Main menu

"Goodbye, Jean-Luc, I'm gonna miss you. You had such potential. But then again, all good things must come to an end."
- Q, Star Trek: TNG

Game Day: Weighing a 4E vs. Pathfinder Campaign Conversion

by Ken Newquist / August 16, 2008

It’s appropriate that the Pathfinder RPG Beta would be released while my gaming group’s taking a two-week break from our D&D 4th Edition playtest. During the hiatus we’re tying up some loose ends in our D&D 3.5 Dark City campaign, which is a role-playing intensive, urban campaign set in the World of Greyhawk.

Dark City’s been running on and off for about three years, and the characters in it range in levels from 5 to 7. As such, it’s not a bad yardstick for judging conversion to other rule sets, namely D&D 4th Edition and Pathfinder. Most people are playing single class characters from the PHB, though there are a few variant base classes (favored soul, warmage) so recreating these characters in other games should be straightforward.

Round Peg, Square Hole

Running down the campaign roster, converting the campaign to 4E would be a mixed bag. Sir Fawkes (human paladin 5/warmage 2) is an unusual paladin of Wee Jas, Greyhawk goddess of magic and death, and would probably translate fairly well. 4E paladins aren’t required to be lawful good, and I think that would work slightly better with Fawkes magical crusader build. Similarly, he could use the multiclass feats in 4E to cherrypick wizard spells to provide his arcane edge. 

Kerth Greenfield (human favored soul 7) is a sorcerer-like cleric with an increasing leadership role in the community at large. In 4E, all clerics are effectively spontaneous casters, and the class itself is designed to serve the leadership/support role that Kerth often finds himself in. The martial aspects of the class would change the tone of the character (Kerth is rarely on the front lines) but if he picked up some warlord abilities through multiclass feats, he’d likely be able to stay in his support niche.  Gruffud Castlemaine (half-elf paladin), paladin of Lendor, god of time, is straightforward conversion as is Largo Leftpocket (halfling rogue).

Corash (elven wizard 7) and Vargas (human shadowmancer 5) are more troublesome. The 4E wizards just don’t have the depth of arcane knowledge to adequately reflect these characters in the campaign, though of the two, the generalist Corash would be the easiest to convert. There simply aren’t enough shadow-related spells to do an adequate job of bring of recreating Vargas. Both characters would likely be easier to bring over once there’s a “Complete Arcane” source book for 4E that offers some more depth.

From there it gets more problematic. Thom Silverbow (half-elf bard 6) is impossible under 4E rules, as there is no bard class in the game. And given Thom’s focus on performing and other role-playing skills and his utter lack of combat prowess, remaking him as a warlord isn’t an option.  Stoney George (half-elf druid 5) won’t convert because his druid base class doesn’t exist in 4E.

Mica Brightpick (gnome barbarian 3/fighter 2) is a gnome, which doesn’t exist as a 4E core race. And while we could use the Monster Manual stats, they don’t jive very well with how gnomes are portrayed in Greyhawk. The barbarian class doesn’t exist in 4E, and there’s no rage mechanic he could borrow from another class, so he’d have to convert to a single-class fighter. The gnome class is something we’d likely have to house rule.

Kato  (human cleric 3/paladin 2/exp 1) follower of Rao, god of reason, has a complex mix of skills and abilities that 4E can’t easily match. While it can handle the combat aspects of a cleric/paladin combo, where it falls down with this character is the lack of skill options. Kato is a diplomatic machine, min-maxed to near perfection (only because I wouldn’t allow the perfected version) to gather information and convince people to do what he wants. He’s even more capable at this than the party’s bard, and I don’t think 4E simply has enough feats to allow him to get as exceptional at debating as he was in 3E.

From a mechanical standpoint, Kato illustrates one of my primary concerns about how 4E’s diminished skill set would affect this campaign. While having a smaller, more generic number of skills to choose from isn’t a big deal in a traditional dungeon crawl, it is an issue in an urban, role-playing intensive campaign where my bard really does perform regularly at inns and taverns around the city, where a variety of knowledge skills come into play almost every game night, and where a character’s skills are something that sets him or her apart from everyone else in the teeming city.

My other major frustration with this would-be conversion is the lack of classes and races that were core to Third Edition. I know, 4E is young, it will grow and we’ll get these options eventually, but when 3E came out we didn’t have to wait. I don’t think it’s unreasonable to expect the same from Fourth Edition.

Find the Path

Running the same list of characters through the Pathfinder Beta gets a very different set of results. Every base class in our party, with the exceptions of favored soul and warmage, are available out of the box with Pathfinder. The same goes for the races: half-orc and gnome are included in the core rules.  Moreover, Pathfinder is designed to be backwards compatible with 3.5 so both the favored soul and the warmage  characters could be played as is with a minimal amount of conversion (namely rebuilding their skill lists).

It’s not all sunshine and puppy dogs with Pathfinder though. There are legitimate concerns about discrepancies in power levels between Patfhinder’s new base classes and the old 3.5 ones.

While characters build on the newer D&D 3.5 rules will likely achieve near parity, there are still going to be imbalances. We’d either need to accept those, or tweak some of these older characters (particularly those with one of the thousands of 3E prestige classes) so that they work and play well with Pathfinder characters. Pathfinder does offer some thoughts on how to work through such conversions, and I’ll be reading up on those as I work my way through the beta.

There’s also the issue of rules that are almost, but not quite, the same. Changes to major rule systems, like "turn undead" and "grapple", are easy to identify and grasp, but it’s the myriad little things – What combat conditions are there? How does this spell work? Is flanking the same? – that continually tripped us up going from 3.0 to 3.5. I don’t want to go through that again moving from 3.5 to Pathfinder.  So far Paizo’s done a good job of flagging and explaining their changes (something Wizards didn’t do with 3.5) but the death of a thousand cuts could still lurk somewhere in its 410 pages of rules.

Always in Motion is the Future

This little thought experiment doesn’t decide anything. My group’s still working their way through the playtest, and we’ll do a separate playtest of Pathfinder’s finished product before we make any decisions. It’s tempting to say that Pathfinder’s in the lead because of its inherent compatibility with the rules we already use, but I think we’d need to clearly demonstrate that the new system is faster and less clunky than 3.5 before choosing to upgrade. Remaining with 3.5 is also a possibility, though there’s a fair amount of frustration among our group with those rules as well, so I expect there will be a goodly amount of discussion and debate before we reach our final choice.


I tend to agree with you about the fact that Pathfinder doesn't seem to be any faster than 3e. However, I do believe that people who refuse to try 4e, or for those that want to use both systems to run different campaigns, Pathfinder is definitely a step up for 3rd edition players.
I'm still reading the Beta so I haven't really had a chance to do more than skim the rules and changes, but I haven't been disappointed. I have seriously been considering keeping 3e alive for a while longer with my group.

I think the changes to combat maneuvers (specifically grapple) and turn undead will speed things up because they're more intuitive, and rely on the same sort of DC-based mechancis as the rest of the game. But they haven't done anything to try and deal with high level play yet, so that will probably take only slightly less time than it does now. That said, I know high level play is something they want to work on between now and the final release.

While there are some people who hate 4E and refuse to upgrade, I think there's also going to be a sizable contingent who tried it and didn't like it. 4E's style of play is as different as its ruleset, and not everyone is going to like it. Pathfinder gives those people an alternative.

With a little luck I'm going to start printing the beta soon. With a little more I might be in on a new 4e campaign soon, too. We'll see.

I think it depends entirely on whether you and your group want to continue with greyhawk (3.5 or pathfinder) or try something completely different )more 4e) after your play test of 4e.

Then again, there's always... never mind, you know ;)

I nearly made the title of this column "4E vs. Pathfinder vs. Savage Worlds", but I ran out of time. It's something I've mentioned to the group -- I could see running a kickass, really fast paced "War on the Pomarj" campaign using Savage Worlds rules (basically the party taking on hordes of orcs and other humanoids) but I don't think there's any serious support for that (though I can always hope...)