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Wednesday 29 February 2012

Pathfinder Basic?

In 2010, I wrote the White Box Fever series of reviews that in turned looked at the then available titles that would serve as an introductions to our hobby and to fantasy roleplaying. In turn, I reviewed Wizards of the Coast’s 2008 Dungeons & Dragons Roleplaying Game Starter Set for Dungeons & Dragons Fourth Edition, Fiery Dragon’s Tunnels & Trolls v7.5, Swords & Wizardry: White Box Edition from Brave Half Publishing, Wizards of the Coast’s Castle Ravenloft Board Game, James Raggi IV’s Lamentations of the Flame Princess Weird Fantasy Roleplaying, and Ancient Odysseys: Treasure Awaits! An Introductory Roleplaying Game from Precis Intermedia. The purpose of this? All as a lead in to a review of the Dungeons & Dragons Fantasy Roleplaying Game Starter Set, the very first release in Dungeons & Dragons Essentials line that was Wizards of the Coast’s re-launch of Dungeons & Dragons Fourth Edition. Yet when it came to fantasy roleplaying, there was one title missing from this series – the Pathfinder Roleplaying Game.

The reason for that is simple. At the time of the launch of the “Red Box” styled Dungeons & Dragons Fantasy Roleplaying Game Starter Set, there was no introductory set for the Pathfinder Roleplaying Game. Now there is, and of all of the available introductory sets for fantasy roleplaying game, the Pathfinder Roleplaying Game Beginner Box is the heaviest, the most attractive, the most well put together, and the most expensive of them all. This set is designed for use by between two and five players aged thirteen and up, and take their adventurers from fist to fifth levels.

Opening up the box reveals two sealed packets, the first containing a set of polyhedral dice, the second a set of twenty stands for use with the eighty counters included further into the box. Below this sits the “Welcome to a World of Adventure” sheet that guides the player through the rest of the Pathfinder Roleplaying Game Beginner Box. This sheet asks what role the reader wants to take – solo player, playing as part of a group, or Game Master and then directs them to the appropriate starting point. For example, if the reader wants to get started without the need to read the rules, then he is directed to the “HERO’S HANDBOOK” and play through the adventure that teaches him the game.

Underneath is there are four expanded and pre-generated character sheets, one for each of the Classes given in the Pathfinder Roleplaying Game Beginner Box. Each sheet explains what the Class is good at, describes each of the elements on the sheet and how they work in the rules, and gives some background on the pre-generated character. The four include a Human Fighter, an Elf Rogue, a Human Wizard, and a Human Cleric. The four are reasonable creations, although it is a pity that no Dwarf character is included in the four.

The game is explained in two rule books. The first of these is the sixty-four page Hero’s Handbook, the second the ninety-six page Game Master’s Guide. Both of these slim volumes are cleanly laid out and very nicely illustrated. They are also easy to use, each including not just an index, but also several pages of references at the rear of the book.

Rounding out the contents of the Pathfinder Roleplaying Game Beginner Box are a double-sided Flip-Mat and a set of counters each of which can slot into the plastic stands provided. One side of the Flip-Mat displays a map of “Black Fang’s Dungeon,” the adventure described in the Game Master’s Guide, whilst the other side simply contains a plain grid pattern. Both dry-erase and wet-erase write pens can be used with the Flip-Mat. Lastly, the eighty full colour card counters are easy to punch and depict both the characters that the players can make using the rules in the Hero’s Handbook and the monsters in the Game Master’s Guide. A nice touch is that every combination of Class and Race possible using the rules in the Hero’s Handbook is covered in the counter mix. So, for the Cleric, there is a Human Cleric, an Elf Cleric, and a Dwarf Cleric, one male and one female for each Race. The last item in the box is a flyer for the next step to take once the GM and players want to go beyond the contents of the Pathfinder Roleplaying Game Beginner Box.

Open up the Hero’s Handbook and the reader is quickly thrown into “Skeleton King’s Crypt,” a short twenty-three entry solo adventure that guides a character into a small underground complex that is thought to be one of the many sources of monsters that threaten the town of Sandpoint. It is a simple affair that easily demonstrates how the rules work. What it is not is a demonstration of how the different characters, or rather how the different Classes work, something that Wizards of the Coast’s Dungeons & Dragons Fantasy Roleplaying Game Starter Set demonstrated very effectively, though it should be pointed out the Pathfinder Roleplaying Game Beginner Box does a better job of creating character generation than Wizards of the Coast’s Dungeons & Dragons Fantasy Roleplaying Game Starter Set did.

After an all too short explanation of what a Roleplaying Game is followed by a similarly short example of play, the Hero’s Handbook gets down to the basics of how the game is played (mechanically, this would be roll a twenty-sided die, add any bonuses from the attributes, skills, or saving throws that apply and get as high a result as possible) and then onto character generation. Here is where the design of the Pathfinder Roleplaying Game Beginner Box really begins to shine – and all it takes is cross-referencing. For example, letters corresponding to the sections and their explanations on the four expanded pre-generated character sheets as well as on the sections on the standard character sheets correspond to the relevant sections throughout the character creation process in the Hero’s Handbook.

By working through the corresponding sections, a player can quickly create a character. Each section gives aspects that a player needs to note down on the character sheet, most of them mandatory, some of them giving the player several options to choose from. For example, a Wizard must choose his Arcane School. If he chooses the Evocation School learns attack rather than defence or trickery spells and can cast the spell Burning Hands one per day and Force Missile several times a day. The Hero’s Handbook gives just the Universalist and the Illusion Schools in addition to the Evocation School. In comparison to earlier versions of Dungeons & Dragons, one pleasing aspect of the spellcasting Classes in Pathfinder Roleplaying Game is that they get features that they can do all of the time. For example, the Wizard can freely cast the Cantrips Detect Magic, Mage Hand, Ray of Frost, and Read Magic without using up a spell as he would in other RPGs that feature Vancian magic. The Cleric has similar features, but they are called Orisons rather than Cantrips.

To offset the lack of Dwarf characters amongst the given pregenerated quartet, our sample character is a Dwarf, and rather than the traditional Fighter, this one is a Cleric. He is devoted to Gorum, God of Strength and Battle. Had there been a Dwarven god given in the Hero’s Handbook…

Holmin Quarrysmasher
Class: Cleric Level: 1 Race: Dwarf
Alignment: Lawful Neutral
Strength: 14 Constitution: 16 Dexterity: 13
Intelligence: 13 Wisdom: 19 Charisma: 7
Armour Class: +5 Speed: 20
Hit Points: 8 Surges: 13
Fortitude: +2 Reflex: +0 Will: +2
Attack Bonus: +1
Racial Traits: Dark Vision (60 Feet), Hatred (+1 VS. Goblins and Orcs), Hardy (+2 VS. Poison and Spells), Weapon Familiarity (Battleaxes & Warhammers)
Class Features: Channel Energy (11/times per day) for damaging the undead and healing
Feats: Weapon Focus (Longsword)
Deity: Gorum, God of Strength & Battle (grants Battle Rage 20/times per day; Strength Surge 20/times per day)
Orisons: Detect Magic, Light, Read Magic, Stabilise
Prepared Spells: Cure Light Wounds, Divine Favour
Skills: Diplomacy, Heal 5, Knowledge (Arcana), Knowledge (History), Knowledge (Religion) 5, Sense Motive, Spellcraft 5
Equipment: Longsword, Scale Armour, backpack, adventurer’s kit, sling, sling bullets (10), candles (10), 60gp

All four of the Classes provide everything that a player needs to know make his character second, third, fourth, and fifth level. Again these guidelines are easy to work through and apply to a character sheet. Equally, the guidelines to completing a character are easy to work through, being organised by Class and giving several suggestions as to what a player should select from the following lists of Skills, Feats, and Equipment. One issue is that the number of Feats is limited, especially if the character is a spellcaster. A nice touch is that every single piece of equipment is accompanied by an illustration.

The Hero’s Handbook is rounded out with an explanation of how the game is played. The rules cover everything that a player needs to know in terms of exploration and combat. In keeping with the rest of the volume they are an easy read, and the rules are themselves supported with a glossary of terms and a Combat Reference Guide, the latter on the back cover of the Hero’s Handbook.

Just like the Hero’s Handbook, the Game Master’s Guide gets down to the play of the game straight away. “Black Fang’s Dungeon” is just ten entries long, and although only a basic scenario, it presents a good mix of encounters. Not just combat, but also traps and puzzles as well as a little roleplaying. As written, the GM could begin running this with fifteen or so minutes’ worth of preparation – the same time that the players would need to devote to reading and understanding their character sheets. For anyone new to roleplaying, there is probably a good session or two’s worth of play in the scenario.

If the GM has more time, then the following section on Gamemastering is worth reading as preparation for running the scenario. The remainder of the Game Master’s Guide is devoted to “Building an Adventure.” The advice is good, explaining how the GM should start with the story and build up from there. Some of it is geared towards the GM creating the “Ruins of Raven’s Watch,” the first dungeon of own design, for which a map and some background is provided. To support the advice, the Game Master’s Guide explores how different environments, from the dungeon and the forest to the desert and the city, can be used to enhance a game, coupling each different environment with a lengthy list of monsters that could be encountered within each setting. In terms of rewards, hundreds of magical items are not only described, but also illustrated, these ranging from simple scrolls and potions to wondrous items like Bandages of Rapid Recovery and Slippers of Spider Climbing.

Some forty monsters and enemies are described in the Game Master’s Guide. They range from the lowly Dire Rats, Goblins, Orcs, and Skeletons, each with a Challenge Rating of 1/3, up to creatures with a Challenge Rating of 7, such as the Ghost and the Medusa. Top of the heap though, at least in the Pathfinder Roleplaying Game Beginner Box, is the fiercesome Black Dragon, with its Challenge Rating of 8. All of these are represented by the counters also found in the box. Rounding out the Game Master’s Guide is a description of Sandpoint, the coastal town introduced in Pathfinder #1—Rise of the Runelords Chapter 1: "Burnt Offerings", the inaugural entry in Paizo Publishing’s Adventure Path series, which the player characters can use as their base of operations.

It should be made clear that the Pathfinder Roleplaying Game Beginner Box does not present a full version of the Pathfinder Roleplaying Game. It is a streamlined version of the game, which shows in the limited choice of character Classes, Races, Skills, Options, Feats, and spells, as well as simplified combat rules – no rules for “Attacks of Opportunity” or the capacity for characters to “Take 10” or “Take 20” for example. None of these omissions should be counted against the Pathfinder Roleplaying Game Beginner Box as it is designed to introduce new players without burdening them with the complexity to be found in the Pathfinder Roleplaying Game or facing the daunting prospect of opening up what is a weighty tome.

There are only just a few issues with the Pathfinder Roleplaying Game Beginner Box. Ideally, the dice should not have been one colour, but each in the set a different colour to help easy identification and use during the game. The given example of play included in the Hero’s Handbook could have been longer and thus done a done a better job of showing how the game is played. The box could also have done with another scenario. The one in the Game Master’s Guide does a good job of presenting an introductory adventure, but it lacks the sophistication to be found in the scenarios available from Paizo Publishing for the Pathfinder Roleplaying Game. A more sophisticated adventure would also have presented the GM with an example when it comes to writing his own in addition to giving more of a challenge to the players.

As much as the red box styling and the Larry Elmore artwork of Wizards of the Coast’s Dungeons & Dragons Fantasy Roleplaying Game Starter Set delivers a one-two punch to the nostalgia nerve point, the Pathfinder Roleplaying Game Beginner Box honestly delivers so much more. And, not just because it allows characters to go from first to fifth level. It provides more options, more ideas, and more for both the GM and the players to play and work with. You simply get more for your money!

The other thing that the Pathfinder Roleplaying Game Beginner Box has over the Dungeons & Dragons Fantasy Roleplaying Game Starter Set is that despite the name change, it will still be familiar to anyone returning to the fantasy roleplaying fold after being away for a while. After all, the Pathfinder Roleplaying Game is a direct descendant of Dungeons & Dragons, and even if this Beginner Box is essentially the “Basic” Pathfinder Roleplaying Game, it still makes it very easy for anyone familiar with Dungeons & Dragons to pick this up and start playing.

Of course, the Pathfinder Roleplaying Game Beginner Box is really aimed at the new player. Any new player who opens this box will find an attractive set of contents that present the game’s rules in an easy to read and learn fashion, all accompanied by artwork that exemplifies the feel and action that those rules want to impart. The truth is, out of all of the introductory fantasy roleplaying games currently available, the Pathfinder Roleplaying Game Beginner Box is the most comprehensive, the most accessible, and the most enjoyable. And an excellent introduction to Pathfinder Roleplaying Game to boot.