Friday, 17 September 2010

Pathfinder vs 4e: the battle for the heart of D&D


Have we finally reached that point of schism, that Reformation moment when a religion splits apart into two distinct camps? Has the creative force behind the D&D game finally got to that Martin Luther point, that hammering of the 95 Theses into the door of Wittenberg Castle? Are we now going to split into two camps, those who follow the banner of Wizards of the Coast and their masters at Hasbro, and those who have decided to take the creed of Pathfinder? Which represents tradition, which revolution? And most importantly, which is more fun?

Every time the D&D game has been tinkered with, there have been concerns. Sometimes this seems to have improved the game, and doubters have finally been won over (the launch of 3e in 2000 being a good example). At other times, for example the launch of 2e, this has not improved the game, and has required numerous, and I guess profitable, tweaks to bring it back on course.

I stopped playing D&D in 1990 and really didn’t go back to it until 2003, a fairly lengthy hiatus. I got playing again with 3e and felt that, while the game looked a lot more intimidating at first glance, many of the changes were massive improvements. When 4e was mooted, I hoped for a game that might increase the amount of non-combat mechanics, taking it away from its roots in ‘kick-the-door-down’ dungeon exploration and bringing it up to date with other popular RPGs, both paper-based and electronic.

Having now played in two 4e campaigns, run by separate GMs, and a Pathfinder campaign, I feel obliged to come down on the side of Pathfinder, and here are my reasons.

D&D 4e, for those familiar with 3e who have yet to play it, takes a mechanic from the world of CCGs. PCs are given powers which they ‘exhaust’ once they are used. Combat abilities, spells, magic items, all are liable to be exhausted, although there are also some ‘at will’ powers that can be used without exhausting them. You can still make a basic attack, but rarely need to unless something has gone badly wrong, as there is usually a power you can tap.

Multi-classing is out, although you can still access some of the attributes of other classes via Feats.

The entire game feels much more ‘cartoonish’ however. The focus is more on specific combat encounters which are planned in advance by the GM to be as challenging as possible. The possibilities of an unscripted encounter degenerating into a brawl are reduced, despite the fact that some of the most entertaining scenes in an ‘old school’ game can be totally unscripted.

In a way, a 4e adventure feels more like a computer game, with a design rationale heavily influenced by video games. As a player, you do sometimes get the feel you are being railroaded, especially in commercial modules. The ability to talk your way through an encounter is virtually non-existent unless you have a very forgiving GM who is prepared to ditch a combat encounter and still give you the XP for a negotiated settlement.

PCs are defined, more than ever before, by what they can do in a fight. Magic in the D&D world is more focused than ever on battle effects. Yes, combat was always an important part of the game, but now it dominates it to the exclusion of all else. In many respects, D&D now resembles a linked series of battles where it is your tactical skill and ability to match your abilities with those of your party members that really count.

Some people still argue that you can use D&D to run a proper role playing campaign, even a free form, sandbox style of game of the kind that my group is increasingly focusing on. Perhaps, but there are a lot of other systems out there which could do this job better. Why bother with a game where you know, if the PCs pull out their swords 45 minutes before you plan to wrap up the game, you may as well not bother with the encounter, as it will take TWO HOURS to play through. This was my criticism of Exalted, and boy has 4e stumbled into the same trap. Much as the combat system in Exalted was overly detailed, I’d rather play Exalted than 4e.

Pathfinder, on the other hand, has taken 3e and simply improved on it. And I like what I see. They have been forced to drop many of the proprietary monsters from the Bestiary due to IP issues – no Beholders or Mindflayers for example – but you can always get these out of the older 3e literature.

Paizo has tweaked D&D – and I’m still going to call it that – in so many ways. Individual feats have been taken and improved; the skill system is not quite as complicated as it was; individual character classes have more powers and options (similar in some respects to d20 Modern); the ability for making dynamic Combat Manoeuvres has been introduced (a nod here to Iron Heroes). It is still d20, but refined, with the creases ironed out. It comes across as a slicker, smoother game than its predecessor, no doubt because of the hundreds of thousands of man hours of play testing which it now represents, going back over 10 years.

Which camp you will end up in will depend on what you are used to, what you expect from the game, and what forms your core experiences in RPGs. If you’re a hard core video gamer who has started playing social D&D with friends, 4e may appeal. If you are a wargamer dipping your toe in the tepid pond of RPGs, 4e, with its emphasis on tactical play, will appeal to you. If you’re a World of Darkness fan however, you may prefer the crunch in Pathfinder. If you’re looking for something to power a sandbox-style fantasy campaign, again, Pathfinder will probably fit the bill.

I’m not saying there’s a right system or a wrong system. What I am saying is that 4e is no longer the definitive version of the game; it has a new challenger to that title; the gaming community is split. Which way will you go?

1 comment:

  1. I was out of gaming for pretty much the entire lifespan of D&D3, and all I heard about it were horror stories about the crunchy rules.

    Then I played D&D4, and I didn't get on with it at all, for many of the reasons you give above.

    Then I started playing Pathfinder, and I haven't found it intimidating in the slightest. It's still perhaps too crunchy to ever be a favourite, but it still wins out over the sterile, and dare I say boring, D&D4.

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