Chad Perrin: SOB

21 July 2008

What does “compatibility” mean for Pathfinder?

Filed under: RPG — apotheon @ 08:58

This is part of my RPG series of entries here at SOB. See the inaugural entry in the series for more details.

PRPG compatibility isn’t about keeping your core books.

One of the major problems with adoption of the new 4th Edition system is the fact that most, if not all, non-core books will be obsolesced by the new system. As things currently stand, you can go buy the new three core books for 4E (PHB, DMG, and MM, naturally) and exactly one module. That’s it. Considering the vast modifications to the system, expecting to get much rules-related use out of your 3.5 MM 2-4, Expanded Psionics Handbook, and gameworld books is unrealistically optimistic at best.

Now consider the market involved. New gamers will go to stores and buy new books. New gamers will not just magically stumble across old copies of D&D 3.5. All the new blood goes to the new game books — which means 4E if we don’t have something like Pathfinder as an alternative. Of course, the rules in the 3.5 core books are distributed under the terms of the OGL, which means you can distribute them freely. That’s not quite good enough, though. Gamers like having physical books, including gamers like me, so electronic distribution isn’t quite enough to support a significant fanbase. Physical books, on the other hand, cost money to make.

Reprints of D&D 3.5 books don’t make for much of a money-maker when 3.5 is “obsolete”. On the other hand, D&D 3.6, with improvements in some of the more flawed, complex systems of D&D 3.5, might really catch on. It’s not just a retread: it’s an update. 3.6 is, of course, Pathfinder.

The trick is to make it backward compatible. If you can’t use the non-core books you already own with it, you’re far less likely to get the new Pathfinder book. Not only would you have to start rebuilding your collection of supplements all over again like you would with 4E, and not only would you have to wait until the additional books are actually published, but you would have the problem that Paizo (or another publisher other than Wizards of the Coast) probably won’t create the volume of supplementary books you already own if you already have a significant collection, nor is Paizo likely in the near future to build the kind of third-party publishing support that Wizards had.

Not only does Paizo need to attract people who already own a bunch of non-core books that they don’t want to give up, but it needs its new Pathfinder update of D&D 3.5 to be compatible with those books so that there’s a decent range of non-core books out there to support its new core book. It doesn’t get much easier than for customers to already own the books. Better yet, with 4E out now, 3.5 books tend to be pretty cheap in a lot of places — so if you seek them out, non-core 3.5 books are really cheap.

News flash: Paizo isn’t doing this Pathfinder thing primarily to make money by selling a new game (or, if it is doing it for that reason, it needs a refresher course in business sense). It’s creating and publishing this new Pathfinder RPG to maintain a user base for 3.5 compatible game modules and other materials Paizo publishes.

Some people complain that Pathfinder’s Alpha releases aren’t really 3.5 compatible, though. What they see is that the rules in Pathfinder differ from those in the core books. What they’re not seeing is that the rules are meant to be compatible — not identical. In fact, the new Pathfinder book is in some respects meant to replace the core books. They’re meant to be compatible with everything other than the core books.

You have some choices:

  1. You can just keep using your 3.5 core books, and watch the 3.5 gaming community die around you the way the 1st Edition, 2nd Edition, and 3.0 gaming communities have basically died off completely, then eventually move on to 4E — or not. Maybe you’ll stop playing. Gaming groups aren’t eternal, though. Campaigns end. Eventually, something changes.

  2. You can move on to 4E. You might want to have a look at the books before you do so, though. Depending on your tastes, you might not like what you see — especially if you’re the type that thinks Pathfinder isn’t “compatible” enough. On the other hand, maybe you really do prefer game systems like those in MMORPGs over game systems like, say, D&D’s before 4E. Whatever floats your boat, I guess.

  3. You can give something like Pathfinder a shot, and realize that what Paizo is creating is an attempt to improve on the 3.5 system, to help you keep using your non-core books with a vibrant and growing gaming community rather than having to choose either replacing them all or sticking with a system whose gamer community is poised to start withering away.

  4. You can give up.

I’m okay with replacing three core books with a single new (and improved) core book, having Paizo and third-party new published materials available to me when I want new books, and keeping all my non-core books still relevant — rather than having to rebuild my D&D gamebook collection from scratch. I’m okay with having a strong and growing gamer community attached to my game of choice without having to use a system that, frankly, I don’t much like (such as 4E). In general, I’m okay with Paizo’s definition of “compatible”.

I don’t want things to stay the same just to have them stay the same. I’m not afraid of change — as long as the change is for the better.


  1. Giving up is the clear choice of choice here. Only through the elimination of earthly rpg desires can we escape the cycle of never-ending editions.

    I agree with what you’ve writtn here, though it’s (sort of?) implied in the poster’s complaint that the changes are numerous enough to introduce a cumbersome conversion. Is there any room for concern over this (another poster downplays the extend of the changes later on in the thread)?

    Comment by Mina — 22 July 2008 @ 12:55

  2. If you don’t want to do a mid-campaign conversion of your characters, just don’t convert the current campaign — but with future campaigns, create ’em using the Pathfinder rules. I’m still running a D&D 3.5 game on Thursdays without converting everything to Pathfinder, and it’ll probably stay D&D 3.5 until the characters retire. The next campaign I start running will be PRPG instead, though.

    As for NPCs and monsters from published modules, monster manuals, and so on, just use them basically as-is if you don’t want to screw around with conversions. There really isn’t a lot of conversion to do. At worst, you might want to use a module for a fifth-level party with your fourth-level party of Pathfinder characters, or something like that — or beef up encounters slightly (add a couple more kobolds to that ambush, et cetera). If you’re not doing on-the-fly encounter balancing modifications when you run a module, you aren’t doing your job as a GM, anyway. Only you know what kinds of encounters will pose challenges for your players’ characters. The writer of Keep on the Borderlands sure doesn’t know the way your party handles encounters.

    Comment by apotheon — 22 July 2008 @ 03:05

  3. Good points, Chad. It’d be nice though to have a group to reliably game with.

    Comment by Joseph A Nagy Jr — 22 July 2008 @ 04:06

  4. By the way — there was another game that did get converted from D&D 3.5 to the Pathfinder RPG Alpha ruleset (as of Alpha 3). The major difficulties were in the fact that there was no Pathfinder version of 50% of the party’s classes (one case each of Psion:Nomad+Elocator and Beguiler), or for 25% of the party’s races (Elan in one case). The rest wasn’t so difficult. One evening’s work to convert a character, plus a little in the case of the Beguiler and the Elan/Psion:Nomad+Elocator. Of course, the complicated character was mine — the Elan race, with eight levels of Psion:Nomad and one level of Elocator. I took the opportunity to streamline some Elan stuff and tone down the race’s ability to shrug off damage, to make them work better with the assumed Human heritage, and to make the way choosing a discipline for a Psion works more consistent with the way certain other classes (notably Cleric, Sorcerer, and Wizard) work in PRPG.

    I also did a lot of the work on the update of the Beguiler class for PRPG, since the Beguiler as presented in the PHB2 is basically a bundle of ways to throw party balance out of whack. At first glance, it looks great, but in play it turned out to basically always be a balance problem — about 50% the time being way underpowered, and about 50% of the time being way overpowered. That stuff got tightened up a lot. I may revisit the idea and basically create something unrecognizable as a Beguiler, per se, change the name of it, and release the new class under the OGL — not as a Beguiler update, but as a Beguiler replacement.

    . . . but the actual character conversions, assuming you have a PRPG version of the class and race (or a version that works well with PRPG, as do most of the classes introduced in WotC splat books) for the character already available, were easier than they at first seem. In fact, I predict that in most cases players will actually enjoy the opportunity to restructure some of the character development choices they made along the way (such as skills) to refocus the character concept. I know I did. If you’re the GM for a game that undergoes a conversion, I recommend you avoid being too strict about forcing people to basically convert the character with no changes — a player is going to be frustrated and disappointed if his/her character ends up getting a nifty new class-based special ability that makes two of his/her character development choices obsolete, but isn’t allowed to restructure enough to eliminate the redundancy.

    The real hell of conversion would surely be redoing skills, except that the way the skill system is streamlined in Alpha versions 2 and 3 makes it much easier to build up a character’s skill selections. I was impressed with how much easier that aspect of conversion was than I expected. I’m also impressed with the way the consolidation of skills coupled with the simplification of skill advancement worked out for game balance. At first glance, I worried that throwing away the x4 for first level skill points and the limitation to one skill rank per character level would really hurt, but the +3 for class skills and the way certain skills have been consolidated did a surprisingly good job of balancing the changes.

    This not only works well for conversions without feeling like you were robbed — it also works for brand new characters, as I’ve learned from another Pathfinder game that was started from scratch shortly after the release of Alpha 2.

    Comment by apotheon — 23 July 2008 @ 12:39

  5. We are starting a new campaign and I am having trouble because I don’t want to play a standard race or class. I was planning on being a warforged totemist. We managed a successful warforged conversion, simply toning down the ability penalties and giving it a second favored class…but the totemist is proving harder. My DM feels that Incarnum was way too overpowered in the beginning compared to standard classes, and therefore it doesn’t need any conversion what so ever. I feel that this is going to make me extremely underpowered compared to everyone else…Any help or advise would be very welcome.

    Comment by crossroads — 28 February 2009 @ 11:23

  6. I seem to recall the stuff in the Incarnum book being a trifle overpowered for the standard 3.5 rules. I don’t know how much overpowered it was, and don’t have a copy of the book, so I can’t really provide much in the way of advice in that regard, I’m afraid. Since that book’s contents were never released under the terms of the OGL, as far as I’m aware, I can’t get access to it for free, and don’t feel like buying the book — and wouldn’t want to try distributing a conversion of the classes in it anyway, since I’m pretty sure WotC would assiduously enforce copyright to discourage me from playing a game that competes with 4E.

    Sorry — I don’t think I can be much help at this time.

    Comment by apotheon — 28 February 2009 @ 11:44

  7. […] dislike the branch in the family tree I’m abandoning. Meanwhile, even though it is pretty much compatible with D&D v3.5 (the final Wizards of the Coast revision of 3E) only introduces relatively minor […]

    Pingback by Chad Perrin: SOB » D&D: The more things change, the more they change. — 22 March 2009 @ 09:48

  8. […] He also mentioned that there’ll be a free PDF conversion guide for people who want to convert characters from D&D 3.5 to Pathfinder RPG. Before anyone complains that you shouldn’t have to convert characters for something that’s supposed to be “compatible” with D&D 3.5, I suggest you check out my previous ramble on the subject: What does “compatibility” mean for Pathfinder? […]

    Pingback by Chad Perrin: SOB » Pathfinder Conversions — 10 August 2009 @ 10:08

  9. As an update here, the final release of Pathfinder is very friendly to updating your old 3.5 material. The conversion guide works, and in several games online and p-n-p I have updated and used 3.5 feats, spells and classes with ease. The longest took me ten minutes. In short … it rocks.

    Comment by Dabbler — 5 January 2010 @ 02:14

  10. Thanks for the update from your perspective, Dabbler. I haven’t actually used the conversion guide, because by the time it was available everything that was likely to get converted in my life had already been converted, one way or another. It’s good to hear it works really well, though, especially for those who will come along later and translate their ongoing campaigns to PRPG.

    Comment by apotheon — 6 January 2010 @ 11:05

  11. I was an AVID 3.5 player and GM, and I have begun writing a LARGE amount of material for D&D prior to the release of 4e, all of which was turned down by the company because of across-the-board denials of new material being published under 3.5 rules. As 4e came out slowly over time, I was ready to see it and review – to see if an update and conversion was worth it. I was so sad, I outright boycotted the purchase of anything D&D related by that point. I have never been afraid of third-party or indie RPG concepts, and have seen some seriously badass third-party material in my time.

    So while fending off homelessness and getting my design degree online, I continued creating material and eventually learned about Pathfinder from my online discussion board friends, who told me I should at least check it out. I HAVE NEVER ONCE LOOKED BACK SINCE THAT TIME. I am SO HAPPY with Pathfinder. I am not converting my old campaigns (since I – accidentally – destroyed that cosmology with a tiny little Armageddon scenario…. oops), but everything I create from now on will completely PF compatible.

    It is not the exact same as 3.5. If you LOVE 3.5 though, please take the time to give PF a try. I promise you from the bottom of my heart that you will not have wasted your time. You will, if nothing else, see what other people are playing and considering in their own games and groups. And I tell you what, if you have a Pathfinder Society group in your area, take advantage of it! There are a lot of great people to meet, fresh faces and ideas, a new campaign setting which can stir your homebrew concepts up a little, and a lot of support from a great company where everyone is approachable, honest, ethical, and enjoys doing what do. I was a member of RPGA for over a year after hosting an online gaming guild for over five years… And I am so glad to have the Pathfinder Society. I am learning how to run and game under the new rules (and taking it slow so I can see all the little changes), and I will even be running games online eventually for those people who do not have a local PFS group near them.

    I don’t see a lot of public proclamation of publishing by third-party publishers under PF rules system, but I know they are out there (Jon Brazer Enterprises off the top of my head) – and I plan on releasing a full new campaign setting completely compatible with only Pathfinder, called the Nymian Beastlands. I plan on making this just as rich, diverse, and professional a setting as Eberron, Forgotten Realms, or Living Greyhawk, and I am doing it for those people who are not sure if Pathfinder is right for them (because some people think, “If no one else is on board, how good can it be?”). I am in direct talks with Pathfinder staff about some new ideas that may be of interest to them and their goals in the direction of the current system’s publications and products, and I am hoping to make sure to leave enough room in my Beastlands to allow a little playground room for new concepts such as divinity, immortality, new abilities, and cool new planar conceptualizations for standard and variant cosmologies.

    I tell you what – if you don’t believe me, you don’t have to spend a single cent to see if I am wrong. Pathfinder has a conversion guide (like stated above) on their website for free, and their entire system is documented under an OGL equivalent especially for PF, called the Pathfinder Reference Document (or PRD). You can find it here: You could technically put together a whole game and try it out before you ever even buy a new book. The PDF version of the core rulebook (like a PHB and DMG in one) is only $10, and the bestiary is worth every penny if only for the cool new illustrations, helpful appendices, and great formatting. Buying the physical version of both books will set you back as much as you would have paid for your 3rd edition books ($90), and I can assure you that you will make use of them. One thing you will not find in any of them: Level Adjustments and mechanics rules for powerful monstrous races. That’s because Paizo does not plan on covering that part. I do. Look for books regarding the Nymian Beastlands in the next few years. I got your back. And I am on this side of the line because this is a good company that gives a sh**. ;) Best wishes, -will

    Comment by xidoraven — 8 May 2010 @ 05:19

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