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I know this is abit of a "wide net" question. I am currently switching over to 5e from years of activity (after 4e was released) from 3.5e..

The mechanics of 5e seem secondary while the role-playing seems primary from my experience in about 10 AL games.

I've spent the last 13 years or so away from TT-RPG

I desire highly mechanical play with other players that are also "rules to their letter experts," not self-styled "RP-actors".

I have played D&D:Basic, Advanced, 2e, 3.5e, 4e (twice), 5e (about 10 times)

I have not played any version of Pathfinder.

What are the major differences in style and system between D&D 5e and Pathfinder 2e?

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D&D 5e has been optimized to make it simple to learn and play, which is what you are reacting to. Its design reflects the fracturing of the D&D fanbase after 4e, and to a certain extent embraces a more “old-school” (read: 2e or earlier) playstyle in which the rules are much more nebulous, fluid, and handled ad hoc by the DM. This both makes it simpler to learn and play (since there aren’t rules to learn, you just have to trust the DM’s judgment), and also mollifies some of the critics of 4e (and, to an extent, 3e) in an effort to reunite the fanbase.

The downside of this is that more of the experience is riding on the DM’s expertise and judgment, and the players are often not left with a lot of surety in terms of how things will work from one DM to another. That makes it difficult to plan on things as a player, and can in some cases reduce player agency.

Pathfinder 1e was a spin-off of D&D 3.5e, and is for the most part identical in its foundations to that system.1 D&D 3.5e was likely never intended to be, but in some ways it was a departure from 2e when it comes to the subject of “rules vs. rulings,” as the more precise language gave many readers the basic assumption that things would generally go mostly by the rules and that exceptions would be, well, exceptional. Pathfinder inherited this heritage, though Paizo tried to repudiate it, and despite the fact that, like 5e, Pathfinder was in large part a reaction against D&D 4e, which was the system that most truly embraced the “rules” side of “rules vs. rulings.”

With Pathfinder 2e, Paizo has seemed to, at least somewhat, more fully embrace this “rules over rulings” ethos, in a way they largely didn’t with Pathfinder. And, in ways that are probably not coincidental but I’m not sure were planned, Pathfinder 2e is actually reminiscent of D&D 4e. The lists of class feats feel very similar to 4e’s lists of powers for each class, and the use of tags is very similar to 4e. Even the design and layout of the book feels like 4e—the little action diamonds just look like 4e’s heavy usage of the ♦ character in power descriptions, and the nature of the one-two-or-three diamonds is similar to 4e’s color coding by power availability (at-will, encounter, daily).

Paizo has also discussed PF 2e in these terms, describing their audience as being more technically-minded, more interested in the rules themselves, as being interested in digging into them and combining them in creative ways. It would seem that these appearances are not merely superficial, and possibly unlike Pathfinder 1e, not unintentional.

The long and short of it is, yes, it is fairly likely that Pathfinder 2e is at least intended to cater more to your tastes than D&D 5e is. You may also want to take a look at D&D 4e—which, as I mentioned, probably wins overall in “rules over rulings,” even more so than Pathfinder 2e.

  1. Pathfinder 1e’s Core Rulebook and Bestiary are based on, and in most things have the same rules as, 3.5e’s Player’s Handbook, Dungeon Master’s Guide, and Monster Manual. Pathfinder could not reference 3.5e’s supplements (as they were not open-game content), and of course Pathfinder’s own supplements after Core Rulebook were never available in 3.5e.
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    \$\begingroup\$ good answer, and your writing/wording is wonderful. I'm accepting this as a informed answer \$\endgroup\$ Feb 26, 2020 at 22:12
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    \$\begingroup\$ players are often not left with a lot of surety in terms of how things will work from one DM to another - True \$\endgroup\$
    – Wyrmwood
    Aug 16, 2023 at 22:00
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Major Differences in Style

One of the biggest differences is the existence of easy and convenient out-of-combat healing, where it's generally expected that Pathfinder 2e parties will take the time to Treat Wounds between encounters. This free healing means that without time pressure most encounters begin with the party at full health, and encounters are balanced around this. Other party members also have the option to Refocus and replenish some abilities or Identify items during this time so it's not just the healer patching everyone up.

Another difference is the prevalence of Secret Checks for things like Recalling Knowledge or Seeking; situations where the character rolling wouldn't know how well they did (misremembering a troll's weakness to fire, not finding anything but the room has a deadly trap). In 5e and other editions my experience is that other characters will often attempt those checks as well after knowing that the first character rolled badly.

Spells are also much less broadly useful than they are in 5e, with many of the more narrative-challenging spells like resurrect and teleport protected by the uncommon rarity meaning that the GM would need to grant access in some way first. In addition many spells are less able to fully replace proficiency in a skill, such as with the 2nd-rank knock spell only granting a bonus rather than automatically succeeding against mundane locks in 5e. This also contributes to the much easier ability to run high-level games in Pathfinder 2e.

On the other hand characters are universally able to specialize and cast certain types of larger-scale spells called rituals in Pathfinder 2e using their skills. A 9th-level barbarain who chooses to gain expert proficiency in the Religion skill could attempt to cast that resurrect spell with the help of a pair of secondary casters aiding with Medicine and Society skill checks, though with odds of something going horribly wrong on a critical failure.

Beyond this is another difference in that any character can chose to deeply specialize in any skill, allowing wizards with legendary Athletics to wrestle titans or a cleric with legendary Thievery who could steal the king's worn clothes. While a barbarian or a rogue might be able to specialize further these options are definitively allowed for any character of sufficient level.

One thing that might not qualify depending on your definition of style is the availability of all Pathfinder 2e rules in a free officially-supported reference document site the Archives of Nethys. There are definitely similar sites for 5e but in my experience they lack the fullness of free content available here, even with the smaller rules footprint of 5e (46 books total vs more than 100 1st-party books).

Major Differences in System

Probably the most mentioned difference between the two systems is in action economy, that Pathfinder 2e gives characters 3 actions each turn to spend instead of 5e's action/bonus action/movement. Generally this doesn't change too much but it does allow for characters to make things like 3 attacks a round at all levels of play rather than as an automatic function of class like in 5e, with scaling penalties to balance that option.

This particularly plays into the absence of a generic Opportunity Attack for all characters, with Pathfinder 2e fighters and only particularly martially-inclined characters getting it. Paired with the more open action economy this allows characters to freely move around the battlefield without being punished in most cases and makes many dynamic options more viable.

Building characters in Pathfinder 2e is much more involved than in 5e, with every level granting new abilities in feats spread across their character. Instead of getting basically everything from your race at level 1 like in 5e you instead choose a heritage and ancestry feat from broad lists based on your chosen ancestry, with characters gaining additional and more powerful ancestry feats every 4 levels. And for more combat-oriented abilities each character gets a class feat with every even level, also allowing for things like multi-classing or taking archetypes that fit a character theme outside of class. Finally there are a host of skill feats also granted on even levels that allow for characters to specialize in particular skills and unlock more unusual options for using them.

One interesting option in Pathfinder 2e for a character is the option for versatile heritages, allowing any ancestry like dwarf, leshy, or automaton to also be an aasimar reflecting celestial heritage, and having deep support for that through additional ancestry feat options like gaining a halo or celestial wings.

Proficiency is much broader in Pathfinder 2e, with characters having ranks from Untrained (+0) to Legendary (Level+8) proficiency in everything from skills to spells to attacks and AC. Because of this the numbers in Pathfinder 2e are generally much higher than in 5e, with typical level 20 DCs being around 40 rather than 5e's nearly impossible at 30.

5e's advantage and disadvantage mechanics are very easy to use when compared to the larger number of bonuses and penalties used in Pathfinder 2e, though there is a similar ability for advantage that player characters have access to in Hero Points. This allows for players to re-roll a particular check by expending a point, getting one for free each session of gameplay and additional points over the course of the session for acts of heroism/cleverness rewarded by the GM.

Tied to this are the Degrees of Success, where most checks in the game have 4 outcomes based on whether it was a Critical Failure, Failure, Success, or Critical Success. 5e has some support for this in things like attack rolls on natural 20s, but in Pathfinder 2e you can also achieve a critical success by getting a result 10 higher than the DC. With the heightened proficiency this means that higher-level characters are much more dangerous to lower-level ones as a substantial portion of their abilities and attacks will crit while the inverse is true for those lower-level characters.

These Degrees of Success are also influenced by a trait on many encounter-ending abilities like dominate having the 'incapacitation' trait, which protects higher level characters from getting anticlimactically one-shot by increasing their degree of success by one step on a save. 5e also includes protection against this via Legendary Resistances that powerful enemies often have, though this broader mechanism in Pathfinder 2e can also protect the party from lower-level creatures like ghouls getting lucky with paralysis by only happening on a critically failed fort save roll.

Death and Dying

One difference I've found unusually impactful is the initiative changing mechanics when a character gets knocked out and starts dying.

In 5e the most dangerous initiative to roll is immediately after the boss, as such a character will need to roll a death saving throw at the start of their turn before their allies have a chance to help them. This character then likely loses their turn unless they roll a 20, so even if their allies manage to heal them it'll be the bosses turn again before they can act.

In Pathfinder 2e however such a character would have their initiative changed to immediately before the boss's, guaranteeing the rest of the party a chance to help and that the character will get to take a turn if that help is granted.

It really doesn't seem like a huge difference but removing the connection between relative initiative and rate of dying has saved characters more than a few times in my experience, and it protects against a very not fun combo of getting locked out of initiative by an opponent.

Overall

Pathfinder 2e and 5e share fundamental underlying principles but have substantial differences.

Systematically there are many more rules for players and the GM to interact with based on the number of choices in character build and enormous quantity of options to choose from, in addition to the more thorough rules covering scenarios that 5e leaves broadly up to the DM.

Stylistically there are differences in how adventuring parties are expected to act, to take some time resting between encounters and rely on each characters' skills more commonly than resolving the problem by spending a spell slot. Additionally players are more freely able to view and learn the rules without needing to commit much beyond their time.

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    \$\begingroup\$ Just wanted to thank you for your answer as it's exactly the sort of comparison I was looking for. \$\endgroup\$
    – Magua
    Aug 17, 2023 at 3:51
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    \$\begingroup\$ This answer is especially valuable in that fewer of our content experts have enough experience in both systems to write an answer like this. \$\endgroup\$
    – Kirt
    Aug 17, 2023 at 21:47
  • \$\begingroup\$ @brandon I had a few things that I thought would be good to add to this answer, but it grew to more than a few... so I wrote my own answer. Feel free to add to your answer anything I have in mine that you don't - I can delete my answer if you do. It's probably good to have one answer that explains everything, but that might be beyond the space for one answer. \$\endgroup\$
    – ESCE
    Aug 17, 2023 at 23:56
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    \$\begingroup\$ @ESCE Definitely agree with including legendary skill feats and universal access to those abilities, which reminded me of the similarly accessible ritual spells. I also included versatile heritages as particularly major. \$\endgroup\$
    – brandon
    Aug 18, 2023 at 5:10
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    \$\begingroup\$ @ESCE The rest I'm less certain about, either as near-duplicates (super-heroic vs proficiency/degrees, build variety), disagreement (5e spells balanced against Pathfinder 2e items for magic height, backgrounds or even deep backgrounds for role-playing aids in character creation, required tactical combat), or that they're not "major" enough (setting difference, multi-classing particulars). After enumerating on these I do think advantage is worth mentioning along with hero points. \$\endgroup\$
    – brandon
    Aug 18, 2023 at 14:22
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I've played PF2e since about a month after it's release, and 5e for about a year before that. @brandon and @KRyan have phenomenal, valuable, and correct answers - I just have more to add that doesn't fit in a comment and seems too invasive for an edit. Please read their answers first - I only add things I find not covered in either answer. Regardless, Here are some of my observations, assuming no one is using alternate rules for either systems (important, since PF2e has several rules variants that'd affect this answer).

Style

  • Thematic Style
    • PF2e is more "super-heroic" - basically everything scales directly with level, unlike 5e where things like AC notably don't. This means that a low-level goblin is more likely to hurt a higher level 5e character than PF2e character.
    • 5e is significantly lower magic - while both have similar spellcasters, PF2e fundamentally relies on the players receiving a steady stream of magic items. The PCs having certain magic items by certain levels is a fundamental part of the math of PF2e, unlike 5e. A PC can invest in up to 10 magic items (not all magic items require investment) in PF2e, while they can only attune to 3 in 5e - and there's a way for the PF2e PC to get up to 12.
    • Genre-wise, PF2e feels more like "fantasy superheroes" - even martial characters have access to obviously superhuman abilities, like Cloud Jump, Fantastic Leap, or Friendly Toss.
    • PF2e is generally designed with Golarion in mind (Pathfinder's home setting) instead of the Forgotten Realms. So there's differences in races (called ancestries in PF2e), monsters, deities, etc. 5e has tortles, loxodons, shape-shifting changelings; PF2e has leshies, ratfolk, and significantly less problematic lizardfolk lore.
  • Gameplay Style
    • PF2e has significantly more tactical combat. It's very rare that a certain build will auto-win a fight for you, and with the way things are balanced and scaled, combat requires more tactics. Part of this assumption is that, from what I've read, the standard metric of success in PF2e is ~50% (it's hard to find a true one because of how different proficiencies scale and such) while 5e's is 65%. RPGBot has good analysis on PF2e's math and 5e's math.
    • Resultingly, PF2e assumes you are working together in combat. Flanking is a standard rule in the game, for example. Adventure Paths are tough enough that your party will need to work together or you'll have an exceedingly difficult time! Very few spells will outright win fights against significant foes (see brandon's note on the Incapacitation trait). (Note: if you want to GM PF2e and tone down the difficulty, that's actually trivially easy, so don't worry if you have a group that doesn't want to be tactical).
    • PF2e has significantly more class and build variety (1st party at least), by way of having significantly more published content. There are currently 23 published classes, for example, and several with no true 5e equivalent (e.g. Kineticist). The class feat system also offers many more permutations of builds. Note that this is not an unalloyed good - if you don't have players you can trust to learn their characters and classes well, it takes a lot more effort for the GM to learn the character enough to help them. If I had more than one player who I didn't trust to learn their character, I'd just pass on PF2e (at least higher level play) for 5e.

System

They are different systems, and thus have a legions of differences. @brandon covers most of these well, so I'll add a few:

  • Multiclassing is completely different - in 5e, you take levels in other classes. In PF2e, you always continue with your base class, but you can spend your class feats to (slowly) gain some features from an archetype, of which there is one for each other class (and very many non-class ones).
  • PF2e buffs/debuffs in smaller values. 5e generally uses advantage and disadvantage for e.g. conditions and spell effects, whereas PF2e is much more likely to just give a +1 or +2. Consequently, you're generally doing more math in AC due to conditions. (Also, note that the degrees of success makes these smaller numbers more impactful in PF2e than 5e, by probably double).
  • PF2e has versatile heritages, allowing for things like tiefling dwarves, aasimar elves, or beastkin leshies. 5e doesn't have a good equivalent.
  • 5e has role-playing aids built into the character creation process in the form of Bonds, Ideals, and Flaws. PF2e currently doesn't have a good equivalent (I believe something may be coming down the line for the upcoming Remaster though) outside of alignment.
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  • \$\begingroup\$ Is lizardfolk lore problematic in 5e? \$\endgroup\$
    – András
    Aug 20, 2023 at 14:03
  • \$\begingroup\$ I am surprised no one mentioned that your spells need more careful consideration in pf2. All DnD5 classes have only signature spells \$\endgroup\$
    – András
    Aug 20, 2023 at 17:18
  • \$\begingroup\$ @András re: lizardfolk. Not everyone will see it that way, but my 5e game rewrote the lore b/c of this concern, and I don't find us to be overly sensitive to offense in general. Probably beyond the scope of the comments here, though. Re: spells - yeah, how heightening works is very different, but there's not enough unity in PF2e spellcasting for me to feel comfortable making a generic assertion. Summoner is very different than Wizard than Sorcerer than etc. \$\endgroup\$
    – ESCE
    Aug 21, 2023 at 18:26
  • \$\begingroup\$ @András I would check out the Ancestry entry (pf2e's replacement for races) for lizardfolk. I don't have enough 5e experience to compare, but I don't find lizardfolk to be construed as "beastmen" or other problematic descriptions rooted in racism. \$\endgroup\$
    – Teralynx
    Sep 12, 2023 at 18:28

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