Pathfinder Core Rulebook Review/3.5 Comparison

Playing and running 3.5 and Pathfinder simultaneously is an interesting experience; our group has a firsthand experience in comparing the two closely related systems. Pathfinder’s taken the same approach 3.5 did and tweaked the heck out of it. 3.5 took a lot (but not all) of 3.0’s flaws and fixed them; Pathfinder, on the other hand, only fixes some of 3.5’s, but adds in a lot of new features to revitalize an aging, but still solid, system.

It may not be an entirely new game. And some argue that it’s not worth the $50 MSRP price of admission, being just an update of previously published materials. But, for those of us who liked 3.5 and want to continue playing it for another decade or so, Pathfinder takes a damn fine system and optimizes it for a new generation.

Let’s get this out of the way: if you didn’t like 3.5, you won’t like Pathfinder. There’s nothing there that will make you change your mind about the system; it’s still a class/level system, it still has a heavy slant towards miniatures, and it’s still a game which straddles the line between a great vehicle for tactical combat and roleplaying.

To me, 3.5 was the epitome of D&D; it offered a good balance between tactical combat and free-range roleplaying through its skills system. Making encounters was quick(er), and freeform because of the ability to modify monsters and villains: give them a template, class levels, or just advance their hit dice, boom, instant encounter. Prestige Classes gave a wealth of options for a character build to aim for, and Feats offered up a lot of new ground for combat-oriented characters to specialize and do more than just roll to attack. Coming from a 2nd Edition AD&D background, those were lifesavers, and the skills system was vastly superior to THAC0 (as easy as -that- was compared to combat matrixes). In the end, it remains an easy to learn, easy to run, and easy to play game, as long as you can do basic math and plan character advancement.

Pathfinder, by contrast, took a lot of the 3.5 features and turbocharged them. It may not have fixed all of the bugs, but it did a damn good job trying to revitalize the game for another run, which currently looks to be at the start of long and prosperous one at that. Here’s a quick and dirty comparison of what’s new and what’s different in Pathfinder from 3.5.

Races

The biggest thing here is the fluff; Gnomes are now refugees who fled the realm of Fey and go through a bleaching disease if they don’t live interesting enough lives, and Elves are slightly rarer and more uppity. All the demihumans get two +2 and a -2 modifers, while humans and half-races get a single +2. Some of the demihuman races got a few more minor abilities, but for the most part, nothing’s changed.

Classes

Pathfinder managed to fix one of the largest flaws with 3.5 that isn’t really a flaw: base classes over level 6 tend to suck. I guess it’s kind of a push to get into a Pres Class as soon as possible, but base classes get no love. Rangers and Paladins were especially bad, and in Pathfinder have acquired a selection of new abilities to reward sticking with one class for 20 levels. All the classes get a nifty set of new abilities, for example:

  • Paladins get more of their standard special abilities, more Auras, and also Mercies, which remove combat conditions with a Lay-On-Hands.
  • Rangers get Favored Terrain, more Favored Enemy bonuses, and more Combat Style feats as they level.
  • Rogues get Talents, which are like 3.5 rogue “special abilities” only better.
  • Barbarians get Rage Powers, which are nifty little conditions and bonuses which only work when raging.
  • Druids get Wild Shape earlier, and get more uses of it. Their animal companion is slightly more powerful, improving by level now.
  • Clerics can now “channel energy” to heal all living targets, or damage all undead ones, for Xd6 a set number of times per day. Their domains also give them some additional powers as they level. Turn Undead is now a feat.
  • Sorcerers get Bloodlines, which are kind of like Domains in that they give bonus spells and a handful of powers as you level,
  • Fighters got Weapon Training, which lets them select favored weapon groups and get +1 bonuses with them ala Favored Enemy.
  • Monks are still awash in a wide variety of special abilities.
  • Wizards end up with spell school specializations, which (again) give three minor powers or benefits every few levels.

There’s a few other minor changes—for example, extra feats are on odd-levels instead of every three, so you get more of them as you progress. Spellcasters can cast all the Cantrips/Orisons they know at-will per day, though they get fewer real spells per day (usually a max of 4). Most class special abilities last longer, and are on a round-by-round basis to economize them, usually something like 3 or 4 + relevant ability modifier. It’s pretty slick; doesn’t it always suck ending combat before your Rage is finished?

Lastly, there’s some major changes to the XP advancement tracks; instead of a single one, there’s now Slow, Medium, and Fast, with much higher XP requirements per level. Since CR and EL rewards have increased, the high XP requirements are just visually intimidating; one of my players ran the numbers to see that the Fast track actually requires fewer encounters per level than 3.5’s normal track, despite its requirement of some 2,400,000 XP for 20th level (compared to 3.5’s requirement of 190,000).

Skills

The skill system saw a big change. First, the number of skills has been reduced. While some people see this as a bad thing, I think it’s fantastic. Having played a lot of Exalted lately, I’m a strong supporter of more generalized skills. For example, the two passive and one active perception skills (Spot/Listen/Search) have been rolled into Perception; other examples include Acrobatics (Balance/Jump/Tumble), Linguistics (Decipher Script/Forgery/Speak Languages), Open Lock rolling into Disable Device, and Gather Information rolling into Diplomacy. Also, Concentration is gone as a skill, and is a simple check instead.

The skill system has seen a major revitalization, going the True20 route of simplifying the metagame. Instead of getting x4 skill points at first level, the skills have been reduced to X single points, with a cap of 1 rank per hit die. Class skills with a single rank get a +3 bonus for being “trained,” equating to the x4 bonus recieved at 1st level. Smooth, no? All in all, the skills system is one of my favorite aspects of Pathfinder.

Feats

There’s a number of small changes here; while we’re still not up to Spycraft’s level of amazing non-combat oriented feats, there’s still a lot of new tweaks. Dodge no longer requires you to call a target, and instead is just a floating +1 dodge bonus. All of the “saving throw +2” feats get an Improved version, which lets you reroll a failed save once per session. Cleave and Improved Cleave are godlike, turning you into a killing machine. There’s more Extra [insert class ability here] feats for just about everything. And there’s plenty of new feats to pimp out character builds. My main complaint is that they’re mostly focused towards fighting classes, with a secondary focus on divine and arcane casters; Rogues, Druids, Rangers, Barbarians, and Paladins don’t get as much love. Still, the new feats are brutal and awesome, so there’s something that fits every build.

Combat and Magic

The main change here is the Combat Maneuver Bonus (CMB) and Combat Maneuver Defense (CMD). Rather than have thirty seperate systems for Trip, Bull Rush, Charge, Grapple, and all the other maneuvers, you now roll your CMB against a target’s CMD. Some creatures get bonuses to Trip or Grapple attacks, for example; all in all, it’s a greatly streamlined system compared to 3.0’s impossible Grapple rules, and the various bonuses and sub-systems that discouraged new players from making such maneuvers.

As mentioned, Concentration is now a check instead of a skill check, with a new system for it. The DCs are fairly similar, and are generated with 1d20 + caster level + ability score modifier. For spells, there’s also a new Polymorph spell sub-school, some old spells are gone (Cure Minor Wounds, as Orisons are at-will), and there’s a few new replacements.

Gamemastery

Instead of a PH and DMG, a lot of the DMG is now in the core Pathfinder rulebook. The base prestige classes, rules for item creation (and the example magic items), NPC classes, and the basics of gamemastering and environments are all included. While it makes the book heavy and a bit unwieldy, I like having magic items together with magic item creation rules, as well as all the other basics of GMing.

In Conclusion

Pathfinder’s a great new spin on 3.5; the rules are solid, and it’s great to see the game still being published for those who weren’t sold on 4e. To be frank, it doesn’t even approach some of the major issues 3.5 had, but a lot of those were inherent in a class/level tactical-centric roleplaying game. It’s still helpful to have miniatures; there’s still a lot of Feat Bloat; combat can still run slow and tedious; and power creep is even easier to acquire. Probably its biggest failing is moving farther away from having “monster” PCs, with how the Bestiary deals with level adjustment and advancement… but that’s another review altogether.

But there’s really nothing -wrong- with the game; like 3.5, it balances roleplaying and combat very nicely. The system is solid, tried, and true; it’s still easy to teach and easy to learn, relatively speaking, provided that players read through the books and get a firm grasp on the metagame through experience and practice. It’s hard to mess up a system revolving around a single, modified d20 roll, and Paizo just managed to enhance it. I can still use my (growing) 3.5 library with Pathfinder, another major selling point: backwards compatibility. Paizo has been ardently avoiding pres classes, probably because WotC had so many that weren’t OGL, which is fine; I can still use my Completes without having to buy new copies of rules I already have.

Most of all, it’s the game’s flavor: the art, and the world of Golarion, enhance the game a lot. If 3.5 was core Dungeonpunk, Pathfinder is a postmodern take on the game. The best example of this is the Pathfinder Society; by putting a group dedicated to adventuring and hunting relics into the world, Paizo managed to circumvent many cognitive disconnects and issues between “fantasy adventuring” and “realism” previous editions have.

So far, our group has three core books, two bestiaries, and numerous Adventure Paths purchased for Pathfinder… pretty good considering we’re poor college students who’ve largely played non-3.5 games. Even the guys who usually chose narrative/cinematic style games are picking up and reading Pathfinder; I wouldn’t say I’ve given up Exalted for it, but it has reinvigorated my opinion of 3.5. Paizo’s ad campaign has hit the money: 3.5 hasn’t just survived, it’s thrived.


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