Thinking about my attempts at roleplaying online, and the work that I've had to do for them, and whether or not I enjoyed that work.
With D&D 4e
- Basic rule explanation: NONE
The basic rules are online, in a free PDF. Its explanation is very concise. In about 10 pages it goes over which dice you roll for what, and all the rules you need to know for combat and movement. Another few pages explain skills in detail. The rest of it is DM advice or premade characters.
- Character creation: A LOT
4e characters are basically "plug and play." There's an enormous array of options, but very few of them are actually bad, and the newer Essentials classes especially make things easier by giving more comprehensive packages of abilities.
The problem? Almost none of the character creation material, except for the "Class Compendium" remakes, is available online for free. The rest of it is scattered through sourcebooks and Dragon Magazine articles, none of which it is easy to link to. Most people seem to use the Character Builder online, and/or the D&D Compendium ... both of which require a paid subscription. Without those online tools, you're screwed, unless you want to a) email PDFs to your friends and b) write up your own power cards.
This last part took us an enormous amount of effort to do in nentir_vale, even compared to what it would have cost to write up the power cards in person. Theoretically, though, once this part is done I don't have to redo it; I can just copy the templates I've already made to introduce new powers.
- Game preparation: A FAIR BIT
D&D 4e rules make it easy to put together an ostensibly "balanced" encounter, meaning one that won't murder the player characters. I'm personally not used to having to balance tactical wargame considerations on the one hand, though, and roleplaying concerns on the other. Like, the D&D Encounters games I went to were basically half listening to the DM exposit, and half killing mindless foes that won't back down.
I feel like I have pulled it off fairly well before. The encounter I'm most proud of featured a pair of wolves as antagonists, and I tried to roleplay them as actual people instead of as mindless combatants. They were surprised at the carrion (a revenant PC) that fought back, and extremely wary when another player character showed up. The PCs, in turn, didn't see their goal as "inflict enough damage to reduce them to 0 HP," but were trying to drive the wolves off.
After another encounter went poorly, though, to the point where one of my players left soon afterwards, I lost most of my confidence in my ability to create interesting 4e encounters.
- Running the game: A FAIR BIT
My workflow for running a 4e game consists of setting up the map and its tokens, then taking pictures which my phone automatically uploads to OneDrive, where I can rotate and share them with minimal effort. The circular cardboard tokens included in the post-Essentials D&D 4e boxed sets work very well for this, because you can see them most clearly from directly above, whereas if I were using miniatures I'd have to balance making them look good with making the map itself legible.
When there are questions and time-consuming discussions, they tend to be around players not knowing which of their powers to use in a given situation. I've tried to mitigate this by writing little "strategy guides" for each of my players, and I also try to allow players to do things not explicitly spelled out in their powers; those aren't the only options they have, just the ones which are always available.
- Basic rule explanation: A FAIR BIT
The online Pathfinder Reference Document does an extremely poor job of explaining to new players how to play the game. Which makes sense, I guess, from the perspective of people trying to sell a product, but the Core Rulebook is basically a printout of its section of the PRD.
The only Pathfinder RPG product explicitly aimed at beginners is the Beginner Box set, and it's a) not available for free online, and b) verbose and poorly laid out. So it's not really an option here.
On the plus side, the basic Pathfinder rules are simple. On the down side, they have a lot of edge cases and confusing inconsistencies. I will never forget the look on the face of the girl across the table, when she was told that she doesn't roll to attack with her Sorcerer's spell; her target rolls to dodge it. Which is the opposite of how it works for people who attack using physical weapons, and for everyone in 4e.
- Character creation: A FAIR BIT
All the Pathfinder rules and options are available online for me to link to. I don't have to write up power cards or anything. The downside is that a lot of the options suck, and are basically "traps" for those who don't know any better.
Just this Friday, the guy next to me playing a Druid in Pathfinder Society got all excited when he realized he could convert any of his prepared spells into a Summon Nature's Ally spell. Then he found out it'd take his entire turn to cast, and the snake that he summoned would last only one round.
The biggest challenge, in preparing to GM Pathfinder, is making encounters that will challenge but not kill the player characters. Its "Challenge Rating" system doesn't do a whole lot to help, because there are special rules and edge cases that can make it basically impossible for the PCs to defeat a particular foe, and unlucky die rolls can screw PCs over a lot worse than in D&D 4e.
Pathfinder GMs have to do a lot of non-obvious things to get around this. For instance, the designers of the adventure we played this last Friday had to give us a way to beat the boss demon's Damage Reduction. Also, since Pathfinder lacks a Skill Challenge mechanic, several parts of the adventure just consisted of "you spend X hours doing " and then seeing a result, instead of the players collaborating around the table and finding ways to use their skills to solve noncombat problems.
- Running a game: A FAIR BIT
Not using a map, for online play, in some ways reduces the amount of work needed. Since Pathfinder also relies a lot on positioning, though, I've often ended up having to redescribe the setting each time a player's turn comes up, or having to correct someone about who was where.
Beyond that, the simple fact that the PCs are fragile means I have to be much more careful about how I approach them. In some ways I find this fun; there's a temptation, in DMing 4e, to throw lots of tough mobs at the players just because they can handle it. Whereas in Pathfinder everyone's much more inclined to resolve encounters through roleplay, instead of trusting their fate to the dice.
I honestly don't know. I think I like 4e much better, and enjoy the work it requires more. I'm just not feeling confident about my ability to DM it right now.