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I am one of those rare players that strongly prefers 4th edition D&D to all other editions. I love the lack of ambiguity in combat rules, I love playing on a grid, I love the balance between classes and how most character builds are functional out of the box*, I love that fighters and wizards have the same amount of tactical options, I love that they leaned into class roles, and I love how easy it is as a DM to build creatures on the fly and have them work in combat.

That said, I have been missing a little bit of how abilities could be applied more creatively in other editions of D&D, and I'd also be happy with a little less mandatory loot, but not to the point of being willing to throw all the great balance and tactics out the window that 4th edition provides.

I recently heard that Pathfinder 2e moved more in the direction of 4e combat, and that rumor has me intrigued. Looking into it a bit, I've seen people compare other editions of D&D to Pathfinder (5th, mostly), but nothing that really goes into the 4th edition comparison. So... how does Pathfinder 2e compare to Dungeons and Dragons 4e?

*Yes, I know 4e does let you make a suboptimal build, and you can optimize builds, and the difference between a suboptimal build and an optimal one is pretty big... but from experience I know that if you ask someone completely new to 4e to build a character, they will very likely be able to come up with something at least middle of the road, first try. This is unlike my experience with other editions, which I found tend to be full of trap choices (like 3e's level adjustment) that look attractive to new players but will utterly demolish your effectiveness. That's what I mean.

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    \$\begingroup\$ I wish I'd played 4e so I could answer this because I think it would add a Pathfinder 2e player to the fold haha. I only have impressions and others' opinion, but I expect a favorable answer. Are you specifically looking to compare it to the points you liked, mentioned in your first paragraph, or are there any other points/concerns that should be addressed? \$\endgroup\$
    – Ifusaso
    Apr 11 at 13:35
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    \$\begingroup\$ I don't see the reason for the close votes on this question; edition comparison is pretty standard stuff, and Pathfinder is basically a fork of DnD. See rpg.stackexchange.com/questions/47205/… or rpg.stackexchange.com/questions/7427/… \$\endgroup\$
    – ESCE
    Apr 11 at 15:57
  • \$\begingroup\$ I have the older 4e rulebooks at home (pre Essentials Edition, I think), but I've not played much 4e... there are a few Reddit posts that may answer your question well, but I can't corroborate the info in them (e.g. reddit.com/r/Pathfinder2e/comments/retc7g/…, some discussion here reddit.com/r/Pathfinder2e/comments/p3y8c7/…) \$\endgroup\$
    – ESCE
    Apr 11 at 16:04
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    \$\begingroup\$ It is not good attitude to add a bounty to a question that has close votes on it. That is gaming the system as it prevents further close votes to be cast.. \$\endgroup\$
    – Trish
    Apr 13 at 16:25
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    \$\begingroup\$ @Trish based on the timeline, those votes were cast 2 days ago and countered by open votes as well. The issue may be contentious, but since that time, the question has not garnered enough attention to be closed; indeed by the comments several folks seem to think this is a good question. As bounties cannot be added within the first 48 hours of a question being posted, the querent is fully within their rights to use a bounty to draw attention to their question. This is not 'gaming the system', rather it is the system working as intended. \$\endgroup\$ Apr 13 at 16:34

2 Answers 2

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It's a good question because there are a number of aspects of 4e that the designers have drawn on for the design of Pathfinder 2e. I'm currently DMing 4e, but have run a fair amount of PF2e too in recent months. They are my current two main high fantasy games that I use for that genre.

They play out differently at the table, as there are a fair number of distinctions, but some overlaps include:

  • monster stat blocks are well designed with powers accessible on the page.
  • high levels of PC choice in powers (feats) and class abilities
  • higher hit points for low level characters
  • both games have addressed and balanced the power levels across classes whilst each playing out differently at the table
  • both are quite 'tactical' with bonuses providing edges that can be exploited through positioning
  • both have ritual magic which are lengthier to cast and fall outside spell slots or the power system

They are both versions of D&D so have a fair number of DNA similarities, including the D20 core system, level and hit points, ascending DCs tied to a mathematical clustering around proficiency increases.

There are many differences:

  • 4e has a 'powers' system across all classes, with daily refreshes dependent on type. PF2e has class abilities and feats. 4e also has feats.
  • 4e's action economy is built on Standard/Move/Minor/Reaction/Free types, whereas PF2e introduces a flexible three actions in a turn, a real star feature of the game. So, you could choose to move three times, or attack three times with multiple attack penalties.
  • a 4e Critical is, usually on a 20, providing max damage. PF2e introduces a '+10 over DC', which provides double damage. Rolling -10 under DC is a critical failure which can have other unwanted effects.
  • 4e has static saves (Fort, Ref, Will) which act as defenses that an attack must beat. PF2e retains the familiar 3.5 saves that are actively rolled. An active saving throw in 4e is a flat check needing 10+ on a d20 to succeed. This is generally to throw off conditions. PF2e also uses 'flat checks' which are rolled without modifier against a variable DC. These are for purely luck based checks.
  • 4e initiative is generally based on Dexterity. In PF2e, initiative can use any skill which can be explained by the player, though the first assumption is Perception.
  • 4e has a +5 to a skill which is selected as proficient. In PF2e proficiencies are on an increasing scale.
  • In 4e, level improvement of +1 to most things happens every even level. In PF2e it happens every level.
  • Healing in 4e is via healing surges that are roughly a quarter of HP. These can be accessed once in an encounter, or many times if other powers initiate them. 4e short rests are 5 minutes where encounter powers are recovered and healing surges can be spent. In PF2e the medicine skill can be used to make Treat Wounds checks. In 4e HP fully recovers after a long rest. In PF2e a full rest recovers Con Bonus x Level HP.

There are many other differences.

As you point out, comparisons with other editions are easy as PF2e significantly builds and varies from a PF1e 3.75 base.

Both games are great high fantasy roleplay systems. They both provide robust heroes from level 1, with a wide number of character options. As they are both D&D-type systems they both play out detailed combat encounters well, with exciting monsters that have their own powers, abilities and surprises. 4e has Skill Challenges to create a flexible game in the use of skills to achieve an objective (4e is more than a combat system!). PF2e has an excellent skills chapter that provides a lot of examples to the way skills can be used and their effects. PF2e continues with the classic D&D spell system, albeit using the new action economy.

I think PF2e is a more complete and tightly designed game, but I probably prefer the way that 4e plays at the table. The divisive powers system is clear and simple to apply. Oddly, I prefer 4e's +1 proficiency every other level, rather than PF2e's every level, as it provides a mid point on the maths, which for all it's tight and consistent design, can feel a bit 'runaway' with PF2e. Both versions 'work' and provide level relevance at around the +3/-3 scale.

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  • \$\begingroup\$ Hello, and welcome to rpg stack exchange! Thank you for the good answer; I've made some changes to correct some spelling and "formalise" some of your answer, but please feel free to revert if you feel I've changed the meaning too much. \$\endgroup\$
    – L0neGamer
    Apr 13 at 16:23
  • \$\begingroup\$ I like this answer, but I do think it could be improved by more discussion of the differences, especially in regards to some of the specifics of the question. I do know that Pf2e has a fair amount of "mandatory" loot, although I'm not sure how it compares to 4e's (and it's worth mentioning Automatic Bonus Progression). \$\endgroup\$
    – ESCE
    Apr 13 at 20:46
  • \$\begingroup\$ Nice objective answer with some mechanical comparisons, but how do these differences effect how the game plays? It's all well and good to know what the changes are, but another to know how it tends to work out. I'm upvoting your answer as useful, but I'm still looking for more on the subjective side, if you can provide it. \$\endgroup\$ Apr 14 at 9:17
  • \$\begingroup\$ Gosh. This is my first StackExchange response, and rarely have I found a voluntary site so exacting. I've had my post edited for consistent grammar, and critiqued on content. I suppose I expected others to provide response and extrapolate rather than sit on the sides. I'm not saying this is a bad thing, but my expectations were not aligned to those of the culture of the site. I'll put something in above about how they both play, which is to say they evoke very similar play through different mechanical rules. I like them both. \$\endgroup\$
    – First Age
    Apr 14 at 15:00
  • \$\begingroup\$ @FirstAge Yeah, we're a bit different, and it can be overwhelming if you aren't sure what to expect. I'd recommend taking the tour if you haven't already. As for the sidelineism, I think that's a result of there being very few of us who have actually played both 4e and PF2e; we have ideas of what the differences are, but lacking experience with 4e (in my case) I can't edit your answer in confidence. Your answer is very good, though, and we are quite grateful for it :) \$\endgroup\$
    – ESCE
    Apr 14 at 17:57
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I speak as a CharOpper ("Character Optimizer") who really enjoyed 4e.

First, I speak of 5e. 5e hates me and all my kind. 4e was effectively a game written only for players who were into character optimization and tactics. 5e was a backlash to that, and it roundly rejected almost all of the character optimization game.

PF2 isn't like that. PF2 will let you bring your full CharOp skills to bear. It has all sorts of widgets to mess with (at least one feat per level, every level, guaranteed) and if you do it just right, you can eke out... maybe a 10% to 20% advantage over the person sitting next to you who walked in the door knowing nothing other than the fact that they wanted to play a dwarf with an axe. The advantage to be gained is there, but it is thin. You can play for it, and win it, but the result won't be game-breaking. From a game balance standpoint, PF2 is amazingly well-balanced. Among other things, almost all of your character's basic math comes from your statline and your class, so as long as you get decent stats for your class, it's basically impossible to make your character outright bad. (Admittedly, it's entirely possible to make a character that's decent on paper but that you can't play well, and some classes require more player skill to play well than others. It's also possible to create a character that doesn't really fit with the rest of your group. That's not the same as the character being inherently weak/bad, though.)

It also has a lot of complexity at the tactical level, but the important thing to bear in mind is that that complexity is different. "Good tactics" in PF2 look very different from "good tactics" in 4e. Characters that try to dial in on a single plan and iterate as hard as they can (which was basically the 4e ideal) will find that they're weaker than they should be. Keeping your eyes open, having a few viable options, and adjusting to the situation as it goes become much more important. Having figs on a grid is still very, very important.

The class roles are not explicit in PF2, and while you can still find traces of them, they're not nearly as strong. Champions are pretty much defenders, especially if you build for that specifically. Clerics and bards have a fair amount of leader to them. Wizards are definitely still doing the controller thing... but most classes (and most builds) aren't nearly so specific. A lot of it blends. Now, you can (and probably should) arrange for complementary characters in the party, and you can absolutely get some useful synergies there, but a lot of times it won't be "one leader, one defender, N strikers". It'll be "I'm good at inflicting grab/prone, so I have synergy with a rogue." or even "As a grapple-monk, at level 6 I can get Whirling Throw. That's going to synergize pretty well with the Sorceror getting Wall of Fire at level 7."

Now, it's not the same number of decisions for the fighter and the wizard in this one. The wizard does have more, because we're back to more or less the same vancian casting that every version that isn't 4e has... but the fighter still has quite a lot more decisions to make in PF2 than they do in 5e (or than they did in 3.x).

Finally, and this is important, PF2 is far less wacky than a lot of other editions. Like, in a very real way, it's following in the footsteps of E6. Unlike 4e, which starts at heroic, and then goes to paragon, and then goes to epic, PF2 starts at heroic, and... mostly stays there. Your characters tend to get more heroic as you go, but... well, for example, the absolute earliest that it's possible to get permanent flight is level 13, and that's with a race that's GM-approavl-only. The earliest that it's possible with only "Common" options is lvl 14, and that's with a specific class and some notable feat investments, and even then you only manage it by having a flying mount. Things like permanent size gain are hard. Things like damage/debuff auras and major opportunity attack shenanigans are hard. Silly 4e paragon tricks like radiant mafia or having every one of your attacks slide and knock prone for free are functionally impossible. You can get some cool stuff done, and you eventually do get to the point where you can go murder an army on your own if you have to... but you'll be doing it one sword-swing at a time. The stuff that you could get in 4e by being sufficiently cheesy doesn't exist at all in PF2.

Still, it's really amazingly well-designed... and the entire ruleset is available for free online. If you're curious, I'd encourage you to read it.

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  • \$\begingroup\$ Not sure if you are keeping to common only, but Strix and Tengu have essentially permanent flight at level 9: 2e.aonprd.com/Feats.aspx?ID=2653 and 2e.aonprd.com/Feats.aspx?ID=1320 respectively. Some ancestries can have true permanent flight by level 13, like the Strix (again): 2e.aonprd.com/Feats.aspx?ID=2657. Overall, though, this is a great answer, and it's still quite difficult to get permanent flight access at levels where'd it be game breaking. \$\endgroup\$
    – ESCE
    Apr 18 at 15:49
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    \$\begingroup\$ @ESCE Thank you. Adjusted. psuedo-permaflight is a thing, it's true, but sinking two actions into being able to fly is a nontrivial cost. \$\endgroup\$
    – Ben Barden
    Apr 19 at 20:38

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