Wednesday, February 1, 2012

Pathfinder Beginners Box (PDF version)

If you're a Pathfinder nut, then you already know about the Pathfinder Beginners Box (hereafter called "the PBB"). This begs the question, however, of whether you actually need the PBB if you are already aware of Pathfinder. Does this have value for existing customers? Or is this an entry-level product only?


I'm going to approach this from the point of view of a veteran reviewing a product for n00bs, since that is what I am. As it happens, I bought the pdf version, since I certainly don't need any more dice, nor do I need a bunch of 'pawns' or a flip mat. I've got dice, figures and erasable mats out the yin-yang.

I'm more interested in what this (pdf) box has to offer as an introduction to the game, were I to run it for a group of young, new players, which I will be doing fairly soon.

Upon purchasing and downloading the PBB, I unzipped it into a new directory. The contents of the folder were five .pdf files and a folder labeled Additional Material.

The first file is labeled "Ads" and that's exactly what it is; advertisements! Delete! The second file is "Beginner Box Cover" which contains the cover art of a wizard and a rogue about to get fed their own asses for breakfast by a black dragon. Also delete!

This left me with "Game Master's Guide," "Hero's Handbook," and "Read this First." So I did. "Read This First" contained yet another fly sheet pointing you to specific parts of the other two files in case you wanted to play a solo adventure "to get the hang of" adventuring, grab a pre-made character, make one of your own, or run the game as a DM. I decided that I couldn't wait around too long so I took option A.

The Hero's Handbook: Pick Your Path to Adventure! 

TSR (among others) used to publish these sort of "pick your own path" adventures as paperback books or modules. Each entry has a long narrative segment ending with you having to choose one of several different options presented, whereupon the text told you which page to turn to in order to see how it turned out. I bought a few of them as a kid and they all sucked. I didn't really expect this to be any different.

"The Skeleton King's Crypt" starts off with you as a brave warrior starting out from Random Town with some chainmail and a sword with big ideas and no training. Actually, the drawing they give for this cypher of a character looks like he fell out of the back of Cheech and Chong's van - or maybe he was having an allergic reaction to something he ate?

The doughty warrior headed down the tunnel into the earth, only to run smack into an evil goblin "with a head like a watermelon." It runs at you! You attack it! It dies! You take its stuff! Thrilling! Surely this is the stuff of which epic sagas are made! Taking up his weapon of standard manufacture, the hero gallantly closed with the opponent half his size!

The adventure continues on for a while until you meet the Skeleton King or die. Or both! I suppose this is one way to get across the basics of the game, but it seems rather uninspired to me. I may hand this off to one of the kids and let them give it a try, see what they think of it. It could be that I'm just old and jaded.

The Hero's Handbook then proceeds walk you through an example of game play using some of the Pathfinder iconic characters as they battle off a few skeletons. I much prefer the example of play used in the old AD&D Dungeon Master's Guide because: first, it addresses the issues of character size and visibility (there's one party member for each of the basic races), and second, it ends with the halfling and gnome being eaten by ghouls!

The book then goes on to define common game terms, explain the character creation process in some detail,streamlining the process for you somewhat by asking you to choose your class, then race, and then explaining what those choices mean afterward. I highly approve of this, as otherwise you would either be tempted to min-max (by picking the most advantageous race/class combo) or giving up because you have too many choices to make. 

After a fairly in-depth analysis of Skills and Feats, we get to equipment. Each character is assigned a set amount of money based on their class and marched through the selection process for weapons, then armor, then other stuff. Finally there's a discussion of in-game mechanics; movement, light, and environments. 

At long last it enters into a discussion of combat and the sometimes labyrinthine subject of "actions", attacks, saves and the beginnings of combat maneuvers.

Overall, the Hero's Handbook is fairly well organized in a linear way for people to get up and running in a fairly short time. There's enough depth for characters up to 5th level (which it supports) with a simplified selection of feats to provide some color in combat.

The Game Master's Guide

The Game Master's Guide starts off with Black Fang's Dungeon, a short adventure written so that the DM can boot-strap themselves while the players (presumably without interrupting him) get familiar with their pre-generated characters. It contains frequent references to relevant rules by page number, also a plus. 

 After this it goes into the obligatory "This is what the DM does" section and then delves into the game mechanics; turn order, initiative, and so on. What follows includes ideas and suggestions on either expanding on the provided in-box adventure or creating your own adventures, campaigns. There is a healthy section devoted each to Environment, Treasure, Magic Items, Monsters, Conditions, and Random Encounters.

There's even an index! 

What the book does exceptionally well is provide frequent references to pertinent sections of the rulebook where like rules are grouped together. While in an electronic format like a wiki you can simply connect everything with hyperlinks, this is hard to do in print and seems a bit repetitive after a while, but I can see the point of this. As a beginner's tool, this sort of organization is a strength, since most time is wasted by looking up rules in your first few games.

Additional Materials...
The 'Additional Materials' folder contains a smattering of other material; a blank character sheet, a flip-mat, the monster token sheets and four pre-generated characters. 

The blank character sheet is a no-brainer, and if you use it in combination with the Hero's Handbook there's even a nifty guide (the section on character creation) that keys directly to specific areas of the sheet via letters circled in green. 

 The pre-gen characters are simply four of the iconic characters from the Pathfinder RPG core rulebook. Kyra the cleric, Valeros the fighter, Merisiel the rogue, and Ezren the wizard.  The only problem with providing only 4 characters is this; what happens if no one wants to play the wizard, or if more than one person wants to play the fighter? Each character comes with two pages of material; a cover sheet introducing the character concept and their key strengths. 

The token sheets are useful since most people just starting off in RPGs won't have a lot of miniatures to fall back on, and Pathfinder is a highly tactical game. The only problem becomes finding a way to stand the little critters up...

The flip-mat is a necessity for the same reason, but again falls short since it would require a person to print out multiple sheets of 8 1/2" x 11" paper to create the map for the boxed adventure. Maybe this isn't such a bad thing, since it would reproduce the 'fog of war' effect when moving from area to area, but not all the rooms and hallways will fit nicely on a single sheet of paper, and there are many places where people would be forced to play across the edges of 2 or more different sheets. For my money you're better off buying a large,  erasable mat with a 1-inch grid on it and some erasable markers. 

Overall the quality of the Pathfinder Beginner's Box is pretty high. What it lacks in some areas is more than ameliorated by the cost of the PDF version ($10 for the PDF vs. $35 for the boxed version) and the rules are organized in such a way that a group of new players could set up and run their first game within a few hours. If one of the players (the DM) is more experienced, so much the better! 

It's worth noting that information is laid out neatly and there is a lot of color-coding within the book to break up different types of data, for example in the section on Magic Items the price is always highlighted in orange. It's consistent and self-referential. It's also nicely decorated with lots of colorful pictures. 

For a person new to RPGs it will be helpful, and they will need that help since Pathfinder frankly isn't a terribly user-friendly system (not that 3.5 or even Advanced D&D were either, for that matter). For someone interested in getting into Pathfinder for the first time, I definitely give the Pathfinder Beginners Box a thumbs-up, but if you are not an old hand at role-playing games I would recommend buying the boxed version at your friendly local gaming store over the PDF. 

Edit: It's worth noting also that Paizo has fleshed out some additional stuff for this set which can be found on the main product page linked above. It's good to see that they are supporting this product and not just releasing it as a one-off. I find it encouraging that they haven't packaged it as a stand-alone product line in the way that the old Basic, Expert and Advanced rules systems were for Dungeons & Dragons; the boundary between the PBB and regular Pathfinder product is thin, as it should be, and one can make the transition without having to relearn the entire game.

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