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

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.

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