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Many agree that D&D 3.X has a tier "problem" (or system or classification, depending upon your preference). I enjoy the basic rule set of 3.X but have a hard time having fun with a system that is so unbalanced. Even when my group and I are all playing lower tier characters, I still feel as though I should be playing a wizard or something to maximize my character's potential.

I've heard a lot about Pathfinder and how it is an improvement over 3.X. I've never actually played it nor even seen it played, so I'm wondering if Pathfinder has the same problems that 3.X does.

Specifically, are some fundamental Pathfinder options (like classes or races) so obviously terrible that picking them puts you at a disadvantage and other options so obviously superior that picking them gives you an advantage?

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  • \$\begingroup\$ However, if I have to delete one more round of comment-fighting, I will indeed close this again. Post your answers and stand by them - don't argue about others' opinions. \$\endgroup\$ – mxyzplk - SE stop being evil Apr 11 '15 at 21:16
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No, Pathfinder actually makes the balance quite a bit worse.

The weakest classes got weaker, and the strongest classes got stronger.

  • Changes to combat feats and combat maneuvers mean that the few mundane tricks the system had, are now much more difficult to pull off and are less useful when you do.

  • Changes to magic items disproportionately hurt martial characters

  • Insistence on strict and painful “realism taxes” on mundane characters, even well into high levels, prevent them from keeping up.

  • Nerfs to spells were few and haphazard – while a few specific cases were nerfed considerably, most were untouched, and plenty of high-power options remain

  • Class features for spellcasters are occasionally quite potent. While some archetypes for mundane classes are also pretty good, the fact that the best classes could actually get substantial improvements is worrisome.

Combat Maneuvers

The math on Combat Maneuver Bonus vs. Combat Maneuver Defense is poor. Simplifying and unifying the systems was a good idea, but they failed on execution. Because you add both Str and Dex to CMD, but only one to CMB (and for several other reasons, this is just the simplest one), CMD scales much better than CMB does. As a result, at mid-to-high levels it becomes very difficult to actually use combat maneuvers.

Meanwhile, most of the Improved (combat maneuver) feats have been split into both Improved ____ and Greater ____: two feats to do what you used to be able to do in a single feat. In the most important case, Trip, two feats to not even do what you did with one in 3.5: now the follow-up attack off of a trip is an attack of opportunity, which means trippers require Combat Reflexes to use it, and need a lot more Dexterity.

Items

Changes to items are also serious problems to martial classes. All enhancement bonuses to a physical ability score are found only on belts – which means if you want more than one, you have to pay harsh premiums on combining items. Martial characters need bonuses to both Strength and Constitution (or Dexterity and Constitution in some cases), because the math of the system still has those bonuses baked into the design assumptions, but now they cost more. Compare this to 3.5, which, as of Magic Item Compendium, charged no premium to add these sorts of abilities even to other items entirely.

Meanwhile, while it’s also true that all enhancement bonuses to mental scores are headbands, most spellcasters only care about one mental score (Wis for clerics and druids, Cha for bards and sorcerers, Int for wizards, and so on), and then they are free to get a bonus to Constitution (most character’s second-most-important ability) without having to pay extra.

To add insult to injury, the official guidance on houseruling magic items explicitly says you should not allow these items in different slots even as a houserule! They were so adamant about enforcing this massive penalty on mundane characters that they literally called out DMs who were considering fixing it!

Realism Taxes

The most glaring example here, though far from the only one, is the insistence that, “just because it costs a feat,” i.e. a major character resource, doesn’t mean exotic weapons are supposed to be better than martial weapons. And, in fact, none of them are actually good. 3.5 had a lot of problems with Exotic Weapon Proficiency; very few of the exotic weapons were actually worth a feat. Pathfinder made very sure to nerf those so they no longer were.

Minimal spell nerfs

Depowering spellcasters really requires going through each and every spell; Paizo did not even attempt this. They did nerf a few particularly-notorious spells, but missed many others. They did nerf the polymorph spells, which desperately needed it, so that is a good thing; Pathfinder polymorphing is without a doubt a massive improvement over 3.5. But it’s also just about the best change in the entire system.

Further, they have printed new spells of absurd power. Do a google search for paragon surge and the ridiculous things that can be done with it.

Astonishing class features for spellcasters

The arcanist, a new Pathfinder class, is by-far the worst offender here, getting the best of both worlds between prepared and spontaneous spellcasting, off the best spell list in the game, plus free metamagic effects (read: one of the most powerful classes of effects in the game). But the core classes also occasionally got major upgrades as well.

By contrast, the default fighter gets a variety of small numerical bonuses. The fighter’s problem was never numbers – if a fighter can make his numbers count, you’re dead, 3.5 or Pathfinder. The problem was always that the fighter is remarkably poor at forcing his numbers into the game, if the competition didn’t actively cooperate with him. None of that changed.

This list is not exhaustive

This isn’t everything that Pathfinder did that exacerbated the mundane-vs-magic divide that was already massive in 3.5. It was, in fact, a very consistent effort across Pathfinder’s entire history. The Pathfinder FAQ and errata are chock full of the developers stripping away anything powerful or useful they accidentally gave to mundane characters. Pathfinder is therefore one of the most magically-dominated systems out there.

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  • \$\begingroup\$ This answer was wonderfully useful to me. I really how you have some kind of input on PF2 design! \$\endgroup\$ – Pat Sep 7 '19 at 11:49
  • \$\begingroup\$ @Pat I haven’t paid much attention at all to PF 2e; I’ve heard some decent-sounding ideas, but PF 1e itself was plagued with a lot of poorly-executed good ideas, so that may not mean very much. But since it’s a complete overhaul, maybe they’ll do better from scratch; I don’t know. I will say that rarity-based balancing has me very, very concerned. While many ideas in PF 2e sound pretty good, that one sounds very, very bad. \$\endgroup\$ – KRyan Sep 8 '19 at 0:39
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    \$\begingroup\$ I agree, the "excuse" that "It is ok for it to be overpowered because it's super-rare" is a really bad way to think. Because if it never gets in the hands of the PC, then it never applies and that rule item or mechanic might not be there at all. But if it does indeed get in the hands of the PCs, then it's not super-rare at all anymore, and simply becomes something constantly unbalancing the game all the time. Same for "costly": If PCs are too poor, it never applies. But once they are rich enough, wham, permanent constant unbalance. "Hard-to-get" is never a good excuse for unbalanced power. \$\endgroup\$ – Pat Sep 8 '19 at 15:34
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There is no real change to class balance between 3.5 and PF.

In order to address whether or not the tiers from 3.5 still largely apply to Pathfinder(at least when comparing t1 casters with t4-5 martials), let's look at the definitions of T1 and T4, and show what has and hasn't changed about Pathfinder that might change the class balance.

Tier 1: Capable of doing absolutely everything, often better than classes that specialize in that thing. Often capable of solving encounters with a single mechanical ability and little thought from the player. Has world changing powers at high levels. These guys, if played with skill, can easily break a campaign and can be very hard to challenge without extreme DM fiat or plenty of house rules, especially if Tier 3s and below are in the party.

As an example of an iconic T1 class, I'll use the wizard. What I say here largely works for the other T1 classes as well, though.

In the iconic post about why a wizard is in T1, the author listed a few major points and a few specific tricks. The major points all still hold: wizards have access to all of the best battlefield control magic, summons, and utility spells. Wizards don't have access to the best buffs, but they're still pretty solid on that front. The ways that wizards get powerful allies, like simulacrum and planar binding still work at similar power levels. In fact, simulacrum is a little better, because you no longer need a piece of the creature to be simulated to cast it.

The specific spells mentioned are largely unchanged. Many of the spells from later books are missing, but they are replaced with new tricks that are similarly powerful. For example: Blood money is a spell that lets a wizard take a few points of damage and ignore the material component of a spell they cast in the next round. Even not considering spells that are nonstandard, wizards in Pathfinder can do pretty much everything they could do in 3.5.

Tier 4: Capable of doing one thing quite well, but often useless when encounters require other areas of expertise, or capable of doing many things to a reasonable degree of competence without truly shining. Rarely has any abilities that can outright handle an encounter unless that encounter plays directly to the class's main strength. DMs may sometimes need to work to make sure Tier 4s can contribute to an encounter, as their abilities may sometimes leave them useless. Won't outshine anyone except Tier 6s except in specific circumstances that play to their strengths. Cannot compete effectively with Tier 1s that are played well.

As an example of an iconic T4 class, I'll use the Barbarian.

Barbarians are a lot more interesting, in general, in Pathfinder. They get a bunch of special Rage Powers that give them more cool things to do when they're raging. Some of the better ones make it much easier to get enemies into melee range: Boasting Taunt lets you automatically make an enemy attack you and possibly make them shaken, and Dragon Totem Wings gives you a fly speed when raging.

Basically, a PF Barbarian does the same thing that a 3.5 Barbarian does: it gets into melee range quickly, and then does incredible amounts of damage. A well-built Barbarian can out-damage most other classes. However, the Barbarian's options for dealing with problems end there. If a challenge involves doing anything other than killing enemies as fast as possible, the Barbarian has very little that they can do. This hasn't changed between 3.5 and PF. Technically, a Barbarian could intimidate people to deal with social situations, but most Barbarians are going to have low Charisma, and thus won't have a very high bonus. Like the definition of T4 says, the Barbarian can do damage quite well, but is basically useless at everything else.

In addition, in PF there are several nerfs to some of the combat options that martial characters cared about in 3.5. Due to changes in the combat engine and certain feats, it's much more difficult to make an effective character based on tripping, disarming, or other combat maneuvers. Also, due to changes in how magic items work, it's more difficult for martial characters to get the stat bonuses that they would expect in 3.5. This is largely immaterial to the tier system, since it doesn't change the fact that martial characters can typically do one thing, and really can't solve problems out of combat.

As I've shown above, the major things that define what tier each class is in haven't changed between 3.5 and Pathfinder. Wizards (and other T1 casters) have the ability to solve basically any problem using their spellcasting, no matter what that problem happens to be. A PF Barbarian is definitely better than a similarly-optimized 3.5 Barbarian, but it still basically only has one way of solving problems. While Pathfinder is generally a nicer system than 3.5 in a lot of ways, class balance is not one of them.

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The balance is similar, but different

In my experience playing Pathfinder from Open Beta, my gaming groups have found it easier to make more capable characters who work well together as compared to 3.5, and we would not go back at all. The race, skill, and feat changes produce a more generally balanced infrastructure -- the acquisition of feats at every odd level increases every class's available options, but the number of martially-focused feats compares favorably to the number of magically-focused feats, meaning that the increased number of feats generally benefits martial characters moreso than casters. (Metamagic feats are very powerful in a spreadsheet, but my players are leery about doubling-down on their guesswork when memorizing spells for the day in actual practice.)

In general, prepared spellcasters have more capacity for versatility on a day-to-day basis than martial classes. On the flip side, in Pathfinder, martial characters tend to be slightly better at whatever their especial niche is than most casting characters I've seen fielded in actual play; additionally, once a prepared caster has memorized spells for the day, that's it, they're stuck with their choices as surely as the martial characters are, but with the added bonus of having a greater chance to be straight-up wrong about what spells they needed that day. A martial character in a typical campaign is almost guaranteed to be presented with multiple opportunities to stab things according to their particular proclivities, but spellcasters are subject to a greater range of effects that cause their shenanigans to fail.

As far as actions taken out of combat, Pathfinder's changes to the skill system and the addition of Character Background Traits (which often augment skills) are both points that permit martial characters some extra latitude in their ability to do more than damage, and while it's true that a Wizard can usually employ magic to out-skill a Barbarian, the Wizard who does this has either sacrificed some other potential utility that day to memorize that magic, or has sacrificed money for a scroll. With the lack of restrictions on Use Magic Device, though, our Barbarian has elevated access to scroll-based augments if she wants, or more probably the Wizard would elect to maximize the Party Utility by buffing the Barbarian to begin with.

To me, it makes sense that magic-users are generally more versatile in their potential capabilities and that martial characters would have a fairly narrow focus for their skill set.

Magic is ... magical

In a broader sense, a system that failed to present some kind of divide between magic and mundane would lack verisimilitude, in that we as players expect magic to be, well, magical. If magic is just another way to stab people, something will feel off in the game. Alternately, if magical ability is not required to transcend mundane limitations, it again loses its intended sense of wonder.

(My group tried out 4th Edition when it was released, and concluded that it suffered from this problem - the classes felt more balanced in terms of capability and wonder-generation, and everyone felt like they were playing Wizards as a result, which messed with their heads and how they felt about their characters.)

Pathfinder Adds the Archetype concept

One of the things that better supports the genesis from concept to character is Pathfinder's inclusion of the Class Archetype system, where certain thematic elements of a class's mechanics can be substituted for other abilities that support an alternate perspective on how that class could be implemented. In general, the martial classes have a larger volume of archetypes than the casting classes, from what I can see. Most of my players running martial characters have elected to use at least one archetype to more clearly support their character concept and mechanical abilities, and have been all the more effective in their pursuits because of it.

On the topic of Combat Maneuvers...

Some of the complaints in other answers reference the cumbersome nature of Combat Maneuvers. In general, I agree that Combat Maneuvers are less easy to use out-of-the-box than they were in 3.5, but with some careful build choices they can be made to surpass their 3.5 utility. The fact that Combat Maneuvers are now all managed on a unified system also makes it easier to obtain bonuses to Combat Maneuver checks, and debuff opponent's CMDs.

Finally, for a character that specializes in effective Combat Maneuvers, consider the Monk (Maneuver Master Archetype). Here we have a character that is purpose-driven to execute Maneuvers, to a degree that would require substantial resources for a spellcaster to replicate, which perfectly illustrates the nature of the changed class balance in Pathfinder.

Options Are Just Different

In Pathfinder, I find that the diversity in class options and applicability speaks to the different styles of play that people enjoy. There are some feats and abilities that are available specifically to be suboptimal choices, to be sure, to cater to those people who would like to RP a suboptimal character, but at that point as a player, those choices are optimal for your desires. I feel that the Pathfinder rules present a more coherent framework to support the concept that your character is part of a group of adventurers who are working together in one way or another to resolve the adventure, as compared to the 3.5 rules, and from that perspective the race and class options are much friendlier and less prone to inducing the sensation of total lack of utility (in most cases).

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In my opinion the core rule book for pathfinder is very balanced. Every class has a strength and a weakness that is different from the others. Naturally, the more add ons you use the less balanced the game will become. I very idea of balancing such a vast variety of options like those found in numerous pathfinder productions is unfeasible.

For me role playing comes before roll playing and the more options a player has when building a character the better. But, if you prefer a balanced system and you group tends to be more meta-game heavy with a focus on the rules (there is nothing wrong with that, it just isn't how I play) then you may want to stick to a system with fewer options like 5th edition, or even just limit player options to say PHB 1 & 2 in pathfinder. That's just my two cents though.

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