I have gamed in 4e since before its release. I was one of the lucky few to sign an NDA – as “Event Manager” for Canada in the organized play team.
I never felt that everything was perfect about 4e, but for me, it did fix a lot of things I felt were broken in previous editions. It fixed the absurd imbalance of pure magic users (they were better in every way than any other class from somewhere between 8th and 12th level). It made strides towards fixing the 15 minute workday problem. It allowed for easier and better design of new character types, so whole new classes plugged into the game easily and well. It removed a lot of what I call “front loading” from the game – the requirement for meticulous character design in order to have a character that was at least competitive at the table. It allowed for far more creative battlefield tactics.
For the DM, 4e freed them up from having to essentially create characters as monsters, complete with details that would neven come up in combat – one could populate a scenario with suitable creatures in minutes.
On the down side, it did not (initially) provide simple enough classes for certain kinds of players. Every class is about as complex (this was addressed later in the Essentials line). It requires that players enter into a sort of role-filling compact to a greater degree than earlier editions. There are still too many feats and too many synergies, so in short, the game is still too rules heavy and has too many minutiae to play fast, especially in combat.
That said, I also feel (from inspection – reading the rules) that Pathfinder fixes none of these things. Sure, they have combined some awkward mechnisms from 3e such as trip, grapple, disarm etc. into “Combat Manoevers” that share a single mechanism. This should cut down on trips to the rule books. However, 4e fixed those things as well – and (IMHO) did it better. Pathfinder has re-jigged spell lists in an effort to fix some of the more egregious brokenness, but I still reckon that Wizards and Clerics can lord it over Fighters and (especially) Rogues at mid to higher levels, and more importantly, circumvent the DM’s adventure designs easily. Multiclassing is still more organic in Pathfinder (it does not appear to have been changed from 3e), but now as then, it only really works for “pure” martial types. Spell-casters should not bother (unless the character concept is to dabble – which will turn out suboptimaly anyway) – outside of hacks such as the mystic theurge – special prestige classes made to fix something that is inherently broken.
All this said (and I know I am biased), for the sake of gaming with some old friends who tried 4e and decided to go the pathfinder route, I am taking part in a pathfinder session on Saturday. I have created a character (and one for my wife – who refuses to engage in character creation in so complex a system), and I am ready to play. I look forward to enjoying the overall gaming experience with old friends, and the trip down memory lane that “5 foot steps” and “Full attack actions” will engender.
Our DM is a gentleman who comes highly recommended, and he has set down some little stipulations for character creation. We are all urbanites, and in fact must all have a level of rogue. We will start at 2nd level. We may choose traits. I have done my best to min-max this with a Halfling Rogue (2), and I have created an interesting synergistic character for my wife as a Halfling Rogue/Sorcerer. Interestingly, the Sorcerer works out much like a 4e character, with at-wills (4 cantrips), encounter powers (7 / day bloodline power) and dailies (4 / day of 2 1st level spells), so I think my wife will be somewhat comfortable. The wizard would have been even more 4e like, but at low levels anyway, the sorcerer is probably more fun and easier to play (and takes advantage of the cha boost of the Halfling).
All this of course will bring me face to face with one of my beefs with earlier editions. There is no love for the rogue. As soon as the rogue gets a half decent combat capability, it can be nerfed at will by the DM. Want to sneak and hide – the area can be well lit, and devoid of furnishings. Want to backstab that creature? Sorry – he is undead, or lacking in “normal” anatomy. And anyway, the Wizard can eclipse the rogue in hide, move silently – indeed a low level wizard can fly invisibly and silently, knock open doors, mage hand the gem from the display case and vanish into the night while the rogue is still climbing the drainpipe.
We will see (soon) how Pathfinder has dealt with these and other issues. I look forward to playing, and posting my experiences. I only hope that I can approach play like a student, and get what I can from the game, rather than chafe at its flaws and idiosyncracies.