There are RPGs for all shapes and sizes, for all needs, all audiences, even political sensibilities. There are the wonderful and the hideously bad, the simple and the complex, but no matter what you ask for, every last one of them bows to the great-grandaddy of them all: Dungeons and Dragons.
It’s now in its 5th Edition, and four years after it’s arrived, it’s now got its feet under it. And as good as it is, you’ll sooner or later come across a guy who came back to D&D after 4th Edition disappointed him. There’s a better than even chance that that guy tried out Pathfinder. And for good reason; Pathfinder was a reaction to how different 4th Edition was.
Of course, since 5th Edition has matured, the question at hand is: Who’s better, 5th Ed or Pathfinder? This article, we’re going to examine the two systems. (Note: In this article, we’ll call them ‘5th Ed’ and ‘PF’ for short.)
Pathfinder is published by Paizo, who published Dungeon and Dragon magazines under licence from Wizards of the Coast in 2002. After seeing the response to 4th Edition’s release, Paizo came up with and released Pathfinder.
PF is a system more faithful to 3.5 than 4th was; in fact, it’s sometimes called ‘D&D 3.75’. System-wise, it’s recognisably 3.5, tightened up to remove some of the most glaring issues. Whether it’s solved or worsened the problems from 3.5 is still a topic of debate.
Setting-wise, PF’s default setting is the world of Golarion, a setting created by Paizo specifically for the game. It takes a little inspiration from its D&D roots, but it’s mostly its own creation.
Not only has it had more time to establish itself than 5th Edition, but Paizo have been diligent in their production of new releases, in several different forms. Not only have there been several new corebooks to expand on the base classes and add some new (optional) subsystems, they also release a veritable trove of setting books, character companions, and their famed Adventure Paths.
The books are also readily available in PDF format, and for much cheaper than their dead-tree forms. The hardbound Core Rulebook is fifty dollars (the same as the 5th Ed Player’s Handbook); a paperback version is available for half the price, or you can download a PDF copy for just ten dollars. This includes books now out of print, which eliminates any fear of missing out.
Even this cost can be avoided, thanks to Archives of Nethys, PF’s equivalent to the venerable Systems Reference Document. Rules-wise, everything is there; a player can spend a deal of time just looking things up. There’s no need to flip through four rulebooks and six Companion books to be sure you’ve got all you need; a glance through Archives of Nethys will sort you out.
That same volume and wealth of content, though, is also a hazard, being as it’s a lot to take in. Even going at Archives of Nethys can be daunting, for the simple reason that everything’s there. So instead of being a big open sandbox to play in, you end up in, pardon the expression, a quicksand box, drowning and unable to really pick.
The system itself also takes a bit more digestion than 5th Edition, especially if you choose to employ some of the subsystems. The core rulebook alone can be daunting, as PF keeps the skill and feat systems of 3.5 that 5th Ed has greatly simplified, in addition to all the other stuff. Some of the subsystems, though optional, are also rather dense.
Its use of Golarion as a default setting also means that a good few of the books are geared specifically for Golarion, and thus aren’t really useful if you’re not using that setting. Of course, to players of sufficient imagination, this isn’t much of a downside; crunch can be flavoured with just a little effort and fluff can always be rebaked another way.
D&D Fifth Edition
Where Pathfinder is the adopted child who deliberately patterned himself after the old and loved father, 5th Ed is the direct descendant who seeks to provide a similar but familiar experience, as handled by Wizards of the Coast, holders of the D&D franchise since 1997.
5th Edition, from a rules perspective, streamlines the experience by boiling down the system to something less dense than its predecessors. It does away with most of the skill system and reworks feats, making them completely optional, and incorporates a much simpler system of advantage and disadvantage to replace the mass of modifiers you can apply to a roll.
Setting-wise, 5th Edition makes use of the venerable Forgotten Realms setting, home of multiple novels and most notably the computer adaptations many people these days are no doubt familiar with: Baldur’s Gate, Icewind Dale, and Neverwinter Nights, most notably. However, books exist for other settings.
The overarching advantage of 5th Ed is lower barrier for entry. From a purely material perspective, the Basic Rules are available for free online, and while its SRD is rather thinner than the 3.5 one or Archives of Nethys, it’s still a solid site. There’s no need to spend all that much to get into 5th Ed.
Mechanically, the system is also much smoother and faster, as it dispenses with a deal of fiddly stuff from 3.5. Most checks are taken on your abilities, with skills providing bonuses to particular rolls. Feats are now optional and more powerful. Character creation is much faster.
Also, while it defaults to Forgotten Realms, it’s not nearly as fixed on that setting. Keith Baker has brought his Eberron over into 5th Ed, and recently the Guildmaster’s Guide to Ravnica came out, letting players delve into the world of Magic: the Gathering.
There are no good digital formats for 5th Ed. If you want to work with anything beyond the Basic Rules, you’ll have to shell out for dead-tree format. This is heavy on both the wallet and the backpack; it’s only that there are relatively few books that this isn’t a crippling downside.
The lack of significant published material can also be a downside to some players, particularly those who prefer to really dig into a culture to base their characters in. The Unearthed Arcana monthly releases do go some way to remedying this, but it’s difficult to compete with the wealth of content Pathfinder has.
For 5th Edition, the progression is simple enough. First, download the Basic Rules from the Wizards of the Coast website, if you haven’t already. Following that, grab yourself a copy of the Player’s Handbook, or borrow a friend’s copy.
After you have the PHB in hand, your choices go to either setting or mechanics. Setting-wise, you have the Guildmaster’s Guide to Ravnica or the Sword Coast Adventurer’s Guide; however, both are only useful if you’re playing in Ravnica or the Forgotten Realms, respectively. For crunch, there’s Volo’s Guide to Monsters and Xanathar’s Guide to Everything; as XGE has more options, we recommend grabbing that first.
Pathfinder, with a great deal more books, does need a bit more forethought. The first thing to buy is, of course, the Core Rulebook, as everything you need is in there. After you’ve got PF Core, you’ll need to do a bit of thinking.
Normally the sheer volume of material would make PF a weighty proposition on the wallet, but PDFs are a lot cheaper. You can buy just PDFs and save yourself some storage space, and get the dead-tree versions if you want to give Paizo a bit of extra money.
That’s where you have to apply thought, then. Ultimate Equipment is useful if you want to play around with mundane and magical gear. Advanced Race Guide if you’d like more racial options. Spellcasters will find Ultimate Magic helpful, while divine casters and devout characters in a Golarion game will like Inner Sea Gods. Ultimately this is up to you to decide, depending on what route you want to take your character.
For both systems, their respective DM/GM Guides and Bestiaries are only really necessary for DMs, but it wouldn’t be too bad for a player to get a hold of them. Getting an adventure book, on the other hand, depends heavily on the player and GM.
If the group isn’t going to play through it anyway, the concern becomes moot.
If they are, it’ll take a player who can be trusted not to metagame, or the GM will have to make significant changes to the adventure.
Ease of Playing
Both systems are based on the classic D20 system that most of us know and love: Whenever you encounter a problem, obstacle, or pretty much anything to overcome, roll a d20 and add relevant modifiers. If you get equal or higher than the target number set by the DM, that’s a success.
As with everything in tabletop gaming, a precise answer becomes impossible because most of it depends on how stringent your gamemaster is. An easygoing GM can easily make a Pathfinder game run swiftly and smoothly; conversely, a DM who insists on adhering to the book in every situation can bog down a 5th Edition game.
Of course, the systems themselves dictate a large part of that, even though their family resemblance makes them play and feel very similar.
On the whole, 5th Ed being designed to be streamlined from the ground up by definition makes it faster and smoother, and its mechanic of advantage and disadvantage dispenses with the tallying of modifiers that you see in 3.5 and PF. It’s a pretty good system. A standard roll is simply a d20 roll plus modifiers against a the target number, as usual. If you have advantage or disadvantage, you instead roll 2d20. Advantage on the roll means you pick the higher of the two, disadvantage means you get the lower.
There’s still some checking of what affects you, but on the whole, the question really is just “Do I have advantage, disadvantage, or neither?”
Pathfinder, on the other hand, incorporates a good few subsystems that would be left up to GM discretion in 5th Ed. The rules for running a kingdom, for instance, which debuted in the Kingmaker Adventure Path, and were later given a fuller treatment in Ultimate Campaign. That book really just gives a whole mess of options as to what else you can do when you’re not out murderhoboing your way through Golarion.
Basically, 5th Ed is lighter and easier on the whole to play, but leaves a good few things uncovered. Pathfinder is denser and needs a bit more time to digest and think about, but permits you to really dig in. The real question is, how complex do you like your games?
We all experience RPGs through our characters, and half the fun in making them is in making them different. Sure, he’s a Half-Elf Paladin, but how does he differ from all the other Half-Elf Paladins that other players over the years have already created? Both 5th Edition and Pathfinder provide you with a way to do this, in their own ways.
There’s two ways to go about it, as there always is in tabletop RPGs. Fluff customization is limited only by the world you work in, the limits your GM imposes, and the reach of your imagination. Of course, we’re assuming that you’re working in either Golarion (if PF) or Forgotten Realms (if 5th Ed) as these are the worlds in which the games have set their books. A homebrew setting will of course have nothing of this.
Pathfinder, as we’ve mentioned before, brings the full weight of all its published works to bear on this count. The 320 pages of the Inner Sea World Guide firmly establish the setting in terms of geography, races, and a little grounding of life. The Campaign Setting and Player’s Companion books focus on particular locales or aspects of the world, and each of the Adventure Paths also give a little focus to the area they take place in.
Compared to this, 5th Edition fares rather poorly in comparison, having only eleven books set in the Forgotten Realms, of which only the Sword Coast Adventurer’s Guide is devoted to fluff. The other ten are all adventure books, which do shine a light on their specific settings, but could easily spoil a player as regards the adventure itself.
With this in mind, Pathfinder wins the fluff battle easily. However, it’s also possible (with a bit of work) to use 3.5 books to help flesh out the Forgotten Realms. And of course, none of this is any barrier to a player with sufficient imagination; Pathfinder’s advantage is in the realm of foundation, as was.
In the realm of crunch customization, Pathfinder wins by wealth of options from the minor to the major in a dozen different flavours. For small things, the Companion books offer traits and feats, and for larger options, there’s the other corebooks. The Advanced Race Guide, for instance, provides alternative options for the existing races as well as a wealth of other ones, while the Advanced Player’s Guide and Advanced Class Guide provide alternative classes to choose from, and further options for the base classes. (There’s forty classes total. Forty.)
Not to say that 5th Edition fails in this regard. In fact, it has been pretty good about providing a good range of character options per book released. Combined with what’s already in the PHB, you can quite competently define your 5th Ed character. It’s just that Pathfinder has a hell of a lot more toys to play with.
5th Ed’s default assumption hearkens back to the older editions, where magic items were much rarer and more prized. Pathfinder, on the other hand, continues with the 3.5 trend of a greater variety of magic items; indeed, four whole chapters of Ultimate Equipment are devoted to such variety, and it’s not the only item-focused book in the Pathfinder line.
For sheer scale and variety of loot, Pathfinder has a greater list filled out for the GM to choose from, though no doubt a DM of sufficient diligence could approximate something largely similar in effect using the rules in the 5th Edition DM’s Guide. And of course, all of this is dependent on your GM; the right DM can pull off a high-loot 5th Ed campaign as much as a low-loot PF one.
At the end of the day, though, Pathfinder and 5th Edition have far more similarities than they have differences, and that’s due to their shared heritage. So the question really is, what are you looking for?
If you want a colourfully-defined world with a wealth of options, both story and mechanics, with which to illustrate and flavour your character, as well as the chance to really optimize the hell out of a build, Pathfinder has all of that.
On the other hand, if you prefer to focus on a smoother game with less emphasis on mechanical rigour, with much lower barrier for entry, then D&D 5th Edition is more likely your thing.
And remember: Neither of these two are the only RPGs around. There’s a lot more with their own niches. If neither of these fit you, look around and explore. Poke about at DriveThruRPG. It’s a rich, rich world out there.