Thursday, September 1, 2011

D&D 4e vs Pathfinder... in a Steel Cage!

My week off continues, and so do my ramblings.

So, I've been playing Pathfinder lately, and while I've been jotting down a few of my thoughts after each session's blog, I thought I'd take some time to make some more in-depth comparisons between it and D&D 4e. These are just my opinions; I know darn well that a lot of people prefer a more hardcore simulationist game than what I enjoy.

Winner: Pathfinder
From what I've seen so far, I would definitely say Pathfinder is more realistic than 4e.  However, realism is not always my first goal in an RPG.  I live a fairly humdrum life, and I like my fantasy to be, well, fantastic.  Realism already goes out the window the first time somebody casts a fireball.  Most of the time I don't want to roll to see if I successfully do the laundry, but sometimes that level of compulsiveness helps me get into my character.  Pathfinder doesn't quite go as far as that, but compared to 4e's heroism (see below), Pathfinder is much more down-to-earth.

Winner: 4e
In my opinion, D&D 4e is practically a super hero game with a medieval setting.  Sometimes I think they should have marketed it that way in the first place.  They should have kept 3.5 going, and made 4e a spin-off called "D&D Heroes" or something.  So while I don't think 4e should have been WOTC's flagship product, I am glad it exists, and I do enjoy playing a heroic character

Healing Surges vs Slow Healing
Winner: 4e
It's no secret that I dislike slow healing. Since I believe hit points represent stamina, not wounds, it just makes sense you could recover them by resting. D&D 4e's healing surge system is great at getting you back into the game so you aren't constantly heading back to town. The system is still a little clunky, IMO, but it's better than Pathfinder's "1 hit point per night" healing.

NADs vs Saving Throws
Winner: Tie
So the DM rolls a die against the player's Reflex, rather than the player rolling a save against the attacking spell's DC... I think 4e's method is slightly simpler, and simple is generally better. But overall I'd say it's six of one, half a dozen of the other.

Negative Effects
Winner: 4e
In older editions, there's several spells and effects that cause you to lose a level, or make one of your stats go down for a while. When this happens, there's a lot of re-mathing your character sheet, figuring out how that stat is going to affect your attack rolls, AC, saving throws, hit points, etc.  4e has a lot less of that nonsense.  When we reach the point where every gamer at the table is using electronic interactive character sheets on their netbooks/smartphones, automatically adjusting all their numbers instantly when they're hit by such a spell, then I'll be okay with it.  Until then, I prefer the simplicity of 4e.

Stat Advancement
Winner: 4e
I like how all the stats go up a notch, twice in your career. I've never bought into the idea that just because your character concentrates on STR and CON, you never get any smarter. 

Skills Advancement
Winner: Pathfinder
I liked assigning my skill points manually each level. It bugs me that my 30th level 4e Lawful Good Paladin, who never lies, still has more than 15 points in Bluff. It also bugs me that my high-level 4e Fighter doesn't have more points in Intimidate.

Skill Selection
Winner: Pathfinder
I've stood up for 4e on this one in the past, but I have to admit I missed options like Crafting.

Diagonal Movement
Winner: 4e
So what if a square is slightly longer diagonally than lengthwise.  When it comes to measuring distance for tactical combat, there's a lot of bad, complicated systems out there.  4e is probably the least realistic, but you know my feelings on realism.  4e wins for now, but I still haven't played a game that uses hexes.

Powers vs Basic Attacks
Winner: 4e Essentials
4e's way of giving Fighters more to do was nice. But Fighters already could do more than just attack if they really wanted to. Any time you roll a d20, you can flavor that attack as anything you want. If it's the same damage, then nothing needs to be changed.  Instead of just saying "I hit him with my sword", feel free describe it as a backhand swing or a sudden forward thrust as you roll your d20.  If it's something that actually affects the outcome (i.e. "I'm aiming for his left elbow so he'll drop the idol"), the DM can ask you to subtract a couple of points from your attack roll to simulate difficulty. The ability was always there, 4e just added more mechanical rules for it. And by doing so, they seemed to have shorted out some players' creativity, because those players don't seem to understand that the effects of Reaping Strike don't have to be described exactly like it says on the power card. I think Essentials represents a decent compromise between 4e powers and the basic attacks of previous editions.

Combat Length
Winner: Pathfinder, by a mile
This is the chief reason I've been enjoying Pathfinder lately. It is such a joy to get through an entire dungeon level in a single night. Sometimes when I was playing 4e, I would look up at the clock and just roll my eyes. "Has it really been 3 hours since we entered this room? Seriously?" There are ways to streamline 4e combat, but they take work, and some people just find it easier to switch to another game system.  I don't blame them.

Magic System
Winner: 4e
I haven't actually played a Pathfinder Wizard yet. But I've looked through the Player's Handbook, and I've played a lot of computer games based on D&D 3.5, and I honestly think preparing spells is for the birds. The whole "you can cast three 1st-level spells, two 2nd-level spells..." system is just more complicated than it needs to be.  Give me At-Wills, Encounters, and Dailies any day.  Someday I'd like to play a PnP RPG that uses a mana system like you see in a lot of video games. Just another number like your hit points, which will go up as you level. Different spells would cost different amounts of mana to cast, and your mana replenishes when you rest. Simple.

Roleplay vs Rollplay
Winner: Tie
Others disagree, but I really don't think the system matters much when it comes to the quality of roleplay. One of the chief criticisms of D&D 4e is the focus on combat, and lack of roleplay rules. But frankly, I'm not even sure what a "roleplay rule" is. Heck, roleplay probably works best when there aren't a lot of rules. Still, 4e's tactical combat probably attracts more action-loving players, which could have a detrimental effect on roleplay. On the other hand, I have seen roleplay done really well in 4e.

Character Customization
Winner: Pathfinder
I have a friend who loves to play 2-weapon rogues. In 3.5, that was no problem. Pretty much any class could take the two-weapon feats, and get an extra attack per round. So when he tried to build one in 4e, he was disappointed. Oh, sure, anybody can wield two weapons in 4e, but you can't use both in a round, so what's the point? Only a couple of builds feature true two-weapon effectiveness. D&D 4e has a lot of classes to choose from, and those classes have a lot of builds. All told, there's over 100 builds now. And yet, it still feels like each build is just a predesigned character built by someone else. 

Winner: Pathfinder
D&D 4e Multiclassing is a joke. The Hybrids are an even bigger joke. 'nuff said.

Winner: 4e... if you're into that.
4e was built on balance.  One could argue that it was the primary focus of the system.  If any class is discovered to have an overly desirable power, WOTC's errata police sniff it out and blandify it immediately.  This can be a good thing; spellcasters in older editions were downright frustrating at early levels.  But people who managed to keep their mages alive earned bragging rights.  Meanwhile, most 4e classes have similar difficulty, which probably contributes to the common complaint that the classes are too much alike (see below).

Class Uniqueness
Winner: Pathfinder
In older editions, your first character was a fighter.  Once you got the hang of that, you had to relearn the game a little bit the first time you tried a spellcaster.  But with 4e's powers system, all the classes pretty much play the same.  The ranges and effects might be different, but a fighter's Encounter Powers follow the same rules as a wizard's.  It's hard to say whether this is good or bad.  It does make the game easier to learn, and balances the classes.  But it also makes you wonder why we need so many classes and builds, when so many of them are similar.  Essentials throws a few wildcards into the mix, but it still doesn't beat Pathfinder.

Death and Dying
Winner: 4e
4e wins because it's harder to die.  I am not a hardcore player.  I like it when I can play the same character long enough to really know them.  I get sick of old school grognards who whine that "Death used to mean something in this game!"  I'm sorry, but I disagree.  When you die all the time, death becomes meaningless.  When your first 20th-level character is killed in an epic battle with a dragon, death means something.  When your twentieth 1st-level character is killed by an orc, death becomes cheap.  Once I've actually had a few 20th-level characters, I might change my mind on this.  But right now, the more I die, the more these characters just seem like scribbles on paper.

Winner: Tie
In both editions, 100 copper pieces equals 10 silver equals one gold.  So it's pennies, dimes, dollars. Simple!  However, a 4e platinum piece equals 100 gp, while a Pathfinder platinum is only worth 10 gold pieces.  Neither is better than the other, but I do wish game designers would keep it a little more universal.  It's not like they're even the worst offenders; for example the Dragon Age RPG has a system where 1 GP = 100 SP = 10,000 CP.  People who go back and forth playing different game systems are liable to get confused. 

Overall Winner
To be honest, I think "Edition Wars" in general are a bit dumb.  Do apples taste better than oranges?  Is hang gliding more fun than water skiing?  Is Star Wars more entertaining than Star Trek?  It's okay to like Pepsi more than Coca-Cola, and it's even okay to wear Pepsi T-shirts and to post on your blog why Pepsi rocks.  But when you get into internet debates arguing why Coca-Cola sucks, you've probably gone too far.  People need to learn the difference between "better" and "more enjoyable to me".

That said, I prefer Pathfinder's character creation and quick combats, but 4e's fast healing and simplified rules. I really wish I could play a 4e campaign, but with shorter combats, and with Pathfinder characters. Essentials goes a long way towards granting the last part of that wish, with older-style characters that are fully compatible with the 4e system.  I really like Essentials, something I'm reluctant to admit on a public blog.  There are places on the internet where I'd rather admit to being a transsexual than to tell them I like Essentials.  Heck, just saying you like 4e at all is like telling people you enjoyed the Star Wars prequels.  Showing support for Essentials is like saying your favorite Star Wars character is Jar Jar Binks.

There are a lot of things that annoy me about Pathfinder.  But despite Pathfinder's flaws (and really, they're not flaws so much as things I don't prefer), I'm really enjoying the campaign. Bottom line is, I don't need to know that I'm playing the "best" system out there.  It don't eat my favorite food for every meal, I don't go to my favorite city every vacation, and I don't wear my favorite outfit every day.

I'm fond of saying that the system doesn't matter if the story's good. That's not entirely true; I'm sure there's some systems out there that I'd hate if I actually got around to playing them. And a good story could easily be killed by an incompetent DM or bad players; but I've been pretty lucky so far where that's concerned.  I've been blessed with a wonderful DM who makes things interesting no matter what we're playing.  (But he does read these blogs, so lest he think I'm sucking up I should probably say something negative soon.  Perhaps I'll make fun of the way he pronounces "archetypes".)
It's "ahr-ki-tahyps", not "Archie types."
In any event, 4e and Pathfinder appeal to different parts of my brain. 4e is like a board game where I can empathize with the pieces. Pathfinder is like a storytelling game with a bit of gambling thrown in. Sometimes I'm more in the mood for one than the other, but I think I'll always enjoy both.

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