A Rookie’s View of Pathfinder

"He's not wearing any PAAAAAAAANTS!"

Robot Viking has been sadly lacking in coverage of Paizo’s excellent Pathfinder extension of the D&D 3.5 rules (and accompanying campaign world). That’s not by design — I just don’t play Pathfinder, and I always look like a twit when I try to speak authoritatively about things I know very little about (not that that always stops me). Luckily, fellow Viking Billy Gibbs is running a summer Pathfinder campaign. Even though Pathfinder has been around for a while, he’s looking at it with fresh eyes.

Now, let me get one thing out of the way before I start rambling. I have never played D&D 3.5, and believe that 4th is a fairly decent skirmish game, even if everything has too much HP. Although the edition wars still rage on less savory websites, I’d like to think that we Cybernetic Norsemen are above such petty differences. Still, comparisons are unavoidable when Pathfinder is touted as the true fourth edition by some folks who can be quite scary. Anyway, let me get back on track, I have not played 3, 3.5, 3.14159 or any of those ones that start with 3. I have played a decent amount of 4th, so that will be what I will be making most of my comparisons to.

The first thing I noticed when trying to set up encounters as a DM was the Challenge Ratings don’t match up to player level in a 1:1 manner. In Fourth Edition a monster is given an approximate level in comparison to the PCs. For example a level 2 young Kruthik is approximately equal to a level 2 PC of a comparative role. In Pathfinder the CR indicates its power level in comparison to a party of four PCs a CR 2 bugbear could hold his own against four level 2 PCs. This isn’t an exact science so it’s often not a good idea to send those PCs after that bugbear unless you know a bit about the party and a real good idea of how that creature fights or else your combat could go massively wrong in either direction. This is especially true for spell casting bad guys. These guys are glass cannons in the most terrifying sense, with little armor and less health they go down easy. Defend them well if they’re key to a campaign or encounter, otherwise your PCs will be disappointed, and so will you.

This lack of health is a great thing in my book. Everything has small amounts of health, and puts out comparatively large amounts of damage. This lethality in combat keeps the pace going and I’ve found encourages role-playing in combat simply because when you can’t just take hits all day you’re much more inclined to negotiate or retreat, deciding that you might want to work out a plan before you pounce is suggested.

I’m a combat oriented DM so my thoughts naturally go towards combat and  I chose Pathfinder based largely on how combat functioned. That and how magic feels like magic. I know a lot of folks complain about how 4th is WoW and ruining RPGs forever and I would have to disagree with them. It’s not WoW, it’s Final Fantasy Tactics: Tabletop Edition. The downside with this focus on tactical combat is that they’ve made magic feel mundane. Nearly all the spells are combat oriented, gouts of flame, and such. Nothing wrong with shooting fire, but when magic feels the same as archery, there’s a bit of a problem. Pathfinder has spells that do all sorts of weird magical things. Heck, it’s possible to make a wizard in Pathfinder with no damaging spells and try to MacGuyver your way through life with those non–combat utility spells [Like my old illusionist sorceror! – Ed.]. Making each spell only able to be cast once per day does seem to slow down the progression with regard to in-game time, due to the need to stop and camp quite often to recharge everything, but that allows the effects you get from spells and abilities to be more massive than as is generally allowed in 4E.

Another big difference is the skill system. In Pathfinder, you put ranks in skills as you level up, and you cannot put more ranks into any particular skill than your total number of hit dice, essentially your total level including any multi-classing. This causes characters to be more of a jack of all trades than in 4th where you are just trained in a few skills with a +5 bonus to those skills, and are generally ineffectual in the rest. I prefer the more varied method because it allows me, as DM, to throw more skill challenges at the PCs without the fear that it’ll be something they stand no chance at succeeding in.

Overall I think I prefer Pathfinder to 4th for my gaming group at home. It better fits the style of play that we’re looking for, although I’m still trying to convince them Shadowrun is a good idea. I do look forward to the return to university and the Legend of Zelda themed campaign I’m playing there. Deku Wizard GO!

27 Responses to A Rookie’s View of Pathfinder

  1. There’s also a really vigorous third-party publishing environment for Pathfinder (which, as a partner in Super Genius Games, I see as a good thing). I you’re interested in seeing what some 3pp have to offer drop me a line and we’ll get you something.

  2. I really liked Pathfinder. I participated in the Beta and rushed to purchase the core rules when it released at GenCon. An incident I had with the publisher while purchasing the book led me to use dollar votes and move away from the Pathfinder System. I acknowledge that I’m missing a solid system for fantasy role playing now.

  3. Ouch, sorry you had a bad experience. I’ve never dealt with them in person, I got my book from Borders, but I’ve liked the samples of stuff they put out on their website. The beta test stuff is especially nice. Seems a great way to build interest in the product, and it’s fun for free which gives them my vote. One of my players is a Summoner, and it’s pretty crazy playing 2+characters at a time.

  4. If you like Pathfinder, then you will be happy to hear that the adventure you reviewed for us, as well as the future adventures, now comes in Pathfinder RPG flavor as well! Let me know if you are interested, I will get you a copy.

  5. @OStephens: 3rd party content is both a boon and a bane. I love the new ideas and fresh takes. I hate having to evaluate a thousand different takes on game design and balance against each other. When somebody wants to bring 3rd party content into my game, I need to go over it to see what it does to the theme of my campaign, what rules problems it can cause, and look for interactions between the new rules and everything else. (I have some players that will innocently request a bunch of innocuous additions, and then after each of them has been in the campaign for a while they will combine them into a devastating combination that provides effects far out of line of the power.

    @ggodo: You say that 4e magic isn’t special? In some cases that based on what you bring to the table. I’m a veteran of a lot of effects-based superhero games (like champions and M&M). These games are based on the idea of building a power based on effects and then clothing it with appropriate special effects. Rules-wise a rocket launcher and a fireball are built the same. It’s the roleplaying that sets them apart instead of the rules. 4e is somewhere in between. There is more difference between different classes’ attacks than in M&M, but less than 3.x. It takes a little more work to find the special, but it’s there.

  6. Speaking as a full-on 4E fan, I can say the magic is worlds apart. In our 3.5 campaign, we fought an *army* of orcs by combining spells (basically creating a temporary dam, some illusory terrain, then releasing the dammed river when the army walked into its path). In 4E that kind of thing just doesn’t happen. 4E magic is squad-level tactical. You have to bend over backwards to get the kind of broad, spectacular effects possible in earlier editions. It doesn’t matter how you dress it up or role-play it, you’re still only dazing a burst worth of bad guys and dealing xW damage.

  7. I agree with Ed.

    In 4e, for the most part, a Sorcerer isn’t a Sorcerer until she rolls initiative.

    Now, once the dice start rolling, my Sorcerer manages some pretty spectacular effects every now and then. No temporary dams or illusory terrain on the scale Ed’s talking, but she did knock a roc out of the sky while in its clutches at about 200 feet. Sure, it survived. But, then again, so did she.

  8. Yep, I’m in the same boat as Ed. As a fan of 4e, it fails on a level bigger than squad, or…well, outside of a fight. Things like Skill Challenges help, but the fact of the matter is, Rogue, Warlock…same difference, on some level.

    What I think would really help fix that is a “Book of Utility Powers” that…well, that let INTERESTING spells from earlier editions show up, & give martial (et al) characters things to do outside of fights, too. Like a Charm Person that works outside of a brawl or something like “Intimidating Glower” for a Fighter etc. Stuff you can do that is not “I hit it with my weapon/spell for damage.”

  9. Mordicai you’ve just spotted my biggest problem with 4e, there’s nothing to do outside of combat other than rituals with ridiculous casting times. there’s very few ways to let your abilities affect a non-combat scenario, and quite frankly I think it’s a bit ridiculous. Where are the hovering disks used to ferry stuff around? Where are my weird spells that do things other than causing pain? The game needs more utility powers that can effect the exploring and diplomacy parts of the game and quite frankly I don’t care who gets them as long as they’re there. As it stands it’s kinda like Necromunda or Mordheim. They’re skirmish games designed to be played in a perpetual ‘league’ of sorts. Like how Battlefield has persistent characters, but gameplay is drop into a map, kill the other team and get some exp, then get more if you win. This is great for what it is, but I’ve found the non-combat craziness has generated the most stories from my group, and I have just now realized I got swpt up in The Edition Wars

  10. I don’t think pointing out the valid shortcomings of an edition in the traditional Robot Viking manner (well-reasoned, with minimal frothing) counts as “edition wars.” If you follow Wizards’ fan pages on Facebook, every time they make a D&D announcement, there’s a cavalcade of trolls spouting irrational vitriol against 4E. We’re having more a of an edition skirmish. :-)

    While I agree that non-combat powers are very lacking, I challenge the idea that 4E is just a combat league. It goes back to the premise that you get out of an RPG what you put into it. There’s plenty of 4E fluff to help build good non-combat encounters out of. If we don’t have cool magical problem-solving tools and crazy spells, that shouldn’t hinder us from good role-playing.

  11. Well, in Necromunda there is some light role-playing when back at camp after a fight, you look for supplies, try to sell whatever loot you were fighting over, and all that is role-played, it just doesn’t have much support in game rules. I just really wish that exploration didn’t get the short straw of utility powers.

  12. Some of the spells you’re missing are now rituals. Tenser’s Floating Disc, Comprehend Language, Rope Trick… all rituals now. And they all take 10 minutes to cast.

  13. Yeah, but part of my problem is that all the little spells take ten minutes and a bunch of gold to cast when Pathfinder let’s you do them for significantly smaller amounts of both..

  14. Solving challenges through roleplaying & problem solving is all well & good…but it seems incongruant. I mean, low-fi & gritty skill challenges are fun but when combat swings into action you are…summoning comic stars & teleporting & doing some pretty high-fantasy stuff. I’d just like the options to, you know, bridge that divide.

  15. It’s sorta like how when some dies in Final Fantasy they’re fine after a rest in the inn, but Aeris is still dead.

  16. We were confronted with a door made of corpses once. I burned it down. Burning Spray is an effective out-of-combat option when dealing with corpse-doors.

  17. I agree that we haven’t devolved into edition wars. For one thing, we actually listen to what everybody else is saying. :)

    When you bring up the out of combat use of magic, it definitely changes the argument and I see your point. One way to help this that I’ve used are focuses that eliminate (or reduce) the costs for rituals and reduce the time. 1 minute is usually quick enough to be useful. I’ve also heard of DM’s letting people use healing surges to cast rituals in combat time.

    Another fact to consider is that while spellcasters have become less special, non-spellcasters have become more special. Many fighters only had to decide where to set the power attack slider and then just roll a bunch of dice. It’s something to consider in the mix.

    Personally I play both 3.5 and 4e (among other non-D&D games), but I only gm 4e now. I’m interested in pathfinder, but right now, all my gaming slots are filled. Also, I’m worried that the benefits of pathfinder over 3.5 are worth buying a whole new set of books.

  18. If it helps on the book buying side, Pathfinder is really just one core book, and a beastiary that’s fairly mediocre, especially if you have other 3.5 books, just bump up the power level a bit and you’re golden. I do agree that the mundanes in 4th have gotten a lot more to do, and that is great, that is a really big positive for it, but I’m not a fan of having utility spells that can’t just be used, I’d love it if other classes got utility powers too, though that’s a bit harder to conceptualize I suspect. My own 4th group is working on houserules for making rituals more useful, but we feel like we shouldn’t have to.

  19. Oh I think the best thing about 4e is that fighters have something more to do besides “I hit it with my sword” & wizards have something more to do than “Oh, well, I am saving my cool stuff for the end boss, sorry, I sit this round out.” Encounter & Daily & At-Will are all great options. I WOULD really like an Unearthed Arcana that gave different “class” progressions– maybe a “Vancian Wizard” with a LOT of Dailies & only a few encounters/at-wills, or guys with lots of at-wills, or lots of encounter powers. You know?

  20. In preparation of an Epic Tier one shot I’m running I’ve gone back through the ritual list and have decided that I think it’d be fun to find a way to make some of them cast as a full round action so you can do fun stuff in combat Of course, the plot of this one shot is going to be punching Orcus in the face, so seriousness is out for this one.

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