This past GenCon, Paizo Publishing released the Pathfinder Roleplaying Game. Now if you’ve been a GM (or DM, I’ll use the generic here since it’s what the Open Game Content and Pathfinder uses) for more than a couple of weeks then you probably know that Pathfinder is a refinement of the previous (D&D3.5) version of Dungeons & Dragons. Today’s article takes a look at Pathfinder from a prospective GM’s standpoint: what will Pathfinder bring to my gaming table? I love D&D3.5 and I have a wall full of books; why should I purchase this? I love the Fourth Edition of D&D (D&D4e); why should I revisit the past?

(Fair warning…I co-authored the Tome of Secrets, which is the first third party supplement for Pathfinder. I also received a free copy of Pathfinder for this article, courtesy of Paizo Publishing and Atomic Array.)


1. All-in-One (well, minus the Monster Manual)

Whether you consider it a feature or a bug, the Core Rulebook is essentially The Player’s Handbook and The Dungeon Master’s Guide mashed together in one. While D&D4e took some flack for printing the magic items in the PHB4e (I hope you understand that; I’m getting tired of referencing abbreviations), I’ve always preferred having all of my rules in one book, especially since, as a GM, I’m more likely to be leafing through the PHB rather than the DMG during a game.

D&D4e took a lot of flack for removing some races and classes that were in PHB3.5. While the loss of the gnome was, of course, inexcusable (no, I don’t want to hear about a weak write-up in the Monster Manual or the $35 investment in Player’s Handbook 2 for a full treatment!), I’d be remiss in pointing out that Pathfinder excludes some classes as well. The snips were from prestige classes, specifically the Archmage, Blackguard, Dwarven Defender, Heirophant, Horizon Walker, Red Wizard, and Thaumaturgist. While Paizo has their reasons for not including them (as Wizards of the Coast did with D&D4e), it’s small comfort if you really enjoyed those prestige classes.

In spite of smashing two books together, Pathfinder has a more eye-friendly table of contents, basically by chopping out the chapter subheadings. While the D&D3.5 Table of Contents almost does double-duty as an index (which is redundant, as it has a good index), Pathfinder’s Table of Contents does the job satisfactorially and it also has an extensive index.

2. What’s Old is New Again with Little Competition

Unless you were a ruthlessly draconian D&D3.5 GM, your last or current D&D3.5 group probably resembled nothing like a party generated with only the PHB. With the Complete series of supplements, it was possible to replace the old “cleric, fighter, rogue, wizard” dynamic with their Asian counterparts (shugenja, samurai, ninja, and wu jen, respectively) or shake things up with a number of alternate classes (spirit shaman, swashbuckler, scout, and warlock, in keeping with the theme). The Tome of Battle offered an entirely new subsystem for fighting classes that looks suspiciously like the prototype of D&D4e powers.

I haven’t even touched the races, but let’s just say reptillian humanoids (of various names) and tieflings were popular choices before 4e made them core. Like the classes, D&D3.5 had dozens to choose from by the end and that’s only looking at WOTC products. Third Party products utilizing the Open Game License multiplied that several times over.

Pathfinder wipes the slate clean and introduces a new philosophy. Whereas D&D3.5 actively encouraged multi-classing, Pathfinder endeavors to make each class interesting enough that a player would want to stick with it through 20 levels. Empty levels have been virtually eliminated; every class grants you something at each level. Each class has also been given new abilities that help distinguish one member of the class from another.

Pathfinder also rebalances the classes. Attack bonus progressions are now tied to hit dice (with the barbarian exception), with 1d6 being the lowest. Both the Bard and the Rogue get upgrades to 1d8, which, in the latter’s case makes wading into combat for flanking and sneak attacks more attractive.

The concern of the “15-minute work day” has been addressed by increasing the utility of some abilities. Cantrips and orisons are now at-will spells, ensuring that the sorceror and wizard have unlimited magical attacks (albeit at 1d3, but that’s about what you could expect a dagger-wielding wizard to deal anyway, assuming that she manages to hit with it). Clerics can use their Channel Energy ability to heal several allies at once rather than turn undead. Clerics, Sorcerors, and Wizards also get additional spells and spell-like abilities that increase their utility beyond the usual daily allotment.

Races have also been given a revamp (sorry, Martin, Pathfinder gnomes also look like anime hairstylists). Each race grants a net +2 ability score bonus. The concept of favored classes has been reworked; each race gets to pick a favored class at first level.  Favored class grants a +1 hit point or skill point per level. Gone are XP penalties and shoehorning each race into a particular favored class.

Pathfinder has also made multi-classing easier. If you want to play a 1st level fighter, 4th level rogue, and 8th level sorceror, then go for it. No need to worry about -10% XP accounting for uneven levels (which I suspect was ignored at a lot of campaign tables anyway. Players are sneaky bastards!). Monks and Paladins may now freely multi-class as long as they remain faithful to their alignment restrictions. Like the Druid, there are opportunities for second chances if they do violate their alignment.

In addition to all of the above, with Pathfinder as the new shiny it’s easier to keep the players happy playing classes and races straight out of the core rulebook. While this isn’t likely to last, for now classes and races have been given a back-to-the-basics reboot.

3. Rules Tweaking (or, Did they finally fix grapple?)

Make no mistake, Pathfinder is 95% D&D3.5 in terms of rules. That said, Paizo took the opportunity to fix a few complicated, broken, and vague rules to streamline play (sorry, theatrical types, Attacks of Opportunity and grid movement are stull intact).

Skills have been consolidated. Among my gaming circle, there were a lot of complaints that characters simply didn’t have enough skill points to cover the basics, and the whole “class/cross-class” skill mechanic was a little unwieldy. Other games using the OGL mitigated this by combining skills, increasing the number of skill points per level, or eliminating the “cross-class” skill distinction. Pathfinder has consolidated the skill list (as examples, Listen, Search, and Spot have been rolled into Perception, while Balance and Tumble have become Acrobatics). it has also simplified skill point distribution. All class skills automatically provide a +3 and you don’t lose this bonus if you multiclass. You can now only put as many skill ranks into a skill as you have character levels.

Cleric channelling gets a revamp. Under D&D3.5, a cleric attempting to Turn Undead had to make two rolls; first, he rolled to see the maxium hit dice of creature that he could affect and then he rolled for the total of hit dice he actually affected. Under Pathfinder, a cleric does a set amount of damage to all undead within a 30 ft burst. Undead can save for half damage. The cleric could instead choose to heal himself and/or his allies with the same ability (also, rogues can now sneak attack undead, making flanking with a rogue while channelling a potent combination).

A running joke amongst my gaming buddies is that the worst thing a GM can hear in D&D3.5 is “I attempt a grapple.” Every combat maneuver had its own subsystem, which made running a monk or other flashy combatant an arduous process. In Pathfinder, all of these maneuvers are brought under the same mechanic.  Every character and creature has a Combat Maneuver Bonus (usually equal to the old grapple modifier) and a Combat Maneuver Defense. If you attempt a bull rush, disarm, feint, grapple, overrun, sunder, or trip, you simply roll 1d20 + your CMB. If you beat your opponent’s CMD, you succeed.

Moving through threatened squares without provoking an attack of opportunity also uses CMD as the DC, rather than a straight 15 or 25. No longer can an 8th level rogue with an 18 Dexterity (and what rogue doesn’t?) run free around the combat area without worrying about attacks of opportunity.

Some spells have been tweaked as well, generally to fix easily-abused effects. “Save or die” effects have been replaced with large damage amounts, while the polymorph spell has been significantly limited in terms of what a wizard can become and the abilities she gains (power word, kill however, remains as potent as it always has).

4. Encounter Design (the GM’s time sink)

One of the things that D&D3.5 took a lot of flack for was the tediousness of creature and encounter design. One of the things that D&D4e excels at is its simplified encounter and creature design. Pathfinder is somewhere in between.

Pathfinder offers an “encounter budget” system that is similar to D&D4e, with the added bonus of already figuring individual XP awards. So, for example, if your PC party averages 3rd level and you want a challenging encounter, then you need a challenge rating of 4. Looking that up, you need 1200 xp worth of monsters. Flipping through your creature book of choice, you’d need three 400 xp creatures, two 600 xp creatures, one 800 xp and two 200 xp creatures, or any other combination.

Creature design will have to wait until the Pathfinder Bestiary releases next month, but the previews indicate that the stat blocks still resemble their D&D 3.5 counterparts. Whether it is as complicated remains to be seen.

5. Portability (Do I really need to lug this doorstop around?)

While Pathfinder might be the biggest RPG book on my shelf (at 576 pages, it’s 76 pages larger than Spycraft 2.0), there’s no reason to take it with you if you have a laptop with an internet connection. Paizo has provided a free online version of the game on their website.

Unlike the 3.5 OGL, this version contains all of the rules needed to play, including character advancement. It is also much easier to navigate, if not quite as user-friendly as the Hypertext d20 SRD (although a fan-made version comes close). You can easily use either site to look up rules on the fly.

I travel to my Pathfinder game, which means I can lighten my load a bit and still have the full rules with me. Even if I do have the book, it essentially allows me to have another copy at the table.

6. Support

One of the best things Pathfinder has going for it are its support products, all set in the world of Golarion. As a family man in his late 30s, I don’t have time to design my own adventures, and I have to say that Paizo’s adventure paths and other adventures/supplements are top notch. It’s great to have a monthly line of adventure paths that span the length of an entire campaign, especially when the storylines are so compelling.  Pathfinder enables me to run these adventures as-is, with little or no modification (more on that below). Also, the Paizo staff surf the message boards and post regularly (I’ve seen them on Paizo and ENWorld), promptly answering questions and concerns. 

7. Backwards Compatibility

One of Pathfinder’s design goals was to maintain backwards compatibility with D&D3.5 and other OGL products. In fact, the reason for spicing up the core classes and races was to bring them more in line with later D&D3.5 classes and races.

I believe they succeeded admirably. For the last year, I’ve been running Paizo’s  Rise of the Runelords adventure path (which was written for D&D3.5) using the Pathfinder Beta Playtest Rules. All I needed to do for creatures and NPCs was figure out the CMB (which, as I said, is essentially the grapple bonus) and boost hit points to 75% or 100%. The challenges feel about right. As the Beta goes a bit further than the final product, I’d expect it’d be even more painless using the new rules.

Okay, I’ve been listening to you ramble through 7 points. Will this help me as a D&D GM?

If you’re running D&D4e and are happy with the new rules, then I’d have to say no. Pathfinder is still D&D3.5 at its heart and unless D&D4e is your first RPG then you probably have issues with D&D3.5 that are likely still present in Pathfinder. As my friends across the Atlantic would say, the core rulebook “is what it says on the tin.” It’s a book of rules crunch that will be of little use to a D&D4e GM. If you’re interested in the world of Golarion, you’d be better off purchasing other Paizo products that contain more useful fluff.

If you’re running or considering D&D3.5 then I’d say yes. Pathfinder will enhance your game, speed up play, be fully supported, and allow you to use most of your D&D3.5 library with little modification. The book is well organized and looking up rules is a snap. Encounter design and XP awards are also much easier to calculate. Also, it brings the core classes and races back to the game in exciting new ways. Paizo plans a lot of future support for the line, whereas the D&D3.5 support has stopped and related OGL support is dwindling.

Even if you aren’t planning on replacing D&D3.5 entirely, Pathfinder offers some excellent house rules that can be incorporated piece-meal. Like the skill consolidation or cleric channelling? Splice them in. Alternatively, you could play Pathfinder and pull back in the original versions of rules, if you prefer. Happy that Listen and Spot were consolidated but like having Search as a separate skill? Throw it back in. Don’t want rogues backstabbing zombies? Cut it out.

In any case, Pathfinder is a well-written refreshing of the D&D3.5 rules and a valuable addition to a GM’s shelf (the artwork is excellent too…same cover artist as D&D4e). Unless you love D&D4e and never plan to look back, Pathfinder is definitely worth a look.

Want to learn more about the Pathfinder RPG?

Drop by Paizo Publishing today!