellcasting much less complicated; you are less likely to be completely slaughtered due to a bad roll (which makes things more fun). And perhaps most interestingly, Pathfinder seems much less combat-focused, and you have more character flexibility for true role-playing. It's a more "open" game.
posted by gone2croatan at 8:16 AM on August 23, 2013

Since Pathfinder is based on the OGL, they also can't use some of the proprietary D&D settings, deity names, etc. So it takes place in their own setting. But you probably won't notice a difference on that level.
posted by jozxyqk at 8:18 AM on August 23, 2013

Best answer: Maybe this isn't going to be helpful, but as far as I can tell, having played both games for years: Pathfinder is basically the 3rd edition D&D rules, cleaned up and streamlined a bit. Some skills have been merged (e.g., spot, listen, search are all combined under "perception" instead), some feats have been changed, and so forth. It's not significantly different in the way that 3rd edition was from 2nd, or 4th from 3rd. Essentially: yeah, they're pretty much the same. The "flavor" is very much the same; my gaming group played 3rd edition/3.5 D&D for YEARS, and tried 4th edition when it came out. We found that 4th edition (the most current one, though Wizards of the Coast is playtesting a 5th edition) was too "wargame-y" (i.e., there's a lot of focus on moving minis around the table) for our tastes, and switched to Pathfinder instead, because it's pretty much 3rd edition D&D with a name change.
posted by Janta at 8:21 AM on August 23, 2013

Pathfinder took the really beloved 3.5 edition of D&D and built off of that (you'll hear it called D&D 3.75). It's very strongly D&Dish, but with different lore and slightly different rules. Whereas Wizards took D&D and made 4.0, which went a completely different combat-based direction, kind of like a tabletop MMO.

The biggest change in Pathfinder (imo) is that they take all the weird nitpicky D&D rules and revamp them to make sense. Instead of "skills have a max rank of level + 3 and non-class skills take 2 skill points to make 1 point and their max rank is half of level +3", Pathfinder has "skills have max rank of level. Class skills get a bonus". Instead of "cross-class characters take xp penalties unless it's a favored class for their race", Pathfinder does "you pick your favored class, and get bonuses each level you take in that class". It's way more bonus-based, and less penalty-based.
posted by specialagentwebb at 8:35 AM on August 23, 2013

Yeah, pretty much what has been said. If you know the difference between D&D 3.0 and D&D 3.5 I'd say it is about the same level of changes. The combat rules have been streamlined in a lot of ways, particularly grappling and tricks like trip, which have also been made a little less powerful.

The classes have all been redone, so there are fewer dead levels now, and casters have more interesting things to do at low levels, and there are more interesting options aside from feats: Barbarians get rage abilities, Sorcerers get bloodlines, and Wizards get specialties. Rogues get various small abilities, and Paladins get stuff they can add on to their Lay On Hands that do cool things.

The races have small tweaks, and new backgrounds, each is a bit more powerful and better balanced between them.

Feats are redone to be less of a pain: Power Attack now gives a flat bonus, as does Dodge, no more having to do math each round, or remember to pick a target.

Basically, you could sit down with a pregen and not notice you are playing Pathfinder for a good long while, until something that was different like Grappling or charging came up.
posted by Canageek at 12:26 PM on August 23, 2013

Game-mechanics aside, the 'owned by different companies' bit means that Pathfinder is being expanded on regularly by its owner (Paizo), with new material coming out frequently, whereas D&D 3.5 (Wizards of the Coast) isn't really officially supported anymore -- the publisher has moved on to a 4th (and now 5th) edition of the rules, which aren't compatible mechanics-wise with the earlier versions.
posted by cjelli at 12:47 PM on August 23, 2013

Also on the "owned by different companies" front, Paizo was a publishing partner for Wizards of The Coast throughout 3E and 3.5E, responsible for putting out both Dragon Magazine and Dungeon.

In part Pathfinder was Paizo's reaction to being told that their services wouldn't be needed for 4th Edition because WotC was going to publish those periodicals as e-magazines and write them in-house.
posted by radwolf76 at 1:55 PM on August 23, 2013

The "flavor" of the games are virtually identical, such that you would probably have a hard time figuring out which table was playing which if you put both games next to each other and couldn't see the rulebooks. Pathfinder is basically D&D 3.5 with some subtle and some not-so-subtle tweaks to de-emphasize combat just a bit and elevate the use of non-combat skills and social roleplaying.

Because you're new to tabletop roleplaying, some backstory: Gygax creates a game called Chainmail in the 70s, which is a wargame with precision movement of pieces on a demarcated board (I believe they used hexes, not the more currently common squares). He and his friends figure out that giving personalities to their figures is kind of interesting, and make D&D. Fast forward a number of years, and the then-owner of the brand, TSR, releases D&D 2nd Edition (2e or 2.0). This standardizes the now-ubiquitous character creation of race + class, more streamlined combat mechanics, and more structured level benefits. It also introduces an opposed scheme of proficiencies, with "Weapon Proficiencies" on one side and "Non-Weapon Proficiencies" on the other. Weapon Proficiencies tell you the specific ways in which your character commits gleeful genocide; Non-Weapon Proficiencies tell you if your useful idiot can read or tie a knot. A lot of people think the new Non-Weapon Proficiencies are dumb, because they just want to hit goblins until all the coins come out. But some people increasingly like this idea, that you can have a character that has more defined abilities and a way to formalize and adjudicate non-combat opportunities.

So then people say, hmm, what if we took these standard classes, fighter and thieves and wizards and such, and applied pre-defined templates of weapon and non-weapon proficiencies to them? Like, I have a fighter, but she's a gladiator and an ex-slave, so she should be really good at punching people (unarmed combat), juicing up the crowd (performance abilities), and scaring people with her ridiculous number of scars (intimidation and persuasion). Cool, that sounds like a thing most gladiators would be good at. So they made what were called "kits", basically templates of stereotypical ideas formalized in the mechanics that were applied on top of the base classes. So you could have three fighters in your party, but if one's an archer and one's a general and one's a street brawler, you have three fairly different characters and personalities and skillsets.

Ok, fast-forward a little more. D&D is now owned by Wizards of the Coast, who are real tired of supporting a game system they didn't have anything to do with making, so here comes D&D 3.0. There are two key changes here. First, while people pretty much always used hex or square maps to visualize their games, there wasn't a real need for it if you didn't have it. D&D 3.0 made rigid a necessity for those maps by introducing strict character abilities defined in terms of squares: a character can run 6 squares, step one square without using a movement action, attack two squares away, etc. etc. Second, Weapon Proficiencies and Non-Weapon Proficiencies are transformed into Feats and Skills. Feats not only tell you what weapons you can use but what cool kinds of tricks you can do with them, like firing a bow while running or swinging a sword 360 degrees to hit everyone around you. Skills tell you what your character's good at that isn't directly related to murder, and man, there's a lot of them. An entire campaign may hinge on whether you put 4 points or 5 in Use Rope, and my laughter frequently depends on whether you were dumb enough to put any points there at all. Every class gets a certain number of Feats and Skills depending on whether they're stereotypically more well-rounded and versatile (Rogues, Rangers) or demand blood for the blood god (Fighters, Wizards).

3.0 is kind of a mess, as you might expect when a company dusts off a 30-year-old game and tries to stick it directly into some largely untested systems, so 3.5 comes out a few years later and addresses the most egregious hacks and exploits, but for the purposes of this question, 3.5 and 3.0 are basically interchangeable so I'm going to stop using decimals now. Ok. WotC begins to introduce D&D 4th Edition (4e). You may have noticed by now that every edition is a pretty radical revamp of the core concept and mechanics. Well, 4e doesn't look like anything D&D nerds have seen before. Without bloviating too much more[edit: spoiler: yes I do], WotC introduce into the game ideas from collectible card games, MMOs, and other sources to simplify a lot of things. Skills now rise automatically with level, no points need to be assigned. Every class has a selection of powers, from use all the time to use when getting your face melted off to use when you want to impress a barmaid. Classes are now somewhat reduced in importance, with the idea of party roles coming to the fore (Strikers deal damage, Leaders buff and heal, etc., very MMO-like).

So a lot of people go, hey, you got your shitty video games in my D&D peanut butter, and also you're standing on my lawn. So the company Paizo sees an opportunity and creates Pathfinder. Pathfinder is basically D&D 3e with a bunch of 2e ideas thrown in, like templates to modify the structure of a base class. This makes people with dicebags over 30 very happy, because honestly, even though 2e was an even bigger mess, it's the edition a lot of people grew up with and those old ideas still have some purchase.

Whew. Ok. In Pathfinder, you can modify racial benefits by swapping out traits, effectively creating your own racial "kit". There are a number of similar templates for every class, which modify or replace class abilities according to theme and provide different emphases for advancement, so you have class "kits" as well. In D&D 3e, you paid 2x the cost to buy skills that weren't "class skills" (considered part of the stereotypical class member's skillset), and there were skills that pretty much had to be purchased in tandem, like Hide and Move Silently or Listen, Spot, and Search, which reduced the utility of extra skill points for skill-based characters. In Pathfinder, a lot of those skills have been combined into one. All ranks in skills cost the same, but characters get a one-time bonus to any class skill with a rank, so a Rogue may have more Stealth initially than a Fighter, and will continue to if they both rank it up equally, but a Fighter could outstrip a Rogue if the latter stops caring about that skill. Strict area demarcation in feat and class abilities is somewhat reduced; Pathfinder tends to say things like "around you" instead of "every adjacent square", which doesn't seem like much but really helps if you're not using a grid and miniatures to visualize your game. In D&D 3e, clerics have the ability to channel energy to either dispel or command undead, based on whether they're good or evil. In Pathfinder, they still have that ability, but they can also instead heal or harm in a radius around them, which again might not seem like much of a tweak, but if you're playing a D&D cleric on the Island of No Undead Allowed Ever Vecna This Means You, you have a central class feature that doesn't do anything, and that kind of sucks.

So there's a bunch of things like that, which is why D&D 3e and Pathfinder are the same but different. They are closer to each other than either is to D&D 4e, and Pathfinder is best understood in terms of wanting to continue and innovate upon the core ideas of D&D 3e that a lot of people really liked and didn't want to go away. I like it a lot more than D&D 3e, although opinions obviously vary, because it does a wonderful job to retouching common tropes in D&D-land to great roleplaying effect, while retaining an offensive number of goblins who have yet to pay out, fuckers.
posted by Errant at 6:38 AM on August 24, 2013 [4 favorites]

4th edition combat takes a very long time compared to Pathfinder, at first you might try to RP but in the 3rd hour of the combat you just pick one of those little ability cards you can still use and read the title, roll your dice and hope it ends soon. I suspect 4th can be done well, but it takes a GM of much greater skill to keep it interesting and make the combats flow, whereas a fair to middling GM can run a fun Pathfinder game more easily. Pathfinder does require more out of game planning (picking things, GM needs to put in more work etc) but in return you usually get a more rewarding game.
posted by meepmeow at 11:48 AM on August 25, 2013

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