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

Cara asks:

What is Pathfinder and how does it differ from DnD?

I am a fan of both, and I know a lot of people who are! On this topic we’ve got Dave Chalker,  a tabletop RPG fan and game designer.


2014-02-22 20.37.02Dungeons & Dragons has had multiple editions, dating back from the 70s to, well, sometime this year. Each edition changes up the rules, has different authors, different options for what characters you can play, different monsters, even different styles of game that it supports.

Think about something like Windows having a bunch of versions, like how Windows 95 is different than Windows XP which is different than Windows 8. A lot of the broad strokes are the same between each one, generally support the same kind of use, but have different looks, feels, and things they’re better or worse at. Each of these ‘versions’ is called an Edition. See a list of D&D editions.

So one of D&D’s editions was 3.5 (just like a piece of software, it was an update to a previous edition, with just a bunch of stuff patched and a .5 added onto the end.) D&D 3 and 3.5 were (and are!) super popular D&D editions.

Once it was announced there would be a D&D 4, a bunch of the folks who worked on D&D 3.5 (the company Paizo) decided to take the underlying engine that powered it and patch it up some more, but not so much that you had to throw out all the books you already had from D&D 3.5. That game is Pathfinder.

That means Pathfinder is another version of D&D, just made by a different company than who makes the official game with the D&D name on it. (In this author’s opinion, a lot of games are D&D, which I’ll talk about later.) Pathfinder takes D&D 3.5, keeps most of the main concepts, character options, and mostly maintains compatibility between the two. At the same time, Paizo puts out a steady stream of many new books, supplements, adventures, and more.

At the moment, a lot of data points towards Pathfinder being the biggest RPG currently putting out new products, especially while D&D works on its next new edition. That’s one of the big advantages of Pathfinder: new books all the time, and not just official products, there’s also all kinds of smaller companies and fans publishing too.

Between that, and everything made for D&D 3 and 3.5 still floating around out there, there’s sourcebooks, tables, spells, and whatever other super-specific supplements you could ever want for your Pathfinder game. It’s also very well supported with organized play programs for those who don’t just want home campaigns with it’s Pathfinder Society having branches all over the world.

That is all to say: Pathfinder is very closely related to D&D. D&D (in all its editions) and Pathfinder all have their different strengths and fans. Likewise, there are plenty of other games that are great that are related to D&D, including (but not limited to) 13th Age, Dungeon World, Labyrinth, Dungeon Crawl Classics, and many more. Largely they share a lot of the trappings of D&D, even in many cases directly patching up a specific D&D edition, with a lot of the terms being common between them.

I hope that all that explains what Pathfinder is. As for how it differs from D&D… well, what D&D is in the first place varies depending on who you ask: even the original creators of D&D disagreed about it. My only advice on that front is to try as many as you can and see which one is the most D&D to you, and enjoy the heck out of it.

If you want to get started, you might check out ENWorld.org for a forum with people talking about D&D of all kinds.

Dave Chalker is a freelance game designer, game developer, and editor-in-chief of Critical-Hits.com. His RPG credits include work on Dungeons & Dragons, Marvel Heroic Roleplaying, and the Firefly RPG. His other tabletop work includes Get Bit!, Criminals, and Heat (currently on Kickstarter.) You can find him at @DaveTheGame on Twitter or on Critical-Hits.com.