Comparing Character Complexity In Three Systems

Lately, I have been pondering the complexity of characters in a roleplaying game. Part of this pondering has to do with the length of time in character creation and part of it has to do with the relationship between the player and the character. For the purpose of this post, I will be looking at Human Fighters in three different systems: Pathfinder, Swords & Wizardry*, and 5th Edition Dungeons and Dragons.

Why Human Fighters?

The three systems each have Humans as the “bland” racial option and Fighters as an available player class. Also, Fighters have the broadest set of weapon and armor available to use. They are effectively the same in each system. Due to the above, the Fighter is a relatively simple class to play/study. The basic Fighter thought process goes like this: Find enemy that is moving. Hurt enemy until it stops moving. Take loot from unmoving enemy. Repeat.

Okay, fine. I grossly oversimplified the Fighter, but you get the idea.

Now, characters will always be different due to stat differences and equipment finds. No one with half a brain cell denies this and neither do I. In a system with more complex characters (like Pathfinder and 5th Edition), two characters could be wildly different due to feat, skill, and archetype choices. In fact, due to the desire to not have any “dead levels”, where a character does not gain something new to use, Pathfinder and 5th Edition characters can gain a lot of strange abilities by 4th or 5th level. As I mentioned in a previous post, I ran a one-shot 5th Edition game with 3rd level characters. Even at that low a level, the complexity was easily visible. However, in many OSR-type games, there is not much (on paper) that would separate characters.

Let’s look at the three systems in depth. I will assume a basic familiarity with each system. If you want to look at each one in more detail, I will include a link in the header to each section.

Pathfinder
* In this system, the character gains a new ability (even if it is a minor situation numerical bonus) every single level.
* They can automatically use all armor types, shield types, simple weapons, and martial weapons. The only weapon type they cannot use effectively are the weird “exotic” weapons. However, taking a single feat (which Fighters have more of than any other Pathfinder class) will allow the Fighter full use of the “exotic” weapon. * While their Will save is low, they gain a bonus to their Will save vs fear as they level up, so that a Pathfinder Fighter is not as susceptible to feat-causing spells as you might initially think. However, they are still susceptible to charming and other attacks against the will.
* Later supplemental books add archetypes to further tweak the character.
* At higher levels, they may make multiple attacks, but every attack after the first has a significantly lower to-hit chance. Against a heavily armored foe, there is almost no point in using the other attacks!

FINAL VERDICT: Outside of GURPS, I cannot think of a roleplaying system with more “official” ways to tweak a character than Pathfinder. There are enough options in this system to “theory-craft” the perfect Fighter. Be aware that character creation and leveling up will take quite some time. The higher the level, the more options that appear,

Swords & Wizardry
* In this system, other than the standard numerical bonuses – saves, to-hit bonus, and hit points – most levels offer nothing new or interesting.
* They may use all armor and weapon types. Period.
* Receives multiple attacks (up to character level) against creatures with 1 HD or less
* They may parry enemy attacks, if their Dexterity score is at least 14.
* At 9th level, they may establish a stronghold. How great is that? It is a built-in adventure seed in the character progression. It is not an automatic stronghold. You have to earn it through strength of arms and doing daring deeds! Of all the things that have changed in roleplaying games over the past few decades, why did this go away? This is awesome!**

FINAL VERDICT: Short and sweet. The other side of the complexity pendulum away from Pathfinder. The abilities are easily understood and can be rolled up quickly. I could have a Swords & Wizardry Fighter (of any level) ready to go in the time it took to write this paragraph. Even with the time it would take for my cranky printer to print the character sheet!

5th Edition D&D
* While 5th Edition takes a tentative step toward simplification, there are still plenty of new things that the fighter gets at each level.
* At 3rd level, the Fighter must choose an archetype, which provides a few additional new ability to play with. In the 5th Edition SRD, there is only one archetype, but in the PHB there are three archetypes.
* They receive extra attacks. Not as many as in Pathfinder and not only against weak enemies, like in Swords & Wizardry, but full strength attacks which may be used against any opponent.
* Receives a “Fighting Style” at level one to specialize in a particular type of fighting
* The Second Wind ability allows the Fighter to recover a few hit points. I know that hit points do not necessarily represent actual damage taken, which is why I am glad this ability is themed as it is. See here for more on hit points.
* The ability to occasionally get an extra action via the Action Surge mechanic. *Second Wind and Action Surge deserve a special mention for giving the Fighter a bit more of an action movie feel to the character than the other two systems. The Fighter is tired and hurt? SECOND WIND! They are back on their feet! ACTION SURGE! The enemy reels under the surprising number of blows that the Fighter delivers!

FINAL VERDICT: The 5th Edition Fighter is not the Aristotelian mean between Pathfinder and Swords & Wizardry. It leans much closer to Pathfinder side of the complexity pendulum. However, I think it is a step in the right direction. With the forced archetype choice and Fighting Style, Fighters will have some differentiation. Not as many options as the Pathfinder Fighter, but still plenty of combinations to try something new and different. Moderate-to-high complexity.

So now that we have looked over these three systems, I want to briefly discuss a fundamental difference between Pathfinder / 5th Edition and Swords & Wizardry in regards to the character. In a game like Pathfinder or 5th Edition, what separates two Fighters is what is written on the character sheet. The actions that the character can do. The bonuses the character has in a particular situation. In a game like Swords & Wizardry, what separates two Fighters is what in-game deeds the character has DONE.

There is a lot of talk about the “special snowflake-ness” of newer roleplaying games. For instance, level 1 characters with ridiculously epic backstories written by the players. While many newer games do not specifically encourage this behavior, it seems to happen anyway. These characters are often defined by what has happened in the backstory or what potential power is written on the character sheet, via feats, skills, etc. The events of the game (if not tailored specifically for the character/player by the GM) may not even be relevant to the story that the player wants to craft. They are special because of what they are.

In older games, the character is a blank slate for the player to paint on. Two Fighters may look the same on paper, but through the actions they (and by extension, the player) take, they become something special. A level 1 character is no one important…yet. But over time, the character can rise to become a mover and shaker in the game world. They are special because of what they have accomplished.

In conclusion, I have written far more than I intended to write on this subject. But, there is much more to consider on fundamental differences between old-school games and new-school games. My (potentially impossible) goal is try to reconcile the great parts of each type of game.

* I chose Swords & Wizardry as the OSR representative because I have the read it the most of any OSR game.
** My first roleplaying game was 3rd Edition D&D. I know, I know, I am not a true roleplayer etc etc.

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