21 August 2015

Ruminations on Pathfinder, D&D Fifth Edition, and OSR

Dungeons and Dragons Fifth Edition is a bestseller in the RPG world, but so is its main competition, Pathfinder (which is an update to the D&D 3.5 rule set). Can they both coexist? Which is better? Also, is 5e really old school? Let's find out together (no hand holding, though. I don't know where you been, germ carrier)!


Pathfinder RPG Core Rules
I have played D&D for years. I adventured using the Basic and Expert rules, and moving on to AD&D. Yeah, I guess I am an old timer. Not as old as OD&D players, but I got a good history. During those years I began to play GURPS, from Steve Jackson Games, in its second edition form,and then tons of gaming with GURPS third edition. Many reasons made me not look back (and to completely skip AD&D 2nd Edition), mainly the ability to design my own character and all his abilities in these other games. In AD&D if you were a fighter, you get exactly what the book tells you. Old schoolers think this is an advantage, as the most important part is to get on to the killing. GURPS was a revelation, in the same way Hero was to many.

It is not hard to see why old D&D was like that. It came from a miniatures combat origin, and you did not really make characters for such a game. Instead you had units that all worked the same to make the combat a but easier to resolve. This concept lived on into D&D itself, making the game we used to love what it is. The bad side was that if you faced an enemy, such as a Thief, you basically knew what he could do. In GURPS you were never sure of the opponents abilities.

When D&D third edition came out, I found it fun, and even though it did not fully fulfill my liking of a free form character creation, the use of feats was good enough to let me get close to the character I imagined (you know, my murderhobo variant for whatever campaign). Also, the game systems were refined, with a common rolling mechanic for combat and skills, and a lack of exceptions to the rules, of which AD&D was notorious for (for example, fighters have different Strength and Constitution adjustments from other classes). All this is true for Pathfinder which continues to hone the game.


Pathfinder has so many feats and other options, it can be overwhelming. Not as much to players (though, when I played a 10th level Magus I found myself having to make sure I remember this or that obscure ability or adjustment). It is DM'ing that is the nightmare. I ran a campaign that lasted into double digit levels. At first it was easy to run, but as the level rose and the opponents gained more feats and special abilities, the game slowed down as I would have to look up this minutia to make the game work. Sure, GURPS has a thing similar to feats called advantages, but you will not have as many as in a 10th level Pathfinder character. They are a mass of feats, class abilities, and powers conferred from magic items.

The only way I survived was using a program called Combat Manager for Windows. It would keep track of combat, including when effects like spells, poisons, or conditions expired. I could bring up monsters and quickly look up abilities as needed. It is both free and fantastic. It can advance monsters for you, and even let you save encounters and load them so you get into combat fast. I highly recommend this program! The simpler D&D 5e does not need seem to need such a program and still be playable.

Another reason Pathfinder sucks is that it is still stuck with antiquated ideas the rest of the market has moved beyond. My big peeve is that armor makes you harder to hit instead of absorbing damage (I did have a friend who tried to convince me that D&D armor is more realistic, but he could not back it up). Third edition and Pathfinder really expanded the combat options and did not make it too complex, but pretty much requires action on a battle mat. I prefer a system where you can do either on the table or in the imagination, but Pathfinder precludes that.

Lack of DM fiat was also a problem. Every condition caused by combat or spell (confused, bleeding, etc.) were strictly defined with no room for imagination, and if you did add something to it, rules lawyers were there to correct you as the emphasis on its design is its exactness.

Finally, Pathfinder's bonuses scale pretty radically, making huge adjustments a high levels making play up there deal with really high values.


Pathfinder is strict in its rules and allows for much flexibility in character creation, which seem to not be old school to most folks.


The Player's Handbook for 5e
While it goes back to a much simpler character creation model, limiting much customization (though most classes have some customization built in), it does include cool things like the personality and background section to give you good starting points for roleplaying (if they are taken advantage of by a DM willing to add encounters where these things come into play). It is a bit like a simplified life-path system. While I prefer creating my own background, this can be enjoyable. In fact, a more complicated version of a life path system is what makes Traveller character creation so much fun.

The game overall is simpler to play, which makes the game faster, especially combat, and you can have your combats either on the table or in the mind. Also, skills and combat does not scale as fast as Pathfinder, making the game's math a bit easier.


While you get some customization in each class, it is not much. For example, a fighter chooses what kind of fighter he is: archer, great weapon fighter, etc. Pathfinder lets you have more variety among the same classes (of course, with the added complications). Feats are not much help. Instead of regularly gaining feats, you trade your attribute increase for one, and I would never trade an increase. Frankly, they just should have dumped feats totally.

The random nature of the backgrounds can take the control of your past and leave it to dice, but you can also choose or make something up. Rules are there to be changed to how you like them.

The simplification of the rules are hit and miss. I am not a big fan of attacks of opportunities in 5e gimped!). Also, the advantage/disadvanatage system (where you roll 2d20 and take the highest or or lowest) gives no way to scale them for larger or smaller effects. Still, many love these things; to each his own.

Oh, and armor does not negate damage, just like OD&D in 1974.


Maybe, kinda. Next to 3.5/Pathfiner I suppose it is. It is less exacting in conditions, allowing the DM more room to adjudicate the game, certainly a mark of the OSR movement. I might say yes, that is sits nicely between Basic  and Advanced D&D. Castles and Crusades is even closer to old school, but Wizards has a decent game that tries to bridge the old versions with third edition.


Balance is a problem in both games. In many other games when you encounter an opponent you may or may not be able to beat it, instead having to size up the enemy and judge how you react (fight, flee, or negotiate usually). In D&D and Pathfinder it tends to be attack, because the balanced nature of the games give players the feeling they can win any encounter because of that balance. I think this makes the game boring and encourages hacking and slashing from the murderhobos (man, I love that term).


Real Old School
Old School is a term that has little real meaning, instead means something different to each person. Which is fine, we all have different views of nostalgia, and the OSR is all about nostalgia. Fifth edition has some OSR in it, proably as much as not. In contrast, Goodman Games Dungeon Crawl Classics is not really an OSR game clone, but a design based on memories of what we liked int he game, but with whole new systems.

Frankly, if I want to play old school D&D I would use either the D&D Rules Cyclopedia or one of the basic/expert retroclones, like the Basic Fantasy RPG, Dark Dungeons, or Labyrinth Lord. The basic/expert D&D was sleek and fast in comparison to the bloated AD&D. Yeah, it has two problems that dog me. The magic-user is so useless at low levels who would enjoy playing it. There needs to be a replacement class for it. Also, the fact that races and classes are mixed together (for example, all elfs are exactly the same, basically Legolas). I prefer having your race and class choices to be separate. Luckily Basic Fanstasy has split the two (and dumped alignment), and Labyrinth Lord has a companion volume, the Advanced Edition Companion, has optional rules to do the same.

The Rules Cyclopedia is out of print (I got one at Rincon last year), but is super complete and modern. It includes skills and a way of generating character personality traits (and both are optional). Those are missing from Labyrinth Lord and Basic Fantasy, and Dark Dungeons has skills but no personality traits. 


Pathfinder has its Adventure Paths for campaign-length stories, and the Pathfinder Society for in store events. D&D also has long, climactic adventures and in store events as well.  However, I like Pathfinder better than 5e because of character options. YMMV. I suggest you read the main books, reviews and talk to friends before investing, but either choice will give you good adventures.

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