4th Edition took D&D on a very different path from 3.5, and Pathfinder (often referred to by players as 3.75) filled the niche of the continued evolution of the 3.x system.

I enjoy Pathfinder quite a bit (at least at low and mid levels; I'm just now trying some high level play and hoping to make it work as well, though it seems less wieldy). Now 5e has been out for some time. I haven't looked at it yet but I've heard positive comments, including that in many ways it's a return to D&D's roots.

Can you explain to a Pathfinder enthusiast what some core differences are between PF and 5e, and why one might choose one over the other?


2 Answers 2


5e is about as different from Pathfinder as 2e is from 3.x. 5e is trying to bring back certain aspects, most notably the particular AD&D brand of soft-rules + rules-heavy rule paradigm, from the AD&D/D&D 2e line that weren't present in either 3.x or 4e.

See also the excellent top rated, accepted, and bounty-receiving answer by @mxyzplk. Basically, as predicted, 5e reincorporates a lot of the 2e philosophy into the game. The answer does seem to suggest that 5e is reincorporating 3e mechanics as well, but I think that's actually more of a 4e being off in left field thing and 5e going back to mainstream D&D in general than anything distinctly 3.x that had been removed being brought back.

If you like Pathfinder, particularly if you like the mechanical complexity, I would not recommend 5e to you. If you're looking for a modern version of OD&D I would definitely recommend it. Basically, don't think of it as a sequel to the game system you currently play, think of it as a completely different system that's also D&D and happens to have a lot of similarities.

Use Pathfinder

  • if you uphold US copyright law and can't abide non-PDF rulebooks. Wizards isn't planning on releasing ebook copies of 5e material at any point in the foreseeable future. This also might change, but isn't super likely.

  • If you like mechanical complexity over ease-of-use. 5e has an advantage/disadvantage system that is intended to replace the bonus system found in 3.X. It's very lightweight and easy to use, but the maximum modifier from (dis)advantage is approx. ±5, and there is no 'more' or 'in-between'.

  • If the GM not making up/ignoring/modifying rules is part of your gaming social contract.

  • If you want a complete ruleset, in the sense that the rules provide at some level for all player actions and RAW gameplay is supported/encouraged. D&D 5e will never be 'complete' in this sense because that is not an aim of the developers.

  • If you want highly customizable characters. Characters in 5e have very very few twiddly bits, especially at low levels, and almost no multiclass builds are viable (even compared to Pathfinder, which isn't exactly multiclass-friendly). Characters in Pathfinder have between 'a lot' and 'more than that' choices to make, even at the lowest levels.

Use 5e

  • If you're looking to play an old-school-style D&D game but don't actually want to deal with old-school mechanical stuff like class-based To-Hit look-up tables and want the 'official' D&D version for such a game, as opposed to one of the 3rd party retroclones.

  • If you like AD&D 2nd edition and are interested in trying out something similar but new.

  • If your group believes that rule sets exist as a tool to teach people how to GM or as a basis for GM development of an actual rule set for use in play, and as such the RAW should never be used to run a game and may even be wholly insufficient for doing so.

  • If you want to play D&D, don't want to put too much time or effort into understanding a rulebook, aren't particularly good at math, want gameplay to go quickly and smoothly, and don't like 4e for some reason.

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    \$\begingroup\$ Sorry for such a late comment, but can you explain the AD&D "brand of soft-rules + rules-heavy rule paradigm." I'm not sure I understand how it can be both soft and heavy at the same time. \$\endgroup\$ Jan 7, 2016 at 3:55
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    \$\begingroup\$ @Gilbrilthor Soft rules means the rules are intended to be flexed by the GM/ignored in part or in whole. The rules may be contradictory or not super thought through, because rules interactions are ignored if/when they fail to produce the desired results and so rule quality is less important that the picture of the game they are supposed to paint. Rules heavy means that there are a lot of rules/a large amount of rule-content, rather than an attempt at parsimony/minimalism. \$\endgroup\$ Jan 7, 2016 at 7:09
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    \$\begingroup\$ Awesome reply! I can see that now that you've explained. This can be seen with the repeated "GM fiat" mantra and the reliance on advantage/disadvantage. \$\endgroup\$ Jan 7, 2016 at 12:06
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    \$\begingroup\$ @thedarkwanderer the answer could be updated, considering there currently is a free SRD pdf for the 5e and using it for convenience would be completely legal. \$\endgroup\$
    – Eldebryn
    Mar 18, 2016 at 23:47
  • \$\begingroup\$ @Pleasestopbeingevil Your first bullet point under Pathfinder may need updating now that DndBeyond exists. \$\endgroup\$ Nov 14, 2020 at 3:12

In addition to all of that, power levels and game expectations are very different in Pathfinder than they are in D&D 5e.

  • A 20 in a stat is the physical maximum attainable in 5e, whereas in Pathfinder, it's considered "a strong start."
  • Magic items in 5e range from extremely rare to utterly nonexistent, and the strongest you can get on a weapon is +3. In Pathfinder, you can't shake a tree without an amulet of natural armor falling out of it, and weapons can go up to +10 (+5 enhancement bonus, +5 other stuff like flaming or whatever).
  • Finally, Pathfinder is very heavy on player agency and customization- it has over 50 player races and over 40 player classes, not counting variants, alternative options, and replacements, and while in 5e you get a feat every 4 levels, in PF you get a feat every other level, plus bonus feats from your class.
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    \$\begingroup\$ Answers should stand alone, and starting with "in addition to all that" is a good indication that this one doesn't. \$\endgroup\$
    – GMJoe
    Oct 14, 2021 at 19:45

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