Role-Playing Game Review: Pathfinder Beginner Box
On the surface the Pathfinder Beginner Box has all the ingredients for newbies to get their feet wet in a simplified, streamlined version of a classic fantasy role playing game. My first impressions were extremely positive. The character sheets are printed on quality paper, and the game includes dozens of character and monster pawns to use on the double-sided Flip-Mat. It would have been easy to stop there, simply admiring the glossy pages of the rule books and the outstanding production value of the overall game. But some pictures of game pieces and a glance at a rule book do not a review make, and I was determined to put the Beginner Box to the test with actual tabletop virgins.
For my Beginner Box review game, I found three friends who had no experience with tabletop roleplaying games. One friend has little to no experience with anything related to gaming, and the other two are experienced at story games (improv style, often dice-less games focused more on storytelling and character interaction, less on mechanics and winning.) My fourth player I chose partially as damage control: an experienced player and DM to give input on the game and help the other players if I was busy running the adventure. (While I wanted to get the experience of new players, I also wanted us all to have a good time.)
Game Master’s Guide. The Game Master’s Guide (GMG) gives some great advice on how to run role-playing games. There are excellent guidelines on how to design your own dungeon maps, adventures, and encounters. However, it could greatly benefit from an example of play, similar to the one in the Hero’s Handbook (HHB). Assuming people playing this are brand-new role-players, how do they know how to react to what the players do? This is described later in the book, but I think many new players will start playing the adventure without getting that far. An example of player and GM interaction, where the GM must speak for NPCs or roll initiative for monsters on the fly, would be a big help to a new player, especially if it displayed the range of options a GM has.
The GMG is one of the best parts of the beginner box, which isn’t surprising considering the amount of combined experience the game’s writers and developers have. However, this experience may have hurt them when it came to the player material. It’s hard enough for me, a fairly new player, to approach the game with the eyes of a complete beginner. I can only imagine it’s much harder as a veteran player and designer.
Hero’s Handbook. The solo adventure is a neat addition, and it does a good job of imitating what role-playing games actually feel like. It has a moral dilemma, combat, and a decent dungeon adventure narrative. Next is an example of play, basically a script of a wilderness combat encounter with a GM and four players.
My players opted for the included pregenerated characters, but the character creation guide has the basic info needed to make characters for the game. However, we found the layout confusing, with important rules such as the d20 concept being de-emphasized and blending into the page, while the combat section, the section most needed for reference during the game, isn’t even listed in the table of contents.
Character Sheet. Too much information, and a confusing layout. The presumed goal of a character sheet for an intro version of a game would be to make something that is simpler than the full game. The Beginner Box character sheet looks as though someone cut the Pathfinder character sheet in half, then changed their mind and tried to cram the same amount of info into a smaller space.
The columns, rows, and section headings run together into a jumble of words and numbers with no indication of where to look to figure out how to do a given thing. There is a lot of needless info: portraits of the other classes and races, sections on the sheet that exist to point you somewhere else, the modifiers behind every skill and saving throw, a list of every possible action you can do in a given turn, a description of the character sheet on the sheet itself.
The philosophy of the cleric class is explained very clearly on the cover of the character sheet. However, my cleric was extremely confused when she found four different ways to heal in her character description. The difference between the cleric’s spells, class abilities, and the Heal skill are not explained clearly in the book or on the character sheet. For someone who has never heard of a cleric before, this is extremely daunting.
When my players went into battle, it took a lot of time for players to navigate the character sheets to figure out how to attack with their equiped weapon. I’ve seen this a lot with new players, but shouldn’t a game for beginners get rid of that issue, or at least minimize it? If anything the crowded character sheet made it worse.
If you’ve never played D&D or Pathfinder, the words “stat block” and “ability modifier” make no sense to you. You don’t understand what all those numbers are next to your skills, or how to translate melee damage and your weapon information into an actual attack. My players repeatedly used their melee attack bonus as their whole attack, because it’s not clear that they need to add that to their weapon attack roll. Rolling for damage is mentioned but not described, and no example is given in the book or on the character sheet.
A beginner character sheet should serve as a guide to the game world, not simply a giant list of every possible action. In a normal Pathfinder game, a character will be using their highest level skills and rarely anything else. Class skills exist as a way to distinguish characters from each other, and show a player what their character excels at. Why would a fighter need to have Knowledge Arcana listed on his sheet? The mix of trained only skills, class skills, skills with bonuses, and skills without any points in them confused my players. Trimming down the skills on the pregenerated characters would have helped immensely.
They also found the section “What You Can Do On Your Turn” overwhelming and vague about how many things they could do, and what they should be doing. Putting this on a separate sheet with some clarification would have been extremely helpful.
New players need a select few pieces of information: AC, hit points, weapon damage, important skills, and class abilities and spells. The wizard’s main spells aren’t on the character sheet, they are off to the side mixed in with rules text. More prominent on the sheet are minor class features and feats- feats that have already been included in the stats they affect, causing players to become confused about why they were listed. The goal of a character sheet for beginners should not be to fit the most information into the space you have; the goal should be to put the right information in the most easily available format.
I realize much of this is part of the normal layout for the Pathfinder sheet- but that’s precisely why a Beginner Box is needed. Much of this game is based on what came before it, and some of it isn’t even needed in the full game anymore, but it’s still there for nostalgia or because designers are afraid to get rid of it.
We don’t actually need ability scores. You could just as easily use the modifiers to represent a character’s innate abilities, and you could change the score directly for ability damage. That would be a pretty big change for traditional gamers, but it would be much less confusing for newbies. I love all the behind-the-scenes details, it’s the reason I play Pathfinder. But is it really necessary to throw all that on a complete beginner? Let people enjoy your game first, then show them how the sausage is made.
The sheets didn’t really look that bad to me, until I talked to the players about why they just weren’t getting it. Again, it’s the bias of an experienced perspective. It’s extremely difficult to look at the material with a fresh mind, because I’ve played these games before.
A simpler character sheet and a separate sheet detailing combat rules and skill checks would have made the game much easier for beginners.
Adventure: *Spoilers* The adventure had some really fun encounters, but the overall arc of the plot was disappointing. Treasure on an island in a pool of water was exciting, and the magical fountain was an interesting plot point. The second combat with the goblins was the best enounter of the game, because the players were just beginning to discover their abilities, and worked together to plan a strategy around their strengths and weaknesses… although I’m a bit puzzled by the encounter description. It includes details for coversations with the goblins, but the players have no way of knowing this is even possible- it’s mentioned no where in the book that you can resolve conflict with enemies by talking, and the first goblins they meet attack them. I’m not sure how new players are supposed to reach the idea that they shouldn’t just attack these goblins, too, unless the GM is expected to give them hints.
My main problem with the adventure is that there is a magic sword that is required for the success of the quest. The adventure prompts the GM to “encourage” the players to fully explore the dungeon to ensure that they get the game-changing weapon. Without this weapon, says the guide, the players will be powerless in the fight against the dragon. I could chalk this up to a difference in play style from my own, but the fact that the sword is so important, with absolutely no foreshadowing, really stood out to everyone playing.
The sword literally changed the way the characters interacted in the final battle- it negated anything they might do on their own to kill the dragon. Instead of being part of the plot, this magic weapon is a strangely convenient find in a ruin that might have been chosen by chance as the lair of a maurauding monster. As my experienced playtester suggested, it could just have easily been a talisman that reduced the dragon’s AC temporarily, enabling all of the party members to contribute to the fight. This would benefit all the players equally, instead of just overpowering one sword-weilder. Instead of the players forming strategies such as “If I die, you grab the sword so we have a chance” they would instead be forming strategies that actually relate to the skills of the characters they are playing, as they did in the goblin fight.
There are other magical items in the game- some wands, a protective gem- but none of these are as powerful, and none of these negate the characters’ decisions and actions.
In the final battle, my players were excited about defeating this dragon they’d heard so much about. When the dragon simply flew away, they couldn’t believe it. An experienced GM might have used some skill with drama to liven up the dragon’s exit, but I just didn’t have it in me, because I didn’t really see the point of not killing the dragon. How much harder would it be for a brand-new GM to react, faced with a lackluster climax to the final battle? Maybe some text to read describing his exit would have made it more believable.
I realize that many of the people playing the Beginner Box will be kids, and while they might not be so consciously critical of these game elements, you know they’ll feel kind of useless unless they’re the dude with the sword. Anyone who grew up playing these games knows what I’m talking about. Shouldn’t we encourage the more positive aspects of tabletop gaming, like working together as a team, and your character’s decisions mattering?
Wrapup. My playtesters were intelligent adults, completely capable of critical reading skills and game rules analysis. They found the rules to be confusing and vague, and we constantly had to stop so they could figure out how to do things. We found the character sheets confusing for someone not already familiar with the concepts, and the beginning adventure seems to encourage some of the more unfortunate traditions of role-playing. Despite these issues, we had a lot of fun playing it, and all of my rookies are interested in playing more Pathfinder.
I don’t envy the creators at paizo who set out to create a beginner’s version of a complicated, over-developed, much-revised game that’s been around for decades, while trying to simultaneously be innovative and stay traditional. I think they put in a lot of elements that are helpful to new players: the explanation of character class themes is concise, and they left out some of the more strategic combat rules in favor of simplicity.
The big question is, does the beginner box do what it’s supposed to? Could a group of five new fantasy role-players buy this game, take it home, and go? I don’t think it would be easy, not without a revised character sheet and rules designed for first-time players. Even taking into account that it takes some time to learn any complicated game, I can’t ignore the fact that the character sheet is in some ways more complicated and makes less sense than the normal one.
The problems with the adventure are less concrete, but still important. I don’t just want one epic weapon, I want the adventure itself to be epic, to resonate equally among the players, so that no one is left awkwardly standing in the back saying “I guess I’ll throw my staff at it again.” I’ll admit, these flaws are about more than the beginner box; these are chronic problems of ye olde roleplaying games through the ages. But in a beginner game, I would hope to gloss over these moments, not magnify them.