Sunday, September 15, 2019

Contrasting Pathfinder 2E against Dungeons & Dragons 5E

We're approximately 8 games in to Pathfinder 2nd edition between two groups now. Both games have inched along to 3rd level and I think (depending on whether or not I'm interpreting the XP rules correctly) it seems safe to say that a fairly active group of players accomplishing a lot will advance at least 1 level every two sessions or so.

After last night's game I think, at least for the low level experience I am getting a similar vibe to my initial exploration of D&D 5E at low level: the experience feels very consistent, the combats can be quite dangerous, and risk/reward is quite noticeable. There are some distinct differences, though, which I'll point out about combat, skills and GM resources.


Right now combat in Pathfinder feels tight, intuitive, and the action point system lets you do things you can't accomplish in PF 1E or any version of D&D; you can make iterative attacks as long as you are willing to accept the penalty to hit, and the increased change of a fumble on your successive tries. There's a more strategic element to it even if you aren't using a map and minis (which we have not used except for basic map reference). Combats don't last long, and thanks to the 10-point differential which allows for normal attacks to convert to fumbles and crits combat often has some interesting and swingy results. It's interesting and I like it.

D&D 5E's main issue by contrast is that while combat flows well from level 1-4, as you advance it often feels more and more like "big bags of hit points try to deal enormous amounts of damage." Players and creatures alike in 5E have too many abilities that boil down to damage dealing without enough distinctly interesting effects (PF2E has lots of interesting effects at the low levels for contrast).  Despite this, D&D 5E combat isn't bad by any stretch.....if I ranked it vs. PF2E I'd call it a "good combat system contrasted with a great combat system."

If 5E had mor interesting effects and wasn't so obsessed with Hit Points as the catch-all I think it would hold well in this comparison. But so far: Pathfinder is a clear winner when it comes to the feel and flow of combat.

Skill Systems

As I see it, there are three modes of thought on skills: you love them and no game is sufficient unless it allows for maximum granularity; you hate them and want to know why any skills are really needed; or you recognize that there are "things you need to do" in any given game that can best be handled by skills and so try to find a modest compromise for handling this.

PF2E and D&D 5E both seem to fall in to this middle camp on the surface. 5E gives you a list of skills that I would call "the minimum decent list of skill thingies you will probably do in a D&D session." Pathfinder 2E technically also takes this approach, but then ultimately makes it enormously granular and complex....which should in theory make the "guy #1 who loves skills" happier, right? But it doesn''s actually making a skill system for "guy who recognizes a compromise mechanic but also wants tons of detail on what the compromise skill system does."

On the one hand, I like how specific the skill actions in Pathfinder can get, but on the other hand as I have delved deep into the skill feats I have sort of grown to dislike it. The problem is best described like this, starting with a D&D 5E skill challenge:

1. Player wants to do action X.
2. GM looks at the 5E skill list and thinks skill Y is a good choice.
3. Roll and resolve!

In Pathfinder 2E so far it goes like this:

1. Player wants to do skill action X.
2. GM suggests rolling on Skill Y.
3. Someone points out you can't really do that the way the player wants unless you have Skill Feat Z. GM reminds himself he needs to memorize in great detail all the skill feats because they are lots of "special exception rules" that are in reality hard limiters on the "what you can and can't do without this feat" take which PF and 3E are known for taking to insane extremes.
4. GM manages a compromise on the action, but then realizes he's not asking for the right skill because it turns out that by trying to reduce the skill list as much as it did (while also not looking too much like a copy/paste of the D&D 5E skill system) has led to Pathfinder making some really strange and counter-intuitive choices in skill consolidation. Do they work? They will, once you accept that this is how they are meant to work. Or you could go play another game with a more intuitive skill system, and that is a problem for PF2E.

Now, Pathfinder does some stuff incredibly well with the skill system as provided. Key items of note include: a better and more consistent approach to how to identify and figure out the use of magic items; a simpler crafting mechanic that, while losing granularity, is still easier to use as written; and the perception mechanic no longer being a skill but an ability. Most significant is how initiative is a skill-based thing now which can play off of perception or a relevant skill (e.g. stealth) as suits the moment. That's the most innovative thing I've seen in a game in a long time, so simple yet so logical.

But both Pathfinder and D&D 5E fail to a degree when it comes to how much verisimilitude you want in your game systen. To 5E's credit you can use the DMG rules to add as many skills as you want in, and learning skills is a matter of time and investment and totally untethered from leveling. Both systems wisely add some sort of RP-focued background mechanic (profession/background) which helps flesh out the role-play element that your character will otherwise suffer a bit on with a less granular skill system. And both do this the way they do because they are trying to find ways to solve the mechanical issues on skills imposed by 3rd edition design.

In the end....D&D 5E wins here.

The Gamemaster's Resources

This is a tough one, because to get the full experience with D&D 5E you need three books, so you're spending a fair amount of cash. Pathfinder 2E, despite having some rules to run the game in the Core Book, has offloaded a chunk of what used to be in the core and bestiary in to the upcoming Gamemastery Guide. If you want decent NPC stat blocks, rules for making, scaling and modifying monsters, rules for lots of "GM adjudication" stuff....we have to wait until January next year. Once it's out, it will be a 3-book core system. This is on equal footing with D&D 5E so I have to call this as a draw.

But! The problem here is key items (NPC design, monster design and more depth in the GM rules) were all in two books in PF1E. It is a shame to see this drawn out. One of my players thinks they were forced to rush PF2E to release. I think maybe they just wanted to get it spread out more; but I gotta be honest, I'd have much rather had some NPC/monster design rules in the core books than the goblin ancestry and alchemist. Oh well.

Pathfinder 2E is proving a lot of fun, but it is also making me appreciate some of the design choices put in to D&D 5E. I am thinking that a perfect version of the game could be found in a system with PF2E level combat and action economy, D&D 5E level skill mechanics, and some blend of the spell systems.

Another contrast is the "gradient of success" mechanic in PF2E vs. the advantage/disadvantage mechanic in D&D 5E. I feel like both are interesting and equally innovative. I wonder if one could implement some version of both in a hybrid version of the two games.....hmmmm.

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