D&D and Pathfinder: What’s the Difference?

Pathfinder Dragon

Originally published on Sidekickcast.com

I tend to use Dungeons & Dragons and Pathfinder interchangeably. In a lot of ways, they’re the same game – after all, Pathfinder is directly derived from the 3rd edition D&D rules. At the same time, both games have evolved in different directions and provide a distinctly different feel at this point. If you’re looking to start a game using one of these systems, which do you choose?

There are endless arguments online about which fantasy RPG is better than the other, and the unfortunate habit that gamers has is the tendency to promote one game by tearing the other one down. That’s silly, because there is no clear-cut answer as to which game is better – they’re both excellent options, and there’s no reason you can’t play and enjoy both. But if you’re trying to pick one or the other for a specific campaign, which game suits your chosen style better? That’s what I aim to discuss here.

What I’m not really looking to touch upon in this blog are the generalized statements made in various RPG forums about these games. This usually amounts to a comparison of overall rules complexity and product support. To break it down, D&D in its current form is the more streamlined game, while Pathfinder generally provides a larger array of tactical options. Pathfinder gets regular rules additions that add options to the game, while D&D has focused on smaller rules additions tailored to their annual story-based events.

What I am looking to touch upon are the ways D&D and Pathfinder differ in terms of general theme and style of play. Some of the big differences I’ve noticed are as follows:

Bounded Accuracy and the Aragorn Test


One of the big changes that 5th edition D&D made was a thing that the designers call bounded accuracy. Basically, this is shorthand for, “the numbers don’t go as high anymore.” While older editions of the game had ever-scaling attack bonuses, defenses, and skill difficulties, the new edition slows down that escalation a lot.

Take, for example, an adult red dragon. An adult red dragon in D&D has an Armor Class of 19 – about the equivalent of a guy wearing plate mail and a shield. Your average 1st-level soldier with a longbow has a +4 to attack and does 1d8+2 damage. If the dragon is attacking an army of 100 soldiers, most of those soldiers will miss, but about 30% of them will score a hit. 30 soldiers dealing longbow damage is an average of 180 hit points, and the dragon has 256 total hit points. In other words, he’d better think twice before flying into arrow range.

Black Arrow

But it’s still better for the dragon than in original D&D, where an archer had a 50% chance of one-shotting it.

The Pathfinder adult red dragon, on the other hand, has an Armor Class of 29. Even though he has fewer hit points (212), he’s much less likely to get hit in the first place. Those same soldiers are only going to hit 5% of the time, dealing about 30 damage in a round – and that’s not including the fact that the Pathfinder dragon has damage reduction that can cut that down even further. The D&D dragon sees an army of archers and keeps his distance. The Pathfinder dragon sees 100 bite-sized snacks – he just needs to crack open their armor and enjoy the feast.

This is by design. D&D wants heroes who can do amazing things but who are closer to mortals. Pathfinder wants heroes who become nearly godlike as they advance in level. Admittedly, they both play more or less similarly at low levels, but the higher you go, the bigger the disparity becomes.

I’m going to call this the Aragorn Test, referring to the many times in The Lord of the Rings films when Aragorn just leaps into battle against 100 orcs and comes out without a scratch. If you want heroes who can do that, Pathfinder is more likely to give you the desired result. If you want heroes who will think twice about picking a fight with a huge number of low-level mooks even when they’re among the best warriors in the land, D&D might be the better choice for you.


But neither D&D nor Pathfinder have rules that say the monsters only come at you one at a time.

The Skills of an Expert

Related to bounded accuracy is the skill system between the two games. To sum things up, D&D puts a lot of emphasis on natural ability, while Pathfinder puts the bulk of emphasis on training.

Let’s say you want a fighter who can survive on his own for months in the wild. In D&D, you take proficiency in the Survival skill. Your bonus for Survival checks is equal to your Wisdom modifier plus your proficiency bonus. If you’re an average-Wisdom character, you have a +2 to these rolls at 1st level and can get as high as +6 if your Wisdom remains the same.

Meanwhile, a cleric who has spent much of his life in an urban environment but who has a Wisdom of 18 starts off with a +4 to Survival right off the bat, even without training. This is a guy who doesn’t really know the outdoors but who is naturally talented enough to pick things up almost instantly. The average-Wisdom fighter will catch up to him in this field by 9th level and finally surpass him by 13th level. D&D is a game where innate ability generally carries as much or more weight than training.

Player's Handbook

It’s also a game where sending your stupid henchmen to pry the gems out of that obviously trapped idol is a great idea.

In Pathfinder, the woodsy fighter takes skill ranks in Survival to showcase his abilities. At 1st-level, he starts at a +4 bonus to Survival rolls, the same as the cleric with an 18 Wisdom. By 2nd level he surpasses said cleric, and by 13th level he’s got a +16 to those rolls. He can take feats like Skill Focus and Self-Sufficient to get even better at this. In contrast to D&D, Pathfinder puts way more emphasis on training over natural ability.

To go further, some skills in Pathfinder require you to be trained in them to even attempt them. Do you want to open a lock, recall ancient lore, or train your adopted wolf not to snap at passerbys? You need a rank in the appropriate skill. D&D doesn’t have this restriction, so somebody who has never picked a lock before can still try and have a decent chance of success. Whether this gives characters much-needed flexibility or breaks the suspension of disbelief depends on your gaming preferences.

Doing the Impossible


Mythic Heroes

Remember that Pathfinder fighter with the +16 to Survival? He can literally track an ant on a cloudy day if he gets a 13 or higher on a d20 roll. Now, the odds of you needing to do that in a fantasy adventure game are pretty slim, but I’m not your GM so I can’t say for sure that the situation will never come up.

Challenge difficulties in D&D usually keep to target numbers in the range of 10 to 20 – because the spread of bonuses is so small, the difficulty ratings need to be something that anybody can conceivably hit. This means that everybody has a chance to do most things, with people who are very talented having a better chance than others. Even weak-willed individuals might be able to resist the charms of succubus, but those with a high Wisdom score and proficiency in Wisdom saving throws are going to stand a better chance.

In most cases, most characters have a chance of passing mundane challenges in Pathfinder as well. But because the numbers go higher, the challenges get more fantastic as the game gets up there in level. Somebody with a good Will save can probably resist a charm person spell at 1st level. At 20th level, they might be able to resist the alluring aura of Nocticula, the demon lord of lust, while the rest of the group stands around helplessly ogling her.


Who knew that wings and gigantic hair extensions were such a turn-on?

To illustrate the Pathfinder model, one of my recent games had a wizard charm a low-Wisdom rogue whose Will saves were abysmally bad. He then got her to willingly sit in a cell while he tried to figure out what to do with her. Once the charm wore off, she immediately broke out of the cell, because, “No prison can hold me.” This didn’t even require a roll – even without lockpicks, she was good enough to improvise a tool and bust out of jail with ease.

In D&D, characters have a chance to do most things and the skill or save challenges usually stay in the realm of probability. At the same time, you’re rarely so good at something that you can’t fail. In Pathfinder, your character will struggle at some things but be so good at other things that you can bypass mundane challenges with ease.

When the S*!* Hits the Fan, What Kind of Damage Does it Do?


Throughout its history, D&D has often been a mish-mash of different mechanics that aren’t always consistent with each other. 5th edition attempted to smooth this out some and uses hit points as the main balancing mechanic between low-level and high-level threats. Oh, sure, PCs get new abilities as they level up, just like always, but the main reason a red dragon even stands a chance of defeating an army of 100 archers is because it has a ton of hit points and the archers don’t.

Most challenges in Pathfinder can be summed up using hit points, too, but not as often as in D&D. Some effects target your ability scores, some bestow negative levels, and so on. This adds more tactical choices to combat, but also means additional complexity.

Let’s take the wyvern as an example. The D&D wyvern has a poison stinger that deals an extra 7d6 damage – it packs a wallop, but that poison won’t affect you in future rounds. The Pathfinder wyvern doesn’t do the extra damage, but instead causes 1d4 Constitution damage each round for six rounds. This means that if you’re poisoned by the sting, you’ll get weaker each round, losing hit points and also making your next Fortitude save tougher.


Also, D&D wyverns have puffy necks for some reason.

As another example, the kiss of a succubus in both games is deadly. In D&D, it does damage and lowers your hit point maximum. In Pathfinder, it bestows a negative level. This lowers your hit points slightly, but the real damage is the -1 to all rolls that a negative level gives you. If your negative levels equal your current level, you die, even if you have hit points left.

There are a few exceptions to D&D using hit points as the only health gauge. For example, the shadow does Strength damage, just like it does in Pathfinder. But for the most part, you can guess how challenging a foe is going to be and how close a character is to death by checking its hit point totals in D&D. This holds true in many cases in Pathfinder, but there are other ways to go from zero to dead that don’t even touch your hit points.

One Game, Two Flavors

When you get right down to it, D&D and Pathfinder are still very similar games that do a lot of the same things. They both fit firmly in the weird fantasy RPG genre which often tries to emulate fantasy epics but usually does its own cool thing instead.

Overall, D&D is a more streamlined game that keeps heroes within certain bounds of reality, at least as much as that is possible in a game where a person occasionally tells the laws of physics to go piss off. Pathfinder has more tactical choices and heroes who get crazy good when they choose to specialize in something, be it killing orcs or animal husbandry.

However, both games are pretty robust, too. That means there’s a lot of room to morph them into something you like. If you cut the maximum skill ranks in Pathfinder by half or double the proficiency bonus in D&D, the game changes dramatically but still doesn’t break.

Mythic Treasure

But no matter what game you play, picking up this sword is a BAD idea.

If you want to play one of these games but don’t know which one is for you, the stuff up above can hopefully help you make your decision. If you’re still undecided, don’t worry – you can have lots of fun with either or both.



3 Responses to “D&D and Pathfinder: What’s the Difference?”

  1. Check out 13th Age, another D&D derivative (extremely well done derivative) where the numbers get REALLY big each level the character advances 🙂

  2. I fear you are right with the D&D 5th edition being too immature on skills. Sadly so you may be right with Pathfinder escalating, too. Writing homebrew and using the one for easygoing and the other for campaigns could still work.

    Still in the core we all know that neither system nor product matter to roleplayers. The proper DM plus the proper players and we have tears of joy in our eyes before ever reaching 2nd level with another character of no real meaning or consistency…

    HINT: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_o_VLqxFMrk

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