Pathfinder Beginner Box (***)
I've played a lot of Dungeons & Dragons over the years, but the one edition I haven't played is Pathfinder. I was curious to learn how the game works through the eyes of a novice and this introductory boxed set. It gave me flashbacks to my days trying to understand the D&D Basic Set...and not entirely in a good way.

The box includes quite a bit: a complete set of polyhedral dice (they're easy-to-read red, thank you!), cardboard figures and stands for a wide range of monsters and PCs; character sheets for a cleric, fighter, rogue, and wizard as well as blank sheets if you want to create your own; and three rule books. The rules books are the Hero's Handbook, the Game Master's Guide, and the Transition Guide. The box indicates there's a new book in it, which I assume is the Transition Guide, but this is a curious tactic as most of the folks buying this boxed set are presumably first-time buyers and don't care about the new book. More about the Transition Guide later.

A sheet greets you when you open the box with four choices:

  • If you're on your own, you can immediately begin playing the solo game with a solo adventure in the Hero's Handbook.
  • If you want to be a hero and start playing, it mentions picking one of the premade characters. This section makes a point of stating that "every group needs a game master." It's notable that it doesn't use the phrase "Dungeon Master." This is where confusion sets in.
  • The third option lets you make your own hero using the Hero's Handbook.
  • The fourth option encourages you to be a game master with the Game Master's Guide.

I pick the cleric. The cleric is ethnically diverse -- it's clear she's from a Middle Eastern-style religion, which is interesting -- and there's a dark-skinned female as the default human picture. Diversity in fantasy isn't something I expect Pathfinder to fix, but it's an interesting side note looking at the book with fresh eyes.

The character sheet is helpfully alphabetized, with each section on the sheet clearly labeled A through K. With my cleric sheet at the ready I dove into the solo adventure, "Skeleton King's Crypt," on page 2. The Hero's Handbook, like all of Paizo's books, is beautifully laid entirely in full color and glossy pages.

The adventure is specifically for what looks like a bearded drunk fighter, not a cleric. That's when I realized you can't play the solo adventure with one of the characters in the boxed set or your own character! 

The very first adventure entails combat with a goblin. I'm not sure why the character in the solo adventure isn't the sample fighter character sheet, but whatever the reason this combat plays for keeps. If you fail, your character dies and you start over. If this game was attempting to position Pathfinder as a non-combat heavy game with the opportunity to explore or socialize...well this solo adventure isn't it. 

The next encounter was a trap requiring a saving throw, and the third encounter was a Perception check to detect a trap. The trap detection is handled curiously; instead of just asking you to make a roll, it implies that the PC knows something is wrong and makes a check to figure it out. 

The final battle involves a skeleton king (in actuality, just a skeleton), and the PC has an advantage if he picks up a mace from an imprisoned farmhand. I missed that part of the dungeon so the battle was harder. There are two pictures of the skeleton foe: one is a generic goofy-looking skeleton with a longsword and a more kingly-looking skeleton wielding a two-handed sword. Neither of these accurately reflect the opponent, who is a "dressed in the ancient and rusted armor of a king, a weirdly glowing longsword clasped in its bony hands." 

Defeating the skeleton is absurdly lucrative for a 1st-level character: you get a +1 longsword, six rubies worth 50 gp each and four diamonds worth 100 gp each. The instructions then guide the player to make a new character, ignoring the premade character sheet. I'm not sure why all the various components seem disjointed, but as a new player it's very important to keep that continuity between the solo adventure, the premade character sheet, and future adventures. Otherwise why even give out treasure to a character the player isn't mean to play more than once?

After an example of play there's a Creating a Character section which has numbers and letters (e.g., 1A, 4B) that aren't explained. It took me awhile to figure out that the numbers and letters meant. This is explained on the inside cover but not in the section itself -- in short, the numbers are steps, the letters correspond to character sheets. It's a great idea, but it's not clearly explained. 

That's challenge with all of this set. There's a huge amount of choice that expands exponentially. You start with three races (dwarf, elf human), and then there's four different classes (cleric, fighter, rogue, wizard) and then there's the six ability scores. That's a lot of variables for someone new to the game.

The class section is helpfully color-coded from 1st through 5th level, and the spells have icons next to them that aren't explained. I eventually figured out that the swirl is a miscellaneous spell, the heart is a defensive spell, and the skull is an offensive spell. These icons aren't even explained under "Reading a Spell Description." Come on guys!

One layout element established here that doesn't work so well is that the profile of each iconic character doubles as an icon. Given that these pictures are greatly reduced in size, the book would have been better served by having an easily-identifiable icon instead. 

The rest of the rules are in here, more or less, from flanking to touch attacks. To be clear, this isn't really a basic version of the rules so much as a  careful introduction of them that's easy to read and understand. 

I'm not nearly as harsh on the Game Master's Guide because the role of a GM is, by its nature, a more advanced style of play. The layout is beautiful and after paging through it, you have to wonder why every scenario isn't laid out this way.

The section on gamemastering covers much of the roles that Gary Gygax outlined in his book Master of the Game: host, mastermind, mediator, actor, and patron. This set makes it a point of emphasizing the purpose of the GM is not to "beat" the players but to tell a "fun, challenging story." This nicely sums up playing D&D: fun AND challenging. 

The Transition Guide, presumably the new book added to the set, shows just how complex 3.5 and later Pathfinder has become. The other two books felt really comprehensive...until the Transition Guide reminds you what was left out: Attacks of Opportunity; Disarm, Grapple, and Trip; Base Attack Bonus; Hit Dice; Monster Templates; Bonus Types, Overlapping, and Stacking; Skills, Taking 10, and Taking 20; More Armor Rules; Creature Sizes; Multiclassing; Ability Damage; Concentration; Languages; and Awarding Treasure. It makes me tired just typing that out.

The Transition Guide applies the same awesome format of an alphabetical key to the more advanced concepts. The Monster Stat Block is the biggest expansion, with over 24 elements. The rest of the guide converts an existing free adventure to the beginner rules and also explains how to level up characters to 6th level.

The Beginner's Box is a step in the right direction. It still feels like a beginner's set written by someone way too familiar with the rules, such that it's still not quite as user-friendly as I would hope. It also highlights the challenges of creating a streamlined version of the game. You can see the discrepancy on page 13 in which the Beginner Box helpfully points out that information for the GM isn't always on one page and most adventures don't repeat the map for an encounter area on the page where it appears.

I get it. In a world of printed products it's important to keep down page count. But with an increasingly digital marketplace, particularly for game masters who can't necessarily store all the material, the boxed set begs the question: why isn't the rest of the game as easy to read?

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