So in the last few weeks I've been diving into several different games - skimming through 4E to shake the rust off in anticipation of finishing up Red Hand of Doom (finally!), keeping up with Pathfinder for my other ongoing campaign, and then reading all the new 5th Edition D&D material. There have been others too, but those three are basically different flavors of the same game and spurred some thoughts I wanted to get down. Sometime soon we will be deciding on our "main" campaign for next year and this kind of thing influences what I'm thinking.
For cinematic fantasy combat, and I mean mechanically well-defined cinematic combat, not roll-high-and-we'll-describe-something-epic combat, 4E is the king to me. No other system comes close as far as having this kind of stuff built in to the mechanics of the game. Forced movement, reactions, and interrupts force the whole party to pay attention even when it's not their turn. This does come at a price, as it does take some time to play out a battle but it pushes for a different kind of D&D experience - less emphasis on hacking through six rooms of grunts to get to the orc chieftain, and an idea that maybe there should be fewer, but more meaningful/interesting fights. It works with older style adventures - I've converted a few, pretty faithfully - but it did have me wondering about starting from a different set of assumptions.
More importantly, it rewards teamwork in some amazing ways, with powers and abilities that build on each other. Synergies can build between all 4-5 members of a party and let them do some very cool things. The downside here is that if one or two people can't make it on game night those benefits are lost and while it can be fun to look for some more focused ways to work together, it can be difficult to adjust expectations when those force multipliers disappear. In my experience, it was the least-forgiving edition when it came to working around missing party members. All of that niche protection and ability to grow your characters with complimentary abilities creates a sort of web between them that is damaged when you lose a member. In he end this became a bigger problem for our campaign than the length of combat. If we take it into Paragon Tier for 2015 then we're going to have to make some different assumptions about party size and composition to try and keep the game on a more regular schedule.
In contrast to 4th Edition, 5th Edition dials back the detail in a big way. Now I have not run it or played it yet, but I've made a character for a game coming up this weekend and there is just ... less there. I had no problem coming up with a concept and working the mechanics to fit it but the lessened game detail around races and skills, the change in how feats are used within the system, and the general de-emphasis on "numbers" and detail make it feel smaller. There's more detail than with, say, an old school Basic D&D character, but not as much as you might think. I do expect it to play much faster than 4E when it comes to combat, and its looseness when it comes to non-combat activities should keep things moving too. It's interesting, and we're going to explore it.
I've seen a lot of interest in Backgrounds as one of 5E's new features. They are interesting, but 4E had a similar concept called ... Backgrounds! The Forgotten Realms alone had over 20 of them. Just like 5th they were a way to connect your character to the setting, whether by occupation, race, affiliation, or something else, and they included some kind of mechanical benefit like extra skill choices. I was glad to see them carried over and given a more prominent place in 5th but the current options are pretty limited. I'm betting we see more before long.
I expect 5th will do just fine. Those tired of the mechanical complexities of other systems will see it as a breath of fresh air. I do think converting older adventures, especially 1st & 2nd edition adventures, will be pretty easy. I intend to find out myself at some point, but for now it's just speculation. I don't think it will be the ultimate answer for everyone as some people like a fair degree of crunch in their fantasy game.
Speaking of crunch, I've also spent a fair amount of time with Pathfinder over the past year and it has moved from being the "extra" game to feeling like home in a way. It's popular, so it's easy to bounce ideas off of other people. It's incredibly well supported so there are a tremendous number of adventures available and a lot of mechanical options as well.
As a player I find that between stats, race, class, archetype, skills, feats, and traits I can create a character for darn near any concept I can come up with. Traits are a little like Backgrounds, sharing the same purpose at least. Archetypes are an underrated element added to the prior framework by the Pathfinder team that allow for a tremendous degree of tweaking a class to fit a particular concept. Looking at Hero Lab, for Barbarian alone there are 21 archetypes, and I don't have all of them in my HL setup. Mix that in with all of the class options in the current game and I'm comfortable saying it's going to take an extraordinarily picky player who can't find something to match their concept.
As a DM it's become easy enough to run that I enjoy it, being able to focus mainly on the game and less on the overhead of executing the system. It's less involved in many ways than 4E combat, but more detailed than 5E, which leaves me in a place that I am pretty happy to inhabit. A few years ago I would not have believed that a close relative of 3E would be such a comfortable middle ground but that's how it feels right now. Just detailed enough, and yet still fast-moving enough, that it just fits.
So they each have their strengths. If we pick up Stonehell again I'd consider flipping it to 5th Edition just to give it some more flavor without getting too complex. For published adventures, I'm a fan of the Pathfinder Adventure Paths and plan to run those for the next few years, maybe as the consistent "backbone" of my RPG time. I'd love to focus on a more cinematic approach with 4E and if we decide to go that route as a group I will, with a mix of published material, homebrew stuff, and conversions of other adventures. Why limit yourself to just the one game?