My thoughts on Pathfinder, based on the Core Rulebook

I’ve finished reading through the bulk of the Pathfinder Core Rulebook in preparation for the campaign in which I will soon be a player, and I thought I’d share my thoughts here. My background with RPGs is:

  • I played a little bit of D&D 3.0 around 2002. I got the core books, read them, loved them, played a session or two, wrote an adventure, never found a good group to play with, drifted away.
  • I started playing D&D 4e in early 2010, and here I am now. I’ve played and DMed a ton of 4e over the past year and a half.
  • In that year and a half, I’ve also had the chance to play one session each of AD&D 1e, GURPS, Savage Worlds and Call of Cthulhu.

So, I’m approaching Pathfinder as an experienced D&D 4e player, with some exposure to other games, including earlier editions of D&D – but just a little.


The first thing that struck me about the Core Rulebook is that it opens with some mild politics. I understand that this is about the OGL and such, but it’s really awkward to read all the references to Pathfinder being an evolution of “the 3.5 version of the world’s oldest roleplaying game.” I get it – they don’t own the rights to the Dungeons and Dragons name, so they can’t say the name, but the OGL lets them say a lot of other stuff… it’s very weird.

I love that the single book is basically the Player’s Handbook and Dungeon Master’s Guide rolled into one. I’ve really only been focusing on the player sections of the book, but I appreciate that the game master sections are right there if I want them.

The glossary on pages 11-12 is well-placed, too. Understanding things like Combat Maneuver Bonus right up front is helpful. The index in the back of the book seems to be pretty good, too. If you’re going to write a book that aims to be accessible to new players, a good glossary and index help a lot.

“Generating a Character” on pages 14-15 is not as helpful as it should be. I wish this had been an easier-to-follow step-by-step process, but it involves a crazy amount of flipping all over the book. I think an example would have helped a lot.


Not much to say here. I’m fine with the races that get penalties to certain stats; it’s more flavorful. The races generally seem to have more flavor expressed in mechanics than 4e races do, but this isn’t always a winner for me. Some of the flavor is quite fiddly in practice, such as dwarves getting a dodge bonus to AC against giants and a bonus to Appraise checks involving precious metals or gems. I get the flavor, really, but the mechanics seem likely to be forgotten.

One other note: The illustration of the half-elf woman is fantastic. Half-elf males are lucky critters!


I see what people mean when they refer to the Essentials class presentations as being more like older editions. No two classes are alike in Pathfinder. They all have their own progression of different features that come at different levels, and that’s cool. Fiddly, yes, but I think the fiddliness comes from not having a Character Builder with power cards. If all of these special abilities were easy to follow and reference on the character sheet, they wouldn’t feel any more fiddly than 4e characters getting powers as they level up. So, no complaints about the progression of the classes themselves here, just a complaint about the lack of an easy-to-use character builder (though I’ve heard good – and expensive – things about Hero Lab).

It strikes me that Pathfinder seems to be a game that relies more on GM and player interpretation rather than rules – often phrased as “rulings rather than rules”. I’m fine with that, but it’s a meaningful difference with 4e.

Some things in Pathfinder make character creation harder than 4e, which gives each class a key ability score (and yes, there are some V-shaped class builds in 4e that depend on two different abilities, I know). When I tried to build a cleric in Pathfinder, I found myself gravitating toward a high Wisdom score. I then realized that Charisma is pretty important, too. And then I saw that if I wanted to have anything to do other than throw off the occasional healing spell, I’d probably want good Strength to get into melee, in which case I’d need reasonable Constitution in order to have some hit points and not just die in one shot… it’s just very different. If it leads to well-rounded characters, well, great! But it’s a very different approach.

Also, I love the way deities and domains are presented in the Core Rulebook. It’s a whole new pantheon of deities, of course, but I love that clerics pick a deity and then get spells and abilities from two of the deity’s domains. Again, good flavor.

Spells are, of course, one of the areas where D&D differs most from earlier editions and Pathfinder. All spells are “dailies” in Pathfinder (Vancian Magic). I have to say that based solely on reading the books, I prefer the 4e system. Any system where the wizard spends the first four levels of his career hiding from combat most of the time until he can start throwing the occasional fireball doesn’t seem that great to me. Yes, I know that the wizard becomes all-powerful later, but reading through the books does not make me a fan of the Linear Warriors Quadratic Wizards phenomenon. Maybe it will be more fun in play.

I’m also annoyed by the difference between character level, caster level and spell level. I get it, but it’s terribly inelegant.


Again, more flavor than 4e. More judgment calls. More proliferation. More stuff that comes up outside of combat. It’s good, it’s bad… it’s just a difference.


I didn’t read them all, as you might imagine. But this feels like an area where 4e really didn’t change much from 3.5e / Pathfinder. Feats felt very familiar to me.


Again, much like 4e in most respects (at least for starting equipment; I haven’t delved into magic items).

The various weapons confuse me a bit, as there seem to be cases where weapon A is Pareto superior to weapon B… is the difference really just flavor, or am I missing something? The Morningstar, for instance, just seems better than the Heavy Mace. It’s cheaper, it’s lighter, it deals two different types of damage… all I can figure is that dealing two types of damage is bad in some circumstances (such as against a creature that resists piercing damage, even when it’s paired with bludgeoning). I have much to learn, I guess.

A minor innovation that I actually like from 4e is the introduction of the Adventurer’s Kit. I personally think it’s fun to pore over the list of oddball equipment I could buy for my character, but I think it’s a good idea to provide a “default gear” option for players who aren’t interested in that sort of thing.

The illustrations of gear in this book are very nicely done too, in my opinion. Good artwork in lots of places… it’s strange that I’m not seeing artist credits on the images.

Additional Rules

It’s a little weird to me that we don’t see alignment spelled out until this chapter, but I guess there really wasn’t a good place to stick it earlier. I tend to think of alignment as being a very fundamental part of the character creation process. My only other comment on this section is that I find the changes to ability scores as characters age to be annoying rather than flavorful. I guess it’s both… sigh.


Okay, I read this chapter in detail. And I have to say that this is one where I’ll largely need to reserve judgment until I play the game. So many things are fundamentally different about combat between 4e and Pathfinder that I can’t accurately judge it until I try it.

I get that there’s sort of a Standard – Move – Minor action economy in this game, but I also understand that it’s still a different animal. Full-round actions have no clear analogue in 4e, except maybe the monk’s Full Discipline… but you can still take a 5-foot step with a full round action. It’s going to take some learning by doing on my part for sure.

I will say that combat seems a lot more complicated in Pathfinder. The difference between a weapon attack, touch attack and ranged touch attack is flavorful, but harder to follow. Holding a charge on a spell – also flavorful and hard to follow. Saving throws – I think the 4e system of different defenses works much better. Concentration checks for spellcasting seem like a huge pain in the butt. All the options to do things like fight defensively seem overly complicated. The different buckets for lethal and nonlethal damage seem like a pain. And oh, all the tables! It’s going to take a lot of learning for me.


Much like combat, I’m going to have to see it in action in order to really judge. Concentration, counterspelling, the shapes of spell areas, areas that originate on a grid intersection rather than in a square, spell resistance… again, it seems really complicated. More “realism” at the expense of clarity.

The Rest

I flipped through some of the spells. I haven’t touched Prestige Classes or the GM parts of the book. I haven’t delved into multiclassing, though I understand the gist of how it works.

Overall impressions

So far, Pathfinder looks like a game that does a much better job of handling the game world “realistically” than 4e, though at the expense of simplicity. I know that tomes have been written about “gamism versus simulationism” by people who’ve spent far more time comparing and contrasting various systems than I have, so I don’t have much I can add. Until I actually get to try the system out at the table, it will be hard for me to say which (if either) I prefer.

Fortunately, I’m not too worried. I had the chance to meet with my awesome GM, Phil, and I know it’s going to be a fun game. He’s not overly concerned about rules, and he’s interested in us focusing far more on the stories of our characters rather than their mechanics. Having played in his Call of Cthulhu game at Genghis Con, I’m really excited about playing in an ongoing campaign that he’s running. I honestly don’t think the system is going to matter all that much – with good people at the table, I’m going to have a good time.

16 thoughts on “My thoughts on Pathfinder, based on the Core Rulebook

  1. Naturally I’m biased as I am a die-hard 3e/Pathfinder fan, but I do understand some of your reservations. I’ve always thought the spell level should equal caster level, which should equal character level. Also, if you learn to maximize your builds you can have a bad ass magic user at lower levels. At least when you compare them to the “standard” magic user.

    This requires a little min-maxing, but if you don’t go overboard it can still be fun to play. Some people try to make sure they have a reasonable STR & DEX and then take the quarterstaff as a weapon. That way they aren’t useless in melee at low levels or when they run out of spells.

    This is both the good and the bad about any edition of D&D or Pathfinder. You can min-max any build/class to a degree. In the wrong hands it can lead to a ridiculously unbalanced party and ruin the fun. I’m lucky and most of my guys don’t like to make things too crazy. If they make a character that is too powerful, they’ll usually ask me to do something to balance it, or they’ll do it themselves.

    It’s funny that you see Pathfinder as more complicated. I’ve taught my 13 year old daughter 2e, Pathfinder and 4e. She says 2e is the easiest to learn and play. When comparing Pathfinder and 4e, she says that 4e is easier to learn, but the hardest to play because there is so much to keep track of during play. Pathfinder is harder to learn, according to her, but much easier to play than 4e. Like I said before 2e, in her opinion, is the easiest of the bunch and that’s what she prefers.

    I also get where your coming from with character creation. I will say that not having a character builder can make it just as difficult to create a PC in either system. Granted I know Pathfinder a little better so I’m a little faster with that one. Also I do not, will not, and have never even met anyone who runs a game with the rules as written. That being said there are a lot of things in 2e, 3e/Pathfinder and 4e that get hand waves, ignored completely or are reduced to a die roll, which makes something that seems complicated on paper much easier in actual play.

    I’ve got nothing against 4e, I actually like the Essentials stuff, so I don’t have an axe to grind. While I freely admit that I prefer Pathfinder, I’ll play and run 4e if asked.

    They aren’t full fledged character builders like on DDi, but these two are pretty good and can make building a PC much easier. They do require some knowledge of the system, but they do a great deal of the work and number crunching for you.


    Hope you have fun with your Pathfinder game.

    • Thanks for the thoughts! It sounds like my initial impressions are in line with your experience. Pathfinder is harder to learn – and that’s where I am right now, learning the game. I can completely believe that it might be easy to play once I learn how it all works.

      I’ll be sure to check out those other character creation tools when I have some time. With all the talk in the 4e community about complaints with the Character Builder and how it could be improved so easily if only WotC would let people use the data, I’m surprised that there aren’t slick free programs out there for Pathfinder that are head and shoulders better than the 4e Character Builder. I guess those folks are all talk, and creating an awesome character construction program isn’t so easy after all!

  2. So linearize your wizards. Back in 1E/2E I absolutely *hated* Vancian magic and replaced daily casting with mana points (by spell level, e.g. Fireball cost 3). A similar system should still work in 3E/Pathfinder. Hmm… it also would be easy to make things more 4Eish by giving casters less mana overall, but restoring 25+% after each encounter.

    • Thanks for the comment. Keep in mind that I’m not tinkering with systems, looking for improvements, etc. I’m getting ready to participate as a player in a Pathfinder game by the book. I’m sure there are house rules that improve lots of different things about lots of different systems at lots of different tables. I’m not there yet, at least not for this game. Still, I appreciate the idea.

  3. Please remember that all 0-level spells in Pathfinder are ‘At-Wills’. While this isn’t a huge amount of damage, a sorcerer/wizard being able to use spells as a constant attack (Ray of Frost, etc) instead of a crossbow is a really good change. Plus, spellcasters also get to cast things like Prestidigitation, Light, Flare, Daze, Guidance, Resistance, etc at-will as well.

    Also, most spellcasters get something from either their domains, bloodlines, or schools that allow them to do damage with a spell-like ability up to 7-8 times a day (example: An elemental sorcerer’s Elemental Ray that does 1d6 damage as a ranged touch 3 + Cha mod times per day) in addition to spells.

    • Thanks for chiming in. I was definitely confused about cantrips and orisons and whatever other names are given to 0-level spells; I had missed the explanation that the character can only prepare a certain number of them, but they’re not expended when cast. Thank you for pointing that out!

      And yes, I did see the information about other things like the Cleric’s Channel Energy ability being able to be used several times per day (3 + Charisma Modifier in the Cleric’s case). That certainly helps, of course, but it’s still an adjustment from being used to the 4e Cleric who can use various offensive prayers every single round, using Wisdom as the key stat for the attack (rather than having to use Strength to swing a morningstar). It’s fine, but it will just take some getting used to on my part.

  4. This is a nice run down and I found it interesting to experience your view of Pathfinder since it wasn’t colored by a lot of 3.5 exposure…

    My girlfriend only started playing RPGs about 3 years ago and we played Warhammer Fantasy RPG 2E at the time… But when 4E came out she played it and ran it with our group for the next two years. Now that we’ve gone over to playing PF… she was initially worried about not having the same structures — and was worried about her abilities as a Sorcerer. But after playing through level 5 (almost 6) in our current campaign, she told me the other night that she did not want to go back to 4e — she actually found PF to make more sense to her — and to be easier.

    I know this is not everyone’s experience, and I actually enjoy both PF and D&D4e, but it is very interesting getting to interact with viewpoints of the two games from people who did not grow up playing the various editions of D&D as most of my gaming friends did.

    That said, I will disagree with one thing (politely)… I LOVE the way 4E handles character races. I find the race choices really compelling and I prefer it a great deal over the 3.x/PF way of representing races mechanically.

    Also, when making the switch back to PF, I initially was concerned about switching back to “touch AC” and “Flat-footed” etc. Having done so though, I’m actually pretty happy with the game play, but I still really prefer the way 4E handles defenses and saving throws. I’m a huge fan of the four defenses and the single saving throw.

    • Thanks for sharing your experience! I expect I’ll end up liking both 4e and Pathfinder once I start playing them. I have yet to play a system where I felt, “I never want to play THAT again!”

      For what it’s worth, at least based on my reading of the book, I’m with you in your preference of the way 4e presents races. I appreciate that Pathfinder tries to find mechanical ways to represent what the races are all about, but they look way too fiddly and easy to forget in play. 4e, by contrast, usually gives races an encounter power that shows off what the race can do (Elven Accuracy, Fey Step, the dwarf’s Second Wind as a minor, etc.), and I like that – it’s easy to remember.

  5. I enjoy both Pathfinder and 4e, though Pathfinder fits my current needs a little bit better. I’m thinking more of Paizo’s later supplements, but it’s reasonable to say that Pathfinder works hard at being flavorful, but is also fairly fiddly with its mechanics. It comes up more on the DM’s side than the players’, but there’s a lot of little parts to the system to keep in mind.

  6. While I tried and did not care for 4e, I’ve got nothing bad to say about it, other than not my flavor of D&D. My interest and experience having played all the editions since 1e (each as the current D&D at the time – I started playing in 1977…) is more on story telling than creating the cinematic 4e combat experience. I am a pro fantasy cartographer (freelancer for various 3pp publishers) and I like to design maps based on reality and not necessarily cinematic emphasis. What I mean, is I like to creep out a gaming group forcing them down a 5′ wide passage filled with old cobwebs within some catacombs. In Pathfinder, while a 5′ path will create restrictions in combat until reaching a larger room (say 30 x 40) – these are dimensions that just don’t work with 4e. 4e maps need room, lots of it, obstructions and pitfalls and multiple entrance/exits for more mooks to enter combat over time. While such a fight and map could work for a Pathfinder game, as a cartographer I don’t have to limit my map layouts to a given games mechanics. I can spend more time creating interesting and eerie dungeons and not worry about requirements for expansive room size, pit falls, etc.

    One thing though, a pit in 4e, depending on further detriments than just falling is really something to cause ‘some damage’, take you out of combat for a round or two, while you climb back out, then maybe forces you to do a healing surge to get back into play. Falling in a pit in any edition before 4e, or playing in Pathfinder could be lethal…

    • I see what you mean about 4e maps at least (I can’t compare it to Pathfinder, since I haven’t played the game yet). Battles in 4e are certainly more fun when the characters have room to maneuver. I’m surprised to hear that’s not the case for Pathfinder or earlier D&D editions, but I’m glad that different editions support more variety in battle maps.

      As for pits in 4e, that’s completely up to the dungeon master, of course. A 4e DM is absolutely able to create a lethal pit trap if they wish (line it with poisoned spikes and have it deal 1d10 falling damage and 20d6+50 damage from the spikes – boom). I get the impression that there’s a different adventure design ethos in play here, though; in an earlier edition of D&D, it was much more common for adventures to be written so that traps would kill PCs. In 4th Edition, that’s usually not the way adventures are written, but they CAN be if the DM wants it. I’ve also heard about “save or die” effects in earlier editions, which you just don’t tend to see in 4e (though again, you CAN have them if you want them). I personally don’t think “instant death” sounds like much fun as an element in my own games, but maybe I’ll change my mind if I see it in action.

    • Also, on a totally unrelated note, I saw from your signature link that you have a web site where you sell your maps – that’s great! Why do you call it “Free” RPG Maps, though – isn’t this a paid service?

  7. I offer a free extra map from each month’s set of printed map tiles (which is also available as Virtual Terrain map versions). Plus I periodically create a totally free map design for download. The site is fairly young, so I don’t have a large inventory of free maps yet. My main website is actually where I have maps from various publishers available for sale as printed maps from the site. I also offer map printing services to individual GMs who have designed their own custom maps that need printing for game use. I am set up to print standard graphics formats as well as native CC3 (Profantasy Campaign Cartographer/City Designer) files and NBOS Fractal Mapper files. My gamer printshop site is four years old now.

    I offer both free download and paid for maps.

  8. I’ve enjoyed reading your posts about Pathfinder – honest opinions from a primarily 4th edition perspective.

    I tried 4th edition with the family, and it didn’t really work out that well. My wife (apparently agreeing with most the the women mentioned in your feedback) just didn’t care for it. I thought she’d appreciate some of the streamlining of the system, but she immediately decided that it wasn’t “actually” D&D, and didn’t give it much of a chance. The kids wanted a more hard-core, rules heavy (“fiddly”) experience. I, on the other hand, the grognard who started with basic D&D back in the mid seventies, then moved through about a dozen other systems, thought it was fun and would have liked to give it a more serious run through.

    I really don’t have a dog in the Pathfinder vs 4th ed fight, other than to say that: 1) I’m kind of sorry to see old time players upset with the current D&D, and 2) Choice is good. The way things are, more people can play with the rules they want. Play both. Vote with your money on products you like. But, keep an open mind and be on the lookout for other systems that are also cool.

    • I think I’m confused about your comment regarding most of the women I mentioned; my wife, for instance, seems to enjoy 4e much more than our limited experience with 3.0, and my sister-in-law loves 4e, too. Maybe it’s because of a small sample size, but I haven’t yet met a woman who was an edition warrior, complaining about 4e relative to other editions, but I have met men who expressed those strong opinions.

      Of course, with the advent of D&D Next, this whole conversation is in the process of changing. I’ll be interested to see where it all ends up.

      Michael the OnlineDM

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